BIG NEWS! My monster movie screenplay THE LITTLE PEOPLE is going to be a movie. I worked on the story with director Jon Wright (who I cannot praise and thank enough), and we have a dream team to make it. There’s more here in the Hollywood Reporter…
I’ve got my writing groove back. After finishing a screenplay at the end of March I was feeling pretty knackered and then along came a certain pandemic (you may have seen some mention of it on the news) and it fairly took the wind out of my sails… but then I got some news that got me going again. I can’t really say much about it other than it looks like I will have a book out next year — the beginning of a brand new series! — and it will be the first of three, if not more. And if you want some clue as what it’s about, here’s a pic of some of the books I’ve been reading for research…
The first book in the series is written and is currently getting the red pen treatment from the editor. In the meantime, I’m writing the sequel and, in a departure from my usual method, I’m writing by the seat of my pants. I’ve always been a big planner, but this time I decided to just, y’know, make it up as I go along… and I’m loving it! I blogged about it recently and you can read more here.
What’s Keeping Me Sane…
I’ve re-read Terry Pratchett’sLords and Ladies, which I pretty much picked at random off the shelf. This is Discworld at its peak for me. Effortless to read, very funny and full of wisdom. I’ll be going back there again soon.
I’m about to start Gray Williams’ second novel Strange Ways. I really enjoyed his debut, The End of the Line, which was a cracking supernatural thriller and this promises to be even more intense, I mean look at that cover with the lightning and the fire and the pointy things…
Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters is one of those albums where you can’t wait to learn all the lyrics so you can sing along with the same conviction she has. Righteous stuff.
I’ve been re-watching long movies over two or three nights: Midsommar, Amadeus, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood all benefit from an early night and regular loo breaks. I’m trying to convince Claire to watch The Irishman with me… that might take a few nights.
TV has been less challenging. Schitt’s Creek has been a comfort-watch. If you’ve tried and given up after the first season, do persevere. It’s a joy and the finale had me grinning like an idiot. And the most recent season of Curb Your Enthusiasm is a major return to form. I know Larry is an acquired taste, but I love his wry and excruciating way of never knowing when to just shut up.
Oh, and I watched Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker for the first time since seeing it at the cinema (remember them?). I have thoughts here.
Or, How I Learned to Write Without a Massive Outline
For as long as I’ve written, I’ve loved a good outline. It comes from my screenwriting where outlines are something of a necessity when dealing with agents, producers, directors, etc. They like to know what they’re getting for their money upfront and it’s not unusual for the writer to put together some kind of pitch, synopsis or beat-by-beat outline ahead of actually writing the thing.
Since the Great Bollocking I’ve had two novels published, Back to Reality and The End of Magic, both heavily outlined and people seem to like them. But… both were well in progress when Ben gave us an earful, so I figured what the hell, I should just finish what I started with them.
I listen back to our old podcasts fairly regularly. Not out of any vanity, but I really do believe we got tons of amazing evergreen advice from some of the best authors in the business and it would be daft to ignore them. One thing that became clear is there’s no single method of writing a novel. Lots of writers love to outline, plenty of them are pantsers (writing by the seat of their pants… a term I had not heard before starting the podcast), many do a little of both. There’s no definite, step-right-this-way-to-success system. You have to figure out what works for you and build on that.
I was happy outlining, but I’ve prided myself on never writing anything the same way twice. Every time I start a project, it’s a little different and I learn something new. I figured it was time for a big change, so why not try and pants a full-length story?
But what about that fear of getting lost? Of getting halfway through a story and not knowing where to go next?
It was another podcast that had a nugget of advice that unlocked it for me. I’m a big fan of Scriptnotes, a podcast for screenwriters (and things that are interesting to screenwriters). In it, screenwriters John August (Big Fish) and Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) discuss craft and the industry, and I find it invaluable. Last summer (2019) they released an episode featuring just Craig who gave a talk that he’s given to screenwriters at festivals over the years.
It’s a brilliant episode, crammed with terrific advice. It’s behind a paywall now, but you can read a transcript of the full episode here.
The advice that stuck out for me was this…
“If you can write the story of your character as they grow from thinking “this” to “the opposite of this”… you will never ask what should happen next ever again.”
A little lightbulb went off in my head. It was the same question I would ask myself while writing an outline anyway, so why not apply it to the blank page of a fresh draft? Would it be any different? Would it be any better?
