The Writer’s Imaginary Camera

I found an interesting thread on r/writing about writing (rather than ‘am I allowed to write a ghost if I’m not dead’, circle-jerks about being writers but not writing, requests for emotional support), from a screenwriter trying to do a novel.

In response to:

At about 855 words per scene, your scenes are almost certainly too sparsely written for a novel. That is incredibly short for an average.

I can almost guarantee that you are doing a LOT more telling than showing and neglecting atmosphere and detail. Go through each of your scenes and flesh them out more.

He says:

Character enters room with another character. Characters discuss topics. Character leaves room. End of scene.
What am I supposed to do to “flesh it out more?”

I got the impression that as he wrote, he was picturing the events from a camera’s perspective. I picture scenes I’m writing from cinematic angles and such, like anyone probably would.

The issue here is execution (as others pointed out, it is possible to write in ‘dramatic POV’, like Hemingway, and pull it off), and bearing in mind the difference between screenplays and novels in how the audience or reader ends up getting it.

A screenplay will end up getting seen through the work of actors, directors, set designers, etc. A novel won’t – there’s only what’s on the page. So a prose writer might imagine a sweeping shot, a suitable soundtrack, and all the rest of it, without that actually being made available to anyone else reading.

There are also the different senses that novels can bring to bear. Smell. The physical sensations of characters. Direct, mental access. As well as the style of the prose itself. Even an unobtrusive, camera-like sort of language, which doesn’t draw attention to the words or rhythms themselves, is its own deliberate use of prose style.

Max Gladstone said some stuff about this a while back:

Just having a dim bulb epiphany about one reason journeyman writers so often spend page space having characters see things, notice things, etc, rather than just narrating what happens.

It’s cinema language, isn’t it? In film you can’t just have “she grabbed the gun from the desk and pointed it at him.” We haven’t seen the gun since it was last in frame—we “need” a shot of her *noticing* the gun, making the decision, going for it.

In a book you just *remember* the gun was there, because he put it down half a page ago and all you’ve done in the interim is read twelve lines of text—vs. a film where you’re spending a lot of circuitry watching Bogart and Gladys George, reading their body language, etc.

If you’ve grown up with cinema grammar, you internalize that rhythm, so you know: ok, what we need here is for her to *see* the gun. We need a shot of it. Because the gun doesn’t exist unless she sees it. When in prose, the gun can just… exist. […]

And also said:

I’m personally so tired of books that doesn’t care about the effects you can create WITH BOOKS, the way an even competently-made tv series cares about the effects you can create with a camera. Books that read like screenplays for the movie the author hopes someone will make […] sometimes I want to just vanish into the dream, into the movie in my mind, I get it… but even there, when I do, the vanishing comes from a mastery of prose technique. (Evocation of camera image is also prose technique!)

When I wrote about flashbacks, I said it could be heavy-handed to use words like ‘remember’ or ‘reminded’. Instead of ‘the Old Spice reminded him of his grandfather’, ‘Old Spice had been his grandfather’s brand. He’d been standing on tiptoes to see[…]’. See how that takes advantage of an immersive access to somebody’s mind, which isn’t possible through a camera perspective?

The point here is to be conscious of how we’re engaging with our own work in progress. If we’re audio/visualising, how much of that is actually on the page? And are we losing sight of the other senses and perspectives which the written – not visual – make possible for us to use?

Book Reviews (11)

books 11

Four Roads Cross – Max Gladstone

Back to the Craft Sequence with the sequel to Three Parts Dead. In the wake of what happened there, Kos’s shareholders attempt a hostile takeover while protests, zombie traffickers and demonic incursions rock the city.

Great stuff. Tara develops further in the odd position of Craftswoman for a god in a world where they don’t tend to mix well, while aware that staying in the firm would’ve paid much better. Cat and Raz have fun interactions, and the whole vampirism thing was inspired – really fresh sides to the idea. The farmer’s market subplot and characters were okay, but not quite as interesting.

