A penny for your thoughts makes it very hard to get by in this economy.
Of all the books I read in primary school, from Maniac Magee which introduced me to the concept of racism to Flat Stanley, about a kid flattened by a cork board, one has stuck with me more than the rest. And I didn’t even know its name.
Actually that’s not quite true. We never read the full book, only an extract of it, and it’s the image from that extract that stayed with me. There was a boy and a talking dog, who were running in the forest. The dog kept running into all the trees because, while he could see the tree behind the one in front, he could never see the one in front. As a fairly literal child, this blew my tiny mind. “How could he not see the one in front? He’d have to look through the tree to see the next one??”
Many, many years later, I finally got the point, that you can’t just look forward or plan ahead if you don’t live in the moment. My god what a revelation. I asked around and a friend, who had been equally affected by the book, was able to tell me it was, as the title of this blog suggests, Norton Juster’s ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’.
I chased it down and if I was flummoxed by the running into trees (which wasn’t the dog but a floating boy called Alec) then I’ve no idea how I’d have handled the rest. It’s wild. Both literal and whimsical, literary and visually mesmerising, giving embodiment to idioms, making the abstract literal and with a delightful penchant for puns, all through incredible characters on a simple journey that any child should be able to follow (though obviously not this one).
In fairness if I’d read from the start perhaps I would have geared up to the concept. It starts in the real world, with a boy, Milo, who is bored of learning. The opening few paragraphs are some of the best I can recall in immediately establishing a character.
“There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself - not just sometimes, but always.
When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going.
Wherever he was he wished he was somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered. Nothing really interested him - least of all the things that should have.”
If Milo were older he’d be getting sent to a therapist to check for depression. That listlessness and disillusion is something I’m sure we’ve all experienced, and sets him up perfectly for the journey into the wonder of learning and how there’s magic in everything around us.
From the start of his journey, where he literally gets caught in the doldrums, a grey, boring place, he goes on to learn from the whole Kingdom of Wisdom, from words and numbers to perception and logic. Some are brief diversions, like the Island of Conclusions, whereas others are larger subplots, like stealing sound from the Soundkeeper and, my highlight of the book, Chroma the Conductor, whose orchestra brings colour to the world.
The plot is a classic fairytale, saving the princesses Rhyme and Reason to restore sanity to the kingdom, but, as I learned much too late, it’s not about the destination, it’s about who you meet and what you learn on the way. There are so many incredible characters, from the funny, like the Dodecahedron, to the thoughtful, such as Faintly Macabre the Official Which, to the genuinely quite unsettling demons that live in Ignorance. Some of them might go over a kid’s head, but there are others which kids will get more out of, such as eating your words. Also Jules Feiffer’s illustrations do terrific work of bringing extra life (and honestly, clarity) to such bizarre concepts.
I wish I’d read The Phantom Tollbooth in full when I was younger, but as an adult, it’s funny, clever and surprisingly deep in many places, and also a relatively easy read. It’s one that will stay with me, and now I have plenty more to ponder over than just those bloody trees.
I was recently asked to give feedback on a novel manuscript. On the whole I’m enjoying it, but since critical, forensic feedback is always more useful than an encouraging, “It’s good!” or “I liked the bit where...” here’s a brief list of some of the areas I was looking at when I fed back. Obviously all these are easier to see when not caught in the fog of writing, so if I’m guilty of any of these (which I absolutely am), please be gentle.
Nice to Meet You
The book is about a large family and follows each of the members’ lives. Each chapter focuses on a different character as they splinter off on their own path, after an initial prologue which introduces the whole family. Nice setup, but obviously this means having to learn about a lot of characters at once. Initially this was as a paragraph each in descending order of age. Fine, functional, but for the opening of the novel could be a lot better. Can each character be given a mini-scene or an action/interaction/dialogue to introduce them? Do we need to meet every character in detail at once, or focus on a few and then open out to the rest as they become important? It put me in mind of the opening of the Godfather, which had a similar setup while also introducing the arcs, themes and plots throughout the rest of the story, as explored in this excellent article from Industrial Scripts.
Flavours of Conflict
Also mentioned in the article above are the different types of conflict, Internal (an inner character struggle or flaw), Interpersonal (a struggle between two characters) and External (a struggle against forces beyond the character’s control). Throughout the manuscript most of the conflicts were external, with the majority of the characters good, decent people coping with problems over which they had little control. This made them reactive more than proactive, and the beats of encountering a similar kind of trial more repetitive. More subplots with internal or interpersonal struggles would offer more variety and different solutions to different problems.
