A Resolution of Sorts
Best wishes for 2013 to you all.
It is becoming an unwelcome habit, starting a post with an apology, but it seems that finding the wherewithal to post entries is a challenge to which I have yet to rise! The end of 2012 was a very fulfilling one for me, with news that my TV series The Track (which is being produced by Hoodlum for broadcast on Australia’s Network Ten) got the green light. The last weeks of 2012 were an immersion in story development. And while TV is a delightfully collaborative process (and I’m working with some fantastic and smart people on this show), the work to date is serving more and more to confirm some things I’ve suspected about storytelling.
I recall in a workshop I participated in last year speaking about suspense. I think the workshop was a mere hour, and I had the pleasure of sharing it with the lovely and talented Katherine Howell. In retrospect, an hour was too short. Indeed, a day would be too short, as might even a solid week. I recall, in that workshop, suggesting to the participants that suspense and surprise were two very different things – suspense builds, I said, and surprise happens. I now believe that suspense and surprise are two sides to a very valuable coin that buys the hearts and minds of readers and viewers. For why else do we read and watch, if not to wonder what will happen next (suspense), and to be shocked when what we think might happen is supplanted by something unexpected (surprise).
But neither side of this coin – suspense nor surprise – matters a jot without something else.
For a long time, I thought that extra essential ingredient was ‘idea’, but two things I recently enjoyed suggested for me that it is not ‘idea’ at all – or, at least, not ‘idea’ in the way I’d been considering it. I read The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers, and saw Skyfall, the latest James Bond film. They are both, in their own ways, quite wonderful. The former is lyrical and tragic; the latter is fun and exciting. The former is a bildungsroman in a war setting; the latter is the twenty-third film about the super spy. Neither is a new idea. Both suffer nothing because of it. Because both are rich with style and character.
The Yellow Birds has a story as deceptively simple as a Rousseau painting – but, like one of my favourite paintings The Sleeping Gypsy, its simplicity masks a raw beauty and hidden complexity that will draw me back again and again, much as I keep returning to the classics by masters of the seemingly spare like Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy. The idea didn’t need to be new; the truth of the character and the beauty of the style meant that only a track slightly off the beaten one was needed to engage the reader. And because the style was so compelling and the character so very flawed and real and – most critically – understandable, it was enough to keep me at least wondering: what happens next?
Skyfall could not have been more different fare. Where the whining of bullets in The Yellow Birds were fraught with real mortal terror, they were stagecraft in Skyfall. It was high theatre and superbly done. Yes, the villain’s plots were overly complex, and the villain himself far larger than life – and bravo for it. And yes, Bond himself thought just a little and fought beyond the point when most others could – and bravo for that. The film delivered what was expected – it was like a delicious steak meal served with just enough new seasonings and flourishes to satisfy mightily well. Again, because of character and style. We know Bond won’t die, so the surprises are few. The suspense comes from wondering: how will Bond get out of this mess? And we know the villain will want to rule the world and extract convoluted revenge, because that is the genre, and the style suited it perfectly.
What is taken away from reading The Yellow Birds and watching Skyfall? From the former, a soul-scouring reminder of the preciousness of life, the fragility of the mind, and the futility of war; from the latter, joyful entertainment and a carefully weighed handful of memories about the one-liners we love our changeless heroes to utter. Plot? Not so much. Sure, it would be notable by its absence in both works, but it was satisfying enough in both to not interfere with those larger qualities of character and style. Plot is like a map – yes, it's important to know where we're going, but please don't let poring over the map stop us enjoying the changing landscape.
So, as I embark on a new year of writing, I’ll be sure to working hard on my ideas, on ensuring my plots have both suspense and surprise packaged in plots that have logic and freshness… but I suspect my sun and moon this year will be character and style. At least, that’s my resolution. Or one of my resolutions, of sorts.
The Act of Writing Stuff...
It has been the year of the screen for me. It’s a great delight to know that The Broken Ones released in North America well, and truly exciting to receive notes from readers who’ve enjoyed it. But 2012 has been a year in which I seem, by hook or crook, to have become immersed again in working up story for the screen.
I don’t know how it quite happened, but I suspect there was some subconscious nudging at work. After final edits on The Broken Ones, and commencing work on my third novel, I know I felt a desire to do some more stuff for the screen. This was manifest by wanting badly not to write at all, but to sit and watch quality stuff like Game of Thrones and Take Shelter. It may be a case of be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it. Somehow, I started getting involved in the development of a number of really exciting screen projects.
