Tuesday, 14 August 2012

L is for LAYERS

So far I’ve described some of my inspirations for the book and the plotting choices I made. I’ve not said much about the writing process itself. Today’s blog is longer than usual and for the first time I’m going to discuss publicly how I write.

I have a very idiosyncratic and time consuming method. I write my books in LAYERS – which seems like a good excuse for a picture of an Opera Cake! What follows is the general method by which I turn empty pages into a published book, though in the case of Africa Reich there were some specific things I also did.

I started with a detailed, chapter-by-chapter synopsis which took nine months to write and was 15 000 words long. Then I wrote what I called ‘Draft 0’. By no stretch of the imagination was this a literate document, in fact I’m not sure it would make much sense to anyone but me written as it was partly in shorthand, partly in notes, some of it even in code. Essentially it was an orientation plan, making sure I knew where the characters were in each scene and how they interacted with each other. I also got down spontaneous lines of dialogue and things such as setting, climate and any unusual details that occurred to me.

Armed with this, and the synopsis, I then wrote three entirely different ‘interpretations’ of the book, experimenting with alternative, even conflicting, ideas and possibilities. I told you it was a time consuming process! When I say ‘entirely different’ I mean it. I started each version from scratch. For example, here are the opening lines of Chapter 12:

(Draft 1):

‘No blacks allowed.’
A guard had stepped in front of the door, barring Neliah’s path. He was new, like so many whites joining the resistance movement. He had the course accent of the Belunga docks.

(Draft 2):

‘No niggers,’ said the guard looking down at her as she climbed the stairs to the octogono.
Neliah Tavares continued her ascent. She was tall, athletic, with skin the colour of molasses, so much darker than her sister’s.

(Draft 3):

The iniquities of the Versailles have been righted, announced Hitler after negotiating the territory he wanted, our colonies, our honour restored. The rest is Einzelheiten. Details.

(Out of interest, this is how it appeared in the final book):

On the second evening of the Casablanca Conference – as bureaucrats continued to re-draw the map – President Salazar of Portugal requested an audience with the Führer. He was passed off to Ribbentrop, Hitler’s Foreign Minister.


For me writing a novel is a process of discovery: as much as I plan I also learn what the book is about by working on it, so writing these different versions allowed plenty of time for reflection and finding unexpected connections. Once I had the three versions I then synthesised the strongest elements of each into the first proper working draft (number four). One point worth noting: this version was only 90 000 words long, i.e. almost 30 000 shorter than the version you will have read.

I have to confess I found the above process painful, sometimes debilitating. I often struggle with the writing side of a book, the getting words down on paper each day: it’s drudgery. My great passion is for editing, indeed I believe it’s the most creative part of the process. Books are made in the editing not writing. This stage began with the fourth draft and involved a layering process (cue another gratuitous photo:)

I swept through the book concentrating on one aspect at a time. First, structure and point of view. Next, and perhaps most importantly, came characterisation; then dialogue, descriptions, sentence structure (you’d be amazed how much you can alter the pace of a passage just by putting the words in a different order), and so on. Each new layer gave the book more depth. The writing matured – in every sense of the word.

One of the specific layers for Afrika Reich was the alternative history: making sure all these passages appeared in a coherent and logical order, and adding additional sentences and paragraphs where necessary. After that, I made sure the writing itself was half decent (no clichés, trying to find unexpected ways to say things, deleting words/turns of phrase I overuse) and finally I did a polish. Six drafts in total, two years of work – and then it was ready to submit to publishers.

Except that wasn’t quite the end of it as you’ll discover in the next blog entry. For once I’ll tell you what it is: ‘E is for Editor’.

L is also for LITERAL

Of all the reactions to Afrika Reich, the one that took me most by surprise was how literally some readers interpreted the book. More than once people have told me, there’s no way Burton could take such physical punishment. Well obviously! Perhaps naively, it never crossed my mind anyone would take the action in a LITERAL sense. Putting aside the issue of suspending one’s disbelief, the battering Burton et al endure is meant as a metaphor: the penalty for not letting the past lie. As the film director John James Todd once wrote: ‘I was looking for an emotional realism, not pedantic verisimilitude’. Hopefully this will make more sense when we get to ‘F is for...’