Writing: work, rest, and fun.

One of the (many) benefits of operating in an online world is that you leave a record of your opinions, attitudes, beliefs and all the other stuff that you’ve felt over the years. For someone who’s as bad at keeping records as I am, that’s invaluable. (There are plenty of disadvantages to being online, too, of course, but that’s for another blog.)

For example, it was reassuring, when I came across an interview I did 10 years ago, to find that my thoughts about writing haven’t changed a bit since then. I’m not claiming they’re profound or unique, just that they’re consistent, and I do seem to believe in them.

I noted, for instance, that writing was (is) a compulsion. I love spending time with my family, watching sport or good films on TV, wood carving, sailing, growing stuff, and doing all sorts of other social things, but writing is also part of work and rest and fun for me. As well as creating fictions, it helps to articulate things I might sense without really understanding. Putting feelings, beliefs (or lack of beliefs) into words gives them clarity, substance. That’s never felt like a chore.

And my approach to it hasn’t varied since the earliest days. When I start a project – big or small – I know overall where I want to be heading. There’s an issue I want to address, a character I want to explore, an anger I want to externalize, a remark I want someone to make – all sorts of things provide a starting point. So I have a notion of what the tone of the writing will be and maybe of some major turning point I intend to reach.

But then, as the fiction begins to build, it’s the characters who take over to a fairly large extent. They lead the narrative in directions which often surprise me. They add details I hadn’t suspected were there and, in the process, they force me to adapt my original intention.

It’s still the same basic drive and the purpose remains relatively unchanged, but the way in which I convey it is coloured by what my characters allow me to do. When it comes to rewriting, I correct some of the wilder fancies they’ve had and bring them back within the scope of the book but the process from conception to delivery (sorry to use a gynaecological image but, as a man, it’s the closest I ever get to having a baby) is organic, unstable.

However long the novel, until the final version is delivered to the publisher or uploaded to Kindle or IngramSpark, all it has is potential.  If I started with a rigid notion of its shape, I’d be inhibiting that.

In fact, the only time I did that was with a radio play. I was very keen to maintain a specific set of images, so I made the characters do exactly what was necessary to achieve that. After the broadcast, a well-known critic reviewed the play in a respectable journal. His review began ‘This is a tiresome play about tiresome people.’ He was right.

Earning thousands of pounds for my scribbling would be nice, appreciative reviews and comments from readers are very satisfying, but the truly constant pleasure is the absorption I get in the process itself. I get lost in it, and yet all I seem to be is a witness to things said and done by a bunch of people who don’t really exist until a reader lets them.

Beats ‘reality’ any day.

Art and reality

I once wrote a blog about theatre being a collaborative process. Of course it is, that’s obvious. But I want to take the idea of collaboration a little further. I said then that I thought the director had much more power in movies or TV plays than in the theatre and, consequently, the writer’s role was overshadowed. But there’s so much more to it than that.

In a chapter of a book about writing which I co-wrote with Kathleen McMillan, we drew a parallel between editing film and editing text. The relevant passage runs as follows:

‘It’s like the process of editing film or video; a scene is shot from various angles, favouring different perspectives, emphasizing different aspects of what’s happening but, in the edit suite, the material is reviewed, selections are made and then spliced together to create a fluid ‘real’ representation of events. The editor creates a ‘reality’ on the screen which never actually happened as a single episode. As a writer, you want to create the same sense of flow, blend selected pieces of the information you’ve collected into a single, coherent sequence, create your own, unique written ‘reality’.’

If you’ve never been involved in making a movie, this totally artificial ‘reality’ it creates is puzzling. On the screen you see, for example, a woman reach for her scarf and have difficulty tying it round her neck because she’s so angry with her partner. She’s shouting at him and tells him that he must either spend more time with her or she’ll leave him.

Then she grabs her car keys from the table and goes out, slamming the door behind her. There are probably cutaway shots of the partner, attempts at bits of dialogue from him. There may also be some other element – visual or aural – that’s in the scene to symbolise something or maybe hint at a shared memory or a harbinger of something sinister waiting to happen.

The important thing in connection with the point I’m making here is that what you see as a single sequence never happened, so the reality it’s offering is a lie. Having to set the camera up in different places to highlight the different characters and objects involved takes several minutes, even days – but the editor cuts it together and what we see is a seamless scene lasting maybe 20 seconds.

But then, we’re judging its reality by the way it mirrors what we see around us – people slamming doors, having a row, fumbling with items of clothing. It’s just a straightforward picture of it. And yet it’s not, because the editor and director will have cut the scene to suit their purposes.