I was invited by the cleverheads at Hoodlum Entertainment (who’ve done some spectacular work for shows like Lost, Flash Forward and Spooks, and movies like Salt) to do some story development, which is great fun. That’s led to a number of new ventures with them, including the development of a crime series and the creation of a screen adaptation of The Dead Path, which I will be writing. I was invited to write a comedy feature for uber-dedicated producer Angela Walsh (which was a refreshing dip into waters where no one dies, confronts monsters, or is tormented by spirits) and to adapt for the screen another Australian author’s comedy novel. But my love for mystery and ghosts seems to orbit about me like cartoon birds around characters struck by mallets… and I will also be involved in helping develop another screenwriter’s ghost story feature. In between all these commitments, I’ve been lucky enough to work up some interesting corporate work for Australia Post and the Australian Psychological Society, and to bang out a 10,000 word short story.
I’ve realised – and it’s taken me a long time to do so, because I is well stupid – that there really isn’t a lot of difference between writing for the novel and writing for the screen. Sure, there are differences in the way the forms are read, but whether it’s a novel in a bookstore or a screenplay on a producer’s desk, once a reader picks up the piece, you want her or him to be hooked and just keep turning the damned pages. And while novels allow their writers to show a bit more style and explore in a bit more depth, and while screenplays demand specific formatting and present tense, the pressure is on the writer in both forums to bring game and find ways to keep those pages flipping. To make the story compelling, enjoyable, and most of all, surprising. Because that's what we want, isn't it? There's nothing worse than reading a book or watching a TV show and predicting the exact next line or dialogue or plot point.
At lunchtimes, I like to eat my tin of Stagg chili (yum; I love the gear. This is an unpaid endorsement, but Stagg? Feel free to send me some cases) and I like to watch either Ted Talks or reruns of Inside the Actor’s Studio – that great series hosted by James Lipton. Hearing accomplished actors speaking about their journeys has driven home to me that the craft of acting is very similar to the crafts of novel- and screenwriting. They’re all story telling (like I said, I can be quite stupid). And acting and writing only truly work when the viewer is transported utterly into a realm of belief – belief that the actor is actually a completely different human, or that the world in the novel is alive and its characters are, too, or that the screenplay is actually projecting, real time, behind the reader’s eyes.
Many of the actors talk about what acting is, and mostly, it is this: solving problems, and making choices.
And that’s what writing is, too. Choosing characters and problems for them to solve.
But not solving problems easily – in both acting and writing, problems have to be solved the hard way. An easy journey doesn’t make for great drama; for drama, there has to be conflict, internal and external. Problems have to be profound enough to challenge characters completely, to test their mettle. And so the choices that actors and writers make have to be surprising. As Mamet once said (and I paraphrase): if you can think up plot off the top of your head, so can your audience. And that is not what the punters pay for; we rightly expect more than that. Good acting and good writing are hard work because they have to seem effortless. The problems character face have to be at once instantly understandable, yet something we have never quite encountered before – and their resolutions have to be both unquestionable and unpredictable.
And when we watch or read, we don't see the hard work that's gone into creating those problems and making those choices; when we watch, we simply enjoy the ride. That’s what we reward our entertainers for: taking us by the hand to places we’ve never quite been, and returning us safely home again, feeling a bit smarter or a bit emotionally richer for the journey.
So, as I continue working up my third novel, writing a screen adaptation of my first, and hopefully getting closer to seeing my debut crime series on the TV screen, I hope I can keep that ethic in mind: surprising, yet inevitable; new, and true. And I hope I can broaden my lunch diet beyond chili...
There Really Must be a Murder
“There really must be a murder,” wrote detective mystery scholar Howard Haycraft, “or at least a major felony –– otherwise, what’s the point? Who’s ripping off the hand towels at the Dorchester Hotel is hardly the business of a mystery novel.” It is a quote about a truth that seems deceptively obvious, but is one I wish I’d read some years ago. I learned, through the process of writing three pieces, including my second supernatural crime novel The Broken Ones, that a satisfying mystery revolves around twin dark stars, one of which is the crime.
