Like those conversations in the pub that are full of great plans but never amount to anything, OneMonkey and our artist friend Mark and I have spent most of today drinking tea on the sofa and telling each other what to do, knowing 90% of it will be ignored. If we weren’t shy, if we had more confidence, if we were more organised, if we only had time to do this project justice… The excuses have been flying around, all of us about as bad as each other, but between us we’ve generated a few ideas that might pay off (not in terms of actual money, obviously, but maybe in terms of artistic satisfaction). It’s an interesting exercise having an outsider’s perspective (by which I mean I’m not a painter or illustrator, Mark and OneMonkey are not writers), asking the questions that are so obvious they’ve been overlooked.
So, in between all the book reviews I’m writing, all the books I’m reading, the 3 writing deadlines that are looming, and the continuing amusement of the interactive detective story I’m writing with OneMonkey (not to mention the art history MOOC I’ve just started and the philosophy MOOC I still haven’t finished) I’ll try following up on some of today’s suggestions. When was it I was supposed to sleep..?
Whose word-enhancing art are you going to appreciate today? Five years ago I tried to boost the profile of artists quietly providing book covers and magazine illustrations. In the last few days, by coincidence, I’ve had my attention drawn to this vote for artwork (suitable for a future book cover) at Spark. Hard to choose, but I particularly liked Monsters and Marvels by Luke Spooner, Snake Bones by Rodrica Cogle, and The Carrot is Mightier Than the Sword by Sean Greenberg.
It’s also been a week for comics exposure, what with Dave Gibbons being created Comics Laureate in the cause of literacy, so in case it’s not your usual medium why not check out some freely available volumes? There’s The Only Living Boy at NoiseTrade, and a whole graphic novel list at Free Online Novels (including 2 written by me, with fabulous art by Mark Pexton, which you can get here).
The other night, Gideon Coe (BBC 6Music DJ with excellent musical taste) had a quiz where you had to figure out the album from a word cloud made from the lyrics. This set me off making clouds from Iron Maiden lyrics, which was great fun using the nifty online tool (where you can play around with colours, font, layout etc) at Wordle. Then I wondered what a short story would look like that way, and since I have a selection of my own to hand, I tried it with Last Night in Las Vegas, and here’s the result:
Not only does that look like a film poster for something cool and sixties, but it almost turns the story into poetry (come on, I did say ‘almost’). It’s amazing how it makes you look at the story in a different way, gives you an idea what’s going on and highlights themes. It could catch on as a form of ‘trailer’ for novels or short stories . I’d certainly consider using it that way – any readers or writers care to share their thoughts on the idea?
Elmore Leonard apparently said you should never write about the weather. With pared-down crime writing you might think that makes good sense, and it can’t have done him any harm, but don’t underestimate the effects of the weather.
Maybe it’s just because I’m British, and the twists and turns of the weather are discussed at great length daily, not least by me. I think in any piece of writing the weather can play a part – though I’m not saying every piece of writing should dwell on it, or even mention it.
Think of a place you know well. I’ll take the street I live on, a street I walk down every weekday morning, and back up ten hours later. It has as many different moods as there are cloud configurations over the valley.
- A crisp October morning with breath faintly visible in the sunlight.
- A foggy November teatime, the streetlights doing nothing but tint small patches of fog orange.
- Blue-cast January, silent snowflakes settling slowly on covered paths.
- Muggy August, clouds gathering in late afternoon as the storm promises cool relief.
In each of those cases the street looks and feels different: open and light or closed in, safe or full of hidden dangers, familiar and comfortable or eerie and unsettling. That in turn affects my mood, so imagine what it can do for your characters.
For crime writing the weather has added benefits. Loud wind or rain can muffle thuds or shouts: either nothing is heard at all or witness reports are confused. Bad weather of any kind keeps people indoors, or walking with heads down, either way they’re not witnessing anything. Snow holds tracks (cars, feet, dragged bodies), rain makes mud which does the same. Heat shortens tempers and makes people lazy. And all that’s before you get to the ‘why was he only wearing a thin jumper when he claimed to have walked all the way across town? He’d freeze.’
Monet kept painting Rouen cathedral at different times of day in different weather. Those paintings are all of the same building but they’re by no means the same picture.
