5 Reasons Neil Gaiman Makes Great Holiday Reading

One of my holiday rituals is to re-read Neil Gaiman. While in school, I used to spend precious pocket-money at Comics Mart at Serene Centre (10 Jalan Serene) on the latest Vertigo installment of The Sandman when it finally arrived in Singapore. Later, there were short stories and novels to enjoy, and then, as a testimony to the popularity of the series, hardback compilations of The Sandman.

He was in Singapore once many years ago but I got there too late and wasn’t let in the queue. Then he was in London and I got tickets for a reading of Fortunately, The Milk, but something intervened and I had to give that up as well.

Neil Gaiman books

Ah well, maybe one day.

Meanwhile, thought I’d make a messy list, for myself, of much of what is delightful about Gaiman’s work. Much that follows are quotes from Gaiman, since being a fairly well-thought-out self-aware character, Neil Gaiman best explains Neil Gaiman. Transportation theory, sleeper effect much?

1. mega-metafiction
He invents cosmologies by the truckload-ful. What’s captivating about them (vs., say, the impressive Lord of the Rings or the Marvel universe) is that Gaiman’s worlds are a mash-up of current everyday reality, well-known fairy tales, a smattering of old myths from different cultures around the world, all woven skilfully into a coherent whole.

2. only ordinary protagonists in extraordinary situations
What makes his stories enchanting is that his protagonists are perfectly ordinary people going about their daily lives, not quite looking for trouble; this is life as we know it and live it – taking the tube to work, rummaging through the charity shop. Then another reality intrudes on it – the denizens of London Below, Norse gods, anthropomorphic personifications of ideas, King Arthur’s knights, fatherly vampires, characters from seamen’s tales, etc. And if it could happen to them…

In his fictional worlds, reality is frequently subject to disturbing or hilarious slippage: A moonlight stroll in search of a defunct local attraction shifts without warning into a Shirley Jackson-style murderous ritual (“A Lunar Labyrinth”); a talkative woman in a small-town pub turns out to be a spectral jilted lover with a gruesome secret to reveal (in “Black Dog,” a new adventure of Shadow Moon, the hero of “American Gods”); a teenage girl’s addiction to tanning lotion may result in the creation of a shimmering orange entity known as “Her Immanence,” or to her sister as “the Great Oompa-Loompa.” (That story, “Orange,” is skillfully constructed as a litany of unsatisfying answers to official questions.) (Neil Gaiman’s ‘Trigger Warning’, Andrew O’Hehir for The New York Times)

Fiddler’s Green (“Gilbert”) from The Sandman series always seemed to me to resemble G.K. Chesterton. And in all probability, it/he was a homage to that great writer:

“…G. K. Chesterton[‘s] work, Gaiman says, “left me with an idea of London as this wonderful, mythical, magical place, which became the way I saw the world.” (Kid Goth, Dana Goodyear for The New Yorker)

3. familiar fear

He takes loads of familiar childhood fears and forces us to see them through to the end: being taken away by other malevolent parents, losing our parents, monsters in the dark and under the bed and under the bridge…

…this being TED, Gaiman took a few minutes first to chew on the question: Why do we tell scary stories? He sees them as filling a vital role in our lives.

“Ghost stories are a very peculiar tradition. They’re one of the three different kinds of stories that human beings tell each other that you find out if it’s working physiologically. If your flesh is creeping and you’re starting to feel uncomfortable, the story is working,” says Gaiman. “As long as human beings have been telling each other stories, they’ve been telling each other really scary stories. They’d be sitting there in the cave with the fire burning, and they’d tell each other about the things that were even more scary than the things they normally encountered out there.”

For him, the purpose of horror stories crystallized from the reaction young women have to his book Coraline, which he calls “a very scary book for little kids, intentionally.”…To this day, Gaiman often meets women who tell him that Coraline helped them through their darkest times.

“That’s what it’s for. It’s there because a little bit of fear in a safe place is like being inoculated,” says Gaiman. “It gives you something you can go through and be sure that you’ll come out the other end. It teaches you to be brave.” (Neil Gaiman tells ghost stories late in the night at TED2014)

See also Maria Popova’s recording of Gaiman at TED 2014Vancouver .