I’ve been using and adapting this method for one screenplay (written on spec, no outline necessary) and one-and-a-bit novels and I’m loving it. I’ll start with a one-page outline, but with a bigger focus on character and theme. Who is this character? How will they change, and what’s stopping them from doing it? With those two polar opposites in mind, I rough out a very basic story and then start writing. It can be hard at first as you test the water. When I get stuck, I put the laptop aside and start scribbling in a notebook with Mazin’s advice in mind: What’s what the worst thing that can happen? What will stop this character from getting what they want? How will they overcome it?
If I can’t figure it out right away, I might stop writing altogether and get on with my day. More often than not I’ll have a solution come out of the blue while I’m washing dishes, in which case I dry my hands and email myself the note ready for the next day.
It’s working so far. The screenplay has a director and producer attached and looks like it’s a goer, and the one and a bit novels…? I’m hoping to have some good news about them soon.
I’m not saying this is going to work for everyone, but I’m enjoying living on the edge. If you’re a big outliner, why not give it a go? All you’ve got to lose is your word count…
This post contains huge spoilers for Star Wars, The Rise of Skywalker, so if you haven’t seen it, please go no further than the adorable Aki Aki mother and child of spoilerdom…
Okay, all good? We’ve all seen it, yes? Fine, you have been warned.
If you’ve been following my blog since the release of The Force Awakens you’ll know that I’ve been keen on these films, making several trips to the movies to see them in 2D, 3D and fill-your-eyes-with-space-joy IMAX. I liked The Force Awakens very much, with a few caveats, and I loved The Last Jedi precisely for the reasons that some folk hated it. I saw Rise of Skywalker at the movies on the opening weekend… and never went back.
It’s like a knickerbocker glory dessert: it looks great on the menu, piled high with the things you love, but by the time you’re halfway through you’re either sick or exhausted of it.
It hurtles along at a reckless pace in the hope that the viewer can barely draw breath long enough to realise that the plot doesn’t make a lick of sense, characters popping in and out of scenes for nuggets of exposition, constant fake-outs with characters seemingly doomed one minute then fine the next, and threads that only make sense if you go and buy the novelisation… It is, as my dear old nan used to say, a bugger’s muddle.
Of course, I immediately pre-ordered the Blu Ray.
I mean, I’ve got all the others, so why have a gap in my collection? (Curse my completist tendencies!) When it arrived, the first thing I watched was not the film, but a documentary called The Skywalker Legacy. It’s over two hours long and is worth the price of the Blu Ray alone. It reminded me of all the good things in this film: the level of craft on this production is phenomenal. The design, costume, hair & make-up, visual effects, special effects, animatronics, stunts (the stunt coordinator Eunice Huthart is a joy to watch) are all incredible. These are top people at their peak and they make the film look and sound amazing, and they and the actors all put their heart and souls into the film and they clearly had a great time making it. Except one person…
Chris Terrio is a fine screenwriter. His work on Argo saw him nominated for many awards and he won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. There’s no doubting his credentials. On the Skywalker Legacy documentary he has the look of a deer in headlights, because he knows more than anyone (with the possible exception of JJ Abrams) the impossibility of what he has to deliver. Not only must he conjure up a blockbuster screenplay that wraps up a trilogy (never easy), he is also burdened with all eight other films in the series and countless spin off novels, comics, theme parks and cartoons.
As I was watching the documentary it dawned on me: how could this film be anything other than a disappointment? And I think Chris Terrio and JJ knew this too.
Once I accepted this… I was okay with the movie! I watched it again last night, and the same criticisms remain (it really makes no bloody sense whatsoever), but it works on an emotional level and for this soppy old sod that’s good enough for me. Also — and this is something Star Wars fans don’t like to talk about — the original films are full of similar story holes… (if anyone can explain the logic behind Luke’s plot to rescue Han in Return of the Jedi, then I’ll buy them a Mars Bar)
The truth is, nothing will recapture the giddy excitement of seeing those films as a child. I can remember each trip vividly, and all the emotional baggage of those films cannot possibly be matched by any screenplay, reboot or remake. I’m coming to terms with the idea that this universe will live on long after I’m gone. It’s not mine anymore, and I’m fine with that. I think… The Rise of Skywalker is the favourite film of some other child who had their mind blown by this incredible universe, and good for them.
Let’s end with the one person who never set a foot wrong throughout all nine films. Please be upstanding for Mr John Williams…
I can also report that it’s worked in our house, too. Claire started on Jan 1st and is now 60,000 words into her debut crime novel. And me… I finished writing a screenplay through Jan and Feb, and then Covid-19 came along and took all the wind out of my sails. After a couple of weeks of writing precisely bugger-all, I decided to use the challenge to start writing again. 200 words a day, has become 500+ words a day and I’ve not only completed one short story, but I’m halfway through another.
