Put these in your ears…

Safer than Q-tips and a lot more educational and edifying, you can hear me waffle on not one, not two, but three podcasts this week!

First up, of course, is the Bestseller Experiment where I speak to the wonderful Pernille Hughes about her road to publication, why she shared a photocopier with La-La the Teletubby, and we play a game called ‘Getting to know you’ where there are no right answers. You can listen here.

Secondly, comes the second part of an epic three-part trilogy on The Hero’s Journey that I’m recording with the wise and learned Julian Barr. We look at tricky middle acts, inmost caves, and that sort of stuff with examples from The Godfather, Jaws, Star Wars and The Notebook. But the best part of these is the thoughtful, polite noise Julian makes when I say something stupid… These are for our Patreon supporters, but if you’re not one of them (and if not, why not??), then you can listen to a sneaky peek here.

And third is this interview with Tim Clare on the Death of 1000 Cuts podcast. This is especially fun as Tim laughs at most of my jokes, I drop some truth bombs about marketing and publishing, and then a fire alarm goes off during the interview and Tim keeps it in. You can listen on iTunes here, or the thingy below…

 

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The End of Magic edit update

Over lunch today I finished the latest phase of the edit. I’ve been picking away at my editor Simon Spanton’s notes (over 350 suggested changes and comments) for a little over three weeks now.

I started with the easy stuff, namely all the extraneous crap marked ‘Delete’ by Simon. Suggestions to re-word awkwardly phrased sentences, clarity where there was confusion, repetitions…

… and a whole section where I had a character eating stew from a plate instead of a bowl (d’oh!). I find this is a nice warm up before the main event, and a good way to reacquaint yourself with a book that you might not have looked at for weeks or even months.

There was a whole debate about rats on a ship, how fast a ship would sink, and how many lashes with a cat ‘o nine tails would kill a man (Simon is an extremely genial and friendly chap, but knows an awful lot about naval punishment).

We went back and forth on the size of armies, weaponry, lethal farm tools (who knew that the cutting edge of a scythe blade was on the inside of the curve? Simon did, thankfully), dog bites, poisons, rats, crops, injuries, the efficiency of messenger pigeons, the physiology of merpeople…

… putting a saddle on the back of a wyvern, and the mental and physical cost of using magic.

There were a few moments where my characters rushed into action without much thought of the consequences and it was great to have the opportunity to dig a little deeper and think about why they made those impetuous decisions.

It’s been fun if hard and intense work, but there’s no question that it’s improved the book. And it’s not over yet! I’m sure Simon will have a few more notes for me, and then we’ll move onto the copy edit where it gets really forensic.

I’m hoping to have a revised version of the opening chapter that I can share with you soon, in the meantime thanks to everyone who has supported the book so far, and if you’ve not yet pre-ordered you can do so here.

The Benefits of Being a Squeaky Hinge (as opposed to being unhinged)

What a week… firstly I went with the Gollancz gang to Secret Cinema’s Blade Runner, an incredible immersive experience that I’m still thinking about now. You can read about what happened (including my arrest and interrogation) here!

I also had a great time at the Herne Bay Sci-Fi By The Sea convention at the weekend. Not only was I with my brothers-in-ink Kit Cox and Thom Burgess, but it had a wonderful family atmosphere and I sold and signed quite a few books. I hope to return next year.

IMG_3201

Some of you might understandably cry, “You jammy sod, how do you get those cushy gigs?” Well, one thing I’ve learned over the years is to be a bit shameless and make a bit of noise, and I’ve tried to apply this to every avenue of life, and generally it works. Back when I was starting out as an actor, a friend put me in touch with the film director Vadim Jean. Vadim was hot off Leon the Pig Farmer and, incredibly, he returned my call… but I was out. He left a message with my dad to call back. I had already summoned up all my courage to have left a message for him in the first place, and a weird crippling shyness and fear prevented me from calling him again, and so I never did… God only knows what opportunities I missed because I felt that I was being a needy pain. It’s something I did a few more times in my youth, and I never really remedied it until I had a bit of success and younger writers started contacting me for advice! I was delighted and only too pleased to give whatever encouragement I could to steer them in the right direction… They weren’t being a pain. They were starting out and were bold enough to ask for a bit of help. Ever since I’ve overcome any doubts and been the first to volunteer myself for all sorts of endeavours. It’s one of the reasons I’m presenting a podcast, it’s how I got my agents, it’s how I summoned the nerve to invite myself to various comic cons and pretend to be in Blade Runner.

