The Writer’s Quest, Part 1: Find Yourself

I’ve been mulling about the Robert Jackson Bennett post about How to Write a Story over on the Orbit website. It’s a funny, brief and utterly brilliant little essay.  And it’s makes me feel a warm glow of anticipation about this guy – I haven’t yet read Robert’s debut novel Mr Shivers, but this blog alone marks him out as a talent to watch. 

Tattoos! Who’d have thought it?

It’s focused my thoughts on a feature I’d like to start running on this blog – about the art and craft of writing, both for the screen and the printed page.   I’ve been lucky enough to spend a large part of my life working with other writers, as a script editor and teacher of screenwriting.  I’ve read the books, most of ‘em, I’ve worked with some great talents like Murray Smith and Geoff Deane, and I’ve generally hung around with people who know what they’re talking about.   And I can recommend a few sites and resources for those who want to learn more about writing and screenwriting – Danny Stack’s blog for instance, or the Writers Store Zine (email ezine8@writersstore.com to subscribe),  or the Wordplay site run by the guys who wrote Pirates of the Caribbean. Indeed, there’s a whole flourishing subset of the blogosphere called the scribosphere, a phrase allegedly coined in the course of this blog thread.

 And to kick things off, over the space of four long-ish blogs, I have some ideas which I would recommend to new writers:

Find yourself.

Find your story.

Find your structure.

Find your audience.

Most books about writing deal entirely with point number 3) – structure.  And as far as screenwriting is concerned, there are books that tell you all you will ever need to know about act structure, turning points, mid points, inciting incidents, negating the negation and going to the end of the road.  Many of these books are quite good – but they never give the whole story about the craft of telling stories.

Writing,  as  we all know,  is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration – but perspiration is easy. Any fool can sweat buckets. And the sheer dogged discipline of sitting down at a computer and typing out words, and revising them, and revising them again – well it can be fairly hard work. but it sure beats commuting for a living.

But the 1% – that’s infinitely harder.

One of the first jobs I ever had, in my early 20s - soon after leaving my plum job as a lavatory attendant at London Zoo (er…) – was as literary manager of the Royal Court Theatre, which was then and still is one of the pre-eminent new writing theatres in the world.  And that’s where I learned about Finding Yourself.

I learned it mostly from meeting other writers. I read an astonishing script by a writer called Nick Darke which was set in Cornwall, in rich idiomatic Cornish dialogue, and it brimmed with humour and life-force. Then I met the writer and – damn it all  he was brimming with humour and life-force and was born and bred in Cornwall. Nick was the first and best hyphenate I ever met - he wasn’t just a writer, he was a writer-lobsterfisherman.  And the extraordinary quality in his scripts was an extraordinary quality in him. 

Many writers are less extrovert and less extraordinary than Nick was – in fact, I  doubt there’s ever been anyone quite like him.  But all writers have a special quality inside them – over and above their talent -  and it’s what emerges in their work.  David Hare has an extraordinary attentiveness, he absorbs from those around him, and you can see it in his plays.  Hanif Kureishi is seductive and charming – and his work seduces, and charms.  Caryl Churchill is quietly brilliant and, like a Marvel superheroine, absorbs the best from those around her and creates something even better.

Shy Writers who wouldn’t say Boo to a commissioning editor will – if they have talent – also have a secret power of some kind, a special quality that defines and makes unique their work.  And that’s what makes the work sing.

Of course, there are quality-less hacks with no talent who still manage to get commissions – but that’s a separate argument.

And, of course, talent and ‘specialness’ are no damned use unless you have a great story and know how to tell it.   But that’s the 99% bit, which I’ll talk about another day.

As part of my job at the Court I ran a series of writers group workshop, inspired by the ideas of former Court Literary Manager Keith Johnstone about improvisation and mask work  – his book Impro was our starting point.