To say that things are weird at the moment would be the understatement of the 21st century and I’ve been meaning to update the blog for about two weeks now, but the time never quite felt right.
I’m sure you’ve all seen social media posts and blogs urging folk to “start writing that novel, there’s never been a better time”, but I’ll be honest with you, I really struggled to concentrate on writing those first few weeks.
Apart from the world going topsy turvy, I had also just finished some intense final draft work on a screenplay, so I was pretty wiped anyway… but I’m back in the groove now, and the thing that’s really helped me is using the BXP2020 challenge method of just 200 words a day. That little and often method really helps build a habit, especially if you’re picking it up again after a bit of time off.
That said, if you’re not in the mindset to work, you should give yourself permission to take a vacation from creativity.These are crazy days and no time to be pressurising yourself.
WATCH, LISTEN & READ
What I’m watching…
My daughter Emily and I recently finished a months-long Game of Thrones marathon. My second time, her first. I don’t care what you say, that final season is magnificent and all the more effective when you give it a seven-season run-up.
Picard was an emotional rollercoaster and yes, parts of the ending were silly (I see Trek has fallen into the same “More spaceships! More! More!!!” bear trap that Rise of Skywalker opened), but a simple scene of a final farewell between two old friends was more engaging than any number of starships.
I’m three episodes into The Mandalorian (we only just got Disney+ in the UK) and it’s exactly what I want from my Star Wars — just the right mix of Western steeliness, blaster action, strange creatures, childish cuteness, wry humour and jetpacks. All the jetpacks.
Emily and I are also one episode away from the Locke & Key finale, which reminds me…
What I’m reading…
I recently re-read the Locke & Key comics by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez and it’s fascinating to contrast them with the Netflix show, which is appealingly YA in its tone. The comics can be much more nihilistic (particularly with the villains who regularly murder innocents in the comics, but are slightly more sympathetic on TV). I wonder if that indicates a change in Joe and Gabriel’s work since the comics, or simply what it took to unlock it for TV?
I’ve also been researching for various projects. Lots of magic and witchcraft. The Occult, Witchcraft & Magic by Christopher Dell is a wonderful illustrated history, and The Book of English Magic by Philip Carr-Gomm & Richard Heygate is thorough without taking itself too seriously.
I’ve also been reading Tempest, the final volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill. Story-wise it’s not as satisfying as the previous adventures, but the concept of adopting different styles of comics through the ages is ingenious.
What I’m listening to…
I’ve really gone back to basics during the lockdown. Lots of Beatles and Floyd — stuff I can sing along with. While writing this I had on Matt Berry’s TV Themes (tons of nostalgia dipped in acid jazz) and Mozart’s Requiem (weirdly soothing).
I’m also listening to… other people! Before the Corona-crisis I would put off phone calls, knowing I would catch up with people sooner or later. Now I’m taking calls all day, often with old friends I haven’t spoken to in yonks. One of the positives in all this madness.
Finally, if you want your book edited, copy-edited, proofread, or just want a reader’s report, reply to this email and we’ll get the ball rolling. I have all sorts of services for writers and I have plenty of time on my hands (that won’t last, by the way… I’ve recently had some news about some TV, film and book projects that will make me a very busy boy in the second half of this year!).
Hang in there…
This won’t end overnight. We’re in this for the long run. Weeks at least, months most likely. But together we’ll get through this. I usually sign off emails with “All the best” or “Speak soon”, but lately I’ve been using…
I’ll be moderating this panel of crime fiction authors and publishing experts as they discuss the themes that drive their plotlines, how to keep readers engaged through the twists and turns of a crime story and how they reach those ‘whodunnit’ moments. Caro Ramsey, Mark Edwards, and Leye Adenle.
1:45pm – 2:45pm, Fireside Chats @ The Podcast Theatre
Join the Bestseller Experiment podcast, live at The London Book Fair, in conversation with Abigail Dean, debut author of Girl A (published by HarperCollins in January 2021), which was bought in a nine-way auction for a six-figure sum. This live episode of the Bestseller Experiment – the podcast that examines the ins and outs of how to write a bestselling novel – will explore Abigail Dean’s journey from page to publication.
Good gravy, can The End of Magic really be a year old already? I guess if you’ve been keeping up with the blog and me constantly banging on about it, it must feel more like a decade, but as I get older the years become more of a blur and it’s good to take stock occasionally.
Below are some select diary entries from around the time of publication, along with a few asides to put them in perspective. Once again, a huge thank you to everyone who supported the book. It would not have been possible without you.
Monday 28th January
The End of Magic has arrived!
My finished copies were delivered this afternoon and I’m very happy with them. They’re reassuringly chunky, the spot UV on the cover will help them stand out, and the cover art is magnificent in the flesh.
