Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The Perks of First Person Narration

Hello there,

No story today, as we discussed last week. No, today I'm going to be talking about first person narration with regard to a couple of novels I like. If you're thinking "Forget that!" then you can come back next week, and I promise there'll probably be a story. Probably.

So, first person narration. It's a brave choice, I think, or at least a difficult one because it means that the writer is committing fully to one character and his or her voice. And while you can switch between different characters and give them all their own first person narration, if you decide to stick with one, well, that's it. You'd better hope that the reader wants to stick with that character as well. The voice has got to be one that the reader wants to listen to for the duration of the book. The first few pages need to convince them that this is a character who not only deserves to have a story told, but deserves the opportunity to tell it themselves.

I'm bringing up this whole issue for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I used first person narration for That Damned Novel. It was a decision I was encouraged to keep to by a tutor on my MA but still fretted about until I was about halfway through the novel. For a while it felt like I was real constricting myself in how I could tell the story. But once I got comfortable in the voice it just felt right, and I can't imagine the book working even on the modest level that I think it does without it.

Secondly, I just finished reading Stephen Chbosky's novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower after years of my good friend Benjamin Sheppard telling me to read it. It's very good, and I would like to talk about the narration. I'll do so as carefully as possible because you should read it if you haven't.

The narrator of Perks is a fifteen-year-old American kid called Charlie who's just starting high school and is writing letters to an unnamed pen-pal to sort through his problems. He's changed his and everyone else's names to keep their identities secret. He's probably best described as overly sensitive, and he's also very intelligent and perceptive. I had my worries during the first few pages. Charlie's voice takes a bit of getting used to, and I wondered if my fears of an overly-precious little novel with overly-twee affectations were going to be realised. However, because Chbosky is a very good writer, it's not long before you notice that Charlie's voice isn't an affectation of a lonely teen, it's actually how his mind works. The more you get to know Charlie, the less self-conscious the narration feels. And because we see his world through his eyes, it makes it easier for Chbosky to make us postpone our judgment of him as a character. Charlie hears people call him weird, his behaviour is erratic, he sees a psychiatrist, and he's well aware that his family and friends worry about it. But we're still interpreting him through the information he gives us.

This isn't to say it's not twee. or a little precious. It is. But I do love a bit of twee, in reasonable doses, as my Belle and Sebastian fixation makes evident, and there's a lot of heart and some uncomfortable truths in the novel that keep it grounded.

Perks reminded me both of how precarious and how effective first person narration can be. I'm someone whose teenage years almost certainly predisposed me to liking something like The Perks of Being A Wallflower, but the oh-so-heartfelt opening couple of pages had me on my sceptical guard. However, a few more pages in and I was completely involved. You don't, and shouldn't, be given a warm-up period of getting to know a character if they're narrating. You should be thrown in at the deep end and immersed in their personal view of their world until you finish the book.

This is also why I'm fairly certain that the upcoming film adaptation won't be as good. For me, the reason why the book works so well (a fleeting Hal Hartley reference aside, well played, Chbosky) is because of Charlie's voice. It's distinct, honest, and engaging. While it's certainly heartening that Chbosky is writing and directing the movie, and it's being produced by John Malkovich's Mr. Mudd company (whose fine track record includes fellow lovely outsider-teen-pop-culture-reference-fests Juno and Ghost World), there's no way that I can see to keep that perspective. Yes, Charlie is incredibly perceptive when it comes to his friends and family, but there's a difference between having him report it and actually being shown it ourselves. Now, of course there have been excellent cinematic adaptations of first-person-narrated novels, all of which will probably contradict all of my reservations. But I'm concerned that the Perks film will lose, or at least diminish, that voice, without which it may well fall into the trap of becoming an over-earnest teen romance. Having said that, Chbosky is a very good writer, and the film is well-cast (with personal favourites Melanie Lynskey, Paul Rudd, and Mae Whitman appearing), so I'm going to stop judging it before I've seen it.

