Tuesday, 30 May 2017

60 Seconds with Margarita Morris

By Gillian Hamer

Margarita Morris was born in Harrogate and studied Modern Languages at Jesus College, Oxford. She visited Berlin when the Berlin Wall was still standing and this gave her the idea for her first novel, Oranges for Christmas, published in 2013. She worked in computing for eleven years, but now writes full time. In her spare time she enjoys swimming, yoga and singing in a local chamber choir. She lives near Oxford with her husband and two sons.
Tell us a little about you and your writing.
I write historical fiction and time-slip mystery/thrillers with parallel but connected historical and contemporary plot lines. I like books with a strong setting. So far I’ve gone for Berlin, Highgate Cemetery and Scarborough. My most popular book is Oranges for Christmas about a family trying to escape from Communist East Berlin after the Berlin Wall goes up.

What’s the best thing about being a writer?
Discovering lots of new things as part of my research. I also enjoy editing manuscripts.

And the worst?
Slogging through the first draft when you’re not sure if what you’re doing is any good. Feeling like you’re never going to get to the end of a manuscript.

Why did you choose indie publishing?
I like the creative control and the satisfaction of running my own business. I’ve enjoyed learning new skills, such as how to build a website.

Do you have a special writing place?
We have a small room in our house dedicated to books. I love it. I write there, looking out onto the garden, watching the squirrels.

Which writers do you most admire?
Charles Dickens, Sarah Waters, J.K. Rowling, Kate Atkinson and Stephen King.

Name one book you wish you’d written – and why?
If I say Harry Potter, people will assume it’s because of its huge commercial success, but I would have loved to have written it because of its wonderful cast of characters and the ingenuity of the plotting.

If you could choose a different genre to write in for just one book – what would it be and why?
I’m already thinking about exploring the crime genre because my books involve quite a lot of crime, but don’t fit easily into that genre.

What 3 books would you have to take to your desert island?
They would have to be big books to keep me going on a desert island, so I’ll say Bleak House by Charles Dickens, Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, and The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber.

What are your future writing plans?
I’m currently finishing up a trilogy set in Scarborough. After that I’d like to try writing a crime series set in Oxford. 

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Wednesday, 24 May 2017

My Publishing Journey by Yvvette Edwards

By Gillian Hamer

Yvvette Edwards was born in Barnet and grew up in the London Borough of Hackney. She continues to live in East London with her family.

Her first novel, A Cupboard Full of Coats, has been described by her mother as ‘the best book I have ever read.’ It was nominated for a number of awards, including the Man Booker Prize 2011. Her second novel, The Mother - published in the UK and the US in 2016 by Mantle and Amistad, respectively - has been described by Yvvette Edwards’ husband as ‘one of my top two all-time favourite books’.

Here she discusses how and why she began to write, her route to publication and how she became a best-selling author.

How did you get into writing, was it just a hobby to begin with for you?

My route into writing was via reading. My mum was a single parent and while I was growing up, there was little cash to splash. However, I lived up the road from Hackney Central Library, and once I had a membership card, I was able to read books to my heart’s content. Reading was - and still is – one of my favourite pastimes. The passion for reading books and stories of all kinds came first, and writing my own stories - or rewriting parts of other writers’ stories in my mind - has always felt like an organic evolution from that. I began writing as a hobby during my childhood and I haven’t grown out of it.

How and when did you know you were ‘good’?

At the risk of sounding like a narcissist, I have always enjoyed my writing and the stories I’ve created. When I’m writing, it feels like a perpetual struggle to find the perfect words, but every so often, it happens. In those moments, I experience a glorious ecstasy, and think, ‘Hey, I’m a genius!’ However, composing the following sentence usually brings me back down to earth and the struggle and self-doubt.
                      Readers help a lot. I’m bolstered whenever I read a good review, or when readers have said they’ve enjoyed my books or that reading them was an emotive or impactful experience. In those moments, I feel like my writing is ‘good’, but it’s not a permanent state of mind.

When and why did you decide you wanted your writing published?

