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A View From Outside at Christmas

This year I am working over Christmas, and not the writing kind of work (although I may sneak a few words in here and there as ever). In my day job, I have been relatively fortunate to have avoided Christmas Day working over the last few years but this time around it’s my turn, and fair enough. This has necessitated the observance of the festival (man, that’s so formal sounding) a few days early so we can celebrate as a family. The upshot of this is that the rest of the family get two Christmas Days and I get a quiet house once I come off shift.

Being a shift worker, at this and other times of the year, has allowed me to see how everyone’s reality is different. For some, life is lived away from those they love with only brief visits home to look forward to. Others have a mechanical nine to five routine that seems to be rarely upset. For myself, working an eight day cycle into a seven day week, things are always fluid. Noone has the same life, work is often different, family is never the same and our own abilities vary vastly.

At this time of year, when we are meant to think about peace and understanding, it occurs to me how quick we are to judge someone else when we have no idea of their circumstances, rather assessing them as if their position was our own. As a writer it helps fuel conflict in stories, but in real life it leads to misunderstanding, anger and so often hate. If we are to live up to the Christmas ideal, we need to try and put ourselves in others shoes. But if we can’t then we need to simply accept other peoples’ struggles as the struggles they see them for, not as we see them.

In the Christmas nativity story, understanding the shock, fear and fortitude of a young mum to be requires an understanding of not just circumstance but also of the make up of the woman herself. To have gotten to know Mary would have allowed a better understanding, but from our dim view, it’s easy to misread the difficulty of the situation and turn the story into a simple fairy tale.

So this Christmas, try to look deep. But where we cannot see, then let’s make sure we are not filling the blanks up with soil from our own field.

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Write Apocalyse Now!

I’m just starting out on writing an “end of the world “ thriller and have been thinking about how these will compare to my dark fantasy adventure novels. The term apocalypse for me has always brought up great heavenly battles, four horsemen (updated to persons these days of course) racing across the sky, the world gathering at Megiddo and such like. So are the apocalyptic tales in the pandemic / zombie / EMP / natural disaster genres really any different.

One thing that comes straight to mind is that the old magical / fantastical element is gone. The days of a learned genius waving his hands and opening portals or creating hellfire will have to go and more pragmatic solutions will have to be found. This causes a greater emphasis on tactical or mechanical solutions, or simple butchering in the case of zombies. Transformations of people may have to be kept to a low variety instead of the many magical forms that characters take.

Another point spotted while reading these genres is the technical detail, sometimes far and beyond the grasp of many characters: you need to be an expert to survive. How far this is the case and how far the human spirit and determination will get you is another question but certainly the science (or at times pseudo-science) needs to be to the fore and loaded with the best bullets.

But overall this one thing remains although it has been lost in a few tales from the genre I have read. The character remains the thing. The human conflicts, the dreams hopes and aspirations and then the devices that thwart these goals, must not be simply there but must drive the tale. As I read across many genres, the best stories always resonate around the person whether it’s a woman stuck at a train station in the middle of nowhere (Absent in the Spring, Agatha Christie written as Mary Westmacott), a captain of the guard holding together a magical and manic city (Feet of Clay, Terry Pratchett) or a woman fighting to reunite her family after a nuclear holocaust (Point of Impact, Kyla Stone).

So whatever I come up with, it will certainly take my characters and break them as ever, only to have them claw their way back. But this time it will be in the midst of a pandemic, lawlessness and a country falling apart. It almost feels like home! My writing home that is, the Outer Hebrides hasn’t got to that stage yet!

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A Spielberg Masterclass

This week I have been hit by the cold and was forced to actually take Sunday as a proper day of rest. Therefore I was found on Sunday morning at about 9am watching “Bridge of Spies” , huddled on my sofa, fighting to breathe properly through my nose (yes, those are violins you are hearing).

Bridge of Spies DVD cover

Now I have to say I am a fan of the spy genre, Len Deighton and John le Carre being authors I love but this was a rather unknown story to me. However it was more than a spy movie, rather it was a masterclass in telling a story.

What struck me about this film was not Tom Hanks’ acting (although as the main character he was superb) or that of anyone else in the film (Alan Alda was sublime). It wasn’t the terrific locations, especially Berlin in its coldness, snow on the ground and lawlessness breaking out. Rather it was the way Stephen Spielberg can hit your emotions from the blindside.

At one point Hanks character is crossing from East berlin to West Berlin after successful negotiations and looks out of the train to see the recently built wall. So far all has been fairly pleasant in the film but at this point you see the hopeful escapees brutally shot down off the wall and it hits you hard. The shot is brought back to mind as Hanks is back in the USA having completed the mission successfully and is somewhat warmed by the response he receives on a train. But looking out the window he sees a backyard wall with kids jumping over it and you are immediately taken back to that sucker punch.

