Where I got the idea for The Crow Folk

We had a special episode of the Bestseller Experiment this week and Mark Desvaux asked me a bunch of listener questions about The Crow Folk. I’ve broken them up into short videos, and in this first episode I talk about how the idea developed from a contemporary TV pilot into the Second World War novel that’s out now.

You can listen to the whole podcast episode here.

Discover more about the Crow Folk and the Witches of Woodville here.

TRANSCRIPT:

MARK STAY: Hello folks, it’s here! Look! Finished, gorgeous. Thanks to everyone who bought the book, read the book, said lovely things about the book, a huge thank you to all of you. It really means a lot. What you’re going to see today… We had a special episode of The Bestseller Experiment where I answered a whole bunch of listener questions and rather than one big lump of video I’m going to do them in little chunks over time, in more digestible chunks. So the first of these, people ask me where I got the idea from and how it developed. And this has been in development for some time. Be warned: this video contains gratuitous bellringing.

MARK DESVAUX: But let’s let’s dive in because there’s a lot there’s a lot of things people want to know about this book. And the first thing the first question is from Jan Carr, and Jan asks, where did you get your idea from?

MS: Classic, classic, and just to reassure listeners, so I’m going to try and make the answers as helpful for writers as possible, and it’s not just going to be me blowing smoke up my own bum for an hour, I mean, maybe for just forty five minutes. So hopefully we’ll get some insight into working with agents, editors, development, ideas, writing for series historical fiction, stuff like that. So Chris asked the same question. Chris Lowenstein: Where did you get the idea? Matt says, of all the story ideas you likely had before you started this book, why did you choose this one? Tanya says, How do you decide if it’s a book or TV thing? What made you a great idea for a novel? A lot of variations on that. But here’s the thing. I’ve got files going back on this idea going all the way back to 2008. So it’s… and it probably dates to before that. I mean, this has been mulling around for a long, long time. And it did, weirdly, it started out as a TV idea, but it was very different.
First of all, I think the big problem with it was I had the point of view completely wrong, and it only took me about 10 years to figure that out. And the period was wrong too, because it was contemporary. Set in the here and now. So a few things had to change to sort of make the idea fall into place. And for me, it really started getting momentum in its current form when we were visiting friends in Chiddingtone in Sussex. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Chiddingstone. It’s on the border of Sussex and Kent. And it is your archetypal English village. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Weirdly, I work with the chap who lives there called Mark Streatfeild, who is kind of Lord of the Manor at Chiddingstone castle. He’s related to Noel Streatfeild who wrote Ballet Shoes. And they have… The family have their own coat of arms and everything. And Claire was down there, bellringing And while she was ringing, me and the kids sat outside a pub and the kids challenged me to come up with an idea for Doctor Who. And I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a whole session of bellringing? But they do something at the end. They ring down the bells because the bells have to be put in a position where they kind of put up and then they’re rung down and something happens to the bells, the bells and ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. They start ringing very, very closely together, really, really closely together. And it creates this incredible sound, an absolutely incredible sound. It’s like the lost chord from the beginning of the universe. It just creates this incredible magical hum and… And I got something from that I thought that could be that could be something magical, but that’s a good MacGuffin. I could use that. And of course, we’ve been using bells to fight off evil since time began. So bells…. Bells was something… Going to be very important and also Claire hosts… The bellringers will go on journeys. They’ll go from Surrey to Kent and back for the day back or whatever. And they they use us as a base for a couple of days. So sort of twice a day they come back and I’d have to make 40 cups of tea and then double up 40 lots of sandwiches or whatever. And I joked to them, oh, this is just after The End of Magic came out. I joked that I would make bellringers the heroes in my next book. So so the whole bell ringing MacGuffin was coming together. And it does play a really important part in The Crow Folk and then the time period thing put it into place, because it was still a TV idea. My TV agent, my script agent said, why don’t you set it… Instead of making it contemporary, why don’t you set it in the Second World War? Because that period England… Downton Abbey is an easier sell to Americans and overseas people than contemporary England. And that just… Another sort of thing sorted into place. Okay, great: World War Two and… I’ve moved to Kent. Moving here made a big, big difference because… Moving to the country made a big difference. And World War Two, I mean, it happened here with the Battle of Britain right above our heads. So moving here made all the difference.

