How To Steal Your Way To Being A Better Writer

Contentious title? Contentious title. And “steal” is possibly the wrong verb, but so is “plagiarise” in this context.

What I’m talking about is often referred to as “retelling” or “modernising” or in post-modern circles occasionally mislabelled as a “pastiche”. It’s part of a very, very long literary tradition, and is for some reason now frowned on despite the basic acceptance of the idea that there are only very few actual plots in existence, into which almost every story effectively categorises itself.

Now there’s this writer, a historical fellow, greatly revered by a lot of Anglophones as one of the pinnacles of literature. Like most writers he’s not actually as much of an innovative lone wolf genius as we like to make out, but half of what sells a writer is the legend of what a tremendous trail-blazer they were and people get a bit uncomfortable if confronted with the idea that what most writers do is nick stuff. The writer in question is dear old Bill Shakespeare, who has written a lot of what might be called archetypes for future stories: the divided lovers, the deposed king (every third story in the Western canon of literature turns out to be Hamlet if you squint hard enough), the rebel prince taking his place as leader, the general who changes sides, the scheming wife who drives a murder plot, and the oft-overlooked but personal favourite of mine “that which ends in cannibalism and ladies with no hands”. I’m not saying everything he came up with has continued to be a roaring success. But his plots have been used and reused and told and retold, and he himself drew heavily both on history and mythology for his work.

I pick on Shakespeare not for shock value but because plays are a lot easier to dissect for plot elements than prose. They’re tidily divided up into Acts and Scenes, they’re designed to have a pretty clear structure for an audience of drunk people standing on straw to understand, and if you use Shakespeare instead of Stoppard you don’t have to worry about being bogged down with endless descriptions of setting and action beyond “A forest outside of so-and-so” and “Exit, pursued by a bear”.

The exercise

Take a play, by anyone, but probably The Bard. He wrote a lot of them, so you’re pretty much set for finding something that will serve your purposes. You will in all probability have already seen a film which is based on it: if you’ve seen Ten Things I Hate About You you’ve seen Taming of the Shrew, if you’ve seen She’s The Man (I don’t know why you would have done but you might) you’ve seen Twelfth Night, and so on. There are also an oodleplex of faithful and less-faithful straight adaptations, modernisations, and the like to work from: Baz Luhrman might do if you don’t like Kenneth Branagh, the BBC did a collection of “re-imaginings” of Midsummer Night’s Dream (execrable), Macbeth (passable), Much Ado About Nothing (admirable), and The Taming of the Shrew (delectable), and if you’re feeling the need for classic cinema there’s always the 1952 Julius Caesar in which Marlon Brando’s intense frown plays Mark Antony and the rest of him follows underneath like a confused and muscular basket beneath a balloon made of eyebrows.

My point is, take one of these bad boys, and have a look at the plot. What happens in each act? You don’t even need to figure that out for yourself because there are approximately ten billion summaries of every single play on the internet. You should be able to find a summary without any problems at all: what happens in each act? How does one thing lead to another? Who has which information when – how much earlier do the audience have the information than the characters themselves? Which decisions cause the characters the most grief?

Now you pretty much have the skeleton of a story. You can choose to lop off the pieces that you don’t like, or adapt them: Ten Things I Hate About You took “Bianca cannot marry until her sister has been married because girls are married off in the order of their birth” and turned it into “Bianca’s father makes a fatuous bargain designed to prevent his younger daughter from pregnancy and she takes it literally”; it’s quite possible to remove all kinds of apparently-essential points from the plot and have it still function as an idea. You can remove characters, scenes, concepts, historical eras, and run the same plot on radically different rails.

In fanfic, there is a great sub-section devoted to alternate universes, where the characters are re-imagined in a different setting and lead different lives, while still retaining the core personality traits and appearance which is believed to define them. There is race-bending, a brilliant reaction to the unnecessarily white predominance in characters in Western Media, where iconic characters are redrawn and rewritten as people with the same skills and rough storyline, but a different racial background, and all that their different experience of society would have changed. These acts of imagining when developing character are the kind of balancing acts that you need to take when working on your ability to plot.

