Wednesday, April 29, 2009

To Plot.. or not to Plot

Very grandiosely, and in common with many other people in the world, I have decided that it’s time I wrote a novel. Or, perhaps more accurately, I have an idea which I think might make a novel. It’s so half formed that there’s not much point in going into it here, so let’s just say it’s a sort of gothic steampunk thing revolving around a group of young thieves and scavengers who live in an enormous railway station (now you know as much as I do).

As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about the business of plotting recently. Ordinarily, I’m something of a free-form writer and much of my plotting is done as I go along. I usually start with an image or phrase and try and extrapolate the story from that – this usually entails moving back and forward through the story as I write, changing and tweaking and often discarding as I go along (a recently short story of mine ended up in a narrative cul-de-sac that necessitated scrapping almost 1,000 words of hard-won writing when I realized that one of the characters was totally superfluous to requirements). It isn’t perhaps the most ideal way to work but it’s the only way I know how.

However, the creation of, say, 80,000 words of fiction differs somewhat from the creation of 5,000 words. I’ve started novels before that simply disappeared under their own flimsy construction or got the point where my particular process of working could no longer sustain the narrative in any convincing way.

So… new approach called for, I reckon.

Plotting is a strange thing. As I see it, the plot of any story requires two vital elements – characters and events. Narrative springs from how you combine the two and from the smooth flow of one event into another. Or to put it another way… cause and effect.

To use a classic example from Forster’s Aspects of the Novel:

A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. "The king died and then the queen died" is a story. "The king died, and then the queen died of grief" is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.

Even at my most free-form, I’m always thinking about cause and effect, how the actions of one character affect the scene, how that scene determines the next, what the outcome of the events are and how they effect the characters.

In practical terms it has meant lots of thinking and lots of note taking, trying to feel my way through a story as yet unwritten, working with characters who remain faceless and nameless (although some of them are beginning to work their way through the haze and into the light).

It’s a process that I find both stimulating and frustrating at the same time, that nagging feeling that somewhere in my mind and in the recesses of my notebooks there is a story to be told, a world to be created and explored, characters to be found and understood – and an awful lot of typing to be done.

Monday, April 13, 2009

I Find Writing Difficult

I find writing difficult. There, I’ve said it.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to write – there is nothing in the world quite like it. I even like to read my own writing (not in an egotistical way, you understand, but sometimes it gives me a thrill to think ‘I wrote that’) and I get a real thrill out of the editorial process. I love to prune and shape my prose, peering into it for inconsistencies, repetition and the ever popular lapse of logic.

I love to create and explore new worlds – to grub around in them and discover exactly what they have to offer – and I love to follow the characters that I’ve created and see where they go next and what will happen to them.

But sometimes it’s just so damned hard.

Over the years I have read lots of books on writing – some good, some bad, some indifferent and some just bloody awful – in an attempt to make the process easier. Sometimes it works, and once in a while I manage to pick up a nugget of wisdom that helps the process and becomes part of my own method. More often, though I come away with a sense that I’m still missing something, that tiny vital piece of information that will turn me from a tortured hack into a more prolific and substantially less tortured hack.

Of course, this is nothing more than a pipe dream. I know beyond certainty that no such piece of information exists and that the only sure and certain way to learn more about the process of writing is to continue to write. And so I do… I write, I study structure and method, I apply the lessons I have learned (no matter how small) to the stories that I write. Most of all, I read. There are many, many writers I admire and I try to learn from them.

My difficulties arise, I have no doubt, mostly from the way I choose to write (or the writing method that has chosen me, I’m never sure which). I rarely plan in any great detail, I normally have at least some idea of the characters, the situation and where I want the story to go: but I very rarely have everything set down in stone before I begin to write. What’s worse is that when I do plan a story I tend to lose interest in it. It’s kinda a Chester Gould thing – Gould rarely planned too far ahead, working on the principle that if he could surprise himself then he could surprise the reader, too. (Mind you, it’s an elastic word and an elastic term – surprise can be relative, a turn of phrase or a description can surprise both writer and reader – and doesn’t necessarily mean a massive plot twist or a stunning turn of events).