The world will not come to me, so I need to make a bit of noise to attract its attention.

The same rule applies for my agents and work life: book, TV and film people already have far too much to do, but if you want their attention you need to be a bit of a squeaky hinge. Not too taxing, not rude or obnoxious, but the squeaky hinge that can be sorted quickly so they can get on with their other stuff. Just this week, I politely chased a TV production company for an update and, as a result, I have a meeting with a director next week that could prove to be life-changing (or it could just be a nice chat over coffee… who knows?).

As I discovered with the Blade Runner experience, the more you put into something, the more you’ll get out. Be bold!

Speaking of bold, if you haven’t pre-ordered my fantasy novel, The End of Magic you can do it right now and still get your name in the book. Click here!

And you can download a short story set in the same universe. In How Drust Krax Lost Two Fingers you meet the novel’s main antagonist and it’s all seen from the POV of a defeated warlord who awaits execution, but also really, really needs to use the privvy… It’s available exclusively for my newsletter subscribers, and you can sign up for that here!

Until 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.

 

 

 

A few notes on formatting screenplays

This week a friend of mine asked me to take a look at his first-ever screenplay. He’s a novelist, with a succesful historical fiction series at a major publisher, and he was adapting one his novels into a TV pilot. Story-wise it was all pretty ship-shape, but the formatting of his script was a bit skewy, and I thought I would share some of the notes I sent him as it covers a lot of the basics when it comes to formatting your screenplay. Some of the details have been changed to protect the innocent…

 

Formatting:

You’ll hear all sorts of dictatorial “rules” about how you should or shouldn’t format a screenplay, and there are certain people out there who make lots of money running expensive screenwriting courses who will tell you how your screenplay will be instantly rejected if you ever break one of these sacred rules…

This is, of course, bollocks. All that matters is clarity.

So, when reading what follows, always remember that these are not hard and fast rules. But there are some principles that you should observe if you want to set yourself apart from noob screenwriters.

Scene numbers: Don’t bother with these quite yet. They’re usually added by a line producer just prior to going into production. The screenplay is then locked and any subsequent scene number changes will need to be logged. For example, a scene that’s added between scene 27 and scene 28 will be logged as 27a. However, for the purposes of my feedback I’ll refer to them now, but you should probably delete them before you submit them to your agent or production companies.

Same goes for the (CONTINUED)s at the top and bottom of each page. Most people don’t bother with these, but some screenplay apps have them as a default, so it’s your call if you want to keep them (I find them clunky).

Scene 1. You’ve split LONDON 1792 over two lines. Any titles or subtitles should ideally be on one single line of text.

When introducing a character for the first time put their name in CAPS. This helps the production team identify when a new character appears in the script. It helps to remember that so much of what you put in a script is there to make the lives of the cast and crew easier. It’s also generally accepted that you should really only put the name in caps when the character first appears, and not all the way through the script.

Any sound effects should really be in caps, too. This helps the director, editor and sound designer note when noises will need to be added in post-production.

A note on Wrylies. These are the little bits of direction in parentheses…

ALFRED
(mutters in annoyance)
Bloody fool.

Lose ’em. All of ’em. Okay, maybe allow yourself one every ten pages. Writers put them there to give the actors on guidance on how to say a line, but actors generally hate being told how to act (especially by the writer!) and they should be used very, very sparingly and only when there’s a point of clarity to be made, usually when a line could be read as either straight or sarcastic. That’s why they’re called wrylies… he said wryly.

I can understand that in your case that you’re trying to preserve the intention in your novel. When writing dialogue in a novel you have far more control over how that line will be interpreted. But in film and TV you’re going to have to learn to trust the actor and director, and they’ll surprise you and will often bring something new and wonderful to the line that you might not have thought of.

Sluglines

Scenes 3, 4, 5 and more simply say CORRIDOR or STAIRWAY. Yes, these scenes follow on from one to the next, but remember that these are used as guides for the reader and the production team and will sometimes be read in isolation from the rest of the script. So maybe go with:

INT. CORRIDOR – CONTINUOUS

This lets the reader know that that the scene is set inside and continues from the previous scene.

