Undercover Soundtrack

‘My word-hand is singing’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Marcus Sedgwick

for logoThere’s a shelf chez Morris that holds a set of books with such exquisite titles as Midwinterblood, White Crow, Floodland and, of course, the one quoted in the catchline of this post. So shall I cut to the chase and state that I’m honoured that he’s my guest this week? His novels blend folktales, myth and sometimes futuristic speculation, and music is a significant companion in the writing – from the mournful and joyous gypsy and folk ballads of Eastern European to the romantic compositions of Gustav Mahler. For his latest novel, The Ghosts of Heaven, no music would fit – so he composed his own. Do join me on the Red Blog for the Undercover Soundtrack of multi-award-winning author Marcus Sedgwick.

Inspirations Scrapbook · Writer basics 101

One song to the tune of another – dos and don’ts of mash-ups and juxtaposition

Mash-ups or juxtapositions are a good way to get new story ideas. ‘This-meets- that…’ But flinging random ideas together is more likely to result in a mess than a good tale. Here’s how to do it well

One of my favourite party games is One Song to the Tune of Another, from the BBC Radio 4 panel show I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. The best combinations deserve to live and breathe on their own, but if you try the game at home (and I do, frequently), you’ll find it takes a lot of stabs in the dark to find two songs that are made for each other.

There seems to be a rash of mash-up fiction at the moment, usually involving zombies. No, I haven’t read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or Robin Hood vs The Plague Undead – and I don’t want to. Why? Because the title seems to be the only joke and I can’t see where else it would go. Maybe I’m much too serious, but it’s not even a very good joke.

Juxtaposition rule 1: be surprising

If you’re going to juxtapose two elements, do something original. Phil South wrote this week on his blog Going Down Writing about taking two random ideas and making a story out of them. His result, Jurassic Submarine, is rather good.

Juxtaposition rule 2: not just a one-liner

A good mash-up has to be more than a one-liner. So although you may start with ‘this meets that’, you need to go a lot further.

Consider Deadwood.  That’s Shakespearean drama meets the Western – and the two together create something new, deeply right, with legs that will go on for miles.

A lot of great stories have originated in mash-ups, either in ideas or broader concepts. ‘Jaws in space’ gives you Alien. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke        is Jane Austen meets Jack Vance. Blood-Red, Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick is Arthur Ransome meets John Le Carre. The whole genre of cyberpunk is film noir meets science fiction. Steampunk is sci-fi meets alternate history. If you’re going to mash two ideas together, they have to truly complement and highlight each other. It’s anything but random.

In my WIP Life Form 3, I’m mashing two ideas together, but I’ve spent a long time thinking about what they bring out in each other. There are ways in which the two ideas are compatible and ways in which they are interestingly jarring. Much of the story is generating itself from the fizz when they collide. (And I can’t tell you too much more about it at the moment without giving far too much away, which is why I’ve been very coy about details…)

If you’re going to mash two ideas together, they need to fit in some way. And preferably cause as much tension as harmony.

Most random stabs don’t work beyond the initial surprise, as I found when challenged to sing The Sound of Music to the tune of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The first few bars are amusing, but after that there is no coherence that makes it worth continuing.

You have to experiment a lot to find genuine show-stoppers, but here’s one: sing the words of Greensleeves to the tune of The Stripper. Try it now.


What mash-ups and juxtapositions, literary or filmic, do you think have genuine mileage?

For a bonus point, give me a good song lyric to sing to the tune of another.

Uncategorized · Writer basics 101

3 fixes to make your first novel fly: 1 – hook your reader by the head AND the heart

Over the next 2 posts I’m going to look at 3 common problems I see in first novel attempts. Today I’m dealing with possibly the most important. How you hook the reader.

This week I’ve seen a number of posts by writers looking back on what they wish they’d known when they embarked on their first novels – literary agent  and writer Weronika Janczuk and writer Krista Van Dolzer. Speaking with my editing hat on, I find there are three major problems that crop up time and time again in the manuscripts of first-time writers – so I thought I’d talk about them here.

Today, I’m going to talk about hooking the reader.

No one is obliged to finish your book – or even read beyond the beginning

When we’re at school we’re taught that if we start a book we must read it all the way to the end. It’s usually a rite of passage when we decide we won’t respect that rule any more, but once we do, we never again stay with a book out of polite duty. We need to be made to read on.

Quite often, first-time novelists have thought of a story, but not about how they will actively reach out to the reader and persuade them to pay attention. They need to approach this on two levels – intellectually and emotionally.

Creating intellectual curiosity

You can reach out with mystery, intrigue, drama, comedy, and atmosphere. Perhaps a body is found in a mysterious situation; a noise is heard every night at a particular time that can’t be explained; a girl fancies the guy who’s going out with her best friend. These hooks generate curiosity, so that the reader thinks, what is going on, what will happen next, what is the answer?

But that’s the easy bit – comparatively.

Creating the emotional connection – engagement

This is much harder and a lot of first manuscripts miss this element. Good stories have a bolt of emotional recognition that binds the reader to the characters. They put you in the characters’ shoes.

Perhaps she is Everygirl, like the MC in the opening of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones:

‘My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. In newspaper photos of missing girls from the seventies, most looked like me: white girls with mousy brown hair…’

Sebold goes on to sketch a picture of a recognisable schoolgirl – good at some subjects, disastrous at others, who is just discovering the wider world. These details are not just scene setting, they are the emotional link to who she is – an ordinary girl like us, who was robbed of the chance to grow up.

Here’s another example, the opening of Marcus Sedgwick’s Revolver:

‘Even the dead tell stories.

Sig looked across the cabin to where his father lay, waiting for him to speak, but his father said nothing, because he was dead.’

With these few deft words, we’re in Sig’s shoes.

You don’t necessarily have to launch straight in with the plot. One of my favourite openings is F Scott Fitzgerald’s short story The Cut Glass Bowl:

There was a rough stone age and a smooth stone age and a bronze age, and many years afterward a cut-glass age. In the cut-glass age , when young ladies had persuaded young men with long, curly moustaches to marry them, they sat down several months afterward and wrote thank-you notes for all sorts of cut-glass presents… After the wedding the punch-bowls were arranged on the sideboard … the glasses were set in the china closet … – and then the struggle for existence began.  … the last dinner glass ended up, scarred and maimed, as a toothbrush holder…

It’s brilliant, a timeline for a marriage seen through a couple’s wedding presents, and so human. We don’t know who the characters are yet and we haven’t a clue what they are going to do. But on a different level, we know them very well. We feel connected to their problems and their dramas – and we want to read on.

Many first-time writers think about grabbing the reader intellectually – from the outside – but not from the inside. It needs just as much attention – if not more.

Part two of this post will discuss two simple plotting problems that I often see in first novels

In the meantime, thanks to Ell Brown on Flickr for the photo – and guys, share the novel openings that really engage you!