Wednesday, 17 August 2011

A rather delayed post

In which there is an apology, some grovelling, some chatting about plot, and praise for Jack Ketchum's Off Season.

Hello all,

I'm very sorry about the fact that I've not updated in a while. It's been preying on my mind. Well, when I've not been sleeping, or busied with both welcome and unwelcome real world preoccupations. I know, it's been two weeks. What excuses can I possibly have? I was busy over last weekend, flaunting my press pass for all it was worth at Empire Bigscreen (though it couldn't get me into Drive) for the entertainment blog I write for (Look! Here's a link!, and I started a two week unpaid internship on Monday. But I said I wouldn't talk too much about personal stuff, and here I am, grovelling, and without a story. Useless. And even now, I have to close this window and do a two-hour writing exercise for a different internship....

And I'm back. I do apologise. Again. But let's move on. We can talk about writing a bit. Which I said I'd do at some point.

One aspect of writing that's been particularly interesting to me lately is plot structure. Pretty big area, I know, but there's a lot of snobbery surrounding plot-driven fiction. I've always been a bit ramshackle when it comes to plotting, which will come as no surprise to readers of this blog or people who know me personally, and as I moved from short story to novel writing it became a more serious issue.

I have a great, great respect for writers who can plot well, both in prose and television. I find myself watching The Wire (a poor example as it's a bench-mark I will never, never reach) or the old TV series of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley's People (ditto) and wondering how on earth did they keep all those strands together. Off on a slight tangent, the ability to write running jokes in comedy is something I marvel at, particularly in Arrested Development. I bring that show up mainly because it gives me an opportunity to have a flashback to some of my favourite AD running jokes. It'll probably never happen but I would, maybe just once, like to write something that someone would describe as "labyrinthine". Partly because it's such a wonderful word.

No, I think what I'm writing at the moment could best be described as "sprawling". I've decided to follow up my first person non-published novel with a multi-character effort. As I slowly move forward, I'm becoming increasingly anxious about how I'm going to tie everything together. Wait, that's not quite right. Not just tie everything together. Tie everything together WELL.

These worries have made me nostalgic for less ambitious projects, and have had me trawling my laptop's archives for the first time I tried to write a novel. It was set over three days, focused on a few main characters, and was aiming to be short, sharp, and brutal. I was skimming through it a couple of weeks ago, pondering whether it would be worth going back to it, expanding it (it only weighs in at about 50,000 words), when I finally started reading Off Season by Jack Ketchum. It was lent to me by my friend Martin who said that the plot of what I was writing reminded him of this novel. I quickly realised quite how much work would need to be done my misshapen effort to get it into the same genre. The novel does what I was feebly trying to do, but so much better.

I really have no business comparing my writing to Mr. Ketchum's, so I'm not going to. But the most basic plot synopses are superficially comparable in that both involve a group of people going to a cabin only to be brutally attacked by local monsters. Mine are supernatural, and I reused them for my subsequent novel, and continue to reuse them ad nauseam because I like them. Ketchum's, however, are all too real. Let's chat about Off Season a bit, because it deserves to be talked about.

The plot is this: Carla and her sister, their respective beaus, along with Carla's ex and his girlfriend, head up to a cabin in Maine. Unfortunately, there's a large and nasty family of savages in the woods that see them as quick and easy prey.

Ketchum doesn't waste any time. Off Season is a short book and the limited space serves it incredibly well. We only just to get to know the characters, and get to like a couple of them, before the figures in the woods burst in and start to tear them apart. It doesn't slow down until it stops. The only respite from the nail-biting tension comes from the scenes with the local law enforcement. However, it's not much of a respite as they are moving in the right direction, just not quickly enough. One of the novel's masterstrokes is the humanity of the creatures who are hunting our heroes. They're not vampires or demons, they're people gone wrong who are looking to fill their pot. They're also going to have some fun doing so. If you want a lesson in economy of prose and how to punch your reader in the gut you should read Off Season. (Thank you to Martin for lending it to me!)

So, coming back round to our plot discussion, Off Season isn't Smiley's People or The Wire. From the brutal opening sequence, it moves like a bullet from a gun: in a straight line and damn quickly. While that sort of plotting could be called simplistic if done badly, Ketchum uses it to great effect. If you can keep momentum and keep your grip on the throat of your reader, the straight-forward plot can be thrilling.

Right, that's all for now. I'm working on a short story for you, hopefully it should be up soon. I'll do my best to make the updates a bit more consistent. And before I go, take a look at AL Kennedy's new book, The Blue Book. This is a good looking book:

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