Writing Reality: Personification of Autumn

09/12/2013 at 05:45 (Reviews, Synaesthesia, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


There’s a familiar wind back in the city this week. It wears a blue cape and likes to hurl itself up and down the cobbles, whistling through its teeth. The trees, once decked out in their finest gold, now shiver and quake in the sight of its cold eye. I turn my collar up, walking to and from work through crisp black shadows, and that wind waits on my doorstep, ready to leap out and slap me upside the head with quick cold fingers.

Autumn is my favourite time of year, for its colours and its medley of imagery. Beginning with a faint song of melancholy in the brassy light and the changing west wind, it ends with high wreaths of silver in the trees, white mornings like diamonds strewn by a passing queen. The forests turn quiet with the cold, ready and waiting for midwinter freeze; they buckle on armour and lower their heads to the stiffening winds. The sun is a capricious fellow, at times grumpy and sullen as he winds his grey scarf about his throat, while on other days he will grin with a hard, shining mouth. Leaves skirl and dance; they twine gold necklaces about the roots of their erstwhile fathers, where some flicker-flames still cling on for dear life with numb little twigs, in the face of that wind … But all become mulch in the soil, at the end.

These are all examples of word imagery. The wind does not wear a cape or have a mouth full of teeth, though it is a concrete noun. It has no thoughts or emotions, and is governed by nature, which in turn is no more caring or hateful towards mankind than we are able to completely control it.

When writing, it often pays to give human sentience / characteristics to non-human beings and concepts. This can help the audience to understand and appreciate the latter more, through emotional context and relativity.

To say that the wind is fierce in its intensity, is to lend it a recognizable emotion – we’ve all felt fierce at some point, when our eyes burned and our mouths ran dry; when we felt ready to tear ourselves apart over a situation.
Likewise, we know what teeth are capable of doing – they tear, rend, cause bitter pain, chew food, click together with irritation. To say that this north wind, back in my home city once more (and likely to be a lodger for the next four months) has sharp teeth that he likes to use on my skin, is just a more interesting way of saying, “The wind is bloody cold.”

To give something emotional resonance is to engage with it, whether on a positive or negative level – I know I’ve cursed that wind many a time for daring to fling pellets of rain in my face, but really, what is the point of getting cross at something that neither bears me ill will, nor laughs at my numb fingers? Still, it makes me feel better to swear at it.

Personification is everywhere; we hear it all the time, lending personal features to otherwise abstract concepts. Father Christmas, Grandfather Time; Cupid as the embodiment of Love; and in Richard Adams’ Watership Down, the Black Rabbit of Inle is the personification of fear, death and inevitability:

black rabbit

“‘Now as you all know, the Black Rabbit of Inle is fear and everlasting darkness. He is a rabbit, but he is that cold, bad dream from which we can only entreat Lord Frith to save us today and tomorrow. When the snare is set in the gap, the Black Rabbit knows where the peg is driven; and when the weasel dances, the Black Rabbit is not far off… We come into the world and we have to go: but we do not go merely to serve the turn of one enemy or another…We go by the will of the Black Rabbit of Inle, and only by his will.” – pg 276, Watership Down, Richard Adams

By the same token, the rabbits of this novel are subject to anthropomorphism. This is similar to personification, and while both give emotional and physical attributes to non-humans / inanimate objects and concepts, I find that anthropomorphism seems better suited to the creatures, while personification appeals more to the abstracts. For example, Bigwig is made an officer of the Efrafan Owsla – he is an anthropomorphic example of rabbit leadership and governing, with the contextual rationality and intelligence involved that is not usually attributed to their natural way of life:

“‘What can you do?”
‘I can run and fight and spoil a story telling it. I’ve been an officer in an Owsla.’
‘Fight, can you? Could you fight him?’ said Woundwort, looking at Campion.
‘Certainly, if you wish.’ The stranger reared up and aimed a heavy cuff at Campion, who leapt back just in time.” – pg 317

He can also be seen as the embodiment of that military spirit of “do-or-die” attitude.

In this way, the rabbits are allowed to develop behavioural patterns, mannerisms and dialogue similar to that of humans; this allows the audience to engage with and respond to them on a deeper level. Their instinctive reactions are somewhat quelled, to allow personalities to develop and the narrative to progress, rather than each rabbit scattering aimlessly and without thought. Much of the novel hinges upon planning, strategies and tactics which would not be applicable in reality.

A Simile is a figure of speech used when comparing one thing to another that is otherwise unlike it, by way of adding the words “like” and “as”, to create an image that will enhance writing:

“He ran through the field; it was as though his feet had wings.”
“She was young and fair, and looked like a lily, clad all in white.”

Said images rely on the audience having some contextual knowledge of what makes up the target comparative element; they must have an awareness of the lily being white and smooth, and of wings being capable of flight, thus lending connotations of speed to the feet. A simile won’t work when the target falls short of what the image intends (though this can sometimes be used for comic / sarcastic effect):

“That’s as clear as mud.”

“The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.”

But when it does work, a simile can drive home a memorable message with emotional resonance:

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” – Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty, Blade Runner, 1982

Only take care that the two elements you use for comparison are equal in part to what they convey when standing alone, in order for them to work in a combined context. A lily flower is different to a young woman in that it is a plant, and does not possess sentience; but it does hold connotations of grace, beauty and pale smoothness, which can be positively aligned with her appearance in a simile. Put into another context with a different setting, this can also be used in a negative sense to convey her paleness and sorrow, perhaps after illness or a death, as the latter has connotative links with the flower.

