Tuesday, 17 November 2009


‘I’m a bit worried that it all goes a bit sentimental towards the end,’ mused Amy at some point back in the summer when we were, as per usual, discussing books.

‘Would that be such a bad thing?’ I asked and, strangely enough, I can’t remember her answer.

Here’s how a completely different story doesn’t end:

My ex and I meet for a drink somewhere neutral. We chat and it’s easy because it always was. We have a couple of beers and we laugh like we used to. We laugh so hard that we forget all the spiteful words, all the closed doors and all the mistaken dreams. And after the bar closes we walk together to the bus stop and continue random scattergun chatter of times passed and badgers and the people we lost along the way. For a moment it’s like a million things never happened and when I lean closer she doesn’t resist.

That isn’t what happens. Why would it? That particular ending is consigned to the bin of unworkable ideas. The world turned a while ago. That was then and this is now.

Nor is there a moment of falling headlong in love beneath the streaming downpours of rain with someone else, neither someone unknown or someone who’s always been there in the background. There is no firework backdropped kiss. There is no last minute rush to save the world. There is no triumphant book deal. There is no booker prize nomination. There are no tears mixing with saliva and the dust of tomorrow. There is no blood spilled in the dank alley behind the snooker club. There is no moral to this story. It doesn’t end with an explosion, with a slumped body crying, with a birth or a death or even with a paltry bang. There is no grand finale. There is no happy ending.

Not yet.

Because none of those things can happen. They are, after all, just imaginary stories.

“Writers get to choose their own endings,” wrote Rose Tremain. It’s a nicely apt idea, but since she was writing a fictional account of Leo Tolstoy’s death perhaps it is flawed from the outset. Still, self-mythologising vain bastards we are – we probably wish we could.

‘I hate those books where at the end everything is tidied up neatly,’ said Justin. ‘Real life just doesn’t work like that. Things don’t conveniently resolve themselves all at the same time.’

‘Yes,’ said Alison tapping the papers on the table between us, ‘but this isn’t actually real life, is it? We’re just making it all up as we go along.’
Saturday evening and I was unsteadily walking down the steps of the newly ostentatious Brockley station still wearing the clothes I’d woken up in all the way over in Sudbury Town and things just don’t feel right. Swirling storm clouds mustered in the spitefully grey sky. The winds unfurled all around making the air thick with the flicker of browned leaves, dirty chicken boxes, coke cans, cigarette butts and granules of grit that stung my cheek.

‘Huh,’ I muttered for I’d been writing this blog in my head on the train. ‘Bloody well does feel a bit apocalyptic and all.’

For the writer this is the dilemma: We spend months (years sometimes) with our characters and we probably know everything about them from how they’re born to the day they die. We start to live their lives for them. They inhabit us and vice-versa. But if death’s visitation isn’t necessarily the conclusion of the story how do we know when to end other than we’ve gone past the ninety-thousand words mark? Does it just stumble to a sudden finish, an unexpected blank page, or does it draw to a conclusion? Drama or realism?

There are stories that end with the future direction of the characters being signposted but never explored. “There’s a brand new life beginning on the other side of this door, all I have to do is open it.” That type of thing. Or maybe we flash forward to the narrator reflecting on their life and summing up what happened next. Suddenly, hindsight tells us what fate befell everyone. Is this sentimentality or just audience consideration?

Justin aside, many readers, I suspect, in the main like a neat ending. It gives a sense of conclusion, a feeling that the time invested in reading the novel has been worthwhile. And if it is sentimental, as I asked before: ‘Would that be such a bad thing?’

Maybe. Maybe it would. Maybe it’s more important for the author to satisfied with the answer to the starting question: What if?

The three of us strode across the open concrete forum surrounded by sun shimmering glass, confused international students getting to grips with the city and fake pots of plastic plants.

‘That’s what they’ll put on your tombstone, dude,’ laughed the man to my left. ‘David Marston: Immune to alcohol.’

‘Until his liver gave up,’ chimed the woman on my right.

‘Yeah all right,’ I grumped. ‘Everyone’s a fucking comedian.’ That would be one way to end, but it won’t happen. Here’s a secret: It’s just a myth. A story. I made it up. I invent things. There is fiction everywhere.

Or maybe I didn’t.

‘So are you over her?’ people seem to keep asking me, but this particular occasion was back in July.

