Monday, 13 January 2014

Breaking Bad and Charles Dickens

Okay, so the idea now is that I focus on historical fiction due to the impending publication of my first historical novel Dark Aemilia. So that will be done. But that doesn't mean that I will be donning a metaphorical farthingale and restricting myself to opinions about books set more than fifty years ago. My fundamental belief is that good writing can and should transcend all genres, and that if you want to write well in one field, you would do well to learn the tricks of your trade by reading (and watching) widely and attentively. If you don't do this, your writing runs the risk of becoming predictable and derivative. Taking an idea from one area and applying it to something different and unexpected is one of the hallmarks of creativity. Which brings me to Breaking Bad.

I am often worried when I come late to the party - normal for me - after hearing a lot of hype about a film or TV show. I was underwhelmed by Inception and Gravity, both wildly praised, and I can't stand the mighty post-Russell T Davies Dr Who or Sherlock, its psychic twin. (All of these are brilliantly performed, but woefully underwritten in terms of character and plot, in my opinion.)

The old fashioned, well-crafted novel is somewhat out of favour in literary terms, and it can seem overly prescriptive to insist that character driven plots will always trounce the opposition. But the magisterial Breaking Bad shows how brilliantly this formula can work. Walter White's predicament is Shakespearean in its intensity, but Dickensian in delivery. Walt is driven by insecurity and desperation for money, and his world is that of the average middle class US citizen. The American Dream has failed for him, delivering only debts and fears. His cancer diagnosis liberates him from his old life, and enables him to live with immediacy and passion. But not, obviously, in a good way.

We believe in Walt, and Jesse, and Skylar. We feel we know them. Effective characters can do bad things, and things that are implausible or extreme. The only proviso is that we have to a. accept their behaviour and b. be engaged by it. Spoiler alert if you have never seen this show: Walt has murdered two people by the end of episode three of the first series, and we still care about him.

So how does this relate to Dickens? Because this is slap bang in his territory - not geographically but in terms of character and class. A society in which respectable people can't afford medical bills is very Victorian, as is a world in which class defines relationships. The canvas of Breaking Bad is Dickensian in breadth, undermining not only the US insurance and medical system, but also its conception of right and wrong, and the assumptions made by mainstream society. Debt, hypocrisy and hidden or secret identities are all recurring themes in Dickens - even the fact that Walt is much older than Skylar is a Dickensian trope.

But equally important is the genre and mode of delivery. Dickens wrote in instalments, publishing one or two chapters of his novels at a time. Often, he was writing to tight deadlines, barely ahead of publication. Kevin Spacey has stressed that 21st  century TV viewers like to binge on box set TV and challenged TV companies to follow the lead of the makers of House of Cards and release TV episodes at one time, the instalment format gives an added sense of drama and tension to the storyline. And like The Wire, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and many other celebrated US TV serials, the writers use this format to expand and develop the characters, bringing in twists and unexpected elements of back story which gives us fresh understanding.

I'm not the only person to make this comparison,either. Griff Rhys Jones said much the same thing in a recent interview with the Telegraph.

Friday, 3 January 2014

On Being Ill

The new broom aspect of the New Year isn't really working for me. I am ill in that useless way that isn't even dramatic enough to be called 'flu' with any seriousness. It's MUCH worse than a mere cold, though, and all thoughts of svelteness, self-improvement and being vegan till six o'clock have been put to one side till Later In the Month. Even I know I won't be perfect on January 11th, and in the meantime I am hoovering up fats and carbs like Bridget Jones in dumped mode.

But... and there is a Pollyanna moment coming up so brace yourself... I haven't stopped writing. If I'm too ill to go out, drink profligate coffee in cafes, or clean the house (ahem) then I have eons of time on my hands. Not all of this can be taken up with  warm baths, hot toddies and whinging, and so I am powering through my reading list for my next novel. (Only stopping now and again to wonder why my head is hurting so much, and then putting it down to Lemsip poisoning.)

The 'writing' stage I am at now mainly involves reading and making notes, so it's not a full-on brain dump. It's more like doing a crossword puzzle without any squares to fill in. And the most important thing is to keep taking on the information - particularly when the work-in-progress is a historical novel. (This one is set in the Restoration period, about which I knew Nothing till about last July and started reading about it.) In fact, I get most of my reading done when I am either ill or on holiday, and as there are usually other things that I meant to do on holiday, mild flu/an extremely bad cold is my reading mode of choice.

Insane, I know.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Five Top New Year Resolutions for Writers

1. Write. 
At least 500 words, every day. Preferably before you do anything else.

2. Read. 
Good books from different genres – aim at one novel a month.

3. Seek inspiration. 
Art galleries, country walks, films, music, meditation. Whatever works for you, make sure you make time for it in 2014. If you aren’t sure which to go for, try them all.

4. Be yourself.  
You are unique and so is your work. Take the ‘abundance’ approach, which recognises that success is not a finite resource, rather than adopting the ‘scarcity’ mind set, which sees the success of others as a sign of your own shortcomings.

5. Enjoy the process
If you are a writer, this is your life, and there is no better way to find happiness