Gladstone’s fusion of the bizarre and realistic – contracts as magical structures, student debts laying claims on one’s soul, market fluctuations in a fire god’s church threatening global economics – forms an insightful fun-house mirror reflection of reality.

There were little points where I found things weird for the sake of weird, but, as usual, the wildly unique ideas and plot notes tie up into an overall logic with an action-packed conclusion.

The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick

The Allies lost WW2, with the US divided between Japan and Germany. In a neutral buffer zone lives the writer of an underground bestseller, telling a story where the Allies won. The characters deal with everyday life in occupied territory, take part in risky plots, and witness a power vacuum open at the top of the Reich.

The story takes place mainly in the Japanese-run Pacific States of America. The way power relations work in ordinary life here is masterful. The natives hate or fear the ruling Japanese, while adopting their customs and coming to view them as subtly superior. As lives interconnect, reflecting recurring Taoist themes, relatively benign Japanese rule is contrasted with the spectre of Nazism. The Fascist regime is presented as a nihilistic madness which has swept genocide through Europe and Africa, papering over the cracks in its instability with technological grandstanding.

The only character I couldn’t connect with much is Juliana – she seems quite vague, blown about passively by events and the I Ching. Why did she join Joe on that trip, exactly? Maybe I’m missing something, but some of those segments were the few areas where an otherwise deeply considered world and psychological nuance slipped.

The Priory of the Orange Tree – Samantha Shannon

Very t h i c c and very good. It’s hard to summarise the plot: a Queendom without an heir, dragons, international ideological conflict, an ancient enemy rising.

Ead has a fantastic arc, sent from the mages of the Priory to secretly protect the initially cold-seeming Queen Sabran. Both of them grow substantially through the novel, while far in the east the dragonrider Tané pursues her ambition, at great risk, through some of the most intriguing and emotive parts of the book. Loth felt like he should have been interesting, but didn’t quite click for me – though the gruff but complicated alchemist Niclays was a strong character.

The core ‘ancient enemy rising’ plot thread tying all this together was the weakest aspect for me. That threat felt distant and amorphous much of the time, coming in rapidly near the end. I liked the mythology, drawing on St George and other lore, and the tension springing from different regions’ perspective on it clashing. But this involved a fair amount of exposition and exposition disguised as dialogue.

The court intrigue, character arcs, and personal and political conflicts are where Priory shines. Those aspects are richly crafted, forming the real heart of the book. Well-developed characters, rivalries, friendships and relationships more than make up for the flaws, with enough compelling drama and fantasy for novels in their own right.

In the Miso Soup – Ryu Murakami (trans. Ralph McCarthy)

Frank, an American tourist, hires Kenji for a guided tour of Tokyo’s seedy nightlife. Kenji swiftly finds himself swept along with Frank’s real murderous desires, in a novel described on the cover as ‘American Psycho – the Holiday Abroad.’

I was expecting a bit of 3edgy5me escapism, but this isn’t gritty so much as grotty. The atmosphere is mainly… empty. Yeah, there are some shocking gory scenes, and some nicely executed tension as Kenji attempts to keep his unpredictable client placated. The overwhelming mood, though, is loneliness and materialism and cultural void.

Sometimes that atmosphere feels thoughtful, as when Kenji muses on the ‘matchmaking pub’ cruddy furniture, the blank face of the man running it, the lonely and desperate characters trying vainly to assert themselves or connect with others. Other times it comes off as bland nihilism, not backed up by deeper engagement with setting or culture or character. I don’t know much about Japan, but this doesn’t feel like a convincing, disturbing portrayal of anywhere. It feels more like Murakami needs to get some sun and lighten up.

I can appreciate certain scenes. But as a whole, this doesn’t feel real enough to be creepy. Frank’s violence doesn’t mean much unless it’s somewhat explicable – rather than a cheap, ‘oh, he’s just insane’. Without more of a human counterpoint – which Kenji’s girlfriend, Jun, was supposed to be, though why is he dating a 16-year-old? – for a contrasting element of substance, the empty mood detracts from the threat.

