Cover art by Mr Ian Dalziel.


Hooked on a feeling

A friend (gracias) scored me a ticket to hear Guillermo Arriaga speak as part of the 2011 BAFTA and BFI Screenwriters' Lecture Series. The Mexican writer / director talked at length about following your heart and not a formula, ignoring the rules, not bothering with research, writing what you know, following a story without knowing how it will end and so on: music to the ears of the budding screenwriters in the audience.

Arriaga started out in partnership with a director, Alejandro González Inárritu, and compared their working relationship to that of the Coen Brothers. Since Babel the two have fallen out, acrimoniously. One got the impression that Arriaga's approach to screenwriting, with its interleaved storylines and non-sequential scenes, must have been an easier sell with a director attached. Still, a lot more fun than Robert McKee.

If I'm jaded about (hearing about) screenwriting it may be because the quality of writing for television is currently going through the roof. All I want to watch is Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Breaking Bad's creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan says he also writes without knowing where things are going, although he does admit to knowing how things will end, and surely that's a plan. Vince worked on a show called the X-Files, which was hot damn wonderful for about two-thirds of its run.

(Pic: Rolling Stone)


Some may sink but we will float

David Mamet on his (terrific) film Redbelt (2008):
Everybody's gotta take their pigs to market. You know? You can be the best chair-maker in the world, but you gotta sell the chairs. And all through history, even today, everyone's kvetching about the middleman; "That guy isn't doing anything, that guy doesn't do anything." Well, if that guy isn't doing anything, you could do it. You have a choice; you don't. Why? Because middlemen are necessary; commerce is necessary. It's not enough to just be great at your craft; one has to engage in commerce in the free market; and nobody likes the middle man because he doesn't partake of the purity of craft. But whether you're a fighter or a chair maker or an auto maker or a dry cleaner, you gotta get down to the market and get involved in commerce. And if you get involved in commerce, whether it's as a fighter or as a filmmaker, at some point you will be abused, disappointed, robbed, betrayed. Because there are such people in the world; that's just the way the world works.
Full interview here.


Honey, we ain't ever goin' home

My third novel Shirker (2000) has been pirated. I came across the torrent link when I was searching for information about one of the German editions (DTV). The novel is one of six German language titles organised alphabetically and compressed as a 53mb RAR file -- about the size of a compressed audio CD -- and so is likely to be one of many published books someone has made available on the internet for free.

Shirker was published internationally and in several non-English editions -- French, German, Italian -- but never as an ebook. The pirated version is a non-flowing-text PDF which would be a chore to convert into MOBI or EPUB format but not impossible. You could also print it out, although the cost of ink and paper would be comparable to the printed book and heavier to carry.

Like the weather, new technology rolls in whether it's welcome or not. A revised edition of my first novel Pack of Lies (1993) has just been published on Kindle (you can find it here); there are plans to put out ebook versions of Heaven and The Man Who Wasn't Feeling Himself as well. In the meantime someone has left a battered version of Shirker on the digital park bench: anyone can pick it up.


Is the internet killing rhetorical questions?

I feel sometimes that it is. This question may have been asked before but if I Googled it first then I wouldn't be asking it, and it wouldn't be rhetorical. Few people understand quantum physics but everyone understands this paradox. More people would understand quantum physics if they looked it up. It's all online.

My grandfather was fond of saying, everything you need to know is in the library, waiting for you to go find it. The difference is that one's interaction with a book is to read it and learn from the experience. Sure, some scribble in the margins. Others steal the books themselves. But to critique a text line-by-line or to hammer out a lengthy rebuttal would be crazy territory. Only serial killers and Joe Orton did that. Although Orton's boyfriend killed him. I'm sketchy on the facts – I saw the film but did not consult Wikipedia before writing that line.

I have a theory that the web is making fact-checkers of us all. Facts are important except when it comes to fiction or art or music or dance or whatever, when one needs to work without a net. And fly. Not think defensively: not snipe. You can't move forward if you're watching your back.

