"Intelligent, complex and wholly satisfying, Dark Heart is a cut above the average horror novel." - Words With Jam magazine

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Metaphors and Symbolism, why bother?

The real question should be: why wouldn’t you?  You’ve spent the last year or two of your life carving a story out of thin air – when you weren’t writing it, you were thinking about it, dreaming about it.  When you’d finished it you redrafted it, edited it, polished it, scrutinised it line by line and reworked every paragraph to make the rhythms sing.  After all that effort and hard work, why wouldn’t you give your precious manuscript one final look-over?  You may have missed an opportunity for improvement.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have a good idea of the subtext of your work before you finish the first draft, but more likely you’ll have been so preoccupied with getting the story down that deeper meanings will not even have been a concern.  But once the story is down, why not take a look at the thing as a whole?  You may find that your apocalyptic zombie novel is more than just about survival, or that your vampire hunter story has more going on than merely staking bloodsuckers.  Whatever underlying theme you notice – even if it’s only a fragment of one – you owe it to yourself to bring it to the fore and let the reader see it too. 

One of the best ways of highlighting theme is with the use of metaphors and symbolism.  Here's a couple of examples, albeit from the movies:

Metaphor: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Benjamin Button had an unfortunate condition: he was born old and grew younger every day – eventually dying as an infant.  At first glance the story appears tragic, but is in fact a tale of optimism.  Throughout the film a seemingly insignificant old gentleman tells us of his poor luck regarding lightning.  He tells us of the seven times he has been struck, and by the end of the film we realise the old gent views these lightning strikes as a good thing: “God keeps reminding me I’m lucky to be alive.”

Now take Benjamin: If you count the meeting of his adoptive parents as one lightning strike, then there are a total of seven encounters that Benjamin has during his life – seven people who have a profound effect on him, whether the encounters are good or bad.  These are Benjamin’s lightning strikes, and regardless of the way in which he entered and left this world, Benjamin had a full life in between.  This metaphor becomes the beacon for the story’s theme: Life is a gift – Embrace life – whatever, it all carries the same message.

Symbolism:  Gran Torino

Walt Kowalski is a racist Korean War veteran who forms an unlikely friendship with a Hmong teenager (Thao) who tries to steal his prized Gran Torino.  The friendship causes Walt to face his racism but also a dark memory from his war days.  Throughout the film a local priest tries to get Walt to take confession, but Walt has no intention of airing his sins to a wet-behind-the-ears priest fresh out of catholic school. But when Walt decides to lay down his life to save Thao and his family, he takes the priest up on his offer, but only confesses to the most trivial of sins. 

In their final scene together, Walt locks Thao in the basement to protect him, and it’s here, through the wire mesh of the basement door, that Walt confesses his darkest sins to the boy.

The symbolism of the screened door not only landmarks Walt’s confession by visually redefining the immediate surroundings as a confessional, but also gives weight to the confession itself, and by doing so clearly echoing the theme of the movie: Redemption. 

Metaphors and symbolism are no substitute for good storytelling, and omitting them does not a schmuck of you make, but not taking a step back to see what you’ve written does.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Monster's Ball

Hey there, fiction writers.  If you’re looking for a masterclass in plot construction, then look no further than Monster’s Ball.  This film is a beautiful example of character-driven plot and subtle foreshadowing, but don’t blink or you’ll miss it.  It unfolds so organically that you’d be forgiven for thinking that the story just happened before your eyes.

Watch this one if you want to learn how not to do it.  Jesus...

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The Pig Farmer's Burden... Southern Noir?

Shenandoah’s fall issue (Noir) is now live, so if you’d like to take a gander at my short story The Pig Farmer’s Burden, as well as the other great stories, you can.  Also take a look at the editor’s note (Rod Smith), a thoughtful piece about the nature of noir, and its parameters.  When I submitted the story I pegged it more as a Southern Gothic tale, but on reading Rod’s piece I realised I’ve also ticked more than a few “Noir” boxes by pure coincidence. 