The year leading up to my 40th birthday was a very intense and introspective period. I took myself to task because although I’d always worked, I hadn’t really focused on progressing my career and at the same time, although I absolutely loved writing, I wasn’t treating it seriously - for example, I hadn’t edited anything I’d written up till then. Anyway, I recognised that if I was lucky, I might be at the halfway mark in my life, and I needed to be clear about which of my dreams I wanted to focus on, and which ones it was time to accept needed to go. That was the year I realised how integral to my life writing was, that it was one of the few things I’d always done and continued to want to do. I couldn’t give it up, so my only choice was to give writing a ‘proper’ go.

What were your first steps towards publication?

I reduced my hours at work so I had more time, and was able to make writing my focus during work hours, instead of squeezing it into the irregular and inconsistent gaps around my life. On my writing days, I didn’t do anything else. I ignored the telephone and the laundry and wrote. After I had a completed first draft of A Cupboard Full of Coats, I went back to full-time work and spent another eight months editing it around the rest of my life. Then I gave it to a few close friends and tried to not die of anxiety while I waited for them to read it and tell me what they honestly thought. Fortunately, they liked it. I did a little more revision following their feedback, bought myself a copy of Writers and Artists, picked ten literary agents and sent the manuscript out to them. Then I rejigged my introductory letter and sent it out to another ten. On the third round, my agent got in touch and asked to see the rest of the manuscript.

What has been your proudest writing moment to date?

That’s a hard question. There’s been a few of them. One was receiving the first copy of A Cupboard Full of Coats hot off the press. That was the moment I thought, ‘Wow! I’ve done it. I’m a bona fide published author.’ Then I went on to spend the next couple of years trying to combat a serious case of imposter syndrome. Another moment was the day my youngest daughter - who was eleven then - asked if she could have a photo of me and my book for a project she had to do for school on a person she admired and considered to be a good role model. That was pretty emotional.

Which has been the hardest book to write – and why?

Readers of my books will know I don’t do light subject matter. A Cupboard Full of Coats tackles the issue of domestic violence, and my second novel, The Mother, is narrated by a mother whose son has been a teenage stabbing fatality victim. They were both difficult to write, emotionally exhausting, books that took me to some very dark recesses of my imagination. Of the two, I needed to do much more research around The Mother, which covers the trial of the boy accused of the murder, so there were all sorts of legal issues and processes and trial proceedings that I needed to familiarise myself with.
                  However, between those two, I did complete a manuscript for a novel that was not published. That middle book felt like a hard book to write. I had to wrestle with, pummel and cajole every word out of my head and onto the page. After my first novel was published, I was warned about second book syndrome, but till I was writing that middle book, I was dismissive of the notion. The difficulties arose at the intersection of writing as a hobby versus being a professional author, and also from reading and taking on board too many reviews and critiques of my first novel, which left me confused and asking questions I’d never asked myself before, like; what is the purpose of this character? What exactly are your themes? I over thought everything and failed to follow my natural author instincts. However, finishing that middle book was an exorcism that enabled me to cast out the worst of my writing demons, and when I came to writing The Mother, the words flowed.

What genre would you like to try one day?

I’m interested in historical fiction. The novel I’m working on at the moment falls into this genre and so far, it’s been an interesting journey filled with unfamiliar challenges. Recently, I’ve also been thinking about trying my hand at writing books for young readers, which feels like it could be fun. 

What do you know now you wish you’d known at the start of your journey?

I wish I’d been clearer at the start about where work as an author ends. With my first book, I thought I’d arrived at that point when I wrote the words ‘The End’ on the last page of the MS I had so carefully, lovingly edited and revised. Then I thought my work had ended once I found an agent. I knew it had ended when she found a publisher for my book, that it had definitely-ended-for-sure when I’d finished everything that comes as part and parcel of the run-up to being published, including the lengthy back and forth discussions about jackets, and line by line revisions and issues around the placement of a single comma. Then came the publicity and marketing, the need to be active on social media, and the necessity of thinking about myself as a brand, selling myself not just as an author, but as an individual, the unspoken requirement to be ‘interesting’ in person and in interviews for the rest of my days. It has been an incredible experience and, for the most part, a genuinely enjoyable one. But the journey would have been a smoother one had I not been anticipating ‘the end’ at a point that was really the first stop.

What top 3 tips would you offer new and up-coming authors hoping to publish?

Live life and read widely.
Write what you want to write exactly how you want to write it.
Be persistent. Every writer experiences self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy, and moments when the task seems an impossible one and the most sensible thing to do would be to give up. The key to being published is persistence.

