Category Archives: Games

Writing Fiction: River Jumping

It’s been about six weeks since I received the editorial report on my novel suggesting another rewrite.  Six weeks.  That’s a long time.  Frankly?  I’ve been struggling.  Oddly, it was easier for me to adopt the idea of changing one of the main characters from a middle-aged man to a 29-year-old woman than it has been for me to make subtler changes.  Perhaps because I’ve run up against the limits of my conception for this novel or my ability to see this character in a different way.

One problem, for example, is in making the female character independent, mature and empowered.  I’ve had additional feedback from a couple of women about the character and it is consistent with the report: she is too childlike and too dependent on male characters to rescue her.  Damn.  And there was I thinking I was a feminist.

But, without meaning to dig myself any deeper, I like the character the way she is and can’t picture her in a different way.  I understand what I am being told, but there is nothing creatively that then presents itself as an alternative.

When Edward de Bono created brainstorming, it was to try to break people into new ways of thinking.  The principles are pretty well known: go for quantity not quality, always say yes, allow associations, encourage wild ideas.  In short, just say whatever comes into your mind, don’t censure and keep going.

It has been around long enough for variants to develop.  One is called River Jumping.  I’ve been teaching it on courses recently and it occurred to me that I might use it.  I think there are a number of ways to approach it.  But this is how I used to with my current problem:

First, state your problem.  In my case, it was how to create an empowered character rather than the slightly childlike/dependent-on-men character that I had before.

Second, generalise the problem.  Flatten it.  So, being able to create an empowered character.

Third, brainstorm all the people/organisations/etc. who face a similar problem.  I came up with a list of 49.  Starting with therapists, politicians, dramatists, etc.

Fourth, pick one or two which are quite different to yourself.  I picked: stewardess on a crashing plane, Robinson Crusoe, a porcupine and Yahweh.

Fifth, in your head, ask them how they would solve the problem.  I did it with all, but I’ll use the stewardess as an example.  She came up with lots of ways:

Forget the rest of the world, what will happen and what has happened.

Fix only on your passengers.

Know that their calmness is created by your calmness.

Fuck status

Think, this moment is your best moment.

I liked the middle one particularly.  But looking at them again, the last one quite appeals.

Final stage, apply what they say to your problem.  Actually, what I did was to write a scene in which the lead female character remembers being six years old and meeting a stewardess, who says, ‘I was once on a crashing plane.’  But beyond this, it gives me an empowering philosophy of my female character, one that I can identify with.

Since then, I’ve used it with other writing problems.  The effectiveness may not last.  The brain has a way of habituating to even the most innovative practice.  But it’s been interesting.

Writing Game: Placebos

A paediatrician friend told me that his favourite cartoon was of a man at a surgery saying, ‘I’ll take the placebo if it makes you feel better, doctor.’  Or there’s my favourite, The Simpsons, when the people of Springfield rush to the hospital for a miracle drug and are told it is just a placebo.  ‘Where can we get these placebos?’ someone shouts.

But so much for the joke.  A recent Horizon programme showed how something as simple as a pill filled with sugar or corn flour can help in recovery from IBS and Parkinson’s in full flare-up.  A fake procedure aids recovery from vertebral fractures.  And it’s not just health.  The performance of the British cycling team was so improved that one cyclist recorded a personal best time.  A climber was able to function at low oxygen levels.  Best effects are from being given a large red and white pill by someone wearing a white coat.  But it can even work when you know you are being given a placebo.

So, my question is this.  What if you were given a new miracle pill for your particular field of endeavour, and told that, for the period of taking that pill, your performance would improve to a standard beyond that which you thought you would be capable of?  What would you find yourself able to do?

For me, I would find myself able to write with the mastery of Jane Austen, the energy of Charles Dickens; fluency of Penelope Lively; the informal humour of Raymond Chandler; the wit of PG Wodehouse; the poetry of Ken Kesey.