I began writing The Broken Ones in late 2010, after a fairly long haul working on a nascent crime television series. It was a fortuitous sequence of events. I wrote my first novel, The Dead Path, almost by the seat of my pants, with only a back-of-brain inkling that I was writing a crime novel with ghosts in it. But after it was published and I began work as one of the key writers on this crime series, it became increasing clear to me what I’d done and what I was doing: spinning stories around a key event. In The Dead Path, the crime was the murder of a child that opens a hidden door to a history of nasty killings; in the TV series, the event was a fatal bombing. Through the course of working in a room with other writers, it became crystal clear how important the crime itself is to the strength of the story. Willard Huntington Wright said it well: “There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse, the better.”
The crime is where criminal, victim, and investigator meet. It is the catalytic ignition point of the story. From this point, I began to realise, you have to work backwards and forwards: backwards, to ensure the motivation of the criminal to commit the crime is plausible and strong, and the victim he or she chooses is the right one for the story; and forwards, to see how the investigator or victim reacts to the crime, what he or she does to solve it or flee its consequences, and what the perpetrator does in concert. Which brings me to the second ‘dark star’ I mentioned about which a story revolves: the protagonist. Whether he or she is the investigator, the criminal, or the victim, he or she must be interesting. We don’t have to like him, but we do have to understand him. We don’t have to think him good (lord forbid, in fact; too much goodness makes for somewhat boring characters), but we do have to think him real.
Real. And truthful.
And the truth is the prism through which the writer must inspect all the events leading up to the crime, and all the twists and turns that make up the unravelling of that crime that we call ‘the story’. Every action must be truthful. Each should be surprising, because that’s why we read fiction and watch television drama and films: to be surprised. But each must also be true: it must be what the character we’ve chosen to create would truthfully do, not what we the writers would like him to do. We can’t shoehorn actions in that don’t fit the characters – readers and viewers can smell a lie a mile off.
So, writing The Broken Ones was, for me, a careful to the point of tedious exercise in plotting – and by plotting, I mean inventing Oscar Mariani’s investigation into the murder of a young woman step-by-step, trying to make each step surprising to me (and, hopefully, to the reader) and truthful to Mariani’s character and the rules of the dystopian world I’d created. For months I worked at a magnetic whiteboard covered in index cards upon which I’d written scene synopses, and which I’d shuffle around, back, forth, into the bin and out again. It was in equal parts fun and frustrating.
And the process reminded me of something an acting teacher taught me a long time ago: “Acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”
So is writing.
I recently watched an old Inside the Actor’s Studio where James Lipton interviewed Sean Penn. Penn said that his work ethic revolved around having the “uncommon thought about a common matter”. Or, seeing the world in a different and surprising way. And if ever there was a ‘truthful’ actor, Penn is he. If you are embarking on writing, or stuck in your writing, I highly recommend watching this inspiring clip – the truth, in story and in character, may just set you free.
It's really helped me. Right now, I'm developing my own crime TV series with the brilliant people at Hoodlum Entertainment, and it is an exhaustive, exhilarating process of checking that a suite of interesting characters is acting truthfully in the light of a terrible crime. I look forward to surprising you with what that crime is, but there's no surprise that I've taken to heart that there really must be a murder.
The Golden Ray
Last week, Ray Bradbury passed away. The morning I read the news, I thought, ‘My hero has died.’ For some reason, I thought he never would – his work was – and is – so vivid, his enthusiasm for the craft so infectious, it would not have surprised me if he’d lived forever, just as Mr Electrico had reportedly commanded him to from a sideshow tent back in the early 1930s.
But soon, the truth of it – and the futility of hoping that somehow the brightest stars won’t fade and perish – sunk in. Ninety years old, though! A good innings. A full innings. Certainly full for me and for countless thousands like me who were transformed by his love for words, of life, and of the potential of unfettered imagination. Each of us knows of his short story A Sound of Thunder, even those who haven’t read it surely have heard of the butterfly effect, or at least seen the homage to the seminal time travel short story on The Simpsons. For me, three of Bradbury's works redefined what writing was and could do. The bittersweet short story The Homecoming, about ordinary Timothy and his extraordinary undead family, shocked me, delighted me, and – most of all – stayed with me after I finished it. As a teenager, Something Wicked This Way Comes struck a note that still resonates like the whistle of that night train across the plains; its dusty witch in her awful balloon is an image that is so fantastical and beautifully terrifying the book needs no other, yet is rich with hundreds more. But it was Fahrenheit 451 that found deepest root in my brain, and cemented Ray Bradbury as a writer whose work I admired perhaps above all others. Its strange blendings, its stunning counterpoint, have never let go of me: the shadowed night beauty he depicted in suburban ordinariness as Montag walks the city's footpaths contrasted so sharply with the glowing, polished techno-horror of the poisonous mechanical hound relentlessly chasing its prey on silent rubber feet. (Could there be a Terminator without a Mechanical Hound?)