Book Reviews (3)

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge

As Nathan J Robinson wrote regarding this book in a Current Affairs article on David Brooks: ‘The title is actually somewhat misleading; it might more accurately be called Why It Would Be Nice If White People Could Just Be Quiet and Listen For a Minute Before Telling Me Their Opinions on Race, and Then Maybe I Can Actually Talk To White People About Race.’

Many angry comments based purely on the title perfectly demonstrate Eddo-Lodge’s point. These people seem to find a provocative choice of title more troubling than, for example, that people with non-white sounding names are less likely to get job interviews. There’s a great deal of serious information in this book about structural racism in British society, and a lot of people who won’t bother reading it because they’re too upset by the title.

Eddo-Lodge points out that ‘this isn’t about good and bad people’, that easy to condemn overt prejudice can distract us from more covert and systematic issues. She links race to issues of gender and class (e.g. discussing the use of the white working class as a prop to divert discussions on race, as though the working class is all white or that we can’t tackle race and class issues together), and lambasts shallow performative wokeness: ‘a safety pin stuck to your lapel […] won’t stop someone from getting deported.’

This book argues very solidly on a range of issues, from colour blindness to white privilege to positive discrimination to white feminism to the Rhodes Must Fall movement and more, skewering weak or disingenuous arguments – certainly changing my mind on various points. There are points where the argument slackens, particularly her failure to interrogate Nick Griffin as sharply as she could have.

The stronger logical thrusts are rather satisfying. On outraged responses to the idea of Idris Elba playing James Bond, she comments, ‘This strength of feeling over classic stories being ruined wasn’t around when the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist was remade in a film in which the lead character was cast in the image of a cartoon cat.’

Much more could be said, but really – go read the book.

Two Serpents Rise – Max Gladstone

The sequel to Last First Snow, with grown-up Caleb as the lead, working for Red King Consolidated to deal with a shadow-thing infestation in Dresediel Lex’s water supply, spilling into a plot of corporate/political machinations with apocalyptic potential.

The pace settles in a happy medium between the breakneck Three Parts Dead and slow-starting Last First Snow, brisk and tense but with time to be reflective. Gladstone deals with the conflict between idealism and pragmatism, exposing more of the brutality underlying a society running on Craft as characters wrestle with whether the system they have can be acceptable, and what a better way might be.

The cast are more compelling than in LFS, particularly adult Caleb, and the world-building is impressive as usual. It might have been interesting to see more of how the Skittersill has changed though.

Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? – Mark Fisher

A short text with a great deal of influence in anti-capitalist circles, in which Fisher outlined the nature and consequences of ‘capitalist realism’ – an ideology presenting capitalism as the only conceivable system, while – significantly – concealing its own place as an ideology, instead treating itself as unassailable natural law and anything except capitalism as ideology run amok.

The basic concept is well stated. Fisher was onto something. There are cogent points about subjects such as the injection of business frameworks into public services, or the treating of mental health as an individual biological issue. He puts ideas from Slavoj Žižek and others to good use, e.g. drawing on the Lacanian idea of the ‘big Other’ in discussing ‘an official culture in which capitalist enterprises are presented as socially responsible and caring [as opposed to] a widespread awareness that companies are actually corrupt, ruthless, etc.’

(To be honest, I’d just thought of Žižek as a living meme with a weird thing about anal fisting.)

There was definitely some critical-theory-speak I couldn’t figure out. Sorry Fisher, we haven’t all read Deleuze. Worse, Fisher uses weird dodgy logic on occasions, and severely under-explains. It’s often assumed we know what he’s on about, giving no or limited examples of what he sees as a self-evident (actually rather abstract and difficult to immediately grasp) trend in culture. And referring to a couple films for examples doesn’t always cut it when you’re trying to identify a culture-wide ideological keystone.