Claire and Emily helped with a little social media video where we played out the where George McFly gets his books and I’m happy to say it’s getting lots of love online.
Wednesday 30th January
A good writing start this morning, but when I had a mid-morning cuppa I checked social media and discovered that folk were getting their copies of The End of Magic! There followed a day of social media madness as the good people who pledged for the book sent photos and congratulations. It was euphoric, overwhelming, and I could get very used to it.
I have an email dated 5th February where I inform Unbound that a reader noticed two typos. This is pretty standard with any book, despite all the proofreading. We fixed the eBooks pronto.
Wednesday 6th February
No writing today for two reasons…
It’s publication tomorrow and there’s all sorts of bits of social media to prepare, and…
My MacBook went kaput yesterday. The keyboard and trackpad wouldn’t respond.
I took it to Stormfront this afternoon and the guy held it up to his ear. “I think there’s something rattling about in there,” he said. He ran a diagnostic, restored it a few times and it was fine. Phew.
Friday 8th February 2019
The End of Magic is out now!
Well, yesterday… Quite an exhausting day yesterday, so let’s take it one step at a time.
Yes, the book is out and off to a good start with reviews: three five-star reviews on Amazon, and a four and a five on Goodreads.
I had a day in London yesterday, starting with an attempt at uploading all kinds of social media for the book via the wifi at Waterstones, Tottenham Court Road. It was too slow to the point of stopping, so I took myself off to the Byron at Farringdon where I was meeting Graeme (author Gray Williams) for lunch, got there early and gobbled up most of my spare data using the hotspot on my phone*
*It still astonishes me how much money I spend on data
(After lunch I met with two of my uncles who showed me where they grew up with my dad. We’ll skip that bit!)
*Yes, I do shameless namedropping even in my own diary. It’s partly why I started a diary. I kept meeting amazing people and then forgetting that I met them.
Told you, my memory is like a sieve.
This morning I put together a couple of ad campaigns and caught up on emails.
Tonight, Claire and I went to Vicky Newham’s book launch at Harbour Books and chatted with Vicky and her editor Clio.
It was around this time that I discovered that Unbound had published the eBook with two of the chapters in the wrong order! A bit of a panic as I kept readers updated, while Unbound made the fix. To be fair, they were pretty quick about it.
Thursday 14th February
Tonight I drove down to Tunbridge Wells for the Dominic King show (on BBC Radio Kent) and I got to plug the book and tomorrow’s launch big time. Also started to notice that complete strangers are mentioning me and The End of Magic and saying nice things. Exciting stuff!
Saturday 16th February
Last night was the launch party for The End of Magic and I’m still coming down from the giddy high it gave me.
Claire made amazing cupcakes, George handed them out and charmed the crowd (Yes! A crowd — 20+ people), and Emily live-streamed it and did cool time-lapse videos.
Rich Boarman — The Steam Wizard! — was there with Steam Witch Katie, and the Steam Sorcerer Andrew, and they stood by the door of Harbour Books getting admiring honks from passing cars and drawing the punters in.
(There’s a bit here where I name people who turned up, but I’m bound to have forgotten someone, so I’m leaving it out here)
It was overwhelming. Olivia (from Harbour Books) said it was one of the best and busiest launches they could remember.
Once we figured out how to fit the magic staff in the car — it had been presented to me at the start of the event by Rich, and it is magnificent! — we went for chips.
What an incredible evening.
Saturday 23rd February
Faversham Literary Festival
In the evening I was back for my event with David John Griffin. We had about twenty people and it was good event with excellent questions. We started selling our own books, but then the room was swamped by bloody poets turning up for their open mic session, so few people could actually get close to us… Which was not conducive to sales.
It was around this time that I started planning to self-publish The End of Magic in the US. Unbound don’t have much of a presence there, and I fancied self-publishing it after my experiences with Back to Reality. This had all been agreed at the contract stage with Unbound, but they still fed their edition out to the world, including the US. Having seen this sort of thing happen many times when I was Orion, I knew it was a simple fix and I asked Unbound to sort the feed. They promptly did… but also accidentally removed it from the UK Amazon store… This was after a successful AMS ad campaign that placed it in the top 100 Fantasy titles. It never really got the same momentum again. Sigh.
Friday 8th March
I sent a signed a contract to Amazon for The End of Magic, finally proving that I have US rights, so with any luck I can get that live soon, too.
And thus ended a barrage of emails between me, Unbound and Amazon sorting the rights situation. Would I do it again? Possibly, but it was a right old faff and accidentally removing the book from Amazon was a real blow. Amazon’s algorithms were behind me, I was making my up the charts and becoming more and more visible and then… nothing. Ah well. Onwards. Upwards.