Bradbury, like H G Wells before him, was a visionary. Not a prophet, I think he once argued, but a critic, or a counselor; warning against yielding to the parts of our nature that prefer to receive than to give, to lounge than to walk, to watch than to read, to be told what to think rather than to think for ourselves. He, like Wells, was it seems more gifted Cassandra than benevolent consigliere, since so many of his danger-filled predictions have come to pass. We sit back and watch shows about cooking, rather than messing our own kitchens; we work sixty hours a week to pay for devices that save us time we no longer have. Despite this, his work wasn’t depressing, even its saddest and scariest and most judgmental about our foibles – it still brimmed with joy and child-eyed curiosity.
I realised I was wrong to think he died. He is alive, a metre from where I type, in half a dozen books of his I own and treasure. And I was wrong, I realised, to think him my hero. Heroes are those who sacrifice their own comfort or health or lives for the betterment of others. They are not people who play the sport they love for money; I hate, with passion, hearing professional sports people called heroes. In the same vein, Bradbury could never be a hero: he spent his life doing what he loved to do – writing. He made money, but I’m sure he would have written (as he did in his youth) without financial reward. And he encouraged those of us who love words to try and tap into the rich vein he found – I highly recommend you read Zen in the Art of Writing; it is every bit as inspiring as King’s seminal On Writing. No, he was not a hero. He was an inspiration. Was, and is.
PS Who is my hero? Janusz Korczak. If you don’t know his story, do follow the link, and perhaps you’ll see why.
Twist and Shout
About a week ago I was enjoying my regular run – or, at least, a version of it. My regular run is between 8 and 10 km and the route I enjoy most is going up a winding, dirt track up Mt Coot-tha to the nearest television broadcast tower, and back down. I usually get up at 4:30 in the morning to do my exercise so I can be done before the kids start to wake around 6, so any morning running at this time of the year is done before dawn and I wear a tiny headlamp if I’m doing the mountain track. Now the pre-dawn run is thousands of footfalls in pitch black lit only by a bobbing headlight that sometimes becomes just a silver cone of foggy exhalations. But a week ago, a Sunday, I was able to enjoy the run in full daylight and I had a perfectly clear vision of every rock, every patch of leaves, every runnel. Around the halfway point, confident about seeing everything, I chose to look up from the immediate path ahead to check whether I could spot the road that goes up to the summit and down to the Botanical Gardens. Sure enough, two hundred metres or so ahead, there it was. But in this split-second glance up, my right foot landed on a patch of leaves disguising a rock and I sprained my ankle.
Not badly, thank goodness, but enough for me to call myself a colourful list of names reflecting my low opinion of the cocky decision to look up instead of watching where I was going. I couldn’t believe it; I’d made this run so many times in almost no light without mishap; now, in daylight, I nearly lame myself. Eejut.
Some time ago, I was invited by the lovely Ian Irvine to post on his blog, and I offered a small piece which equated writing to my daughter’s first tentative steps – that writing, like walking, is little more than controlled falling. I still believe that, but this little episode on the bush track both reinforced that belief and took it a step further (woeful pun).
In writing, as in running on uncertain ground, it doesn’t always pay to look up from what you’re doing to try and spot the road ahead. If you are making progress going step-by-step, for goodness’ sake keep going. Don’t look up! You can stop and check your bearings when you naturally run out of steam – which might be the end of the writing day, the end of a chapter, or (if the muse is kind) the end of the manuscript. But don’t imperil yourself by making an unnecessary pitstop. Some people like having a clear, paved path ahead; some people like running wildly between the trees – horses for courses (to meld analogies). But even if you are tempted (maybe by fear, maybe by cockiness) to check the middle distance, have confidence to resist. Have faith that the wave of inertia is taking you somewhere, and hopefully it is off the beaten track, because that’s what readers crave: the new, the fresh, the previously unseen. And don’t be afraid: you should have at least an idea of the route you’re taking – of what the general direction of the story is. Indeed, some of us like to map the route very precisely before we begin, and some of us enjoy adventuring into the pure unknown of story (I believe the singular Ray Bradbury worked in this fashion; I recommend highly his Zen in the Art of Writing). The latter is the wildest adventure, but seems to me to pose serious risk of becoming lost, or at least banging into a tree, but it is I think the only way off the map into new territories, and I applaud those that do it and find their way back to civilisation.