‘On the one hand, this is a culture that privileges only the present and the immediate[;] on the other hand, it is a culture that is excessively nostalgic, given over to retrospection[.]’ How does our culture only privilege the present? How is it given over to retrospection? How on earth is it both at once, man!? Is this unique to modern ideology? This is such a general statement that it’s hard to completely disagree, but also hard to really agree with or pull something meaningful from. It’s frustrating.

As a way to help understand key dynamics of modern mainstream ideology and point towards a 21st century approach for the radical left, this was an interesting and illuminating read. No doubt some of my confusion would ease on a re-read, and again, the central ideas are potent. However, the book too often leaps to big conclusions from little reasoning, and the Theoryese was a struggle.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old – Hendrik Groen

A fictional diary of a year in a Dutch care home, this is a poignant, often tragic exploration of ageing, bureaucratic farce, and society’s treatment of the elderly – balanced by dark and light comedy, friendship, and the resistance of anarchic octogenarians determined to enjoy life.

Hendrik forms a group staunchly committed to getting on with life without the negative, passive attitude of many of their fellow ‘inmates’. While their humour, warmth, and refusal to age gracefully lifted the mood, I still found this a bit of a downer.

It’s billed as a comedy, but I didn’t find it that funny generally. A lot of people seem to have found otherwise, so you might find it a bigger laugh. Still a good book, but not what I was expecting.

Book Reviews (2)

The Illustrated Man – Ray Bradbury

The book opens with a vividly described prologue about a carnival worker covered in moving tattoos, one of which will, after a while, show the viewer’s life and death. Unfortunately not much is done with that concept. It’s used as a framing device for the short stories, feeling a bit tacked on to either side.

The stories, though, are polished classic sci-fi, with dark undertones and crafted lyricism. Recurring themes are technology as it relates to human life, and our tendency to screw things up – whether simply not making the most of our lives, starting a nuclear war, or instigating Jim Crow or censorship. This misanthropic tendency is offset with a sincere, but not saccharine, appreciation for glimmers of simple goodness. Mars often features as the potential ‘fresh start’.

I’m not sure what to make of Bradbury’s view on children here. ‘The Veld’, with those weird kids, and ‘The Playground’, with the children attracted to an anarchic battle-royale playground, felt weaker than the rest of this collection. I most liked ‘No Particular Night or Morning’, about a man’s growing extreme solipsism on a long space voyage, and ‘The City’, about a wonderfully personified mechanical city waiting for visitors so it can fulfil its dark purpose.

Forces of Nature – Prof Brian Cox & Andrew Cohen

I’ve seen most of his TV work, but this is the first time I’ve read Brian Cox. The book has the same feel as his documentaries – asking basic questions like ‘why is the sky blue?’, and following that thread down to the point where nobody knows the next bit yet, a palpable excitement for human curiosity and the continual improvements in our understanding of the universe.

One difference is that there’s less dumbing down, with times where he says things like ‘allow me one paragraph of postgrad physics’ or ‘if you’re not a maths person, feel free to skip this bit…’. So some of the book went a light-year over my head – but most of it was explained in more ordinary language, and the picture that emerges is fascinating.

It was great how many times FoN says things are currently unknown. After starting off with a question about the shape of snowflakes or why hot things glow, the reader gets led through increasingly advanced frameworks of physics/chemistry/biology; and the original question is basically solved but we run up against a deep issue in our current understanding of the universe. Cox’s enthusiasm is infectious, though the pages showing quotes in block capitals sometimes felt a bit random and cheesy.

Conspiracy – S.J. Parris

Paris, 1585. Heretic-turned-spy Giordano Bruno is charged with solving the murder of a priest, leading him into the midst of conflicts between the King, the hard-line Catholic League, Protestant spies, and trouble among the court. The threat of a sectarian massacre looms overhead, and finding the truth may be dangerous.

I haven’t read any of Parris’s previous Bruno books, but the essential bits of backstory are re-introduced seamlessly. She’s constructed a convincing setting steeped in religious and political tension, populated with vibrant characters: chiefly the protagonist, an entertaining narrator. The plot is intricate but not too dense, though I did occasionally find it overly reliant on Bruno messing up.

