A Desire for More Cows

Previously on Self Distract… After a month’s enforced absence from you, I ran back last week with a babble about the film Arrival, the idea of the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, and right at the last moment squeezed in how I believe that putting yourself in other people’s shoes helps you write better characters. Or write characters better.

This is just you and me talking, isn’t it? You must’ve told some people, though, because I had a lot of response to all this. Most of it stopped just short of using a phrase to describe someone joins metal together under a hot flame. (“Well, duh.”)

I think all of the response said that whatever your route into thinking about other people, other characters, whatever term you want to give it, you are not a writer if you can’t put yourself in other people’s situations.

So I’m not a writer.

That was a hard thing to say to you. It was a harsh thing to say about me, since it’s all I want to do and I’m effectively unemployable in any other capacity. (Look at my hands. Have these hands ever done anything but type?)

I can’t always see other people’s perspective, though. I can do certain things. I can see certain other points of view. For instance, take the countless number of times that I’ve been in a pub with male friend who’s annoyed. He’s doing that thing of recounting something his female partner did and concludes with: “I mean, explain that. It makes no sense, does it?” And I am required by the script, by politeness, pretty much by civilisation’s very rules, to nod encouragingly.

I can’t actually make myself say I agree because usually I completely understand his partner’s point of view.

In fairness, it’s usually a comparatively trivial issue as if it were bigger, they wouldn’t still be together. Maybe I can just do the comparatively trivial, maybe I am limited in just how much I can understand of other people’s perspectives, of their way of thinking.

For take this as another instant. Recently a friend told me she was heading home one night when a man walked by and called her a slut.

Get inside that man’s head. I am a man, both he and I started off as babies and as little boys, but he went down a line I cannot conceive. Well, I know the same as you do that he got off on saying that. I know that in every sense of the word that he’s a wanker and we both know that he’d have said that to any woman he passed. And possibly did say it to every woman he passed.

You, I and this friend of ours – you’d like her, I must introduce you – also know completely and thoroughly that there was nothing about her that incited or encouraged this stranger.

Yet here’s this smart, vibrant, exciting woman and still when she got home she looked at herself in the mirror and thought about what she was wearing. Some shite of a man affects her enough that she looks in the mirror. I can completely understand her – wait, that’s a bit grandiose, a bit too much, I mean that I believe I can completely understand. I know that I can put myself in her place, I know that I would’ve looked at that mirror too.

I can only hope that I’d do what she did next: she says that she went out the next day wearing pretty much exactly the same thing. She wasn’t saying bollocks to this type of men, but actually she was.

I get that and I’m as proud of her as I am embarrassed by the man. What I can’t get is him. I mean, I’ve said to you that he got off on this and you know he did, but that seems to me like all I can do is label him. I can see what he did and if this were a story I were writing, I could plug him into various situations.

Whereas I can feel for her.

That seems to me to be a huge difference. It seems to me that feeling for her is not a writing exercise, not an attempt to draw a character, it is an involuntary human connection. I do definitely see that I need to make that connection, to have that feeling and empathy instead of a collection of labels if I’m to be a better writer.

And I’m afraid if I’m not just to write about characters who make me feel things, if I am instead to be better able to create characters that make you feel things instead, I have to be braver. For I know that one reason I can’t get inside the head of that man is that I am afraid to.

You have to agree with your characters, even temporarily, even just to an extent. Your characters and that man all think they are right so for them to work, for you to really see them and to see the world as they do, you have to decide that they are right and examine them from there.

I’m never going to call someone a slut but my characters might. And if they do, you have to believe it’s them doing it and not my authorial voice deciding they will because I’ve labelled them as the tosser of the piece. You have to believe these characters are real.

I get very tired of writers being asked where they got their inspiration from as that suggests everything we write is based on something real and so anyone could’ve written it if they just happened to have that same experience. I get very tired of people concluding facts about writers because of what their characters are like. I get deeply annoyed when someone quotes a writer saying something foul when actually it was one of the writer’s characters and the entire book is setup to prove that bastard wrong.

Not everything is based on anything. Not everything is how the writer really feels. But I realise that everything has to be something the writer has felt or made themselves feel. Made themselves examine and explore. No matter how distasteful.

I”m working on it. For neatness and symmetry and structure and all the things that I unconsciously think of when writing to you, I should end now by saying that it’s true, I’m not a writer. I’m not sure I’m brave enough, though. So let me try saying it this way: I’m not a writer yet.

To make a short story long

If you look at writing from a cold, commercial view then you know that short stories don’t sell. But a great short story can have an impact on its reader and I’m learning that they can have a bit of a wallop on the writer too.

