Friday, 29 October 2010


I have one real leg and one cyber leg. Before the Blog Hop and the National Pirates Union came along, I felt like a leper both on and off the internet. No longer. Thank you, Blog Hop.

Learning To Read has had a pretty busy couple of weeks, but said busy-ness hasn't really translated into blog posts. There have been posts on NaNoWriMo, what I'm going to write, what said writing might be about, and a couple of books.

These are Agatha Christie's Three-Act Tragedy and Charlie Chaplin's memoirs. I'm now reading Agatha Christie's memoirs, which is some sort of Hegelian synthesis of both of those. Neat.

A review of said memoirs will be forthcoming, right after the review of PG Wodehouse's biography, which I read last week and haven't blogulated yet.

Oceans full of damp, inelastic peace to you all.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Charles Chaplin

the autobiography.

Charlie Chaplin! The name is magic. I'm not sure why I picked this book up from my (excellent) local Oxfam B&M, being more of a Buster Keaton man, but pick it up I did.

A memoir will almost always make you like the person involved, if you didn't already. At least, that's the case with me. If people tell me they are nice, I tend to believe them. If they tell me they are not nice, I think the happy paradox, 'he's not only nice but honest as well. Hot stuff.' But I started taking a dislike to Charlie over the course of this beast of a book -- a dislike that slowly gave way to pity.

Reading an autobiography from a public figure is a very different experience when you know nothing about said figure's career, and even less about said's public trials. You end up with a lot of 'that Hearst-Davies affair, of which I have nothing to add, except to say the story as it became known was 100% false.' If you don't know the story as it became known, that sentence is high in unsaturated intrigue and low in information. Which is unhealthy.

Unhealthy but addictive. This lack of knowledge is what kept me reading the book. Chaplin is a perfect example of an unreliable narrator, setting up a state of affairs an author would maim owls to emulate. He was my only source of information, and at first -- oh! how naive I was, back then -- I took him to be reliable.

But then, slowly, other narratives began to suggest themselves. Hidden in the background, the simple shape of events tell a different, contradictory tale. Over time, over pages, my suspicions rose -- the suggested story, what Charlie is trying to rewrite, is the truer one. And the gap between the two compels.

So I started to think Charlie was a bit full of himself, and not as smart as he thought. He's not great to the people around him, either. Not nasty, just defensive, ignorant and uninvolved. Here's a little example that made me gasp (in my head) mid-text.

CC is talking about how he works up a film idea. He starts filming lots of comedy routines around a basic subject/set/genre, until a narrative emerges. Then he casts off any of the funny stuff that doesn't fit. He stops talking about this for a short paragraph:

"During the filming of The Gold Rush I married for the second time. Because we have two grown sons of whom I am very fond, I will not go into details. For two years we were married and tried to make a go of it, but it was hopeless and ended in a great deal of bitterness.
The Gold Rush opened at the Strand Theatre..."

In 530 pages, this is the only mention of these people. Well done for not opening up old wounds, but... an aside? In a rather irrelevant anecdote about a film? Flipping heck.

But I didn't think Charlie a bad man, by the end. What comes across most, through his defensive attitude, his incomplete and ill-concealed retelling of events, his lack of understanding of others, and his fundamental incompetence in bonding with people, is how lost he was.

It's all there, in his childhood, though he doesn't tell it that way; he never got the chance to grow up. He was just a boy, gifted and lucky and greedy enough to become loved all over the world, and completely without the maturity necessary to deal with it. He was just a kid, man. The kid. I'm off to watch The Kid. 

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Three-Act Tragedy

by Agatha Christie

It's a good thing that Poirot doesn't really turn up until the third act. There's a lot of soft psychology going on before then that he is too good for.

Instead of Poirot and Hastings, we have a famous actor investigating the murders, told through the eyes of his society friend, and they speak a lot of amateur nonsense about the way people work.

The choice of an actor for the role is no coincidence. Three-Act Tragedy has fun with the structure of theatre, paralleling and parodying in equal weight. Everyone is a player, and some are more aware of it than others.

Underneath the fun, this lets Christie delve a little further into the less folky areas of psychology that Poirot is so fond of, deftly kept away from becoming a victim of the sort of fun we're having at the expense of those in the shallow end. The ever-present shadow of 'the drama' keeps the whole thing both confined and self-aware, while the fumbling attempts at insight from Satterthwaite and his actor-detective friend, Sir Charles draw all the flak. The best way to avoid being the subject of mockery is to make sure you're already doing the mocking.