A Metaphor is when “a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable”; this is in keeping with Simile, but in a more subtle way than actively telling the audience something is like or as another. With a metaphor, these words are omitted, and the audience is left with the bare bones of the image.

“He walked with a stony step and an icy gaze; none dared get in his way.”

A stone is not a man, nor can ice actually stay in the eye. But the qualities of both (hardness, cold) and the subsequent connotations (determination, implacability; unfriendliness, lacking emotion) are useful when conveying an image of someone powerful and difficult to approach or sway from their path. But one way to upset the balance would be to throw too many comparisons in at once – especially when they conflict with the overall image:

Ice lived in his heart. He smouldered with the flames of his anger; it was eating him alive.”

The symbolism of fire = anger, doesn’t sit well with the image of a “cold-hearted” man. Fire would extinguish itself in the cold, ice would melt. Although we’re not dealing with literal meanings here, it’s still worth paying attention to what connotative messages you are sending out with metaphors / similes used.
On the other hand, this can be useful when applied to another character to create a large-scale metaphor of conflict, perhaps in a relationship:

“The flames of her temper often thawed his heart. He couldn’t help but laugh, in spite of himself.”

Try wherever possible to create your own imagery. There are many tired metaphors and similes out there, which have been strung up as clichés – they work at a pinch, but can often lead to a trite tone in a piece of writing. Look around; take in as much of the world as possible. I make a note of every image that strikes me while out and about – the sky strewn with cumulus clouds like pebbles on the beach (simile); the full blue cape of night, thrown about the shoulders of the world (metaphor / personification).

Always be prepared to record more, and hoard them like treasure, because if you’re anything like me, the hard work will really begin once you’re sat down to write. As obvious as this sounds, you can make life a bit easier (and save time) by having a stockpile of key words / phrases to use in imagery. It beats staring at the screen or paper, rummaging through your memory for something you knew you wanted to say.

Unless you’re referring to the inside of your head as a blank sheet, of course.

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Writing Reality: Dialogue, and the Subtlety of Subtext

02/12/2013 at 06:01 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , )


A quote pulled from my friend @drewchial’s Twitter feed inspired this latest entry:
“It helps to be hyper-aware of what makes each author’s voice unique.”

This got me thinking about characterization, dialogue and subtext; what tricks an author might use to keep the threads independent of one another, as well as individual to each person being portrayed.

I openly confess, I’m not much of a dialogue writer. This may stem from the fact I take less interest in the speech of people, than what they actually do to back up the words. The natural world is full of harsh truths, which I adhere to more closely than social interaction. Nature pulls no punches.
As a kid, I’d find ways to avoid speech, preferring to deal with what I’d later learn – as an English language student – to be paralinguistic features. Body language basically, but also the areas of tone and pitch – not so much what a person says, as how. they say it. I’m forever looking for the shift in tone, the change in stance, which might save a heck load of time (and face) if read correctly. That being said, I don’t claim to be an expert, and some people are more self-aware than others, in terms of what they “leak” out.

This can be made applicable to your characters; their intentions, their framing narrative, open dialogue and encrypted speech. The dance they weave around one another.

I like to know where my characters are coming from in terms of setting and origins, their lifestyle circumstances and social interactions. Dialogue is a great clue-dropper, here. Since writers deal solely in words, without the wider options of visual / audio identification, it’s of paramount importance that the dialogue and narrative structure be held accountable when a scene is set, a message put across.
These are a few tricks I use, gleaned from personal experience and other authors, when presenting a character’s identity in speech.

Accent / Regional Dialect

This can be a double-edged sword. Used sparingly, the odd regional accent/dialect inflection can enhance a character’s voice to the point where the audience may “hear” them, know the arenas they frequent. Just a sprinkling here and there, as with Iain Banks’ quite marvelous The Crow Road:

“‘Aw, it’s just incredible,’ I told them. ‘Her mum told me; Aunt Charlotte. Bit of a nutter, but okay. I mean totally aff her heid really, but anyway…’
‘Aw; runs in the family, does it, Prentice?’ Dean asked.
‘Naw; she’s not a McHoan..'” – pgs. 61/62, The Crow Road

Banks chose to keep these Scottish inflections mainly within the perimeters of dialogue. Though the novel spans several POVs and time-frames, the narrative structure of each character remains for the most part, unbroken by regional identity. It makes for a universal smoothness when reading. Some authors may swear by a full regional immersion, but I’m not one of them.

In terms of field research for accent and dialect, the internet holds a wealth of sites dedicated to the compiling of audio files, for the preservation of sometimes ancient generational speech patterns:

The Speech Accent Archive, has files from across the world, allowing listeners a general rule-of-thumb appreciation of phonetic inflections on the English language, based upon country and region. Also included are descriptions of each speaker’s native origins and other languages spoken, for consideration of how these may add to intonation / inflection. The clips run on a Quicktime plug-in.

I find this site handy for working on narrative and dialogue structures – particularly when filtered through another personal perception. For example, a newcomer in town might remark upon the local staccato vocals or rounded consonants; they may call attention to a word used for an object, which differs from their own (e.g. I know an alleyway, in my Southern dialect, as a twitten; a friend of mine, having spent time in the North, predominantly around the city of York, uses the word snickelway.)

To avoid using the same descriptions, and to liven things up a bit in terms of describing a character’s voice, I like to reference the sound –> colour/shape synaesthesia that permeates my everyday appreciation of speech. A man with a soft vowel-baritone voice, more often than not appears as honey-coloured in my mind.