So, returning to first person, it's obviously vital to have a character whose voice is distinct and arresting enough to make you want to keep reading. A really good example of a writer who uses first person well is Chuck Palahniuk. His narrators don't care if you like them or not. In Choke, my favourite novel of his, the narrator assures you that you certainly won't like him. But these disturbed individuals make for fascinating company. You don't need to like Palahniuk's weirdos, but you definitely want to hear the story they've got to tell. Incidentally, Choke was made into a film a few years ago, and had a great performance from the perfectly cast Sam Rockwell, but the biggest problem wasn't the narration, it was the fact that they changed the ending.

If you can get it right, first person narration is a wonderful tool to further immerse your reader in the world of your novel. It can make it more vivid, more personal. But it's got to be believable, not necessarily in what it's saying (there are many great examples of unreliable narrators) but in how it's saying it. It's a technique that I will definitely try again at some point, but I will do so very carefully.

So, that's it. Hope that you'll come back next week and read the story. Oh, and check out The Perks of Being A Wallflower.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Story: Altogether Too Ethereal

Agnes was used to ghosts. At eight years old she’d looked up from her wavering spoon to see her great grandmother watching her eat a bowl of cornflakes from the kitchen doorway. Having attended the woman’s funeral only a week before, Agnes was so alarmed that she vomited her breakfast over the kitchen table and her great-grandmother had vanished. Later that day, when she saw the spectral old lady watching her do her homework, she was calmer and asked her Nan how things were. They’d chatted for about half an hour. Apparently Nan was hanging around for a bit, checking that Agnes’ mum was handling things OK.

Nan had introduced Agnes to some fellow spirits, and soon enough Agnes was holding séances. She had a knack for it. They were just little ones at first, barely even real, just inviting friends round, freaking out boys, but as she’d grown older she’d started charging money for it. Good money, too. Talking to the dead was not something that frightened her; it was something that put food on the table. So she was not unduly worried when she awoke shivering one night to see the disembodied spirit of Charlie Lewis floating near her bedroom door.

Not worried, but more than a little pissed off. Charlie Lewis had been a bastard of a boyfriend, and Agnes hadn’t too wasted many tears when she’d heard that, after a break up that involved the hurling of threats and crockery, he had drunkenly stumbled out into the road and into the path of an oncoming Danish lorry. Agnes had not much mourned the man, yet here he was, wide-eyed, faintly luminous, and a little transparent. His mouth flapped uselessly. She guessed that the power of speech had been lost. It happened sometimes. He should have been grateful that he didn’t have the appearance of his corpse. By all rights he should have been a lot flatter and a lot more of what had been inside should have been visible.

“Get the fuck out, Charlie,” muttered Agnes, and rolled over.

But he didn’t. The chill that came with the presence of the dead did not dissipate. She kept her eyes firmly closed.

“I don’t want to hear it,” she said. “You were annoying enough when you could breathe, you’re twice as annoying now. Go away.”

She could feel him silently moving around the room. Whatever it was he wanted, there was no way for him to articulate it. She hoped that he would give up and go back to wherever it was he’d gone to in the first place.

For a moment, it seemed that her wish had been granted. The chill went. She opened her eyes and sat up in bed. Charlie wasn’t there. Then she heard a noise from downstairs. Like something bumping against something. Was it the table in the hall? If he’d done anything to her Mum’s lamp she would be furious.

Then Charlie was back in the room. Eyes bulging, mouth hanging slackly open, tongue lolling. He looked ridiculous, even for a ghost.

“Was that you? Are you serious? Moving stuff around in my house like some half-arsed bloody poltergeist? Even in death you’re useless.”

For a moment she regretted being so cruel as her words drove him into a frenzy. He whirled around the room, hurling himself against the walls. A few audible bumps suggested he was getting the hang of this. He was learning physical contact. This wouldn’t do. Agnes had an 8am séance tomorrow for a busy woman who worked in the city. Some bank or something. She needed her sleep.

“Alright, Charlie. I’m sorry I was so rude. But you can’t be here. Are you stuck, is that it? If you come back tomorrow, after I’ve had some sleep, we can sort this out. Alright? About 9.30?”

