Blade Runner Secret Cinema – MASSIVE SPOILERS

I was lucky enough to be invited by the Gollancz gang (pictured above – photo courtesy of Kate Williams) to the latest Secret Cinema immersive experience, and this one was based on one of my favourite films, Blade Runner. I had been tempted by Secret Cinema in the past – particularly the Star Wars one last year – but the expense and commitment to costume and character was always offputting. But, as a guest of Gollancz, there was no way I could refuse the opportunity.

For the uninitiated, Secret Cinema offers an interactive evening where you essentially become part of the film. An extra in the movie’s universe. And it begins from the moment you sign up. They email you with the name of the character you’ll be playing and your role in the greater story. You’re given instructions on how to dress and a selection of props to bring. I was Nathaniel Woodville (spooky, as I went to a school called Woodville and the name ties into one of my forthcoming books). I was scavenger and chose to bring photos (precious currency in the Blade Runner universe), and an umbrella. I wore a paper suit, covered with a plastic poncho, decorated with fairy lights borrowed from my daughter, and topped off with my wife’s snood and some goggles. It cost about thirty quid in total and I have to say I looked rather fetching…

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From the moment you arrive, the immersive experience begins. We were abused by the LAPD outside the venue (a warehouse near Canning Town tube), the security bag checkers inside, and the ticket inspectors. They tore up my ID and stole one of my photos! It was clear that we were scavengers. The lowest of the low.

This is where you have to make a choice. Sit back and enjoy the silliness and retain your own identity, or go full method and immerse yourself in your character. Well, I bloody went for it, dodgy American accent and all. I gripped by umbrella with both hands, shuffled aroud, hunched up and twitchy as Nathaniel Woodville. Poor Nathaniel had been ground down by the system and he just wanted to get offworld. I was into it, exercising acting muscles that had been dormant for some time and loving it.

Once inside, we became embroiled in a mission to overthrow the powers-that-be and create a blackout. We had to go to Taffy’s bar and find a singer called Luna. She gave us a photo to deliver, and a message to pass on, but we were busted by the LAPD and thrown into a cage. Then I was singled out and interrogated by the cops. They were led by an actor who kept the scene on track with the story, but all the dialogue was improvised. They wanted to know why I had been speaking to Luna, and I told them I was a fan. “Then sing one of her songs…” So I then started a nervous rendition of “One more kiss, dear” from the film’s soundtrack. That seemed to help things and I continued to deny everything. Then, after bribing the cops with two photos, I was set free… But they were tailing me and I had to lose them by doubling back, scurrying into a crowd and turning my fairy lights off. This was thrilling stuff.

I sort of lost track of the story at that point, but by then I was already immersed in the world. All around me were sights and sounds familiar from the movie: ads for off-world colonies, sweeping searchlights, and a rain machine that doused Chinatown in “acid rain”. The sets were incredible: Taffy’s bar, the police station, and various eateries were all pretty faithful facsimiles of the film’s originals.

The anticipation to the promised blackout was building and we poor, oppressed scavengers began to gather in the main square, dancing in unison, raising our umbrellas in protest and getting absolutely drenched. I never went raving in my youth, but I imagine it must have felt something like this: a crowd chanting and moving as one, and thinking that anything was possible.

Once the story was over we were directed to the three movies screens where we watched the Final Cut of the film. This for me was the least successful part of the evening. The sound and picture wasn’t the best I’ve ever seen, the crowd was restless, a few were inebriated, many got up for drinks, stomping up and down the metallic seating.

Actors moved about in front of the screens and the scaffolding during key scenes, miming the dialogue – erstaz Roy Battys and Rick Deckards… It didn’t really work for me. Stage acting and film acting are two different disciplines and it all seemed a bit silly and unnecessary after what we had just been through. The flashes of lightning and red pulsing lights as the spinners flew over the Tyrell Corp buildings were much better at building the atmosphere, but it was pale in comparison to the intensity of the main event.

I had a long journey home, and lost patience with the boozed-up chatterers behind us, so I left about an hour into the film, returned to my locker, got out of my costume and put on some dry clothing. Then came the strangest bit of the evening… returning to the real world, walking through Canning Street tube station knowing that if I tried to interact with any of the real people in the same way that I had interacted with my fellow Secret Cinemagoers, they would have veered away from me, called the police, or thumped me. Part of me wanted to turn around and go back in.

From talking to friends who have been to a few of these, the Blade Runner Secret Cinema had the most successful version of the interactive element. My scavenger story was competing with the cops’ stories, with the replicants’ stories, and yet it all came to a head with a transformative moment where, for a moment, lost in time, we were all in the Los Angeles of 2019, seeing things that you people would never believe…

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A free short story!