I never set out to write a noir piece, nor did I set out to write a Sothern Gothic, I set out to write the story I was compelled to write, a story about two very different men who share a common burden.  If I had set out to write a piece of noir or Southern Gothic fiction, I dare say it would have been filled with clich├ęs common to its respective genres and become a pale imitation of both.  And so from this accidental formula I’ve come up with a hard and fast rule for myself and my future work: 

Write about the characters first, about their lives, and let the genre take care of itself.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Graham Joyce, postscript...

I was extremely saddened to learn of the recent passing of author Graham Joyce.  I didn’t know Graham as such, but I was lucky enough to spend some time with him over a few beers at a convention in Brighton in 2011.  It was getting on for late, and the bar was rammed to the rafters with writers, and no doubt Graham had dozens of friends within spitting distance he would rather have been talking to, but if that was the case, he didn’t show it.   

We chatted for well over an hour (two rounds each if I remember), and in that time Graham could not have been more generous with his insights of publishing and his route into writing and his career thus far.  He pointed out to me every industry professional in the bar I needed to talk to (Just tell them Graham sent you), and every novelist in the room that would do me no harm to read (He’s a very good writer, and him, he’s excellent, you should read him).  All the while we talked I kept thinking: I’m talking to Graham Joyce, and Graham Joyce has just bought me a beer… I’d like to say he wore his success lightly, but honestly, I don’t think he even registered it. 

The following morning I saw Graham again at breakfast, and not wanting to be the clingy newbie I didn’t go out of my way to make I contact, but he spotted me across the dining hall and came over to say hello.  As I was leaving the convention early, I wished him luck for the awards ceremony later that day, as Graham had a novel in the running for an award.  “It’s always nice to win an award,” Graham said, “but I’ve won quite a few of them now – it’d be nice to see one of the younger writers take it.”  

Like I said, a generous man.




Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The Thespian: A Ghost Story, But Not As We Know It

Progress on my current novel, The Thespian, reached a bit of a milestone this week, as I passed the 100k word mark. It also brings me very close to finishing the second act.  I’ve chosen to use the classic three act format, both in style and structure, because the theme of the story cried out for it, and for a few other reasons too: 

The Story 

I’ve always had a great love of film, and an endless fascination about actors and their processes.  When I read stories about how an actor prepares for a part – how obsessively they try to inhabit the character… well… I can’t help but love them a little for it, even the self-important and temperamental ones.  To be good at something you need to have passion, and passionate people can sometimes be self-important and temperamental.  Acting is an art form, and the spectrum of seriousness in which it is undertaken is as wide as it is in any other art form.  For me that made enticing subject matter to build my ghost story around. 

The Place 

The King George Playhouse is the derelict theatre and the stage, so to speak, for my ghost story.  It’s inspired by the Hulme Hippodrome in Manchester, and if you search the internet you can find hundreds of beautiful photographs of this amazing Grade 2 listed building.  Derelict buildings have a haunted quality to them anyway, but the Hulme Hippodrome spoke to me as soon as I saw the auditorium.  I just couldn’t see my characters on any other stage.


The Players

My main character is called Owen Youngblood, and as much as I want him to represent the new generation of actor, I want him to have an old-school feel about him – more James Dean than Robert Pattinson, but still in an English sort of way.  As with every character I write though, it’s a learning process, and I discover more about the person as I go, and so when I get to the end of a first draft I say “Oh, that’s who you really are”, and then rewrite through their lens.  I already know that Owen needs dirtying up a little, but that could change by the end of the first draft.  As for my ghost, he is far clearer in my mind. 