The question I get asked the most is will there be a sequel. Probably not. At least, not with Unbound. As publisher, they have first dibs on any sequels and I don’t fancy going through the fundraising process again, lest I become like that guy in the office who goes on a 5k charity fun run every few months and expects you to donate every time (that said, I am mulling over the idea of doing a Kickstarter for something very different). I have ideas for a sequel, but I had planned for the book to work as a stand-alone, which is does.
The biggest surprise is how many reviews I get that say, “I don’t normally read fantasy, but I really enjoyed this.” That’s my market. Which might explain why it’s been so blooming difficult trying to target them with ads to keep the sale momentum.
But I must stop griping. Overall, The End of Magic has been a terrific experience. I had great editors, fantastic cover art, and incredible support from readers.
Y’know, jobs with salaries and pensions and commutes and all the stuff I had consigned to the past when I found myself suddenly self-unemployed. Why? Because the banks insist I pay back this mortgage thingy, and suppliers will insist that I pay for goods and services. Unbelievable, eh?
Around mid-October I started to panic. It was very clear that the money was draining faster than it was being replaced and that I would run out of dosh just in time for Christmas.
Here’s the thing: I have a TV show in development, a feature film script with a great director attached, I have three novels published and one about to go out on submission. I’ve had my best year ever as a writer since Robot Overlords was released but, crucially, none of these gigs are paying anything like a living wage.
If the TV show happens I’m off to the races, but TV is high-risk business. Big budgets mean slow progress. I’ve been paid an option plus renewal (a couple of grand). The same risk and speed applies to the film script, though this is a spec script and it hasn’t paid a penny yet. Books move marginally faster, but the advances and royalties have a long way to go before they pay the bills.
I’ve tried getting TV writing work, but still have a long way to go before I have the kind of contacts who will hire me (a lot of it word-of-mouth/who-you-know). Again, there’s a high risk factor. TV is expensive, and me having made a movie and a stack of spec scripts doesn’t seem to be enough for TV producers to take a chance.
It was becoming clear that writing — the thing that took up most of my working day — wasn’t going to keep me in the manner in which I was accustomed…
And so my mind defaulted to the thing I knew was safe and certain: a job with a salary.
I began scouring the Bookseller and other publishing work agencies for jobs. Preferably for some sort maternity/paternity cover that would tide me over till the TV/Film/Book big time happened (stop sniggering at the back – it’ll happen). I applied for a number of jobs that I was perfect for. I had the experience they needed and I was ready to start immediately. What could possibly go wrong?
Warning: the next few paras will make me sound like a grumpy old man, but I can only speak from my own experience as a grumpy old man…
Nobody wanted me! I had interviews, sure, but the language of job vacancy copy is quite revealing. They blurb excitedly of dynamism and enthusiasm and pro-active-ness, but when you get to my age that all sounds exhausting. Whatever happened to a safe pair of hands? Someone who will come in and do the job to the best of their ability with a smile on their face and not set fire to the place??
Also, middle-aged folk don’t come cheap. We expect to be paid well, unlike the poor Millennials who have all been duped into taking a pittance and expected to work all hours. In the interviews I was treated like a curiosity. A survivor of the digital wars of the early 2000s, and one that would probably answer back occasionally, take an hour for lunch, and leave on time every day. Okay, yes, I guess it was my attitude that lost me the jobs, but there’s also a definite bias against middle-aged-grumps-who-don’t-take-any-crap in publishing. I’m shocked, I tell you. Shocked.
I also had a couple of replies telling me they’d read my CV and that I was a successful writer and grossly overqualified. If only they knew.
I think this was all publishing’s way of telling me that it was done with me.
The mind begins to reel when confronted with a black hole of uncertainty.
I’ve been skint before. I’ve been unemployed before, but not when I’ve been the one paying the mortgage. I’ve been massively overdrawn and in debt before, but I had the security of a monthly salary to at least rob Peter to pay Paul (with interest). I’ve never been in a situation when there was literally no more money coming in and yet here I was. Bear in mind, while all this was going there was a disastrous election, Brexit loomed like a cloud of poison gas, and humanity’s inability to get to grips with climate change made one entertain thoughts of selling-up and digging a large bunker in the Outer Hebrides.
What can you do but persist? I kept applying for jobs and touting for editorial work. The editorial stuff started coming in and that was good, but it was a few hundred quid here and there. Not enough to keep my head above water.
I’ve been scared of it for too long and now I’m challenging it to an arm wrestle in a crowded bar. Wish me luck…
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