Variety of Voices
One of the main challenges of writing is creating realistic, believable characters, but just as importantly is that they are unique and distinct. Each character should feel like their own person, with their own view, attitudes and voice. I’m of the opinion a writer should be able to hold two opposing trains of thoughts simultaneously, otherwise all your characters would sound or behave similarly. Related to the above with most characters being good and decent with minor personality variants (this one is stern, this one is outgoing), with the amount of characters in the story there needed to be more distinction.
Also each character will have many facets to themselves. How one behaves with their family would not be the same way they act with their friends, or a lover. This gives a good opportunity to explore different sides to the character with these different groups, and may help them develop or change their opinion on something to help further the narrative.
Hitting the Same Beat
There was one character in particular who, every time you met them, seemed to be crying or holding back tears. In each isolated incident, that was probably a fair response, but taken together and coupled with these occasions being the only times we met this character, they just seemed like a walking bag of tears. While an action may make sense in its context, the overall narrative has to be considered, and if the same thing is happening repeatedly, is the same note being hit too often?
When planning a scene or chapter, there will be an obvious way to tell it, but rarely is it the best way. There were a couple of times in this story I wished a different route had been taken to twist my expectations, find new ways for events to play out that reveal new sides to these characters. How about if the character reacted this way instead of that? Is it more interesting if this character does this action rather than this one?
What to Tell
This story is a saga, which I admit I don’t have as much experience with as other story forms. Often what is as telling as the story told is the story untold. Choosing what scenes to write can really establish a theme or relationship, and others can seem so interesting you want them to be explored more. There were some events that were summarised in a paragraph that I wished had been expanded upon as the dramatic potential was so rife, whereas time was devoted to other elements that maybe weren’t so engaging. There are scenes that encapsulate big moments, but if the ending is a foregone conclusion does it need to be explored in depth? While other, smaller character beats can really help an audience connect with a character.
Finally, and this must be the one most common to most writers, one I’m quite guilty of, is filling the story with subtext rather than text. Every writing book puts it up as one of the most important aspects, but it is one of the hardest to get right. Don’t say what everyone means, thinks or feels, find other ways to demonstrate it and let the audience figure it out for themselves.
I haven’t come across nearly as many novels set in Glasgow as I would like, certainly not enough without gangsters, so when I found Alan Spence’s collection of short stories Its Colours They Are Fine I marched straight to the till along with the other in the buy one get one free offer. I’m not sure if this or the other book was the free one, but if it was this it’s probably the best free thing I’ve ever got.
It was so immediately recognisable to me, the stories not just set in Glasgow, but Govan from where half my family hails. Admittedly it wasn’t my Glasgow, being published in 1977, but the one told to me in so many fond memories from my father and grandfather. Yet though the city has undergone a huge transformation in the last forty years, the people and the humour that makes them so iconically Glaswegian hasn’t dated at all.
(The one thing that has markedly changed is sectarianism. Though newspaper headlines may proclaim otherwise, it is significantly better today and I was astonished how prevalent it was back then. Spence doesn’t defend it or use it to condemn his characters, he merely portrays it as I assume it was at the time.)
The stories he chooses to tell are restricted to those of tiny moments, like an elderly woman trapped in her flat with a broken lift, a boy and his mother putting up Christmas decorations, or of low-key yet deeply personal occasions, like a wedding or Hogmanay. Through the choice of those stories and how the characters think you know them instantly and will have someone in your own life to picture as you read. They aren’t complicated characters, most primarily concerned with getting by (or how Rangers are performing), but within the space of a few pages they are brought to life, letting you share their hopes and fears.
They are all working class, but unlike much other media which chooses to fetishise poverty and the hardness of being working class, the characters in Its Colours are joyful and mostly optimistic, savouring the goodness in their lives and in their relationships with those around them. Yes, there is also violence and sadness, but they don’t choose to wallow, their outlook always for the positives and for that you connect with them all the more.
Spence’s ear for dialogue is incredible, and somehow manages to capture the Glaswegian tongue on the page with all its impenetrable charm and warmth. It may take a while to read, being so unused to seeing the dialect on the page, but once you do it is almost verbatim the conversations you hear around the city. This sits alongside his beautiful prose that manages to say so much with so little. Small turns of phrase so familiar that a few words are enough to place you in the world of the character and their surrounds.
As an aside to contrast this, I was recently published in a short story and poetry anthology (cheeky plug) and it was jarring how many modern writers were using slang and swearing in their descriptions and scene settings. To me this made the narration much harsher, and meant the characters themselves lost some of their idiosyncrasy since their speech didn’t stand out amongst the rest of the text.