He coughed. She heard it.

“Can you tell me what you want, Charlie? If you could just fucking articulate...”

There was a sound like someone clearing their throat. His eyes were so wide that Agnes thought that they might just pop out of their sockets. It would not be the first time that had happened. She watched his mouth furiously work to form words that just didn’t seem to want to come. Had Agnes been wrong to assume he’d come just to annoy her?

“If we go through all of this and it turns out you’re just trying to tell me that I’m a bitch, you should know I’ll send you to a much worse place than wherever you are now. You know I can do that, don’t you?”

Charlie slammed his fist into the wall. It left a dent. Agnes was impressed, if a little irritated.


Agnes sat up in bed. She had never taken Charlie for a fast learner, but there it was, just minutes after his first appearance, his very first word.

“Down what, Charlie?”

Charlie’s ghost slapped itself very hard across the face, started beating on his chest. The pain and frustration was written all over his face. He was crying.


“Down what? Is that where you ended up? Did you really expect something else?”

A bolt of pain went through Agnes’ head like a long sewing needle. Charlie wasn’t focusing his energy; it was coming out of him in aimless waves. She felt blood trickle out of her nose. As she saw the red drops on her bed sheets she remembered all the times he’d ever been bad to her, all the things he’d done. And she made up her mind. She looked straight at Charlie and focused.

Charlie knew what she was doing. He’d seen her do it before. But instead of giving up he strained even harder.


The pain clattered through her head but Agnes cleared her mind of all thoughts except the most important one.

His feet were the first to go. He looked down, horrified, as his already transparent legs began to disappear completely. But he kept repeating that He didn’t stop shouting even as his fingers began to dissipate. The pain didn’t stop in Agnes’ head but she was nearly there. So nearly there.

“Downstairs! There’s someone downstairs!”

Then he was gone. And the bedroom door opened.


Hello there,

So, hope you enjoyed that. I wanted to do a "THE CALL IS COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE" story, and this became it. Only without a phone. Those really scared me when I was younger. I'm not familiar with too many novels with that twist, but the best film examples, of course, are When A Stranger Calls and Black Christmas. The originals. Not the gutless remakes. Anyway, it's also got a bit of The Frighteners and all those Stephen King stories that end with something terrible gurgling with laughter as it pushes the door open....There are quite a few of those. They are awesome, I am in no way disparaging them.

But yes, this is basically another "bit of fun" story. Which is fine, but I imagine that you want a bit of variety, and I would like to keep things fresh. Well, fairly fresh. So what I think I might do is, instead of trying to post a story every week, have alternating story and blog posts. The blog would be that writing about writing we talked about. How does that sound? Hopefully it'll mean that I actually come up with something a bit different for you.

Once again, I am useless at coming up with names so Agnes is from the song "Agnes" by Nat Johnson and The Figureheads. Nat Johnson is great, she used to be the front-person for the lovely Sheffield band Monkey Swallows the Universe. Check them out. Also check out her song "Dirty Rotten Soul", which makes a Volvo a romantic car. The title for the story is a line from Hal Hartley's amazing film Amateur, where nun-turned-porn-writer Isabelle Huppert complains about her body type. If you know me, you know that I will go on about Hal Hartley. He's a great filmmaker whose failings I can now acknowledge, but I still love him. Amateur isn't available on Region 2, but Trust, Henry Fool, and The Unbelievable Truth are fantastic. But his films are in no way similar to this story.

The project I'm working on Benjamin Elias Sheppard (he updated his blog!) continues. If I can write better it'd be going better. I'm still unemployed which isn't fun, plus I'm also flat-hunting, but I am trying not to let this affect my work. I'm also pondering e-publishing The Novel That Nobody Wanted, but that's just a faint blink of an idea. I've got no idea how to go about it. And if anyone would want The Novel That Nobody Wanted. It's not actually called that, I'm just a bitter man.

Anyway, hope you liked the story. I'm going to make a cup of tea.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Story: The Woman in the Mirror

Before you read this, a quick word of introduction. This is a story I wrote for a class on my MA course. We were told to write a brief story in the style of another writer and I chose Edgar Allan Poe. Although, hopefully you would have guessed that fairly quickly.



