A Time and a Place.

A few weeks ago, I was listening to Sleeper’s 1996 track Sale of the Century, and the following lyrics jumped out at me:

Let’s take a photograph
We’ll burn all the negatives

These days, very few photographs are taken on film, but that’s how it would have been done at the time of the CD’s release nearly 19 years ago. As we fast approach New Year, it started me thinking about how the language we use can inadvertently place a piece of writing in a particular era.

For instance, I own a computing book published in the late 1970s or early 1980s in which the author writes, “When I was a young hacker…” But he’s not talking about accessing any systems illegally; the term hacker originally meant someone who was merely proficient at using computers.

I’ve just finished reading Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips. The story is part fiction, but based on a series of murders that happened in the 1930s. She uses newspaper sources from the period. One of these talks about the matrimonial bureau the killer used, and another mentions a colored porter working at a hotel. Although the actual date is mentioned at the beginning of each chapter, this sets the action in a social context. These days, of course, there are no matrimonial bureaux left while the latter term has become widely unacceptable.

It’s very difficult to know how language will change and it’s therefore difficult to adapt accordingly. You might write a story today about a character who watches a Netflix film on her tablet device, but within a decade, she might have it streamed directly into her head by BrainMoviez. Indeed, the word film itself is an anachronism, as it was part of the same technology mentioned in the Sleeper track.

One way around this potential obsolescence is to mention that a character is, for example, listening to music or driving a car without mentioning the source of the sound or the type of car. Yet that can deprive the reader of a sense of location. Even when a writer tries to create a sense of timelessness, there are often hallmarks that signal when the piece was written. Most readers will realise this and take it into account.

I’m now going to back up this entry to a floppy disc, dial into the Web, and post it.

Two-Hour Masterclasses.

Part of me thinks a real writer should sell their television set and denounce anything audio-visual. Yet another part thinks that screenplays are a great way to learn and improve our writing techniques, and I’ve seen many this past week.

The first on my list was Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. There is not a wasted word or action over the whole two hours, and the number of back references is staggering. From the bell at the very beginning to, “I wish I had a million dollars,” to where Mr Welsh punches George Bailey, each one of these is a set-up to a later plot point. A tight script is the accepted Hollywood convention, but Quentin Tarantino is one of the few writers who allows his characters to speak about matters unrelated to the plot.

Dog Day Afternoon runs to a similar length but takes place almost exclusively in one location. Yet there are so many characters interacting that it lends the film a rapid pace and never feels as though the director is padding out the action. It’s also worth a look at the more recent Phone Booth.

2001: A Space Odyssey — Three of the Discovery...
2001: A Space Odyssey — Three of the Discovery One crew are in a state of hibernation, ostensibly to conserve resources for the voyage. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I went to a special limited-run screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey on Saturday. I’m still trying to work out fully what happened at the end, but the journey there was a masterclass in show-don’t-tell. There must have been about 600 pages of stage directions and two of dialogue. It would do little justice to describe it on the page, so try watching even just ten minutes to gain a sense of Stanley Kubrick’s style.

Incidentally, it’s only one of two films I’ve ever seen where the cinema has provided an intermission. I don’t know why these fell out of favour, as it’s quite handy for nipping to the bathroom, and also for the house to make money from bar sales.

As well as the above-mentioned films, I also had an opportunity to see new short films made by 16- to 19-year-olds. The screening was at Dundee Contemporary Arts and made with the assistance of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. Each one was inspired by an archive of experimental films from the 1970s to the 1990s, and the one that appealed to the individual the most was played before their piece. Almost all of them, old and new, explored ideas beyond the conventions of ordinary filmmaking, from a lonely girl in a room full of friends and balloons to two musicians swinging guitars by the neck while playing them.

I managed to chat with Scott Funai, the director, producer and star of Road to Nowhere. This short piece is about a schoolboy who doodles on his exam paper, effectively ruining the chances of him finding a job, with the title repeated in voice-over by him and the other characters. He told me he takes the Mike Leigh approach to scripting, preferring improvisation over dictation. Scripts are supposed to be a bare outline and the director fills in the rest, but Leigh doesn’t even begin writing one until he’s confident the actors fully inhabit their characters.

Although the approaches from the above writers may be different from each other, the end result is the same in the sense that the approach works for that particular screenplay. And that principle can be applied to any type of writing, from a 50-word poem where each phrase must have significance to a novel written purely in stream of consciousness. The approach will have a great influence over the result.

Have you considered changing your approach? I said before that I tend to think about my pieces for a long time, then write them very quickly. But when I was about 15, I wrote a fragment of a song lyric. I revisited it over the years and tried to compose the rest of the song, but it wasn’t coming together. It was only when I was twice that age that I decided to treat it as a poem and it slowly came together into six verses. I now consider it a finished work but it was written over a much longer period than I would normally devote to a piece.

Albert Einstein is attributed with saying, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” As far as I know, he never wrote a screenplay, but he makes a good point.

Drop the Dead Entry.

