A few words on writing endings… with MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES

The following blog post has MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES

Have I mentioned the MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES?

Still here? Good. You’ve been warned…

Endings are a bugger. There’s no getting around it. Often, writers are advised to start with the ending and work back from there. Though the problem with that is as you get to know your characters you’ll start changing their story trajectories. And that’s where things can start to get muddled and how endings can end up making no sense whatsoever or just fizzle out into nothing.

I’ve just watched the finale to Game of Thrones for the second time and, for all its flaws, I found it immensely satisfying and for me it illustrates a great principal of storytelling:

Characters will get what they need (or deserve) and not what they wanted…

Dany gets to defeat Cersei and at least touch the iron throne (though she doesn’t actually get to park her bottom on it), nor does she get the satisfaction of seeing Cersei die, which may be why she still thirsts to bring the rest of the world under her heel, triggering Jon to (eventually) grow a pair and stop her.

Jon’s ethos of honour and duty at all costs sees him banished to the Night’s Watch, which is where he was off to in the pilot episode anyway. He could’ve saved himself an awful lot of trouble and stayed there in the first place. Bless him, he tried. Though he did stop Dany from turning other cities into dragon-flamed barbecues, so we should all be thankful for that.

Arya doesn’t get to tick Cersei off her list, but on seeing the bodies of children in the streets of King’s Landing she’s realised that her childhood has been spent pursuing empty vengeance, and so she’s off on the Westerosian equivalent of a gap year exploring the unknown.

Sansa wanted nothing more than to be a princess to a handsome king, though Joffrey the Bellend, first of his name, was enough to put her off that ambition and now she’s Queen in the North with a neat line in costume jewellery and she’s taking crap from no one (see how she tells Edmure Tully to sit down).

Bran was just a little boy who wanted to climb and have adventures and now he’s the fricking king with second sight. Betcha never saw that coming in the pilot. Oh, wait, you all did? Okay…

And Tyrion has the most satisfying arc of all. He has come a long way from his whoring and drinking, and his final scene opens with him arranging chairs in order to make a good first impression. He’s gone from an irresponsible smart arse with zero responsibility to someone who, as Bran says, will spend the rest of his life atoning for his sins.

These, along with dozens of little callbacks to the opening episodes, close the circle of the Game of Thrones story, as well as giving all our surviving characters new beginnings.

So, if you’re stuck on your ending or it doesn’t hit you in the feels hard enough then think about your characters’ wants, needs, new beginnings and… er… uhm… y’know what? I don’t have a proper ending to this blog. I… oh, this is embarrassing. Er… BUY MY BOOK!

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Seven Books on Writing…. by Women!

There I was, feeling all kinds of smug about my new blog post on seven books on writing, getting all kinds of lovely clickthrough action, when I woke up this morning to discover that I was called out on Twitter…

Gah! Typical bloke… In my defence, this wasn’t supposed to be a definitive list of the best books, but the ones that I had found to be the most helpful over the years and for some reason I find myself – a middle-aged, flabby man – reading books by other older (and dead) flabby men . But that’s no excuse (well, it’s the only one I have), and here in a craven attempt to redress the balance are some excellent books on writing, from my shelves, written by women…

Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss

This was on Julie’s Tweet above and I’m kicking myself for leaving this off, because I recall devouring this when it first came out. This book should be handed out to anyone who opens a social media account, with its clear and concise approach to punctuation there’s simply no excuse for getting anything wrong after this. With the exception of semi colons; no one knows what to do with those anymore. I also had the pleasure of driving Lynne from bookshop to bookshop to promote her book Going Loco and she’s completely delightful and not the grammar Nazi that people might think she is.

Dent’s Modern Tribes by Susie Dent

I bought this just a couple of days ago when I was lucky enough to meet Susie at the Whitstable Literary Festival. I’m reading it at the moment and it’s hugely entertaining. Susie – who folks will know from Countdown and Eight Out of Ten Cats do Countdown – has an encyclopaedic knowledge of words, but is no stick-in-the-mud. The English language evolves and twists and turns and that’s one of the reasons it has endured this long. With Modern Tribes she investigates the languages used by bankers, DJs, Hells Angels, Soldiers, Politicians and more. If you have a character that inhabits these worlds you will want this book to hand to add that extra snap of authenticity to your dialogue. Susie has written about a dozen other books on the English language and they’re all a feast.

