Monday, 12 November 2012

This is Not a Book Review - Elen Caldecott

Today I thought I would look at one specific book and see if I can share what I've learned from it. This isn't a review, or a critical reading, this is an author looking at a book I admire to see the nuts and bolts of its construction. WARNING: If you have not read Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce and would like to do so one day without being encumbered with a sackful of spoilers, STOP READING NOW.

Everyone else, here's what I've learned from the book, in visual form:

Each of those post-it notes represents a moment where I said 'ooh, that's clever.' Shows why it wins prizes!
The idea for this post owes a lot to Stroppy Author's Book Vivisection (which I'd love to see more of.) But, it also owes as much to the current MA students in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University who shared their thoughts about the book with me during a recent seminar.

I can't share every single post-it note, so instead, I have decided to share my top five post-it note revelations (TFPINR from here on in).

TFPINR No. 5 - Prologue Pro
Online writing advice would have you believe that prologues are the work of the devil and his literary minion, Beelzebook. Received wisdom has it that they shamelessly trick the reader into swallowing a boring Chapter 1. In Cosmic, Cottrell Boyce has the briefest of prologues. It is a media clip announcing a missing space rocket. It tells you that you're in a world a lot like ours, but with one crucial difference - manned space programmes are active. Immediately following this, there's the traditional Chapter 1, which begins 'i am not exactly in the lake district'. The hook for Chapter 1 is more interesting than the prologue, not less.

TFPINR No. 4 - First-Person Present and Correct.
I have a confession. I don't much like first-person present. As a teen reader I always wondered 'who are you talking to? And why?'. Cottrell Boyce neatly deals with this question, wraps it up and puts it to bed. The MC, Liam, is recording his last words on his mobile phone. He's lost in space, you see. He hopes some friendly alien race will one day send the recording home to his mum and dad, with Liam's love.
The narrative then moves regularly into first-person past by using flashbacks. The transitions into these flashbacks are superbly handled. My favourite goes (to paraphrase): 'I can see Earth. All my stuff is on Earth. Including my house and everything in it. Like my Viking Playmobile. Except I gave it away when I was big enough to grow facial hair. I didn't notice the facial hair. Everyone else did, on my Year 6 leavers' trip. The trip was...cue anecdote about leavers' trip.' Seamless.

TFPINR No. 3 - Themes Legit
There's a masterly orchestration to the way that symbols are handled. They are the wing-men to the major theme, always there to get his back. A distilled statement of the theme might be (with thanks to the MA Group!) 'No matter how far you go, your dad (God?!) will always bring you back.' The symbols are a scaffold to support this theme: circles; gravity; space; playing; Waterloo and Dads. They all pop up at the right moment to explore different facets of the theme.

TFPINR No. 2 - Engage Disbelief Suspension
The idea of the book is ridiculous: a group of children get themselves lost in space and manage to find their way home again. Completely implausible. However, the main action (told in flashback during the second act), is foreshadowed by three separate events. These events rely on the same type of misunderstanding, without being so similar to be repetitious. Another regularly utilised concept is the game imagery that plants the idea of skills 'levelling-up'. Liam collects the skills to be an adult, so of course he has to put them to use.
Also, everytime that something truly ridiculous happens - for example, the point where the children are told they will go to space alone - Cottrell Boyce uses a bait-and-switch, stating the ridiculous then talking about something completely different at length.

TFPINR No. 1 - Make 'em laugh, make 'em laugh
At number one in the TFPINR chart is the humour. In these 300-odd pages, there are examples of all the following types of jokes: puns and wordplay; visual humour; juxtaposition; physical comedy; irony; comic characters; observational comedy; hyperbole and litotes; parody (a difficult one to use in books for young readers, but in this case skillfully foreshadowed); sarcasm; situational comedy and one-liners. Blimes. That's one funny book.

There are loads more post-its. But this is already the most wordy blog post I've ever written.
One often hears writers advise novice writers to read. I would expand on that and say read like a writer. Tear apart books you admire and work out how they do the things they do. Get the post-its out and sticker like it was a skinny stick-insect stuck in glue.
Elen's Facebook Page
Twitter: @elencaldecott 


Penny Dolan said...

Excellent post and advice!

Julia Green said...

Really enjoyed this, Elen, and am thrilled it was part-inspired by the session you did for us on the MA Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University.

A. Colleen Jones said...

Great advice, Elen, and great post. I've read a couple of his other books, and I'm hooked!

Sue Purkiss said...

Very interesting - and let's hear it for post-its! SO useful, in so many ways... What did we do without them?

Paeony Lewis said...

So interesting, Elen. Now I want to read the book and think about the points you've made (despite spoilers - that's fine!).
By the way, reading picture books as a writer is also intriguing - analysing the structure can be revealing.

Stroppy Author said...

" Tear apart books you admire and work out how they do the things they do." Aboslutely! I make my creative writing students do that. YOu have to understand the mechanics of it, not just imaginge it's all some airy-fairy magic.

What a great post. And I *am* going to do more book vivisection, honest! Sorry for the huge delay - teaching an intensive 8-week CW course used up all my vivisecting energy over the summer.

Elen C said...

Thanks, everyone. I'm glad I'm sold the book to some new readers in the process!
And I'm very pleased there will be more vivisection! I read the blog thinking 'yes! This is what writers should talk about'.


I LOVE Frank Cotrell Boyce's books! But here's the question - did he pick other books apart to write like this, or did he do it naturally? While I agree with everything you've said, I rather hope it's the latter.

Elen C said...

Dougal - I have no definite answer for you, I'm sorry. However, as a successful scriptwriter, he probably has had a lot of exposure to standard narrative structures and techniques.
I don't know why you'd prefer it to be a natural talent, though. I am comforted by the idea that you can learn these points of craft and improve as you practice!

Andrew Strong said...

Lovely post. I haven't read Cosmic, but would love to now, especially with your marginilia and post-its all over it.

Linda said...

Great post. I love 'Cosmic' and hesitated to read this, thinking you might ruin my pleasure in it, but in fact the contrary is true: I'll enjoy it all the more when I reread it. It's like the arrival of the fairy godmother at the panto: you know the wires are there to make her fly, but that doesn't stop the awe!

Richard Sutton said...

Excellent dissection, Elen. I got lazy when I got older, though. The crystalline attention to the exact way the words fell and the rapture achieved when a particularly pointed phrase emerged, later became just immersion in the story. Like a nice, warm bath. The little jewels seen in the soap bubbles were no longer as important as whether the water was cooling off too fast. I suppose I haven't finished learning how to write better. None of us ever do, but every other writer's work is at its heart, "their work", not mine, not anyone else's -- unless that was the idea in the first place! On the other hand, all those colorful post-its must provide such a pleasant feeling of satisfaction... maybe I should buy some?