28 November 2018

Two Russian films

The first is Razzhalovannyi (known in English-speaking countries as Degraded Officer or just Degraded), made for TV and released in 2009. The production company, Phoenix Cinema, has posted it on YouTube here (hit the CC button for subtitles).

This is a mesmerising blend of ultra-realism and nightmare. It is set on the Russian Front in World War Two and explores, among other things, the nature of authority and where the line lies between conscience and the need for a soldier to follow orders. The narrative occupies a day in winter – an implausibly long day, which adds to the sense of unreality. Aleksandr Mikhaylov, in an outstanding performance, portrays the enigmatic central character, who, in the final frames, may or may not be taken to be Charon, the Stygian ferryman.

Another extraordinary film set on the Russian Front is Belyy Tigr (White Tiger, 2012). This also has been posted on YouTube by its makers. It is astounding, one of my top five movies of all time. Let me say nothing more about it, except that you should watch to the very end.

6 October 2018

Writer’s block

Fiction is linear when read, and often written that way as well, though a writer don’t necessarily begin at the beginning. At every stage, however, whether that be chapter, scene, paragraph, sentence or even word, he must choose what to write next. The sum of all his choices is the finished work.

A schema of his project will look something like a fern frond. The finished work is the midrib, or rachis, to use the botanical term. From it, fractal-like, diverge smaller ribs, or rachillae, and these in turn can have further branches, and so on. Each of these ribs diverging from the rachis is an avenue he hasn’t followed.

When the story starts to have a life of its own the author develops a sense of the path he needs to follow. He is happy if this feels to him like a rachis; all the elements of the story are in harmony. If he branches off it he may not at first be aware of the fact. The further he gets along the rachilla the worse and more uncertain he feels. He might turn along another branch in the hope of regaining his original direction, and even another, but it’s hopeless: every route from here ends in vacant space. It’s akin to getting physically lost and coming to the end of a cul-de-sac. He realises at last that he has gone wrong but doesn’t understand how. The story grinds to a halt.

For writers who begin at the beginning, this fern analogy holds up in another way. The rachillae are larger at the start and look tempting. These are the unfinished stories in his desk drawer or, nowadays, lurking year after year on his hard disk. Along the rachis the rachillae become progressively smaller, so that by the time the end gets near there is less and less chance of going wrong.

This ‘going wrong’ is the cause of writer’s block. The symptoms build slowly. First there is a nagging feeling that something isn’t right. This is followed by a general depression about the piece as a whole. Next it all seems misconceived. Finally the writer questions the very idea of authorship. He examines the meagre returns on his labours and wishes he’d taken up another line of work. Depending on his vanity and the emotional investment he has made in presenting himself to the world as a Writer, this can even lead to permanent depression.

His solution, of course, besides learning plumbing, is to retrace his steps and find out where he left the rachis. It’s often difficult to do and involves throwing away everything on the wrongly taken rachilla. In the worst case, this can amount to many thousands of words, but there’s nothing else for it if he wants to finish what he set out to do. It may be that he cannot regain the rachis at all because he was never on it: everything he has written so far is a rachilla, in which case he should recognise the fact and consign it to his real or virtual desk drawer.

The feeling of going wrong has to be learned, which is what prentice pieces are for. So too the acceptance that a rachilla must be sacrificed, even though the odd phrase or paragraph from it might be put to use in the proper place.

A frequent cause of going wrong is a character being made to do something he wouldn’t do if he existed in real life. The writer errs for various reasons: inexperience, ineptitude, a desire to take a short-cut or force the story in a certain direction. The light-bulb moment on that particular sort of rachilla comes when the writer says to himself, ‘X wouldn’t do that!’

That is one of the reasons it’s easier to follow the rachis nearer its end – by then the writer knows his characters better.

One nostrum for overcoming writer’s block is to sit down and scribble whatever comes into your head. That is, you delegate the writing to your subconscious. Although I agree that the subconscious plays a central part in writing fiction, this is not the answer. It does not develop your craft, because you do not understand how you became blocked and you have missed an opportunity to analyse your mistake, and these are functions of the conscious mind.

12 September 2018

The pesky pluperfect

In many foreign languages, the endings of verbs are changed – ‘inflected’ – to tell the reader what tense is being used. In English, inflection is relatively sparse and we rely on auxiliary verbs to do much of the work. This is an extract from the dictionary on my computer under ‘have’:
used with a past participle to form the perfect, pluperfect, and future perfect tenses, and the conditional mood: I have finished | he had asked her | she will have left by now | I could have helped, had I known | ‘Have you seen him?’ ‘Yes, I have.’. 
 ‘Had’ is of course also an inflection of the verb ‘to have’ in various senses, like ‘possess’ or ‘receive’.

When writing fiction I try to make the words on the page become ‘transparent’, so that the reader will respond only to the meaning and hence visualise the story. Disruption of the visualised can be caused by many things, such as a misspelling, an error in research, a word wrongly used or unfamiliar to the reader, etc. Repetition of the same word in close proximity can also disrupt, because it momentarily jars, reminding the reader that he is, in fact, reading a story and not watching a film.

Style guides deprecate what Fowler calls ‘elegant variation’, the obvious use of synonyms to avoid this repetition, and they are usually right: it is usually better to be straightforward and to repeat, provided the repeated word carries exactly the meaning you intend.

However, these auxiliary verbs can be a pest, especially in the pluperfect tense (e.g. ‘I had caught the bus’). Consider this fragment from the book I am writing now:
What she had described was truly vile. He could not conceive of a more systematic and comprehensive betrayal: a little girl of eight uprooted and taken overseas to be left at the mercy of a self-centred mother. For the next seven or eight long, child’s years, that mercy had been abused and abused until finally things got so bad that the roles had inverted. And how had Phoebe reacted? With filial duty, unreciprocated and profaned.
[The reader already knows that her mother has become an irascible and foul-mouthed invalid.]

