Category Archives: Current affairs

Which novels ‘ought’ we to like?

Does it matter if a majority of readers give up before they get to the end of a novel that wins a prestigious literary prize? It’s a pretty harsh question, but one raised by the data collected by Kobo and – I can only assume – other ebook retailers.

shortlist Last month I took part in a debate on Amazon and the Civil War for Books with Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, Erica Wagner and Andrew O’Hagan as part the National Conversation, a series of events organised by the Writers’ Centre Norwich.

We all agreed that telling and hearing stories – regardless of the form in which they are told – is intrinsic to human nature, and that perhaps the most pressing current concern is to ensure that everyone, especially new readers, has access to the widest possible range of stories.

I’m particularly interested in how the stories we tell – and how we tell them – will come to be influenced by the data gathered from digital platforms – the Writers’ Centre Norwich invited me to blog about it here. Amazon is reticent about sharing the data they glean from how people use their Kindles, but today’s Guardian carries fascinating data from Kobo about how readers are getting on with the Baileys Prize shortlist (the winner will be announced tonight).

The data shows not merely which of the six novels was the most purchased, but also how some failed to hold their readers’ attention to the end, while others proved un-put-downable. The Bees, a debut novel by Laline Paull, proved the “most gripping”.

I know from many walks on Hampstead Heath with Laline that it was always her intention to write a thriller set in a beehive, and she must be delighted that not only book sales but also the data analytics demonstrate the success of her literary instincts.

Kobo’s data on these six particular novels show that the number of sessions it took to finish reading varied from 17 to 36. This in itself doesn’t matter – whether I want a slow or a fast read is a combination of taste, reading environment and my desire for variety – but data on why (and at which point in the story) readers might abandon a book altogether must surely be of huge interest to publishers and authors. It certainly would be to me.

The publicity given to literary prizes plays a vital role not only in marketing books but also in telling us what books we ‘ought’ to like. Once the cascade of this kind of data really gets underway, should those who award literary prizes start to pay attention to how readers do actually read? It’ll be an interesting, scary and brave debate.

Tagged , , , ,

House of Cards and the Fourth Wall

In honour of today’s launch House of Cards Season 3 on Netflix, this post is brought to you by Frank Underwood, a master of how to break the Fourth Wall and get away with it.

images-2

Kevin Spacey’s sly looks to camera (and of course those of the late Ian Richardson in the original BBC series), and his asides to us, the viewers, all add immensely to our appreciation of the character. It means that we, too, have directly experienced his charisma and been seduced by it.

House of Cards has proved that, on screen, breaking the Fourth Wall can deliver big results. But if the viewer is ever reminded that they’re merely looking at a TV set, then the magic is destroyed. Frank Underwood’s audacity lies not only in his invitation to collude but also in the huge risk he runs that our suspension of disbelief will be shattered, bringing the whole meta-fictional house of cards tumbling down: we feel what it’s like to walk that political tight-rope.

In prose fiction, a deliberately unreliable narrator can add suspense and mystery or, as in Wuthering Heights, a complexity of sympathy and interpretation. Get it wrong, however, and an unintentionally slippery point of view quickly induces queasiness in a reader.

Some writers creatively exploit the possibilities of a first-person narrative, others find it constricting, but either way it removes any confusion about what other characters know or might be thinking. In a third-person narrative, however, it’s all too easy to jump in and out of different characters’ heads, sometimes even between paragraphs, breaking the Fourth Wall and leaving the reader unable to settle down and identify with, or care about, any of them.

Point of view needs to be tightly patrolled. On screen, POV is constructed by who the camera is looking at while dialogue or action is happening, and can radically alter the meaning and intention of a scene. We identify most strongly with the person for whom there is something at stake. I think there’s a fundamental weakness in the opening episode of House of Cards Season 3, for example, (I saw it last night at the gala preview in London) because we share the POV of Doug Stamper far more viscerally than that of either POTUS or the First Lady.