We are huge fans of Yvvette's writing - see our Triskele Bookclub discussion of A Cupboard Full of Coats HERE





Wednesday, 17 May 2017

In Conversation with Jason Donald

Jason Donald was born in Scotland and grew up in South Africa. He studied English Literature and Philosophy at St. Andrews University and is a graduate of the Glasgow University Creative Writing MA. His debut novel, Choke Chain, published by Jonathan Cape, was shortlisted for the Authors' Club Best First Novel Award and the Saltire First Book Award.

His second novel,
Dalila, published by Jonathan Cape/Vintage, was published in Jan 2017. Film rights have been optioned and the screenplay is being written by Christopher Hampton (Atonement, Dangerous Liaisons). He has also published short stories in various literary journals, including The Astronaut for BBC Radio 4 and Puerta Galera for the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
He lives with his wife in Switzerland. 

Interview by JJ Marsh

The first thing I want to ask is about how you create your characters. Twelve-year-old Alex growing up in Pretoria could hardly be more different to asylum-seeking Kenyan Dalila, but you enable the reader to get right inside their skins and feel their emotions personally.

At Glasgow University my tutor, Janice Galloway, said to me, “Don’t be afraid to get as close as you dare to your characters!” I’ve always toyed with this advice.

On the one hand, Alex and Dalila are deliberately constructed fictional characters, I assigned them attributes, I made them up. I employed straightforward writing techniques to make the characters appear to stand up on the page and stretch out the knots in their necks.

On the other hand, if the characters are being invented by me, where exactly are they coming from? How aware am I of that corner inside myself from where the characters came? Am I brave enough to go there? If the writing stalls, can I return to that corner and discover new things about the characters? Can I take what I find and somehow put it on the page? Writing characters is a combination of self-discovery, of empathy and of technical adjustment. The hope is that if I am exploring ways to connect with my characters, then readers will feel invited to join me in this effort and perhaps even discover things for themselves.

Both characters are on the cusp of change, at a metaphorical fork in the road. Taking Choke Chain first, and the character of Alex, there’s a constant brooding threat of violence underpinning this novel. That comes partly from a young adult’s frustrations at his own lack of power and articulacy, his father’s volatile bullying and the glimpses of South African society in the 1980s. But for me, Alex on the precipice of manhood (and what kind of a manhood that might be) is the central tension.

Yes, you’re right. Alex’s decision about manhood is the heart of the story.

Alex’s father, Bruce, is a bigot: someone who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his opinion. Bigots have iron clad egos and bolshie attitudes which shove others aside, making the bigot appear to be getting ahead. They present themselves as charismatic winners and everyone else as losers. On the surface, bigotry can be quite alluring because it masks itself as confidence or strength of will.

In the short term, some of these tactics seem to work but in the long term, bigotry is a disaster for the bigot and those around him. Since human beings are a mass of contradictions, and the bigot is blinkered to his inconsistencies, he’ll automatically blame the ‘other’ rather than accepting accountability for anything that doesn’t go his way. The ‘other’ might be an individual or a whole different race or gender or religion. I believe bigotry underlies sexism, racism and religious intolerance.

This kind of self-important ego eats at relationships, it destroys families, pulls communities apart, divides the sexes, scapegoats religions and oppresses entire races. But it’s also self-destructive. With the bigot continually defining himself as the winner, he isolates himself. He avoids introspection. If others don’t eventually turn on him, he becomes a man alone on a self-constructed podium, with no adoring crowd to congratulate him, a calcified monument to himself.

As is often the case, quite a few concepts of masculinity get tangled up with bigotry. So, instead of being confident, boys are taught to be winners, instead of being secure, you’re taught to be rigid. This is the world Alex is born into. This is the kind of man Bruce is teaching his son to be. At the age of twelve, Alex, like many young boys, has to navigate these concepts and choose what kind of man he wants to be. He doesn’t have to defeat his father, he has to somehow prevent himself from becoming his father.

The political situation is part of the background but not overtly examined. You’ve made the point before that it was possible to live in a white suburban environment and be unaware of some of the effects of apartheid. Could this book have been set anywhere else?

During Apartheid, South Africa had a tightly controlled media. Many atrocities were kept from the public and multiple abuses were buried until they were later revealed during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. So, there were some specifics that the public simply didn’t know about.

