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Book? or Films?

When faced with an adaptation of a book into a film there are generally two sorts of reactions. There are those who say, The book was much better. And then there are those who say, What book?

Both, in their own way are correct.

A film is a different creature entirely to a book. While the book may be a starting point, it is just that. A visual story is not told in the same way as a written one. In a book, one can have a cast of hundreds, thousands, millions. One can have the sets and locations limited only by the writer’s needs and imagination. A film has a cast and a budget. Both necessarily limited.

But a book is not just the writer’s imagination. It exists in the special place where the writer’s and the reader’s imaginations meet. You may be frustrated by the adaptation because, while perfectly valid, the director’s vision is not yours. It may be richer, or poorer. Or just different.

Writing short fiction — or at least, attempting to write and learn at the same time as I am doing — has lessons to be learned from both answers.

First of all, a few words about how I have approached this project. I resolved to publish a story a week, and try to keep it up for a year. Just to see. That doesn’t mean I write a story a week. I started with a small — 4 or 5 — reserve of stories. Each story takes a different time to put together. The quickest so far has been about 2 days. The longest, about three weeks. Most do take about a week, although that is probably because I wind them up, or I try to, after about 5 days of writing.

These stories are necessarily first drafts. Rewriting and editing could easily take just as long, if not longer. And I don’t have that time. This could also cause me to reject a story in some cases. So that goes out of the window. I can’t afford to abandon a story as that would put me off my schedule. So I have decided — arbitrarily — that all stories started will be finished. And in order. And my rules state that I cannot set a story aside for later.

I write in pencil in my notebook. I will quite often re-read the previous day’s writing before continuing. Quite naturally, this helps me get back into the mood of what I’m writing. The pencil allows me to quickly rub out and change a word here, reorder a phrase there. At the weekend I type up the week’s story. In most cases, I wrote that story about a month ago. As I type, I will clean up, change a little something here and there. But these are brush strokes. I have no time to change the structure, or make major changes. To that extent I consider these first drafts.

I have decided that with short fiction, it is even more important that the story immediately grabs the reader in some way. It must draw both of us very quickly to its heart, then move on to a resolution [of sorts… yes, I do allow myself open-ended stories]. I sometimes start in my head with a first line, or the idea for a story and then play with it, still in my head, until I find the best way into that story. Only then do I start writing.

Sometimes I see the short story as a form of note, or sketch for a longer piece. That might be my intention before I start, or it might happen on the way. ‘Warning Call’ is clearly in this category. I’d rather like to know what happens to that phone — and those people — after the short story ends.

Quite often character names will initially be a squiggle, or a couple of letters. Then I will go back later and give them a name as they take form. I will also tend to use rather ordinary names. You see, I don’t have time to develop particular traits in 2 - 3000 words, my typical lengths. Unless those traits are the essence of the story. Yet I don’t want my characters to be cardboard. They need a detail that makes them real. [An aside: I was delighted when someone very close to me burst out laughing while reading ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’. Naturally I asked what had tickled her fancy. The mother, when she says “Finish up and you can have your pudding.” Just a detail, but it had struck home. I was proud of that.] I also don’t describe the characters, trying to let their words and actions form them, unless something in their appearance of character is necessary for the story — John was a skinny kid with a tuft of hair that was always falling over his forehead, the way he peered up from behind that give an impression of shyness, of hiding. Nothing could be further from the truth… I count that the reader will fill out the empty canvas, bringing in memories, ideas, depth, and background that will make the story more real for her.

I don’t have time for diversions either. Thanks to the nature of the stories, I can lead the reader a little astray, or appear to set things off on one path, then with a twist, land where I wanted to go. That is in the nature of the contract between writer and reader. This is what happens in ‘Fur’ for example. The reader twigs quite early that Julian is a werewolf. Hopefully before the narrator does. It would be a disappointment however if Julian were responsible for the violence. The twist must come from that.

So all the facts must be present and available in the story. This also avoids ‘cheating’ — the vampire is crushed by a grand piano falling out of nowhere at the end of the story, yet nothing in the story up to then leads you to expect that. That is not only cheating, it is most frustrating.

There is something that I admire in contemporary American Action Cinema, and something that I have tried to apply here. That is the ability to quickly sketch in the protagonists characters in the opening scene. You ‘fall’ straight into the story, but in that opening scene, you quickly take in feelings and hopes, conflicts and motivations, unconsciously as you follow the initial action. The same close reader remarked on the story ‘Warning Call’ that everything hinged on the parents trusting their son when he told them to get out of the house. I explained that I had tried to ‘plant’ a series of touches prior to that that explained that trust: helping the father clean up after the party, the fact that the party was in house, the fact that cigarettes smoked at the party although by an older person on the back porch didn’t cause conflict… That there was enough trust in that house that they didn’t just roll over and go back to sleep. I might have failed. But I did try to plant the clues, sketch in the background.

And that brings me back to the difference I propose between books and films. I hope that the rough sketches I give you expand and fill out the space in your mind to take on a larger, more grander form.

Am I succeeding? Am I failing? That’s for you to say. Please let me know.

Posted: Sunday, 4th October, 2009

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Welcome to my adventures in writing scary [well, I hope] YA fiction. More complete info here.

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