That vital emotional investment in a character has to be there on the page, too. If a reader can effortlessly stay with a character, and get to know them by understanding what they notice and how they think – hopes, fears, self-delusions, denials and all – then they’ll be there, walking that tight-rope right along with them.

Tagged , , , ,

Ask an expert

Accurate research is a vital part of writing crime fiction. I am spoilt rotten in that I have a recently retired Home Office pathologist in the family. He is incredibly patient and generous about answering my questions, which means that I do try very hard not to ring him up every other sentence. However, I did ask him to read the chapter in Good Girls Don’t Die in which the police and a forensic pathologist attend a murder scene. He talked me through exactly what he would do, and was quite happy for me to omit or bend the procedure for dramatic purposes, but he had one total and absolute sticking point: there was no way the pathologist would drive a Volvo.

When my brother was at his busiest, with sometimes only two forensic pathologists covering several counties, he spent far too many hours in his car, sometimes arriving home past midnight from one job only to get another call and immediately have to drive a further hundred or more miles to another crime scene, and then home again, on his own, eating a service station sandwich and working out what would go in his report, what he’d have to think about when he started the post mortem, and what cruelty or tragedy he’d just seen.

So I rewarded my fictional pathologist with a gold Porsche Panamera.

imgres

I’ve been privileged, writing television crime drama, to have hung out with quite a few serving and retired police officers, from a former head of the Vice squad to beat officers, from detectives on a dedicated ‘burglary artifice’ squad to Jackie Malton, the DCI who inspired Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison. I’ve been out in vans responding to 999 calls and followed officers into people’s homes; been out in the area car that would have been the first on the scene (and I mean, the first) should there be any kind of incident in Downing Street; I’ve watched proceedings in both a coroner’s court and the Old Bailey (even lunched with the judges); played the ‘criminal’ in a CID interview training exercise; and visited an identification parade suite.

And yes, I learnt an enormous amount about process and vocabulary and how things work, but the most valuable lessons lay in gleaning some understanding of what makes people in such professions tick.

Although writing fiction seems horribly trivial in comparison to the responsibilities that those who work in frontline services face every day, nearly everyone has been kind, patient and open-minded. Only once did I witness how easily one bad apple can generate untold mistrust and resentment within a south London community.

What has really helped me feel that I’m writing with some vague authenticity is not so much the accuracy of the physical details as the jokes, the attitudes to life, the food, and the everyday frustrations, like finding a parking ticket on an unmarked CID car. Frontline humour is shockingly black – far blacker than it would ever be possible to reproduce when the context is merely fictional – and so is the intense and apparently bottomless empathy for victims.

Years ago, when I was writing half-hour, stand-alone episodes of The Bill for ITV, I grabbed a story from one of the full-time police advisors on the show. A fairly hard-bitten retired sergeant who quite enjoyed making the writers’ lives difficult, Malcolm told me about a night when an old man on a Zimmer frame had been brought in. The old man had had a suicide pact with his wife, killed her but lacked the physical strength to finish the job on himself. It had been Malcolm’s role as custody sergeant to lock him up and then check on him every half hour.

The story for me was not the old man’s, poignant though it was, but that of the cynical custody sergeant who, by the end of his seemingly endless night shift, could no longer hide his emotion. For me, that story said everything about The Job, about the protective armour that officers grow and about what it takes to pierce it.

Which is why I understood why it was important for my fictional forensic pathologist to drive a flash car, for reasons both obvious (speed, comfort, safety) and more subtle – a different kind of safety, perhaps, a protective cocoon both on the way to a scene and on the way back?

Growing up as the only non-medic in a family of four hospital doctors, I’ve always been interested in what attracts people to frontline jobs, and in how the rules, values and responses to the pressures of such exceptionally intense professions gradually become an unconscious part of who they are. So, while it’s been amazing to have experts willing to explain the nuts and bolts of ballistics, DNA or the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, I’ve also realised that such details are seldom of primary interest to them. I always try to watch out for the ‘tells’ that explain what is in it for them, why they first decided to do what they do, what it takes to be the job, and how they feel about the effects of their work on their everyday lives and their families.