Murderer! Yes – I will not deny it. The woman lying dead in the attic died with my hands around her throat. But I swear to God! The woman lying dead in the attic is not my sister. Not anymore. If you allow me to tell you the whole story, perhaps things will become clearer.

I was called home from my studies two weeks ago to attend to my sister Virginia. I had received a letter from her fiancé, Verden Collins, requesting my presence most urgently. He wrote that he worried my sister was losing her grip on her senses, and that she had confined herself to the attic. Virginia had always been prone to bouts of nerves as a child, but this latest development was unfamiliar and clearly a cause for alarm. My carriage arrived late last night, just as the storm was building to its height. Collins stood waiting, shaking with cold. He appeared to be in a state of barely restrained terror, for he would glance, wide-eyed, up at the ceiling after the end of every hurried sentence of his greeting.

After Collins had made familiar with the recent developments I made my way up the stairs of our old house towards the attic. I noted with some displeasure the condition of our home. My sister and I were the last surviving members of our family, and my work meant that I was often out of the country. Under Virginia’s care the house had been allowed to fall into a state of disrepair. The grand windows were filthy, and dust and grime coated the carpets and staircases. As we reached the final flight of stairs which led to the attic Collins tugged on my shirtsleeve. “I cannot go in with you” he told me. “I fear your sister is not herself”. When I asked him to explain himself more fully Collins merely babbled, making little sense. I reassured him that I would discern the affliction my sister suffered from. It is my profession, you see, to help those men and women who believe themselves to be suffering at the hands of some unseen spirit or malevolent force. I hoped that a familiar face would bring her some comfort.

I went into the attic, carrying a lamp in my right hand. As I entered the room, Collins pulled the door shut hastily behind me. A little shaken, I raised the lamp and cast my eyes around for Virginia. The attic had been used as a space to store some of the more unpleasant gifts and objects the family had accumulated over the years. It had not been built for comfort. My eyes grew accustomed to the gloom and I slowly discerned the shape of my sister.

She was sitting at the end of a bed, filthy with dust, and was wearing a long white dress. In the gloom it took me a moment to realise that she was wearing our mother’s wedding dress. Our mother had been a large woman, and the garment hung off my sister and most of it tumbled to the floor where it collected dirt. My sister did not seem to have registered my arrival, and instead was staring fixedly at a large mirror that stood in a grotesquely elaborate frame opposite the bed. I moved closer and cleared my throat, hoping that the sound would rouse her. She continued to sit, gazing at her own reflection. Even saying her name did not prompt her to turn around. As I moved next to her I saw that her lips were moving at a tremendous speed. Virginia appeared to be in avid conversation with her own reflection. Shaken at this sight, I shook her vigorously by the shoulder. She turned slowly to face me. Her face was deathly pale. “Simon?” she asked. I smiled and nodded. “I have come a long way to see you, Virginia” I told her. “Would you care to join me downstairs? We have much to talk about.” A terrible sorrow appeared on my sister’s face. “I am not permitted to leave this attic,” she said. “I must stay here.” I made every effort to convince her to come down, but she refused. After a minute or two, she turned back to the mirror and no longer acknowledged my presence, and resumed mouthing the words I could not interpret at the mirror.

I left the attic, troubled but hopeful. She had recognised me, at least, and I expected greater success in the morning. It is always easier to confront the disturbed with the impossibility of their delusions in the cold light of day. I went downstairs, and Collins followed close at my heels. He was perhaps even more anxious than before, eager to know what had happened. I told him that my sister was plainly exhausted; perhaps suffering from malnutrition, but that I had high hopes for her spirits in the morning. Collins did not appear relieved. Instead, he drew closer. “And the mirror?” he asked. “Is she still talking into the mirror?” Before I could answer, he grasped my arm. “Did you not see her reflection? Did you not see what was in the mirror? For God’s sake, man, you grew up here; do you not know what hides in the shadows of this house?” Of course I was familiar with the tales, the stories of ghosts and ghouls, evil spirits. But I had never been frightened as a boy. Why should I have been, when the blood that drips down the walls runs through my veins?

