Tuesday, December 12, 2017

How a narrative orphan became a favorite child

I’d been writing a fiction series. Two books had been published, Dancing Priest and A Light Shining, and the sequel had been sitting in manuscript form, some 70,000 words, for quite some time. There was too big of a story gap between No. 2 and and the sequel, so I couldn’t simply skip over the gap and cover it with some narrative filler or explanation in the sequel. The gap demanded a complete novel.

Ideas weren’t the problem; my brain was seething with them. Neither were plot developments, new characters, and new conflicts. Perhaps I had too many possibilities. And there were fragments and chunks of manuscript set aside or removed entirely.

Could all of this be tied together?

I tried several approaches, and not one worked, or worked well. The more I floundered with manuscript No. 3, the louder the No. 4 manuscript became, like a siren song enticing me into its pages. I didn't want to fiddle with the "gap novel;" I wanted to get on with the one just sitting there, waiting to be finished.

I was getting nowhere. It wasn’t writer’s block as much as it was narrative frustration. I’d stare at the computer screen, try writing some words, and sometimes write more than 1,000 words before I’d throw up my hands in disgust. This isn’t working, I thought. Over and over again.

I knew what my frustration was – that story almost demanding to be written. It would be so easy, with it just sitting there and waiting, for me to turn my back on the gap. But a voice inside my head told me that would be a mistake, because I would be spending an enormous amount of effort combining No. 3 into No. 4, or fixing No. 4 to account for No. 3. Too much would have to be explained. No. 4 made sense only because there was No. 3.

Then I went for a long walk. It was a cold, sunny day in early spring. I left my house and walked my usual twice-a-week walk of about three miles. Somewhere in that first mile, I heard one of the characters speak, and his heart was almost breaking.

At the very beginning of the story, this character is watching the hero leave his home. He’s leaving with him because he’s working with him. The hero’s family is leaving as well. Life has profoundly changed. And this character begins to tell the story. And this is what he says: "I wrote this down because that first year, those first six months, explained everything that came after."

I had my way out of my writing morass. An unexpected narrator.

For the next two miles of my walk, the pieces began to click into place. I couldn’t believe how I had been missing what was now so obvious.

When I got home, I began to write, or actually, rewrite, everything I had up to that point. I turned the manuscript on its head. A villain emerged. So did new characters and sub-plots. A couple of other narrators, including the villain, began to speak. New scenes arose, scenes that took the hero into new directions that fit the story arc. While the story still went from the A to the Z I had originally envisioned, just about everything from B to Y changed, and changed dramatically.

The gap novel was no longer filled a gap. It had been my narrative orphan. And it had become its own story, and could stand on its own if it had to.

And iit's become my personal favorite book in the series: Dancing King.

Rediscovering “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens

It is late 1860. British explorers are in Africa, seeking the source of the Nile River. The Second Opium War has just been brought to an end in China. The first professional golf tournament has been held in Scotland, and would soon become known as the British Open. In the United States, Abraham Lincoln has just been elected President, and South Carolina is preparing to vote to secede from the Union.

And in London, Charles Dickens sends his friend John Forster a letter, describing a new “little piece” he’s been working on and is on the verge of completing. Dickens needed something for his magazine All the Year Round; a novel by writer Charles Lever which was being serialized was simply not drawing the interest Dickens had hoped for. He described his new story as “fine, new, and grotesque,” and he said planned to publish it in 20 numbers or installments, beginning Dec. 1 (there would be a total of 36 episodes.

That “little piece” was Great Expectations, which came to be one of the author’s best and most beloved works. It was a success from the very first episode.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Top illustration: Pip meets the convict Abel Magwith in the churchyard in Great Expectations.

Monday, December 11, 2017

“Ink” by James Graham

In 1968, Australian Rupert Murdoch bought The News of the World newspaper in the U.K., and followed that up in 1969 with the purchase of The Sun. In 1981, he acquired The Times and the Sunday Times. His media holdings in the United States now include Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and many others.

British journalism (and eventually American journalism) would never be the same. Murdoch embraced new technology, moved operations from Fleet Street, raised the ire of the unions, threw himself (and his newspapers) fully behind Margaret Thatcher and later Tony Blair. The content of the newspapers he acquired changed as well. While the Murdoch newspapers didn’t turn tabloid journalism into an art form, they soon were treading where many newspapers had feared to tread. The journalism establishment was initially outraged; within a few short years, it would be forced to follow Murdoch’s lead.

In the play Ink, British playwright James Graham focuses on the pivotal acquisition of The Sun in 1969, not so much on how it happened but more on the assembling of a staff, the first Murdoch edition of Nov. 17, 1969, and how with a year The Sun was catching up to its bigger competitors. And the play is less about Murdoch and more about Larry Lamb (1929-2000), the editor Murdoch lured to The Sun and who in many ways “out-Murdoched” Murdoch.

This isn’t a play with a build toward a fever-pitch climax. Instead, Ink is a narrative, almost like a snapshot of what happened at The Sun in the early Murdoch years, and the determination that Murdoch and the editors had to overtake The Mirror, then the most widely read newspaper in Britain.  

James Graham
Graham, born in 1982, has written more than 20 plays, and recently had both Ink and Labour of Love being staged at the same time in London. He has gained a reputation for being one of the best of Britain’s playwrights writing about politics. He’s also written for television and worked as an actor.

Today, we’re watching enormous upheavals going on in the media world, brought by technology, the internet, social media, dramatically changing economics, and politics. Some of the seeds of these upheavals can be found in what Rupert Murdoch did in 1969. Ink provides a way to help understand what happened.


Top photograph: The first edition of the Sun under Rupert Murdoch, Nov. 17, 1969.