There are fourteen stories set across three parts. They are largely independent, only a few characters crossing over in early stories, but they are grouped around in turn childhood, adulthood and a more autobiographical final part. This does create a thematic grouping, progressing from children playing on the street and making mischief to unemployed men signing on, the innocence of youth long vanished. The final three shorts are less narrative focussed on more stream of conscious musings from Spence and are the first to leave Glasgow, as the option of escape and new opportunities arrive.
Spence, also famous for poetry and plays (indeed he’s had two spells as the Scottish Makar) has long moved on from Glasgow, through places like London and New York, and now runs the Sri Chinmoy Centre in Edinburgh, associated with meditation and the eastern culture he took such an interest in for much of his life (he also has a book Glasgow Zen, a collection of haikus in his native Glaswegian). But there will always be this image of Glasgow, captured in 14 short stories, that paints my city in its finest colours.
Perfidious Albion by Sam Byers is a thoroughly modern book, and one that is only made better by the charlie-foxtrot that is the current state of our political landscape. Brexit has happened, Twitterstorms define the cultural landscape and in the background an outwardly benevolent corporation with ulterior motives harvests data on everyone. Were this written ten years ago, many of the events in the book would’ve been considered too ridiculous, though now they feel they could have come from BBC News.
All these hot button issues are distilled into the hotbed that is the town of Edmundsbury. An old housing estate is earmarked for demolition to be replaced by luxury apartments, and only a few holdouts remain. This gives thinkers and influencers an opportunity to grandstand while advancing their own personal agendas, from this world’s stand in Farage, Hugh Bennington, to the morally flexible opinionist Robert Townsend, to the far right hate group England Always.
There are five POV characters from across the ideological spectrum, who start intersecting and affecting each other as the story continues. Byers finds a way inside the head of each of them, understanding their goals and insecurities, making you feel a degree of empathy for even the more despicable characters. Some are more fleshed out, depending on their importance to the narrative, but even the least developed stock, old racist character Darkin gets small moments of vulnerability. He is powerless, used by all the other parties and lives in fear of enemies, both of his own imagination and the corporation looking to evict him.
The greatest character arc probably belongs to the columnist Robert, even if his girlfriend, Jess, is nominally the main character. An interesting focus of the book was the prominence given to opinion pieces and bloggers, even if they are treated as pompously self important, posting into an echo chamber (ironically the only one reaching the wider public is the one with a column in a print newspaper). Robert starts as a mostly limp liberal, but over the course forgoes his morals one by one in the search of more clicks, his descent arguably swift, but each seemly wrong decision given plausible rationale.
His main antagonist is a woman who comments mean things on his posts, and who turns out to be none other than his girlfriend, Jess. A twist in the tale is that the main internet troll in the book is a woman, created as a response to horrific online abuse she received before the story begins, online misogyny and racism another element of Perfidious Albion’s modern narrative. The way Byers reconciles this left of field turn and the reasoning behind why she does it is fascinating, fleshing out a fully 3D character, even if the relationship itself never seems to click. The cover art is a modern Tower of Babel, with the characters’ inability to relate to each other, often resorting to online personaes resonating throughout.
The only black character, Trina, works for the corporation behind the luxury development and inhabits a world of corporate productivity and vacuous self motivating seminars ramped up to 12, but the standout storyline is the pairing of the dinosaur Hugh Bennington with one of these productivity gurus, Teddy, in the bemusing world of politics. They are the perfect double act and foil for each other, and would easily feel at home in The Thick of It or Veep, with razor cutdowns and joyful dialogue. When Teddy is introduced calling, “Hugotron. The Hugh-ster. How goes it?” I immediately knew his character.
That’s how Perfidious Albion excels, it is stop for a few moments to breathe funny. From fantastical throwaway lines, “You’re literally too sweaty to be satisfactorily restrained,” to real world observations about how modern life has perverted common sense, “Teddy didn’t look at the ambulance but instead checked his tablet for news of it. - ‘I’m not seeing anything that would suggest an ambulance.’ - ‘I’m literally looking at the ambulance, Teddy.’”
Perhaps my main criticism of the book are its last couple of chapters. It drops the humorous tone in favour of an exposition heavy dialogue in the style of the villain vainly explaining their master plan. It didn’t help this was in the storyline I personally had connected with least - the reveal that the company is collecting immoral amounts of data not exactly a shocking revelation nowadays - and its purpose seemed more to set up a sequel, which left this story as a whole feeling a little incomplete.
This aside you’ll be entertained throughout with this delight of a book, making you laugh and think about some of the most important issue we face in the 20-teens. The sad thing is that while it’s such an excellent satire, the fact it is so spot on makes you despair even more.