Give yourself a new cast and a new setting, take a very familiar plot, and work out how it would run, given these people, and this world, instead of what was provided at the time. Myths and legends are great for this, but often the plot is vague or too short and lacking in subshoots to be a useful guide which is again why I tend to use Shakespeare as an example: there is no actual need to stick specifically to him, if there is another playwright you prefer who can be used in the same way.

One thing which is extremely helpful in running this exercise is seeing how long each scene and act takes to get through, which means watching an adaptation can be vital: it helps you to judge whether that section should have been longer or shorter, how important it was to the overall story, and whether or not it should be included, altered, or followed faithfully.

How does this improve your own plotting?

By giving you an idea of how a deeply successful storyteller has ordered events and where they place moments of crisis along the line of the narrative, you familiarise yourself with the ebb and flow of tensions inside a story, the push and shove of causality, and how to turn the inevitable into the dramatic. It’s also a great exercise in editing: given a critical look at the failings in the playwright, it’s possible to fill in his gaps, and assure yourself that a story with weaknesses (for example, important deaths taking place off-stage due to the constraints of Elizabethan theatre, perhaps) can be made stronger not only by throwing out the unnecessary or changing the faces of the actors but also by giving more meat and heft to pre-existing sections.

And please don’t feel that it’s an unproductive exercise: if you look, you’ll find plenty of published novels which are essentially reworkings of Shakespearean stories, Greek myths, and folk tales – there are, after all, only a few plots – and a good writer can stretch those few plots an awfully long way.

Sketchdump: Eastern Promises & Faunogeddon

Emphasis very heavily on the “sketch” this time: occasionally I like to take a photo or screencap and blow it up until the image is no longer distinguishable, and then just trace areas of major colour change, and then shrink it back down to see if it is a coherent picture. This time a screenshot from Eastern Promises (2007, dir. David Cronenberg, starring Naomi Watts, Viggo Mortensen, and Vincent Cassel).

Screenshot possibly constitutes a spoiler if you can actually decipher it.

Then on to drawing from a statue, this time Emmanuel Frémiet’s Pan and Bear Cubs, which people have very obligingly photographed from a variety of angles (I can’t go and look at it myself as it’s in the Musée d’Orsay and my travelcard only goes to zone 3):

I did actually try one from the front as well but it turns out I am a lot better at drawing dainty goat legs than I am at drawing a) bears and b) human faces, which has troubling implications. Pan ended up looking somewhat cross-eyed and a little piqued and the bear looked as if it had just crash-landed from Jupiter, so I shall not be posting that  one!

For Some Reason the London Tourism Board Still Don’t Pay Me: Places To Eat, Drink, and Better Yourself in London

As you might expect from someone who has an entire book case full of books about London, and has written so far two novels (one available, the other wobbling around agencies like a lost lamb) and one poetry collection (also available) about the city, I have a lot of time for the various attractions of the lands within the M25 (and usually very little time for anything that happens outside of it, my apologies to Cambridge, Oxford, Brighton, and Edinburgh, which I quite like, and absolutely no apologies to the post-apocalyptic hell-hole of Plymouth, where I grew up).

Tragically impoverished by my own decision to be an occasional data jockey and full-time fiction-pusher rather than, oh, a stock-broker or a corporate lawyer or even a nanny (I hear £32k plus living expenses is not unheard-of for baby-wranglers), I can’t always haul myself to the wonders of my city and let the glorious jewel of the South East rain down its entertainments on me, making reading Londonist.com a nightmare of temptation.

But I do leave my lair occasionally, and I like to share, so: Eat, Drink, and Better Yourself with me.

Just three recommendations, one from each category, but hopefully I’ll be able to come back and make more posts on this theme.

EAT

Have you just hurtled into Kings Cross with a moderately empty wallet and are you absolutely starving and do you definitely not want to walk ten million miles and do you like tapas? If you can fulfil the criteria “I like tapas”, you will like Camino. If you cannot for definite fulfil that criteria, Camino is probably a good place to find out if you like tapas.

