Killing time: on character deaths

WARNING: May contain spoilers. I have done my best to avoid TSSH spoilers, but I accept no responsibility if you are too smart for your own good and inadvertently deduce key plot twists. When it comes to Game of Thrones, if you haven’t yet seen the ending to season one you only have yourself to blame. As for Offspring: everyone knows Patrick is DEAD. (Or they do now.)

Some weeks ago I wrote about how I was going to challenge my prejudices to all things fantasy and attempt to watch Game of Thrones. Despite predictions otherwise, I continued to watch beyond the first episode, largely because of two things: giant wolves and John Snow.  As I approached the end of the season I felt it was okay but given the choice between GoT and Mad Men or Breaking Bad, GoT would lose.

And then the protagonist was killed.

Yep, he of impressive coats, flowing hair and thoughtful gazing had his head chopped off before our very eyes. By a sadistic anime character who bares striking resemblance to a guy I had a major crush on in university, no less.

It was this character’s death that made me want to keep watching. As a rule, writers don’t kill off their protagonists. I watched the scene leading up to Ned’s death in a detached state of boredom: the entire time speculating on how he was going to miraculously escape his demise. And then he didn’t.

images I didn’t know at the time that George R.R. Martin – GoT’s creator and possibly also deep-sea fishing trawler captain – has quite a knack for killing off major characters. But it was the fact that he had killed off his protagonist in the very first instalment which made me want to keep watching. He had created a huge problem for himself and I wanted to see how he would solve it.

I saw a session with Markus Zusak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival a few years ago, where he claimed that he wasn’t actually a very good writer, he was just good at solving problems. He said that his manuscripts were full of major flaws and problems and it was only his ability to fix these that made him any good. This really resonated with me. Story-writing at its core is about problem solving. At its most basic, you have a character at point A and you need to get them to point B.

Killing off a character can sometimes be the start of a problem, yet more often than not it’s the solution to one. I am quite a fan of Offspring. (These days less the ‘Keep em separated’ variety and more the TV show created by Deb Oswald. Although both have their merits). TV shows, especially free-to-air ones, that feature interesting and complex female leads are rare. If you are unsure of the value of Offspring I will offer only one argument, a quote from the protagonist, Nina:

‘My fantasies usually involve men carrying bearskins.’

Enough said.

Anyone who has access to any form of social media will be aware that last week Oswald did the unthinkable and killed off the much-loved Patrick: Nina’s aesthetically pleasing partner and father of her soon-to-be-born child. Patrick was a major character. He wasn’t the protagonist and he wasn’t killed by a sadistic anime man-child (although this too would have been interesting) yet he was still a major player and his loss will provide a much-needed plot revamp. In what can only be described as an act of remarkable generosity, Oswald wrote a piece about her decision to literally write off Patrick on SMH. (This gives you an idea of the level of outrage directed at her from the show’s fans.) In the piece Oswald implies that Matthew le Nevez had to leave the show and they needed to find a plausible and satisfying way to facilitate this exit.

As GoT was a book series before it became a TV show, it’s only fair to assume that Martin wasn’t dealing with a similar issue. As a writer who absolutely does not plan a single thing, I can’t help but wonder if Martin knew all along as he was writing the first book that Ned would die. (If you know the answer, tell me!) Or did he feel that the plot was getting a bit flat and decide to pull the rug out?

For my own part I wrote the death of one of my own characters in complete surprise. I typed the words with my own hands, yet I felt like a helpless witness to the event, practically screaming with disbelief as this character breathed their last breath. So why do it? Well, things were getting a bit flat plot-wise and I figured if I could make myself cry there was a fair chance I could get the same emotional response from my readers. I don’t think people will like it. But that’s not the point.

I was horrified when lovely Patrick died and when noble Ned lost his head. (No rhyme intended, I swear.) I didn’t want either of these things to happen. But when they did I found a whole heap of new respect for their writers. Because, good writing isn’t about taking the reader on a lovely journey they want to take, it’s about convincing them to come with you to a place they’d rather not visit at all.

This is why I will be eagerly awaiting season four of Game of Thrones and why I will be sobbing solidly between the hours 8.30 and 9.30 tonight.