And I learned in these workshops a huge amount about creativity, and how to tap into it.  We had an exercise called the Five Minute Play which basically meant picking a title out of a hat and writing a play, there and then.  There was nowhere to hide; you couldn’t do the hoovering to avoid writing; it just had to come. 

Then, the perspiration work, we worked on the plays, we got actors in to perform them and improvise around them, and we even did a performance of these short plays on the main stage of the Royal Court. 

Some years later, however, I was hoist by my own petard.  In all the Royal Court workshops, the writers did the work, I was just the facilitator.  But then I took part in a writers group run by a company called Paines Plough; and in the final session, we had a ‘lockdown’ in which we weren’t allowed to leave the building until we’d completed a stage play. 

Space was at a premium, so I was forced to write my play on the roof of the building, overlooking the London boulevard the Aldwych, with pigeons flocking above the fire escape and dancing in air near the pigeon nets. And so I wrote a ghost story set on the roof of an office block, with pigeons dancing overhead and a pigeon net, and a fire escape which features prominently in the story. The play was called Gin and Rum, and after the Paines Plough readthrough it was optioned and produced by BBC Radio Drama. The script evolved a little bit but the final version was pretty much what I wrote in a day on the roof, and it’s one of the pieces I’m proudest of.

And because of that experience, and my Royal Court experiences, I do tend to have scant patience with writing gurus who obsess about inciting incidents and mid-points. Yes, I do use these concepts as a screenwriter; and yes you do need to know them  But the hard work of building up a story is the easy bit; it’s the easy bit that’s hard.

It’s Finding Yourself, as a writer,  that’s hard.

Because, of course, you can’t ‘find yourself’ by looking.  That’s the worst thing you can do! Instead, you have to immerse yourself in the kind of stories you love, and immerse yourself in life, and try and fail a while, until the note sings pure.

And when you Find Yourself, you’re not engaged in some namby-pamby spiritual quest.  Your objective is pragmatic, and hard-headed; you’re finding a Voice. A tone, a note, a style, an approach, that is exclusively and undeniably You.

It’s the Writer’s Quest, it is a great and noble thing, and it has three stages:

Find yourself as a writer.

Sell your writing.

Live off the interest.

But sometimes, writers who’ve found themselves manage to lose themselves again, and start writing dross.  This can be a) because they neglect the vital 99% – writing really is a job, or b) because they just forget what it is that makes them Them.

I’ve mentioned this before – and I hate to bang on about it - but though Stephen King is one of my favourite writers ever (along with Dickens, Willkie Collins, Margery Allingham and Larry Niven) I really really HATE Wizard and Glass, which is Book 4  of The Dark Tower.  I hate it not because it’s terrible (it’s actually much better than The Waste Lands, which is Volume III).  I hate it because it no longer sounds like Stephen King.  His tone is missing, his personality is missing, the indefinable ‘yarning away the day’ feel is missing. 

Here, for me, is the real Stephen King:

Almost everyone thought the man and the boy were father and son.

      They crossed the country on a rambling southwest line in an old Citroen sedan, keeping mostly to secondary roads, traveling in fits and starts. 

This is the opening of ‘Salem’s Lot. It’ s not first person narration,which King uses often elsewhere, but it feels like it is. It feels like a guy is leaning on a fence post, looking us dead in the eye, and drawling out a yarn.  ‘Folks around here, we all reckoned they were…’ –  it’s that kind of tone.

And when King’s books have that tone – whether first person or third person -  they are unsurpassable.  The Gunslinger, Book 1 of The Dark Tower, has a very different style to King’s other books – but it’s the same Voice.  Direct, focused, looking you in the eye:

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

     The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what looked like all eternity in all directions.  It was white and blinding and waterless and without feature save for the faint, cloudy haze of the mountains which sketched themselves on the horizon and the devil-grass which brought sweet dreams, nightmares, death.