The original draft is this:
What she had described was truly vile. He could not conceive of a more systematic and comprehensive betrayal. A little girl of eight had been uprooted and taken overseas to be left at the mercy of a self-centred mother. For the next seven or eight long, child’s years, that mercy had been abused and abused until finally things had got so bad that the roles had inverted. And how had Phoebe reacted? With filial duty, unreciprocated and profaned.
Recasting and combining sentences 2 and 3 got rid of one ‘had’. The rest of the original is grammatically correct but lumpy at ‘things had got so bad’, especially considering the echoic ‘bad’. It is so lumpy that the flow is interrupted. I removed the ‘had’ from ‘things had got so bad’ in the hope that the reader won’t notice. The unusual construction of ‘long, child’s years’ (implying that time seems to pass more slowly when one is very young) creates a brief hiatus before we plunge ahead. Having plunged, we encounter the unorthodox and actually nonsensical repetition of ‘mercy’. The repetition serves as an intensive, accelerated, by the second intensive repetition in ‘abused and abused’, to a speed where the missing ‘had’ is overlooked. At least that was my thinking when I took it out. The character thinking about the child’s betrayal is becoming increasingly angry, and that too adds to the speed.

This may all seem pettifogging, but it is the sort of decision that writers must make if their work is to be enjoyed.

A commoner problem with the pluperfect comes when one needs to insert a substantial amount of historical information in a passage that otherwise uses the imperfect, perfect, or continuous past (the common convention when writing fiction). Thus ‘X remembered [imperfect] that as a boy he had [pluperfect] done Y and his father had tried help him, while his uncle had done everything to make his life difficult’, etc. The pluperfect hads soon add up and clog the passage. The trick is to begin with one or two hads, then slip back into the earlier tense, continue with that for as long as necessary, and finally resume the pluperfect before returning. So, to begin:
X remembered that as a boy he had done Y and his father had tried help him, while his uncle, who disliked him, did everything he could to make his life difficult.
The subordinate phrase (‘who disliked him’) is correctly cast in the imperfect, but the sneaky ‘did’ is not. But it has got us into the imperfect again and we can continue unencumbered. Some sentences later we begin to conclude our account of poor X’s travails:
Finally he decided [imperfect] to have it out with him. And that, really, had been [pluperfect] the start of their lifelong feud. He regretted [imperfect] that, but it was too late now.
The ‘really’ is sleight of grammar, bridging the gap. Such are the underhand tricks of the trade. Writing is a technical process as well as a creative one: no wonder it is so difficult.

2 April 2018

FocusWriter revisited

I came across this nice video about FocusWriter, which I reviewed in 2014. It does not, however, make fully clear that it is possible to have an entirely uncluttered screen, like this:

FocusWriter keeps getting better and better, and must now be the best distraction-free editor in the world. Used together with a powerful spreadsheet like LibreOffice Calc and a powerful outliner like Cherrytree, it provides pretty much all the functionality you will ever need in constructing, drafting and editing your writing.

All these programs are free and run on Linux, Windows and Mac, though getting Cherrytree onto a Mac requires some technical skill.

7 December 2017

Gazetteer – The Pagans

A reader has mentioned that with good effect he used Google Maps to follow the plot of one of my books. This gave me the idea of listing all the place-names that occur in my stories, indicating which are fictitious and which real. Links are given to the relevant pages at Google Maps or Wikipedia, whichever is more appropriate.

In this post I detail the places mentioned in the Pagans trilogy; succeeding posts will deal with the other books.

Blackpatch Hill
Bow Hill
Brennis [Britain]
Burh [fictitious; sited on east bank of Cuckmere River in or near modern Seven Sisters Country Park; the name is an early form of ‘borough’, meaning a settlement]
Chaer [fictitious]
Frisian Islands
Hohe [fictitious]
Levin Down
Matley [fictitious]
Pilsey Island
Raighe [fictitious]
Raven Hill [fictitious]
Rifes, The
River Adur
River Arun
River Rhône
River Rother
Sandle, Mount [fictitious]
Trundle, The
Valdoe [see The Trundle; named after a nearby settlement]
Vinzy [fictitious]
The Weald
Yote Wood [fictitious, somewhere near Rickmansworth]

31 August 2017

New versions of my novels

Over the past few months I have been uploading revised versions of all my novels. The revisions consisted, first, in weeding out a few typos and secondly in emending in two or three places vocabulary which, when it was first used, was perfectly unexceptionable but now, in these hypersensitive times, can give rise to unintended offence and hence interruption of the reading flow.

The latter I have improved by reducing my addiction to the more formal punctuation with which I was raised, converting here and there semicolons into commas, colons into dashes, splitting the odd sentence, and excising quite a few commas (to which I found I was badly addicted, not least those of the Oxford variety).

I have also regularised the spelling to the accepted standard of what is termed by Silicon Valley ‘British English’ (let us slip past, without comment, the ‘cultural appropriation’ of my mother tongue by others). Thus I have converted, for example, -ize verb-endings to -ise. The -ize ending is etymologically more correct, deriving as it does from the Greek, but -ise, coming to us through Norman French, is rather more idiosyncratically English, and Englishness is something that characterises all my stories.

The net result is a smoother, less irritating feel, or so I hope, and does better service to the ideas at the origins of each book. It should also enhance the familiarity felt by English readers and the exoticism felt by foreign ones, both of which are a Good Thing.

The new versions are now available from the usual places, and I recommend them if you have downloaded earlier versions and to want to keep copies in your electronic library.