'Carving the darkness' with writer Mark Dark

An interview with writer Mark Dark by Christina Cummings

Currently residing in Cambodia, Mark writes fiction and screenplays and blogs about the craft of writing.


Here he talks to Christina Cummings:


Q. Your writing style has been described as “Hard hitting and gritty …violent and thrilling.” A lot of writers have to be in the ‘right mood’ to write - how do you conjure the language and tone when you’re in a ‘mellow mood’ for instance? Or is the writing itself a form of expunging a darker side?

Yes, you're right. My writing does draw on a dark period of my life when I was involved with gangs and gangsters. It's also fueled with anger and fear. Whoever said 'what you're scared of, write that' - I think they were right. As for being in the right mood, well, it takes me a while to rev up to write a story because I know how much energy it takes.

During the writing of Man or Mouse I spent months writing and re-writing to the point that, story-wise, it had nowhere else to go. Then, when I'd exhausted all possible directions I reduced it to its skeleton, culled all adverbs, adjectives, metaphors and similes until it was down to its bare bones. Then I re-added what I thought it needed, what was absolutely essential. I learned from reading Steinbeck the power of being spare with metaphor. I still overuse I think, but it's a tough skill learning to kill your darlings.

I also rewrite several times for different reasons, focusing on different aspects of craft each time. For example, I'll rewrite for senses making sure I've included smell and touch and not just what the character sees and hears. Then I'll rewrite for light making sure the source of light is clear in each scene. Much of Man or Mouse happens in darkness, so source of light becomes important. For example, the opening paragraph is:

'As I enters The Griffin two medics barges past me carrying a stretcher. It's hard to see who's on it he's so cut up and bloody. Bits of glass stuck in his face blinks blue in the light.' (NB - the third person verb is used for dialect).

I worked hard at that last sentence constructing it in different ways, the light became 'blades of blue', or 'spinning', then 'carving the darkness'. In the end I went for the most simple form. There's a danger however that sentences like these become overwritten, and even now it feels a little contrived, but this was a darling I just couldn't bring myself to kill! So you can see how meticulous writing becomes when you're crafting each sentence with this amount of detail and trying different ways.

Rewriting with this much detail takes time so I'm extremely cautious about starting something new because I know how much work it takes. I envy people who've written twenty or even a hundred short stories. I'm just too slow! Actually I've realized I'm slow at everything, not just writing. Slow but deep, but that's my character! However, that said, I'm planning my first novel in a series of thrillers which I'm hoping to knock out much more quickly. I think short stories are an excellent learning curve where we can play with words and structure and put into practice everything we've learned from reading books on craft.


Q. In a saturated global market of ebooks, blogs, on-line writing forums and traditional print – what do you think, besides good writing, makes one writer (in a particular genre) stand out over another so that people want to read more of their work?

Take Lee Child. It seems to me that his character's voice is what's truly appealing - the style of prose with which the character speaks. Jack Reacher has a very short, sharp way with words. He often cuts the subject of the sentence, so instead of saying 'I took the plane' he just says 'Took the plane.' It's a simple technique, but incredibly effective.

I've been reading Story Engineering by Larry Brooks (highly recommended - it breaks down story structure that screenwriters use for novelists) who said that at a writers' conference recently two agents were asked what they look for in a new writer. One said 'voice' and the other 'a great story'. Larry would actually disagree that 'voice' is more important than story, calling voice a prerequisite - a writer must have a distinctive voice - but he says voice alone with no story is not going to cut it. Lee Child has a very distinctive voice but also the stories kick ass. So, a distinctive voice and a great story - it seems those are the two things we need to succeed as writers. Easy!


Q. I can see that you are interested also in the visual image of storytelling. Could it be said that you ‘see’ your stories, characters and plot; rather than imagine them? And, if so, how does this help you with the creative flow?

Yeah it's essential to see the story I think, especially with screenwriting, but any writing. Writers are painters really, except we paint with words. There's a danger of writers over describing. One friend who read 'Man' recently asked if its lack of description was intentional. As it's 1st person and the narrator is a teenager I had to write as he experiences the world. He's not going to go into loads of description of grotty East London back streets like Victor Hugo would bang on lyrically about the intricate details of the cathedral in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame  - anyway Dickens already describes this side of London in brilliant detail in Oliver and nothing much has changed! Oh and by the way I'm not dissing Victor Hugo, Les Miz is one of my favorite novels. But my character's gonna write what he sees, what's important to him. It's essential to stay focused. Writing tutors will tell you that Point of View is one of the major craft elements to writing, one of the techniques it's essential to master. We have to see through the eyes of our heroes and experience the world as they do.


Q. Could you give a brief description of a typical writing day – or night – and what keeps you going during the process? And also, (just because for some reason I find this interesting) - where do you write? Can you describe the environment in which you write? And are there any essential elements to the process? (In my case, tea!)

I write in cafes during the day, sipping cappucinos. I love the hustle and bustle and comings and goings of people. I currently live in Cambodia and there are loads of western style cafes here with free internet. Plus, I'm an English as a Foreign Language teacher, which means I have loads of time to write, so I'm lucky. However sometimes I need absolute quiet and then my favorite time for writing is deep into the night when everything else is sleeping. Absolute peace and stillness. Perfect. Oh, and yes, I need caffeine. And human contact.


Q. Is there a book on your bedside table that you’re currently enjoying? Or a book that you have read and would recommend to ‘everyone’ - and why?

My absolute favorite book of recent years is the Booker-winning debut novel Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre - it's a brilliant blend of tragedy and humor, acerbic, hilarious. He's a master of metaphor. The Booker judge compared his freedom with language to Shakespeare. How's that for a compliment? And I love the fact that he wrote it on his bedsit floor in Balham, South London, a penniless wannabe writer. I also like to keep a dictionary of idioms handy. I love creative, imaginative language, like cockney rhyming slang, and street talk. Language is always changing. That's amazing.

Mark Dark blogs on film, screenwriting and the craft of writing here: http://markdark.com

Follow Mark on Twitter https://twitter.com/#!/markdarkwriter and on Facebook.