For you know that Facebook has this thing now of dredging up things you said one or more years ago. Today it showed me one from 2014 that was about a short story of mine. Unfathomable that it’s two years ago. But Roz Goddard commissioned me to work with a reading group in Combrook to come up with a short story for them. Each year several writers work with several groups and the job is quite clear: find out what each group enjoys and write them a story that fits.

I think there were six writers and six groups in my year and that would mean five got it right.

For I’m afraid that I rather betrayed my group and the principles of the entire project as instead of writing a story for them, I wrote a story about them.

Well, let’s be clear for personal, creative and definitely legal reasons: it wasn’t about them per se. But it was.

They’re such a good group of people, I had a delightful evening working with them, but despite the torrent of ideas and thoughts and laughs, there was one fact that I could not get out of my head. This group was in a beautiful village – you want to move there, you do – but that village actually had two such book groups.

That’s what I called the story: The Book Groups, plural. I imagined all sorts of rivalry between them and I am slightly disturbed by how some of the real group tell me they identify with certain of my imagined characters’ actions. Maybe you don’t want to move there after all.

What happened that evening two years ago is that I read them the finished story. I remember asking for a seat near the door in case they didn’t like it. But it was a happy evening for me, a privilege to be in that group for a spell. And I’ve read the story a couple of times since.

Once was to my mother who I didn’t think was particularly listening until I reached a key moment and she jolted. “What?” she said. “Read that bit again.”

Then I got to perform the piece at the Library of Birmingham. And this is where the short story becomes a long-lasting thing for me because I’m back there tonight. Alongside the very many events in the Birmingham Literature Festival, there are a series of extra readings and performances and I’m doing a new story, Time’s Table. It’s written for this evening, it’s partly set in this evening.

But then on Sunday there is the launch of an anthology of short stories, What Haunts the Heart, at Waterstones’ in Birmingham and it contains one of mine so I’m performing there too. Time Gentlemen Please is therefore my second published short story after The Book Groups.

Two published short stories in two years. It’s not a lot and I don’t know the word count but even together they can’t add up to a significant fraction of the number of articles and books I’ve done in that time. But they’ve been a huge wallop for me.

Starting block

I did such a clever thing this month. I’d be boasting about it to you, but for the small problem that I’ve realised I have to do it again and at this moment I haven’t a single clue how. Let me call it a writing thing so that maybe it’ll be of use to you too but really I’m lying down on the couch now and you’re getting out your pen, you’re asking me about my childhood.

Funny: I said that as a gag but childhood is relevant because the problem is to do with where you start something. Specifically where you start a story.

You know this. There is a reason why any story, any drama, any play starts at the specific point it does and not one pixel sooner or later. This is one reason I think prequels are murder and so rarely successful murder: they’re set before that starting moment and have to concoct a reason why.

What I did that I was so smug about for at least an hour was that I wrote a short story which in retrospect you will realise covers nearly two decades of time for the character. As you read it through, however, you see quite clearly that it actually physically takes place in probably less than half an hour.

The cleverness, and every time I write that word I’m doubting it more, was that I had this incredibly long story but I didn’t just find the right spot to start, I found the only spot where it could all be told in that short moment.

Actually, do have a read some time. You don’t need to for the point I’m trying to make but I’m unusually pleased with it. It’s called Still Life and you can read it over on the Prompted Tales website.

I haven’t been taught writing and I don’t know if there’s some university module on starting but I’m on a thing now where, dammit, the story takes place over 32 years and I have 45 minutes in which to tell it.

I’ll get there. And although I blinked a bit when I realised I was in exactly the same hole as I was before Still Life, I’m going to enjoy finding the right spot to tell this story.

Readers need a good start, writers need the right start but somewhere in the tale there is a potent, pregnant moment where it can all take place.

Okay. Okay. I think that’s right. And it’s helped, thank you. Can I see you again next week?

Adjust your settings

I was trying to get some work on a TV show once and I can’t even remember what it could possibly have been, but I do recall the producer. She said to me that the single most important thing in television drama is the setting. Now, I’m sitting there in her office thinking bollocks, character is immeasurably more important but, you know, I wanted the work, so I’m nodding away saying how interesting that thought is.

I know I didn’t get the work. And I know I still believe right down to every individual pixel of my soul that character comes top, but she had a point. She had more of a point than I appreciated at that time and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Especially so since this week I worked with a group specifically discussing how novels benefit from where they are set.

I think I’m probably going to find a way here to conclude that a story’s setting is a kind of character itself. Just one that doesn’t talk much. Or usually, anyway: there is a famous BBC Radio 4 dramatisation of Wuthering Heights that is narrated by the house. I long to hear that.

