A Writer’s Diary #46: sometimes the foundations get put in last

By which I mean: you have to write the book – or play or screenplay – to find out what it’s about and what you’re trying to say; and only then, in the rewriting, can you precipitate that meaning out with maximum clarity and impact.

There’s a fascinating series of books by J.R.R. Tolkien’s son Christopher where he collects together variant drafts of Lord of the Rings, and shows how haphazardly the tale evolved over the ten years of its writing. I was struck by the laborious evolution of the apparently simple foundational framing rhyme inscribed on the Ring of Power – ‘Three rings for Elven kings, under the sky/Seven for the dwarf-lords in their halls of stone/Nine for mortal men, doomed to die/One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne…’  Early drafts shuffle the numbers of rings around quite randomly, and it took Tolkien a good many drafts to reach the simple stacking of numbers assigned to each race that crystallizes the conceptual hierarchy of his Middle Earth.

Even more marked: I was once in the Ashmolean museum in Oxford and on display was the original typescript of George Orwell’s 1984. On the page it was open at a somewhat waffly narrative paragraph had been scratched out, and jotted alongside were the three lines that were to become the fundamental axioms of his oppressive state: ‘War is Peace. Love is Hate. Freedom is Slavery.’

Perhaps this is inevitable, and for two reasons. One is that, in the end, though storytelling requires coherent rational expression, fundamentally one writes fiction from the unconscious or subconscious. The other, more pragmatic reason is: if you work everything out to the last detail before you begin actually writing the book the thrill will be gone, and you’ll find yourself unable to drag up the energy to be bothered to put the words down.

A twist on that need to avoid staleness is the advice I think it was P. D.  James gave detective story writers – or rather an observation about her own method of storytelling. She would work out the plot and decide who the murderer had to be, scribble down that draft, then, as she neared the end, make the murderer someone else and force herself to reverse-engineer the entire book. This was her way of keeping the experience of writing alive, and creating a genuinely surprising outcome.

So: sometimes the foundations get put in last.

A Writer’s Diary #45: align the antennae of your intuition

Really this is essential for any fictional writing. It’s about keeping the characters true to themselves, accommodating the resultant information that comes in however annoying it may become in terms of your predetermined plot and decisions, and not trying to chop it down to suit your initial narrative purposes.

Writing is a very concrete example of something that doesn’t do itself while you’re doing something else: it’s a physical activity, words out of your head written on paper or typed into a screen.  Aligning your intuitions so as to capture truths about your characters demands stretches of sitting there undistracted really thinking about them. Letting the words, images, ideas jumble past like a jellyfish tide. Pulling out shapes, melody lines, riffs. Going all the way down into the aqueous gloom in search of that sudden luminescence that patience will eventually uncover.

You can also reach out into minds in the world. One of the great things about the internet – and this is rather different from research: more free-form experiential – is that if you’re writing any character whose experience is markedly different from your own, it’s now easy to find conversations, threads, debates between people much like your character, online. You can eavesdrop on their style, flavour, self-perceptions and self-positioning in the world, an unparalleled level of access.

Listen to what’s without and within, and align the antennae of your intuition. It’s all out there. And in there.

A Writer’s Diary #44: you have to take control

Okay, so if you’re going to create art on contentious themes – particularly if they’re political, racial, or around gender and sexuality – you have to take control of your material. This is because members of minority groups are used to abusive and shoddy representations of themselves and their experiences.

As an artist, you have to be able to answer to an audience who may take offence, or at the least see you as advancing a particular world-view they find injurious. You have, as a practitioner, to take responsibility for your representations. You can’t just shrug as if the work happened by itself. I get it: when art flows it feels like dictation from other powers, and characters seem to tell their own truths. But it’s your name on the cover, on the programme. And part of the work is owning up to why you wrote it and what you intend by it.

Controlling subtexts is really difficult, as creation comes primarily from the emotional and impulsive parts of the psyche, and is only secondarily a consciously intellectual activity. Subtexts can be a sort of inadvertent confession. The trick is really to be aware of this, and resist them where necessary, or unpack them when you have to.