The BBC voice recordings go deeper still, focusing primarily on the UK: “People talking about language – slang, dialect, taboo words, accents. Other clips cover all sorts of subjects and simply offer a flavour of how we talk today.”

These are of course generalizations, and no one person will sound just like another – origins, historical context and lifestyle, will all factor in. Interesting to note in The Crow Road, is Banks’ choice to employ more accent/dialect twists when the young protagonists are all soused. This is most prevalent in the dialogue of main protagonist, Prentice. Contrast this (reasonably) sober dialogue,

“Really, Ashley, I didn’t think you’d take it so melodramatically. It’s only shop-lifting, after all. Just one silly book, too; worse things happen at C & A’s.” – page 273

to when his temper is stoked on a sensitive issue, and under alcohol’s blurry veil:
“I am not like ma dad!” I yelled.” – page 64, The Crow Road

Try this when writing your own dialogue; if a scene involves heightened tension, does a character’s accent thicken in anger, or when upset? Have they tried to repress it over time, or was it diluted through speech convergence? This is especially applicable if you’re writing a screenplay, or are focusing particularly on interactions between social classes. To use the same inflections, utterances and dialect patterns as those around you, suggests a comfortably habitual state (as in, picking up an accent while travelling, or settling somewhere new) or a desire to conform, to fit in. The same applies vice versa. How does the speech a character uses around others, reflect their relationship(s) with them? When they head back to their original home, is the new style of speech dropped or used as a weapon, to distance a character from his/her roots?

Paralinguistic features and Subtext

I’m quite fond of studying body language. Not only does it come in handy in the real world; it adds that certain nuance of “Show don’t Tell”, as a character depicts their intentions through physical actions / facial expressions, rather than what comes out of their mouths:

“Ash suggested heading back and to the house, and either having some coffee or getting some sleep. Her wide eyes looked tired. I agreed coffee might be an idea. The last thing I remember is insisting I had whisky in my coffee, then falling asleep in the kitchen, my head on Ash’s shoulder, mumbling about how I’d loved dad, and how I’d loved Verity, too, and I’d never find another one like her, but she was a heartless bitch. No she wasn’t, yes she was, no she wasn’t, it was just she wasn’t for me, and if I had any sense I’d go for somebody who was a kind and gentle friend… Why do we always love the wrong people?
Ash, silent beneath me, above me, just patted my shoulder and laid her head on mine.” – pgs.366/367, The Crow Road

The areas I’ve highlighted, speak a thousand unvocalised truths about real love. Ashley is tired, yet she’s willing to stay up and listen to Prentice ramble (about another woman, no less.) What we are prepared to put up with, are prepared to do for a loved one in actual actions, as opposed to lip service paid – these can colour a character’s narrative. What do they say in subtext to one another; who chooses to leave first in a romantic tryst, and does their body language reflect reluctance or eagerness to escape? Do actions mirror what comes out of a character’s mouth – what does this say about their temperament, and how might this affect audience perception of them? How much will they reveal through narrative POV? First person, in particular, can be complex and damning, as well as wholly engaging; how self-aware are they, of their effect on others when they speak and act the way they do? How can this be reflected in an internal monologue?

Look to the films and TV programmes you love, for clues on how to stage emotional impact. Where do the breath-spaces between highly emotive words, lie? What tonal shift occurs when a character doesn’t pay up the goods with a straight answer, or indeed, skirts right around it? And then again, how can subtext and actions bring two characters closer, without need for dialogue?

In this case, all you need to see are the brightening eyes of Charlotte as Bob approaches; and that look passed between them, before the hug. A thousand silent words, right there.

How does a character’s reactions around others, reflect circumstance, relationship, personality? Do they fold their arms and pout, cross their arms/legs and shift their feet away, shutter their faces down, when someone is disagreeable to their senses? (parental nagging, lover’s tiff, questioning for a crime.) What emotions inadvertently leak from them (or not) when faced with an agreeable proposition, or the inference of one – open hands, body turned towards the other character(s), leaning in to close physical distance? A scene can ping with heightened emotion, with a few paralinguistic features laid around dialogue. They also help to break up what may appear as a monotonous flow of speech, as well as making a neat substitute for unnecessary dialogue tags:

“But Matt had grabbed Will by the shirtsleeve and waved the shovel in the air to keep Elinor at bay. My brother wouldn’t take anything. He wouldn’t want anything that belonged to you.” – page 44, The Probable Future, Alice Hoffman

The speaker is Matt, for the new paragraph is his (essential for delineating character identity) and the dialogue appears after his action.

“I chucked a few more pebbles. “Well, it isn’t a very good example to us youngsters, is it?”
“What’s that got to do with the price of sliced bread?”
“Eh?” I looked at her. “Pardon?”
“You’re not really trying to tell me that young people today look to their elders for an example, are you, Prentice?”
I grimaced. ‘Well…’ I said.” – page 10, The Crow Road

That final personal pronoun and tag, seem superfluous to needs here. There are plenty of clues dropped as to who the speaker is, from new paragraph alignments at each shift of dialogue, and facial motions.

As with all aspects of characterization, I can’t emphasise enough the power of people-watching. Become self-aware of your own voice and views; keep a close eye on how often they break that fourth wall, so your characters don’t run the risk of becoming your literary proxies. Go out into the world with open ears and notepad/audio recorder at the ready. You never know when a prize bit of dialogue might be dropped.
Most of all – watch for what people don’t say with their mouths, but give away with their feet, their open palms, their darkened eyes.

 photo thecrowroad_zpsdda190c3.jpg

Dedicated to the late Iain Banks – a master of dialogue, and unspoken truths.