That being said, I am always surprised at people’s ability to refuse to look at an issue right in front of their noses. There is a cognitive dissonance in believing a country is wonderful place to live while driving past a shanty town where a targeted and oppressed majority of the population are forced to live. This same cognitive dissonance can exist in families where abuse is taking place: you’re aware of the abuse, you know who the victims are, yet you choose to believe that everything is going to be ok. Psychologically, it’s a very uncomfortable position to maintain. It’s stressful and people will go to extraordinary lengths to mitigate that stress without abandoning their contradictory beliefs. As a writer, this fascinates me. It seemed to me that what was going on in Alex’s family was psychologically similar to what was happening in the country.

Holding of contradictory beliefs is a human trait that has expressed itself in many communities throughout history which is why I think Choke Chain could have been set almost anywhere.

In Choke Chain, there are victims and victors, but most have an element of choice. Whereas Dalila’s situation reflects the exact opposite. She must wait till the system swallows her or spits her out. That’s a different kind of powerlessness and presents quite a challenge to an author. But the book completely grips the reader’s attention. How did you go about conveying the inertia of the asylum-seekers’ existence while maintaining the narrative drive?

Some asylum seekers wait for up to eight years for their papers to come through without being allowed to work, study or travel. Think about that! To reflect this, I wrote a lot of scenes where Dalila is in limbo. Lots of walking or waiting. Lots of sitting around the flat. Lots of brooding. The first version was too weighed down with these scenes and needed to be reworked.

While redrafting, I saw that Dalila actually does have an element of choice. Yes, she is completely at the mercy of the system and much of her personal autonomy has been taken from her, but she still has agency. She’s alone and afraid but staying at home is a choice, facing her fears is also a choice. Therefore, choosing to leave her flat and walk through the city is an act of bravery. Choosing to help others while her own safety is in jeopardy is an act of heroism. No matter what constrains are put on Dalila she must still choose what kind of person she wants to become. Her dignity is something she must claim.

I think the trick to engaging the reader is to convey how tremendously important these small choices are for the character. While Dalila’s actions are small and limited the consequences of her decisions are enormous, they are life affirming. That’s where hope is to be found.

A while back, I interviewed Christos Tsiolkas about inhabiting characters not of your own gender, sexuality, race or ethnicity. His response was that if he couldn’t write from the perspective of a woman, or black person or old man or teenage girl, what the hell was he doing writing? The whole cultural appropriation row blew up again last year. Did this atmosphere of judgementalism about who’s allowed to write what make you nervous while writing Dalila?

I believe it’s possible to empathise with someone who is different from yourself. Assuming the opposite dehumanises everyone who isn’t exactly like you, because you relegate them to a place outside of human connection.

That being said, there’s a lot of homework to do when creating a character and you need to approach the task with a deep humility. I went to a lot of different people and asked them to read my early drafts, to guide to me, to challenge my assumptions, to inform me of things I’d never considered, to reveal nuances and to also point out where my portrayal was working.

And even after all this work, I’m forced to admit that Dalila isn’t perfect. It’s merely the best portrayal I could do at the time. Readers will judge for themselves how well the character works on the page. I’ll strive do a better job next time.

Technical question. Choke Chain, first person, past tense. Dalila, third person, present tense. Both seem powerfully effective. What was your rationale for choosing that way of telling each story?

In Choke Chain, Alex is only twelve years old. Writing in first person from his perspective enabled me to create an naive narrator who has a sense of things changing around him while not being able to articulate what he is experiencing. However, the reader should be able to immediately spot abusive parenting, social conditioning, racism and what not to give a child for his birthday!

There is a ‘click’ motif in the novel, where the boys are taught to observe something, close their eyes and whisper ‘click’ to themselves. That’s how they store a memory. I viewed each chapter as one of Alex’s ‘clicks’. It’s a memory he is re-examining as he tries to make sense of what has happened. Using he past tense was crucial to this re-telling nature of the story

Writing Dalila, I decided early on to use the third person. It gave me the ability to get close to, or pull back from, the protagonist. Sometimes I draw the reader in they are intimately involved in Dalila’s dreams, concerns and motivations. But when Dalila is being processed by the Home Office - going through security or various form of bureaucracy - I pull back from the character, lengthening the narrative distance. I pair back the voice and use blunt declarative sentences to narrate what is happening. Character, processes, machines and systems are given equal weight and attention. In those moments when the system reduces Dalila to a mere case study, to a statistic. The idea is that the prose reflects what is being stripped away.