A story would not be true to itself if it didn’t show that uneasiness we all have with finished results, knowing that despite success there is more evil or unfairness left in the world. Unless it’s a child’s movie the platitude does not really sit well with us.

Having watched the film, I found myself thinking about how Spielberg sets his audience up, rolling them through those confusing sides of life, of every person, so we end up with a rounded picture of what is happening whether we like it or not. And seeing it on film only makes me want to do it on paper. In a world where characters are often one dimensional or simply purporting one side, depth of writing that can enhance our world view with all its complications can only be a good thing.

Watching this film made me remember why I love films to be begin and why I love reading. The challenge made to ourselves as viewer and reader is surely what makes it all worthwhile.

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If you haven’t seen highlights of the rugby world cup match between South Africa and Japan, then you need to. I know it’s only sport but the belief and passion in the Japanese players eyes is inspiring and I think I can see some heroes to be written into my novels. If you are a rugby virgin then let me explain, South Africa – Goliath, Japan – David.

The contrast is a good one for the Japanese didn’t suddenly become super-powerful or develop a sixth rugby sense. Instead they understood their weaknesses, played to their strengths and refused to lie down when things weren’t going so well. Always passionate but on this day tactically astute and they pulled off the shock of a sporting lifetime.

One of the surprises around this event was how the crowd engaged with Japan. Fans from all nations, with the obvious exception of South Africa, screamed aloud during the final moments as Japan broke for the line, a do or die moment that gave them the match. Drama, excitement, passion and a tale that seemed so unlikely before the game began.

And there you have it: how to write a story, all the necessary ingredients. Take a plucky underdog, lacking in some necessary trait through not fault of their own. Then pit them against the best. Make the path to their goal one blocked by the proven masters of the genre. Give them an early win, an opportunistic but above all, minor, win. Then have the battle sway out of their favour, make them fight to just keep on the edge of their dream. Have outside agencies make their small wins vanish before their eyes, forcing them to re double their efforts just to make the ground up again. And finally give that last all or nothing moment that will have your readership cheering aloud as they read.

Tell of the investment these heroes have made, tell of their hardships in just getting this far and tell of the blood sweat and tears, the things lost in the struggle. Then relate the tears shed when the dream comes alive, of the hurts vanishing as the excitement builds in seeing the goal realized. Show the heroes together in victory as they stood side by side in adversity. That’s the sort of book we like to read. Certainly one a lot of people like to read.

In short, if you want to write good theater, make sure you watch good theater as it unfolds. Soak it up and let those emotions run riot as you write. Sport is theater, not always wonderful, but always theater. And the humble writer  can always learn from theater wherever it happens.


G R Jordan author, poet, and top Dad apparently!

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To Touch a Reader

Today I was in discussion about my writing with a friend who looks at my penmanship frankly and offers assistance to help address my shortfalls. Yes I know, that’s a lot of assistance, a veritable government aid package worth, but he tries anyway.

Due to various personal circumstances, the conversation veered into the area of characters becoming real. moto casalHow do our readers get drawn into the character’s lives and what brings them so close to these people who only ever live in the pages of a book? What’s the magic ingredient?

Make it real. And don’t take all day doing it. I recently wrote a novel (not yet published but in the drafting stages)file1601299643113 which manifested itself into a romance novel. Originally intended as a fantasy, it grew arms and legs into a romance. Stephen King describes chipping away the stone to discover the story underneath and I guess that’s a fair analogy to what happened. But what made it a good romance was the character interaction that seemed to blossom.

It is the little moments that make life real. With a couple coming together is it the wild steamy hot sex that makes it real to our beloved readers? It might be enjoyable reading, even a turn on but it is more than this that makes the characters.file000673964099 Instead it’s relating his joy in her smell, his wonder of her hair, that top which sits just right, how her laugh warms him or how she knows to rub his neck just at that moment. It is all those things we know about our partners but would rarely ever let surface to others and sometimes even to them.

The ignoring of faults too. Her drinking the coffee despite his inability to make it without using two full teaspoonfuls. That blundering defense of her that was so unnecessary but loved anyway. The tease to provoke a reaction, bordering on cruel but used to stimulate. They say it’s the little things that make life real, and to a large extent I agree. So many grander things are just a lot of stuff and nonsense. But in writing even more so. If we can place these moments, these little treasures of intimate touching of soul and get away without our reader knowing they are even there, then we have a winner.

And there’s the catch. Having these observations in place but in a way so subtle takes more than just thought. It surely becomes a way of thinking about our characters, no, a way of living our characters like the actor who does because he now is. And our fingers type because the body and soul now live out these created beings of ours.

file0002015988249But get it right and we touch the reader. And isn’t that what we are all about?