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Writing Reality: Sound Effects in Writing

25/11/2013 at 05:45 (Poetry, Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


When writing, do you speak aloud the words that will form your sentences, to know them for sound as well as structure?

As Capote quite rightly said, “the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the music the words make.” There are a good many comparisons to be drawn between writing – both verse and prose – and music, most notably in the techniques used to establish rhythm and rhyme.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve wrangled with the latter in particular for years, to the point of actively abandoning it for a length of time while writing poetry in my teens. We’ve probably all been there at some point, guilty of wrestling a word down, beating it into shape to suit our intended message. But the result will only ever sound forced. This applies to both poetry and prose; too often, I’ve read my own work aloud and found a sentence / paragraph in dire need of rearrangement, because it didn’t “sound right.” Words didn’t click together where a smooth or beautiful image was my intention; likewise, a scene fraught with tension could have used more staccato sounds indicative of the mood.

Below are a few linguistic sound-effect techniques which I’ve returned to recently – learned in English Language, and perhaps overlooked while writing prose as opposed to poetry, which was my primary creative outlet for some time. It’s quite easy to overlook sound-imagery when a particular genre (in my novel’s case, YA drama) doesn’t tend to be vocalized. Speeches, scripts, adverts, poetry, lyrics, phonetic picture books aimed at children, are more likely candidates.

But this doesn’t mean the mind can’t automatically register a word in its “silent” form, particularly with relation to life experience. In the case of onomatopoeia, “we read not only with our eyes but also with our ears. The smallest child, learning to read by reading about bees, needs no translation for buzz. Subconsciously we hear the words on a printed page.” – James Kilpatrick, Listening to What We Write.

For sensory involvement in text, onomatopoeia is a great way to transport the audience “live” to a scene, without going overboard on lengthy descriptions. Words are used which imitate the action, object or concept they refer to – the rustle of leaves, the hiss of a snake or wheeze of a bad cough (and of course, cough itself is another example.) Farmyard picture books for children, with the animal / industrial sounds displayed in bold letters, are a classic example of onomatopoeia. They are a delightful way of putting words, their relative sounds and animals, into context.

Comics and graphic novels have used onomatopoeia to great effect over the years, with emphasis on character actions:

thwip

and scene events, for enhanced audience involvement:

trwoa

It could be argued that these words will change in relation to the language used, and therefore lose their onomatopoeic value – but as Cornelia Haase points out in her Oxford Dictionaries blog, it’s the initial phonemes used which will round up the differences: “A French rooster says ‘cocorico’ and an Arabic-speaking one will sound something like ‘kuku-kookoo’. Whereas the vowels differ in these examples, all of them contain a plosive (/k/). Once again, this is the quality of the sound produced by a rooster translated into human speech: loud and piercing.”

“From the moment he entered it the wood seemed full of noises. There was a smell of damp leaves and moss, and everywhere the splash of water went whispering about..
Roosting birds rustled overhead; the night breeze stirred the leaves…” – pg 34, Watership Down, Richard Adams.

In this excerpt, onomatopaiea and consonance are used to convey the unsettling motion of the woodland; the wind ruffling rabbit fur, shifting leaves; the fluttering of birds. All are disturbing to the rabbit’s peace, out of their secure home and wandering in alien territory. Consonance being the repetition of similar consonant sounds at stressed syllables, when spoken aloud, the repeated use of the /r/ phoneme makes it easy to imagine their wide-eyed fear, as they take note of every minute detail which might cause them harm.

Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds, found at points of stress. It’s useful for memorization, for creating text that is catchy and trips off the tongue. As it’s dependent on the sound of the letter, clever cat is alliterative – so is murky with mud; but clear light in the city is not, as the letter C in this case is soft, as of /s/. The first C is relevant to the /K/ phoneme – cat, kitten, school. It’s the feeling you get at the roof of your mouth.
The second C emerges through the teeth and tongue, as with ice, sun and dress. This is an important feature to remember about alliteration.

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping…
And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me – filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before…” – The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe.

Alliteration is a useful technique for ad campaigns – you’ve no doubt had some earworm heard on the TV or radio, stuck in your mind. Brand names too, can be made memorable with alliteration: Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Range Rover, Mr Muscle. It’s also the reason why I never give names to characters which sound too much alike, particularly the initial letter/sound; too easy for the reader to mix them up in the mind.

Used too often in prose, alliteration can make for clotted language. Phonemes that appear frequently will stand out, and have your audience wondering if there’s some message that they’re missing. Unless there are particular words/phrases you want to drive home, try to avoid overdoing it. That being said, alliteration can make for some truly memorable scenes in prose; as can its counterpart, homoioteleuton:

“He ran quickly and the ice flowed sleekly”
“Someone should call attention to his lack of premeditation.”

Suffixes such as -ing (leaving, beating) -ence, -ly -ance and -ion are often used in this repetitive pattern, to reinforce a connection between words and create a striking rhythm.

