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Blatant Theft – The Cure for Writer’s Block

25 Oct

Blog Pic

It’s never nice to be accused of plagiarism. I’ve only had it happen once or twice, and never in the serious, “We’re-taking-your-ass-to-court” meaning of the word. Rather, it was suggested that I’d borrowed one or two elements from someone else’s work. The first time was when some character on a Doctor Who forum claimed I’d lifted – word for word – a lengthy bit of dialogue from an episode of Red Dwarf – an episode which, funnily enough, I hadn’t seen. The second time was when someone pointed out similarities between a script I’d written and a popular video game… one that was released a good 6 years after I last owned a games console.

It was one of these bad boys. I shit you not.

It was one of these bad boys. I shit you not.

In both cases, what it boiled down to was coincidence, similarity, and nothing more. In a similar way, I once asked (*NAME-DROP KLAXON*) Steven Moffat whether Borges’s The Library of Babel had influenced Silence in the Library, only to have him look at me like I’d belched in his face. He’d never even heard of Borges, let alone read the story. Again… Coincidence. If enough ideas are floating in the ether, more than one writer will grab them and use them to their own ends, resulting in similar stories by authors ignorant of each other’s work.

"You know nothing of my work. Oh... You actually know nothing of my work?" - Jorge Luis Borges

“You know nothing of my work. Oh… You actually know nothing of my work?” – Jorge Luis Borges

But while being accused of theft is a little upsetting (after the video game one I flew into a blind panic for several days), there are times when outright, blatant theft is a good thing.

Pictured: Not the kind of theft I'm talking about.

Pictured: Not the kind of theft I’m talking about.

So when is it OK to steal? Well, I’m talking about those times when you’re trying to come up with an idea, but you hit a brick wall. My advice, in this situation, is that you turn to a source – could be ancient mythology, the collected works of Shakespeare, or an author whose work is now in the public domain – and you pillage it for all its worth. If that idea plagues your conscience, and you think it sounds like cheating, don’t take my word for it. Here are some popular works whose stories seemed oddly familiar…

aka 'Hamlet... With Lions'

The Lion King, aka ‘Hamlet… With Lions’

aka 'The Odyssey... With Folk Songs'

O Brother, Where Art Thou… aka ‘The Odyssey… With Folk Songs’

aka 'Romeo and Juliet... With Jazz Hands'

West Side Story… aka ‘Romeo & Juliet… With Jazz Hands’

aka 'The Tempest... In Space'

The Forbidden Planet… aka ‘The Tempest… In Space’

And that’s just the films. Joyce’s Ulysses is – quite brazenly – The Odyssey, stripped of deities and updated to Dublin. Stephen King admits that the starting point for Salem’s Lot was “Dracula meets Peyton Place”. In his introduction to The Magus, John Fowles suggests that it was modelled – albeit subconsciously – on Dickens’s Great Expectations.

The trick, when stealing a story, is to use only its core ingredients as your starting point. Pitch it to yourself by giving it a different setting, and see how far you get. I’ll come up with one right now – I promise, this will be off the top of my head – and we’ll see how far we get with it.

The Odyssey, but set in a garage.

So how would that work? It might be difficult – but fun – trying to adapt the earlier parts of the Odyssey to the confines of a garage, so perhaps we should stick to the later parts, when Ulysses returns to Ithaca and finds his wife, Penelope, beset on all sides by a small army of suitors, eager to take his place. Perhaps our Ulysses – let’s call him Bob – is a mechanic, the previous owner of the garage. He’s been away some time (prison?), but now he’s back, only to find that some other man is trying to usurp him. As well as taking over Bob’s business, perhaps this man is making overtures to his wife, and has become a father figure to his son, our modern-day Telemachus?

Sequences like this may be harder to adapt.

Sequences like this may be harder to adapt.

Already, it feels like it could work as a kind of Get Carter-ish crime thriller, or a straight-up drama with a bit of gangster movie bubbling underneath. Actually, if anything it feels a little like an episode of Eastenders, which – given the show’s wild fluctuations in quality over the years – is neither a good nor a bad thing. Maybe you think this story is a terrible idea. Doesn’t matter. What matters right now is that you have a starting point.

Obviously, this method won’t always work, and it’s always worth checking to see if someone already had the same idea as you (there are so many gangster Macbeths), but as “writing exercises” go, it’s a pretty good one, and a great means to blow away the cobwebs.

Death of the Author – ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ by John Kennedy Toole

11 May

Ignatius P. Reilly

It’s taken 4 years since it was first recommended to me, but I finally got round to reading John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. I think the reason it took so long is that I’m one of those people who doesn’t respond well to recommendations, particularly with books, and the minute anything becomes a runaway or cult success (Cloud Atlas, The Curious Incident of  the Dog in the Night-Time etc), I react against it as if suffering from some sort of allergy, terrified I might find it over-hyped, or get caught up in the hype and lose all critical objectivity.

As such, A Confederacy of Dunces came to me with an intimidating pedigree. Recommended to me by people, including my partner and fellow writers, whose opinions I value, it won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is, by almost all accounts, an American classic.

For the uninitiated, Confederacy tells the story of 30-year-old Ignatius P. Reilly of New Orleans, a corpulent and flatulent behemoth who lives with his long-suffering mother, and when not sponging off her spends much of his time shouting at cinema screens, eating, farting, masturbating, farting and eating. Inspired by the 6th Century philosopher Boethius, Ignatius rages against what he sees as the decadence of modern culture, and in the course of the novel we meet the eccentrics who get caught up in Ignatius’s farcical attempts to turn even the most mundane of jobs into a revolutionary movement; first using his post as admin officer for a trouser manufacturer to stir up civil unrest among the black factory workers, then using his hotdog stand as the linchpin of an attempt to infiltrate the US Army and government with gay men.

