|One of my slush piles|
As a teenager, I wrote poetry – truly awful stuff about love, broken hearts, lust and all that time-wasting but so painfully-felt angst. But my first real genre, when I began to realise that writing was what I wanted to do, was drama. I wrote stage plays for adults and children. My first real taste of ‘being a writer’, though, was when the BBC accepted one of my radio plays. They broadcast several more, mostly serious, dramatic stuff, but some comedy too and finally, skits and songs for revues.
Those days, I was praised for my dialogue so it was a surprise when I started to write novels to find that the characters in them sometimes sounded less natural and realistic than those in my plays. I think writing long prose works sets up different rhythms in your mind as you write and they get carried into the dialogue, so you have to read it aloud and rewrite it to get the proper rhythmic balance.
I’m talking about different forms rather than different genres, but I think it’s relevant. I suspect (although it's just a guess), that most of us start out just writing, rather than writing ‘crime’ or ‘romance’ or whatever. When we do fall into a particular genre – in my case, crime – that becomes what we’re expected to produce. But if readers are allowed to have short attention spans, why can't we? By that I mean that the prospect of churning out book after book, each featuring the same characters in more or less the same places, is challenging in one way but claustrophobic in another. Exploring fresh ground, shifting into different centuries, past and yet to come, bending realities and multiplying dimensions, they’re all ways of releasing and refreshing your writing.
With the need to engage in energetic marketing nowadays, I realise that writing novels which may be very different from one another in terms of genre could be frustrating for readers. My novel The Darkness is a police procedural as dark as its title which questions ideas of bad and good. Any reader who thinks ‘I enjoyed that, so I’ll try The Sparrow Conundrum’, will probably be a bit confused to find it’s a satirical spoof of the crime/spy genres whose sole aim is to make them laugh. So they say ‘OK, I’ll give this guy one last try’ and they read The Figurehead and find they’re in the company of shipbuilding people in Aberdeen in 1840 and that a novel that starts with a corpse on a beach ends up with the mystery being solved but with a strong romance developing at the same time.
Oh, and if they then decide to read their kids a bedtime story, choose one about a miserable fairy called Stanley who lives under a dripping tap in a bedroom, then find out it’s by the same bloke who wrote the others, they may wonder which asylum I finished up in. More importantly, they probably won’t trust me to satisfy their writing needs because I ‘lack consistency’. (Mind you, that’s still preferable to being so bad at the business that a recent Amazon reviewer of my Rough Justice wrote that she 'was so punch drunk by the poor writing, [she] lost track of whether or not the story was any good. By then [she] had lost the will to live.’)
The point is that, for me, there’s no difference writing any of these books or, for that matter, the
dialogue between Joseph and Mary when she tells him she’s been visited by
an angel and she’s pregnant. If the subject’s interesting, amusing, compelling or whatever, it absorbs me. The
characters dictate the sort of things that happen; they have their own voices,
their own ambitions and flaws. So whether they’re in Victorian Scotland, a
contemporary police station, a space colony or sitting under a dripping tap;
whether they’re murderers, lovers, saints, fairies or Klingons, they force
their way into your head and you have to deal with them on their terms.
|My deathless prose|
Writing is like acting – if you want the audience to suspend their disbelief, you have to do the same, you have to commit to the reality of the play you’re performing, the story you’re writing. I feel as intensely in the scene when I’m describing the antics of
Stanley as when I’m watching John Grant carve
his figurehead or my detective work his way through external clues and internal
devils, or, for that matter when I was Joseph, Tarzan, Winnie-the-Pooh and others and my wife was Mary, a statue on the west facade of Notre Dame, Lady Macbeth and others every night for a week on the Edinburgh Fringe back in the 70s. It makes life very exciting.