This is by no means “typical” Stephen King prose.  It’s heightened, poetic indeed, and doesn’t have the no-nonsense, ‘yarn told by a man sitting on his front stoop’ casualness we associate with his books.  It’s not purple prose because the words are exceedingly well judged and the cadences are hypnotic (‘all eternity in all directions’….’white and blinding and waterless and without feature’…’sweet dreams, nightmares, death’.)  But the first line is pure King – brief and tantalising and as perfect as faintly-faded denim.  And the rhythm is the same as the ‘Salem’s Lot opening lines – a one sentence first line to catch the reader’s lip in the hook, a longer second para to reel the reader in. 

This shows that like most writers, King has several styles – he is not and never has been a one-trick palomino.  He can do conversational first person idiomatic; he can do third person poetic.  But there’s a common quality to both books, to all the really good King books; it’s his attitude to the reader.  King will always “We” the reader. He doesn’t push us away – he invites us in.

In The Gunslinger – a bleak and seemingly immoral tale of a gunslinger who murders and massacres scores of people – he still manages to invite us in. His tone is not You, it’s We.  He does it through his casualness of tone  (‘He passed the miles stolidly, not hurrying, not loafing’.)  He does it through a folksy, homespun quality to his narration and some of his dialogue – his ‘folks like us’ quality.  And he does it through occasional strokes of writerly genius that compel us to share the story, not merely witness it.  In this book, it comes when the Gunslinger (aka Roland) is told the tale of the woman Allie, who is brought back from death by the Man in Black.  And Allie is told that if she wants to know the secret of DEATH, she merely has to say to her husband a single word: the word Nineteen. If she does, he will tell her the truth about Death, and she will go mad; so she knows she must never do it. She must never say the word NINETEEN.

Try it. Try it now. Try not thinking the word NINETEEN.  Close your eyes, and don’t think it, now.

Agonising isn’t it?

That’s what I call genius; and the trick he plays there is the hallmark of how King tells story.  He makes us complicit.

Isaac Asimov, by contrast – still one of my favourite authors after all these years – uses a different trick. He ‘I’s the audience.  Not so much in his actual fiction, which is efficiently and almost dispassionately written, but in his forewords and afterwords and all the science essays in which his huge great ego beguiles us.  Asimov’s personality was as great as his talent; who could not savour it?

At a dinner table, you can bet, King will tell some yarns, but he’ll listen even more. Whereas Isaac will monopolise the conversation, and everyone will love it.  Their writing style and writing identity is defined by who they are; and they know it. Writers are guileful; they know the tricks they pull. Once they have “found themselves”, they delight in revealing themselves to the reader with all the innocence and naivety of Gipsy Rose Lee.

Style, voice, favourite storytelling tricks and techniques, favourite kinds of story, dominant themes – these are all hallmarks of a writer, and constitute the gestalt  that define that writer.  It’s a lot of stuff to know, and it can take years to “find” it - or it can happen very easily very fast.  It’s like dancing. Some people, damn it all, can just do it.

And so there’s a process, which you can often see very vividly when  you’re following a writer’s career, when it all “falls into place”.   And suddenly you know who that writer is, and they know too.  The TV writer Paul Abbott began his career as Jimmy McGovern’s producer, and his early work had the shadow of McGovern all over it. But by the time he wrote the series Clocking Off, Abbott was a truly original talent. You can nowadays count on the fingers of all the people on a busy Tube train the writers who copy him; but Abbott himself is a true original. 

In similar fashion, Neil Gaiman – one of my favourite writers ever – wrote very early in his career a book about Douglas Adams called Don’t Panic.  And in his early novels, in my view,  you can feel in his prose that influence, those Douglas Adams moments and Adams-ish whimsicality of tone, peeking through.

But then Gaiman wrote more, and more – his range was  broader – his control of technique was so extraordinary – his imagination was and is so vast – that it’s preposterous to think of him as under the shadow of anyone.  He exists in a tradition of English comic writing – but he also and equally exists in the tradition of Marvel comics – and he has embraced the land and history of myth and made it his own.  Gaiman is a unique talent; but it didn’t happen overnight. He grew unique. 