Up in smoke

I’ve never even held a cigarette, let alone smoked one. It’s not because I think smokers are a filthy subset of humans that deserve to be vilified for their choice. I don’t. Instead, I’m just plain scared. I watched someone I loved very much die from the effects of passive smoking. She, like me, never smoked a cigarette herself, but her father smoked constantly and it killed her in the end. As a warning, it worked like a trick on me.

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I have another manuscript on which I have been working off and on now for the last seven years. I’m revisiting it now for the umpteenth time because it looks likely to become my second published novel. As I started reading it over again, I ran hot and cold – not totally convinced it was salvageable. That was until I got to the point where a certain character shows up, a character who is by far my favourite of any of the fictional people I’ve given life to. I’m not one to usually go blowing my own trumpet, but man, I just love this guy. He’s cheeky and funny with a beautiful soul and I think I adore him too much to let him gather dust in my bottom drawer. He needs to be read.

There is one problem, though: he smokes.

Back in those beautiful, carefree days when I thought it unlikely that anyone else would ever read this story – let alone publish it – I created him without really caring about the implications of a teenage character with a penchant for rollies. In fact, you might even be wondering why it matters if he likes a puff. The kicker is, it’s a story aimed (surprise, surprise) at a YA market. And children’s and YA occupies some murky territory when it comes to ethics. It’s not cool anymore to write a storybook about a cheery frog who likes the odd durry. Even if you make it super clear it’s not the cigs that make him happy. Let’s be clear, kiddies: SMOKING WILL KILL YOU. Even if you are a jolly frog.

So why create a character who smokes?

Well, in reality, there are teenagers who smoke. And I believe it is a writer’s job to engage with and reflect reality. In many ways the fact that my beloved character (let’s call him Ole’ Smokey) indulges in the odd cigarette is a neat shorthand for describing an aspect of his character. He’s the kid who wags, the one with the one-liners that crack up a class and leave teachers red-faced, of course he smokes. Oh dear, I came dangerously close there to saying that he’s ‘cool’ therefore he smokes. Again, kids: IT’S HARD TO BE COOL WHEN YOU’RE DEAD.

It’s more subtle than that. Ole Smokey is complex. Despite his hijinks, he’s a people pleaser and the people he wants to please are his peers. The fact that he smokes actually shows a fault line, he wants people to think he’s a particular type of teenager. He doesn’t really even like cigarettes, he has a coughing fit every time, but he wants to be seen as mad, bad and dangerous to know. At it’s core, this story is about the yearning for acceptance, so the fact that Ole’ Smokey smokes because he cares about what others will think of him is crucial.

I read John Green’s brilliant The Fault in Our Stars recently, only to discover that Green has a genius solution to this particular problem. His character, Augustus, likes a cigarette as well. He just never lights them. Which makes it a genius idea that has been done before and which I can absolutely not pilfer.

By writing a character who smokes, am I perhaps perpetuating the ideology that makes kids like Ole’ Smokey light up in the first place? This theory assumes that my readers are passive, monkey-see, monkey-do creatures. It sells them short. It denies them the scope to engage with the context.

Perhaps that’s where the answer to this conundrum lies: in the context. But I’m not convinced that parents, teachers and librarians will see it that way…

 

Cigars, Wayne’s World and the wisdom of NRL players

ImageA truly surreal thing has happened. My kind publishers have sent me a copy of my book, literally fresh off the press. It was an event which I have imagined many times over, often swiftly followed by a warning to myself not to get too attached to the idea. Getting a book published can be horrifyingly difficult, something I know too well after a brief stint as a publishing assistant. It was my job to sift through the unsolicited manuscripts, read synopses and more often than not, write rejection letters. In some ways it was one of the most valuable experiences of my life thus far. It taught me what not to include in a pitch, if nothing else. Having a novel published has always been my ultimate goal, but I have worked very hard to keep my expectations in check.

So a few days ago two copies of my book arrived and I held it in my hands and saw words on the pages that I had written. Truly surreal. Now that it is in print it will start a new journey all on its own which I will no longer have any control over. People will read it and the characters – which up until this point have only existed in my head – will enter those people’s imaginations. I have a very precise picture in my head of what these characters look and sound like, but my style of writing tends to be a touch sparse and I haven’t included all these details in the book. How weird to think that for others these characters may look and sound completely different.

