What’s it all about, Alfie?

Alfie II
I’ve been musing, recently, on something you’d probably think I’d have worked out years ago, and that’s what I write about.

I’m not talking about that complex and ill-defined area of ‘theme’ that writing manuals always go on about – or, at least, not in the way that I interpret it.

Theme vs main idea.JPG

Theme is, I think, what your story is about; what’s the thread that runs through it? They often say that you don’t know until the first draft is finished. Well, Night Shift is a murder mystery set in Antarctica (and is available from at least some good bookshops) and if there’s a theme…

Well, maybe I am talking about theme after all. It’s terribly complicated and, clearly, I don’t understand it at all. But I’m here to talk about two things that I’m slowly realising are significant influences on the novel and the trilogy as a whole. One is poverty. The other is mental illness.

Let’s talk about mental illness first because it’s simpler: I didn’t realise it when I was writing the early drafts at least, but Anders Nordvelt, my protagonist, is mentally ill. Childhood trauma leading to long-lasting depression and possible borderline personality disorder or Asperger’s. To what extent he’s a proxy to me you can decide yourself.

As I said, I had no plan to do this. It’s just how he came to be written. What pleases me immensely is that the trilogy in which he stars shows a clear progression in his mental health until, by the end of the third book, we (will) see…

Hold on their, youngster – let’s keep this spoiler-free, shall we?

As I said, that’s simple. It’s a character arc, albeit an inadvertent one. The issue of poverty is harder to explore.

One of the things that interviewers are fond of asking is if I’ve been to Antarctica. My stock answer has been to say that no, I haven’t, but whilst I was writing the first draft I was working in a building that lacked heating. Ah ha ha ha, how funny and disingenuous, let’s move on quickly, right?

But now I’m realising: Antarctica is poverty.


Antarctica is a character in my novel and I’ve come to believe (not ‘realise’ because even now I’m not 100% on it) that it is based on my experiences of being poor.

Now I should say that I was never truly hungry. I always had a roof over my head. I had family to fall back on, loathe though I was to do that.

But I felt the constant pressure that poverty causes. It’s not necessarily about feeling a physical chill – not in my experience, at least – but it’s about constant stress, of worrying whether or not you can afford any luxuries at all. It’s having to carry a balance-sheet in your head at all times. It’s about being drained. Poverty is a vampire that sucks you dry and leaves a bloodless corpse in its wake.


@Mark Parisi; OffTheMark.com

And somehow these emotions became embodied within the frozen wastes. I don’t know how it happened and I don’t think it’s obvious in the novel. But that’s what it is to me as I now look back.

Antarctica, in the story, is context. It’s the matrix in which my characters operate; and even when it’s not mentioned it’s implicit within everything every character does. This, is realise now, is exactly how life was for me when I was flat broke.

Again I must say that there are a lot of people who have it a lot worse than me. This probably says as much about me as it does my economic state.

But every day was difficult. Every day was stress.

In Night Shift, when the chill of Antarctica starts to break through the walls and reach its frozen fingers into what was previously held safe, that how I felt when some unexpected expense undid all my hard-worn calculations. The retreat deeper into the bowels of the base was mirrored by my own retreat into home-life and hibernation.

Maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way. Maybe I should forget about ‘theme’; maybe instead it’s a perverted version of ‘write what you know’ (and see also here). My subconscious took an innocent story and twisted it into a nightmare of its own neuroses. And by telling you this I wonder if a) I’m putting off potential readers, or b) making everything worse.

But then, isn’t the subconscious responsible for all writing? Doesn’t it drive all our decisions, for better and for worse, and don’t we just try and justify the outcomes? I don’t know. This is all a bit too heavy for me.

So I shall sign off here, leaving only a vague sense of anxiety in my wake. Am I oversharing? Have I alienated you all forever?

I worry about these things. But I also hope. And wish you, as always, happy writing.


On theme

Theme vs main idea.JPG

I’ve been reading about writing. I don’t know why I do it. It only makes me think, and question – and no good can come that.

One thing I’ve never really got to grips with in the idea of a theme. What’s your writing really all about, when you get down to it? I’ve always constructed a story through character, setting and – perhaps especially – mood. I’ve never used an overall, over-arching ‘concept’ to keep my writing focussed.

But I’m always interested in learning and if there’s something I could use to make myself a better writer then it’s past time to bring it in.