MD: I got to say…

MS: Slotted into place and then.

MD: I was going to say, yes, that’s kind of like and it’s an extreme case, isn’t it, of a book research is to actually leave leave the suburbs of London and buy a house and therefore you’ve immersed yourself in it. Must have changed a lot because immersing yourself in kind of a village kind of environment must have given you an amazing kind of sense of backdrop for the book. Right?

MS: Completely. Completely. I mean, one of the nice notes I’ve got from someone who read the book said they said you write nature really well, and it’s just being here. You become a lot more aware of the nature and the surroundings. And then the big thing that clicked into places I got the POV right. In and the original version had been the monster’s POV. With this, I created a created a character called Faye Bright. She’s this young girl. She’s your classic, you know, hero… ingenue, kind of, you know, of character. And it all kind of started to click into place. And going back to I think it was Matt who said, why choose this one? It was just the idea that just would not go away. And I couldn’t figure out why… I’d write other things. And whenever I finish those things, I came back and this idea just kept coming back: a magical wood, a village. And, you know, the other thing is I knew this had series potential, you know, that endless well of story. And for years I’ve been trying to think of a series idea, something I could come back to. Well, could it be a science fiction idea? Fantasy idea, what have you? And this it all clicked into place about a character that was able to grow with the series. You know, she’s 17 in this book, but she’ll grow as it goes on. And it just took a really, really long time to see what was right in front of me. But, yeah, that’s a very, very long answer. But it had a very, very long gestation. It’s been around for 13 years. And ten of those it was kind of swimming about and it was completely wrong. So if anyone out there is thinking, you know, I’ve got this idea and it just won’t gel, just be patient. Just if it keeps coming back, if it keeps nagging you, there’s something in there. There’s there’s gold in them thar hills. And you just have to have the tenacity to hang in there because eventually it will reveal itself.

MD: I think it’s a brilliant, brilliant testament really to that idea. And we often call it signposting where you get to you know, you get an opportunity in life where you can start something new or you can try something and you look at the signposts and the different things that you could do at that point in your life. And if there’s a signpost is always there, it’s always like this is this I’m not going away. I’m not leaving you. If you see that enough times, you really have to follow up. And it sounds like intuitively you went right now. But it’s also about timing, is it? Well, I mean, you couldn’t have written this book five, ten years ago, right?

MS: Well, I did. I did write the book. I mean, that’s the thing. I mean, we’ve got questions about development later on. I finished many, many drafts of the wrong book, you know, that eventually kind of and scripts, you know, TV pilot scripts, feature length scripts that I got to the end of. And they still didn’t work. So, you know, it’s I did write it, but it was it was just wrong. It was it was wrong, wrong, wrong era and not the right character for you to write the right book as well.

If you enjoyed that, folks, there’s more to come. I’m going to be talking about future episodes, things like development, the writing process, writing historical language, historical dialogue and comparing my experiences in crowdfunding and indie publishing and traditional publishing, all that good stuff. So subscribe and don’t miss an episode. See you soon. And happy writing.

Why I’m Okay With Plot Holes

Writers live in fear of a leaky story, but I’m okay with plot holes. And here’s why…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello folks, Mark Stay here. I’m going to tell you why I’m completely okay with Plot Holes…

What is a plot hole exactly?
Well, in a story, it’s one of those little bits that doesn’t quite make logical sense, doesn’t really stand up to any scrutiny.

For example, in The Godfather, just how does Tom Hagen cut that horse’s head off without anyone noticing? So in the Ewok village, Princess Leia’s dress… Where did that come from? Just how did Andy’s poster stay on the wall in his prison cell after he broke out? Just what did Bruce Willis do when he wasn’t talking to the scary ghost kid? Who exactly heard Charles Foster Kane say “Rosebud?” The entire final act of this, and every James Bond film ever made.