Where traditional rhyme uses both consonants and vowels to mark itself out, assonance deals with the latter. It is the echo of internal vowel-sounds, when placed in good proximity of each other. As with alliteration, it’s concerned more with the sound of the letters concerned; these hook onto each other to create another form of near rhyme (particularly when the surrounding consonants do not meet well.) I find that this technique often “rounds out” otherwise hard-sounding words, as of flesh lining bones:

“In sinuous folds of cities old and grim,
Where all things, even horror, turn to grace,
I follow, in obedience to my whim,
Strange, feeble, charming creatures round the place.” – The Little Old Women, Baudelaire.

Though more commonly found in verse, assonance can have a striking effect when used in prose:

“It was a damp April day, with long diagonal clouds over the Albishorn and water inert in the low places – pg 132 Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Dissonance is the intentional disruption of rhythm and sound, to jarring effect. In music, it’s the discord of notes, a lack of harmony; in writing, it can snarl up the reading/speaking process, forcing the audience to focus on the imagery involved:

“In a soil thick with snails and rich as grease
I’ve longed to dig myself a good deep grave
There to stretch my old bones at ease – Baudelaire, The Gladly Dead.

The vowel sounds are elongated, as of stretching out to sleep, to die, to be laid to rest. By contrast, the consonants are thick and cloying; there’s a predilection for the /k/ and /g/ phonemes, which lie heavy in the mouth, evocative of heavy soil that clings to the shovel, to the boots … and of age, the cares of the world, dragging the weary soul down. What’s most striking is the dissonant rhythm created, as the vowels and consonants butt up against one another – the scrape of the shovel through the vowels, coming up upon obstacles such as stones and snails, the soil “thick as grease.”

Sibilance is the hissing effect caused by English phonemes (s), (sh), (z), and (zh). It can take various roles, depending on context – the soothing of a mother’s voice to a child:

“Hush hush little plush
Mama’s near you through the night
Hush hush little plush
Everything will be alright.” – The Mouse and his Child, Russell Hoban.

the sultry atmosphere of a summer evening, calm and pleasant:

‘Tis moonlight, summer moonlight,
All soft and still and fair;
The silent time of midnight
Shines sweetly everywhere.” – Moonlight, summer moonlight, Emily Bronte.

Used in prose, it can evoke connotations of pathos or tension relative to a character or scene. In Watership Down, a particular scene which always stands out for me is the arrival of the Sandleford rabbits at the warren of wires. When a native rabbit is called upon to recite poetry at a get-together, it can be no coincidence that his very name, Silverweed, encapsulates the desperately sad atmosphere of his warren. Sibilance plays a large part in his spoken verse, to unsettling effect:

“The wind is blowing, blowing over the grass.
It shakes the willow catkins; the leaves shine silver…
Into the sky, the feathery sky and the rabbit…
Where are you going, stream? Far far away
Beyond the heather, sliding away all night.
Take me with you, stream, away in the starlight…” – pg 113, Watership Down, Richard Adams.

There is also the presence of assonance in the repetition of the /a/ /o/ phonemes, and homoioteleuton in the -ing suffix – these create a wistful, flowing sensation, as of the wind carrying souls away into the night, leaving behind those who must stay in a numb state of non-life. Silverweed’s tone is almost plaintive; he and the other rabbits of his warren have not only accepted their fate, but almost look forward to the release found in death, because of it. Pipkin’s remark best sums it up:
“I’ll tell you how they strike me. They all seem terribly sad. I can’t think why, when they’re so big and strong and have this beautiful warren. But they put me in mind of trees in November.”

Compare this pathos with the stark atmosphere found in the use of sibilance in the world of Harry Potter. The language of snakes is a spitfire hissing, and known here as Parseltongue. Put into the context of the novel, the use of sibilance creates a tense atmosphere, where the very mention of snakes is connotative of wrongdoing:

“‘It matters,’ said Hermione, speaking at last in a hushed voice, ‘because being able to talk to snakes was what Salazar Slytherin was famous for. That’s why the symbol of Slytherin house is a serpent.'”

“‘They called Slytherin himself Serpent-tongue.'” – pgs 146-9, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling.

Whether for poetry or prose, these are but some sound techniques that can be used to enhance your writing. Audience perspective of a character can be influenced by “their” choice of words, the phonemes resounding with connotative imagery; a scene can be made memorable by the emotional effect of pronouncing each word used to describe it. An atmosphere heavy with tension and thick consonants; a death delivered in whispering sibilance, as of a ghost passing over.
Sometimes, no matter how small the passage, it’s the sheer pleasure of finding music in the positioning of words, the relation of their phonemes to one another:

“There was music from my neighbour’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.

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Writing Reality: Location and Time

04/11/2013 at 05:45 (Personal, Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


Listening to Ralph McTell’s Streets of London, I’m always struck by a particular stanza:

Have you seen the old man
Outside the Seaman’s Mission
Memory fading with the medal ribbons that he wears
In our winter city,
The rain cries a little pity
For one more forgotten hero
And a world that doesn’t care

It reminds me of what first drew me to the city, embedded it in my heart – apart from the obvious beauty of a silken blue scarf on the horizon, one that all too soon knots itself about the throat in a toxic beauty of pollution. I used to travel into London with my mother to meet my father after work, so my memories are mostly of windows set into antiquated walls that blurred past the train, their golden glow seeming like diamond eyes to my excited ones, though the lives held behind would be working late into an evening full of blue-black shadows.

As I’ve got older, the shine of the city hasn’t diminished, only shifted perspective. I often take walking trips across its myriad streets, one borough to another, all alive with individuality and the traits of whoever happens to live there. Though it’s come to my attention more recently (as a writer), that an environment can inform the personality habits/quirks of a resident, as much as the latter influences the state of their home/workplace.