So when you talk to an expert, never mind the facts: find out what car they drive, or get them to tell you a joke. That’ll show you what they really do.

 

This piece first appeared in Red Herrings, the members’ magazine of the Crime Writers’ Association.

An e-book is not a book

Yesterday the nominations for this year’s Emmy awards were announced. As the New York Times reported, Netflix and HBO each received more nominations than some of the long-established TV networks. Delivery platforms have changed. As a result, audiences are bingeing on long-running series, and TV drama is as good now as it’s ever been. I’ve not heard any screenwriter wax lyrical about the good old days when it was so much better to write for an audience who had remote controls and TV sets too heavy to lug from room to room.

imgres

No screenwriter has been harmed by the advent of subscription streaming services. Quite the opposite. So why do so many authors choose to be sniffy and uninformed about what new delivery platforms can do for them?

It’s not screenwriters who are competing with Netflix or HBO for viewers, it’s the traditional US networks. And it’s publishers, not authors, who are threatened by Amazon (whose own dominance of the download market is, in the US at least, beginning to slide).

The recently leaked New York Times Innovation Report pointed out how the Huffington Post is managing to get way more traction out of content created by the NYT than the paper is itself. The report pointed out that NYT staff – especially senior editorial staff – are digitally unengaged. I strongly suspect the same is true of most publishing houses. It reminds me of long-gone days when senior (male) CEOs thought they’d never have to use a computer because they had secretaries. How many people in publishing think they don’t need to know how an algorithm works because they employ some digital guy for that?

I buy and read hard-copy books all the time, but, as an author whose e-books hugely outsell my paperbacks, I’m liking e-books a lot. So I want to know why the big publishing houses left it to Tesco to set up a really bright and attractive online bookstore that, with its TV and movie counterpart, is a perfect one-stop-shop for all storied content? Why bookshops can’t attract those customers who want to read a book on a device designed by Jony Ive by adopting a design ethic closer to that of an Apple Store?

Netflix and HBO use dramas such as Game of Thrones or House of Cards to create and enhance their own brand identity. Why haven’t publishing conglomerates used their various imprints to create If-you-liked-that-then-you’ll-like-this digital brands (for crime or poetry, for instance) that readers can immediately identify with as go-to sites? Or maybe team up with a global brand such as the BBC to deliver books via the iPlayer? Why not?

The e-book is not a book. Amazon is not a bookshop. Its algorithms have absolutely nothing in common with the traditional business methods of the booktrade. The algorithm – how to feed it, how to read the data it produces, how to surf its waves – is how authors get their work in front of readers. We all of us need to know this shit.

images

Sure, there’s still a very big argument to be had over pricing so that writers can actually afford to write, but meanwhile there’s also a crying need for publishers to ramp up their digital engagement and to view the e-book not as a pale imitation of the real thing – a print copy – but as a separate concept. There’s a reason, after all, why iTunes didn’t call itself iRecords or iCDs.

In Marrakech once I watched the storytellers in the main square use snakes to attract their audience. Snakes, ink and paper, e-books, they’re all in the same business – finding people to tell stories to.

Can creative writing be taught?

Novelist and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi is Professor of creative writing at Kingston University. This is what he said recently at the Independent Bath Literature Festival, at an event supported by the creative writing department of Bath Spa University: “A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.”

I have recently stepped down as Writing Tutor on a screenwriting MA at Central St Martin’s (part of the University of the Arts, London), and totally disagree with him.

How to tell a story is the one thing that can be taught. Kureishi‘s right, it is difficult, but it is a craft skill and, especially for a screenwriter, one that can be passed along.

What can’t be taught is how to become a writer – the individual texture of a sentence, the truth of a character, the veracity of dialogue, how to make us care about a story, all that has to come from who the writer is and what they have to say about the world.

And then it takes hard work. Learning how to write is a process, which is what makes teaching it a skill in itself.