And what will people think of it? I’ve written about this before, but I tend to imagine my stories being read by fat men smoking cigars. They read my work and laugh before setting it alight and shouting ‘What rot!’. (They are bald, wear grey suits and have panoramic views of New York from their offices – if you’re interested.) I’m not sure if any fat cigar smoking men have read my work and if they have, I’m pretty sure they’re probably a lot gentler than I give them credit for. I’m not sure it’s possible for anyone to be quite as critical of my work as I am.

Still, inevitable rejection by someone, somewhere is the reality of any creative pursuit. As many a NRL player and/or rapper has said ‘There always gonna be haters’ (sic). Some people are going to hate my novel. Maybe even people I know. The flip side of this, of course, is that some people are going to love it. And it’s these people that I’ve written it for, not  cigar smoking men in New York. (Pretty sure this mental image of mine was born out of Wayne’s World. Isn’t there a TV executive in a grey suit who nearly destroys Wayne and Garth’s artistic vision? Wayne’s World is an much overlooked meditation on the tension between artistic integrity and comercial success. True fact.)

Cigar smoking men aside* on July 24th The Sky So Heavy will be released. And that, for the moment, is more than enough.

Next…

220px-Magnolia_albumIt looks as though The Sky So Heavy will be released at the end of July. I have relinquished it for good and it’s strange to think that I won’t be working on it anymore, it has felt like a member of my family for the past four years. I won’t see it again until it is an actual book in my hands, by which time it will be far too late to make any changes. In the meantime I am in a strange land where I must decide which story to turn to next. I have a half-finished manuscript that I have been tinkering with off and on for the past seven (eek!) years. I feel it has so many faults and weak parts and needs so much work that I don’t know if it’s worth spending my little scraps of writing time on. But I’m not sure I can give up on it.

In the meantime I will try and tap into my main source of inspiration, music. I was listening to Aimee Mann’s Bachelor No.2  this morning and was reminded of how Paul Thomas Anderson used it as his inspiration for his film, Magnolia. It will probably sound terribly naive, but I’m not aware of many other writers who have used singular albums or songs as the reference point for a story. (Do let me know in the comments if you know of any.) For me The Sky So Heavy grew, to a large extent, out of Radiohead’s The Gloaming. The mental image of a gloaming – a sort of murky twilight – combined with the words ‘Your alarm bells, they should be ringing’ was incredibly powerful to me. Now as the prospect of the dreaded ‘second book’ looms, I find myself feeling around for something new with enough potency to get the ball rolling.

A few weeks ago I heard The Smashing Pumpkins’ iconic track 1979 on the radio for the first time in ages. There is something effervescent about that tingling guitar riff (Is that what it’s called? If I’m going to write about this stuff I should find out.) and those opening lines ‘Shakedown, 1979/ Cool kids never have the time’. I am toying with a story set in the mid nineties and have a sketched out a character who listens to Pumpkins obsessively on her Discman. So we will see where that goes. I have found in the past, and I’m sure I’ve blogged about it before, that sometimes the key to understanding a character, for me, is getting a grip on what kind of music they would listen to, and then listen to it over and over again while I write. It’s not neccesarily music that I would chose to listen to, either. If that manuscript that I mentioned earlier on ever sees publication, you will find in it a character called Kate who I didn’t know well enough until I figured out that she would have listened to a lot of Lana Del Ray.

While all of that is going on, I will keep listening to The National’s new album, Trouble Will Find Me. It feels more adult than young adult, though. So you never know, a genre change may eventuate…

Writing and music and radioactive snow

I once read that Peter Carey needs complete uninterrupted silence for eight hours a day to write. My first thought was: what luxury, the second was that he needs to harden up. (Actually, he probably has enough cash that he doesn’t.) I must clarify that this was a while ago and maybe it wasn’t Peter Carey, maybe it was Tim Winton. (But I am more inclined to believe it of Carey than Winton, because I am a Winton fan.) Either way, if this was the case for most writers, especially those with children, it’s difficult to imagine that any books would get written at all.