There's a reason Poirot isn't playing his normal central role, and it's all about casting. Christie gets to reverse her usual narrator/detective relationship, with Satterthwaite the more knowing assistant, Sir Charles the incompetent (but still egotistic) detective. Without spoiling the whole thing, it's safe to say this book couldn't happen without the roles as they are, and the particular players cast in them. It's impossible to imagine it working with Poirot and Hastings in their stead.

Poirot does get an early mention. He's not in the very first scene, but it's safe to say he is the Chekhov's Gun of the piece. He bumps into Satterthwaite in the south of France, and from that point on we know someone is going to get outsmarted, outplayed, and out-psychologied, in the denouement.

Three-Act Tragedy might be unusual in it's 20% Less Saturated Hercule, but it might be unique in it's flat statement of who Hercule really is. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Christie wrote the whole thing as a way to make absolutely, abudantly clear, one thing. Poirot is not a romantic. That's Hastings' job.

There are three types of psychologies, he tells Satterthwaite. The showing psychology, which must always be telling the story and playing the part. The watching psychology, like Satters himself, that exists to observe, spot and enjoy the narratives as they occur. But that doesn't include Poirot, oh no. He is the prosaic mind. All he sees are facts. When he goes to the theatre, he sees painted scenery and lots of people doing a bit of old-fashioned pretending. When he sees a beautiful girl sing, he notices Hasting's pupils dilate. Nothing else.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

What Happens In Polaroid (Stays In Polaroid)

I'm almost done planning Polaroid, and it's not a good feeling. I want to keep working on it, I know I'm not ready to start writing it (and hey. It's October), but I don't know quite what's left to get on with.

For various reasons (over at the NaNo site) I've written a synopsis, a plot outline, and a one-sentence summary. And even though all of those were simply summaries of information I'd already got in bulletpoint form, writing them really helped. I'm still getting to know the novel, it turns out. And talking about something is a lot easier than thinking about something.

You know what's coming. All this means I will now talk about the thing, all over again. Rather than trying to reduce the whole mess into an intriguing and sensical blog post, I'm going to dig up that watery, curious skeleton, Michael Owen. Ask me questions, Michael, and I shall answer.

MO: Why is it called Polaroid? Are you sure you're writing a novel, not a photograph?

I'm fairly sure it's not a photograph. It's called Polaroid because... Well, it's not completely clear.

There is a Polaroid camera that plays some role in the plot, and a particular Polaroid photo that plays a bigger role. It all kicks off from there, in a way. There might also be something semi-deep about instants in time that take time to develop/show themselves, and the phrase 'a snapshot of youth' may dirty my lips when I'm feeling outrageously uncreative.

The main character, David, is a portrait artist, and he is obssessed with capturing peoples likenesses. Grab your wax crayons and colour that fact relevant.

MO: So it's all about David? He's the main character?

I think he's the main guy, but there's a cast of four who are pretty central. David has the extra edge, in that a lot of the story is told through his eyes. His is the only true instance of first person narration.

There's Fenton, who the book might be said to be more truly about. He's David's oldest friend, and is a bit of a dick. Parts of the story are told through his journal entries.

There's Charlotte, who is also, somehow, the centre of the novel. We hear from her through intermittent blog posts. The key triggering event (remember that Polaroid photo?) involves her centrally, and the climax of the novel involves her centrally. I guess I would say she is somehow central.

There's Sam, who isn't even around for the most part. We hear his thoughts through the letters he sends the others, most often to Charlotte. He gives us something of an outside perpective on things, but he is neck deep in the same issues at his end, too. And by the end, he's right back where it counts, everything intermingles, and he gets a letter that is necessary and sufficient for the final clincher.

MO: That answer was too long. If I was on a payphone... That's all I'm saying.

You're not on a payphone, Michael, I can see you sitting right in front of me. And you're on a landline.

MO: Nobody thinks you're clever, Ben. One last question: what's the releveance of all this 'dressing up as zombies' talk I hear you talking about?

I wish you hadn't asked that. Like the old Polaroid factor, this got into the novel in the early days, when I was just chucking in things I liked the sound of. And now it's too deeply caught up in events to let go. I don't want to let it go, either. It gives trhe novel a little bit of character, something to stop it sounding like EastEnders.

The gang all dress up as the undead, and spend an afternoon mime-stalking people through the city centre. It's a fun, harmless, and ill-thought-out (BLAME THE CHARACTERS, BEN) prank, before they all go separate ways after the summer. It's meant to draw them together, but the after-party gets messy. There's fallout.