Stephen King once spoke about how we ‘unearth’ stories and that is something I tend to agree with. I think that, as writers, we get the stories we deserve – the characters we create are tiny fragments of our own psyches given some ethereal form on the page, they mirror us in some way, even if that mirror is an utterly distorted one.

Still, nothing worthwhile is ever easy (or so they tell me) and I think that any writer worth his or her salt will occasionally struggle with their tales and, very often, the struggle leads to revelation – those wonderful moments when you cease to be a tourist in your own fictional world and instead become an integral part of it.

And that’s when it’s really worth it.

The Omega Man

The Omega Man (1971)
Directed by Boris Sagal. Starring Charlton Heston. Rosalind Cash. Anthony Zerbe.

I Am Legend, Richard Matheson’s brilliant 1954 novel of a world in thrall to a vampiric plague, has not been well served by film makers over the years.

1964’s The Last Man on Earth (L'Ultimo uomo della Terra) – despite a wonderfully tortured central performance by Vincent Price and a screenplay that was fairly faithful to the original material – suffered from a miniscule budget, while the recent Will Smith vehicle suffered from the reverse problem, resulting in a too-many-cooks broth that was deeply unsatisfying.

And then there is The Omega Man, a curiously enjoyable slice of 70’s kitsch in which Charlton Heston’s last man on earth battles mutant albinos in an errie, deserted Los Angeles.

Part muscular actioneer, part SF Christ myth (complete with a martyred Heston in the last reel) The Omega Man pays no more than lip-service to Matheson’s novel, recasting his everyman protagonist, Robert Neville, as a soldier-scientist with impeccable cultural credentials and a strong messiah complex.

Gone, too, is Matheson’s carefully reasoned vampire plague, to be replaced by the black-robed Family, led by Anthony Zerbe’s Jim Jones/ Charles Manson influenced Matthias, and featuring some of the funkiest natural afros this side of the Jackson Five.

It’s a strange mixture of wish-fulfilment – the end of the world as Neville’s private playground – SF and blaxploitation that really shouldn’t work but somehow does.

In large part it’s down to Heston’s performance. His Colonel Robert Neville is self-assured, yet tortured, caring yet callous, intelligent yet brutish (an extension, in many ways of his character in Planet of the Apes). Yet as the film progresses Neville/ Heston becomes a changed man, prompted by the arrival of a group of young survivors headed by Rosalind Cash, so that in the end, when Neville sacrifices himself, it is to create a world of which he himself could never be part.

This, however, is not to suggest that The Omega Man is a particularly deep or introspective film – there are too many shots of Heston with his shirt off and an uneasy fetishism of weapons for that – but rather that the subtext of this rather florid and, at times, downright silly movie manages to raise it to a level slightly above its otherwise ‘kill the bad guys, save the world’ plot.

To be brutually honest, The Omega Man has not dated well and now looks like a strange, too-hip-to-be-cool snapshot of the early 1970’s: the hair, the clothes, the music all belong to a bygone age and Heston himself is monolithic – the last decent man in America making a stand against drugs, hippies and new ideas (even if Neville's favourite movie is 'Woodstock') – an old-fashioned movie star trying to move with the times. Yet equally it belongs to a time when mainstream Hollywood was prepared to mix things up a little, to present its audiences with heroes who were flawed rather than merely tragic and a time when bri-nylon tracksuits were the height of fashion.

Taken with Planet of the Apes and 1973's Soylent Green, The Omega Man forms part of a curious trilogy of intelligent, literary derived SF – although far removed from their source material - linked together by an aging Charlton Heston and a pessimistic worldview from a pre-Star Wars age when cinematic science fiction was less reliant upon spectacle and more upon plot and character. And generally better for it, too.