I have been to the Kings Cross branch twice, and both times spent my time sheltering from the rain (welcome to England, this is our speciality) and enjoying pleasant morsels of serious flavours under a sodding big glass dome, getting friendly service, and not coming away wishing that I had some sort of private banking collective backing me for lunch.

There are however bead curtains across the toilet doors which are possibly designed to trap you in there forever.

DRINK

Have you been indulging in the weird mixture of architectural styles in the vicinity of Barbican? Do you now desperately need to sit down and have a drink and wait for your brain to process 20th Century visions of the vanished future butting up against medieval churches? Do you like gin? Most important: do you like gin?

You do like gin. Fantastic! I fucking love gin, and the Gin Joint in the Barbican Centre likes to provide gin. It has a range of exciting cocktails, most of which I hadn’t tried before, a huge array of gins, a slightly frightening price list that’s not too unusual for Central London, and unfortunately quite frosty service. If you, however, do not show up with about 20 people and a face full of piercings, the staff may be a little more forthcoming.

As an added bonus, it’s about thirty seconds away from a panoply of plays and exhibitions in the rest of the Barbican Centre, so if you feel yourself overcome with the sudden need to enjoy the arts, they’re right there.

BETTER YOURSELF

How dare you, you’re thinking. I am already a completely flawless member of the human race. You may well be an excellent specimen of Homo sapiens, but do you know anything about the history of Haringey? Do you know about the inventors, the war heroes, the artists? What about the vast organ and Prisoner of War camp at Alexandra Palace? The construction of the New River (which is neither new, nor strictly speaking a river)? Do you know about the history of Roman occupation?

If you already do then still visit Bruce Castle Museum, because it’s free, in a very sweet little building, and jammed with tiny rooms full of sudden surprises and fragments of the borough’s past that might take you very much by surprise. Worth it entirely for the hellish racket of the Jazz Bagpipe Organ alone.

Bruce Castle Museum is also right next to Tottenham Cemetery, which contains a broad slew of different mortuary styles from different eras, and a rather nice lake.

Things for me to remember in 2014.

A short compendium of shit I seem to have difficulty holding in mind:

  • The rigorous standards of fact-checking in published books are basically nil. People can print any old garbage, and people can quote any old garbage, and if you’ve learned anything from Twitter it’s that no one checks sources.
  • A lot of the social points people make with unwavering conviction are propped up by nothing but that conviction, and can be safely ignored, even when the person making the point is screaming about how not listening to them and taking their side above all others means you will be rejected from the kingdom of Heaven.
  • There is not actually anything stopping you from spending your money on, for example, educational courses or nice dinners, instead of the things you think you should spend it on in order to be the kind of person whose bank statements your friends, family, or MP would approve of.
  • You don’t have to agree with someone to like them, and you don’t have to like someone to agree with them. Also, people are complicated patchworks of nuance and difference, and a person can be Very Right about one thing and Distressingly Wrong about something else (see Richard Dawkins: a phenomenal popular science educator who made understanding genetics easy for you, but who made calling yourself an atheist an exercise in explaining that you’re not also a demented Twitter bigot; the topography of an individual’s intellect and social worth is not a flat sheet).
  • It is a lot easier to do a thing you enjoy doing than a thing you hate doing, and if the thing you hate doing isn’t actually necessary there is no point in forcing yourself to do it in the expectation of headpats which are quite frankly not likely to be forthcoming.
  • Don’t waste what remains of your energy on trying to win over people who are predisposed to despise you due to their own bloody issues.
  • Your sanity is not worth the dubious pay-off of being branded acceptable by people who live at a different pace and speed to you.
  • When there are over 800 books in your flat, and a further 900 on your Kindle, and you have not read more than 65% of them there is actually no need for you to lurk around the internet trying to find a worthwhile Cracked article to disagree with.
  • While the NHS is still there it might be a good idea to actually use it rather than spending 6 months to a year in pain from various problems, convinced that “hypochondria” or “how dare you waste our time” is the inevitable response when in actual fact since moving away from the West Country where that was the standard response about TWELVE YEARS AGO, no London doctor or dentist has ever done anything other than take health problems seriously and scold you for not coming in sooner.
  • There is no reason not to make art. There is no reason not to learn things. You have the equipment and abilities, and you live in a city where free learning resources are so ubiquitous that it is frankly taking an effort of will on your part to remain ignorant.
  • Despite what social media may have led you to believe, you do not need to justify or excuse the things you enjoy. You do not need to explain them or defend them. The books aren’t illegal: the TV series aren’t prohibited; the films aren’t verboten. You don’t have to cut yourself off from things that give you pleasure just because you can’t win a fight about why you’re allowed to watch or read them. This is adulthood. No one is stopping you.
  • Keep remembering the chasm between op-ed pieces and the world you witness every time you go outside. And don’t fall into the trap of assuming that because one is written down, it’s more like the truth. There are a thousand truths and – as you told yourself at the beginning of this list – a lot of them aren’t fact-checked.
  • The problem with “the endless monolith of white male authors” is not that white men wrote, it is that a culture venerated their words above and beyond all others, and declared that anything which was not their writing was not worthwhile. The problem is not the author. The problem is the world they’re in and the people who read them: you can write what you want.
  • What you hear repeated is the contents of one echo chamber and not the views of the entire world; if you don’t like what you’re hearing, widen your circle of input until there’s a signal that suits your needs.
  • If you’re ever convinced that the people you love are indifferent to you, ask if they would do the same for a stranger as they do for you. Teaching tools: the way people respond to anonymous commenters vs the way they answer questions from you.
  • While despair may feel like an appropriate response to the vagrancies of the world, it’s not a productive one. Make things until you can’t feel sorry for yourself any more.