However, with a pre-production draft I think it’s it’s fine to leave them off if you think it makes the script a faster, easier read. But when you go into production the sluglines will be made to work harder.

When I started out I found The Screenwriter’s Bible to be helpful on formatting, but to be honest why not just read a whole bunch of scripts for free? One of the best resources is the BBC Writers’ Room Script Library. Hundreds of free TV, film and radio scrips all available to download legally and freely. You’ll learn tons!

And, for variety, why not check out scripts by the likes of Tarantino or Wes Anderson. They ignore a lot of screenplay conventions and they seem to be doing pretty well for themselves.

Caveat: there are no rules, only principals, and what matters most is clarity. If you can, try and wangle a day on a film set. Watch how everyone works with the script, and when you’re next writing, try and put yourself in the shoes of the director, the actors, and the production team. Good luck!

 

While you’re here, check out my new grimfun fantasy novel The End of Magic

Want to be part of an epic fantasy adventure…?

Hello – I’m very excited to announce that my new book, a fantasy novel called The End of Magic will be coming soon from Unbound Publishing!

Watch this clip of me being all windswept and David Starkey to discover more…

Unbound are amazing. It’s essentially a Kickstarter model, and YOU – yes YOU! – can be a part of the book’s publication. Simply pledge and get your name in the book as a patron, or go really crazy and make yourself a character in the book (you could die a glorious death!), or get feedback from me on your novel or screenplay, or even take a trip to the coast and talk toot the whole day!

This book is a big passion project for me. It’s a combination of the kind of fantasy I loved when growing up, combined with the sort of grimdark I enjoy today. I’m calling it GrimFun (you’re welcome) and I really hope you can join me on the adventure.

And here’s the cool bit –

You can get a 10% discount on your pledge using the discount code bestsellerxp

Do please SHARE with anyone you know who loves a great read, in the meantime enjoy the book’s awesome theme tune composed by Dominic Currie…

Five tips for writing around a day job…

Writing while holding down a full-time job can be a bit of a ‘mare at the best of times. Some authors write late into the evening, some get up at the crack of dawn. I’m lucky enough to be able to weave into my working week, and I thought you might want to see what my typical writing week looks like, followed by five tips that you might find useful. Firstly, here’s what this past week looked like…

MONDAY
AM
I live out in the sticks now, so on a weekday the whole family is up at 6, out the door by 7, and on our various busses and trains by 7:30. My commute into London takes about an hour and forty minutes. Plenty of time for writing! I’m fed and caffiened by this point, and raring to go. I generally get my best stuff done on the morning commute.

This particular morning, I was working on my first Woodville book. I’m currently about halfway through and it’s like wading through treacle, but progress is progress.

LUNCH
Mondays are podcast launch days, so I spend my lunch break on the social media for the new episode.
My wife Claire is a gardening blogger and author, and I worked on uploading her new gardening eBook to KDP.

PM
I’m working on a couple of projects with Jon Wright at the moment and he had been tweaking a pilot script we’re working on, which I reviewed on the train home and made a few light edits.

TUESDAY
AM
More Woodvile work. Averaging about 500-800 words each morning.

LUNCH
More Bestseller Experiment social media and I also send a newsletter out on my mailing list with details of the show.

PM
Worked on formatting Claire’s new eBook on Parsnips… very different to my usual stuff, but it’s nearly sowing season and she needs to get these online pronto!

WEDNESDAY
AM
Woodville – good progress. About 1000 words.

LUNCH
I added hyperlinks to Claire’s eBook. She links to seed companies and her videos on Youtube, so there are loads of them! Far more than any novel. I also worked on tweaking the keywords and metadata for Back to Reality and that afternoon I got a telling off from Amazon for adding a subtitle that has text that isn’t on the cover art. We were threatened with having the book removed if we didn’t amend it. Grr.

PM
Script rewrites on the train home for the thing Jon and I are working on. Really good fun as these are light changes, as opposed to the first draft slog of the Woodville stuff. It’s tempting to stick with this tomorrow morning, but I must be disciplined!

Mr. D and I had planned to record the podcast tonight (we usually record on a Monday), but due to all sorts of extenuating circumstances (and Canadian weather!) we’ve have to postpone it. Will we get an episode out in time for next week…?