So while wandering, I take in the welcome glow of polished windows and pub signs, the huddled figures in doorways they can never hope to enter but which offer temporary shelter from the wind. There are those who’ll return to the same park bench each day on their lunch break, out of comfortable habit and to feel a niche of Home; or perhaps to escape the mundane nature of this. Depending on what they have to hand, what their circumstances are, they’ll feed or fend off the ever-present pigeon clouds that alight and clatter away by turns, in that bird’s daze of checkered tree-light and traffic noise.

All these impressions, so many more, tangle me up whenever I visit. I find my eyes lingering on the hidden places of the world, the random moments and meetings, rather than rising as they once did to the glaring lights and tourist eyecandy; the teeth of stone, steel and glass. Hooked alley corners, small pockets of greenery, the shadows that smell of a thousand borrowed cuisines; though these often ring with a binman’s calls, and provide more shelter for that hunched shape of one still evading what had them leave their old life behind
(if they had one at all.)

All under an indifferent sky. Freedom is a hard-won prize.

I use the city as an example for its diversity, but you’ll have your own influences, your own icons and symbolism. When writing a location, framing a fictional narrative about a setting in which your characters exist, how often do you stop to wonder about its influence upon their lives – direct and indirect – how it informs their movements, lifestyle choices, emotional responses?

There are things I’ve had to consider in more depth, when writing my novel. As it’s set mainly in one town (fictional, “Reighton”) and is caught between timeframes of past and present (filtered through two first-person narratives, with additional input from secondary sources) it’s become necessary for me to know that environment inside out. I use that analogy again, of taking a clock to pieces to know its mechanism – should the need arise, I have the same resources to hand for taking Reighton apart, assessing how a relevant plot point can be made where it links to a contextual detail.

Just as characterization hinges upon traits and layered memories, a location may develop a personality of its own. Opinions differ greatly about Reighton, depending on a character’s stance in life and more importantly, what impact the town has had upon them. There are families with generational roots deep in its history, who feel a frustrated affection for its once-great past and sadness for its seemingly stark future. Their ancestors were the pivotal force behind Reighton’s conception, first as a farming community along the river Rei, then – with the arrival of a powerful outside influence – as a multifaceted, prosperous clayworks. The latter effectively put Reighton on the map; it became part of a successful commuter belt.

When the clay business collapsed, those families whose lives had twined about it were left to the whim of the council and any investors who happened to pass through, seeing a trick of hasty housing for yet more commuters. The factories and warehouses now lie barren, the old rail line is a playground for the children, who most likely will never know full-time employment. The once-bustling town is, in its present setting, a shadow of itself; this breeds apathy in some, a fierce desire to escape in others … and in a few of the kid-gangs, a somewhat delusional belief that because the outside world has no need for them, they can in turn inwards and become small Gods.

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To achieve all of these plot points – to give them logos as well as pathos – I look for what has influenced my own life. A year spent on the Dole in a town of dying economy, well, that certainly features heavily; as do those childhood days of playing down the abandoned rail line in my old home town.

I wanted to find how these environmental issues might dictate certain character behaviours. In Reighton, lack of work has seen a rise in petty theft and muggings, but also an increase in the tight community ethic. It’s very much an Us vs. Them scenario, with the weary locals – after several decades of declining means and a ream of broken promises from their council – near to breaking point. Morale is low, community-spirit is high, and a thin copper wire of tension runs around the whole town, from the more affluent East side (where the commuter-belt / wealthier locals are, in newer estates or the antiquated mansions of their ancestors), to the impoverished West side of the river, in which many a generation of ex-clayworkers has lived and died.

I pulled influences from my old town, inverting the history of a local parish where I once lived, to add credible details to the history of Reighton. Ridgewood, in the East Sussex town of Uckfield, served as the location for a clayworking pottery through the 19th/20th centuries. As a child, I had no concept of this remarkably layered history; what my friends and I saw were the remnants, two great pits left in the ground for us to play hide-and-seek in, Murder in the Dark, and to sled across when the snow fell on the slopes. My memory of that time is rich with the bittersweet smell of hawthorns, and the wide bowl of open sky; standing on the rim of the larger pit and often finding old discarded hand tools; the proud possessions of whoever once toiled over the clay.

It was a fine playground for any child, and has since been converted into a Millennium Green nature reserve, to preserve it for future generations. Its past is now being brought to light, as when I grew old enough to find an interest in the finer details of my locality, there was little to come by. Said details have made up much of the framework for both my novel’s narrative, and the foundations on which they stand. My local library’s archives were also a priceless resource – use your own wherever possible, particularly to learn the structuring of a town across generations, to gain an insight into environmental and economical patterns (e.g. many towns begin life alongside a river, arable land and/or a major trade-link road.)

Often, character lifestyle choices will be based upon what they’ve learned through a progression of experiences – parental influence, education, home and work environments. A series of locations may well mirror this.

“Mickey was about twenty-six, short, with a small moustache on a pasty face. The romance and glory of his life were behind him. The romance was still the warm East, where he had been a clerk in a rubber firm, and the glory had been the divine facility of living, women and drinking. Now he was unemployed, and wore an overcoat along the hard, frozen plains of Earl’s Court, where he lived on and with his mother… he was famous for his drunkenness locally, being particularly welcome in drinking circles… because by his excesses, he put his companions in countenance, making their own excesses seem small in comparison.” – Pg 42, Hangover Square, Patrick Hamilton.