Theodore Savage is based in no small way on Laurence Olivier.  I’ve studied old archive footage of Olivier’s interviews, and my apologies go out to any of his friends and family as this is blind observation, but Sir Laurence had the definite air of a man who knew he was better than yow.  He seemed to maintain an open lie of being one with the common man, but at the same time believing he was beheld in awe, and rightly so, in his mind.  Other research into Olivier’s acting career has turned up stories that could support my observation, but whether or not it holds water, it serves Theodore Savage as a characterisation perfectly.  Just look at this picture of Olivier.  This is the smug look I imagine on Savage’s face when I’m writing him:

A Ghost Story, But Not As We Know It 

The other reason I’m using the three acts for style and structure is because I want a classic feel.  The Thespian is a ghost story, for sure, but different.  I want the reader to get comfortable (and uncomfortable) in an easy chair they think they’ve sat in before, so when they finish the story and finally look down, they realise they’ve not been sitting in a chair at all.  Then I want the reader to say, “Wow.”  


Friday, 28 March 2014

SHENANDOAH to publish The Pig Farmer's Burden

I’m absolutely thrilled to share the news that my Southern Gothic short story The Pig Farmer’s Burden is going to be published by none other than Shenandoah Magazine.  For those of you (Brits) who are not familiar with the publication, Shenandoah is the Literary Review published by Washington and Lee University in Virginia.  It was founded in 1950 by a group of faculty members and undergraduates, among them a certain Tom Wolfe, and names National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winners among its list of contributors, names such as Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden, James Merrill, Ezra Pound, William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, and more recently, Joyce Carol Oates, Rita Dove, and Claudia Emerson.

To have my work published in such a prestigious journal along with these titans of the literary world naturally fills me with an immense amount of pride, and as career moments go (if indeed I can call it a career at this early stage), will always remain one of the very brightest highlights.   

The Pig Farmer’s Burden won’t be appearing until October, but if you head over there now you can check out some of the wonderful stories already published in Shenandoah, for free.


Monday, 3 February 2014

Damn, he was good...

It was very sad to hear the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passing last night.  From a fan’s perspective (which is the only perspective I have other than being a lifetime member of the same club as he: the Human Race), it’s a gutshot to an industry I love.  As a writer this is hard to admit, but it’s a truer love than I have for books.   

I love literature, but in my pursuit of becoming a better writer I have had to make certain sacrifices to my enjoyment of it.  I’ve had to study style and tone and pace and structure and characterisation and all the stuff that combines to make a great book.  When I read nowadays, it’s rare that I can switch off the analytical side of my brain and just enjoy the story for what it is.  I can see the mechanics – the author’s cogs turning beneath the surface.  The truly great writers can sometimes make me switch this side of my brain off, and in those rare and beautiful moments I am regressed back to when I had no aspirations about writing, and I can just enjoy the story.  But it’s rare.

Films are different for me, and I’ve tried very hard to keep it that way.  I know there are certain directors that I like, but I don’t want to go out of my way to know why I like them.  I don’t want to recognise their styles and habits or know too much about their influences other than what I pick up naturally, just by sitting down and watching the films and letting them seep into me via osmosis.  I don’t want to be conscious of the mechanics.  I just want to escape.

With the actors though, it’s a little of both.  I’m an unabashed movie fan, and I have unabashedly bought into the allure of movie stars my whole life, but I’m not talking about the glitzy stars, I’m talking about the purists, that rarer breed that treats his or her work as an art form.  I like them serious and uncompromising, and above all I like them to be good.  Like literature, ‘good’ is a subjective thing, but you’d have to be in a coma not to see that Hoffman was very, very good.  When you’re watching a Bruce Willis movie, you’re watching Bruce Willis.  When you’re watching Hoffman, you’re watching whoever it is he wants you to see, be it a New York drag queen, an eccentric southern writer, or a sleazy tabloid journalist.  When you’re there and in the moment with him, he’s like one of those great writers who can hide the process, but when the film is over you can look back on what has just passed and say, ‘Damn, he was good...’ 
July 1967 ~ February 2014