The Pitch by Eileen Quinn & Judy Counihan

I definitely should have included this one because it has actually got me writing gigs (though sadly it appears to be out of print with no sign of an update). Eileen and Judy have decades of experience in film and TV production and this was the first book I found that dug deep into what producers and development executives are looking for when a writer pitches their work. Even if you’re not a screenwriter this will sharpen your pitching skills. I have a permanent bookmark on page 73 for the PFC: the Pitch Format Card, their essential ticklist for any pitch document.

How Not To Write A Novel by Sandra Newman & Howard Mittelmark

Yes, yes, Howard is a bloke, but this also should have been on my blog the first time round, because this is essential reading. It covers the perspective of both the author and editor when it comes to novel writing and the most common mistakes that authors make and it’s very, very funny and frank and for the first time I felt like I was reading a book by people who had sat in publishing meeting rooms and had heard the kind of despairing comments that publishers might make about some of the submissions they get. Don’t make it easy for a publisher to reject you. Buy this book.

A Feast of French and Saunders.

Barmy by Victoria Wood

I’m going to do these together as I bought these when I was in my late teens and was writing comedy sketches with friends after school. These books were some of the first sketch comedy books I ever got and I can’t begin to tell you how much learned about comedy dialogue, timing, pace and character from these. Both have moments of surrealist humour, but it’s the back and forth of dialogue that has filtered into my work. Like the Pythons, Victoria Wood and French & Saunders rarely had punchlines in their sketches, but unlike the Pythons their characters were recognisably human and incredibly funny for it.

Monkeys with Typewriters by Scarlett Thomas

Okay, I confess I haven’t read this one yet, because after this morning’s Tweets I figured I owed it to my sisters in words to go and bloody well buy a book on writing by a woman. There were a number to choose from, but I went for this because it covers everything from Plato and Aristotle to fairy tales and tragedies, and because the bookseller raved about her writing, and she lives up the road from me in Canterbury, so once I’ve read it I will do my darnedest to get Scarlett on the podcast to talk stories.

I hope that goes some little way to redressing the balance and I shall definitely look into the recommendations from Margaret and Julie as should your good selves!

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Seven books on writing

I’ve just finished reading Will Storr’s book The Science of Storytelling, the latest in a long line of books that will be snatched up by storytellers like myself in the hope that they will finally find in these pages the secrets to writing a bestselling masterpiece that will be admired until the heat death of the universe.

Here’s the thing: I’ve read enough of these books to realise that there are no secrets, there are no absolutes and there’s no right or wrong way of doing this (unless you’re eating crayon and vomiting it onto your laptop, that’s probably not as productive as it sounded when you thought of it in the shower), but some books are better than others and here are a few that I’ve found helpful over the years.

Poetics, Aristotle

This the grandaddy of “How to Write” books, written no doubt because he was fed up of hearing clichéd Homer rip-offs at his local writers’ group in Macedonia. In here you will find ground zero of Western storytelling, with clear observations on plot and character that have stood the test of time. It’s only about 150 pages long and you can find great translations for free on Project Gutenberg.

Story, Robert McKee

After Aristotle, no one had anything interesting to say about story until Robert McKee arrived (at least, that’s what he would have you believe). There’s been something of a McKee backlash since I first picked up my copy in the late ‘90s, but this was the book that first fired my imagination and even though he’s basically taking Aristotle’s ideas and illustrating them with examples from Chinatown, Casablanca and The Godfather, he is a great teacher and he makes the craft of storytelling accessible in a way that few others have managed.

On Writing, Stephen King

This came along at a great time for me, and a bad time for Mr. King. He was hit by a van while out walking in an accident that very nearly took his life and this was what he wrote while in recovery. Here, finally, was a book on the craft of writing by someone who had actually written and sold one or two novels. He talks about the craft, the language, characters and he keeps it concise and — more importantly — he treats it as a job. This is his work. Up till this point, writing had always seemed mysterious to me, on a par with alchemy and necromancy. The advice that still lingers from reading this book nearly twenty years on? Shut the door and write. And y’know what? It works!