Ahead of the publication of The End of Magic (and while I wait for the dreaded edit notes to come back) I’ve been writing a short story set in the same world.

How Drust Krax Lost Two Fingers introduces the novel’s main villain Haldor Frang, and it’s told from the point of view of the hapless Drust Krax. A defeated warlord, awaiting certain death, who really, really needs to use the privvy…

I’m offering it first and exclusively to anyone who subscribes to my newsletter! To download a copy for your Kindle or any other eReader device, just sign-up here.

Please note: I’ve had all my GDPR jabs and I will never sell your information on to any third parties. It’s all safely tucked away by Mailchimp!

Big thanks to Jack Logan and Julian Barr for reading my early drafts the story, taking them down a dark alley and giving them a good kicking. Thanks also to Kit Cox for the map image used on the cover art.

I really enjoyed writing it and can’t wait to hear what you think of it!

In other news, I spoke to the wonderful Gareth L Powell on the podcast this week. We discussed the slow death of Facebook and how to sing a space opera. Listen here.

There’s also a fab Deep Dive on adaptation this week with Julian Barr (second mention in the blog today). One of us has a PhD. It won’t take you long to figure out which one of us doesn’t… You can listen to a teaser here.

And I’m on BBC Radio Kent tonight (or in the past, depending on when you read this). I’ll be talking to Dominic King on his new arts show about the podcast, Robot Overlords, The End of Magic and more. Listen or catch-up here.

Dominic King

Son of a Beach

It’s been a fun week with a trip to the beach at Whitstable to interview Julie Wassmer. I had hoped to get some lovely audio atmosphere with waves lapping on shingle and gulls screeching overhead, but the tide was out so I had to settle for a gentle breeze buffeting the microphone. Fortunately, Julie is great fun to chat to and she told me all about working on EastEnders, bumping off the locals in her novels, and why all writers should live in fear of a cup of tea and bacon sandwich. Listen here.

I finished the John Yorke Story for Screenwriting course. 16 weeks of pretty intense work. Was it worth it? Check out my thinkings over here…

I also got to visit Hachette’s new warehouse in Didcot. While this may not sound like everyone’s idea of a fun day out, I did get to ride on one of their pickers, which went some 25 metres in the air and the queues were shorter than Disney…

Getting a lift in the new Hachette warehouse…

A post shared by Mark Stay (@mark.stay) on

Also, if anyone’s concerned that print books are on the decline, this vast palace of storage and hi-tech distribution should allay those fears. This place was built to pump books out into the world and they’ve left plenty of room for expansion.

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I finished a short story this week. It’s a prequel to The End of Magic in which we meet our antagonist. My agent Ed read it and enjoyed it, though he did have one note: “Maybe the humour could be a little less lavatorial…? But that’s probably my shit to deal with.”

I do seem to have a thing about bodily functions… What do you say? Should I take this crap?

Also, I’m going to be on the new Dominic King arts show on BBC Radio Kent next Tuesday 12th at around 8pm. He asked me to put together a montage of voices from the podcast, which I did, but I’ve also made a “Guess the voice” quiz, which you can play here

Till next time!

Mark

What I Learned on the John Yorke Story for Screenwriting Course…

I’ve just completed the John Yorke Story for Screenwriting course. A seven-session course, spread over 16 weeks with the ultimate aim of producing your own original treatment for a feature film or TV pilot.

Full disclosure: I was given free access to this course by John’s team after he appeared on the Bestseller Experiment podcast. It’s usual cost value is over £900, which is a fair chunk of change and something I kept in mind throughout the duration of the course.

The course covers story analysis to build your own understanding of story structure, it looks at the essential elements of story, the five-act structure, how to build stories, countless story tips, and all the time you are submitting your own work, which is reviewed by your peers on the course. You submit everything through the course website, which is a clunky thing that’s starting to show its age with a sometimes confusing user interface. Once you get used to it, it’s okay, but I found myself working with several browser tabs open as that was easier than trying to find your way through the menus.

Make no mistake, this is a big commitment, and people dropped off the course, most likely overwhelmed by the level of work required. It’s not for beginners or hobbyists. I would say this course is ideal for writers who are serious about making a career of writing: maybe they have an agent, or a credit, or have been optioned and want to hone their craft. You need to manage your time for this course carefully. I generally carved out time over the weekend. Be prepared for it to impinge on your regular routine.