Symbolism can be brought into the act too, once a fictional setting becomes as well-known to you as the reality you walk through; these shadowy messages start to appear in the corners of the bigger picture. Huddled shapes in the doorways of grand houses; a newspaper of today, blowing up the road being built for tomorrow; and indeed, the succession of wealth unto celebrity, an endless parade of tomorrows for as long as both hold out:

“No one wore costumes on the night of her engagement party at the Racquet & Tennis Club, but in the ballroom of that club, that limestone manse sitting like a sphinx on Park Avenue … you didn’t need costumes to have a masque ball. Everyone knew their role and played it… Their names were written in gold leaf on mahogany plaques across the walls of the changing rooms, Whitneys, Phippses, Rockefellers, and they bathed naked together in the Turkish bath and played obscure racquet sports passed down from Bourbon kings and sealed billion-dollar deals with clinks of glasses over lunch. And at these parties, if you were not a member, you were a guest and set your face stern to conceal your awe. You were solemn to foil discovery of the wonder that mugged you of your confidence… then into the grand ballroom that invited you to look down on who you had been just moments before, on the street below. You hated loving being there, and you struggled to conceal yourself, and all of a sudden, you were in costume.” – Pgs 1-2, Mergers and Acquisitions, Dana Vachon.

One of my characters, Garth Hakken Sr., is forever in and out of prison. He is part of the forgotten Reighton generations on the West side, but chose not to go quietly into poverty – his is a life of scrap-metal and shady deals, to keep his family fed. His acclimatization to both this darker side of life, and the legal consequences set against him, inform his thoughts and behaviour. He walks with his head tucked in, as a boxer will to avoid a punch; his tall frame is somewhat curved over, movements neat and confined, to avoid drawing unnecessary attention and out of sheer practicality – he’s spent a good deal of time in a cramped cell.

Do your characters aspire to fit in on a social level, or – due to the level of danger in their surroundings – have they learned to act upon instinct and disappear, before fear takes over? To what extent do socio-economical matters impact upon their lives? How have circumstances changed them from the blush of youth, into the pale years of age; do they wear these marks of another time for all to see, a proud symbol diminished by the world’s neglect?

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Memory fading with the medal ribbons that he wears
In our winter city,
The rain cries a little pity
For one more forgotten hero
And a world that doesn’t care

These are considerations to make – running parallel with research for a setting/environment – for potential advancement of plot, based upon what drives a character to react as they do.

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Whither do I wander

26/10/2013 at 14:22 (Anorexia, Personal, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


I wasn’t going to post an entry this weekend, nor yet write for Monday Blogs. All the fierce colour has gone out of my mind recently, a prelude to something worse I fear. I wish it were only ‘flu, but it’s more likely a case of the Blues.

Emily Haines knows what I’m talking about.

“Doctor Blind, just prescribe the blue ones / If the dizzying highs don’t subside overnight / Doctor Blind, just prescribe the red ones.” The life and half-life of an addict – lights going out, one by one. Friends and family, falling away.

That has been my time. A rip-curl ride of reds – stark love, stick-tears and falling in a heap at the feet of those who had no need of me, but I gave too many ideals to bother looking for what they meant. Oh, I’m an eventuality, a cause without a rebel; ever a slave to my own passions. I believe too much in one thing, not enough in the other – truth and love so rarely go hand in hand. That summer of long heat and gold shadows and finding my feet walking unknown paths, is almost done. No, it is done; the baleful eye of the sun winks brass light at me these days, while leaves the exact same shade as the polished beech carvings on a market stall, go skirling along the pavement like ashes. The wind is not yet raw. I anticipate a bad fall. Depending on what side of the pond you sit right now, you can take that as many ways as you like.

The way I see now, is a darkening tunnel of light. I pull away from those who would care; run after those that don’t. So it’s always been – an addictive personality, forever craving what I can’t have. Blue pill, red pill, sometimes I’m skyhigh on both while burrowing down in a screaming soul’s night. I woke on Friday morning at dead on 4.15 with tears pouring down my face, mouth open on that silent cry; a wicked memory, a nightmare perhaps, though both are footloose in my mind. I can’t recall what sparked it off, what spared me the end result. So it usually is with those falling dreams; you wake, before whamming into the pavement. The city lights and skyscrapers and blue-black night fly past, your hair and fingers sing through the wind, and you watch the ground come up to swallow you whole –

Shutter out.
Let the Doctor soothe your brain, dear.

I live on snatched time and aching limbs, rum and a cheap equivalent of Red Bull. So much caffeine, so many lip-salve kisses on a glass. I raise one to the world each night, then another, with the hopes of sleeping far more than I should. Reality and fantasy, I want them both, and too often they evade me with the same chevron smiles of the geese, long gone now over the autumn sky. God, I miss their passing. The lake is a little more bare, a little more cold, each time I walk through the park. Some remain, to be fed by the mirroring gaggle of humans, with their bags full of bread and sticky rubbish. The upshot being that the poor overweight bastards (the feathered ones) can’t fly away with their healthier, wiser fellows – their wings are shot, all broken off due to disease inflicted by scooping up great mounds of their own shit with the food thrown out to them in the same patches around the water’s edge. Overcrowding, overfeeding; malnutrition and crossing of wires, as they’re stoked on the same sugar high-crashes we seem to run the gauntlet of every day, out of office and gym and carpark and pub.