On Film-Making, Alexander Mackendrick

Okay, so the content of this book existed before McKee but it was only in 2004 that Paul Cronin and Faber brought together the teachings of the mighty Alexander Mackendrick for the world. Mackendrick was the director of some of my favourite Ealing comedies including The Ladykillers, and The Man in the White Suit. But, crucially, he’s a director, not a writer. This book gave me the clearest understanding of the craft of film production and how to effectively tell stories in a cinematic way. Mackendrick spent twenty-five years teaching film-making and storytelling at the California Institute of the Arts in LA, and it’s all distilled in these pages. (I can also recommend Conversations with Wilder, by Cameron Crowe who patiently ekes out nuggets of gold from Billy Wilder, director and sometimes writers on classics such as Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity, The Apartment and Sunset Boulevard).

Save the Cat, Blake Snyder

The only book here where its title has become part of screenwriting jargon, “Where’s the Save the Cat moment?” Snyder had worked in the Hollywood mire for some time and had pitched and sold more screenplays that most of us can ever dream of. This is a largely practical book, with exercises designed to not only build your story but to also sell it. It’s unashamedly commercial and bullshit-free, inspiring and huge fun. (I can also recommend Writing Movies For Fun and Profit by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon which is fantastic on the harsh realities of writing for film, though you can tell it’s written by overexcited screenwriters by all the EXCLAMATIONS IN CAPITALS!).

Into The Woods, John Yorke

The likes of McKee and Vogler will instruct us on how stories work, but it was only when I read Yorke’s sublime book that I began to discover why we react to stories the way that we do. A veteran of British television, Yorke writes in a clear and no-nonsense style and digs much deeper into the beats of story and character than anyone before. Full disclosure, I’ve interviewed him for the podcast and I’ve been on his screenwriting course and if I could I would have him on speed-dial twenty-four hours a day.

The Science of Storytelling, Will Storr

What is there new to say on the craft of storytelling? I must confess that I was sceptical when I first picked this up (Science?! How reductive! This is an art, don’tcha know!) and the first few chapters made it clear that I would have really pay attention as there is some proper science going down in these pages. Storr starts by looking at how our brain perceives the world, giving me genuine chills by reminding me that my brain is stuck in a dark bone box and relies rather heavily on eyes and ears that have received much abuse from me over the years. He explores the role that story has played in our evolution and why it is so important and gives examples as to how we can use this knowledge to improve our own writing. And he makes comparisons between The Epic of Gilgamesh and Mr. Nosey (both lessons in humility), which makes the book both highfaluting and accessible. All I can attest is there were severable times I had to put the book down and made notes on my current work-in-progress and for me there is no higher recommendation.

Notable omissions

And that’s that. My favourite books on the craft writing… But wait, you cry! What of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and Vogler’s Writer’s Journey? Surely these are the the sacred texts of storytelling? Well, if I had written this blog ten years ago I’m pretty sure they would have been at the top of my list, but when I look back I think that ne plus ultra perception of them probably did me more harm than good. Campbell and Vogler are great on structure and myth, but less so on character and this led to me writing scripts and novels that had perfect structure but characters that were bland, passive and dragged along by the plot. And yes, that’s my fault, but the accepted wisdom of these books as the be-all and end-all of storytelling blinded me to that, and if I had a time machine I would go back and slap the younger me and tell him to focus on character first. That’s what it’s all about. Humans trying to make sense of the world with stories. Right… back to work!

What?! No books by women?? Uh, yeah, about that…

If you need any help or advice with your writing, I provide writer services too. Drop me a line here for a free consultation.

Writing retreat – day 5 – Climb Every Mountain…

Bet you expected a photo of a mountain, didn’t you…? Well, there’s been a few of those this week already, and I heard somewhere that cats are popular on the interwebs, so I’m heading this blog with a pic of Napoleon the cat* in a craven attempt to be down with the kidz.

