Category Archives: Opinion

Next time…..

To be honest, this has been ‘bugging’ me for a while, although it only became blog worthy (by which I mean complain to random people on the internet) after the first episode of the BBC’s current Sunday night drama ‘What Remains’.

Imagine, if you will, sitting in the dark with my wife (the wife part is optional), enjoying the plot development of a thriller/drama/who-done-what. Totally absorbed in the story, time passes quickly and the twist and turns climax with the main character being smashed over the head by an unknown assailant, chasing them out of the house, before collapsing – condition unknown – onto the street… the screen goes black….

… then the tension is broken by the killer words ‘Next time’. What follows is a montage in which we quickly learn that the main character has suffered no ill effects from the hideous head injury he received, he uncovers a vital clue and does a number of other things which make watching next weeks episode seem a complete waste of time. Shivers down spine, stopped. Built up tension – which would have ensured I tuned in next week – shrivelled on the floor like an old balloon.

The ‘Next Time’ phenomenon actually goes deeper than this. I have lost track of the number of times I have sat through an hour long program, which is actually only half an hour of original programming, thanks to the presenter constantly telling me what is ‘coming up’ or confusing the ad breaks with memory lose and therefore telling me what happened 2 minutes ago OR worse still, prior to the ad break, telling me what will happen after the ad break AND THEN reminding me what happened before the ad break followed by what’s coming up now the ad break has finished.

So what does this have to do with writing – well very little. But it does have a lot to do with the presentation of our work. My wife commented to me the other week that the book she was reading ‘just ended’. When I asked her if she had noticed that the pages towards the back were getting less than those at the front, she (after slapping me) pointed out that the story did unexpectedly end. The last fifty pages of the book contained the first ‘few’ chapters of the authors other novel – and some adverts for other books, suggested discussion points for Book Clubs etc etc. In short she felt robbed, the unexpected end – thanks to the additional ‘Next Time’ style padding – left her feeling severed from the world she had been enjoying.

So the question is – and I know it is a marketing ploy – is this tactic fair on readers? Does advertising the fact that this book (electronic or otherwise) contains EXCLUSIVE extracts from the upcoming new novel staring the hero of the book you haven’t read yet – but who clearly survives the mission/horror/case – spoil the drama you hope to create or experience?

Until NEXT TIME……

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Characterisation – or when is a stereotype not a stereotype?

I haven’t (yet) given up on my online writers course and with a few modules under my belt, it is time to reflect upon my learning (that’s teacher speak by the way)

On a recent visit to London, I was forced to comment on the number of ‘trendy, young people’ who were wearing flat caps. Now I am guessing that this is some sort of fashion trend that hasn’t reached the North East – a iconic/ironic statement of some sort – I asked my friend, who is Lancashire born and bred but living in the big smoke, whether he had considered joining the trendy clones and I am sure that you can guess his response. A man from Lancashire does not wear a flat cap to be trendy – he does it to fit a stereotype.

This got me thinking about characterisation – my online course people say that you should avoid stereotypes at all cost. They make your characters appear one dimensional, unoriginal and generally boring – but isn’t a stereotype just a broad brush stroke of how a particular character should dress/act/speak – almost an expectation which if you ignore breaks the ‘magic’ you are trying to create?

A pirate for example has to conform to a particular set of ‘rules’ – you don’t have to tick all the boxes – she could be allergic to feathers (see I’ve instantly broken two pirate stereotypes there), but she must go ‘argghhhh’ a lot and be on a quest for treasure (buried or otherwise). If these elements are not present you are breaking the trust the reader is putting in you and jarring their expectations to the point they don’t believe your story. Even when they know its not real.

I am also forced to ask when does a stereotype actually become a statement of fact? I’ve visited London a handful of times, my stereotypical view of the tube journey to my friends flat was one of overcrowded trains, everyone ignoring everyone else as they cocoon themselves in their world of mobile phones, ipods and reading. Oh and there has to be a nutter shouting at everyone and no-one at the same time. In a strange way it was comforting to force myself (rucksack and all) onto the bursting tube, be ignored – regardless of how many times I fell over as the train lurched its was beneath the capital – and giggle uncontrollably at the bloke half a carriage away complaining about something or other to anyone who would listen – which of course no-one was. It was what I expected and although not the most pleasant experience I will ever have, it was strangely comforting.

So I guess what I am saying is that stereotypes have a place in fiction, they are what the population generally expect and ignoring them is akin to ignoring the law of gravity. So I intend to embrace stereotypes, although I will do so carefully to help me develop believable characters and believable plot lines.