Sketchdump: First of 2014

I have knackered my hand doing heraldic embroidery because split-stitch is hard, velvet is tricky, I am using metallic threads in some sort of masochistic act of virulent subconscious self-hatred, and so I have been forced to take a break by my thumb joint and whichever flexor or thing it is that makes the thumb do what thumbs do. Oppose, I suppose. It is certainly a very oppositional thumb at the moment.

My capacity for idleness being very small in the face of no obligations (and infinite in the face of deadlines, like everyone else), I went and kicked my desktop until it would run Photoshop, a task it is not really up to due to having about as much RAM as a 1980s pocket calculator, and then I drew some things.

Please bear in mind that while they are horrible, at least part of their horribleness is as a result of having an enormous lag between the movement of the WACOM pen and the appearance of a line on screen.

That *is* a penis but frankly it’s too small and indistinct for anyone to get up in arms about.
This one at least turned out better than expected.


En fin, there is this racy number which again, is mostly kissing and a tiny bit of penis, but you probably shouldn’t look at it if you are in school. Or working somewhere strict. Or under 18.

All painstakingly scratched out using a WACOM Bamboo tablet and Photoshop CS2 running on a computer that was possibly built by a crew of flying monkeys.

Gaywyck by Vincent Virga: Shit Book Liveblog Chapters 1 to 3.

This was all Amy Macabre’s fault and I want her to be held responsible when I inevitably die of horror at this.

To briefly expand on that: Amy posted a picture of the cover of this book along with some discussion about it being a Proper Gothic Gay Novel, and confirmed for the previous commenters that they could look forwards to a whole mess of description of the drapes and the grounds and absolutely none of gay sex. She also mentioned that it was a colossal turd of a book. Now: I have read the odd Gothic novel in my time and found them tedious in the extreme, but I am aware of the genre tropes and tics and this book rolls around in them to a degree that verges on, but has not so far entered, the realm of parody. I am also not usually given to spite-reading books which have been recommended to me as shit because frankly life is short and shit books are many – it’s much harder to find a genuinely good book and enjoy it than it is to find a genuinely terrible book and snicker at it. For a start, shit books are filling out the heads of various sales list at any point in history.

However, the book was 57p on Amazon and sometimes I have really bad ideas.

This is the cover I have.
This is the cover I have.