But let’s see if we get to this setting-is-character lark and whether it works or is just my hoping to convince that producer she should’ve hired me.

Her point, if I’m understanding her correctly, is that the setting enables drama. So Albert Square in EastEnders, for instance, is naturally home to a fairly diverse group of characters. Different ages, wealth, backgrounds, jobs. Differences are what make the world interesting but they are also what makes for sparky drama: our situations put pressures on us that affect how we see things and what we do about them. Everything we’ve been taught and everything we’ve done affects who we are. So when you can find a setting that naturally puts different people together, it is potent.

My mind has just leapt from EastEnders to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and specifically why it was set up to be different to the other Trek shows. Ridiculously, Star Trek got to the point where everyone on the Enterprise was lovely and they all supported each other perfectly. No difference of opinion beyond which technobabble solution would save which entire civilisation this week. It was a conscious choice: Starfleet officers are heroes. So for Deep Space Nine, the producers had the show’s Federation be brought in to help recovery in a region rather battered by conflict.

The baddies with the noses, the Cardassians, had used local Bajoran people as slaves in their mining space station. Now they were gone and Starfleet took over the station like a UN envoy. So very consciously and actually very cleverly, this space station setting was potent. You had the heroes coming in, you had the surviving Bajorans wondering whether they were swapping one group’s slavery for another, and you had the Cardassians hovering around wanting to come back. Rather than a single group of nicey-nicey people, you had at least three distinct groups inescapably in conflict.

It was well done and it means that to me, Deep Space Nine, is the only satisfying Star Trek out of an awful lot of different versions. I could argue that this is down to the writing: I read all 170-odd scripts for this show, most of them before I’d seen the episodes, and they read like a novel, they were so interesting. Somehow I also read all 170-odd scripts for Star Trek: The Next Generation and they weren’t so good.

But then Deep Space Nine didn’t move so the problems faced this week continue next time. The Enterprise just pops off to save the day somewhere else.

So certainly the writing elevates DS9 but maybe it could because of the setting the writers created.

That’s not the same as the setting being a character, I’m struggling there. I’m not sure why I think I’m going to reach that point or why I’m focusing on it, yet I can already see that I’m regarding the place as important to the characters. If I want to tell a story about a school, the characters I have in there will inevitably be different if that school is Eton or if it’s in an inner city slum area.

Perhaps because I’m a scriptwriter, I have seen that I’ve avoided being specific about settings: this script is set in a city, that one in a village, and I’ve not bothered to say London or Little Writings on the Wry. Maybe I should have been specific. Certainly I’m going to be. For it occurs to me that the setting affects characters vastly more than I realised: if a place is comfortable, that tells me a lot about the people who stay. If it’s a foul place then it tells me a lot about the characters who go there.

Character and setting are intertwined. I want to go just a touch further and argue that settings have moods: an underground car park has a different disposition to a hayfield in the year 19summertime.

So settings have moods and feelings plus they are deeply entwined with characters. Go on, give it to me: your setting is a character. And excuse me while I go phone a producer.

Don’t lie to me

I must be on my own here or The Usual Suspects wouldn’t be so popular. But there is an issue in that film that came up to an extent in a play I just saw and unfortunately is also pressing on my mind over a project of my own.

There are spoilers here for The Usual Suspects but I won’t tell you the name of the play. That hurts me more than it hurts you: I enjoyed the play very much and I only saw it on its opening night, there’s a fair chance you could still see it – and I am certain it will tour and tour and tour. Nonetheless, I ain’t telling.

Let me get the Suspects spoiler out of the way: if you’ve not seen it and you want to, look away now.

The twist in the film is that Kevin Spacey’s character has made up the whole story.

Fine. As twists go, it is enormous because it transforms the entire film and reveals the baddie to be the one person who didn’t or at least were not supposed to suspect. And it’s a lie: I like being lied to in drama, I love being misdirected. That’s true in the production as much as it is in the story: I even wrote a Self Distract once called Lie to Me.

But.

I was really enjoying The Usual Suspects up to that revelation. It was written by Christopher McQuarrie, directed by Bryan Singer. The cast was impressive. (Well, you keep hearing stories that the actors didn’t know who the baddie was in the story and it’s a little hard to remain impressed if none of them could be bothered to read to the end of the script.)

Still, there I am watching this film in the late 1990s and I was quickly into it, into the story, engrossed by these characters. But that’s the problem, I was engrossed by the characters. And then told they didn’t exist.

