Monday, May 29, 2006

Making a rod for your own back

So I finally figured out a way to plot my putative next novel, what marketing types would call a brand extension. [The Guardian newspaper once called a comic strip I created as the work of an 'opportunistic marketing spiv'. Then again, the New Zealand Herald described me as a 'jaundiced misanthrope' when I was 23, so my card's been marked as a born cynic for quite some time...] The novel is a juggling act of real events, invented characters, historical facts, and the outrageously unlikely. Trying to blend all those seamlessly together in a compelling narrative while hopscotching my way through eight months of the Second World War was challenging, to put it mildly. But I finally cracked the best way of doing it last Thursday. Of course, that necessitated buying two more research books and skimming them for a few last details. Then it was a mad dash to complete a 5000 word proposal, complete with teaser text, dummy back cover copy for the book and a comprehensive cast [including descriptions of their traits, backstory and physical appearance].

A year or two back I was commissioned to write a 95,000 word novel based on the horror film franchise A Nightmare on Elm Street. I wrote the pitch in September 2003 and it went off to New Line for approval. Eight months later Suffer the Children was given the greenlight and Black Flame contracted me to write the novel. I printed out my plot synopsis, confident it would give me a comprehensive roadmap of how I was going to write the story. There's nothing like a detailed plot synopsis to guide you towards that wonderful day when you type THE END. Now, I'd never written a 95,000 word novel before. I'd written a Doctor Who novel called Empire of Death that ran to 99,000 words in its first draft, but I cut nearly a quarter of that verbiage in rewrites and it was only ever intended to be 75-80,000 words long.

So, imagine my surprise and dismay when I discovered my 'comprehensive roadmap' for Suffer the Children was more like the instructions of a confused dyslexic with Tourette's Syndrome after too many beers. The synopsis was all of a thousand words, if that, not nearly enough to help me fill nearly 100,000 words. The first thing to do in that situation is panic - you might as well get it out of the way, as you won't have time to panic later. I started having flashbacks to my last History exam, when I had four facts with which to write three comprehensive essays. Time to flannel.

So I printed out a large sign and stuck it to the wall beside my computer, as a way of reminding myself what I needed to achieve. The sign's still there - nien words, 48 letters and one question mark. It broke down into three simple instructions:-


I suspect I'm not a natural novelist, despite my capacity to produce a first draft in a few weeks. Certainly I'm no literary novelist. Long, languid passages of purple prose describing the characters' surroundings sit badly with me. I like the race to the finish, the pulse-pounding plot, the thrill of the chase. My tomes are designed to be page-turners, designed to drive the reader onwards, desperate to know what happens next. For Suffer the Children, I had to suppress that instinct and delve deeper into the thoughts and feelings of the characters and their world. I'm particularly bad at remembering to write about how things smell.

A novel is almost the only place you can easily awaken the olefactory senses of your audiences. Film, TV, computer games, radio drama, even plays in the theatre - these all tend to engage the other four senses, but you struggle to make the audience smell what the characters are smelling. In a novel, if you write well enough, you bring alive the odour of the moment in the reader's nostrils. If you want a good example of how to do this, try the fiction of Andrew Cartmel, a scribe who makes you smell every moment of a novel. More famously, pick up Patrick Suskind's Perfume, a novel all about the sense of smell, a book suffused with aromas like no other.

Anyway, I learned my lesson from Suffer the Children and now ensure any synopsis I write has enough juice to fulfil the needs of its intended audience. When it comes to story, you don't want to be caught short with 100 pages of prose, 15 minutes of screen time or one episode of comic strip to go...


Jim Swallow said...

Ah, the synopsis. I'm always interested in how other authors handle them. Me, I'm surprised if I go over 3000 words of outline for a novel. I like the room to breathe that a loose outline gives you, the chance to find stuff that grows organically out of the writing - of course, that can bite you in the ass if you write yourself into a corner...

Paul Scoones said...

Jaundiced misanthrope - now there's a character description to be reckoned with!!

Your comments about the description of smell in novels is interesting. A couple of books that I recall evoking all the senses are One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Heart of Darkness. I haven't read either of these in years, but the sensory impact of the prose lingers with me.

Interesting that you should single out Andrew Cartmel - some years ago I was reading one of his books whilst recovering from a bout food poisoning, and his description of various smells and tastes was so vivid that it made me feel worse and I had to stop reading.