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The Mill – A Writer’s Greatest Tool

I see dozens of blog posts explaining the virtues of various tools in aiding a writer. Different programs for your computer or apps for your tablet. Keeping files of characters, mapping out stories and completing various assessment exercises about your characters. These things can certainly have their place, depending on your method of work and time available. But there is one tool we all need whatever the genre and whatever the age range of our readers.

millI call it the Mill. It costs nothing except having an unkind mind to those creations we love. Brutal and effect, it transforms stories and ideas and is never exhausted. And all you have to do is place your prized, highly honed, precious character into it. And then crank the handle. And then crank it some more.

In my forthcoming novel, I have two main characters, Kirkgordon (ex-bodyguard, bored now with civilian life) and Austerley (pathological seeker of all things dark and disturbing). My first action was to threw them into the Mill and to work out what they really hated about each other. Faith, looks, success, knowledge, women all emerged as the rough edges on the mill stones.Then I cranked thewpid-crescendo_3_mock_up.jpg handle again and the Mill threw up a woman into the mix. One they both hungered for. Although this caused a friction between the characters, it had to be augmented and so by cranking the handle again, another woman, a family, a lack of looks and a desire to control appeared.

By this stage we didn’t even have a nemesis. So the handle turns. Each character placed in the Mill to find out which millstones best ground them down. And the whole cavalcade becomes quite dark. That’s when the sifting begins. The traits that raise these characters above the situations come by sieving off their husk and finding the good flour underneath. It takes time. Sometimes it takes paper and pen. Other times a walk and a clear mind. But the result is a novel full of life and dynamic interaction that smells real to the reader.

So by all means take whatever tools that you may need but don’t forget this one. Use the Mill, produce stories that shows you have no regard for the characters’ welfare and watch them struggle. And your reader will identify and commit to these wonderful characters you hold precious deep within.wpid-logo-horizontal.jpg.jpeg

G R Jordan author, poet, and top Dad apparently!

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Arse, Ass and Backside:- Drafting at the Sharp End

I imagined there would be deep technical discussions about the style I had used in my sentences. Back and fro, we would pick out nuances, refining the meaning of words and searching out the real underlying gems of my novel. My masterpiece would be broke apart and reassembled, pristine and glorious, changing the world’s view for ever about, well, everything. Okay, so maybe not quite all that. But there was something that came along that I didn’t expect.

I am in the final throes of editing my manuscript for my first novel, Crescendo!, working into the night on my editor’s comments and generally it has been fun, tiring, thought-provoking and eye opening. However, one thing has made me laugh. When writing for a world audience, one has to think about those words which can be misunderstood, or seem quite foreign. Coming from a British perspective, this means that American readers may not get my meaning. So what words have been causing a little trouble.

Arse, ass, backside. When to use which one. The character would usually refer to “arse”, a north american audience understands “ass” best and on occasions, the moderate and all encompassing “backside” is used. It’s not the glamour I was expecting! When I got to the “fag” that Austerley, one of my main characters, was smoking, I pre-empted the editor’s emergency delivery of “cigarette”.

The choice to keep language true or to open it up to others is an awkward one. At times I have used Russian with no translation to keep the reader in view of a character. Each situation is unique and requires full attention. Providing a manual may in this case be counter-productive. But I have learnt that keeping the voice of a character and making that voice understood is a dynamic situation due to the variety in our English dialects, never mind when a book is translated into a completely different language.


G R Jordan author, poet, and top Dad apparently!

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The Dangers of Character Formation from Friends!

So you are writing this new novel and thinking about characters. You get the feel of a person in your head, sketch out their looks to your mind’s eye and then pick up on their moods and tastes. Then you think of a name. Oops. You just described someone you know.
One of the hardest things is when you take bits and pieces of people and blend them together to create a character. At times I find myself switching into the moods and modes of my friend or colleague rather than the character in the book. Disassociating real life from the book can be fretful, especially when you have been engrossed in the book for hours at a time. Worse yet, you start calling your friends by the name of their characters. And then they answer back! This way madness lies.
So in order to prevent friend-character intertwining observe these simple rules.
1. Never take characteristics of people you have strong feelings for! You may talk to them like they can reciprocate these feelings! Bad if they are not your partner! Especially if your partner is there!
2. Never tell someone you have based a character on them, especially if the description is somewhat derogatory!
3. Always change their hair colour! No one will ever suspect it’s them with a different colour of hair, unless they are bald!
4. Never write in their accent! You will get it wrong and get punched!
5. Do these rules apply if your subject is deceased? Well that depends on how superstitious you are!
Let’s keep it sane people! Well saner! (if that’s a word)

Originally posted 29 October 2014 on Blogspot