When I talked about short-form writing last week, I failed to mention the My Two Sentences blog, where Edward Roads writes a complete story in that number of sentences. Most recently, it’s a timely argument around the Christmas dinner table.

Speaking of few words, it’s been another busy week and I haven’t had much time to think of an entry built around one theme, so let me give you a few.

On Friday, it was my office party. I always think it’s a good idea for a writer to have a ‘day job’. It started me thinking of a particularly brilliant piece of writing on this theme: the last episode in series two of Drop the Dead Donkey. The first half focuses on the party itself while the second deals with the aftermath the next morning. The episode is available on 4OD, and it quite rightly won Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin a BAFTA award.

Yesterday evening, I was listening to playwright Alan Bissett on Pulse 98.4, a community station broadcasting from East Renfrewshire. I’ve seen him live a couple of times, and he likes to put issues and controversies on the stage, so I half-expected the conversation to turn to politics straight away. It did, particularly regarding the question of Scottish independence.

English: Screenshot of Jimmy Stewart and Donna...
Screenshot of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tonight, I’m seeing the classic It’s a Wonderful Life on the big screen for the fourth time. This will be the black and white version, which satisfies my inner purist, although the artificially coloured version I saw is incredibly well done. You might not be aware how many films are based on short stories, as filmmakers can still extract almost as much as they can from a novel. Total Recall and Brokeback Mountain are two such examples, and the source for Frank Capra’s masterpiece is a story of 4400 words.

Later in December, I’m off to see a stage adaptation of James and the Giant Peach. I haven’t read Roald Dahl’s book since I was a child, so I’ve forgotten much of the plot and I’m looking forward to being surprised.

Someone asked me recently which authors I liked to read when I was younger, and I could only name him and Enid Blyton. With a little thought, I added Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole series. I did used to read quite a bit, but from all over the place. My grandad used to take me to the library: I would pick books I liked the look of, and I can’t remember any of the authors’ names. I’ll report back if that changes.

How Low Can You Go?

Until 25 January 2015, Dundee Contemporary Arts are showing an exhibition by time-based artist Jim Campbell. Whereas a TV or computer screen has a resolution up to about two million pixels, he uses software to reduce the quality of a normal video to no more than around 1000 pixels. The viewer is expected to fill in the gaps; fortunately most viewers are particularly good at this.

Imagine all the triangles…

Look at the graphic on the right, for instance. There are only three small black circles with notches cut out of them, but your brain imagines a large white triangle just from the information it’s given.

Using this principle, his work Home Movies 1040-3 presents amateur footage so the figures are recognisable as people, but the faces are deliberately obscured. Tilted Plane gives the impression of birds or bats flapping overhead by lightbulbs momentarily switching off in sequence. Meanwhile in Gallery 2, pulsating lights reflect the emotion behind the fragments of text displayed around the walls, and those fragments tell a story.

Telling a tale in just a few words is a long-established challenge among writers. One of the most famous examples is attributed to Ernest Hemingway: For sale: baby shoes, never worn. The reader must infer what happened to the baby and why the shoes are being sold. With the advent of SMS and then Twitter, limits of 140 to 160 characters are also popular. My very first writing prize was a £20 Odeon voucher for the following: “Get down from there,” said his mum. For the first time in his life, he listened to her, the noose tightening around his neck as he jumped.

Even with slightly longer works, pulling back the word count or simplifying the action can make for a better story, as the reader has to do some of the work. In one case, I’d written a 1000-word story starting with a man being woken up by a noisy neighbour, him going to the door to investigate and finding the police there, then the police interviewing the woman and her son. The first two thirds of the story just weren’t working, so I eventually removed them. The result was a much tighter story that made the twist ending more shocking as we didn’t see the events leading up to it.

And with all that in mind, I’m going to shorten this entry by letting it end abru

Binge Reading™.

You were expecting an entry on Monday, weren’t you? Douglas Adams commented, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

While I normally frown upon such a laissez faire attitude, I completed National Novel Writing Month on Sunday 30 November at 1:13pm with 50,123 words. As Municipal Liaison, I wanted to set a good example, but I was keen to stress to the members that there’s no shame in not reaching the target.

From there, it was straight into the folio for my MLitt module, comprising two short stories, two poems and a poetic monologue, representing a variety of styles. I’d done most of the work, so it was a matter of pulling together the threads into one document. I submitted that at lunchtime yesterday, the day it was due.

Which left today to craft an entry, and I’ve had plenty of time to do so, as I’ve been awake since 1:50am after approximately four hours’ sleep.

This will be my blow-out weekend before I dive straight back into other projects and catch up on my reading. On my coffee table lies Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips and Raymond Carver’s collection Elephant and Other Stories, both of which need to be returned to the library in under a fortnight. The former is a weighty volume, but I shall tackle it before that deadline.

For this, I’d like to introduce Binge Reading™. It’s similar to the more familiar binge drinking or binge watching, but better for you than both of these activities. Use Binge Reading™ as you please, but remember to mention you read it here first.