I began writing Dalila in the past tense but after seven or eight chapters I discovered it wasn’t working. The events felt like they were being narrated from some secure point in the future, so I changed it. The present tense is constrictive, it traps you in the moment without much perspective. This felt better suited for story. I wanted the reader to be following (and sometimes observing) Dalila through a system without knowing what to anticipate.

Both your books and the short story you wrote for the Edinburgh Book Fair, Puerto Galera, make full use of their settings: a poor white neighbourhood in Pretoria, the streets and tower blocks of Glasgow, a holiday beach in the Philippines. I was struck by how you use the characters’ (un)familiarity with their surroundings to convey layers of meaning. How important is place?

Ooft! You know, I’m surprised by how difficult this question is for me. In all my writing I’ve never deliberately set out to write about a place, I am much more interested in characters. I’d even go so far as to say that I view place as an outward projection from the characters. I don’t expect depictions of place to be taken literally but to be understood metaphorically as a barometer for what a character is feeling. For example, in DALILA Glasgow is almost entirely depicted as windy, damp, cold and cloud covered. This is because Dalila herself is lonely and she comes from Kenya which is on the equator, so from her perspective Glasgow seems depressing and freezing. But, of course, the real city is quite friendly…and sometimes even sunny!

Getting back to your question, it’s interesting to me how often readers remark on the vivid sense of place in my writing. Maybe place features more prominently than I am aware of? Which could perhaps mean that place is, in fact, more important to me than I think it is?

Hmmm. I need to mull this over a bit more.

Having organised and taught writing courses for years, I often encounter the regular old adage ‘creative writing can’t be taught’. As someone with a Masters in the subject and a respected tutor yourself, how would you counter that?

In one sense, teaching creative writing is simply showing people how to use a set of tools. If you apply the tools correctly, your writing will improve. Yet most people who set out to write are attempting to do something more profound than displaying their linguistic toolkit. They may be exploring their voice, or even voices. They might be trying to understand the world by shaping into something new. They might need to tell us something important. A lot of trial and error is involved. I think it’s important to give new writers a secure, judgement free space where they can experiment and say whatever the hell they want. Yet, at the same time, they need to be given the respect of holding their writing to the highest standards. While the bar must be set high, the criticism needs to be directed at the writing and not the writer.

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Wednesday, 10 May 2017

My Publishing Journey ... by Justine Windsor.

By Gillian Hamer.

Justine Windsor is a debut author - her first novel Goodly & Grave In A Bad Case of Kidnap has received huge praise since its release. Justine has been shortlisted and won various new writers awards including the Times/Chicken House children’s writers prize and the youwriteone.com Children’s Book of the Year. She lives and works in London.

Synopsis for Goodly & Grave In a Bad Case of Kidnap: An archly funny, classic mystery adventure with a magic twist! Lucy Goodly is the new boot girl at Grave Hall, working for the cold, aloof Lord Grave. The other staff Vonk the Butler, Mrs Crawley the cook and Violet the scullery maid all seem friendly but Lucy soon notices that strange things are afoot in her new home and not just Mrs Crawley’s experimental anchovy omelettes. There are moving statues, magical books and Lord Grave has a secret. Meanwhile, all over the country, children are vanishing. Could the mystery of the missing children be linked to the strange goings-on? Lucy is determined to find out

What’s your first writing memory?
Writing a story about a runaway dragon! I illustrated it too. I still have it.

What was the first novel you wrote?
Charlie Squires Goes Elsewhere.  

Was writing only a hobby for you to begin with?
I’d always wanted to write a book, but although I tried over the years, I couldn’t manage it because I didn’t really know what it was I wanted to write. Then I heard about this slightly successful children’s author, J K Rowling, you may have heard of her? As soon as I read Harry Potter everything fell into place as I realised writing for children would let me set my imagination free and have fun. It took me a while to work up the confidence to begin, but from the very moment I started, that was it. I knew this was what I wanted to do more than anything else. So it was never a hobby for me – I always wanted to be published..