Maybe they want you to dislike the woman, or maybe they suggest that the argument she’s having is simply a cover for something else, or perhaps the two characters are being manipulated by someone or something outside their awareness. And so, as we watch, we’re being manipulated too; our judgement is being deliberately compromised so we become accomplices of the director …

… just as our readers become our accomplices when it comes to the written word, because this process of creating a seeming ‘reality’ out of disparate incidents and actions is even stranger in prose fiction. Let’s just take one example from the scene I’ve been describing. We’ll make it as basic as possible and write:

‘Samantha grabbed her scarf and walked to the door.’

OK, so how many actions does she perform? Two, you cry – ‘grab’ and ‘walk’. But wait, didn’t she maybe look at the scarf? Reach towards it? OK, four then.

But she must have opened and closed her fingers too, so six. And the more you break the sequence down, the more the actions multiply. So much so that, in the end, the simple act of reaching for the scarf requires an infinite number of steps as neurons fire in the brain, amino acids do what they need to do to provide the fuel which energises the muscles, the lungs take in oxygen, the heart pumps the blood to where it’s needed, nerve endings relay messages that contact has been made with the material, etc., etc.

In other words, what we describe and perceive as one fluid, meaningful action consists of millions of sub-routines without which the whole edifice crumbles.

But such detailed analysis would be unreadable and is, obviously, unnecessary – because we collaborate with the writer. We’re grateful to him/her for breaking infinite complexity down into a couple of distinct, apprehendable movements.

But, again, we’re being manipulated because not only does the writer reduce the action count, he/she chooses the words to convey them. If I write ‘water’ you might think of oceans, a tap (or faucet), a bath, a kettle, a cup of tea, a pond, a river, a shower. But the more I qualify it, the more I restrict the interpretations available to you – ‘running water’, ‘hot running water’, ‘a bloodstained copper tube from which hot running water spewed into the stagnant, viscous residues at the bottom of the pit’. Hmm, so bang goes your cup of tea.

Art is artifice and yet it produces realities far more profound and affecting than most of those around us. As I keep saying to myself and repeating to anyone who reads my blogs, it’s a joy to be doing something that lets us pretend there are meanings and significance somewhere and even to create our own. Isn’t it great that, out of scraps of experience which we’ve woven together in our little room, we can make someone in Brazil, Australia, Canada or anywhere feel an actual emotion? Once again, it’s that mystical, intimate, one to one connection that’s so fundamental to the reader/writer dialogue. It’s the reality of fiction.

Alternative Dimension Chapter 10


I made what I thought was a relatively harmless reposting (on Facebook) of a comment I originally made there about a minor character in the only novella I’ve written so far. It provoked some nice responses but then, unaccountably, the whole thread vanished. So, as a reward, (or maybe punishment) I’ve decided to publish the entire chapter as a blog. It’s chapter 10 of Alternative Dimension. The story describes how Joe Lorimer invented the role-playing game of the title, (called ‘AD’ by its players), then visited it in the forms of a couple of avatars: Red – its all-knowing creator; and Ross – a ‘normal’ role-player. This chapter records one of Ross’s adventures. It’s called Descartes and the Rabbit. First, though, one word needs explaining: the ‘FUCCers’ are members of a community Joe met with in a previous chapter: its name was the Faith Under Control Community.

The trauma of losing control of Red stayed with Joe. The absurdity of assuming anyone could link abstractions, thinking, or freedom with some form of concrete realisation of them was obvious. On the other hand, by creating AD, he’d done something very close to that. Joe remained a romantic, unwilling to reject the possibility of transcendence. And yet Red’s exploitation of the gullibility of the FUCCers and the ease with which he’d turned their spiritual yearnings into a crazy articulation of flailing legs stressed the vast distances there were between the world of pixels and that of people. Nonetheless, Joe’s pursuit of the elusive synthesis continued and, on more than one occasion, he felt certain he’d found it. That time, for example, when he sent Ross to the underwater caves off the coast of Chile.

Ross was talking about Descartes. That wasn’t unusual, it was the sort of pretentious stuff Joe had found himself doing more and more in AD. This time, though, it was slightly different. He was talking to a purple rabbit. Quite a tall one. Again, there’s nothing remarkable about that, not in AD. But this was one of those furry things that disconcerted him. She had the Bugs Bunny face and ears, but a near perfect figure: 36D breasts (he was pretty confident the size was right; he’d become an expert on avatars), slim waist, and a ‘two synchronised ferrets in a sack’ butt. He was getting enthusiastic about the ‘cogito’ bit of the Descartes and a bit concerned that, by the time he got to the ‘sum’ bit, his gesticulating hands might inadvertently clutch a furry lump of mammary gland and, in the process, undermine his whole thesis.