Last First Snow – Max Gladstone

Continuing on with the Craft Sequence, this is the first chronologically. A younger Elayne Kevarian works on a property dispute in the city of Dresediel Lex, where the deprived Skittersill district is protected – and restricted – by the wards of gods slain by the ruling King in Red.

At first I wasn’t so into this as Three Parts Dead. Debates about the contract for redevelopment of the Skittersill, while very real – a community organiser makes the memorable point that forced ‘development’ from on high could be like someone trying to make a spider’s web better by constructing it ‘efficiently’ out of wire, ruining it – were a big change of pace from TPD’s driving action. However, the situation takes a turn, and by the end I was very much won over.

Craft continues to be a brilliant magic system, integral to this world’s economics, politics, and history. The theological competitor to Craft in Dresediel Lex has a distinct Mayan flavour, with a range of half-sleeping gods and godlings providing slivers of power to the priest Temoc, while clamouring to be properly fed as in the old days.

Complete Stories – Flannery O’Connor

I picked this up because I vaguely remembered O’Connor being a big name. Judging by this, that’s very much deserved. She was a master of constructing strange, irritating, deeply compelling characters. While I didn’t always fully pick up on – or agree with – the strong Catholic themes in these stories, O’Connor uses symbols, irony, and humour to great effect, articulating her convictions without ever feeling like a sermon.

A common figure is the self-righteous supposed ‘intellectual’, coming back to the small Southern town they look down on and being shown up for the fool they really are. At the same time, the other characters aren’t held up as icons either. It’s brilliantly nuanced, and despite the cutting irony on both parties it doesn’t feel like O’Connor is merely dunking on both sides, sneering from the fence.

Some of the earlier stories, while worth reading, lack something when compared with the latter ones. I didn’t get what ‘Wildcat’ was on about. The top three for me were ‘The Enduring Chill’, ‘The Partridge Festival’, and ‘Parker’s Back’, although there are many must-reads in here. Very powerful, and unmistakeable for anyone else.

The Green Mile – Stephen King

The book is prison guard Paul Edgecombe’s recollection of the time during the Depression when John Coffey, a gentle giant convicted of the rape and murder of two young girls, was on death row. John Coffey has mysterious abilities, his initials are J.C. – *thinking emoji*.

It’s really good. The conversational tone of voice is immersive, the setting and characters are memorable, the action is gripping. Lots of intense feels. Any lit snobs deriding King have obviously not read this. Even the mouse Mr Jingles has buckets of personality – despite, naturally, having no dialogue.

And if you’re not a book person try a different blog the film is well worth seeing too.


Book Reviews (1)

Three Parts Dead – Max Gladstone

Part of the Craft Sequence, which I’m going to get more of because this was dank. It’s a fantasy legal thriller with an inventive contract-based magic system, Craft, tied into a richly developed world.

The fire god Kos, god/power source of the city of Alt Coulumb, has apparently been murdered. New Craftswoman Tara Abernathy has to work the case and resurrect him with the help of a chain-smoking priest, Abelard, her new boss, Elayne, and Cat, a magic cop addicted to having vampires suck her blood.

Fast-paced, highly imaginative, a very clever work with great characters and an intriguing setting.

Among Others – Jo Walton

Mori got crippled and lost her twin sister while stopping their mother’s black magic scheme. At boarding school it begins to seem that her mother’s at it again, while Mori spends the time she isn’t dealing with that or in classes reading so much sci-fi – more than she could possibly be managing while attending lessons and, presumably, sleeping sometimes – that the book’s meta-ness reaches meme tier proportions. (Yo dawg, heard you like books so I put a book in your book so you can read about reading while you read…)

The diary format lends itself well to establishing her likeable character, the ‘magic as seemingly insignificant actions leading to chains of coincidence’ thing is handled well, and the fairies are interesting enough as truly alien figures that they really ought to be featured more. It’s not exactly fast paced, which is fine, but maybe Mori needs another hobby. When she joined a book club I was torn between feeling glad for her getting bookish friends and groaning ‘crap, there’s gonna be even more books in this book!’