‘What does that even mean? Am I supposed to discard twelve years of my life?’

‘I guess not,’ she said. ‘Let me put it another way: Do you want to get back together with her?’

‘You know what?’ I said after a moment and for the first time. ‘I don’t think I do.’

‘How are you finding being single?’ a different girl asked me in a pub in Putney one Sunday evening just as it was beginning to turn cold. That was what she asked as she twizzled her hair around her finger, but I think she really wanted to ask the other question.

‘I’ve found out a lot about myself.’ I smiled. ‘And it’s given me a lot of time to write.’

I am nearing the end of my book; getting close to the end of my story. I finished the narrative arc back in August. I’ve redrafted and restructured. I’ve been back through it and forced the words to work harder. It’s nearly there. It isn’t finished, but it’s within breathing distance.

And I am afraid.

I will be sending it out to people, to people whose opinions matter, and I am scared. Not of rejection. (Well, okay, just a little bit of that – what if all this has been utterly futile? What if I cannot really write?) No, the real spine biting fear is over what I will do once it’s gone.

I have been intensely writing this book in every spare moment since late March. When it is finished I will be bereft. A void will open up inside me and threaten to swallow my world. I am almost tempted to deliberately never finish it, to keep picking at little holes here and there, changing the words back to three drafts previous and then cutting them out again. Round and round, again and again.

What will I do with myself?

‘So, babes,’ I imagine the girl with dyed red hair who may or may not exist saying, ‘does that mean you’ll be around more?’ I know I have invented her words in my head but I still roll my eyes.

I am almost at the end of my tale, an end which is, in fact, also the beginning. We come back to the start. I stand in the bathroom one evening after possibly or possibly not one drink too many and look at myself in the toothpaste splattered shaving mirror. Back in the flat the black text on the white screen waits impatiently. It is dark in my fictional place. The rain is torrential. I know there will be epilogues to come after this, moments with the other main characters where I will tread the line of sentimentality closely. But for the moment this is the man’s end. There is a gun. The gun is loaded with a single bullet and held in a shivering hand.

Do I?

Can I?

My fingers hover nervously above the keyboard.

And then I begin to write.

Of course I do. It’s only words. Isn’t it?

But then there’s another end I have to tell and I’ve no idea what this one is. It’s the conclusion to an imaginary story. Heh, an imaginary story? Aren’t they all?

I’ve written dozens of endings and perhaps one of these is the way it finishes. Is it, the two men who run at the cliff edge hand in hand unsure when their feet leave the ground if they’ll fly or fall? Is it, the solitary figure slumped on the bench in the torrential rain as his lover walks away for the umpteenth time? Is it, waking up in bed next to someone and realising that you will love them forever and a day? Or the same and not knowing who she is and loathing yourself for it? Is it, driving until there is no road in your mind left? Is it, a Mexican stand-off in a busy airport and a mobile phone ringing the truth through, but no-one dares answer it? Is it discovering she was never who you thought she was, that she was never quite real? Is it staring into the eyes of a scraggily coyote and seeing the ghosts of your fathers? Is it lying back in the freezing waters and letting them inside you, letting that blissful release overlaps your mind? Is it with a wink, a witty quip and a turn away into the setting sun?

Or does it just stop?

Tuesday, 10 November 2009


I flung the bathroom door open sharply and stepped into the bedroom. I kept my pistol raised, even though the source of the terrible scritching was nowhere to be seen. But then, I hadn’t been playing the international jet set spy for very long and from who knows where a stiff blow struck me on the back of the neck and the world went first stark white and then tar black.

After what felt like an instant, but could have been a lifetime, my eyes damply opened. I looked around as much as I was able. I appeared to be trussed up to some sort of rack device, my hands bound tightly above my head. My field of vision was severely restricted, but I could just about make out a man’s body. He was sat prissily in a stiff backed chair, wearing a light brown suit and his hands rhythmically groomed a white, long-haired cat.

‘Ah, Mister Marston,’ a voice that sounded hauntingly familiar said, ‘welcome to my liar.’

All of which, is of course, completely invented. I have, however, recently been tied… No-no-no. Let’s not go there.

Villains. Adversaries. Nemesis.

The Baddies.

If there is an innate requirement for a fictional hero, as discussed last week, then do we naturally have the same need for its mirror image?