4. morality tales
But the denouement of his stories are almost always comforting – the protagonist’s bravery is rewarded, and the nasty, self-centred, wicked people are punished or get their just deserts.

“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” (Coraline, Neil Gaiman)

5.  syncretic style
Like his countryman Benedict Cumberbatch, Gaiman does voices very well:

Gaiman says that, especially in the early stages of his career, “I was very, very good at taking a voice that already existed and just parodying it.” He describes his short piece “We Can Get Them for You Wholesale” as him doing John Collier. “A Study in Emerald” is his version of Sherlock Holmes, by way of H. P. Lovecraft. The writer Gene Wolfe says that “Sunbird,” Gaiman’s story about an epicurean club that eats the mythical phoenix, “is so much in the style of R. A. Lafferty it’s almost as if Lafferty were dictating it from Heaven.” (Kid Goth, Dana Goodyear for The New Yorker)

Collage of Neil Gaiman potraits

How does he do it? What’s his process?

In the early eighties, he started going to fantasy conventions as a journalist and interviewing authors he admired. At one such event, he met Alan Moore, who, through “Swamp Thing,” was transforming the comic book into something literary, psychological, and self-aware. He asked Moore to show him how to write a script; they sat down and Moore sketched it out in a notebook: page one, panel one, FX for sound effects, and so on. Moore’s style shaped Gaiman’s early work; his scripts were fully realized texts, dense with visual information. Gaiman says that an Alan Moore script for a twenty-four-page comic would be about a hundred pages, his own would run to fifty pages, and most other writers’ would be half that. (Kid Goth, Dana Goodyear for The New Yorker)

The biggest way my writing habits have changed over the years is I’m no longer nocturnal. In the old days, I would tend to write when everything else that could be done had been done. I’d start around 8pm and work industriously until around 5am. Then, somewhere in the early ’90s, I gave up smoking and that made a difference. Without cigarettes, if I tried doing that I just fell asleep at the keyboard with nothing to show for my efforts but 500 pages of the letter ‘M’. At that stage, I became more diurnal. I think it was having kids; getting older, too.

But now that I am older, I get to indulge myself in ways of making the world quieter which weren’t available to me when I was a young writer. I can rent a little cabin where there’s no cellphone signal or internet and nothing to do except stare at a nearby lake… or write. When I’m pushed, I will borrow houses from friends, occasionally vanish off to a cheap hotel room for a week or two to get my head down and move into that peculiar universe where you know you have stuff to finish and you do nothing but write. You go to sleep with the story bubbling in your head and when you wake up you reach for a notebook.

For screenplays, I work directly on screen – novels I write in longhand. For novels, I like the whole first and second draft feeling, and the act of making paper dirty, whereas, for screenplays, I value the immediacy of a computer. I’ve often thought, when I’m writing a screenplay where I’m six drafts down the line with loads of notes and inputs, that it’s interesting to read the first draft again. Often you realise it was more alive, so you go back and take stuff out of it.

I try to change my superstitions with each project. Working in fountain pen is good because it slows me down just enough to keep my handwriting legible. Often I use two pens with different coloured ink, so I can tell visually how much I did each day. A good day is defined by anything more than 1,500 words of comfortable, easy writing that I figure I’m probably going to use most of in the end. Occasionally, you have those magical days when you look up and you’ve done 4,000 words, but they’re more than balanced out by those evil days where you manage 150 words you know you’ll be throwing away. (Neil Gaiman: How I Write, in interviewed with John O’Connell for Time Out magazine)

The Orange Playground by The Necessary Stage and Story-telling

The Orange Playground, The Black Box, The Necessary StageRather enjoyed the evening at the Black Box dungeon of the Marine Parade Community Centre watching some works-in-progress from The Necessary Stage‘s The Orange Playground. TOP, says the publicity material is “an incubation programme where artists can freely experiment using The Necessary Stage’s unique devising methodology”. Four TOP Labs each year provide “a space for free, ad-hoc collaborative “jamming” and play between The Necessary Stage and other artists working in different genres”.

The Orange Playground, The Black Box, The Necessary Stage

Not sure how similar TNS’ current methodology is to this report:

Activity 1: Find a spot in the room, walk to the spot with eyes close. Arms up to protect yourself from banging onto each other.

