Lingering alchemical imagery

Alchemical sun and moonJeanette Winterson
The Battle of the Sun
Bloomsbury Publishing 2010

It is London in 1601, but things are not quite as history would have us believe. The life of the young protagonist, Jack, is about to take a turn away from the future planned out for him, and he goes from being a pawn in a game played by others to one where his resourcefulness and bravery lead to his transformation into a person of some power.

The Battle of the Sun comes over as dreamlike, with figures from alchemical treatises, supernatural happenings and irrational actions all assuming an aura of reality and plausibility, as often happens in dreams. Jeanette Winterson’s declared mode of writing here is to let the action emerge from the situations she conjures up, and much of the first part of the book introduces characters and places and scenarios that seemingly lack resolution until a character from another of her children’s novels — Silver from Tanglewreck (2006) — intrudes herself, at which point the plot gathers momentum and a sense of direction before reaching a satisfying conclusion. Continue reading “Lingering alchemical imagery”

Neither here nor there

Renaissance set 1
Set design for a tragic scene by Sebastiano Serlio (1475 – 1554)

Lev Grossman The Magician King:
A Novel
William Heinemann 2011

A sequel to a successful novel is always a difficult task for a writer. A major dilemma is whether to stick to a successful formula or whether to plough new furrows in an attempt to avoid a sense of déjà-vu; either way risks alienating stern literary critics on the one hand or diehard fans on the other. One strategy is to combine both approaches, and Grossman’s second offering in a trilogy does exactly that: we’re dished up a lot of the same but also a fair seasoning of new elements which fortunately manage to refresh the taste buds.

The Magicians focused its gaze on Quentin Coldwater as he entered Brakebills College, a centre for learning the discipline of magic. We saw how, through an obsession with a fantasy series written by one Christopher Plover, Quentin and a group of fellow Brakebills graduates eventually managed to visit the land of Fillory. However, something is rotten in the state of Fillory, and in combating the Beast (in whom Quentin had inadvertently awoken an unwelcome awareness of Brakebills) great sacrifices have to be made — not only severe injury but also a fate as bad as death. The first novel ends with Quentin, his Brakebills contemporaries Eliot and Janet, plus the frankly rather strange Julia, finding a way back to Fillory, life on Earth having proved rather, well, mundane.

The Magician King opens with Continue reading “Neither here nor there”

Good book nook look

Window seat with a view, the Black Mountains in the Brecon Beacons

It’s been half a year, but worth it. Builders have almost, but not quite, gutted the house. In no particular order roofs have been renewed, ceilings repaired, the cellar made safe, façades re-rendered, replacement doors fitted, rotten windows replaced, new floors laid and new rooms created. Dust somehow magically re-appears and is not-so-magically removed, over and over again. I’m sure you’re all familiar with this, whether to a greater or lesser extent.

And now the good news: the builders have left the building. Barring odd hiccups the house is now ours. ‘Normal’ life can slowly be resumed. And I can start to catch up with what I’ve been missing in the blogosphere and to reduce the until now neglected pile of bedside books.

So, here’s a glimpse of what every bibliophile needs: a nook in which to curl up with a good book, with a view to periodically look out at. Plus, a promise to speedily renew acquaintances. (And more infinitives to casually split.)

From concept to script

roof view

The front room of a modest townhouse in a Regency terrace in a small provincial town is unoccupied, except for a figure hunched over a laptop. He stops tapping to refer to some notes. He sighs, scratches his head and briefly glances out of the window at a casual passer-by. A metaphorical light bulb goes off in his head, and he grunts appreciatively before re-applying himself to his task.

There are lots of ways to tell a story. Literary fiction is what I’ve largely been focusing on but of course narrative began orally, no doubt with a lot of gesture and visuals! The simple tripartite division of storytelling — of beginning, middle and end — is one that applies to most performance art, whether drama or dance, mime or film, jokes, reports or epic poetry. And naturally, whatever the medium, successful approaches to keeping the interest of the audience will be common to all of them.

For a few weeks I outlined what I’d learnt from a Creating Writing course looking at the features of writing in genre — romance, horror, comic, fantasy, fairytale, science fiction and so on. The module I’m now learning about is screenwriting, not that I have visions of writing the next blockbuster script but because I’m intrigued as to how much or how little overlap there might be with literary storytelling. I’m invited to be guided “through the early stages of writing a compelling, well-paced script: from idea to story outline”; well, that’s similar. The module claims to provide the student “with foundational knowledge of, and practical experience in, the use of various screenwriting techniques, including established story structure, as it relates to creative scriptwriting.” So far so familiar. But while I’m interested in what skills are needed “to create ideas suitable for development into screenplays, to structure professional story breakdowns, to create credible characters, and to construct and script effective scenes,” it’s only because such skills are essentially common to all narrative endeavours.

Hopefully, as I wander discursively over what I’ve learnt about framing a story concept (Premise, Hook, Controlling Idea) and evaluating its potential (commercial or artistic) I’ll be able to share with you the purpose and effects of good storytelling as it particularly applies to film and television drama.

The writer saves his work. He gets up, stretches and goes to make a hot drink for himself. He smiles quietly as he sips his tea.

Plotting psychohistory

Isaac Asimov Forward the Foundation 
Bantam 1994

Hari Seldon plots
psychohistory while plots
threaten its future

I remember reading the original Foundation trilogy in the 70s, followed (or possibly preceded) by listening to Hari Seldon’s vision as recounted in the BBC radio dramatisation. I wasn’t totally convinced by Asimov’s psychohistory plot device then, but accepted that this was a reflection of a growing tendency to try to more accurately predict what was coming up in the future, whether in the markets, in technological or manufacturing trends or in developments in popular culture. Mix in some mathematics, add a bit of sociology, make allowances for random events and the broad sweep of future history is there to peruse.

However, having by then already read Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come and Stapleden’s Last and First Men and realising that fictional prediction becomes more and more adrift with reality the further into the imagined future it proceeds, I was sceptical then; and remain so even now, especially as we seem to be living in a world where the present has been overtaken by an accelerating technological future which has arrived almost before it’s expected. So I didn’t really buy into Seldon’s psychohistory though I readily accepted it for the sake of a promising narrative.

I thought it now time to revisit the trilogy and its subsequent sequels and prequels and chanced upon the previously unread Forward the Foundation. Continue reading “Plotting psychohistory”