A theme is the controlling idea of your story: a bold statement that sums up what the novel is truly about. It takes message of the final act and then qualifies it. Examples (stolen from Robert McKee’s Story):

  • ‘Justice prevails when the protagonist is more violent than the criminal’ – Dirty Harry
  • ‘Justice prevails when the protagonist is more clever than the criminal’ – the Columbo TV series
  • ‘Hatred destroys us when we fear the opposite sex’- Dangerous Liaisons

Seems simple, doesn’t it? Your big idea at the front (‘justice prevails…’) and then the qualifier that makes your work unique. Well. I don’t know about you but I’ve not found it so straightforward. I’ve got things like:

  • Chivalry: ‘States collapse when internet loyalties transcend national boundaries’
  • Night Shift: ‘Survival can only be achieved when inner unity is gained’
  • Oneiromancer: ‘Justice prevails when your heroes’ will is more than the enemy’s’

The idea is that you write the first draft, work out what the story is about, and then rewrite with this idea in the forefront of your mind: or come up with the idea first. Whichever you choose, this is supposed to help you keep your story focussed, to not get sidetracked.

But this whole thing is taken from advice to screenwriters, not novelists. Does it really help people like me? Does it not just reduce the whole thing beneath usefulness? A single sentence can’t convey the richness of a story. Maintenance of aim – yes, I can see how determining your theme would help focus the mind and stop too many side-tracks. But all my novels have multiple foci and are about more than a single sentence can carry.

Take Chivalry as an example. The theme could easily be any of the following:

  • Tragedy unfolds as a father realises just how dangerous his daughter is
  • Madness will destroy if it can’t be channelled
  • Honour can only be achieved when maturity is gained

Which is right? Could these threads be tied into a single sentence – and is it worth even trying? Do we worry about subplots?

Theme. Complex, contradictory, contrary. I’d welcome your opinions as I’m yet to be convinced that it’s worth the mental effort.

And also, just to prove that nothing is simple, I took the image above from a blog on teaching that explains that main idea and theme are, in fact two wholly different things. The theme, then, of this post? Clearly it’s one of ignorance and stupidity.

Rob out.

Can you do it better?

“Can you do it better?”

These words, spoken by my old technology teacher to a schoolchum, have always stuck with me.

The context was of someone accused of copying, of taking someone else’s idea for his own. The response was simple: ideas are uncopyable. The details – the design, the manufacture – they’re your own. But the idea is free and universal.

There’s a terrific tendency to avoid doing anything that has ‘been done before’, but the more I read and the more I write the more I realise that there is nothing new under the sun. It’s all about the way the work is done, what you – and only you – can bring to the party. And this doesn’t matter. Just because you’ve heard of Ian Fleming and John le Carre doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write a spy novel.

My current work-in-progress, Oneiromancer, is heavily influenced by a role-playing game I played over a decade ago. One of the key tasks I had to do when I began to write was to sort out my own mythos from that of the game. I’ve also tried to immerse myself in urban fantasy, the closest genre to my novel. And the more I read, the more I realise that my ‘unique’ ideas have already been done and I have nothing new to say.

But no-one’s written it like I’m doing. I have my own voice and my own preoccupations – what is, in writing terms, known as ‘theme’. You can try it if you like: rewrite your favourite novel. Just take the story and try and replicate it. I can promise you that you won’t keep on track for long. Soon the work you’re doing will become yours as you become distracted by the roads not taken, by inserting your own voice between the folds.

There is no law against stealing an idea. Words, yes – too many people have been caught out with plagiarism. But ideas are free. The only question that matters is whether you can do it better.

That’s not to say that the actual book I’m producing will be up there with Neil Gaiman or Ben Aaronovitch or Jim Butcher. But it won’t be a copy of those authors either. You cherry-pick, consciously or subconsciously. You take the bits you like and ignore the others. So you can have vampires that sparkle in sunlight if it suits your purposes.

I hate magic. Fantasy magic makes no sense to me: it too often seems to have no rules. It becomes a get-out clause for authors, rather like Q’s gadgets in the Bond series (and, incidentally, am I the only person who thinks Game of Thrones would be better without dragons?). But that there is a force that can be manipulated by those who know: that I can accept. A force that obeys the rules of physics – or maybe bends them just a touch. I didn’t invent magic but I am taking the concept and putting new structures upon it, just like every author who’s ever written about the fantastical. No-one has copyright on the Minotaur.

So the next time someone reads your book and says “Well that’s been done before,” that’s fine. Maybe you need to bury the source a little deeper – after all, a series of novels about a teenage wizard in a quintessentially British boarding-school may come across more like satire than inspiration. But the important thing is to be able to say that maybe there’s a passing resemblance, but no-one can write a story in that way, with those words.

Give yourself permission to say “Maybe it’s similar. But mine’s better.”