"So... Are we doing Y.Y.M.C.A.A. or something?"

“So… Are we doing Y.Y.M.C.A.A. or something?”

Toole wrote the novel while serving in the United States Army in the early 1960s, and spent the remainder of his short life struggling fruitlessly to get it published before his suicide, at the age of 31, in 1969. It was Toole’s mother Thelma who took up the baton and spent the next 10 years sending her son’s manuscript to publishers, agents and authors, finally gaining the attention of Louisiana writer Walker Percy, who was instrumental in getting Confederacy published in 1980. It became a cult hit, and has enjoyed a loyal, committed fan base ever since. But what of the novel itself?

I should point out that before reading it last week, I’d made one other attempt2 or 3 years back, but gave up, finding it just too misanthropic. Friends had told me this was one of the funniest books I would ever read, but between the over-the-top dialogue and hyperactive slapstick I sensed a deep and bitter hatred, something angry and unpleasant, that overshadowed the comedy. As genuinely funny and broadly comic as Confederacy often is, knowing its author committed suicide in despair stained the comedy with something much more tragic.

Now that I’ve read the thing cover to cover, I’m unshaken in my belief that Confederacy is a tragic work. Tragic because of its situation – Ignatius is a parasitic and grotesque man-child who leaves a trail of chaos in his wake. But tragic too, because it feels unfinished. The story I often hear of its publication history is that here was a case in which those who read Toole’s novel before his death clearly got it all wrong. It’s a work of genius, and they were fools not to see it the first time around. If only they had recognised his talent while he was still alive etc…

"Also... Why is there no justice in this world?"

“Also… Why is there no justice in this world?”

My feeling is that each and every person who rejected Toole’s novel, as it stands, was right to do so. The tragedy of A Confederacy of Dunces is not that publishers failed to recognise its genius, but that the author didn’t live to work with an editor bossy and skillful enough to whip the thing into better shape. Instead what we have is a novel with many colourful and well-realised characters, funny situations and the occasional gem of dialogue, all-but-buried beneath mountains of meandering plot, needless repetition, and grindingly clumsy changes in point of view that make it feel more like a polished and very promising first draft than a finished novel.

If there was ever a book that challenges the whole Barthesian concept of the “Death of the Author” (i.e. the principle that we should separate a work completely from its author’s biography) it’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Here, it’s impossible to separate author and work. The work exists in its current state precisely because of its author’s depressive personality and his premature death. A less anxious, less depressive writer may have gone back to the drawing board and either reworked his unpublished novel or begun something else. An author less dead would have had the opportunity to do both.

Harsh, but true.

Harsh, but true.

Having said all this, we can’t and shouldn’t dismiss A Confederacy of Dunces as something over-hyped, because there is still so much to love about it. The characters, as already mentioned, often leap off the page. The novel’s opening and climactic chapters are fine examples of prose farce, so much tauter and more finely tuned than its flabby midriff, proving that Toole was more than capable of disciplined and carefully-structured storytelling. It is a shame, then, that his death (and again, we have to keep coming back to it) all but ruled out anyone going in there and hauling out the padding; all those dialogues that go nowhereor the supporting characters who feel sketchy and half-formed compared to so many of their co-stars.

As enjoyable as A Confederacy of Dunces undoubtedly is, it seems to me unlikely a novel in this state by a living but previously unpublished author would have seen publication; even more so that it would have won the Pulitzer. If we read A Confederacy of Dunces without bearing any of this in mind, we’re left with something very interesting and very funny but also very, very flawed.

The Tubes, The Twenties and Mrs T

8 Apr

Tubes 20s Mrs T

In recent months I’ve been working on an audio adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray for Big Finish productions. This follows on from their series The Confessions of Dorian Gray – the brainchild of the annoyingly talented Scott Handcock – in which Dorian survives, thrives and cavorts his way across the 20th Century.

Pictured: Literally the first image that came up when I Googled 'cavorting'. Featuring Milton Berle (far right).

Pictured: Literally the first image that came up when I Googled ‘cavorting’. Featuring Milton Berle (far right).

Adapting the novel itself was a very different task, not least of all because it involved producing 4 times as many words as an episode, but I’ll write more about this closer to the release date. The reason I’m mentioning it all now is that last weekend was when we recorded it, at The Moat Studios in Ladbroke Grove.

A day at The Moat is always fun, and as anyone who has worked there will tell you, the lunches alone – put on by sound engineer and kitchen whiz Toby – make any visit worthwhile.

As one actor, on a previous production, noted: “You don’t get this on The Archers.”

Being there on Saturday meant I finally got to meet our Dorian, the brilliant Alexander Vlahos (Mordred in the BBC’s Merlin), along with Marcus Hutton and Miles Richardson (who, I can confirm, were born to play Basil Hallward and Lord Henry Wotton respectively.) But enough of this loveydom. The day went well, everyone was marvellous, and the food was lovely.

I’d like to say I spent that night (a Saturday) carousing my way around the tangled streets of Soho, but sadly, having had far too little sleep the night before and having left the house at 5:30am to catch my train, I was in bed by 10:30 and fast asleep by 11.

Artist's impression.

Artist’s impression.

On Sunday morning, after my attempt at bankrupting my hotel by eating all of the breakfast, I strolled down to Covent Garden and the London Transport Museum. I was there specifically to see their exhibition of Tube posters, celebrating 150 years of the Underground, but the museum itself is a treat. Even the lift taking you to the second floor was exciting, and the examples of classic railway stock and buses were lovely. What’s more, once you’ve paid the £15 entry fee (which may sound a little steep) you can go as many times as you like for a whole year.

The exhibition itself was wonderful; a joyous reminder of how “on-the-nose” vintage advertising can be. Sure, some of it can look a little Orwellian these days, but it was surprising how applicable many posters still are.

This is from 1944. They should reissue it.