The fictional world would present itself to me as if I were just a stenographer sitting in the scene with the characters.  No longer needing to worry about plot, because that was just something that happened in front of me.  And at the end, I would be able to look back and see how things had connected up, and why the protagonist now finds him/herself where she is.  A fully realised world with insights and knowledge about it seamlessly woven into the prose.  Characters who had both humour and suffering.  A plot that drew you along with a sense of mystery and disclosed something deeper towards the end.

As an experiment, I tried this on a chapter I was rewriting.  Using, as my placebo, a large vitamin pill taken with a glass of fizzy water (no, really).  And certainly there were insights.  Somehow I relaxed more easily into the point-of-view of the main character.  So much so, that when I tried to change something she had said because it didn’t seem right, she got quite cross.  I put it back the way it was.

What we’re talking about would be familiar to anyone who uses solution-focused techniques.  It’s a mild form of self-hypnosis that helps you to overcome the barriers that normally exist.

Game: Page Counting

There was a point early on in reading the new Stephen King novel when I looked at the bottom of the Kindle and realised I was 9% in.  I was a bit concerned.  It seemed to be going too fast, I began to wish that it was longer.  The experience didn’t last for the whole novel but I rattled through all 500 pages in two weeks, which is pretty good for me.  Compare this to the six months it took me to read Don Quixote, counting pages every step of the way.  I can’t be the only person who does this: working out how long it’s going to take me to read another 50 pages, or to get to 35%.  Obviously it’s a sign of not being totally absorbed.  The joy is finding a book where the opposite happens.

So what are the books?  I’m going to nominate Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon.  Which I couldn’t wait to get back to every time.  And remember, this isn’t your favourite book, it’s the one where the pages sped past.  Any nominations?

Writing Games: Convoluted Sentences

Not so much a game as a challenge.  Can anyone quote a sentence more convoluted than the one at the start of Henry James’ (ironic?) Art of Writing?

I SHOULD not have affixed so comprehensive a title to these few remarks, necessarily wanting in any completeness, upon a subject the full consideration of which would carry us far, did I not seem to discover a pretext for my temerity in the interesting pamphlet lately published under this name by Mr. Walter Besant.

After which, I suspect, he went purple in the face and collapsed to the floor.

Let’s take Virginia Woolf as given.

Writing Game: Newspeak Classics

There is a line in 1984 that is more disturbing than the famous final one.  It occurs in the appendix Principles of Newspeak, where the writer admits that the final adoption of the language would not take place until 2050 because of the need for the translation of classic and more utilitarian literature.  He suggests that the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence could merely be translated as ‘Crimethink.’  And then goes on: ‘Various writers such as Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, Byron, Dickens, and some others were in the process of translation: when the task had been completed, their original writings…would be destroyed.’

To start the process I decided to try a few Newspeak versions of the first paragraphs of classics.  See below, answers at the bottom.

  1. 13 clock, April.  Citizen ungood enter Victory domestbuild
  2. All agree statelove doubleplusgood.
  3. Best time, plusbest time; Big Bruv era, Goldstein defeated; all productivity targets exceeded.

If you fancy having a go yourself enter below.  By the way, this post was inspired by the Newspeak title of Nigel Mountford’s extraordinary account of a night of depression ‘Oldthinkers Unbellyfeel EngSoc.’ (http://bermondseylamb.wordpress.com/)  Which is well worth a look.  In the meantime, the answers are: 1984, Pride and Prejudice, and Tale of Two Cities.

Character: the X-but-Y game

With the limited number of words available in a synopsis characters often get reduced to a three word contraction X-but-Y. Some of mine have included, ‘ballsy but vulnerable’, ‘polite but determined’, ‘kind but neurotic’. Don Quixote might be ‘intelligent but mad’; Hamlet’s father, ‘angry but dead’; and if David Cameron were a fictional character, ‘be-suited but pink’.
Have a go.