Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Choose Your Own Adventure – Kate's Rules of Commercial Fiction Part One





Remember those Choose Your Own Adventure novels from the eighties? Low-tech fictional Dungeons and Dragons copy-cats where you theoretically had control of the outcome of the book: e.g.
Do you: a) kiss the handsome prince? (turn to page 71)
or b) kneecap the handsome prince (turn to page 4).

I had one that was meant to take you through the Maze at Hampton Court palace and I never got the the middle. Frustrating. But can you imagine writing one? It takes a strange, mathematical kind of brain. According to Wiki, the books are being relaunched, and there have been more recent women's fiction examples, which I must admit I’ve never felt the desire to buy. It just seems too much like hard work, all that flicking back and forth (might be significantly easier and more fun on the Kindle or the Sony Reader, though, I guess).

It's all about choices...

At this year’s Romantic Novelists' Association conference in Chichester, we were discussing what makes fiction compelling and I remembered those CYOA books. And suddenly it occurred to me why I always preferred linear fiction to these books…

Because all fiction is choose your own adventure.

OK. Maybe I need to qualify that – all commercial fiction has a strong element of choose your own adventure.
Let me explain why I think that. Why do we read fiction, rather than useful non-fiction on carpentry or household budgeting? I’ve done some reading about story-telling, and the reasons why stories recur in different cultures, (for the experts on this, try googling The Hero’s Journey or Christopher Booker’s huge and slightly exhausting book, The Seven Basic Plots), and one strong theory is that stories provide a way of understanding the world, and perhaps a map or model for children to enable us to grow into adults who will make calculated risks? Obviously, there’s much more to it – community bonding/sharing, etc. – but this theory that stories work as a framework to help us understand what it is to be human is a compelling one.

Science has the answer...or does it?
Now, of course, we have unprecedented access to information about the world – we’ve got Google Earth and Robert Winston and Stephen Hawking and the Met Office to prove that thunder isn’t caused by angry Gods, and that our planet is spherical and we won’t fall off the end if we get to the rainbow. But each generation has new challenges – for women in the west, the last few decades have been all about juggling, about career, and friendship, and travel, and fitting it in, or choosing to ignore, the ticking of that biological clock.

Women, studies show, read more fiction than men, and though the kind of fiction I write is often derided, women still read it in their millions. Why?

I think it’s because we want to live vicariously though our heroines or heroes – we want to face the decisions they face (maybe they echo the ones in our lives, or perhaps they’re against the backdrop of another time in history or another place in the world) and ask ourselves constantly – what would we do in his or her shoes?

None of this is rocket science, but it was a really interesting thing for me to think about, because it made me understand why it always works to increase the drama or tension or difficulty of the situation or choices my heroine faces – the reader loves to see the character on the rack, because it challenges her too. I have a hunch that this identification is greater with first person narration, which is why it is so often used in women’s fiction.

As writers we need to keep this in mind, raising the stakes so that our characters’ dilemmas are as engaging as possible. What would you do it…you lost the job that is the only important thing in your life? Your domineering mother dies and now you can stand up for yourself – if you dare? You come close to death – and realise you need to reconsider whether your old life is still the one you want now you’ve been given a second chance?
The status quo

In real life, we frequently do nothing. We hate being overweight, but we hate dieting more. We internalise arguments with our family rather than facing up to them. We stay in jobs, relationships, situations we don’t enjoy, because we’re scared.

Fiction allows us to contrast our choices with those of a heroine who MUST do something, who is placed in a situation where inaction isn’t an option (a story must have action, after all). Even if we don’t have the option of choosing between kissing or kneecapping the handsome prince, we feel her dilemmas and we wonder if we’d have done the same…Critics of women’s fiction (horrible term but I haven’t found a better one) say it’s pure escapism. Of course, escapism can be an element – and what’s the problem with that anyway? – but I think it’s about more than that. It’s about trying out other people’s lives – and choices – on for size.
And maybe, just occasionally, reading something that changes the way you see your own....

Next time: why passivity is the kiss of death for your heroes and heroines.

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Monday, September 15, 2008

Autumn: that back to blogging time of year


It’s back to school time. Rosy-cheeked kids with overflowing rucksacks. Conkers. Apples. The faintest tang of bonfires (yesterday we had one, fuelled by white spirit. Not so much the tang of autumn, rather the stench of runways).

For me, it’s back to blogging time. I love this time of year. Funny, I loathed school, but I always loved learning. School had the unfortunate by-product of other pupils, most of whom hated being there too, but for different reasons. I was a swotty child, short-sighted but too vain to wear glasses until I was twelve, hopeless at sport, and really too keen on learning for its own sake to get away without my share of bullying.

But now the best bit of autumn is reading the adult education brochures. Look! I could learn figure drawing (reality check: Art was the only exam I failed at school), ballet (reality check: last done at age eight, something of a two-left-footed fairy elephant), or an entire a new language (reality check: but which one? It used to be easy: French or German. Now it’s about taking a bet on whether Russia or China will be the new superpower. And also new alphabets to learn).
I have signed up for a couple of courses but keep reading to find out which.
Lessons in life

This has been a mixed year so far. It’s now two years since I became a full-time writer and I’ve learned a lot. The biggest lesson has been my natural inclination to become a bit of a hermit, alone with my characters and plots and the cat. That’s not good. Last year was really busy – writing two novels, plus six weeks of lecturing in China and the UK. Too busy. All the fun things I promised I’d do when I had freedom from the 24/7 pressures of journalism/TV work, were abandoned.

As a consequence I got a mild case of the blues, wrote a third of a book I had to abandon because it was tainted by those blues, and put on weight. Not good. But you live and learn: the lesson here was that I was a tougher boss to myself than my old employer ever was. I know how lucky I am to have this chance to work for myself, in an area I’ve loved since childhood. Now it’s time to cut myself some slack and make the most of my fortune.
New term, new attitude

So this year I’ve decided to do things that I had always promised myself but never done: I am going to sing in a choir, and learn more about writing plays. I am also pondering learning the piano which I know is tough as an adult but why not try? You can do anything if you want it enough.

I am also…giggle…running. Only someone who saw me during cross-country at school could appreciate the hilarity of this, but it’s true. I’m following the couch to 5K programme, which the help of Californian Robert Ullrey’s fab podcasts. Why not join me?

So where does all this extra-curricular activity leave the blog? Well, I am going to post when I have something to say about writing: so stand by for Choose your own Adventure and The Proactivity Recipe. I am also about to begin a new book so thought I’d post on the journey from a germ of an idea to publication. Hope you’ll join me. I've also, very belatedly, just discovered RSS so if you want to follow me, you might like to add me to your feeds.
In the meantime, I couldn’t resist adding Caroline Smailes’ Black Boxes widget as there’s so much talk of it on the web. This is unlikely to help with the new book but, hey, fun is my new mantra!

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