As he studied my face, we were both startled by a terrible crash. Collins howled and ran back up the stairs. “It must not escape!” he cried. I hurried after him, terrified that a man in such a state might do more harm than good. In my haste I tripped on the stairs and fell. I heard Collins open the attic door and scream once. I stood up and ran up the remaining stairs. As I entered the attic I saw the mirror was smashed, with pieces of broken glass strewn on the floor. She stood in our mother’s wedding dress, now more red than white. In her right hand she held a shard of glass. On the floor lay Collins, his throat cut. She looked up and stared into my eyes. As I stared back, a cold terror gripped me. She smiled, and a small laugh escaped her lips. I fell upon her, staring into the eyes of the thing that struggled briefly, then subsided as my hands closed around its throat.

Murderer! I have killed, that is certain. Perhaps the irons on my wrists are justified. But my sister is free. And whatever had hold of her did not escape.



Hope you enjoyed it, it's just a bit of fun really. It had to be short, but I'm not sure I would have wanted to stretch it out any longer. It's cribbed from The Tell-Tale Heart and The Fall of the House of Usher, mostly. I call it a Poe-stiche. Boom boom. I did fully intend to write a new story this week, but I've been a bit busy this week with Raindance preview screenings for Fohnhouse (www.fohnhouse.blogspot.com) and the project with Benjamin Sheppard (www.wittystairs.blogspot.com) which apparently we're not talking about yet. Hopefully Ben's forceful optimism will mesh with my general misanthropic gloom and we'll actually make something happen. I will let you know if so. But that is why I've not written a new story. Not to mention the ongoing search for a job. But that's not very interesting.

I'm currently reading Dracula Cha Cha Cha by Kim Newman, which is the third in his strange, incredibly entertaining horror mashups (although more similar to Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen than Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) which feature an alternate history in which Dracula defeated the forces of light and married Queen Victoria, and vampirism became popular. The first, Anno Dracula, is mostly filled with Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, and late 19th Century literary references. The second, which I've not read, is called The Bloody Red Baron and set during World War 1. Dracula Cha Cha Cha is set in 1950s Rome, riffing on La Dolce Vita, James Bond, and Dario Argento movies. Everyone from Michael Corleone to Orson Welles to Nico pops up. Great fun.

So, next week I will try to put up a proper story. Failing that, I will ramble, you can skip it and wait for the next post. Hope you enjoyed the story.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Story: Crisp Afternoon

It was five minutes to five o'clock and the afternoon was crisp. Yeah, he'd describe it as crisp, if he was asked. A bit chilly, maybe. A crisp, chilly autumn afternoon. Evening, even. Crisp enough to justify his overcoat. He was walking through the park, trying to focus on the cold, pretty light of the setting sun shining through whatever leaves hadn't fallen yet and not thinking about the different ways he could mess this up. He had a too-hot cup of coffee in his right hand, while his left hand was deep in his coat pocket, clutching his phone in case she tried to get in touch. He'd had too much coffee already today; his stomach was starting to complain. He might have to throw it away; it'd be embarrassing if his belly started audibly gurgling during the date.

He was pretty sure that this was what it was. A date. No, he was sure about that. When he'd called two days ago she'd sounded pleased to be hearing from him.

"Oh, hi! I was hoping you'd call," she'd said.

First hurdle, he'd thought.

He'd stumbled his way through the usual pleasantries, until finally he'd managed to ask her for a drink and make it clear that asking her for a drink was what he was doing.

"That sounds great, definitely!" she'd said.

He'd tried to match her level of excitement for the rest of conversation, which was actually pretty easy. She'd sounded pretty excited. They'd settled on this crisp, chilly afternoon when she got out of work. She worked at a café, though he'd forgotten which one. He was pretty sure it was nearby. They were meeting in the park round the corner from the tube station. He was early. He'd wanted to be early.

