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.

A Writer’s Diary#36: I love rewriting

I love rewriting.

It’s the good bit: the salvation, the rendering-down.

It’s also, of course, work.

Having finished a fast first draft of my forthcoming novel Souljah I went over and over the often lumpy prose until it was as sharp and clear and rhythmic as I could make it, which I would guess was about six months’ fairly concentrated work, three to four hours a day, usually six days a week.

There’s an almost sensual pleasure in adjusting internal prose rhythms so they flow fast and deep; and a definitely visceral one in crossing out bad phrases and dud metaphors; in rejigging dialogue so it feels natural while still being concise, ideally as tight as poetry.  In replacing mediocre or overdone images with fresher and more accurate ones that nonetheless do not trip up the eye; that do not call attention to themselves and beg a round of applause for the author’s wit while simultaneously pushing the reader out of full emotional engagement with the story.

The great thing about having a long first draft – and mine was over 120,000 words - is that you can be ruthless: any padding can be sliced away without the worry that what remains will be maaga.  All the best books – even a triple-decker like Lord of the Rings or a doorstop like Moby Dick – are surprisingly economical when you go back over them with an analytical eye: they contain barely a wasted word and include a minimum of digression or filler.

One lesson I’ve taken from screenwriting is, to quote my best friend and brilliant writer and director Rikki Beadle-Blair, ‘A diamond is nothing till it’s cut.’ But there’s another element at play here too: expansion: making the most of moments that, in the haste of composing the first draft, you wrote thinly or sketchily. Getting best value out of each moment and situation. Like an athlete, building up the muscle while stripping out the fat.


A Writer’s Diary #35: a tentative jazz theory of deconstructive writing

Legendary jazz musicians like Miles Davis and John Coltrane would take standards and dismantle them. How much can you take from a melody line before the song collapses or evaporates, or what you’re doing becomes wholly disconnected from it? How few notes are needed?

What can you take away? What needs to be retained for the song to keep on living beneath it?

A simple swirl of a skilled Japanese calligrapher’s brush-pen yields a goldfish: another sort of minimalism, aiming for essence yet concrete, not abstract, in its representation: accurate, true to the world.

Good TV or film writing, where only the key scenes, the exciting scenes, the compelling scenes are shown, no fat, no filler. (Bad writing: only markers of genre cliché are shown, the concrete, the logical, the human forgotten, skipped over. The needle skittering over the grooves, refusing to settle, just noise. How lightly can you touch down and still land?). When it works the fragmented narrative notes are the telling notes, just anchored enough to the tensile web of format and genre for the story to hang together, to have bounce, the threads perhaps now present only in the viewer’s mind.

This is more subtle than just cutting to action.

I love words but, like people, the less of them there are, the more they stand out.

Put another way: always listen out for the false notes.

A Writer’s Diary #34: what intrigues, what doesn’t

Recently I went to see a play that opened with a middle-class, (white heterosexual) couple bickering. They are arguing about ‘something’, and the writer withheld what that something was for several minutes as the actors darted round the set clearing away children’s toys and putting out nibbles for a looming social occasion. As I watched this I was struck by two things. 1) I’ve seen this device used a zillion times, and 2) it’s supposed to build intrigue, but never does.

What actually happens, it seems to me, is that the audience instantly tunes out, waiting disengagedly for an actual information-point to appear. We, the onlookers, know this is just time-wasting, albeit under the guise of a sort of naturalism that holds (correctly) that we don’t inform each other in conversation of things we both know, (eg ‘your older sister, Margaret’), and that exposition of that sort, just to tell the audience something, is often crass. But this notion of ‘good writing’ just drags stuff out: why not cut to the chase? Why not have the very first line of the play reveal a bone-crunching faux pas and get a gasp from the audience and hook them from line one?

On the whole I think drama is strongest the clearer the stakes are from the beginning. Then add twists and turns along the way. Hamlet and King Lear are good examples of this.

In my short play, Green for the Land, Africa, the situation is crystal-clear: a Nigerian man is seeking asylum for being gay. The interest is in how the dynamics of the power-play between him and his interrogator play out; what surprises arrive on the way. What wouldn’t make the play more intriguing would be spending pages and pages being vague about where he was from, why he was trying to claim asylum, what country we were in, and so on: the audience would be discouraged from caring or being involved.

Perhaps I lack self-esteem, but I believe my job as the writer is to get the reader or viewer intrigued as quickly as possible, to earn his or her attention for the journey into my world that lies ahead.