It’s hard to give examples, but here’s one. Radical and oftentimes entertaining queer indie film-maker Bruce LaBruce made a film, (Skinflick, 1999), in which skinheads gang-rape a middle-class black gay man – which led to the film being picketed when it was shown at London’s BFI. A friend saw a subsequent Q&A with the director in Edinburgh, where Mr LaBruce was both discomfited by questions about this grotesque scenario, and without proper answers. He said, weakly, ‘Well perhaps it was that character’s fantasy.’ To which one could only say, ‘Well, no. You wrote the script, cast the actor, filmed it, edited it and presented it. It’s your story.’ And your responsibility. A similar response applies to Michael Hanneke’s Funny Games.

Here’s a small counter-example, which involved me in a minor way consciously working against my mental default: When I was writing Souljah, I was conscious of having to inhabit the characters’ viewpoints in a descriptive as well as a psychological way. When writing Stanlake, my protagonist, a young West African man growing up in a small village in a West African country, I never have him describe - or describe myself as third-person narrator - any character as ‘black’. To him they are just people, the people around him. They – and he – only become ‘black’ when he reaches the UK. And the first people he sees as ‘raced’ are the white customs officials who take him and his mother Poppy off the boat in which they fled.

That is, I had to be alert to exoticist subtexts that were likely to creep into my story – if in no more harmful a way than simply devoting more prose description to what would be less familiar to a western reader – and consciously work against them to reach a deeper reality.

This, ultimately, really is part of the work of creating art that you release into the world.

Buy Souljah here.

A Writer’s Diary #43: you have to lose control

I’ve come to the rather obvious conclusion that theatre is people (actors) in front of other people, people doing things in front of people. If it’s exciting, that’s basically why. So now, when I sit down to write a play, my predominant thought is, how can I make as much as possible happen directly before the audience?

Yet so often writers seem to feel that theatre is actors spouting endless dialogue or monologues, recounting things that have already happened, or happened elsewhere, while doing very little or nothing in the now. It’s understandable, because that’s the part the writer can wholly control: it’s the part of the process of theatre-making that belongs exclusively to us.  But to make gripping theatre – which we surely all want to do – we as writers have to make a leap of faith and believe in the actors (and director) and their power to inhabit, project (and ideally expand) the meaning of our stories and  words. While demanding respect for our intent and vision, we have to lose control.


(the beautiful Ludvig Bonin as Stanlake, former child soldier and hero of my new novel, Souljah)

Souljah, my novel, is available here. A snip at £10.99, p&p free… - or if you’re in London, why not pop into Gay’s the Word in Marchmont Street, and buy a copy live and direct?

A Writer’s Diary #42: the paradoxical viscera of the mind

There’s one piece of advice I often give other writers that never works for them. I feel compelled to do so, however, because when I’m in doubt it’s advice I always give myself, and always follow. It’s this: simply ask yourself, ‘What would these characters, if they were real people, do in this situation, if it was a real situation?’ – and write that.

For some reason I don’t understand, this advice is somehow unfollowable for most people.

Perhaps a better way of expressing the idea, which is, after all, a singularly basic one, would be to say, ‘Try to push out of your mind genre, convention and cliché: try to engage with your characters and situations on a visceral level.’

In its way even that suggestion can be misread. What it isn’t is an invitation to knowningly invert conventions to try and create ‘game-changing’ narratives and genre-reversals – though that’s a perfectly entertaining thing to do. Rather it’s an invitation to put self-consciousness and ego aside and get back – or down – to a purity of intent. To aiming for human truth.

For all the (to my mind somewhat etiolated) pleasures of post-modern self-referentiality, it seems to me that this is what readers most want from fictional narratives. The heart, and the guts. The paradoxical viscera of the mind.


Pre-order Souljah here.

A Writer’s Diary #41: ecstatic alchemy

Isn’t it remarkable that fiction works at all - that the writer can put down words describing people who don’t exist in places the reader may well never have been to, and somehow those words become a reality in the reader’s mind, a spirit-fusion of reader and writer so powerful the reader may believe he or she has met the characters the writer wrote. It’s a beautiful thing, a form quite unlike any other, an alchemical product of human consciousness, imagination and empathic ability so familiar we forget how extraordinary it is.

Stranger still, perhaps, is the way the characters you create as a writer become real to you: you love them, you discover their truths as if they were pre-existing. They grow into themselves - often despite your best intentions. There is perhaps a difficult adolescent period, and then you have to let them go out into the world.

And strangest of all, they do go, and live with the readers, and without you. And sometimes you hear back from others about how they’re doing out there.