Going back to all those old films I watched as a child, back to when the bad guys were mainly hordes of unnamed characters, extras got in dressed up and told to fall over at the right time. They were the Germans or the Japanese. They were hordes of unspecified Asians strangely working for a white eastern European. They were Red Indians (or, I should really say, Native Americans) or they were the unidentifiable members of the posse – except the ugly one who spat chewed tobacco every ten minutes.

Yet there was always someone who was the lead villain; the one so dastardly that even his henchmen flinched away from his rage. The German Major who’s glasses steamed up with excitement whilst he gunned down refugees. The unpredictably raging cowboy with the low slung bullet belt and the glint of glass in his eye. The genius corporate magnate with the burning urge to suppress boredom by developing a super yacht and hijacking oil tankers to ransom back to the world just to make money to fuel the hog roast because it might raise a giggle.

If the hero was a cipher, a disguised melee of ideas, then the villain was little more than dots on the screen. He didn’t even get time to have conflicts about his motivation, to give any sort of insight into his troubled childhood that led him down this path of destruction.

‘I think you would say absolutely anything to make sure you got your own way,’ the curly blonde said through clenched teeth in the corridor of a club underneath central London. ‘Did you think it could just go on forever? That this would be enough? Getting drunk together and occasionally snogging? Is that all you want?’

I couldn’t think what to say; words literally failed me, but the voice in the back of my head: ‘It’d been working okay for me.’

As I got older the psychos, the deeply detached lunatics, came out to play more often. They would be allowed more screen time; their own voices in the books. They were malicious and broken and sometimes on our side, but they had motivation. They were characters. When I drifted through puberty dark thoughts of rebellion and subversion were much more attractive. It was a blessing to revel in their complexness.

But that’s the fictional rhythm of good versus evil. At the very start the hero will appear to be on top of it, to have a plan. Then it’ll all go more and more wrong until there doesn’t appear to be a way out. It’ll reach the point where the villain is so supremely confident in the inevitability of his cunning trap that he will, only for a moment, take his eye off the game.

Isn’t that how it works? Isn’t it always the way and then at the last moment, the hero will succeed? In the end? The villain helps us reach the end, helps us get to the point.

It’s often been said that all writing is driven by conflict. It helps enormously to get the audience on side if the hero has something, if not actually someone, to strive against. Their story must be a struggle.

I used to know someone who disputed this vehemently usually citing Jane Austen as an example, but there are huge amounts of sexual tension in Austen’s writing. There are parties to be endured and men to find. This is conflict. Just not conflict in the guns and explosions mode.

There are, I am sure, books (or possibly even films) without conflict. And I am sure that these books have something to justify their publication. Sumptuous prose, for example. Gorgeously constructed sentences which may appeal to the extremely literary minded (and I can think of at least one person who never remembers plots, as in what happens in a novel, but has total recall on literary trickery), but for the vast majority they will be an indecipherable, time wasting snoozefest.

So, it helps to have conflict and the easiest way to this is to create an identifiable bad guy; the enemy, someone the crowd can throw rotten tomatoes.
The opposition can be a love rival, it can be an insane murderer stalking the streets, it can be an institution, a company or even the government, or it can be a mysterious international terrorist organisation. It could be the weather. It could be vague unidentified apocalyptic fall out. It can be used to create fear, hatred, anxiety, unfulfilled lust, desperation, pity, anguish or relief, but whatever it does, it must thrust the narrative and therefore characters forwards.

It should also have resolution.

I lay back on the obviously dyed redhead’s bed and looked at the coving on the ceiling wondering exactly what I was doing there and how was I going to get out.

She looked across at me. She had a cute smile if nothing else.

Then, for some reason, she asked: ‘What’s the biggest lie you’ve ever told?’
Again, I couldn’t think what to say. The question took my by surprise. The voice in my head, ever helpful, suggested: “Same as everyone else: I love you, too.” But I couldn’t make my tongue form the words.

In the probably-a-novel I’m trying to finish, my central male character has plenty of potential adversaries. There’s his ex-wife, the police as a whole, one policewoman in particular, the mysterious American teenager stirring up trouble at right-wing rallies, the cracks in the relationship with his best friend, his manager at work, or even his manager’s manager. Then there’s the shadowy figure of the Boss, the man in charge of everything who lurks on the edges of everyday life roaring above London in a Chinook helicopter. It might even be the city itself.