This is from 1944. They should reissue it.

 What stood out for me was the inventiveness, and the artistic daring that you see in poster art from the 1920s and 30s compared with later decades that we tend to assume were more adventurous. The earlier tube posters showcase vorticism, cubism, and plenty of other isms from early 20th Century art. The ’60s posters, in comparison, are surprisingly conservative, with only one example reflecting the city’s “swinging” reputation or offering so much as a nod to Pop Art.

In the afternoon I met up with my friends Hannah and Michael, former Cardiffians now living in London, and went to the exhibition of Man Ray’s portraits at the National Portrait Gallery.

Tubes 20s Mrs T

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “You didn’t go to Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum?” Or, “You didn’t go to David Bowie at the V&A?”

No. No I didn’t. And I’ll tell you why. Firstly, it was a Sunday. Pompeii and Herculaneum would have been crawling with Jasmines, Tasmines and Olivers whose parents should have taken them to Thorpe Park or – at the very least – London Zoo, racing about the place and shrieking at each other while their backpack-and-papoose-carrying parents nodded thoughtfully at mosaics and plaster casts of terrified Romans. As for David Bowie, I love Bowie, but I’m not a massive costume enthusiast. I’d rather see those outfits on the man himself, either in concert or in concert footage, than on mannequins in a museum. Just not my bag, I’m afraid.

So… We went to Man Ray, and I wasn’t disappointed. Much like the Tube posters exhibition, it was a strange reminder that the ’20s, while acknowledged as being creative and decadent and all the rest of it, were so much more creative and decadent than the 1960s. Man Ray’s portraits are of dancers from the Ballet Russes, European and Asian nobility, American socialites, androgynous trapeze artists, writers, composers and – of course – Ray’s fellow surrealists. Sandwiched between the austerity of the World Wars, they illustrate a world infinitely more raucous, witty and adventurous than anything that happened at Woodstock.

"I don't know about you girls, but I am tripping my tits off right now."

“I don’t know about you girls, but I am tripping my tits off right now.”

After the National Portrait Gallery we retired to the ever-classy Retro Bar, just off The Strand, where Michael, Hannah and I discussed the eventuality of Baroness Thatcher’s death. We all agreed that while she may very well deserve a state funeral, everything should be tendered out to the private sector, from the undertakers to the security, in keeping with the spirit of the great woman’s politics. Within 24 hours the woman had dropped dead, but we have yet to learn whether we’ll see her coffin emblazoned with Cinzano and BP stickers, as she’s taken from Westminster Hall to her final resting place in the back of a G4S Transit van.

"And so the carriage carrying Baroness Thatcher leaves London, joining the A1 at Edgware..."

“And so the carriage carrying Baroness Thatcher leaves London, joining the A1 at Edgware…”

On a slightly more serious note, though, I’m actually surprised by how little of a reaction I’ve had to Thatcher’s demise. My Facebook timeline is full of people pulling virtual party poppers and raising online toasts, and I can understand that. There will be plenty of left wing apologists in the coming days, telling the world how tasteless they find it, because to celebrate anyone’s death is undignified and tacky… and that’s all true. But there can be few people who grew up in industrial and post-industrial regions of this country who can’t at least identify with those dancing a merry jig right now, however tacky or tasteless they find it.

As for those penning the hagiographies, well… This is the moment they have long been waiting for. A pageant of conspicuous cap doffing and forelock tugging sycophancy. The Daily Mail will be as happy as a pig in shit. A pig wearing a black lace veil, of course.

Just one thing. If they are going to broadcast wall-to-wall Thatcher-themed programmes for the next month, can I ask that we get the excellent drama Margaret, starring Lindsay Duncan in the title role, and not the performance-wasting bobbins that was The Iron Lady?

The Art of Recycling

1 Apr

Shining Typewriter

There’s a kind of hubris that can kick in when you’ve had something published, and when a publisher asks you for a second or even third book, whereby you assume you’ll never produce an unpublished manuscript ever again. Gone, you think, are the days when you’ll toil away at something for weeks or even months, and nothing will come of it. Those days are consigned to the dustbin of The Difficult Years.

"Weirdly, though I'd grown up my life was still narrated by the guy who narrated my 1960s childhood..."

“Weirdly, though I’d grown up my life was still narrated by the guy who narrated my 1960s childhood…”

Well, to put it bluntly, bollocks.

I’m sure there are probably full time writers out there who don’t throw away or abandon as much work as I have in the last couple of years, the ones lucky enough to have too many commitments and deadlines to waste time on anything that isn’t going anywhere, and when I’ve been at my busiest I’ve thrown very little away, but the more time and freedom you have, I can almost guarantee the more scrapped and abandoned work you’ll accumulate.

"Hmph. This pirate porn is going *nowhere*."

“Hmph. This pirate porn is going nowhere.”

It isn’t fashionable, among writers – or among anyone who works freelance – to admit you’re in a fallow patch, or that you’re not all that busy. Like Peter Gallagher’s character in American Beauty, we believe that in order to be successful we must project an image of success, so for pity’s sake DON’T ADMIT YOU SPENT THE WHOLE OF YESTERDAY IN A ONESIE, WANKING AND EATING CHEERIOS FROM THE BOX.

It's tough producing that tricky second album.

It’s tough producing that tricky second album.

But I’m pretty sure most people get them. The quiet spells. In fact, those quiet spells are probably the luxury (and they are a kind of luxury) of two types of writer: The ones who are doing okay (I fall into that bracket), and the ones who are ridiculously successful and only have to write a book every three or four years to keep afloat. If you fall into either group, you have time, and having time means you have the time to make mistakes.

"Wait, I've got it. Pride & Prejudice 2: More Proud, More Prejudiced."

“Wait, I’ve got it. Pride & Prejudice 2: More Proud, More Prejudiced.”

