Saturday, 25 June 2011

Open House Day 26 - Stuart Young


Sometimes it’s hard to decide what to write about.

Ideas jostle around inside your brain; all fighting for attention, all wanting to be the one that makes it into your literary masterpiece. The concepts are so wondrous, so exciting, that it’s impossible to choose which one to use. Other times it’s hard to write because the ideas desert you. In a terrible display of poor organisation they’ve all gone on holiday at the exact same time; paddling in the sea at Margate and chomping on fish and chips while you sit in front of a piece of paper that’s as blank as your mind. The only idea that still lurks within your brain is the one that always earns you weird looks whenever you mention it to anyone. You know the idea; the one where the protagonist wears rubber nappies and marries a goat and which no matter hard you try always ends up sounding autobiographical.

If you’re suffering from the second problem then you should probably get out more and not spend so much time watching Countryfile. But if you’re suffering from the first problem then there are ways to try and organise your thoughts.

PLOT: Which of your ideas fit together to form a story? Once you have to start piecing the ideas into a logical sequence you’ll discard a lot of the ideas as impractical. For example, you may well find that the time-travelling blancmange doesn’t really fit in with the bleakly nihilistic death scene you’ve got planned.

CHARACTER: Getting a handle on your characters can help your story take shape. What would your protagonist do in a given situation? What would they never do? Figuring out this sort of thing can help point you towards the ideas that make sense for your story.

Perhaps your protagonist is a misanthropic millionaire who hates the world and everybody in it. Nothing can alleviate his hatred, not even watching the final scene of Monsters, Inc.

But has he always been this miserable? Maybe there was a time when he was happy and carefree. Maybe he can pinpoint the exact moment when he last felt happy and would do anything to return to that moment. Maybe that’s where the time-travelling blancmange fits in after all.

In a Proustian manner his last memory of happiness is tied into the taste and aroma of the blancmange he was eating at his ninth birthday party. Unfortunately the recipe for that particular brand of blancmange has been lost. Ironically, this happened when he engaged in some industrial espionage against the company that manufactured it; part of his scheme called for many of the company’s records, including the recipe for the blancmange, to be destroyed. So now, desperate, the millionaire hires scientists to recreate the blancmange. They fail but the new blancmange is so filled with additives and E numbers that it quivers with an aura of energy which allows it to vibrate through time. The protagonist decides to send the blancmange back to his birthday party so its time-travelling aura can bring the original blancmange back to the present day. Then he can eat it and once again remember what it is to feel happy.

By this point it’s safe to say that you’ve established that the character is fairly driven. None of the events in the story would take place without his vital characteristics of despair, deviousness and determination.

STYLE: Style can hide a multitude of sins. There are writers out there who can’t tell a story to save their lives but who get away with it due to their wonderful prose style. They don’t even need an idea to write about; such is their skill in making words sing they could probably just pick random words from the Dictionary of Mind-Numbingly Dull Technical Terms and still string them together in such a way that their readers would weep tears of joy. For the rest of us however we need a solid idea to grab the reader’s attention. Not only that but we need to find a style that matches the idea. In this case you want something to blend the bleak with the bonkers:

In order to attempt a recreation of the original blancmange the scientists needed as precise a description as possible. So he told them of its flavour, of its colour, of its consistency, of the way it wibbled and wobbled in his dessert bowl. Although due to his strong Irish accent the scientists thought he said “warbled” and set about using genetically modified ingredients to create mouths in the blancmange, the collection of gelatinous maws joining together in a barber shop quartet version of ‘Living on the Ceiling.’ Fortunately this mistake was quickly rectified. This brought him no small measure of relief as he had found the close harmony crooning rather disconcerting.

Even more disconcerting was the way the pink ripples of blancmange resembled his own flabby flesh. Saggy love handles flopped over his waistband, drooping down towards the ground as if late for an urgent appointment with his shoelaces. His stomach wibbled and wobbled, although thankfully it never warbled. But if it had it would have sung a haunting lament of lost opportunities and a lifetime filled with despair.

(N.B. At this point it’s usually worth double-checking that what you’ve written is actually serviceable prose and not complete drivel. Although that is obviously not the case here. Cough.)

THEME: Okay, you’ve got a time-travelling blancmange, a complete misery guts who secretly wants to be happy and a bleak death scene. Here’s where you pull it all together.

Themes have presented themselves through out the construction of this tale. Loss and yearning. Satire over modern foods containing so many additives and genetically modified ingredients. The way our own greed and ruthlessness can destroy our happiness. And now you can introduce another one -- an exploration of the illusory nature of nostalgia and the way memories of childhood are incompatible with the reality of our formative years.

And you use this to set up your ending.

So the blancmange travels back in time. Unfortunately instead of sending the original blancmange to the present day it instead merges with the original blancmange, forming a gooey mishmash of the past and the future. Unaware of this the protagonist’s childhood self eats it only to discover that the time-travelling ingredients are incompatible with his youthful body -- it has not yet had a lifetime of eating E numbers in which to develop a tolerance to their effects. Consequently his body explodes, his consciousness spread across all of space and time, his misery becoming eternal, a smear of unhappiness defacing the universe. The End.

And there you have it. A stream of disparate concepts blended together into a single story. Whenever you have trouble organising your ideas for a story then all the above approaches can be of help.

Of course another thing that can help you decide what idea you want to write about is suddenly remembering that the deadline for that guest blog you promised to write is looming and having to make up a load of old rubbish off the top of your head.

Stuart Young has had stories published in numerous magazines and anthologies including Estronomicon, Catastrophia, We Fade to Grey and The Mammoth Book of Future Cops. His novella 'The Mask Behind the Face' won a British Fantasy Award. He has also had three short story collections published and a fourth one is due when the stars, the gods and Pendragon Press’s publishing schedule are all in alignment. He is interviewed online in the summer issue of Midnight Street where he is even more intelligent and insightful than he is in this guest blog. If such a thing is even possible.

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