All of these films are bona fide classics, films that most of us love and adore.
And they get a pass.
We gloss over their plot holes.
And why is that?
Because we respond to stories on an emotional level.

As a writer, this doesn’t mean you now have license to write a story that’s full of plot holes and we all vary in our tolerance of plot holes. And you have to work hard to make sure that your story makes sense and not just, you know, paper over the cracks and hope we don’t notice.

Always write on the assumption that your readers are smarter than you are, you know, work as hard as you can to iron out all those little holes.
But the thing is, when you’re dealing with stuff that doesn’t exist, you know, fantastical stuff like time travel, magic, warp speed, that sort of thing, you’re not going to be able to… One or two will inevitably slip through.
However, ask yourself this: What’s more important to you? A watertight logic puzzle-style story, or something that’s going to have some emotional oomph? I know which end of the spectrum I veer towards, although none of my books have plot holes, none of them, if you doubt that you should buy them all, and read them from cover to cover and make copious notes and then drop me a line if you spot any. Anyway, hope that’s helpful. A little note on plot holes, and sleep tight in the knowledgethat when Dorothy wakes up from a trip to Oz, Toto will still be put down by Mrs. Gulch

Plotting vs Pantsing

When you write, do you prefer to outline beforehand? Or write by the seat of your pants?

I go for a walk without a map and discuss plotting versus pantsing. Beware: heavy-handed metaphors ahead!

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello folks, Mark Stay here. I’m on a walk today.
One of the things I want to talk about today is plotting versus pantsing. Something that’s been on my mind quite a bit. And I’m on a walk because, and you should be aware of this, there are some heavy-handed metaphors on their way, because I’m going on this journey today and I have no idea where I’m going. Hey, hey, hey. Plotting, pantsing, eh?! Anyway, so let’s get on with it.

So, yeah , let’s define some terms first. So, a plotter is someone who outlines before they write. A pantser is somebody who writes by the seat of their pants. And this term was completely new to me before I started the podcast I hadn’t heard of it before. I think it’s an Americanism, frankly. But yeah, it kind of makes sense. You know, there are people who make it up as they go along. And I’ll be honest, I was, uh… the idea of that always kind of terrified me and I was always a very big outliner. And anyone who’s listened to the bestseller experiment podcast will know that I got quite a bollocking for that from Ben Aaronovitch, because my outline was, well, for Back to Reality that I’d written with Mark Desvaux was some 50-odd-thousand words long. Which is, to be fair, is quite a lot. And it was quite a wake-up call for me. In my defence my background’s in screenwriting and in screenwriting, you have to outline everything because you need to serve stuff up to directors and producers, pitching stuff that you haven’t actually written yet. I’ve done it. Just this week, I put together a 10-page outline for a TV show for the director to see. Now, I’d rather write that 10-page outline than a 50-page pilot show that he then doesn’t like at all, you know, so it makes a lot of sense to do that, certainly in the film world. And certainly if you have a deal with a publisher, they’re gonna ask to see synopses upfront, but not big ones, usually just three paragraphs tops, usually. So, you know, you do have to outline a bit and certainly Ben Aaronovitch says he does, like, a page. You know, before he writes anything and other authors we’ve spoken to, people like Martina Cole, you know, they do a page. The important thing is they have an ending. They know where they’re going. They know where the protagonist is going. Anyway, back to me. and my fifty thousand word outline.