THURSDAY
AM
Woodville. Hitting my stride with this noise. Daily word count is improving.

LUNCH
I listen to the interview I recorded with next week’s guest, making notes in anticipation of recording the pre- and post interview stuff with Mr. D. Also make further tweaks to Back to Reality’s metadata. Claire and I also got our PLR statements. In the UK, every time a book is taken out of the library the author (and illustrator if applicable) gets 8 pence! My statement could pay for a takeaway pizza. Claire’s could pay for a nice weekend away!

FRIDAY

A day off from the day job at Orion. I spent the morning at home and Jon popped round to make the final changes to our pilot script before sending it off to our agent. We read it aloud, acting out the parts and pising ourselves laughing. Very good times.

In the afternoon, the Canadian weather eases and Mr. D’s power is back on, so we record Monday’s episode, plus the Deep Dive episode for Patreon listeners. Poor Dave our editor only has a few days to cobble our witterings together!

SATURDAY

Dave sends us the rough edit of the podcast and I listen back, making notes and suggestions for edits, as well as writing the description you read on the website/iTunes etc and the keywords we use for the blog.

No other writing done today (apart from the first rough draft of this blog!)

In the afternoon, I read an excerpt from a friend’s book and send him some notes.

SUNDAY

Today is our wedding anniversary, so me and the family went to see a movie and had a cheeky Nando’s for lunch, and now I’m writing this blog, but I’m already thinking about what I’ll be writing tomorrow…

 

Five tips for writing around a day job:

  1. Spot and schedule: Spot those spare moments in your week and schedule those as writing times. They don’t have to be long. We’ve had guests on the podcast who can work in fifteen minute bursts. Little and often works best. Set reminders in your calendar and stick to them. There’s a temptation to be flexible with these times as it’s not a “proper job”. I’m very protective of these slots and treat them with the same weight as meetings scheduled for my day job.
  2. Shut out distractions: You might be working on the train, or the office, or a busy home. There will always be noise and distractions and, if you’ve only got half an hour in which to write today, then those distraction will eat that up in no time. Find a quiet spot and shut the door. Make it clear to your colleagues and loved ones that you’re not to be disturbed. If you do work in an office, get away from your desk if possible. Otherwise, you’ll have colleagues interrupting you with work queries in your break. At work I’ve been known to stick a Post It note on my headphones with “Sorry, can’t talk: Writing” written on them… It works! Your colleagues might think you’re mental, but it works. I love a pair of comfy noise-cancelling headphones for my train journey, and I currently use an app called Scape which plays woodland noises etc, which I find really conducive to productivity (I still have music playlists, but are finding them a little too distracting at my age!).
  3. Finish mid-sentence: If you’ve only got a short time in which to write, there’s nothing more likely to eat into that time than you sitting there, staring into space, wondering what to write next. I try to finish any session mid-sentence, so when I return to writing I simply finish that sentence/thought/scene/paragraph and I’m already up and running.
  4. A.B.T: Always Be Thinking. You might not be able to write all the time, but you should engage your brain for some good, solid thinking as often as possible. Five minutes on your hands? Skip back to what you were last writing: what were the problems? How can they be solved? What happens next? And whatever you think of, for the love of criminy take notes! If you’re anything like me, you’ll have forgotten everything by the time you get back to writing.
  5. Write early, edit late: This is a personal one, and perhaps more to do with being middle-aged and sluggish, but I work on new stuff in the morning when I’m bright and breezy, and edit that same work in the evening when I’m lacking buzz and energy. I also have a method that I call Be Kind Rewind: whenever I get stuck, I’ll go back and edit/rewrite the previous 500 or so words. By the time I’m done working on them, I usually have enough momentum going that I crash through any block that I might’ve had when I started.

If you found those helpful, please share with your fellow writers. How do you work around the day job? Please leave your comments below…

In Defence Of Plot Holes

There’s been a lot of chatter online regarding a certain new space opera movie. I forget what it’s called. Flash Starkiller and The Laser Sword of Doom or something. In amongst all the manbaby cries of “You ruined my childhood by making it for girls!” there is a common criticism that actually carries some heft. Here’s when one reply I got when I blogged about how much I liked the film…

It can’t be denied that the film has plot holes. One occured to me only this morning: if Luke flew his X-Wing to Ach-To, how did he do it without Artoo? I didn’t think you could fly an X-Wing without an astromech… okay, maybe you can, or because The Force, or whatever?