This book opens with the line “I resemble my mother physically.” and continues into a lengthy garbage paragraph about the looks of the protagonist because apparently Virga’s editor just threw up his or her hands and shouted “FUCK IT I CAN’T DO ANYTHING WITH IT”.

Maybe he didn’t have an editor. That would explain the next few pages, which amount to: ALLOW ME TO SPEND ENTIRELY TOO LONG ON MY BACKSTORY IN FIRST PERSON AND DESCRIBE LITERALLY EVERYONE IN EXCRUCIATING PHYSICAL DETAIL and tell you all about ALL THE ROOMS IN MY HOUSE.

Vincent Virga fearlessly breaking every possible fiction-writing rule. Not for him the constraints of “make something actually fucking happen on the first page”. No, in Gaywyck it’s full Gothic Novel, complete with a sickly, bookish protagonist, and EVERYTHING DESCRIBED WITHIN AN INCH OF THE LIMITS OF MY PATIENCE.

At the very end of the first chapter everything happens in a rush: the second chapter details, fairly pointlessly, the journey to the titular house on Long Island. I’m pretty much exactly sure that the second chapter exists because Virga wants people to know he did research, that he could write A Variety Of Characters (100% of whom exist to say something pointless to the protagonist and then vanish), and that he cannot write dialogue and I’m going to die of this book. This is Brick Bin dialogue that would get thrown out of a Brick Bin* movie for not propelling the fucking plot.

Chapter 3 of Gaywyck is all about the family history of the romantic interest it is incredible WHY DO I NEED TO KNOW THE EXACT STORY OF HOW HIS GRANDPARENTS MET AND ALSO HIS PARENTS. why do I need to hear about what a delicate opera-loving innocent flower his mother was? Whyyyyyyy.

Oh good grief this chapter is still going it’s still going apparently I need to know about every single circumstance of his tragic weirdo family background THIS HAD BETTER HAVE SOME BEARING ON THE STORY —

— the pacing just did the same thing it did in the first chapter, where it’s all background and then the actual Thing That Happened is crammed into a brief summary at the end of the chapter. This is like a first draft NaNoWriMo novel: “Right, I’ve hit the word count, fling the plot point in and go to the pub.” I could really, maybe, slightly, forgive the gloopy Gothic tropes and the gratuitous authorwanking about all the careful character background he’s come up with, were it not for the fact that the pacing is so bad, and the dialogue almost artistically wooden.

Also by the love of all that’s squashy and fragrant, this tragic dead twin had better be a Chekov’s sibling or something or I am going to resent the entire existence of this chapter as well. If this is just here for TRAGIQUE BACKSTORY reasons …

Genuinely so far the first three chapters could have been dispensed with in a paragraph. For reference (SPOILERS) the plot so far is: “Bookish, beautiful, slightly effeminate young man has sought solitude all his life. After the ~tragique~ death of his mother due to some sort of depression-induced physical stress which came out of nowhere and didn’t get anything like as much description as all the individual books that the protagonist has read, he is charitably given a job as a librarian at the estate of a wealthy recluse. The wealthy recluse also has a ~tragique~ background, as his twin brother died trying to save his father from an unexplained and undescribed (unlike everything fucking else in this book) house fire. Robert the Protagonist has arrived in New York but not yet made it to the house he will be a librarian at.”

My mistake. One paragraph. The background stuff does not need to be shovelled in at the front of the book. I don’t care about the conventions of Gothic literature, it’s still perfectly possible to have the intensity and fragility and all the other hideous narrative tropes without subjecting your readers to an uphill slog through endless LISTS OF BOOKS before anything actually fucking happens.


Brick Bin: any piece of media where the dialogue is so heavily composed of cliches from other media that it is as if instead of writing a script they just jotted down a cliche onto a brick for several bricks, and hurled them at a wastepaper bin, with the idea that any brick that goes in the bin goes in the script.

Afternote: I see Mr Virga has a website and therefore possibly an internet presence? Dear sir, if you have come across this liveblog just dismiss it as the bitter ramblings of someone who clearly isn’t refined enough to appreciate the genre, and don’t let it spoil your day.