Activity 2: A and B. A do a sound that B can identify. B close eyes with arms up. A has to lead B with their sounds. B has to identify and follow.

Acitivy 3: A and B. Two straight lines. Do a mirror image of A’s pose. 10 secs. B cannot try the pose. Then After 10 secs, B do the action. Layer: Twos, and Fours

Activity 4: One straight line. Hands on each other shoulders. Specs out. Using your hands, feel the person’s facial features in front of you. In one straight line. The first person leads the line. Eyes closed. Break free. Now, find back the person of that is standing in front of you.

Activity 5: Card games – Using no. 1 – 10. Choose a card. 1 represents the least. 10 represent the best. Without seeing your card, put it on your forehead so that others can see. Base on the no., treat the person according to that. Then, on the scale, arrange yourself what u think ur no. is.

Activity 6: With scenarios. Take a card and put on forehead. Two volunteers. Taxi and Doctor scenes. Base on how the other party treats you, find out the no. on your head.

Activity 7: SPICE. Self-development on characters and personality. Get to know their individual personality better. Builds their character. By impersonating or creating characters, they explore the different characters and may even find their ‘self’. Builds their improvisational skills. Aspects of individual: S – Spiritual P – Physical I – Intellect C – Cultural E – Emotional

Ethel Yap of Lab 4 did talk a little about card exercises and how character-development was helped by values being assigned to different aspects of the worldview of each character, for example, one character might be a 10 for patriotism.

The Orange Playground, The Black Box, The Necessary Stage

How did they decide on the themes for Lab 4? Oh, Haresh Sharma said, I just made them up – censorship, education, and revolution.

Devised theatre, in this incarnation, is interesting. I’d always assumed that in any sort of work of art, authorial intent was the impetus for any attempt to convey that message.

I suppose just like models of instructional design, theatre-making methodology is dependent on worldview. The methodology of collaboration, says Alvin Tan in his Masters of Philosophy thesis, is based on democratic principles, a major tenet being respect of individual rights.

But I wonder if this erroneously conflates equality of rights with equal function. In a democracy, each citizen has the right to vote, but they do not all perform the same job, nor does this preclude any sort of hierarchy. But Alvin’s view seems to be that any imposition of vision by the playwright performing his traditional function, would be hegemonic – a bad word in these (post-)post-modern and post-colonial times.

Regardless of the validity of such presuppositions, my first thought as a potential member of the paying audience was, would I want to fork out good money from a limited budget to see the result of some people’s masak-masak? I don’t think this value-for-money consideration is uniquely Singaporean.

This is not to say, though, that I am unexcited by the prospect of this sort of collaborative effort. It sounds really fun, and part of any creative process, whether officially or not, includes experimenting and jamming. And a good part of the fun would be the uncertainty of its result. But unless the play (pardon the pun) comes together as a fresh coherent whole (by this I do not mean in necessarily a traditional linear plotline etc. sense), watching the process (or even better, participating in the process) would be more fun than watching the result. Because we all know the usual conclusions of committees – as architectural wisdom goes, the designs that win building competitions are always the second best ones, because committees work on compromise.

The Orange Playground, The Black Box, The Necessary Stage

Now many of Alvin/Haresh’s collaborative plays are excellent. Would love to have been a fly on the wall to see how their jamming sessions worked, the interaction between the different parties, how the plot evolved, and whether Alvin or Haresh had veto rights. However, would anyone else have the self-discipline and editorial ability of Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma be able to do the same? I would love it if many others did, or if they found their own method of theatre-making.

Akan datang? Edit:

Just remembered Emma Coats’s 22 Rules of Story Basics (from Pixar). Sticking it here for reference:

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Perhaps all the stories in the world that have been told, are being told, and will ever be told, follow a limited number of plotlines? See Kurt Vonnegut’s Shapes of Stories:

I particularly like Maya Eilam’s infographic presenting more of Kurt Vonnegut’s theories about archetypal stories.

Then there’s the usual dramatic structure, aka Freytag’s Pyramid.

Aerogramme Studio has a little collection of writing tips, but these assume a single author rather than a committee.