And, intriguingly, my favourite of Gaiman’s books is American Gods, which is the only Gaiman I’ve read (apart perhaps from the glorious avant-garde Signal to Noise) that doesn’t feel  like Gaiman.

Maybe I’m imagining that; so let’s compare and contrast. Here’s the Gaiman of The Graveyard Book:

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.

And here’s the Gaiman of Neverwhere:

‘No, please. Stay just where you are,’ said Mr Croup. ‘We like you like that. And we don’t want to have to hurt you.’

      ‘We do,’ said Mr Vandemar.

      ‘Well yes, Mister Vandemar, once you put it like that. We want to hurt you both.’

And here’s the Gaiman of American Gods:

Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough, and looked don’t-fuck-with-me-enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought about how much he loved his wife.

Those are tiny excerpts of course, but for me there is a tiny but significant difference in tone between the first two, and the third extract. The man with the knife – the man called Jack – in The  Graveyard Book is scary and evil and murderous – but not really! Despite the explicit menace of the words, this is a fairy-tale tone, a make-believe tone, as befits a book that is read by children as well as adults.  And Neverwhere – not a kids book surely? – has that same lightness. Mr Vandemar and Mr Croup are evil assassins – but not really!  It’s just make-believe. They are comic villains, not real villains.

But as for Shadow – the hero of American Gods – yes, really.  He’s the hero not the villain but he’s scary. You do not fuck with this man. The menace is palpable, and isn’t in inverted commas.  This is a deadly serious book, which takes us dark into the evil heart of America, and whose subject and subtext is myth  (there’s a con artist called Wednesday – if I say “Don Blake”, you’ll guess the twist.) 

The genius of Gaiman is that he found himself early, and never lost himself. I don’t think I’ve ever read a bad Neil Gaiman, or indeed heard a bad thing said against him as a human being.  And that shines through in his works; humanity distinguishes them.

Of course many great writers have been arrogant shits - Proust, for instance, or T.S. Eliot.  But “great” writers aren’t always the ones we turn to when we want a story to savour; so writers with humanity can sometimes, I’m pleased to say, win the day.

In life, Finding Yourself is a process of epiphany and self-discovery; in writing, it’s more pragmatic. Trial and Error is therefore very important.  You may be a very funny person, great at telling jokes; but if your comic fiction is a yawn, you haven’t found your writing self.  Sour people can write funny scripts; funny people can write terrifying scripts. 

So as a writer you find out who you are through what other people tell you.   Hence, Woody Allen can’t do Bergmanesque tragedies, though he yearns to do so. (But he can do “Woodyesque” tragedies, like his great movie Crimes and Misdemeanours which is drama not comedy, but has the same tone and similar verbal riffs as the comedies. It’s in his range; Woody can reach those notes.)

Writers are arrogant buggers though (I know, I am one.) None of us like to think we are limited; none of us want to be pigeonholed.  But though it’s possible for a writer to range from genre to genre, and to change styles sometimes radically, there’s still that core of “rightness” you have to find. If you miss, you make Interiors, or you write Wizard and Glass.  But if you hit the mark, you  write His Dark Materials, or American Gods. You write the thing that’s like nothing you’ve done before, but is still truly “You”.

None of this is abstract  theorising; it’s the day to day practical basis of trying to be, and then being, a writer.  You hunt  for the magic. You create circumstances that force you to be spontaneous.  You write stuff that isn’t good for as long as it takes until you learn how to write stuff that is good. 

A piece of writing, essentially, is the progeny of mad passionate sex between the writer and the story. And if a different writer tackles that exact  same story, the DNA of the offspring will be different.

Or  to put it another way: the magic is the product of the magician and the spell.

So you have to be smart about who you are and what you are best at doing,  in order to control the magic. Because the 99% perspiration has to be in the cause of a story worth telling, which you can  best tell.

And tattoos – well, they certainly help.

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