He took another gulp of coffee. Mistake. He grimaced and dropped the cup in a bin. The flimsy plastic top fell off and he felt a rush of shame as the coffee soaked through the rest of the rubbish. He moved quickly away from the bin and tried not to let this affect his mood. She'd been excited. She would be happy to see him. This would be good. He walked over to the park gate and wondered which direction she'd be coming from.

They'd met at a party about a week ago. Their one mutual friend had introduced them, and had conveniently left them alone quickly afterwards. After telling each other what they did and how they knew their friend they discovered they had several interests in common. After discussing the relentless cheeriness of Jonathan Richman, the uplifting power of Bruce Springsteen, and how much they loved the film version of Where the Wild Things Are, phone numbers had been exchanged before she was spirited away by her big sister to catch the last train home. He'd spent the rest of the party with a smile on his face, for which his friend teased him relentlessly.


He turned, probably a little too quickly. There she was. She was wearing a big coat too, as well as a big cheery smile. He grinned, trying to keep it pleasant rather than scary. He tried to repress this thought. It would probably be best if he could stop worrying if he looked scary or not.

"Hi!" he said back. "How are you?" Pleasantries again. Pleasantries he could do. She gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek. He was happy.

She knew a pub around the corner that she said was nice but not too expensive. They walked together out of the park and made small talk until they reached it. It wasn't too busy and smelled comfortingly like stale bitter. She let him pay for her drink on the condition that she would get the next round. He felt heartened that she had already decided she would stay for a second drink.

"So how was work?" he asked. He thought it was a safe question, one which would show that he cared (and he did, after all) and would be a good starting point for the conversation.

"Fucking awful," she said. He waited for her to elaborate on this and she smiled at him. "Fucking awful," she repeated. "But I'm really glad that I'm here now."

He grinned and didn't stop to think about whether it looked scary or not. And she grinned back. It wasn't long before they'd rediscovered the comfortable level of conversation they'd had at the party the week before. He would occasionally catch himself and worry if he'd said something that could be considered stupid, or inappropriate, but mostly he just talked and listened. He learned that she'd had a cat called Brian when she was younger, and they agreed that it was an excellent name for a pet. He told her that he had a fear of heights and she told him that it was sensible but impractical. She said that if they went anywhere high up she'd go with him to make sure he was alright.

And after a while he stopped worrying about what she would think about what he said. They just talked and laughed, and they took it from there.


Hello there

So, as promised, here is my "pleasant" story. Hope you enjoyed it. It's pretty similar to another "pleasant" story that I have trotted out in the past to prove I don't just write sad, weird, gory, or upsetting stories. I mostly do. But I like to think that I don't have to. I think what happens is that if I start to think of a plot, then my natural instinct is to have it be...unfortunate for the characters. Which is why I wanted to keep this story as plot-less as possible. I was determined that this would be a nice story where both of the characters were happy. Which is also why it's quite a bit shorter than the other stories that have been on here. I was pretty confident that if I took it much further something awful would happen, and that shouldn't happen in a pleasant story. I'm not sure if this story is any good, it's pretty bloody twee, but I committed to an experiment, and here it is. As a short twee thing I kind of like it.

I'm always a bit cautious about putting details into stories. I think it helps if you can add something specific, but at the same time you don't want to alienate people who don't know what you're talking about (problem #395 of my Novel That Nobody Wanted). But everyone knows Bruce, I would have thought most of you reading this will have seen Where the Wild Things Are, and if you don't know Jonathan Richman go to YouTube or Spotify or, indeed, Amazon and check him and The Modern Lovers out. They are awesome. So yes, they are things that I like. But I have never met anyone with a cat named Brian, and I do not have a fear of heights. That I made up. I do drink too much coffee, though.

In other news, Benjamin Elias Sheppard of not-recently-updated Treppenwitz blog notoriety has told me to write a script. He's given me deadlines and everything. So I've dusted off an idea I had with Sheffield-ian in Paris Martin Parsons and am giving it a go. Ben can probably look forward to some missed deadlines.

Hope you enjoyed the story. Feel free to let me know if you didn't, or if you did.