I first realised this when I went from working full time for an Evil Bank (coughcoughcoughLloydscough) to part time, back in 2009. Before then I’d written everything I’ve had published (which at the time consisted of four novels) in the evenings and on weekends. If I had a particularly challenging deadline I might book a week off work and write the bulk of it then. In 2009, much to my enormous relief, I was awarded a bursary that enabled me to work on a single project for half the week, while still keeping one foot in the Evil Corporate Puddle.

The resulting novel was a 150,000 word behemoth; bloated and patchy and not particularly well written. I took the writing of it very seriously, but put all my effort into the wrong things, like research (I even travelled to New York to research some of it), rather than character and story. I sent it off to a few agents far too early when it was still very much a work in progress, and got nothing but (perfectly justified) rejections in return.

I say "rejections". Some weren't so kind.

I say “rejections”. Some weren’t so kind.

Feeling a little wounded, I filed that manuscript away, and in the summer of 2010 began work on something else, and that “something else” ended up being Ibrahim & Reenie, which is published by Seren Press this autumn. (Yes… The shameless self-promotion starts here.) Though the first draft was written in a couple of months, I spent maybe 18 months reworking it until I was happy, my confidence a little shaken by having previously produced 150,000 words of almost pure rubbish.

Since then, and having found a publisher for Ibrahim & Reenie, I’ve written two more novels, one fairly long and the other very short, and it’s doubtful either of them will ever see the light of day, because they – like that 150,000 behemoth – just aren’t very good. They’re better than the behemoth, but both too flawed. They were more writing exercises than serious projects; me trying out a few new things and challenging myself. In between writing those abortive novels I’ve also written a few short stories, and they too will never be published, because they’re just not good enough.

Oh, Robin Hood 2086AD... One day your time will come.

Oh, Robin Hood 2086AD… One day your time will come.

In total, since 2009 I must have written close to 400,000 words that will never be published, at least not in their current form, and that would be the most depressing thing I have ever heard (other than, you know, stuff about plagues and war) if it weren’t for the fact that I didn’t throw those manuscripts away or burn them, because there never was a manuscript, at least not physically. Those unpublishable novels and short stories are saved on the hard drive of my PC, just sitting there like so many rusting Ford Cortinas in a junkyard. And the thing is, even though the engines may be shot and the wheels are missing, there are still parts that can be reused.

One of the short stories, for instance, has formed the basis of a novel that I’m working on right now, a project I’m quietly confident about and which is going very well so far (he said, touching wood-effect formica). There are whole chunks of it that I can copy and paste into the new work, amending character names where necessary, and polishing it up a little. It feels weirdly fraudulent (almost like plagiarism, even though it’s my own work), but also insanely satisfying, knowing that the time and effort didn’t go to waste, and I suppose if there’s a moral to this story for any struggling writers out there, it’s just that:

The time you spend working on the stuff that goes nowhere is never wasted.

If something didn’t work, ask yourself why it didn’t work, and bear it in mind next time. If something only works in part, remember it exists, file it away, and strip it down for parts at a later date. Maybe there’s a scene you really liked, or a character who was great, or even just a sentence or a description that was a diamond in a hill of dung. Either way, if it wasn’t published you can use it again and no-one will ever know.

Wait just one goddamn minute...

Wait just one goddamn minute…

In Praise of Editors

2 Jan

And so the supermarket shelves swap half-priced mince pies for Cadbury’s Cream Eggs, and the Quality Street tins of  Great Britain are down to the toffee fingers and coconut eclairs.

Seriously. You'd think they were made out of poo, or something.

Seriously. You’d think they were made out of poo, or something.

Yes… Christmas is over. The year is no longer quite so new. Everyone is back in work.

Well, almost everyone. I’d like to say I’m right back to the grindstone, hammering away at the keyboard like Jessica Fletcher on a cocktail of Sunny-D and blue Smarties, but the New Year finds me in that weird place between projects: All but finished on the novel that’s out in October, just finished a (very rough) first draft of another novel and in the planning stages of another novel (or possibly a play… haven’t decided yet) with an enormous  stack of reading to do as research.. Yes… January 2013 is off to a procrastinatory start, and as such I’m filling those hours when I should be working, or reading, or doing something, anything productive with far too much Facebook.


Pictured: Not work.

This morning, while browsing idly through all those pictures of kittens and passive aggressive “If you don’t ‘like’ this you’re a heartless c**t” links, I saw that my fellow writer and I’ve-met-her-once-in-real-life acquaintance Sarah Pinborough posted a status update in praise of good editing. It reminded me of a conversation I had with another writer friend, Gary Russell back in November, in which this very subject came up.

You see, editors have been coming under a lot of flack lately. The boom in e-books and self-publishing and the insane success of Twilight-fan-fiction-turned-bonkbuster Fifty Shades has led some to question the traditional way in which novels are published. In an interview with The Daily Mail, children’s author G.P. Taylor claims that as well as cutting out the “middle man” financially, self-published authors, “(Can) really choose what to write and are not held back by the whims of (their) editors”.

Pictured: Writing that hasn't been subjected to an editor's "whims". (From 'Shadowmancer' by G.P. Taylor)

Pictured: Writing that hasn’t been “held back by an editor’s whims”. (From ‘Shadowmancer’ by G.P. Taylor)

Now, first of all, I should say this isn’t an attack on self-publishing. The publishing world can seem byzantine to a newcomer, and littered with all kinds of hoops you have to jump through. Thanks to the current economic climate many literary agents are a little risk averse and disinclined to give the time of day to anything that falls outside what’s tried and tested. (One agent told me a novel I’d written was “too gay”. Having since reread it, I can confirm it was actually “too shit”, so perhaps he meant “gay” in the way teenagers and Chris Moyles use it.)