You’ve had a long journey to reach your current success, can you tell us some of the highs and lows?
I am really lucky to have lots of highs! Charlie Squires being shortlisted by Barry Cunningham for the Times/Chicken House competition. Although it didn’t win, the shortlisting gave me the confidence to believe I wasn’t wasting my time completely. Meeting my brilliant agent Kate Shaw. I had offers from three agents, but as soon as I met Kate I knew she was the one. Signing a three book deal with Harper Collins following a hotly contested four way audition. And of course, the publication of Goodly and Grave in a Bad Case of Kidnap.
The lows – rejections and disappointments. I’ve had lots and lots of those. I’m sure there will be more in the future, it’s inevitable in this business.

Did you ever think about giving up?
Maybe occasionally for a few hours, but never seriously.

How did it feel when you were able to finish your ‘real’ job and become a full time writer?
Very, very surreal. It was only three months ago so it all seems very new and I am still finding my feet as a full-time writer. I also wake up in the middle of the night sometimes and think #ohmygodwhathaveIdone?

What has been your proudest career moment to date?
Reading the reviews Kidnap has received from children on the Lovereading4kids website.         

Are there any mistakes you wish, in hindsight, you had avoided?
I made lots of mistakes along the way, but nothing earth shattering! I expect to make lots more mistakes in the future too.

Can you give tips to up and coming authors at the start of their career?
As I’m still at the beginning of my own career I’m not sure I can say anything more that read, read, read, write, write, write. Finish what you start and get it out there, whether that’s by submitting in the traditional way or self-publishing. Then forget about it and start on a new project.

What do you know now you wish you’d known at the start of your publishing journey?
That it’s a waste of time to compare your success (or lack of it!) with that of other writers. Everybody’s journey is different.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Telling Stories

by Roland Denning

Author and film maker Roland Denning reminds us that story telling is just as important in non-fiction as in fiction, and describes how the process of film making can be (as Michaelangelo’s said about sculpture) a process of ‘cutting away the parts that aren’t the horse.’

When Words With Jam asked me to write a piece about writing for documentary films, I had to break the news to them that it’s not something I do. Well, to clarify: I write and I make documentaries, but the documentaries I make are not written.

There is a honourable tradition of documentaries which do depend on carefully written narration - think of history programmes and nature series like Life On Earth - but the films I make tend to be either observational or constructed out of interviews, without voice-over commentary. However, they may not be written but they are certainly constructed and, like any form of movie making or writing, they need a story.

Stories are key. A few years ago I wrote a novel (about a world where no one believed or believed in anything any more - sorry, it was meant to be a satire, not a prophecy) and, in the years leading up to and around it, I got very involved in writing groups - both online and (more intensely) in the ‘real world’. The thing about writing groups is that analysis tends to take place on a page by page or sentence by sentence basis. We would talk about point-of-view, whether mood and emotion were convincingly expressed, whether metaphors were working, whether dialogue was convincing. We urged each other to ‘show not tell’, to cut away the fat, to be honest and direct. We seldom talked about story and how a story is constructed.

Workshops in the literary world seldom discuss story structure but their movie equivalents talk about little else. Screenwriting courses and books outline elaborate systems to analyse the mechanics of a story; there are no end of screenwriting gurus keen to inculcate their personal take on the 3-part, 5-part, 7-part or even 11-part story structure.

At its worst, the formula approach to screenwriting produces the formulaic movie where you can set your watch at the ‘inciting incident’ that occurs 20 minutes in; the twist and turns of the plot are so familiar that, rather than being elevated or entertained, you feel you are taking part in a meaningless ritual.

At the same time, we know when stories work and when they don’t, as when we get to the end of a book or a story and feel cheated. When a story is weak, almost inevitably you can point to a structural fault (sadly, the converse is not true - you can’t create a great story purely on the basis of an impeccable understanding of structure). Story, in itself is a form - depart from it too much and it ceases to be a story. The fact that a reader can feel cheated means that there is some sort of implicit deal between author and reader, but fulfilling that deal is not that simple.

Let’s start with the basics: stories are about characters and characters are ‘wanting machines’ - a character who doesn’t want anything is not really a character. This has little to do with screenwriting theory, it is the essence of classic storytelling and drama. Go see any Shakespeare play - as soon as a character appears on stage, you know what he or she wants, just as we know what Jack and Jill went up the hill for. Characters all want something but, of course, they can’t quite get it. One screenwriting guru described the mainspring of narrative as being the gap between expectation and result: a character has an intention and does something expecting a particular result. But something else happens and how he or she responds to that is the essence of story.