Whatever your style is, I think that writing, and reading, too, should be done with gusto and impetus, appreciating the detail of what's immediately in front of you. If you need to cheat and look too far ahead – as a writer or as a reader – you know the job’s not being done right.
See Genre Run
I’ve heard said that one should not ruin an apology with an explanation. So, let me just say that I'm sorry it has been a while since my last blog post.
Some fun and interesting things have been going on at Casa Irwin, as visitors to my Facebook site would know. I've been doing some very enjoyable TV development work with the Emmy and BAFTA Award winning anges sur la terre at Hoodlum Entertainment – including the early stages of turning two of my own ideas into TV series. TV story development feels like a mad game of water polo compared with the slogging cross-channel solo swim of novel writing. It's really invigorating to be talking story and character with the talents in the room – batting ideas about, coming up with wacky ideas, dismissing some and loving others. Pure creativity skimming on a shared love of good storytelling.
Speaking of novels, 'The Broken Ones' has enjoyed a resurgence in local publicity this last fortnight or so, with lovely reviews on ABC Radio, on their website, and an interview for the Sunday Mail. Something that comes up regularly in interviews – for me, at least – is discussion about genre. Interviewers, associates, and reader fans often say something similar to the effect of: you write horror, so … I guess you skin nuns alive in your basement?
The answer is (wait; must silence, that screaming from downstairs. There.) … no. The only things I’ve skinned in my dark little workshop downstairs are my knuckles. The question feels kind of groundless (particularly if you’ll grant I am not a dermis-rending Bates Motelier, but you can only take my word on that). For starters, I don’t really believe ‘Horror’ should be a genre in its own right; far too many stories get stained with the damning chalk mark of ‘Horror’ and lose readers who would otherwise, I’m sure, enjoy them immensely. Certainly, there are some books out there that are the literary equivalent of splatter films, and it's those who – if any – deserve the horror moniker. But there are countless other excellent works that, while they have elements that are scary or unsettling, are simply darned fine stories. They are mysteries; they are thrillers; they are human dramas; they are literary fiction of high order; they are deliciously refined pulp. But ‘Horror’? The word 'horror' rightly implies the decent reader would wish to turn away from it – and what right-minded author would want to truly repulse her or his bread-and-butter? Many crime novels have more horrific story elements than your average ‘Horror’, yet I don’t think a casual bookstore browser would pass by a crime novel so readily – perhaps even so disdainfully – as they might a work labeled ‘Horror’. Stories that fall under the banner are so various it is impossible to begin to net them: ghost stories; tales of fantastical beasts and aliens and ancient gods; stories of changeable humans, haunted inside and out; explorations of places and spaces and minds with powers that defy our everyday. Yes, they are scary and deliberately so … but not at the expense of good storytelling – not the good ones, anyway. Me: I call my books supernatural thrillers – they are (I hope) easy-to-read page-turners with an element of the otherworldly about them.
Genre is a little dangerous, and more a little limiting. Talking about genre is a bit like discussing cuisine. Labeling a meal as, let’s say, Italian could well put off a narrow-minded diner who dislikes pizza and pasta. Well, Italian cuisine is as varied and wonderful as the Italian landscape, and anyone thinking that all there is to it is spaghetti and pepperoni slices is missing out big time. Same with genre. Genre is semi-useful for talking about story (or, maybe, for placing stories on shelves), but not much use for enjoying story. The fact is, a good story is its own creature. Like a horse, it doesn’t care what type other creatures call it – do you think a horse cares if humans have classed it a Falabella or an Appaloosa or a Swedish Warmblood? It just wants to run and eat and (if it hasn’t been gelded) get busy with the fine filly in the next paddock. It wants to live. That’s what we writers hope for, anyway: to create a story that seems to have its own spark, its own organic desires and unpredictability – something to take you, the reader, on a wild ride. As a rule, we writers don’t care if you the reader is tall or short, svelte or stocky, fair haired or suffering male pattern baldness – we just want you in the saddle! And I think that's what readers want, too – to be taken on a surprising journey upon steady, strong legs.
It is so hard when you are shopping for your next read to find the time to choose it with care. Each of us seems to be getting time poorer and poorer, and relying more and more for the taxonomies of our shopping systems to do our thinking for us. But please: try to take a little longer, and carry a grain of salt to deal with where the story has found itself pigeonholed. A good book is much more than the genre it is filed under.