What’s more, I know of self-published writers whose work is both successful and well-written. Though I’ve never quizzed them on it, I can only imagine they have incredible powers of self-criticism, or very shrewd and forthright friends who are more than willing to give them honest, detailed feedback.

Or tell them if they've been "dirty birdies".

Or tell them if they’ve been “dirty birdies”.

Ultimately, that’s all an editor is. If they’re doing their job properly, he or she will be the best friend your Project has. You are not your Project’s friend. You are its parent. Every writer I’ve spoken to goes through alternating stages of loving and loathing the latest thing they’ve written in the months after finishing a first draft, as if suffering from a kind of postnatal depression, even when they haven’t rewritten a single word.

"I hate you! I hate you! Oh, wait... Actually, Chapter 3 was pretty awesome. Crap."

“I hate you! I hate you! Oh, wait… Actually, Chapter 3 was pretty awesome. Crap.”

A second pair of eyes is invaluable, and not just for proof reading. A great editor will spot  the chapter which is exactly the same, in terms of plot development and purpose, as an earlier chapter. You didn’t see it, because you were really pleased with the writing in both. Perhaps one chapter contained a lovely metaphor while the other had cracking dialogue. Your editor will see that you could cut one chapter without losing a thing. And hey… Maybe that nice metaphor will fit nicely in the other chapter, in which case, all is saved.

Or how about the three pages in which you describe a storm-tossed sea so beautifully? Man, you were on fire that day. You’d drunk, like, 8 cups of coffee and you’d been reading Moby Dick lately, so… you know… that stuff is pretty intense. There’s no way your Project would work without it.

Except it totally would, and what’s more, when you’ve trimmed those 600 words about “surging hollow roars” and “jets of vapor”, you won’t come across like a pretentious sixth former aping Herman Melville.

"Except in my novel the whale is actually a metaphor."

“Except in my novel the whale is actually a metaphor.”

But hey… It’s not all about cutting. How about the scene in which your protagonist is left waiting at the train station by his or her beloved, and they realise they’ve been jilted? Right now it’s, what… 400 words? You thought it would be cool to do it with a minimum of fuss and decoration, like Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy, but your editor reads it and thinks it lacks oomph. (And yes, “oomph” is a technical term.) You add another paragraph, and suddenly it’s amazing. And it wasn’t your editor who wrote that paragraph, it was you, it was in you the whole time; your editor just coaxed it out of you.

Much like this.

Much like this.

Of course, even if they’re brilliant there may be times when your editor is just plain wrong. The onus is then on you to demonstrate why they’ve misread or misinterpreted something, but that’s the very essence of the author-editor relationship. It’s a dialogue that’s carried out with one purpose and one purpose alone: To make your Project as good as it can possibly be. Your editor is not a thwarted, envious rival out to sabotage your work or make it their own; they wouldn’t forge much of a career for themselves if they were. If you’re serious about your work, that dialogue can actually be enormous fun. For one thing, it breathes new life into something you may have been working on for years. 

Anyway… I’ve a meeting with my editor in a couple of weeks, so I’m sure that I’ll have to reread all this when I get that first round of notes. Because, of course, your first reaction when reading an editor’s notes isn’t, “My, what fun!”, but “Why can’t these Philistines recognise inarguable genius when they see it?” That’s your first reaction. The trick is to go away, make a cup of tea, and come back to the notes about 30 minutes later. Suddenly, like Keanu Reeves seeing a world made out of little green zeros and ones, you’ll see through your “inarguable genius”, gobble up some humble pie, and get rewriting.

The Next Big Thing – Ibrahim & Reenie

4 Dec

Shining Typewriter

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been tagged by both Scott Handcock and Scott Harrison in this ‘Next Big Thing’ chain blog. The basic premise is that it’s a chance for writers to talk about whatever they’re working on right now, answering a set series of questions before passing the baton on to other writers.

You can read about Mr Handcock’s ‘Next Big Thing’ hereand Mr Harrison’s right here.

Sadly, almost all of my writer friends have already been included in the chain, so I’m not sure I’ll be able to pass it on any further than its already gone. But here are my answers…

What is the working title of your next book?

Ibrahim & Reenie.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

My Auntie Chris. I was visiting her and my uncle, I think it was Christmas 2008, and she told me about an old woman who was attempting to walk from Cardiff to London. Apparently she kept all her belongings in a convoy of supermarket trolleys and was camping next to a dual carriageway. I tried looking into the story but couldn’t find anything about it online, and my auntie couldn’t remember the woman’s name, or the outcome of the story. Originally I’d thought I might write a factual account of it, a piece of non-fiction, but I couldn’t find enough information, so it stayed as a single line in one of my notebooks until around August 2009, when I worked out how I would turn the basic premise into a novel.

What genre does your book fall under?
That blandest-sounding of all genres… General fiction. I don’t want to say “literary fiction”, because that’s a horrible term, and it sets you up for one hell of a fall if people think it’s not very “literary”, but it’s definitely not sci-fi or any other specific genre.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
I’d love to say I hadn’t given it any thought, but of course I have. If he was 10 years younger and a few stone heavier, Kayman Novak (Fonejacker) would be great as Ibrahim. Reenie was based in part on a friend of mine from East London who always reminded me of Laila Morse (Mo in Eastenders), and she was fantastic in Nil By Mouth, but they’d have to make her look 75. There are some flashbacks to Reenie’s childhood, and I think Mark Rylance would be perfect as Reenie’s father.
Left to right: Kayman Novak, Laila Morse, Mark Rylance

Left to right: Kayman Novak, Laila Morse, Mark Rylance

So, you know… If I get trampled to death by stampeding cows between now and when the book’s published, and my untimely death results in it securing a movie deal, let it be known that these are my wishes.
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
It’s impossible to summarise a novel in one sentence without it sounding unbearably cheesy, but here goes:
A 75-year-old woman and a 24-year-old man meet on the 160-mile road from Cardiff to London and while making their way on foot from one city to the next discover they have much more in common than they think.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I wouldn’t know how to self publish even if I wanted to! I haven’t got the business head for it. No… Thankfully it’s being published by the same people who handled my first two novels.
Did I mention I've written books?