Ben’s bollocking was quite a wake up call because it made me think, actually should I really be… is this is the right way to do this? Is there a right way or wrong way to do this? So the book I’d been working on before the podcast that I put aside to write Back to Reality was my fantasy novel, The End of Magic, which I had outlined very, very heavily. You know, I had three plot strands going on and I needed to know where they were going. And I felt outlining would really, really help me. And I’d done it. I’d finished the draft before starting the podcast, put it away. And then sort of a year later, after we wrote Back to Reality, I picked it up again, had a look at it and realised two of the threads were fine, really, really good. There was one character that just wasn’t working. A character called Oskar, and he needed work. I had a choice, then. I could have sat down and outlined it very heavily. Or I could have pantsed it. Fly by the seat of my pants. Well, that’s what I did and I loved it. It was great. I mean, I had the safety mat in that I knew everything that was going on all around him, you know, I knew what’s happening with the other characters. I knew how the story was going to end. I had a very good idea of how I wanted his story to end. So I approached the rewrites of his chapters just with the attitude of “What happens next?” What can be the most interesting thing that happens to poor old Oskar? I made his life hell. Very difficult. And I loved it. I had a great experience. And what’s interesting is in a lot of the reviews, people single out Oskar’s thread as their favorite bit. So that was a lesson learned, you know, and I took that to heart. So when I started working on my next project, which was the Woodville books, I figured, you know what? Let’s pants this one. And I did.

The Witches of Woodville Books, starting with The Crow Folk. OK, I figured, you know what? Let’s pants these. A little bit of history on the books. I’d been writing them on and off for about ten years, basically as contemporary fiction set in the current day. You know, with magic and what have you. It just wasn’t working. And so I put them away and it was my TV agent who said, you know, why don’t you set them in the Second World War? He figured I could sell a TV series like that to the Americans. Much to his annoyance, probably, I started writing it as a book series. And it all clicked into place. But what I did was abandon any previous story ideas. I worked on the characters, particularly the character of Faye, and just figured where I wanted her to end up and headed towards that ending. So I did kind of a one-page outline and got to know Faye. I wrote the book up and around her. And I would ask the question, what happens next? How can I test her? How can I make life difficult for her? How will she recover? And pick herself up? And dust herself off and become a better person? And it was fun. It was really freeing.

The other habit I started was I got a notebook and at the end of my writing day, which is only a couple of hours each morning, I would write what happens next or write down sort of half baked ideas, “What happens next?” Or finish mid-sentence. And the old brain— Wow, look at this. The old brain would be ticking away. And I would usually have ideas at some point during the day. Send them to myself. And the next morning I knew what I was going to be writing. So, in a weird way I was still outlining. But just, you know, one nibble at a time. And it worked and it needed surprisingly few rewrites as well. Because that’s the thing with outlining. I think I always viewed it as a safety net. I always viewed it as that thing… How rude. I always viewed it as that thing of, you know, at least I know where I’m going. But, you know, I’ve been writing for so long now, I kind of know story structure. I kind of have a good idea of what should happen next. And then I heard on the Script Notes podcast, a brilliant talk by the screenwriter Craig Mazin, where he said what he uses is, he knows where he wants his character to end up. He kind of has his ending in place. And then he writes from the opposite of that, you know, so he knows how they’re going to change over the course of the story. So he says, whenever I got stuck, I would just think, OK, I’m going from “this” to “the opposite of this”. How is this chapter affecting that? How is my character changing in this part of the story? And it’s such a simple rule and it works. So I use that. And I’ve used it for the second book in the Woodville books, which I’ve just handed in to my agent. You know, that’s kind of been my method. But that’s not to say that I’ve abandoned plotting altogether. I have to do it with screenplays. It’s just like I said, I’ve just done a TV thing. So this idea that it needs to be an either/or thing is hooey. I think George R.R. Martin says, you know, writers are either architects or gardeners. You know, they build something or they let it grow organically. I don’t see why you can’t be an architect with a garden, frankly. Why the hell not? Yeah. By the way, this is where we shot the video for The Crow Folk. It’s changed a bit since the summer, hasn’t it? There’s normally a path here. These are new!