The first couple of weeks ease you in and are deceptively simple. You’re asked to watch well-known feature films and complete exercises on structure based on your observations, while referring to John’s book Into The Woods. This was all good narrative theory and great fun: I get to watch Aliens for homework! Though, I have to confess that this was the point where I wondered if the course was going to be a bit lightweight for me, but looking back it was a good way to limber up before the main event.

As the course progresses the exercises become more involved and complex. You’re asked to rewrite scenes from films and TV shows (and due to John’s connection with EastEnders, I found myself watching more of that show than at any time in the last 20 years!) and your writing will be compared to the final show that was screened. Our course tutor was Kieran Grimes (script editor on shows like Red Rock, The Clinic and Fair City) who was firm and fair in his critiquing of our work and went into considerable detail with his observations and was always constrcutive and encouraging. You really felt that he was reading your work properly!

And it’s not all about structure. There’s excellent work on character, and self-analysis. Indeed, one of the most useful things I took away from the course were tools for critiquing my own work (something I’ve often struggled with). There were also opportunities to have live chat Q&As with Kieran and Ashley Pharoah (Life on Mars), which I managed to miss, being stuck on the train home when these were scheduled, but there was always an opportunity to post questions beforehand and read the transcripts afterwards (I never did, to be honest).

In the final stage of the course, you write and submit your own treatment for a feature film or TV pilot based on what you’ve learned. Like many writers, I can’t stand treatments and find them reductive and nigh-on impossible to write from scratch, but the guidance from the course on treatments was very helpful.

However, from the very beginning of the course I knew that I would be writing a treatment, so I decided to start writing a TV pilot script in parallel with the coursework, re-writing as I went as per the lessons learned. Having a completed script to hand at the end of the course made writing the final 4 page treatment was much less painful.

A couple of weeks after the deadline for submission you receive your final feedback on your treatment from both your course tutor (Kieran) and John Yorke himself. It totalled about 1300 words. As with any notes, I didn’t 100% agree with everything they said, but having two perspectives from two seasoned pros revealed common bumps in the road, and highlighted a couple of issues with my treatment, and gave me very clear and actionable notes for my next pass.

I’m always very suspicious of creative writing courses and contests and the like. They’re often nothing more than a way to part wide-eyed noobs with dreams of Hollywood from their hard-earned cash. But John’s course is designed to be practical and has tons of useable advice and tools for professional writers. It’s also unusal in that it’s not just Hollywood-focused. There’s so little for UK-based writers out there and this course fills a much-needed gap in the market. Once the course has run, you have access to all the materials used in the course, and you become part of the course alumni online, which is great for making new writer friends. So, yes, this is an expensive course, but put in the context of certain screenwriter conventions where you might pay hundreds of pounds to passively watch panels it provides good value for money.

While I was on the course, I had a TV show of mine optioned based on a pitch doc (a “Look book” rather than a treatment), and the lessons I took from the course helped me navigate my development meetings with the TV production company, and the TV pilot I produced for my final exercise is one of the strongest things I’ve written, so I’m quietly confident that it will make some noise and get me some attention. Watch this space for more…

In the meantime, here’s a link to the course.

 

 

 

Come and see the sci-fi by the sea shore…

Ahoy!

It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve blogged and one reason for the delay is that I flopped into an exhausted heap after completing the crowdfunding for my novel The End of Magic. A huge thank you to everyone who pledged, spread the word, banged the drum, stopped strangers in the street etc. I could not have done it without you.

The next stage is the edit, which should take until mid-September, and I would reckon the book would be published Jan/Feb next year. In the meantime, here are all the things I learned from crowdfunding.

Oh, and there’s still time to pre-order the book and get your name in it. Just click here and choose from the list of options.

The Bestseller Experiment podcast has had an eventful few weeks: a live show with Orion Fiction editor Ben Willis where we went deep into metadata while eating cheese and onion crisps, I caught up with my filmmaking friend Deborah Haywood and talked about how she wrote and directed her fantastic debut feature film Pin Cushion (and it’s the only episode of the podcast where a guest has meowed like a cat), and I talked about being buried alive with Sharon Bolton (as you do). Never let it be said that we don’t offer a varied platter of awesomeness.

If you love a bit of sunshine and sci-fi, then I’ll be with my brothers in ink Kit Cox and Thom Burgess at the Sci-Fi by the Sea convention in Herne Bay on June 17th (Father’s day). It promises to be a fab day for geeks of all ages. Kit, Thom and I will be there signing our books and happy to chat about all things sci-fi and fantasy. We’d love to see you there, and you can get tickets here

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Five things I learned crowdfunding with Unbound books

After 90 days of crowdfunding I am absolutely over the moon that my fantasy novel The End of Magic is now fully funded at Unbound Books and will be published most likely in early 2019!