It’s a funny thing: characters in a drama never exist, it’s just a story, yet being told that they don’t, told that within the drama itself, that makes a difference.

All these characters I’d followed and invested in and believed, they didn’t exist and they never did. All a lie. I was meant to be jolted and I was, I was meant to be blown away by the twist and I wasn’t. It’s done cleverly, I should write something that smart, but instead I solely found myself thinking oh. Okay. That’s clever. What time is it?

The twist gave us a surprise but it took away every single thing, every possible element that I had been interested in, that I cared about, that had got me into the story. I don’t think that’s a fair trade. I would’ve come away enthused but instead I left that cinema annoyed and clearly I wasn’t alone because it only won two Oscars and another thirty major film awards.

The Play I Saw Recently included two characters that we join as they are first meeting, first getting to know and to like each other. It’s a funny, touching, growing relationship necessarily conducted in little slices as these two happen to be in the same place. You quickly suspect they are both going out of their way to get back there when the other is likely to be around, but it’s sweet and believable. You want them to get together and that is quite a hard thing to pull off in drama. It’s done well and seems to be the sole light in a bleak story. Except toward the end you learn that their meeting was not an accident and that one of them has been explicitly working to get revenge on the other.

That revelation fits the play perfectly and I am vastly more satisfied with this PISR than I was with Suspects.

However, because we aren’t supposed to guess that this is happening, we only learn very late on that there might be a reason for anyone to want revenge on this person. It’s a big thing that’s happened. I envy how the writer has crafted something that we can be jolt-appalled by yet also feel for the person who did this big thing, how we can understand how it could happen.

But we get that for a moment and then we learn the reveal. The enormous thing is uncovered and dispensed with in a thrice and that reduces it. It doesn’t make it trivial, but it makes it smaller because we don’t get long for us to see how it affects that character. Something enormous is revealed late and the plot moves on instantly so the enormous because dispensed with. It therefore becomes smaller. So the revenge that comes immediately after that feels out of scale. The fact that we haven’t suspected anything – that may well be my fault, the script may well be riddled with hints and as I say it all fits in with the gorgeously bleak story – also changes things. We didn’t suspect this person had done this thing, we didn’t suspect that the other would be there for revenge.

So we’ve spent this time getting to know these two characters and really we didn’t get to know them.

I think it works better than The Usual Suspects, though, because I think we can feel that what we’ve seen is the real character beneath the plot. What we’ve learnt of how these two feel and think is real even though what we’ve learnt of how they act is not.

I’m not sure. Maybe this comes down to how I love stories and I don’t like puzzles. The Usual Suspects is a fundamentally different film if you watch it a second time. This PISR is a drastically different play if you go see it again. Jagged Edge is a taut thriller unless you know whether the guy did it or not, in which case it’s a bit empty.

All of which would be fine, I could do the critic dance and say McQuarrie and the writer of PISR aren’t as good as I am, QED, except that I am tussling with this issue in a project of my own and, oh my lights, it’s hard.

I have a tale that doesn’t exactly depend on you thinking a key character is something when she’s really something else, but it helps.

She’s lying her teeth off and of course I want the moment you realise this to be enormous. But I’m trying to make it so that everything you’ve learnt about her is still true, she is still this same woman going through these same issues – those issues are just gigantically bigger than you expected and they are profoundly more her fault than you thought. I want you to be truly shocked but then immediately feel for her.

Easy.

I know that moment, I can see that exact instant when you are to realise and I know to the pixel where it will come in the story. Unfortunately, it has to be instantly followed by another shock that I fear is about as big. The revelation causes the second shock, I can’t see a way to even separate them by a minute. So whatever part of my brain it is that just does plots for me while I sweat about characters, that’s tapping me on the arm and asking me to ponder this. To ponder a lot – such a lot – whether an immediate second shock diminishes the first one. You want to get the most value out of something, especially when you’ve worked hard to get us to that point, so it’s an issue of whether I am throwing away some of the punch. Whether I am making this enormous thing feel smaller and out of scale.

I might be turning this into a puzzle.

But I am clear on this one thing. Even when you learn the truth about this character, she will still be the same character you’ve come to know. She’ll just have this whole other issue and I hope to make it that this hurts.

I’ve said this before but I think drama is like running your hand over a piece of wood. Go one way, stroke against the grain and your skin gets cut by shards, it stings and you bleed. That’s what a story should do as you go through it. But the way when you then stroke back, stroke in the same direction as the grain, it’s all smooth. Stories have to work in retrospect; take us somewhere new and most certainly, definitely, unquestionably, undoubtedly take the characters somewhere they don’t want to go but they have to be the same characters.

I think.