Coming soon! Monday 22nd September! Pre-order here.

A Writer’s Diary #40: the right words

A Facebook friend posted this screenshot a friend of his had sent him, not intending it to be a play or formal narrative, just a sort of jeu d’esprit, (or perhaps the reverse: a sudden outpouring of pain); yet to me it’s a striking example of how the right words can evoke a textured tale and setting and morality in the fewest lines:

When you get the words right, the resonances branch out in all directions.

A Writer’s Diary #39: art as service

In Vodou believers are called serviteurs. In my religion of writing, as I sometimes feel it is, I believe in art as service to humanity. That belief can be stretched to the point where any expression of self by any human being in any form whatsoever is a sort of service to fellow human beings in that it’s a revelation of some new possibility. However, being a minority artist, and one who is interested in representing minorities within that, I have a more concrete sense of service.

I once read a transcript of a literary panel discussion that took place in the late 1960s. It featured various big-name US writers, including African-American legend Ralph Ellison, whose brilliant book about the black experience in America, Invisible Man, had been named Best Post-War Novel and won numerous awards. I forget who the others were, except that they were all white (and all men, and heterosexual). Possibly Saul Bellow was one. Anyway –

At one point the panel were asked what they thought the point of writing was; what the novelist should be attempting to do. All the other writers said that, given all stories were already told, the point was to rework classic themes in novel ways. And don’t we often hear that? That all stories are already told?

Ralph Ellison, alone of them, said that a novelist should write about what’s happening now, and tell all the stories that haven’t been told.

I agree with Ralph.

A Writer’s Diary #38: work is a sort of choice

Many writers can’t really self-edit; some can’t self-edit at all. This puzzles me: isn’t it part of the job? However, to do so – and I believe I can - requires an ability to take an external view of one’s own work, to position oneself simultaneously both as an imagined reader (one who asks, ‘Does this make sense to me? Does my eye stumble over this? Is this interesting to me in the larger context of the story?’) and as a punctilious copy-editor (one who’s always saying, ‘Is this the best word or image?’ and ‘Do we need this bit at all?’).

That is, it requires being a bit anal and ruthless: to be prepared, as I think it was George Orwell said, to slay one’s darlings.

This sort of objectivity is a good skill to cultivate. There’s a quiet joy, once one has that first draft down, in meditatively assessing the merits of a line or phrase or image detached from one’s own ego.

Being able to self-edit doesn’t mean I don’t very much value the input of the perceptive friends who read my manuscripts: I do. And they often offer wonderful and startlingly left-field suggestions that I’m excited to use – most usefully at the early stages, before the vision is set. Good – useful – readers see the possibilities erupting from one’s draft, sometimes in ways one hasn’t seen oneself.

I’m talking here about prose fiction. Film and theatre, being heavily collaborative, require a writer to constantly change stuff in the light of performance realities; and particularly in film the script is only one (albeit a key) component of the machine. The film is a fusion of various visions, not the realization of just one person (the writer’s) by technical drones. (Nor is it wholly the director’s vision either: another story).

Work is a sort of choice, really. If a section – sequence, paragraph or sentence – isn’t working, you have to decide to keep on going over it till it does work. And you have to decide that in objective terms. The aim must at all times be accuracy. A sloppy image diffuses a reader’s attention; a redundant one clutters the sentence. Confused syntax obscures sense. Accuracy is far more important than elegance, and it requires focus and honesty, and sometimes self-sacrifice.

Fundamentally it’s all about accuracy.

A Writer’s Diary #37: Vodou writing

In the oufo, the Vodou temple, there is at its centre the Poteau-mitain post, around which believers dance and sing to bring on possession by the lwa - the deities - and the ancestors. The post connects the energies of the lwa above and the spirits of the ancestors, who dwell la-bas, on the island in the waters below.

When the writing works, when the truth flows from character and situation as if revealed, and themes reverberate and magnify each other, expand and converge in accumulating meaningfulness, the writer is, like that post, the lightning-rod for energies above and below.

This self-abnegation is exactly the opposite of what self-aggrandising literary critics once dubbed ‘the death of the author’: it is what avant-garde dancer and film-maker Maya Deren called ‘the white darkness’ of possession, where one is both simultaneously wholly absent and wholly present.

It is the aim.