Monthly Archives: March 2013

Writing Tips: Ignore that Elephant in the corner

 

Adam yawned and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, blearily taking in the empty place at the breakfast table. “Morning, mum. Where’s dad? Did he leave for work already?”

His mum didn’t turn away from the eggs she was scrambling. “We had an argument last night, so after he fell asleep, I shot him.”

Adam yawned again. “Extra butter in those eggs?”

“Of course.”

Adam poured himself some juice. “Is this orange? Did they change the ingredients?”

 

This silly piece of writing is an example of what writers call “The Elephant in the Room”.

Elephants, are of course, very hard to ignore. Unless your characters are wearing blinkers or earmuffs, having someone throw something major into your story and then not have anyone react to it is generally not a good idea.

Your character got up last night and shot someone, and all you want to know is if there’s extra butter with those scrambled eggs. At which point, your readers will start to wonder what the gubbins are you talking about, and why aren’t you talking about what’s really going on here.

Think of the facet of your story as a spotlight aimed at a darkened stage. There it is, shining away on the box on a table. The thing you want your characters to talk about is in that box – why Adam’s mother shot his father. And what are you doing? Shining your spotlight wayyyy over there, talking about scrambled eggs. Why do we care about scrambled eggs? We keep looking back at the box, no matter how hard you don’t want us to.

The other side of this, of course, is where magic and misdirection comes in. When you dim the lights to shine it on the eggs, we don’t see the stagehands swooping away the box and bringing the elephant on stage until the lights come back up – in my example, perhaps Adam pulls a gun while we look away. Then we want the characters to talk about something else, while we do some magic in the dark.

But, the thing with “EITR” is that this misdirection is never given to a reveal. In my example, no one would ever mention the shooting again. If you cut away to focus on something else, fair enough; but remember to cut back to what your readers are thinking about:

Adam yawned and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, blearily taking in the empty place at the breakfast table. “Morning, mum. Where’s dad? Did he leave for work already?”

His mum didn’t turn away from the eggs she was scrambling. “We had an argument last night, so after he fell asleep, I shot him.”

Adam yawned again. “Extra butter in those eggs?”

“Of course.”

He poured himself some juice. “So you shot dad, huh? About time.”

“I thought so too.”

If you don’t do this, you’ll have a pachyderm of problems on your hands.

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Review: Tomorrow When the War Began, John Marsden 5/5

5/5

Tomorrow was one of the first YA books I read as an adult. My wife had read them, and kept telling me to read it. I bought Tomorrow When the War Began, and was blown away by it.

Re-reading it, it’s got me hooked all over again.

Marsden has an uncanny ability to get right into the heads of his characters, to make you think and feel exactly as they do. Every emotion and sensation, every smell and nuance comes alive on the page. Although a story about teenagers going through a war isn’t new, Marsden brings a new angle to it. If you ever want to know how shooting someone – even an enemy of your country – would really feel, it’s right here. How the vomit would rise in your throat, how the cold fear would lock up your legs and your brain as bullets fly towards you. How watching your best friend for life get shot would make you feel.

This is no Hollywood film where death and emotion are cheap. We go through everything the main character goes through, the highs and the lows.

The YA field has moved on since this was published in 1993, so none of the characters has a cell phone or smartphone (A scene they changed in the movie with good comic effect), and oddly, the characters feel at first like a 1950s bunch with their dialogue. None of them swear – even the ‘bad kid’ never utters a profanity. Not that they need to; just a reflection on how YA evolves.

One of the things I noticed on a re-read is how Marsden lets our imaginations fill in what the characters look like. Beyond describing them in basic details, like the colour of their hair and their eyes, everything else is left to us. I didn’t realise until the re-read that Ellie the main character is stocky, for instance.

Every character starts as a stereotype, simple for the effect of blowing those stereotypes out of the water. Lee the quiet boy becomes a killing machine. Homer the clown becomes a leader. Fi the gentle becomes brave and utterly fearless. Never judge by appearance, Marsden shows us, and here is why.

It’s more of a character driven story as well, I now realise. In some ways, the war is secondary to the characters and how they evolve. Marsden wants us to see them change, and the agent for that change is not really important.

Simply superb. Marsden should be regarded – and in some places he is – as one of the best YA writers there is, and it’s books like this that make you realise why.

He really is that good.

Review: Mice – Gordon Reece (Spoilers)

4/5

Shelley and her mother are mice, hiding away from the world in one of its corners. Both of them carry the scars of their battles with predators – Shelley’s at the hands of school bullies who nearly killed her, and her mother emotional scars from fights against her father and her bullying bosses.

So being mice, when a burglar breaks into their home and threatens them, they do what mice do: They hide, they accede, they submit. But Shelley snaps, pushed past the limit. And she discovers that mice have teeth, and what sharp little teeth they are. Shelley kills the burglar in self defence, but her mum realises that the police won’t see it that way…they’ll see it as murder.

They decide to hide the body, to bury the burglar in the rose bushes. The act of defiance becomes a waiting timebomb beneath them, waiting to explode. Every knock on the door makes Shelley think of police, of prison bullies who will make the ones at school look like nursery teachers.

But gradually, the two women come to realise that the teeth they used to kill the burglar are still sharp. They begin to take control of their lives, to come out from the shadows. To fight back against the people they submitted to.

And when a note from a blackmailer arrives, the two women decide to use those teeth again, this time to kill…

A fantastic premise and a wonderful idea.

I loved this book. The two characters come alive and evolve, transformed by what they’ve been through. Every stage of the plot proceeded from it’s tense (all be it slightly unrealistic) first encounter with the burglar and shot off without a pause, pulling me along with it. Will they be caught? What will happen next? What will trip them up? It kept me flipping the pages and I zipped through it.

The descriptions and world building were first class, lending the book a real sense of atmosphere and place. I had no trouble visualing the world they lived in, and I breathed in the smell of the flowers through their windows, felt the terror and the tension as they did.

I did wonder at the end if Shelley was becoming a sociopathic monster, desensitised to the violence she’s lived through. She urges her mother to shoot the blackmailer, screaming at her to do it, do it. And at the end, when she wants to return to school, she almost seems to relish the thought of a confrontation with her former bullies.

I wonder: What becomes of a mouse when it realises that it enjoys how sharp it’s teeth are?