My agent mentioned Unbound early on in the process, and the thing that really grabbed my attention was that I would be working with the editor Simon Spanton. Simon is a legend in science fiction and fantasy. I knew him from his time at Gollancz where he worked with the likes of Richard Morgan (Altered Carbon), Joe Abercrombie (The Blade Itself) and Scott Lynch (The Lies of Locke Lamora). The opportunity to work with Simon was too good to pass up.

“Let’s do it!” I said.
“There’s a catch,” my agent replied. “You have to raise about four grand… in ninety days…”
“Me?! I can barely scrape together my rail fare, how am I supposed to raise four grand?”
“You know lots of people, you’ll be fine.”

This is how Unbound works: by crowdfunding the production and editorial costs of every book they publish, not only does the book build its own readership, but it’s also profitable on the day of publication. Very few publishers can claim that these days.

All I had to do was raise £4000 (actually about five and a half grand before VAT) in 90 days.

Like most Brits I can be queasy when it comes to just talking about money, and like most Brits I am in danger of spontaneously combusting when it comes to asking another person for money. So I knew that I would find this whole process difficult, but I seem to have become this experimental author by accident so I figured what the hell and grasped the nettle.

So, dear reader, should you dare to venture on a similar quest here are a few of the things I learned from my Unbound Crowdfunding experience that you might find helpful…

1. It’s personal

You’re going to have to contact an awful lot of people, but you must avoid any blanket blind-copy-all emails. This needs a personal touch. You need to draw up a list of everyone you know, everyone you’ve ever emailed, everyone you know on Facebook, and put them on a pledge grid (a secure one in these days of GDPR!). I created columns for:

Name
email
Contacted?
Chased?
Pledged?
Signal boost?
Notes

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This will be your bible for the whole of the campaign. Save it on your desktop and open it every day, because this thing is going to take over your life a bit…

2. Set targets

After the initial flurry of pledges from close friends and family I had a first day total of 5% pledged. I reckoned that if I targeted myself 1% per day that I would make the total within the recommended 90 day period. I figured that it took an average of four or five pledges per day to make my target. Of course, not all pledges are equal (I had some options for £150, £250, £300) but the great majority would be for the paperback, so use that as your average pledge amount.

I referred to the pledge grid on a daily basis, working through the names and sending each individual a template email topped and tailed with personal details:

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Some stats:

38% of my pledges came direct to the site. That is, from links that I sent to people. Only 8% came from the mailings that Unbound send to over 40,000 people. The remainder were variations on mail referalls from Facebook and email links that I sent. It became clear very early on that this book wasn’t going to fund itself!

Oh, and have a cheerleader! Someone you can brag to about your daily total and celebrate the milestones with. In my case it was Simon…

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3. Polite persistence

If there’s anything worse than asking for money, it’s asking for it twice… or three times… or four. What started as crowdfunding became borderline harrasment.

Timing is key: if you’re writing to colleagues then don’t ask for money a week before payday when they’re skint… ask on payday when they’re flush!

And don’t be shy about asking for help when you’re close to a milestone. These were the most effective mailings and Tweets:

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And always remember to thank them when you hit those milestones…

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One problem that threw me was how some people struggled with the idea of crowdfunding. I’ve supported a few myself, so was already familiar with the concept, but quite a few people couldn’t get their heads around why I needed money to edit, produce and print a book (let alone write it and pay an artist and designer for the cover art). Make it clear how it works in a pithy way. Luckily, Unbound provided a handy page explaining it all.

4. Social media won’t do it alone

Very few of my Tweets or RTs resulted in direct pledges. However, there is an old marketing maxim that we have to see something at least seven times before we’re prompted to purchase, and I lost count of the number of times that people told me they were reminded to pledge after a Tweet or a Facebook update. This made their eventual pledge a combination of:

initial email + update + social = pledge.

My regular updates were key. I updated on the Unbound page, on my blog and social media and celebrated every milestone. This was a gentle way to remind those who hadn’t pledged that this thing was still a going concern. It also helped those who had already pledged to take ownership of the project: they were involved in something fun, they had skin in the game, and were as determined as I was to make it work as I work. This has been the most rewarding part of the project: having pledgers bang the drum. It’s a great feeling!

I did dabble with Facebook ads. Don’t bother. A complete waste of time and money. You’ll be better off spending that money pledging yourself!

