Sunday, October 29, 2006


Made my usual journey up the A1, A15, M18, M180 corridor of misery tonight. I'm still curious why we had a police escort for several miles north of the Colsterworth roundabout making us go at 35 mph until we reached what appeared to be a broken down car that was off the road and not causing any blockage. Health and safety, no doubt.

Anyway, that's just a commuter's moan, not the point of this post. I was listening tonight to Flashman at the charge by George MacDonald Fraser. I've always loved Flashman. I discovered him when I was on the dole in Scotland in 1981, after having left school at 16 because I couldn't stand another moment of their meaningless control mechanisms. Flashman, the anti-hero's anti-hero, immediately appealed to me. Added to which, of course, he was irresistible to women, which I could only dream about. So I've got history with Harry Flashman. I've read the novels several times over. I knew I would enjoy the CD version.

By coincidence, I played this one after another fine Scots writer, Iain Banks. I'd been listening to Dead Air for the ten days prior to starting Flashy. Now, I've always liked Iain Banks, too, but Dead Air is a dead loss. I've mentioned it here before. Basically, the characterisation is trivial: the main is a pale imitation, with modern crudity, of Flashy himself. The love interest is EXOTIC and COOL and we know this because we keep getting TOLD so. There's a black character who's right-on 'I don't do drugs, man, knowwhaddamean?' At least, at one point, he has to admit to shagging the Main's girlfriend, so he's not totally righteous.

But what really got me about this story was the total lack of tension. I was never frightened. I was never drawn into the horror of the Main getting mixed up with a gangland baddie. It wasn't real, and it wasn't compelling. All we got, over and over and over and over again was:

Oh fuck. Oh shit.

Every time the author wanted us to know how terrified the main was this is what he wrote. Eventually, you called time on it and thought 'I don't give a fuck.' The trouble is, Banks was trying (very, very hard) to tell us we had to be worried. Oh fuck, oh shit, this is scary folks.

But it ain't, sorry Iain. Just cos you tell us so, doesn't mean it is.

And then we come to Flashman. And when George MacDonald Fraser wants you to know Flashy is a coward who will do anything to save his skin, he tells us so. But rather more eloquently than 'Oh fuck, oh shit'. And then he proceeds to make us scared too. He projects us into Flashy's point of view, he makes us understand exactly what is going through his mind, and why. He makes us scared alongside the old scoundrel, even though we know he deserves to get caught.

And that's the other great point. Flashy is terrible, a truly dreadful man with no redeeming features. But you read it and you want him to win. The character in the Banks, I think he's called Ken, was just a guy. Frankly, after the most protracted and laboured "scary" scene I've ever read, when he got stuck in the gangster's house (Oh fuck, oh shit) and does everything wrong to ensure that he fucking stays there till we've had every ounce of tension wrought from it, I actively WANTED him to get his knees smashed to a pulp by the Scandinavian heavy.

I guess what I'm saying is that Fraser's tension builds effortlessly, but with devastating effect, while with Iain Banks you can hear him grunting and groaning and see his eyes popping as he strains for every ounce of drama.

And Banks is the man who wrote The Wasp Factory. Makes you think...

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Some interesting quotes and opinions:


Jennifer Johnston starts with characters and the germ of a plot. She feels she has the key to get her characters out of prison, but she needs to discover what their secret is.

Christopher J. Koch, on the other hand, spends six months compiling notes before he writes a word, all in longhand. Everything is planned, although the final novel may not follow the plan.

Nicholas Shakespeare plots every scene on graph paper with post-it notes.

Fay Weldon, apart from a detective novel, throws her characters together and sits back to see what happens.

Ann Marie McDonald creates a body full of soft parts, with a beating heart, and then tries to push the bones into place.

Now, it's an unscientific sample, but it's fascinating that the women start writing and see what happens, while the men get their toys out and start manoeuvring everything into position before they sully their hands with invented words. I'm with Fay Weldon on this one. Just get the characters together and see what shit happens...


Christopher J. Koch bases characters on at least three different individuals. Any fewer and it can't work.

Richard Ford tries not to base characters on anyone. Traits appear "in a piecemeal, acontextualised way." It would be more difficult, he says, to write about a character if it was based on a real person because he would have to get it right. Lordy, lordy, some folks are right anal, aren't they?

Fay Weldon spoke from bitter experience, saying that with non-fiction you have to tell the truth or they sue you, whereas with fiction you have to not tell the truth or they'll do you for libel.

Thomas Keneally likens creating characters to developing a child in the womb - the gradual accumulation of detail such as hair colour, thickness of wrists, ankles etc.

Claire Messud gave an interesting example from Tolstoy, a minor character who is only described once - as having a top lip that was too short, so her mouth didn't close. But that single image made the character unforgettable.

It's fairly rare for me to base a character on a single person. Mostly it would be too painful, either for me or them or both. Characters just kind of develop with me. They'll start as acquaintance A, but quickly take on characteristics from acquaintances B, C and D. The ones which really work - and if I'm honest I'm a beginner so most of them don't, fully - just spiral off into their own personas and leave their real-life husks behind them.