That’s not to poo poo people who outline, you know, outlining, I’ve done it and it’s been successful for me, you know, if that’s the way you do it, go for it. All power to you. But I don’t think you have to define yourself as one or the other. You know, allow your writing style to evolve over time, allow yourself the flexibility to change the outline, because, by all means, study the Hero’s Journey, Save the Cat, all of those seven point story things or whatever. Understanding structure is important. Definitely important because it allows you when you are stuck to maybe fix things. But what I would say is all those books, you know, on why Thelma and Louise and Silence of the Lambs is, you know, the greatest structured screenplay ever. They’re all done from a point of analysis. After the fact. The screenwriters weren’t thinking like that. You know, they were just thinking what happens next? And either through experience or their own insight, they were able to come up with great solutions. And believe me, they didn’t come up with it first time. They would have rewritten and rewritten until they got it right. See, don’t let anyone define what you should be as a writer. You have to figure it out for yourself. That takes time. It’s taken me over 20 years.

So here’s the heavy-handed metaphor bit. When I left the house this morning. I didn’t know which way I was going to walk. I knew that I was going for a walk, but I didn’t have a preplanned route. But I know the area really well. I didn’t realize it was going to be so muddy back there. But I got through it because I’ve been here before and I sort of know the way. Huh? I told you. It’s heavy-handed, didn’t I? I’m a writer. I do metaphors, me. Oh, yeah. But, you know, I’ve ended up here. I’m pretty happy with that. Yeah, it’s not bad. All things considered, at the end of it, I’m going to reward myself with a cup of tea, maybe a little cookie or something. Here we go. Till next time, happy writing. And if you get lost, don’t worry. There’s usually a path somewhere.

Five Tips For Writing Around A Day Job

Want to write a novel, but juggling a day job, commute and other such commitments? I’ve written novels and screenplays while shuttling back and forth to London, and here are five tips that helped me make the most of my limited time…

I’ve Been Tweaking My Blurb

Blurbs are hard and I’ve been tweaking mine (ooh, Matron!)…

Transcript:

Hello folks, Mark Stay here. I’m sure you’ll be delighted to learn, I’ve been tweaking my blurb. Ooh, Matron. What does that mean? Well, the blurb is the book description. It’s that three paragraphs that you see on the back of the paperback or on the online retailers’ book description. And it’s one of the most powerful selling tools you have, because it’s usually the first thing that people see, and it helps them make up their mind if they actually want to read on and buy the book, and what have you. So, I got some feedback from Simon and Schuster’s sales department. They felt the blurb was reading a little bit too young… skewing a little bit too young. Let me just read it out to you to give you an idea. So here’s the blurb as was, and then I’ll talk about how I’ve tweaked it and how it’s changed.

So here’s the original blurb: As Spitfires roar overhead, and a dark figure stalks the village of Woodville, a young woman will discover her destiny. Faye bright always felt a little bit different. And today she’s found out why. She’s just stumbled across her late mother’s diary, which includes not only a spiffing recipe for jam roly poly, but spells incantations, runes and recitations… a witch’s notebook and Faye has inherited her mother’s abilities. Just in time too… the Crow Folk are coming. Led by the charismatic Pumpkinhead, their strange magic threatens Faye and the villagers. Armed with little more than her mum’s words, her trusty bicycle, the grudging help of two bickering, old ladies and some aggressive church bell ringing, Faye will find herself on the front lines of a war nobody expected. Now, the things that jump out there are references to jam roly, poly, which is in the book, and the word spiffing.

I felt they may be felt a little bit too Famous Five. This all sort of begs the question: who is this book for? You know: do you want it read by a YA market or middle grade market? And let’s define what they are: middle grade is kind of up to about… Sort of from about eight to about 12 years old. YA is anywhere from mid teens, right up to mid thirties. Actually that older, mid thirties market I think would really, really enjoy this, but you don’t want to put off a whole corner of the market that might read that and think, Oh, that’s a bit young for me. It’s a bit childish, perhaps. I mean, this book doesn’t have any swearing, because of the period really, uh, there’s, there’s no violence. Certainly not as violent as my previous books.