They were standing on the pebbles of an underwater cave. Breathing without difficulty as the tropical fish swam around them and two couples from Denmark and Holland got more and more enthusiastic about the sets of action hooks strewn among the rocks there.
The rabbit seemed unaware of them.

‘It’s the “I” in “I think” that’s the problem,’ she said.
Joe knew that. Everybody knows that. But this was a pedantic rabbit. She needed to spell everything out. Joe decided to try to disorientate her.

‘Kant,’ he said.

Her hesitation was brief.

‘Not only the name of the writer of the Critique of Pure Reason’, she said. ‘An apt description of its hypothesis, too. And,’ she added, ‘just a vowel away from encapsulating the man himself.’

One of the Danes stood up, a blonde, bronzed individual with ludicrous shoulders. A line of (Danish) chat splashed across the screen, followed by ‘lol’. Joe thought it was probably a Danish joke about sex.

A dachshund appeared from behind a clump of seaweed.
‘Nice put-down, Doris,’ it said to the rabbit.

That puzzled Joe. Her name tag identified her as Drindle Pinkneery.

‘Doris?’ said Ross.
‘Yes?’ said the rabbit.
‘No, I mean – why did he call you Doris?’
‘LOL. That’s my real name. Dennis is my husband.’
‘Dennis?’ said Ross.
‘Yes?’ said the dachshund.

The Dane settled back into the action hook athletics. Joe looked at Ross. Young, dark hair, good looking. Not for the first time, the experience of virtuality disorientated him. He was, after all, a highly respected IT designer, with his own major company and millions in the bank. Why was he here on the sea bed talking about the nature of existence with a purple rabbit and a dachshund? He sighed; it was a question he seemed to be asking himself almost daily.

‘Wet here,’ said Dennis.
‘It’s symbolic,’ said Doris.
‘Of what?’ asked Ross, immediately regretting prolonging his stay with them.

‘All sorts of things,’ she went on. ‘The womb, lubrication, rain.’
‘Wetness isn’t a symbol of rain,’ said Ross. ‘It’s a characteristic of it.’
‘Alright, just the womb then,’ said Doris.

‘Dominicans,’ said Dennis.
‘What?’ said Ross. (Joe was beginning to feel as if he was being subjected to some sort of brainwashing.)
‘Founded in 1214,’ said Dennis. ‘Preached the gospel, fought against heresy. Great intellectual tradition, bags of philosophers.’
‘And the connection with the womb? Or wetness?’ said Joe, trying to make the words look sarcastic on the screen.
‘Ah,’ said Dennis, tapping the side of his nose with a paw.

Doris laughed.
‘Dennis,’ she said, ‘stop teasing him.’
‘Well, he should have realised by now,’ said Dennis.
‘Realised what?’ said Ross/Joe.
‘You think, therefore you are,’ he said.
‘So?’
‘Who are you?’
‘Ross Magee. Check the name tag.’

Dennis shook his head. Briefly, Joe admired the animation. So realistic. He allowed himself a small grin of pride.
‘That’s just a tag,’ said Dennis. ‘I asked who you “are” – from “to be”. What’s your essence?’
‘What’s yours?’ replied Ross.
‘I have none. I’m a dachshund,’ said Dennis.

Joe thought that, for a dachshund, he was a smug bastard.

Suddenly, Ross was being hugged by Doris. Her furry arms were around him, her huge hairy breasts were crushing into his rib cage.
‘Let’s get back to wetness,’ she said.
Joe was taken by surprise.
‘Only if you take your head off,’ said Ross, as Joe warmed to the idea of the breasts, convincing himself that Ross wasn’t feeling rabbit mammaries against his chest, but a thick woollen bikini top.
‘But that’s where my cogito happens,’ said the rabbit. ‘Without my head, I don’t exist, can’t exist. Without that, no wetness.’

Suddenly, it hit Joe. She was right. This tall, purple rabbit was right. Here was Ross, sharing (on Joe’s behalf) a womb with two Danes, a Dutch couple, a rabbit and a dachshund. They were all breathing under water. Impossible elements. Chaos, mayhem. All held together by the power of thinking, the willingness to believe that we can live our dreams.

In his study back home, Joe spun round in his chair and looked out over Hampstead Heath. The Cartesian duality was a myth. The Frenchman said the body was a machine but the soul couldn’t be defined by the laws of physics and yet the two acted on one another. Well, here and now, if Ross played his cards right (and somehow got rid of the dachshund), he could make this rabbit pregnant. Descartes didn’t think of that when he was writing his Discourse on the Method. Joe was back in control.