Notes From the Wasteland No. 47 ‘How To Write Without Words’

In class the other day we were talking about composition and framing in contemporary filmmaking. The conversation was animated and interesting and we were thinking of examples from films when the position that someone stands in front of the camera can be read as something much more than the actor simply hitting their mark.

For example, an actor standing alone in the frame can suggest isolation. A high camera angle combined with the subject being a long way from the camera can heighten this feeling by also emphasising smallness. We have all seen moments in films when characters are overwhelmed by the enormity of the events that they find themselves experiencing and this enormity is doubly emphasised by their actual smallness within the frame. Dwarfed by their circumstances.

No words are needed.

Single figures in a single frame can also be used to signal dominance. Actors fill the frame with their body and this filling of the frame can be read in a variety of ways that all place emphasis on the character’s importance to the film.

Again, no words are needed.

Inspired by the recent release of David Fincher’s Mank (2020), here are three examples from the magnificent Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). In this first image, the adult world is conspiring to send the young Charles Foster Kane away from the family home for what is hoped will be a better life. As the mother, lawyer and father all jockey for position within the negotiations, within the frame, the young boy is seen playing outside. Though small at this moment, the boy’s centrality to the unfolding events is made clear by Welles ensuring that he is always visible in the frame.

In this second image, Kane is now married and things are not going well for the couple. Welles chooses to use a series of framings and edits to tell the story of a marriage dissolving. Here, the simple image of the breakfast table is actually the measure of the now-yawning distance between man and wife. Dialogue is not needed at this moment.

The image tells the story.

Finally, here, when the dust settles and everything falls apart, relationships are expressed by the elaborate vastness of the architecture. It is impossible to conduct any business of any kind when the distance between anyone is this vast.

When writing I aim to see my story cinematically. I imagine what the story would look like as a film. I see the frames and angles in my head and look to find the best ways to not use the words I don’t need. Not because I expect this to actually happen – films made out of my books – even though it would be marvellous if it ever did. I see my writing this way because I find it helps me strip away the language. It helps me find the least number of words needed for a sentence. The least number of sentences needed for a paragraph. You get the idea.

No words are needed.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 32 ‘Where Do All My Words Go After They’ve Been Written?’

I once wrote a short novel about an intergalactic demon that was summoned when all the words and phrases that the world had meant to type into a search bar but didn’t because the cursor wasn’t in the search bar when the words were typed coalesced somewhere to form the demon’s name and summoned it to Earth. I ask this question not because I am worried about intergalactic demons, or, at least, not too worried – 2021 has left us all with far bigger fish to fry – but because I wonder about the fate of my words and where they live after I have written them.

I know where my words go.

Some of them are here, right now, waiting patiently as I type before they embark upon their daily journey across the social media sea to one of my many platforms. Once there, presumably, they wait patiently (again) until someone chooses to read them, or, as is more likely, chooses not to read them. They don’t disappear after they have been read, or not read, they just sit and wait until they are read again. Or just forgotten.

Some of my words sit in novels sat on real and virtual book shelves, waiting to read, or, as has happened, wonderfully, reread, read again. These words have a different life to my social media words. These words seem to mean more to more people; not enough that they are chart-topping, best-selling, Top Ten words, but enough to enough people that at least I know that these particular words have found a new home, or, more to the point, new homes. And that’s lovely, really lovely. I couldn’t want more for my words than to become someone else’s, that’s when I know that my words work.

And then there are the words that are yet to arrive, the one’s I’ll write tomorrow, or the next day. The novels I am going to finish – I have three in the pipeline. The scripts that I’m going to send – I have two ready to go. These words. Some of these words are ready and waiting. Others are simply waiting to be joined by others, so that their combination might result in their being read by someone else somewhere else. These are the words I look forward to the most, the one’s I’ve not yet written.

Where do your words go?

Notes From the Wasteland No. 29 ‘Does Anybody Really Like Editing?’

What does editing mean to you? Is it pleasure or pain? Does the thought of going back over what you’ve written fill you with dread? Do you resent the effort required to reread and rewrite? Does your heart sink at the thought of having to go back through the words you wrote yesterday, last week, last month, three years ago, or even just ten minutes before?

Does anybody really like editing?

There are schools of thought that say we should just go with the first things we write, leaving our words gasping on the page like newly-landed fish. The idea being that we live with the spontaneous, the fresh, the newly-caught. But my words are fragile and not yet fully formed; they buckle and break sometimes, not firm enough yet to solidify into suitable sentences and I know that if left them to their own devices they would just wither, perishing like forced fruit in the frost.

I don’t subscribe to this approach. I have spent too long planting my words, hoping that that the shoots of my ideas will take hold in the soil of the page and develop at a healthy rate. This is always my hope. The reality is often different but like plants of any kind it is necessary to trim and prune and shape and guide long before there is even a hint of flowers. In any case, I love to edit. I adore the process, the pausing and pondering, the planning, the deletion and correction. I’ll say it again.

I love to edit.

To me there is just something wonderful about the opportunity to spend more time with my words, they are mine, after all. I found them and thought of them. I placed them on the page, one after the other. I gave them a home when perhaps no one else would want them. They are mine, after all, in all their ugly splendour, however happy or sad or right or wrong or even if they are not actually going somewhere, anywhere. Whatever the case, these words are mine and they deserve my utmost care and attention. This is true whether they are the final words of a novel or the first words of a post. My words are just that, and like anything else I hold dear, I couldn’t have it any other way, I will lavish my time and attention on them. All of my time and attention, even if that means I put these words away and come back to them another time. They know I will. I always do.


Notes From the Wasteland No. 16 ‘Can punctuation really save our lives?’

When questions circle and hide their intent through subterfuge and complication, as they often do, like people, lives, events, lifetimes, and consequences, how can we really tell when one question ends and another begins? Punctuation helps, it always does. It tells us when to breathe and such instructions are crucial to our survival. So punctuation is survival, then? It has to be, otherwise these sentences would run together off the bottom fo the screen and keep flowing forth and as they do they’ll draw the very life from us because the simple matter will be that we won’t know when to take a breath and normally when we don’t know about something as mechanical as drawing breath is likely to be just before we draw our last.

Breathe. In. Out. One more. And again.

And as before, we type anew and more words form and paragraphs multiply like raindrops in the puddle that is my laptop screen and sometimes when they do we know that they need taming and shaping, putting into place, and we hope that punctuation can help achieve this aim but when a raindrop hits a puddle it doesn’t sit separate and wait for permission, it simply merges, becoming part of the whole. And we all hope when we write that are words fall like raindrops and fill puddles and overflow their edges and then spread further like a tiny rivulet that swells in turns and starts to race just that little bit faster until more water forms and the tiny becomes the larger and then the larger still and the words that are our raindrops reach enough people to soak them with their wisdom and nourishment. But some raindrops don’t reach puddles to form streams and gurgle like torrents, some raindrops die trapped on greedy leaves. And that is not where you want your words to fall, drying in the sun and evaporating without trace.

I want my words to make an ocean.