There’s no sex. So it could genuinely be read by anyone from the age of 10 upwards. But, it does deal with the second world war. There are demonic forces at work here. So, you know, you don’t want to put people off, but you want to sort of capture the tone of the book. So I went back and forth with my publisher on this. We removed those words like spiffing, words, like jam roly poly, and tried to make it just a little bit darker. We went a bit too far with some of our efforts, but then we dialed it back a bit. So, here’s what we got. So, uh, this is the new blurb: War rages in Europe, but in a quiet village in rural Kent, there is another battle to be won. Faye Bright has always known she was different, but when she discovers her late mother’s diary, she realizes why. It’s full of spells incantation, runes, and recitations.

It is a witch’s notebook and Faye has inherited her mother’s abilities. Just in time too. The Crow folk are coming. And they want that book. Led by the charismatic pumpkinhead, their strange magic threatens Faye and the villagers. Armed with little more than her mum’s words, the grudging help of two bickering witches, and some aggressive church bellringing, Faye will find herself on the front lines of a war with demonic forces. So you see, there are slight differences. You know, we got rid of jam roly poly, spiffing. We’ve got demonic forces in there, so it’s darker, but not too dark. And hopefully this will have that kind of crossover appeal. What’s really helped in the last week or so is I’ve started getting quotes from other authors, which is just amazing. So we’ve got a quote from Rowan Coleman. Thank you, Rowan.

This is amazing. She says it’s full of magic and delight, and we’ve put that on the front cover. And Julie Wassmer, has said it’s warm, witty, witchy, wartime fun, which again adds the fun element to it. So we don’t have to put that in the blurb. So you’ve got those two things working together. You’ve got the kind of the darkness of the blurb, but reassuring voices, other authors saying: you know what, it’s fun as well. So, yeah, we’ve also put a little shout line on the cover as well, which is: June, 1940 rationing blackouts, witchcraft. Which again, you know, combines all the, all those elements of the story. Blurbs are hard. They’re really, really hard. I mean, we’ve, uh, we’ve gone back and forth on this for months and they’re never kind of set in stone either. They’re things that evolve over time. Certainly my robot overlords blurb, has been updated recently with references to quarantine… Rather than being stuck inside. You know, you are in quarantine, lockdown, they’re using words that are very topical. That just happened. I didn’t have anything to do with that, but I think it’s very smart on the part of Gollancz to do that. So yes, blurbs: ever-evolving, ever-changing. I hope you’ve enjoyed this, hope you find it useful and, uh, speak to you again soon. Bye.

Reading Page Proofs

What are page proofs? And what should an author do with them? In this quick and easy video, I’ll show what I did with mine when they arrived last week. You’ll learn what they’re for, why I read them out loud, and why I back them up to a master document.

TRANSCRIPT: Hello folks. I’m Mark Stay. I’m an author and a screenwriter. And in the run up to the publication of my new book, The Crow Folk, which is coming February 2021, I’m gonna be posting regular updates here. There’s stuff about the book and the story, but also behind the scenes stuff about the process of publication and particularly all the fun stuff that happens in the run up to the big publication day.

And just recently, I got my page proofs from my publisher. So I’m going to talk about what I do with those and how I review them for my publisher. We’re a little over three months away from the publication of The Crow Folk and the proof pages were sent to me as a PDF. This is how the printed book will look on the page. They used to come as a big wodge of paper, but now, for various reasons – economical, environmental – they’re sent as a PDF. I did look into getting them printed locally, but for a 352 page document, it would’ve cost about 35 to 50 quid, depending if I wanted it one-sided or or two-sided.