My writing windows at the moment are one and a half hours max, twice a day if I’m lucky, three days a week. (Those three days are preschool days, and an hour and a half is the longest my baby will nap for.) This means I don’t have the luxury of staring into space picking lint off my sleeves for two hours before I get down to the business of writing actually words. (That’s what I used to do, before children. Interestingly, I wrote hardly anything, but had noticably lint-free jumper)

So what does one do, when time for accessing that very definite headspace needed to write fiction is so limited? My trick, as I wrote last post, is to listen to particular songs over and over while I write. The brain’s uncanny powers of memory and association kick in, and I can slip into the world I need to. Most of the time. Because the setting for The Sky So Heavy was so important to the story, this technique was crucial. It may surprise you, but i don’t in fact live in a icy tundra where radioactive snow falls from the sky. For some reason Radiohead’s Codex was my track of choice for conjuring such an environment in my headIMG_1242. When I hear the opening piano chords I automatically see a darkened highway, smothered in grey snow, illuminated by a single set of headlights. In my gut I can feel the twist of fear my protagonist feels as he steers the car through the alien landscape. His mouth dries as he passes the twisted carcasses of cars that have tried to make the same journey that he is attempting.

I’ve also found that music can be really useful in helping me nut out other aspects of my stories, characters in particular. Six years ago I started work on the story which will hopefully be my second novel. Unlike TSSH the protagonist is a teenage girl. Hannah is jaded in a way that only a fifteen year-old can be, although she is hurting in a way which far exceeds the experience of most people. She is also a smart arse. Hannah is trying to deal with a recent family tragedy, certainly unlike anything I have ever faced and I had difficulty tapping into the emotions that she was experiencing beyond the obvious cliches of grief and guilt.

I have completely redrafted the manuscript twice (which is fortunate because its earliest incarnations were pretty woeful) and it wasn’t until after leaving it in a drawer for two years, and then revisiting it briefly every three months or so for two years after that, that I was able to get to the core of the character. It was a song that got me there, Beach House’s Walk in the Park. I wasn’t even working on the story at the time, I was on the train listening to Beach House. But the lyrics, simple as they were, crystallised the character for me.

So now, as The Sky So Heavy is back with the editors and I wait, I will pull Hannah’s story out again for perhaps the hundredth read-through. I will listen to that song. And I will see if she has anything else to tell me.

Character, voice and aardvarks

First, some background.

This post was going to be about my over-use of the phrase ‘for a moment’ in my writing. As in ‘She stared at the aardvark for a moment.’. It then occurred to me that this subject was probably of very little interest to just about anyone unless they happened to be an aardvark. (In which case they would have been thrilled to have been mentioned, because lets face it, aardvarks don’t get a lot of press.) The topic did, however, remind me of the time I went to see  (hear?) Reif Larsen talk about his wonderful novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet when he mentioned the exact number of times T.S. uses the word ‘perhaps’. 

Twelve-year-old T.S. is a genius mapmaker, the son of an eccentric scientist mother and a cowboy father so dry he makes the Marlboro Man look like Betty Crocker. Unaware to his young age, the Smithsonian Institution awards him a prize for his brilliant work, leading T.S. to journey across the country by freight train from the ranch where  he lives in Montana to collect the award.

He is easily one of my all-time favourite characters, beautifully and intricately drawn. And what was interesting about hearing Larsen talk was the way he spoke about T.S. as if he were a real person. Larsen didn’t talk about the number of times he the author had used the word ‘perhaps’, it was T.S.’s trait. And the kicker was that Larsen knew T.S.’s traits, he knew them well.

I would like to be able to say that I spend a lot of time with my characters in my head first before writing a word about them, but it’s just not the way it works for me. I work them out by writing, carving them out as I go. Inevitably I go back and rework over things I’ve written if they later seem inconsistent. I’ve also recently found that if I let them ‘talk’ for a bit, they reveal themselves more fully. This worked really well for one character in particular that I was struggling to flesh out. (I can’t remember exactly, but I think it was a tip garnered from Tristan Bancks’ blog.) The only way I could really figure her out was to write pages and pages of dialogue. Only a few lines have made it into the final draft but at the risk of sounding a bit Tobias Funke, it helped me figure out her motivation.

So perhaps I have to figure out whether ‘For a moment’ is my phrase or my character’s. In the meantime I shall begin a work which explores the inner conflict of aardvarks, clearly an untapped market.