These guys all have a desperate desire to belong -- they're at that age -- but not much competence in that field. It's about the lengths people will go to to feel part of a group, and how much they are willing to change themselves. David, the least belongy, is also the least comfortable with this.

The fallout from the first zombie dress-up splits the group. Rather than finding new places to belong on the back of the confidence they got from having a great base group of friends, they scatter, disperse, and generally fail to take root anywhere. (As I write, I'm wondering if I should somehow smuggle this metaphor directly into the novel, too.)

The second zombie dress-up is a desperate attempt by Fenton, who suffered most from the fallout of the first, to get the band back together. He wants to rescue that feeling of being part of the group, and he wants to fix a lot of things he has caused to break. But this time, the fallout is a lot worse.

MO: That sounds like a weirdly unarced narrative.

I was just thinking that. But it works, honestly. There's going to be more going on in the book. The problem of belonging isn't going to be fixed by dressing up, and rewinding to the point when everything went wrong isn't the same as taking responsibility for your actions. It might turn out that shared responisibility is what brings people together and makes them belong, without giving away too much. 

That's me thinking aloud. I would love to hear anyones reactions to any  idea I've mumbled across here. I'd much rather hear a criticism now, than when I've written 80k and spent all my savings on a two-page spread in the TLS.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Story Of Polaroid

Polaroid is the novel I will write for the first time this November. I have written it once before.

It was towards the end of March, I think, that I reached The Point with my last novel-attempt, Who Ever Heard Of Applecake? The Point comes when you know you need to change more of the book than you need to keep; when you've learnt lessons that are so big, they undermine everything you've done so far; when you'd do better to stop trying to write that particular novel, and start again from scratch. So I ditched it. Over. Done with. Full period.

I didn't expect to jump straight back in with another novel, but history shows I must have. I had this rough idea... I would write a summer novel. Over the summer. It would be about summer, which for me involves guitars and treehouses and that old plaguey bird, interacting with other people.

Somehow that little fragment became a fully-grown, if underfed and shallow-framed, book idea. By the 5th April, according to this blog, I was officially planning. The next bit is fuzzy, but by the end of May I had a finished first draft.

By June 14th I had 1/3 of a second draft, and had reached The Point. Remember? -- Ditch the bitch and start again.

Only this time, I hadn't learnt anything. I'd learnt the book didn't work, but I didn't learn why. Nothing useful. After that, I sort of ducked out of thinking about anything novel-related. Oh, the misery. Oh, the universal darkness. We're retreading old ground, now, but in my lowest moment of not-really-thinking-about-novels, when I had even stopped reading them in favour of outdated biographies, I got an email from NaNo, thought something along the lines of, 'actually, in fact, maybe so,' and sat down too quickly.

I didn't want to start another novel. How many unfinished good ideas do I want on my track record, I asked myself, rhetorically, not expecting an answer?

So that's why I'm having another go at Polaroid.

It's different, this time around, and it's better, and it's a little bit surer of it's own identity. What's more, it turns out it never actually reached The Point at all. Flicking through the first attempt while planning for the second, I was struck by something. Once I got past the clunky, overly-intended first section, it stopped being bad. By the time it got to the Teen Ultimate Melodrama Moment Of Climax (yes, it had a TUMMOC), it was good. In places.

That's the first time that's ever happened. Too bad the TUMMOC will get a little sidelined in the second attempt, but still. The bad doesn't outweigh the good. I can run with this, I thought to myself, rhetorically, not expecting a response.

Monday, 18 October 2010


Well, actually, hello.

Here's the (actual) thing. I'm working full time from now till Christmas. And here's the other (actual) thing. I'm going to write a novel in that time as well.

I'm sure it doesn't need explaining, but November is National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo to its friends, acquaintances and concubines.

The idea is to write a first draft of a new novel, in the 30 days of November. 50,000 words. I like to think I have enough motivation of my own to write, so don't need to partake. I like to think I've worked out my own habits and writing schedules, so don't need to participate. That's what I'd like to think. But I got an email from the site at the exact point I was at the bottom of a writing slump, and there's nothing like a challenge to get you out of one of those bad boys.

I would urge any of the curious to check out the forums. I'm not into the cheering, or the plot bunnies, or the dares, or any of that. What I am into is thousands of people talking about writing. There's loads of beginners on the site, but a whole load of people who know far more than I do about how to write a novel, and I love reading what they have to say.

Tomorrow I'm going to blog about what I'll be writing. And hopefully this week I'll also catch up with blogs for the last couple of books I read, Agatha Christie's Three-Act Tragedy and Charlie Chaplins's autobiography. Both inspired songs, as well, so I might post those.

Don't do anything hasty.