I’ve made the books=vinyl, e-reader=mp3-player analogy before but it seemed to work so I’ll use it again: vinyl didn’t die out because of cassettes, or CDs, mini-discs or digital music collections. Books won’t die out.
OneMonkey raised an interesting question recently though: will they become pieces of art? If you can get the content of a novel electronically in a convenient form that many people have embraced, what will be the added value of owning the physical book? Aside from personal preferences on holding paper and turning real pages that smell of childhood memories, what? It’s the cachet, the exclusivity can be marketed but only if it is exclusive by some measure of the word.
Limited edition signed copies. Hand-written title pages, individual artwork, fine bindings. What if someone owned the original? What if by owning the original you could stop anyone else from being able to read it (like if you bought a watercolour from a commercial gallery and with it the rights to prints). Then you could charge for viewing; stately homes could charge the public to come and read in their library as well as see their Van Dyck’s in the long gallery. Writers could be commissioned by the wealthy.
Books can be art but they also contain ideas and I’d worry about anything that blocks the flow of that. But to stretch another analogy, I’d be much happier about a few rich collectors owning originals if it facilitated the sale of a load of cheap postcards, allowing art into every home.
What would you want to be remembered for, if you had a choice? If you’re artistic at all, chances are you want your creations to live on after you, physically or in memory. If you make the distinction, would you want it to be your ‘serious’ work or the commercial output that pays the bills (or gives you pocket-money treats, depending how successful you are)? Would you rather the product of your frivolous youth was lost to the ravages of time, or do you think your best work is years behind you?
A while ago I wrote a story starting with Herman Sligo was a bit actor who played Uncle Emil in three episodes of the popular television series The Five Sisters. He died peacefully on November 8th and is survived by his younger sister from The First Line, which ended up being about an old lady’s sadness that her brother’s obituary focused on what was essentially a part-time job in his youth, rather than the community work he’d dedicated most of his life to. Outside of that community, the only reason anyone had heard his name was through television, since that literally made him visible to the wider world. If a genre author is known outside of their particular literary community, it’s usually for something that wouldn’t be considered their best or most representative work, but it might be the one that the wider population has heard of. In a similar way, bands or singers end up being remembered in general for the thing that most people will have heard, the commercial success.
As far as writing goes, I’m not sure what I’d prefer people to notice. If I had to be pigeonholed (which I’d rather not be, but it does happen) I’d rather be a spec-fic pigeon than a literary one. If nothing else, I like the sound of it.
Basing a story on a picture is nothing new; there are websites which provide a picture and ask for related story submissions and I’ve done it myself a few times, with Psyche and the Soul, the Day the Circus Came to Town and a couple of as-yet unpublished stories all inspired by Mark Pexton’s art (Psyche, Insane Clown Posse, Meltoriel, and Pythia respectively). However, just because it’s not a new idea doesn’t mean it’s not a good one. Whether you’re looking for more solid versions of the hazy characters in your head or searching for a full-blown story, a photo or postcard archive, your own family photo albums, or Flickr are good places to start.
I’m lucky enough to have copies of old family photos, like this one of a wedding group in the 1920s:
I vaguely remember the groom as an old man, and I’ve heard many stories about the bride so they’re tainted by reality for me, but the other people spark off ideas as I look at them. I have no idea who they are, what they did, where they lived so I have no limitations on the backgrounds I can conjure for them or the reasons I can come up with why one particular chap became best man. It all begins with details and questions. Who is the little boy and why doesn’t he look dressed up? Why is the older woman at the back wearing a heavy winter coat when the other women look more summery? What or who is the man at the back looking at?
As children, friend T and I spent many a happy hour huddled over a book celebrating the Picture Post, making up names, characters, backgrounds – filling in the reality around that one snapshot. Why were they looking over to one side? Who was the man lurking in the background with an ice cream? What urgent phonecall was the man with the moustache making as his secretary looked on?
Another good source, not quite the same, is the British Pathe film archive, free to view online. Fascinating in its own right, it has also provided a few sparking moments. Some of the films are silent anyway, but you can always mute the computer if you want to allow your imagination a little more room to manoeuvre.