I have learnt more from my students over the past five years than they have from me because I have had to articulate my own process. No craftswoman is going to make a beautiful chest of drawers the first time she picks up a piece of wood and a saw – let alone turn out a Stradivarius. It takes years and years of honing one’s craft skills. Writing is no different.

But a good teacher can aim to lay down the right process on which to build – to show why that’s the best piece of wood to choose, which saw will be right, which smoothing plane, what sort of joint will be strong and tensile enough. Narrative drive, suspense, dramatic questions, set-ups and pay-offs, hooks – all these things “make a story go from there all the way through to the end”, and they can all be taught.

After that, as golf champion Gary Player said: “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.”

Hashtag drama

I wrote earlier about how subscription channels such as Netflix are changing the  game in terms of how we consume drama. This week, as the final episode of ITV’s Broadchurch generated 260,000 Twitter messages, a record amount of traffic for a UK drama, I wonder how soon tweetability will become an essential element in the drama commissioning process. Certainly, a second series was announced quickly enough to cash in on the Twitter love.

BROADCHURCH

The first UK drama to create a perfect storm of device ownership (aired the year the iPad was launched), demographic (Twitter users are known to be older and literate), and genre was BBC’s Sherlock. As with US Twitter-hit Homeland, a combination of tense plot and intriguing, ambivalent characters led to passionate conversations where people would tweet more than once as they debated each episode, leading up to the series denouement.

Unlike reality shows, drama audiences tend to tweet in the commercial breaks so as not to miss the action, perhaps putting BBC dramas at a slight disadvantage over commercial rivals such as Downton Abbey – another Twitter favourite. But I wonder how long it will be before writers (especially in continuing dramas) begin to factor in Tweet-points as well as end-of-part hooks. (Which may explain the squashed slug? ♯Broadchurch)

Given that Twitter’s respect for non-spoiler etiquette means that writers can safely aim for big endings with plenty of twists and double-bluffs, I predict a surfeit of cliff-hangers in 2014!

Wishes and beliefs

I have just finished reading an excellent piece of journalistic non-fiction, Our Guys by Bernard Lefkowitz. Subtitled The Glen Ridge Rape and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb, it chronicles how the inhabitants of an affluent New Jersey town rallied around not the victim but the high school football ‘heroes’ who inserted a broom and baseball bat into a girl they’d known since childhood, a girl with a mental age of eight.

The rape took place in 1989. With recurrent gang-rape cases involving athletes (all too often footballers) both here and in the US, nothing much seems to have changed in a generation.

What such cases have in common with how the BBC or Chetham’s School of Music or the Catholic Church have all handled allegations of sexual abuse is what Lefkowitz calls ‘a corruption of decent intent’.

jimmy-savile-grope

The greater the ‘decency’ of the institution involved, the harder it becomes for those tasked with upholding that decency to trust fragile, uncorroborated, immature, distasteful testimony, and the more reluctant they become to perceive sufficient cause to wound the reputation of a beloved ideal with which they themselves identify. Those who work for a prestigious institution – or cherish the image of a community like Glen Ridge – want it to remain good and unsullied. Wishes become beliefs: victims easily become unreliable, undeserving, predatory, while abusers become tragic victims of a momentary lapse, a witch-hunt, ‘boys will be boys’.

The reason such boys regard themselves as omnipotent is that an institution confers special status on them. The footballer, charismatic music teacher, priest or charity fund-raiser is encouraged to see their own aggressive dominance as heroic; the more they get away with it, the more they internalize the right to dominate.

The symbiotic relationship between institution and abuser means that disowning a hero, one of ‘our guys’, appears to damage or shame the beloved institution. Then the institution appears frail, in need of protection, requiring its leaders to vigorously defend it by attacking the suddenly powerful source of the threat against it. In Glen Ridge – for example – the ‘powerful’ threat was a local schoolgirl with a mental age of eight who couldn’t say no to the gang of ‘jocks’ she idolized. Very few people in that ‘all-American’ suburb spoke up in her defence. Their wish to protect their psychological investment in their beloved ‘institution’ overcame their own vaunted morality.