Who says we’re not intrinsically linked? I beg to differ. I’d like to do more, but there’s the point of my mouth being sewn shut lately, out of weariness and a slight aversion to Self. Yes, we’re in that thin-ice spot again, where I find ribs as old friends; am frightened by my reflection and embittered by my voice. It’s getting a slight metallic rasp, like Lecter. I’m not lonely, no – far from it. Something else creeps up, a black dog with large silent paws.

It’s the time of year for it, so people tell me. I was stronger at the start of the year, and altogether more naive and unappreciative. Now I know time, its hard tug on others like a hook through the navel – I know what it means to care, to love, to shred your heart into tiny pieces and let them fly on the wind, hoping they’ll reach every poor fucker you give a damn about. Some get a surplus, while others get nothing at all, for days or months on end.
It’s a capricious wind, sorry to say.

I rarely sleep anymore. The night holds too many dreams, both bright and bitter. I want too many things at once, while my brain times itself out. Days become gluey on caffeine and thoughts of what might be; evenings are nodding off over the laptop, when I should be writing the novel I had high hopes in the year’s first blush, of editing up to scratch for an agent. It should’ve been finished by now, this draft. I’m so far behind, on this personal invisible timetable of mine – the one I’m sure you can relate to in some way, that burning desire to please yourself if not others. It’s more than half the reason I force myself to keep up the blog, the writing, when what I want to be doing is somewhere over the grass and up in the sky.

We forget ourselves in writing. It’s a deceptive charm. How many times have you felt guilt for actually daring to walk out the door and live your life, as a human being, as opposed to strings of words and a profile picture or four? I know I have, oh so many times this year. Truth is, we compel ourselves to feel the burning rush, the appreciation, the Win-All of accomplishment. It’s an addictive serotonin buzz.

Until the dizzying high subsides. The weariness whams back in, for me at least. Walking more than ever, realizing all too soon how complacent I was, reliant on my ex and less outgoings. Now I have a higher rent and a workload to match it. The brain is close to a whiteout, as experienced the other day at work, when I fell to the gum-tacky carpet and bruised my ego more than my arse. No one was there to see, thankfully – but it put my situation into a blender. I’ve pushed things too far again.

For those not in the know, I have experienced anorexia nervosa / athletica since age 16. My body’s a little diminished from the after-effects, and while I weigh more than a decade ago at inpatient admittance, there are less reserves to compensate for overburdening. I’ve pushed out articles, fiction, gym, all with the undercurrent-turmoil of being pushed pillar to post this whole damn year. My heart gained a lead gate.
What a cliche. Let’s try that again.

I’m burning out. Unable to heed my own advice, as per experience. It becomes too easy to lose myself in the Everyday – forgetting where I’ve come from, how it can still impact on my dreams. I can’t achieve all I want to, if I don’t back off a bit every now and then. March was the last time I took a holiday of any kind.

It’s been a case of Waiting for the Other Boot to drop, all year. Now I’m in a relatively secure place, I need to make sure my head’s in a safe one too. This means backing up. I recognized the propensity for addiction in my personality a long time ago; the responsibility comes with not only identifying but acting upon it, to reduce the car-crash. The same could be said of many I’ve spoken to this year, on and offline. If you know it’s in yourself to be triggered – to feel emotionally harmed by something someone has said, whatever the context – take yourself out of the scene. Don’t dig nails into a raw wound. If you’re tired, serotonin levels drop dramatically – you’ll feel blue, out of sorts, angsty, more likely to feel and cause pain.

I know what my own triggers are. Numbers in a competitive state; certain words related to eating disorders. I’ve seen them bandied around a few times on social media sites, and while it’s no one’s fault that they appeared, a little contextual grounding has to be put in place. I know in myself that these things will cause me pain, so take myself out of the situation. It’s not fair to expect the world to walk on eggshells; they’re only as fragile as your mindset.

If I don’t feel like talking about writing because my own flags, out of apathy or weariness, I won’t hang around those that do. Nor will I respond with a pithy comment to someone’s #Amwriting tweet; we’ve all been there, felt that burning rush to express the golden glow of triumph, that perplexing sunburst of emotion that accompanies a Really Good writing session. No one deserves it more than writers, for we put ourselves through a lifetime’s hell of loneliness (while telling ourselves we are but introverts, but come on, believe in me, I speak as one myself – we’ve all known it, that guilt for stepping out the door while a narrative bays in our ear.)

But as well as being on all sides and spots of the world, we’re all in very different emotional and mental states. As much as writing is Give and Take between creator and audience, so too is social media a format based upon tact and an alliance of good manners. If you know you’re not in the mood to respond in a decent way to someone’s joyous outpouring (of any kind, I use writing as a personal example), don’t jeopardize the friendship with a sentiment you’ll likely regret when in a better frame of mind. I know I’ve had to bite my tongue a few times.

The clouds do part. The blues fall away, the reds dwindle. The waters let us lie becalmed, to sleep, to dream without waking in the night. I know this will all pass, once I’ve given myself time to build up strength to row. Hopefully this confessional (in a recessional) will allow me to fend off the demon a bit longer. I’ll force myself to step up the defenses.

So if I seem a little strange, well that’s because I am. And tired, unable to keep up with reading others’ blogs lately; for that, I do apologise, but only because I’ve let myself get to the numb stage again. Where does the guilt halve itself and become complacency of other’s understanding?

I’ll take some leave soon, from Everything, to the detriment of the work load and blog hits, novel-progression. Weight gain will probably occur, to terrify and nourish me by turns.
We all need to know this fear and this recovery.
Meanwhile, numb is the new High.

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