Desires are the engine of story and the structure of that story holds together the diverging and overlapping paths of those desires. There is always set-up, conflict and resolution - if you don’t have those basic elements, you don’t really have a story. Of course, you can have films and books without stories, just as you can have atonal music without melody and art that is purely abstract, but there is always some form of inherent tension, and for the vast majority of the world, we expect our books and films to be based on narrative.

When I look back to my fellow writers in those workshops, so often the problems were structural and fundamental. Stories would not end right because they didn't start right - protagonists would go on a journey without a clear reason why, they would be passive, they would not make choices or decisions but just drift along (another useful screenwriting trope: character is not revealed by what the protagonist looks like or says, but by the decisions she or he takes).

Someone once described the ideal screenplay as one which keeps you guessing what is going to happen all the way to the end but, when you finally get there, you realise that no other ending was possible.

Let’s get back to where this essay started. Documentaries, of course, are narrative forms - they have stories, and the world does not naturally come in story form; stories are something that humans construct.

Often TV documentaries are accused of inaccuracy or distortion or downright lying - what seems to pass by almost all viewers is that, in a sense, every documentary is a lie - it is a construction, and constructing a documentary is very similar to writing fiction. You need to find characters, you need to see them in conflict, you need to offer a resolution. You need a story. ‘Fly on the wall’ TV documentaries might shoot 100 hours or more for an hour of TV; subjects often complain ‘our life isn’t really like that - most of the time not much happens and it’s really boring’. Of course, but, importantly, this is not just a case of just throwing away the 99 hours when nothing much happened, it’s choosing the 60 minutes that can be shaped into a hour that tells a story.

How do you find those precious 60 minutes? The process is very similar to writing a story – you find characters, protagonists and antagonists, individuals with goals to achieve that are frustrated or challenged in one way or another. You look for conflict and possible resolution.

The process is, perhaps, not quite as nefarious as it seems, it’s something we do all the time when we respond to questions like ‘what happened at work today?’ or ‘how did that date go?’. The questioner doesn’t actually want a list of events and actions, they want a story.

How do you maintain some sense of integrity, how do you guard yourself against accusations of distortion or bias? That is a very difficult question to answer, but it applies to every non-fiction account whether it is an essay, a newspaper story or a documentary. It is easier to spot manipulation and outright lies than it is to find paradigms of authenticity. The judgements you have to make are complex, subtle and subjective. The best you can do, perhaps, is to present people as you see them, as honestly as you can and avoid things like using out-of-character remarks or out-of-context juxtapositions which would present the situation unfairly, but that ‘fairness’ is still a subjective judgement.
Choosing the images that tell a story: still from Mario's Cafe

Often when you set out to make a documentary you are not quite sure what the story is - or you think you do, but you end up with a different one. A few years ago I made short film about my local café - a small, personal project - because I thought there was something rather special about the place - it seemed as more of a community resource than a place where people just fed themselves. The owner, Mario, is a charmer but the themes only emerged after spending many days hanging out and filming there. Mario clearly loves the place and its clientele, but there is also a sense that he could have done more with his life, and the job, like most jobs, is hard work and frustrating. But it needed something else, and through chance, another story emerged. Mario had employed a young waitress, who was constantly late. Every day he complains about her (although not to her face). Then one very busy Saturday… well, I won’t tell you quite what happens but, in that moment, his character is revealed (remember what I said above? ‘Character is revealed by the decisions the protagonist makes’.)

Mario’s Café has no pretence to be a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary as Mario acknowledges my camera’s presence and talks to me occasionally. The story of the late waitress is true, but astute viewers may notice that the busy Saturday towards the end of the film is a composite of two days, and, because it was only shot with one camera which can not be in two places at the same time, ‘reaction shots’ never take place quite when they are supposed to. Having said that, nothing was contrived for the camera – but you will have to take that on trust.

Roland’s satirical novel, The Beach Beneath The Pavement, is still available on Amazon, as is the DVD of Mirage Men, the feature length documentary he co-produced and co-directed. He recently directed a series of short films on the arts for the pan-South American TV channel, teleSUR. More about his various projects here.