Did I mention I’ve written books?

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
A very first draft? Two, maybe three months. A first draft I was happy with? About a year and a half. And even after I’d sent it to the publisher and they’d given it the thumbs up, I still carried on making changes to it before receiving a single note from my editor. You could argue it’s a first draft right up until you’re reworking it following feedback, in which case the first draft took closer to two years.
It looked exactly like this.

It looked exactly like this.

 What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I hate questions like this, because as soon as you compare your book with another, people will measure it against that work, and if it’s an established, critically acclaimed  novel (and why on earth would you compare it to something else?) you run the risk of coming a very poor second!
It mops the fucking floor with all of these.

But it mops the fucking floor with all of these.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The feeling that my second novel, Everything Is Sinister, was a relentlessly nasty book. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still very proud of it. For one thing, it’s a novel written in 2007 that predicts a near-future in which tabloid newspapers are out of control and behaving like a kind of salacious secret police. But it’s just so negative, and it’s so heavy with irony, and it’s all a bit arch. I think I’d read far too much J.G. Ballard and Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk in my twenties, and it shows.
I wanted to write something very different to that, something that wouldn’t leave the reader thinking the world was a terrible place populated only with awful people. And I wanted to write something more ambitious, with characters who weren’t just thinly-veiled versions of myself. There are bits of me in Ibrahim and Reenie, but for the best part they’re both very different, and I really enjoyed the challenge of that.
What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
It’s funny, it’s sad and it’s epic. And it features a cockatiel called Solomon.

Bronze, Bard and Barbican

14 Nov

Just returned from a busy 48 hours in the quaint, historic market town of London-Upon-Thames. Strictly speaking, I was down there on business, but that sounds awfully grand for what was actually 7 or 8 hours in a recording studio in Ladbroke Grove. Plus, my total contribution to the day, in terms of hard graft, was telling the director, Gary, that it was okay to add the word “even” to a single line of dialogue. The real draw, whenever they record anything I’ve written at The Moat Studios, is the lunch put on by sound engineer and culinary whizz Toby. Never mind that, as a Doctor Who fan, I get to meet and work with actors I’ve admired since I was 4 years old. Nah… It’s the lunch, every time.

Left to right: Sean Carlsen, Lalla Ward, Barnaby Edwards, Louise Jameson, and me, all thinking, “Hmm… Lunch.”

Anyway… being in London gave me about a day-and-a-half to go off and do my own thing, so I decided to fill that time with exhibitions. Well… Exhibitions and food.

First up was the Royal Academy’s show Bronze. This was, perhaps, the most “Ronseal” of all the shows I went to, providing a fairly broad selection of bronze sculpture from around the world, from a 14th Century BCE chariot found in Trondheim all the way up to an enormous, concave bronze mirror by Anish Kapoor. Perhaps the best thing about this show was its refusal to treat the sculptures as archaeological objects by placing them in some sort of chronological order. Instead, each room was arranged by theme – Figures, Animals, Objects, Gods etc. This meant that in a single room you could find, side by side, a piece by Jasper Johns from the 1950s next to a cabinet of tiny, intricate weights made to resemble bird claws and human figures, from 14th Century Nigeria.

Plus quite a lot of cock – ‘Dancing Satyr’ – Greek, 4th Century BCE (photograph from The Times)

It was the works from Africa, and primarily Nigeria, I found most interesting of all. Now, this may be down to me being a Patronising White Twat or a serious gap in my education (or both), but I hadn’t realised bronze sculpture was such a feature of African art, and certainly not dating back to pre-Renaissance times, but the works on display here are absolutely stunning, and add a bit of welcome variety from all those gym-honed heroes, gods and Biblical characters.

Another great feature of Bronze was the room, early on in the exhibition, in which you learn how bronze sculptures are actually made. Bronze is one of those materials I’ve always taken for granted, assuming there was some semi-magical process by which it gets moulded or sculpted into shape, without ever thinking too hard about what that process was. To learn that there are several processes, and be given a basic understanding of how each one works, really adds to your appreciation of what you see in the rest of the show.

‘Head With Crown’, Nigeria, 14th-15th Century (photo from The Economist)

After spending all of Monday in the studio, I was free again on Tuesday to go exploring, so I started the day with the British Museum’s Shakespeare: Staging The WorldThis was one show where I may have benefited from knowing a little less. A few years ago I went through a bit of an Elizabethan phase. I don’t mean I walked around saying, “Prithee, sir” while wearing a ruffled collar and breeches, I mean I read an awful lot about the Elizabethan and early Jacobean era: Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Shakespeare; Charles Nicholl’s book The Reckoning, about the murder of Christopher Marlowe; Dominic Green’s The Double Life of Doctor Lopez, about Elizabeth I’s Jewish-Marrano physician; Alice Hogge’s God’s Secret Agents, about the Gunpowder Plot.

I may have also watched a lot of ‘Blackadder II’.

As a result, there was very little in the exhibition that was new to me, and indeed some of the items on display I’d already seen elsewhere. An imaginative group portrait of Henry VIII and his children, for example, is on loan from Cardiff Museum. That said, I liked the way the show was made up mostly of historic artifacts relating to the plays’ subject matter, rather than Shakespeare himself, and there were still one or two surprises – the gold coin minted by Brutus and Cassius in the aftermath of Julius Caesar’s assassination, a page manuscript from Sir Thomas More, written apparently in Shakespeare’s own hand – but I couldn’t help but think this would have been a more spellbinding and illuminating experience had I been just a little less familiar with the subject matter.