Kill All Normies – Angela Nagle

An interesting but flawed look at the growth of the far-right online, viewing it as a reaction against the left. Nagle does a good job sketching out the key players – 4chan’s /b/ and /pol/, the Manosphere, alt-light figures such as Milo, and the alt-right. She makes some neat observations on the right adopting traditionally left approaches – irony, leaderless online movements, subversiveness – in the attempt to cause political change via cultural change, c.f. Antonio Gramsci.

Less solid are her arguments regarding ‘Tumblr liberals’, an alternative for ‘SJWs’ she coins to refer to those with a politics based on identity and ‘the emotional injuries of systemic cultural prejudices’. She makes valid – straightforward – points about the toxicity of some callout culture and the need to address material conditions and class rather than solely identity and so on, but this doesn’t mean those darn ‘SJWs’ don’t also raise actual problems for real people!

The ‘snowflake student’ stuff here feels a bit reactionary, as do other dodgy takes. And while internet culture was a worthwhile thing to investigate, there’s limited grounding in material events.

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

Hecking heck. This is good, folks.

IJ is a thousand-page behemoth with some obscure words and a lot of its content in tiny font as endnotes, but it’s not excessively hard. It’s immensely entertaining and about a lot of deep stuff: depression, addiction, criticism of reflexive irony as evasion of real human feeling, etc. In plot terms, it involves a halfway house for recovering addicts, a tennis academy, Quebec’s wheelchair assassins, and the search for ‘Infinite Jest’, a film so entertaining that people will sit watching it on a loop until they die in ecstasy.

I guess some of the pretentious vocab could be made normal English (why ‘aleatory’ when ‘random’ would do?), and the Wardine and yrstruly bits are grating. Some sections are a struggle to slog through, the chronology might be confusing, but have faith in DFW and it will be rewarded.

This has feels, laughs, big ideas. The challenge absolutely pays off. It’s an extraordinary picture of the human condition and a deeply profound, unique work of fiction.

Men Explain Things To Me – Rebecca Solnit

A couple of essays on feminism, with the title entry being the one that led to the coinage of the term ‘mansplaining’. Solnit’s a convincing writer with some sharp touches of humour, raising a number of gender issues with stark clarity, consistently coming back to the right of women to be heard, taken seriously, to have a voice, to be free to participate on equal terms.

Some of the book is more obscure – the essay on Woolf, and ‘the spider essay’. They do connect to her general message, but I found them a bit more ambiguous and less strongly rooted in specific events than the others.

Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor

A girl goes missing on holiday in a small village. This sounds like the start of a murder mystery or something, but don’t expect a thriller. This is a slow burn without much in the way of conventional plot, kept going by poetic prose bringing to life a wide cast of characters, the natural landscape, and the village’s social dynamic.

Each chapter swoops through a year in the life of the village, starting with the search party having ‘gathered at the car park in the hour before dawn and waited to be told what to do.’ The way everything unfolds, the deft touches painting each personality, the passing of the seasons, the twists and turns in intertwined lives, makes this a successful un-novel-like novel.

Who Rules The World? – Noam Chomsky

Wow. Reading this made me realise that, among various other things that feel obvious in retrospect, Obama wasn’t so great, US foreign policy has been even worse than I thought, and Israeli policy… yeah…

Chomsky basically just barrages you with facts and quotes – ‘the US/Obama/Israel/etc did this bad thing’, often adding, ‘this is them openly saying why they did it in terms not out of place in a Bond villain monologue’. This does all get repetitive, with the plus side that some of it has lodged in my memory through iteration. After a while, there was noticeable deja vu. Chomsky also isn’t the most engaging writer in the world, although he can be delightfully bitter and sarcastic.

I have no idea how Chomsky remembers so much stuff. His work here is an eye-opening deluge of deeply disturbing information, all of which should be much more widely known.