Or it could be something a lot simpler, something significantly closer and easier to define.

After all, in real life, does anyone have an out-and-out enemy?

Whilst my ex was breaking us up, she said something. At the time just another verbal stab to the eyes, but it went something like: ‘You can’t keep blaming others for everything that’s gone wrong in your life.’

Which was slightly odd. I wouldn’t have said I did and anyway, up until that point, not much had gone wrong. However, she had a vitally truthful point: The ultimate adversary always comes from within.

The eerie voice kept on talking to the rhythm of the hairs being plucked from the cat. It was something about death-rays hooked into weather satellites manoeuvring into position over the world’s capitals. I wasn’t really listening. I was busy using my special cuff links that handily doubled as lock picks.

The chains gave a satisfying ping and I rolled over the rack just before the buzz saw ripped open my genitals.

‘Looks like you’ll need to take a rain check on those plans,’ I quipped (and then worried about whether that had actually worked, whether there could have been something actually funny to have said), but when I finally saw his face it froze my blood.

No wonder the voice was familiar. It’s owner was me.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009


The air was thick with dust and the sun sneered down on the broken desert, as my horse idly shook its aching neck to swat the flies away. My body rolled to the slow rocking rhythm of the nag’s steps as we approached the half-burnt out town. The buildings were a mixture of white plastered stone, flaking at the rims and stained a little red in the wrong places and cheap, wooden slats thrown up overnight.

The streets were devoid of life. Behind the doors of the buildings lurked only the fear of death. Shadows of loneliness burnt along the main street, at the end of which the church’s solitary brass bell tinged out twelve times.

I tethered my horse outside the saloon and walked across the boards, the chinkle from my spurs announced my arrival before even the creak of the swing doors. The motley crew of late-morning drinkers turned to look at me, but whether they liked or disliked what they saw was masked by the blood tints to the whites of their eyes.

I sat at the bar and tilted my black and dirty stetson back.

‘Whisky,’ I growled.

The barman obliged. ‘New in town?’ he asked.

I shrugged a little to let my waistcoat fall open enough for the pocket of my shirt to be visible. The checked pocket of my shirt and the silver star of a sheriff.

All of which is completely invented, of course. I am not in a small town in the middle of Arizona. I don’t really do horses. I am not a sheriff. I have, instead, been sitting at my desk with my chair turned around, typing one handed as the other gripped the neck of the sea like a pair of reins. I have gotten up, walked to the kitchen table and poured myself a scotch. I am wearing a cowboy hat.

And I am thinking about heroes.

I was bought up on good versus evil. On wild west and world war two films. On Sean Connery and Roger Moore and John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen in the Great Escape clearing the barbed wires on a stolen motorcycle. I read comics which had a moral black and white, Spiderman and Superman and Charley’s War and Johnny Red and Lofty’s One Man Luftwaffe.

These were heroes in that they were the central characters, the lead role and they were also the goodies. And the goodies would always win out in the end against the baddies.

That was how the world fitted together.

Then I got a little bit older, a little more aware and I realised that actually things don’t work like that. I began to notice that James Bond might have had issues with women and maybe Dirty Harry wasn’t strictly following the rule book. That Batman was ultimately more interesting than Superman because he wouldn’t always do the absolute right thing. He was, to an extent, selfish.

The older we get, the more cynical we become, the more flawed our heroes are.

As a writer I often find myself in a love-hate relationship with my own heroes, as in my own creations. They are, as the focal point of the story, the conveyance of the point, of a world-view or of one of my opinions; or they are a conduit for a badly expressed emotion. From that point of view I love them. But then I must also hate them, for I have a tendency to put them through all sorts of horrific events.

In my abandoned novel I took Dan/Gene, a previously relatively happy albeit slightly dull person, and give him insomnia and soul-wrenching nightmares in the brief hours he did sleep, put an ocean between him and his girlfriend who may or may not have been pregnant and then promptly had her disappear. I killed his grandfather. Time and again his friends lined up to stab in the back (or occasionally in the front). He no longer believed anything anyone told him as his world fell apart. I consciously broke him into fragments.

I do it again and again. In short stories I’ve maliciously destroyed relationships, I’ve turned people into alcoholics, lunatics, manic-depressives, failures in every facet of life. I build them up and then pull them apart and I do this in the name of entertainment.