Now the proof pages are an author’s last opportunity to really spot any errors and make any changes. Not big changes, either. This is not an edit. The edit is done. This is not the time to decide to move that pivotal scene in Act two into Act One No, no, no… What you’re looking for are typos, formatting errors, clunky sentences. And that’s about it. I read them out loud. Why? Well, when I was at Orion — I worked for the Orion Publishing Group for many, many years — the audio director, Pandora White, said she wished all authors would read their proof pages out loud. And the reason is that by the time they came round to recording the audio book, the proof pages had been done and sent off to the printers. So if they ever spotted any errors — and they often did — it was too late to do anything about it. So y’know, that’s why I read it out loud. I know authors who use speech software to have their computer read it back to them, which is a good way to spot typos and clunky sentences, but you miss homonyms. So y’know there are at least two I can recall from this book: draft and draught, and hole and whole. You miss fomatting errors. You can’t hear when the formatting is wrong, y’know. So I had a question mark slip off the end of the line and end up at the beginning of the next line on this ones, so I was able to pick that, so to catch that. So I read out loud. I make the words as big as possible on the screen, because I’m one of those people who tends to speed, read and skip ahead, and that’s how you miss stuff.That’s how you miss the little tiny details, and you can’t make that mistake when the words are so huge. When I read, I do so in a soft voice and try not to make it too dynamic or dramatic. You know this process can take as long as a week, and I need to save my voice. There’s a fine line between a soft voice and monosyllabic.

I mark-up the pdf as I go. I read for about an hour a time, and then I usually take a break, do a little bit of housework or something just to get the circulation going again. I generally find I can only read in the mornings. I’m just too drowsy in the afternoon and I miss stuff.

At the end of each session, I go back to my original document, which is a Scrivener document. You may use Word or similar, and I go and make those changes. All those mark-ups that I’ve made. I go and make them in my original document. And I did that for the edit, and the copy edit: any changes go back into a master document so that I have a master doc with all the updated changes. You’d be amazed how few authors do this and that’s not unreasonable. Why should I do this? The publisher is making those changes and putting it out there. But at some point in the future, you may need that document. You may part company with your publisher, you know, authors get the rights back to their books, and I may want to self publish it in 20/30 years’ time or whatever. And the last thing I want to do is have to go through this process all over again. And also, you know, you can’t just ask the publisher for those files. They’ll charge you for them. They spent money creating them, and they will charge you. Sometimes it’s hundreds of pounds, and if you got a whole series that can really, really add up so, you know, create an archive, back it up, get into the habit of creating an archive. So that’s it. That’s reading page proofs.

I Done Wrote Another Movie!

The Little People are coming…

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’m Writing A Sequel (no, not that one)

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…
Magic, war, pubs… this book will have it all!
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…

Books

I’ve re-read Terry Pratchett’s Lords 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…

Music

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.

For writing music, I’ve tapping along to Torin Borrowdale’s score for Locke & Key, and Anastasis by Dead Can Dance.

Film & TV

I’ve been re-watching long movies over two or three nights: MidsommarAmadeusOnce 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.

More News To Come…

Apologies again for being Captain Vague Pants, but I’m hoping to have more details on the book thing soon, as well news about a movie and a TV show. It’s all exciting stuff and means I will be a very busy boy for the next year or so. If you want to be the first to know, then make sure you sign-up to my newsletter here.

Till next time, stay safe, healthy and keep being groovy…

Mark

I’m Pantsing the Pants Off This (and Loving It)

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.

I’ve done the same with my novels. I’ve always liked to write a thorough chapter-by-chapter outline — a clear roadmap, because I’d hate to be halfway through a hundred-thousand word novel and not have a clue what happens next, or discover a massive plot hole. If you’re a regular listener of the Bestseller Experiment podcast, you’ll know that it got me a proper bollocking from that nice Mr Ben Aaronovitch (skip to about 26 minutes in…).

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.”

Craig Mazin, Scriptnotes, ep403, 41m 50s

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…

How’s the new normal going for you?

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.

Leaving the plugs till last…

A couple of my books are on offer at the moment…

In the UK, Back to Reality is 99p in the Kindle March sale. Just a few days left!

Also in the UK, the eBook of Robot Overlords is 99p for the foreseeable future. I asked Gollancz to do this as the opening of the book — where everyone in the world is confined to their homes — seemed somewhat apt. Here’s me reading from it over on my Facebook page. It’s available on KindleAppleKobo and Google.

 Oh, and here’s an important message from our Robot Overlords.

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 rollingI 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…

Stay safe and healthy,

Mark