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Read, watch and play

Many author interviews (both bestsellers and indie) offer the advice ‘if you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader.’

Obviously this is true for a number of reasons (construction of the plot, use of language, read my work (that’s cynical but writers do need readers so encouraging people to read is good for business) etc etc) and I would encourage anyone to read. But as my writing journey continues I am also being drawn to other media sources as learning tools.

Several years ago my middle son was at a book reading/signing event. The author asked the assembled children what they loved about reading. My son (and I wish I had thought of this) stated that he loved reading because ‘it was like having a TV in your head.’

As I become more experienced at writing, I find myself analysing the TV programs and movies I watch. In the first instance you are looking at how the writers introduce plot lines, develop characters and build tension. But perhaps the most enlightening moment occurred last night after watching the film ‘The Grey’ with my wife.

Now I am not going to offer an opinion on the film, but my wife said something which will stick with me for the rest of my writing career (if I ever get to refer to it as a career!). One scene involves a plane crashing and the main character is observed fastening his seat belt and preparing for impact. Five minutes later he is alone on a snow blasted mountainside – naturally completely unharmed and his chair is nowhere to be seen. My wife asked a simple question – how did he get thrown clear, when other characters were found trapped in their seats? My response was simple – he is Liam Neeson and so has to survive. But the point she was making was that the writers/directors/whoever made a big thing about Liam fastening his seatbelt, what followed expected the audience to ignore this or just accept that fastening a seatbelt will save you by not keeping you strapped into your seat. Whilst we debated this minor plot point back and forth (we aren’t actually this boring!) I had my ‘penny drop’ moment. The sequence of events was unrealistic and at that point lost my wives attention. So – keep it real (or as real as your self-created world allows) your readers are not idiots.

The final point in this post concerns video games (I can hear the eyes rolling from here). Many of the pointers that can be gleaned from reading and watching also apply to video games – many of them tell stories. Many of them are part of a long franchise, played by millions of people around the world – so they must be doing something right to hold their audience’s attention.

However, video games do offer another element – experience. Hands up all those people who have killed a real life zombie, fought in the trenches or bought down a dragon using a bow and arrow – not even the most celebrated authors have actually done these things, but through video games you can experience them (OK from the comfort of your sofa and without the threat of death). Let me illustrate the point.

I studied the First World War at school, I know the dates; the political reasons for the conflict; the effect it had on ordinary people; the conditions in the trenches etc etc. I have visited battlefield cemeteries, walked the fields where thousands died, visited the Imperial War Museum and walked through life size models of the trenches complete with smells and noises (within strict health and safety audio parameters) of the frontline. But I (thankfully) wasn’t actually there.

I have, however, due to a bestselling video game franchise, inched my way across no mans land, zig zagging from blast crater to blast crater in an attempt to not end up dead. I could hear the shouts of my fellow soldiers, the boom of the shelling and gunfire, but I couldn’t see it as my virtual face was in the mud as I crawled across the ground. I have no way of knowing if the relief I felt reaching the enemy trenches was anything like the relief the real soldiers felt, but I know I had an experience I would not have gained from a book or a movie.

So read, watch and if possible play. I think your readers will thank you for it.

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Harmless self promotion?

Whilst filling the recycling bin tonight I noticed the tag line on our local newspaper. Proudly announcing that this was the areas ‘leading weekly newspaper’ I was forced to point out to the world (OK no-one was actually by the bins, but if they had been I am sure that they would have been delighted to hear my logical reasoning!) that this publication was the areas ONLY weekly newspaper.

This got me thinking about the messages sent out by indie writers concerning their work on a regular basis. I remember over the christmas period receiving tweets about a novella which was ‘critically acclaimed’ – the reality being that the work had received 9 reviews (at that time), many of which rated it 3 or 4 stars. Hardly acclaim – critical or otherwise.

Now I am sure that the author will claim that it was meant as a joke, just a bit of harmless self promotion, an attempt to tweet a little louder than the millions of others – but does the strategy of enlarging the truth have a negative impact on everyone else?

Perhaps this is the scientist in me coming out. I have spent years dealing in facts – some may find that boring, but I am sure you’d agree that in the case of scientific developments it is better to be overly cautious rather than over exaggerate. But of course – novellas are not scientific developments.

I guess my worry is that, as people try to shout/tweet/blog louder than all the others, the use of words/phrases which promise more than is on offer will become so common we actually end up downgrading their meaning.

Surely as writers we should be protecting these words/phrases – rather than abusing them to push for one more sale?

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