“Hello, ladies…” ‘Portrait Miniature of Edward Herbert’, from the exhibition

Still, no trip to the British Museum is ever wasted, and right now they have a great – and most importantly, free –  mini-exhibition of prints and drawings from Spain, including some brilliantly ghoulish examples by Francisco de Goya. There’s something lovely about seeing preliminary sketches and rough drawings by great artists, in much the same way as there’s something wonderful about a page of handwritten script by the World’s Greatest Playwright™, complete with crossings out and amendments. It reminds us that as indisputably great as the finished works may be, they weren’t brought into the world in a single, perfect and painless outburst of creativity; that even artistic titans have to work at their craft.

The dark truth behind the career of TV astrologer Russell Grant… ‘Drunk Silenusa’ (1628) by Jose de Ribera

In the afternoon, following my now compulsory spending spree in Cecil Court, I went over to the Barbican, for their show of 1960s and 70s photography, Everything Was MovingHaving spent much of the day walking, and after a rubbish night’s sleep (thanks to a combination of pancake-related heartburn and crappy hotel air-con), I wasn’t sure I could handle another exhibition. Even if I was able to drag my sorry carcass around the gallery, I might not take anything in, and would walk out of there having wasted £12.

‘Sumner, Mississippi, Cassidy Bayou in Background, 1969’, William Eggleston

I needn’t have worried. Everything Was Moving was the cultural highlight of the whole trip. For one thing, it’s a pretty epic show, covering both floors of the Barbican Gallery, and featuring work by twelve photographers. Some, like Bruce Davidson and Larry Burrows are well known for their images of the US civil rights movement and the Vietnam War respectively. Others, like India’s Raghubir Singh and China’s Li Zhensheng are little known outside their native countries, or in the case of Sigmar Polke more renowned for their art than their photography.

‘Below the Howrah Bridge…’ (1968) – Raghubir Singh

It’s difficult, in a show so extensive and so packed full of content, to pick individual highlights, but Davidson’s work in particular packs one hell of a punch. His picture of a beleaguered-looking Martin Luther King, surrounded by aides and a clamouring press, is a masterclass in reportage photography, while the image of a Ku Klux Klan cross burning made me physically gasp.

‘Reverend Martin Luther King at a press conference, Birmingham , Alabama, 1962’ and ‘Outside Atlanta, Georgia, 1962’

Elsewhere, and in a similar vein, the show takes work by two South African photographers, one a white Afrikaner, the other a black African, to show us their country at the very height of Apartheid. The former, David Goldblatt’s work provides an insight into the lives of black mine workers – their horrible living conditions, combined with their quiet, almost stoic dignity – in stark contrast with the infinitely more carefree lives of their white bosses, without ever resorting to caricature. There’s empathy, compassion and warmth for all his subjects.

‘The farmer’s son with his nursemaid…’ (1964)

Coming – understandably – from a much angrier place, there’s a more obviously satirical intent behind Ernest Cole’s photography. He demonstrates brilliantly just how absurd apartheid truly was, with his images of “Europeans Only” phone booths, park benches, and bank tellers, but what’s striking, in both Goldblatt’s and Cole’s images, is just how often blacks and whites in South African found themselves standing or sitting side by side, and how much affection there could be between the communities, despite the government’s best efforts to rend them apart.

Untitled – Ernest Cole

To highlight just these three is to do a disservice to the other photographers, most of whom are brilliant in their own right. Perhaps the weakest of the bunch, or perhaps the one that feels slightest and most at odds compared to everything else around it, is Sigmar Polke’s series on an Afghan bear-baiting match, but even then these are strong images in their own right. It’s entirely possible somebody else could come away from the show having been most moved by Polke’s work, or Larry Burrows’ cinematic depictions of Vietnam, or Graciela Iturbide’s surreal and striking images from Central America.

‘Panama City, 1974’ – Graciela Iturbide

I can’t recommend Everything Was Moving enough. Like the RA’s Bronze and British Museum’s Shakespeare, it reminded me of the opening line from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Except here this isn’t a distant past of bronze gods and mythical beasts, or a world of witch trials and the conquests of empire. Here, the past is familiar. We see the 7-Up logo, and people doing the twist. These are recognisably our immediate ancestors or even our younger selves, and yet the world has changed immeasurably since then. Bruce Davidson’s images of the hovel lived in by a poor black family (Trickem Fork, Alabama) look as if they should have been taken in 1865, not 1965, and the white men taunting the freedom riders from the roadside look all the more cruel, all the more ridiculous, and all the more pathetic in a world in which Barack Obama just won his second term as US President.

Don’t worry, chaps. Only another 48 years until the Tea Party Movement.

If I have one regret about my jaunt over the Barbican, it’s that I wasn’t able to check out Random International’s installation, Rain Roomthe queue for which snaked around the ground floor, and – according to a notice – would have taken up over 2 hours of my afternoon. A shame, as this looks like one of those rare occasions when conceptual art is fun, accessible and genuinely inclusive, but it’s running until March, so maybe next time!

  • ‘Bronze’ is on until  9 December 2012
  • ‘Shakespeare: Staging the World’ is on until 25 November 2012
  • ‘From Renaissance to Goya’ is on until 6 January 2013
  • ‘Everything Was Moving’ is on until 13 January 2013

Writing Oscar – The Confessions of Dorian Gray

24 Oct

It’s almost two years since writer, producer, director and all round whizz-kid Scott Handcock first mentioned to me the idea of an audio series about the continuing adventures of Dorian Gray. I remember we were in the hipster magnet that was Cardiff Arts Institute, and I drank far too much coffee. I think it was Scott who suggested the opening episode could have Gray meeting Oscar Wilde; the idea being that Wilde based his novel on real events.

Much like Harry Potter’s Slytherin.