Oh, and I have to confess that I did resort to this a couple of times. I knew that I would get a mailing from Unbound when I hit 50% and after a couple of days of non-activity I thought screw it and pledged for 5 copies (I can sign and sell them at events/conventions later). This nudged me to 50%, got me the mailing and gave the campaign a boost… Just don’t make a habit of it! It kind of defeats the object.

5. It’s not personal

Don’t be offended when people say no… Okay, allow yourself a moment a rage, but then get over yourself. Though, some of the excuses for not pledging did make me laugh:

Friend, “I don’t read fantasy fiction.”
Me, “You don’t have to read it, just gimme the money!”
Friend, “Hmm… Nah.”

Friend, “Sorry, I’m funding my own project.”
Me, “Cool. I had no idea. Let me have a link and we can pledge to each others’ projects. Let’s help each other out.”
Friend… <tumbleweed>

Friend, “Yeah, I promise to pledge!”
90 days later…  <tumbleweed>

Never forget that people have busy lives and it’s astonishing these days when money is tight that anyone hands over their money. Be grateful for every penny.

Once again, a huge thanks to everyone who pledged (some of them more than once, some of them to the tune of hundreds of pounds!), and those who spread the word, banged the drum, cornered strangers at parties, and wrote the theme tune and created a mini trailer that I used pretty much every day… okay that last one’s pretty specific, but thanks Dom!

A quick note on videos – you’re asked to produce one when you start with Unbound. I made mine with my kids and it was lots of fun, but it was only after I added subtitles that we started getting better engagement. Most people watch social media vids with the sound down, so it’s worth the extra effort…

What’s next? Well, edits, revisions, repeat and rinse, then copy edits, proofreading, choosing the cover art and then sending this baby out into the real world.

Oh, and you can keep pledging! More money means we can spend more on the cover art and finishes (spot laminate on the cover would be lovely, thank you) and of course you’ll get your name in the book. So pre-order now!

I hope you found that useful and if you have any further queries, then do please drop me a line below and I’ll do my best to answer them and good luck with your own project!

 

UPDATE: I got to speak to Unbound’s Head of Crowdfunding Jimmy Leach on the podcast, and it’s full of great info, so be sure to check it out here.

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The End of Magic is 100% funded! Now where’s my bloody book…?

It happened overnight while I was sleeping, but one of you beautiful people nudged me over the finish line with less than 24 hours to go. Here I am getting all excited after breakfast…

A massive thank you to you everyone who pledged (some of you more than once!), banged the drum and kept the faith – this has been an incredible experience and a massive learning curve.

Already I’ve had a few messages from you asking when the book might come out. Well, it is written but will need an edit, then revisions from me, then maybe a second edit, followed by more revisions, then the copy edit, more revisions, then a proof read, more revisions, and then we need to sort out the cover art and schedule a publication date.

Based on my own experience in publishing I reckon we might be looking at early next year, but I’ve yet to properly liaise with the Unbound team, so I’ll update as soon as I hear from them.

Again, thank you all and here’s to the next stage!

All the best,

Mark

PS. The funding doesn’t end here. If you haven’t pledged yet, you still can! Do it now while you can still get your name in the book.

£519 to go on the End of Magic

There’s about a week to go until the 90 days of pledging are up and there’s just £519 to raise for my fantasy novel The End of Magic.

That’s roughly…

  • 52 pledges for the £10 eBook
  • 35 pledges for the paperback
  • 26 Patron paperback pledges (you get your name in the front)
  • 21 ‘For a friend’ pledges (you get two copies),
  • 11 Robot Overlords pledges
  • or just 7 of the five-copy bundles! (Why not go crazy and by a bunch for your fantasy fiction friends?).

This is it – the last push to make this happen: click here and hit that beautiful blue PLEDGE button!

Thank you and a huge bearhug for all you beauties who’ve pledged already!

Mark

 

Ben Aaronovitch signed FURTHEST STATION giveaway

I’m giving away a copy of Ben Aaronovitch’s novella FURTHEST STATION, and it’s been signed by the man himself. To be in with a chance of getting a copy click here before midnight UK time on 14th May 2018.

Good luck!

 

80% and 200 backers, but I’m lost… does anyone have a map…?

The End of Magic is 80% funded! Wallop and thank you… Though I’ve not had a single pledge in the last few days, and I’ve contacted everyone I know (twice) and chased everyone who hasn’t pledged (two or three times) and what was fundraising is now bordering on harrassment! But all is not lost, and I’m hoping to make an exciting announcement very soon…

Please keep spreading the word!

All the best,

Mark