That’s just one of many little niggles in the story, but here’s the thing, and you might want to be sitting down for this one… Ready? You sure…?

ALL OF THOSE SPACE LASER SWORD MOVIES ARE FULL OF PLOT HOLES!

All of ’em. Here’s a few that come to mind…

  • Just how long was Luke traning on Dagobah? The weeks/months/years it takes to become a Jedi, or the few hours it took the Falcon to fly to Bespin?
  • Why would Obi Wan take a baby Skywalker to the planet where his dad was born and not bother to change the kid’s name?
  • Why did the Death Star come out of hyperspace so far away from Yavin and give the Rebels so much time to prepare?
  • Who did Leia’s hair and makeup in the Ewok village?

And that beloved saga isn’t the only one suffering from holy story syndrome:

  • How did Andy’s poster get back on the wall in his cell in The Shawshank Redemption?
  • Who heard Charles Foster Kane say “Rosebud”?
  • What was Bruce Willis doing in his downtime when he wasn’t hanging out with the kid on the Sixth Sense?
  • Almost all of the finale of Ocean’s 11
  • Every Bond film ever made
  • Just how did Tom Hagen cut that horse’s head off in the Godfather without waking anyone? And I’ll buy lunch for anyone who can explain the plot of The Godfather II to me without hesitation, repetition or deviation.

Most, if not all, stories have plot holes in them. I would go so far as to say that life itself is full of plot holes, but this isn’t a post-Brexit therapy group so let’s move on.

We’re willing to gloss over plot holes because WE RESPOND TO STORIES ON AN EMOTIONAL LEVEL. And boy do we get emotional when we talk about beloved series and characters. And because they’re so beloved they’re put under far more scrutiny than those lesser movies we might watch once and then forget.

As a writer, this doesn’t mean you now have licence to fill your script with gaping plot holes. We all vary in our tolerance of plot holes, and you need to work hard to ensure that your story makes sense. When you spot a hole you need to fix it, and don’t just paper over the cracks hoping we won’t notice.

Always work under the supposition that your audience is smarter than you are.However, it’s inevitable that one or two might slip through, no matter how rigorous you are, especially if you’re writing science fiction and fantasy where you’re working with magic and hyperspace and other wonders that don’t exist.

But ask yourself what’s more important: a watertight logic puzzle, or a fairytale that punches you in the gut? I know it’s not an either/or situation, but I know which end of the spectrum I veer towards.

May The Force Be With You and Toto’s still going to be put down by Mrs. Gulch when Dorothy wakes…

Until next time, happy writing!

Mark

PS. Don’t get me started on people who think they’re clever pointing out petty continuity errors in movies.

PPS. That novel I wrote with Mark Desvaux doesn’t have a single plot hole in it. Not one. I dare you to find one. Grab your copy here and prove me wrong.

PPPS. Oh, and if you want to support our work on the podcast, we now have a Patreon. Do please support us and we can keep this train rolling.

Subscribers to my newsletter get this kind of stuff before anyone else, the lucky things. You can join their ranks by signing up here (and you can choose a free eBook while you’re at it!)

Your favourite episodes of The Bestseller Experiment (part one)

In an act of seasonal optimism/hubris (delete as applicable) we released a new episode of the podcast on Christmas Day this week. It’s the first of a two-parter in which we reveal the top ten favourite episodes as voted for by our listeners… and in typical Bestseller Experiment style, our top ten is actually a top twelve. Oh well… Have a listen here and let me know if the episode you voted for is here…

 

In this episode you will discover…

  • The most important lessons we’ve learned from our guests
  • Which author we were most nervous about interviewing
  •  How Donald Trump was key to our success
  •  The names of those on Santa’s “Nice” list

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN NOW

If you liked that and want some more, we’ve started having post-podcast deep dive discussions for our Patreon supporters. You can support us and get the extra content here.

And if you’re looking for something to read over the Christmas holiday, then grab a copy of our novel Back to Reality on Kindle now!

Back To Reality quote sheet.008