I went away and thought about it, but nothing more was mentioned until earlier this year, when Scott told me The Confessions of Dorian Gray had been green-lit by those very nice people at Big Finish. By then I’d had some vague idea that Wilde and Gray’s encounter would revolve around his semi-apocryphal* last words, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death, one of us has to go.” (*Semi-apocryphal because while he is recorded to have said those words, it wasn’t on his deathbed.) Traditionally the line has been read as a witticism, up there with King George V’s “bugger Bognor” and Pancho Villa’s “Tell them I said something”. What if, I wondered, Wilde was deadly serious? What if there was something genuinely malevolent about his wallpaper?

Had he lived in the 1970s, Wilde may have had a point.

One thing I hadn’t considered, while essentially off my face on caffeine, was that any story featuring Oscar Wilde would have to include dialogue spoken by Oscar Wilde, aka one of the wittiest men who ever lived. Suddenly, with a first draft deadline looming, I realised I had some research to do.

A major source of inspiration was Joseph Pearce’s The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde. Pearce, in going back to the letters and diaries of all the central players, eschews a fashionable and more contemporary “queer theory” reading of Wilde’s life and work (he’s particularly scathing of Richard Ellman’s biography, on which the film Wilde was based) in favour of an analysis of Wilde the man, with a refreshing emphasis on his religious beliefs. Certainly, Wilde’s spirituality – his Anglican upbringing, his mother’s nascent Catholicism, his eventual slide into a kind of decadent agnosticism before a last minute, deathbed conversion – is  more interesting than much of what went on in his private life, though of course the two are often inextricably linked.

What struck me, after reading Pearce and others, is that Wilde often defies most modern attempts to categorise him. He was  a Catholic and a heretic; a loving husband and father and a frequenter of male brothels; a strident intellectual who was capable of being infuriatingly glib. He doesn’t fit neatly into any of the boxes a modern observer might want to squeeze him.

For example, this man was surprisingly good in a fistfight. Seriously.

These contradictions are most apparent in Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Before starting work on my script, I went back and read it for the first time in almost 20 years. I remembered struggling through it as a teenager. The language was a little florid, a little too sensual, for my liking. I seemed to remember four or five pages of stuff about flowers and fragrances before anything resembling a plot kicked in (it’s actually two paragraphs, but still…), and the dialogue was all so arch, so vaguely pleased with itself.

Get past that initial Wildean smugness, however, and you’re in for a ripping yarn. Wilde’s prose – when he’s not waffling on about curtains and incense – is nowhere near as leaden as some of his contemporaries (yes, Stoker, I’m thinking of you), and his characters are often wonderfully observed. The few scenes of violence are genuinely shocking. Even now, Basil Hallward’s murder remains spectacularly gruesome, and very cinematic; a kind of proto-Hitchcock.

From ‘Dorian Gray‘ (2009)

Of course the novel has its flaws. It was, after all, a first novel by a writer more accustomed to the stage. It borrows heavily from Joris-Karl Huysmans’ À rebourswhile never quite daring to credit the book in name (it’s referred to, euphemistically, as a “book bound in yellow paper”). Even so, it’s nowhere near as daring as its literary forebear, a novel whose protagonist throws a “black banquet” (black decor, black-dyed food, guests dressed in black) to mourn the passing of his sexual potency. As controversial as it apparently was on publication, there’s something about The Picture of Dorian Gray that feels like “decadence light”, “diet hedonism”, an idea borne out by Belknap Press’s 2011 publication of the slightly more salacious – though not exactly pornographic – “uncensored version” of the text.

Most unforgivable of all are those moments when Wilde falls in love with the sound of his own voice. Certain dialogues –  in which Dorian, or Lord Henry wax lyrical about art and beauty – may provide the novel with a philosophical thrust but they also bring the plot grinding to a halt, particularly in the novel’s last act. When Gray leaves London and travels off in search of new sensations and experiences, we are treated to page after page (after page) about rugs and fabrics, music and fragrances, which add very little to the novel, do some damage to its pace and structure, and are often lifted wholesale from other sources. In these passages, Wilde is most of all like the Little Britain character, Dame Sally Markham, padding out his novel with any old guff.

Still, Dorian is a fascinating character. Predatory, sexually ambiguous, and often quite unsympathetic, he is a challenging anti-hero to adapt for any other medium. One thing that struck me, reading the novel a second time, was just how antisemitic he can be, describing Sybil’s theatre manager as a “hideous Jew”, a “horrid old Jew”, and “oily”. Wilde wrote the novel 25 years after Charles Dickens felt appropriately disgusted with his own antisemitism in Oliver Twist (1835) to make amends with the heroic Jewish character of Riah in Our Mutual Friend (1865). Is the throwback racism in Dorian Gray the character’s, or Wilde’s? Well… That’s probably for another blog altogether.

Let us never speak of this again.

I would say that our Gray, the Gray who appears in Confessions, is a changed man. For one thing, he isn’t dead. (We’ve taken some liberties with the source.) Hopefully, he’s a little more sympathetic than Wilde’s smug, misogynistic racist, without having been transformed into too much of a goody two-shoes. We’ve been very lucky in landing the very talented (and very handsome) Alexander Vlahos as Dorian (yes, I know that with it being a series of audio plays we could have had a buck-toothed Mexican midget playing him, but it kind of helps knowing our Dorian would be equally convincing on-screen) and Gavin & Stacy and Belonging star Steffan Rhodri is a revelation as Oscar.

Future episodes, written by Scott Harrison, Gary Russell, the aforementioned Scott Handcock, and Joseph Lidster, take Dorian kicking, screaming, and gallivanting his way into the 20th Century, promising some spine-tingling adventures for our handsome hero along the way, and I for one can’t wait to hear them.




David Llewellyn is the author of six novels, most recently Ibrahim & Reenie, which you can buy here.