I'm doing a lot of research and the research is good: it's full of facts that I'm nailing down like loose floorboards. All the better to coast across when I come to the real writing. At which point I don't want to hear comments, feedback, comeback, chatter, other people's voices -- unless they're singing, and even then only maybe.

I miss unanswered questions and puzzled looks and mystery. There's less of it now the world is at our fingertips. You can leave a book on the shelf, which vexes publishing as an industry, but as an art form, this is invaluable. Books are bottled knowledge, waiting to be uncorked; the internet's a whine-seller.


Re-make / Re-model: Pack of Lies (1993) now on Kindle

My first published novel Pack of Lies (1993) has been reissued on Kindle and is out now.

Perhaps appropriately, Pack of Lies has always been hard to find. The courier lost the printer's typescript, the edition appeared late and mainstream booksellers resisted the format. Unity Books stocked it and everyone else got theirs from the library. I often see copies of the first edition floating around on TradeMe for a few dollars; international readers can buy a secondhand copy on Amazon UK for £19.76 + £2.80 delivery, a price that would seem less outrageous if I was getting a cut.

So it's a rare bird, this 35,000 word tale told by the lying and unreliable teenage Catrina. My expectations for the new version are set low. As with the individual stories, the goal of this digitisation is about making the work available to readers, and having a bit of fun. I always thought when the technology came along it would be great to add a soundtrack or something; now digital's here, all I care about are the words. They work by themselves.

The Kindle edition of Pack of Lies has been revised, particularly in the opening chapters. I hadn't planned to touch it but as I was formatting the text some things just nagged. The revision process was instinctive. I was editing in plain text (for HTML) and found myself skimming the prose in the same way I'd read a site or text on my laptop screen. On digital a change is a keystroke away.

Writers write and read off their computers all the time so why then do so many of us cling to the idea of a paper book? Directors edit in a digital suite to create a projected film. Musicians press digital samples to vinyl. When David Hockney exhibited 'A Bigger Splash' he had gallery technicians aim a spotlight directly at the splash to supplement the painted effect. Artists play in the gaps between media.

As noted previously my work's not on Smashwords due to a shortage of time and patience. Like I said, Pack of Lies was always hard to find...


Do your thing

In a sure-to-be-discussed-everywhere article Kim Wright asks why so many literary writers are shifting to genre:
The good ship Literary Fiction has run aground and the survivors are frantically paddling toward the islands of genre. Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but there does seem to be a definite trend of literary/mainstream writers turning to romance, thrillers, fantasy, mystery, and YA.
The evidence may not be empirical but this does seem to be a trend. If it is I would answer the question by saying that literary authors were always writing in a genre in the first place. John Birmingham and I stumbled towards saying this at the Sydney Writers' Festival in 2003:
"Big L" literature, as they describe it [says John Birmingham] no longer connects to the real world. It's left to "small L" literature writers, the journalists, crime writers and drug scribes, to get their fingers dirty and get the meaty stories out there." 
"I really love literature, you need it like you need vegetables," said Taylor. "But it's become this timid thing."
Strolling around a big bookstore (because I find less in them to stop and read, let alone buy) this timidity becomes apparent. From subject to tone to style to title and packaging, "literature" follows as many rules as "romance" or "historical."

David Mamet spotted the "trend" in 2000:
For the past 30 years the greatest novelists writing in English have been genre writers: John le Carré, George Higgins and Patrick O'Brian. 
Each year, of course, found the press discovering some writer whose style, provenance and choice of theme it found endearing. These usually trig, slim tomes shared a wistful and self-commendatory confusion at the multiplicity of life and stank of Art. But the genre writers wrote without sentimentality; their prose was concise and perceptive; in it the reader sees the life of which they wrote, rather than the writer's "technique."
O'Brian wrote the Master and Commander novels, of which Our Mr Reynolds was a great fan. He was always pressing them on me. I didn't like them so much but we found common ground in Le Carré – the early ones, at least.

Maybe lit's still good. There's crap in the genre shelves as well. The Clean said it best: Great Sounds Great, Good Sounds Good, So-So Sounds So-So, Bad Sounds Bad, Rotten Sounds Rotten.