What have they ever done to me?

Of course in a world beyond action movies and fantasy adventures there is not necessarily a need for a hero, in the classical uber-human mould. In a work that is realistic, where John Wayne isn’t just expected to portray a variation of John Wayne, when it is supposed to be a literal representation of real life rather than a adrenalin and idolised version of the world then real people are not fictional heroes.

I’m not sure I entirely agree with this.

Sure, I have no interest in reading, writing, watching Bruce Willis leap off exploding buildings; I am interested in real life I don’t need a hero, necessarily, who will land the plane full of maimed zebras in the centre of New Delhi, despite being blinded by ex-KGB assassins, but I do think we need a lynchpin. There is an argument that the hero is a representation of self – a manifestation of the reader, the watcher of the entertainment. We are not completely satisfied with being on the outside. We need a way in. We want to become a part of the storuy (and this is why the heroes are often son unfeasibly glamorous because then we feel good about ourselves – it’s just clever marketing) and that is one of the hero’s functions.
They are required to have entry points, they are a way for us to experience and understand the fictional worlds being displayed. The danger is that by trying to make them appeal to a broad as spectrum as possible they become little more than ciphers, a collation of symbols and ideas without substance. Making a hero well, means holding he/she together. Making them whole.

This still doesn’t mean they have to be likable though.

Indeed, I think the heroes of my current piece of work are anything but likable. I can barely stand their self-absorbed, hypocritical, whinging uselessness. They are, however (I hope), understandable. Readers, I think, will find them believable; and maybe somewhere under all the ugliness they might recognise a glimmer of themselves.

At some point I began to think of myself as the hero in my own life. I began to think of my life in terms of narrative arcs and dramatic twists and turns. I began to write myself in my head.

(This started long before this blog – although David Marston Writes is the ultimate expression of self-portrayed fictional-esque heroism. Especially in its current format, where I, essentially, regurgitate fragments of my life mildly dramatised for brevity, effect and convenience and drop these adventures into the public domain and my friends email.)

For years now I’ve had an internal narrative that suggested it was me against the world. Be it driving up the M1 at four thirty in the morning on some pointless round trip to pretend to be interested in pre-fabricated walls, or forcing my eyes to stay open through the booze fug on the half-one bus back from the arse end of nowhere, or standing on the top of a blizzard flooded mountain in outdoor kit well past its final adventure, to forcing myself to write for twelve-fourteens hours on a Saturday powered on by endless black coffees. It’s all self-delusional. I talk to myself in mirrors. I expect good luck. I demand neat resolutions as though someone was actually plotting this out. I tend to think that someone is me, but it also presupposes that I’m a hero in my own drama and not a supporting character in someone else’s.

Why do I think like this? Because I am painfully vain. Because I am obsessed by narrative. Because secretly I hope for a happy ending to everything. Because I optimistically believe that no matter how bad things have got, when I am standing at the end of the pier in the storming rain, with wicked waves crashing all around, my clothes torn, my skins bruised and bloodied, at the penultimate point when there seems no way back, then all it will take is a smile, a quip and a final desperate roll of the dice.

Because the hero always wins.

Or, at the very least, survives.

Doesn’t he?

But something is missing. Something doesn’t quite fit.

I stood in the black marble tiled bathroom of my Geneva hotel room and buttoned the perfect silver cufflinks into place. A quick flourish and I’d arranged my bow tie. The cut of the dinner jacket made me appear more than human; it made me make-believe.

I checked the time on my gold rolex. Three minutes before I needed to go downstairs to the blackjack table. The watch may or may not have contained a razor garrotte wire, or a small semtex package, or a pin pointed laser lockpick. It may have just been a watch.

I sipped champagne from a crystal flute. Everything around me was the finest imaginable. I was at the luxurious end of the life’s scale, for once, but something was wrong. I felt pointless.

A noise in the bedroom like teeth being sharpened on aluminium made me turn. I didn’t flinch. I was not shocked or concerned. I was just aware of the noise and that it had no place in the bedroom.

I reached inside my jacket and took out the walther ppk. The snub nosed pistol felt cold and brutal in my hand. I paused, the weapon raised, my hand on the doorknob and I realised that I was alive again. I had purpose.

A hero needs an adversary.