Winning at any price?

Arnold Pistorius has issued a statement about his nephew, saying that “… this is only the beginning of a long road to prove that, as we know, Oscar never intended to harm Reeva, let alone cause her death.”

Oscar Pistorius’ defence, however, is that he did unquestionably intend to harm someone and cause their death – but merely that that someone was not Reeva Steenkamp.

For Pistorius, the debate is about what kind of murderer he is.

Pistorius’ family have amended his official website to include this statement: “The Pistorius family and Oscar’s management company have been inundated with messages of support and condolences for Oscar and for the family of Reeva Steenkamp from all over the world.”

Condolences for Oscar.

Three days after the killing of ‘Oscar Pistorius’ girlfriend’, his coach Ampie Louw gave a statement saying “I am looking forward to the day I can get my boy back on the track.”

It appears that Oscar Pistorius, his family and management company can all live with an image of him as a man who deliberately set out to kill an unseen and unverified intruder (the hero protecting himself, his property and his woman from however unspecified a threat) and see his lethally violent mistake as a tragedy for their boy.

What is clearly unbearable to him is the self-image of a man who used four bullets to shoot dead a defenceless and possibly terrified woman who was trying to hide from him.

If his account of why he shot to kill is genuine, then of course that is unbearable. (Though he still set out to kill someone who was already cornered.) But if he’s lying, then is his traumatised denial of unbearable reality – that he cannot bear to see himself, or be seen, as that kind of murderer – further evidence of the kind of narcissistic rage that may have fuelled the killing?

In which case, at what point did a family’s laudable aim of raising a disabled child to believe himself capable of any achievement, and their celebration of his amazing Olympic prowess, roll over into such fatal narcissism?

And at what point does the (largely male) discourse of world-class sport all too commonly roll over into such an unhealthy cocktail of self-obsession, entitlement and tunnel vision that it, too, is blind to such narcissism?

Killers often remain in a shocked state of denial about what they’ve done, but I can’t help wondering what part the well-intentioned construction of such narcissistic personality traits has played in both the crime and – regardless of who he intended to kill – the denial of what Oscar Pistorius has done?

Cultural grooming

Jimmy Savile hid in plain sight, and got away with abusing mainly vulnerable or defenceless girls for decades. The victims themselves were either groomed by Savile never to speak out or did speak out but were not believed. Colleagues were either genuinely blind or ‘conditioned’ by Savile not to see clearly. Savile must have put as much effort into grooming and conditioning as he did into perpetrating the abusive acts, and no doubt his ‘duping delight’ hugely augmented his pleasure. You can see it on his face.

Like all victims of fraud, those who ‘should’ have realised what was happening are left feeling foolish, guilty and slightly ashamed. But Savile – like a Harold Shipman or a Bernie Madoff – was very good at what he did. That’s why he got away with it.

But there is another group – and I was tempted to believe that it includes some of those interviewed in the recent Panorama documentary ‘Jimmy Savile – What the BBC Knew’ – who did know (or strongly suspected) what was going on but who chose to remain silent. Why?

Suzanne Moore has written in today’s Guardian about ‘how supposedly “good guys” did nothing to stop it, and how girls are never really to be trusted. Or never actually a priority.’

One transparent reason appeared to be shared by several of those interviewed: I wouldn’t have been believed and so my credibility, reputation or career would have been at stake. Why would I risk that?

The common assumption seems to be that we’d all be entirely sympathetic to the way in which they answered the question ‘Why risk my job?’. In other words, we’ve been ‘conditioned’ not to question the assumption that a white middle-class male’s job may ultimately be of greater value than the body of a vulnerable young girl. Savile traded very successfully on that assumption.

Maybe we all need to ask ourselves whether we too easily let ourselves be ‘groomed’ into silencing our own voices in favour of a status quo that may not care to examine how easily other priorities took precedence over Savile’s victims.