Today was the final full day of this writing retreat at Le Chant de la Cascade and there’s a bit of an end of term feel to proceedings. I was up at around 6am, and by 10am I had done all I set out to achieve. The first five chapters of my middle grade book have been thoroughly rewritten and I have a road map of how to finish the rest of the book. Just having the head space to ruminate on this story has been invaluable. Note that I said ruminate and not concentrate. Concentrating is what I do during my regular working week; grabbing an hour here and there and focussing intently on the story. Here I’ve been allowed to let it drift in and out of my head as it pleases and we’ve been getting along better than ever as a result.

After my session, I went for a walk and found myself clambering up a very steep path, stopping every twenty minutes or so to avoid a coronary. I was eventually treated to this…

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Yes, another bloody photo of Mont Blanc… but look at it!

This has been an extraordinary week. A leap forward for a writing project, great company with my fellow writers, and wonderful hosts in Marcus and Maureen. If you have a project that needs some rumination and you like an environment that’s tranquil and inspiring, then check out the next retreat in May. I can’t recommend it enough.

 

*Not his real name. He asked for anonymity.

 

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Writing Retreat – day 3 – Taking out the trash…

Another early start with a little bit of light podcasting for next week’s episode, and a good morning’s writing. I’m realising that a big problem with this book is I’m setting too much up too soon, and a lot of what I’m setting up doesn’t even need to be there in the first place (retrospect is a fine thing and this is why we have rewrites). So my first four or five chapters might only need to be three chapters with clearer intent so that the reader’s expectations aren’t muddled and I have a greater chance of getting them engaged with the story.

It’s all about focusing on what’s important and taking out the trash… Speaking of which, Marcus asked if we fancied helping him take the trash up the road to where it’s collected, because when you get there, this is the view…

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Mont Blanc… which, on the hour, every hour, rumbles and ejaculates a new overpriced fountain pen from its summit.

 

I mean… blimey… that puts our local recycling centre into perspective. I couldn’t stop staring at it, and these photos don’t do it any justice whatsoever. It’s magnificent and gets something ticking over in my excitable little brain.

Fired-up once more, I returned to the chalet and worked harder than ever. This is the nook that I’ve been writing in. A little mezzanine level in the chalet with a not-remotely distracting view of the trees gently swaying outside…

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After a walk and an incredible dinner, we gathered for this evening’s session with Marcus, which was on endings, twists and readers’ expectations. This all came from conversations we’d each had with Marcus during the day, which is such a nice way of tailoring the group sessions to our own needs. I also got to interview one of my fellow retreaters Dawn Kurtagich who has been to a number of retreats and now even runs her own (subscribe to the podcast to make sure you don’t miss out on that!).

Once again, this retreat has defied all expectations and I can heartily recommend it. Check out more details of the May retreat here, and if that doesn’t convince you then this is the sort of food we’re getting…

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I mean, come on…

For day 4 click here.

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Where’s my bloody book?! (part two) – An update on The End of Magic…

After a bit of a lull over the summer, my new fantasy novel The End of Magic has survived the edit and is now with the copy editor Lisa Rogers.

“What the hell is a copy editor?” you may ask… Well, after working on structural and character stuff with Simon, we now move onto what is sometimes also called the line edit, where another editor goes through the book line-by-line and looks for errors in grammar, punctuation and continuity. Even the most diligent author will miss stuff and we all go wordblind after a while, so it’s essential to get a fresh pair of eyes to give it a thorough going over.

I was determined to get Lisa for two reasons.

  1. I worked with her on Robot Overlords and she’s blimming amazing and has incredible knowledge of science fiction and fantasy and has a brain roughly the size of a planet.
  2. She’s a wonderful human being and we should all work with wonderful human beings whenever we get the chance.

This should all be sorted in the next month or so, and then we move onto the proofread and maybe… just maybewe might have news on a release date.

In the meantime, if you’re keen to dip in before the main event I have a free short story/prequel to the novel available when you sign up to my newsletter here.

And if you haven’t pre-ordered The End of Magic, you can do it here and there’s still time to get your name in the book along with some other cool extras! And here’s me pitching it on a windy day…

Till next time,

Mark

Son of a Beach

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

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

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

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Getting a lift in the new Hachette warehouse…

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

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

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

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

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

Till next time!

Mark

Isabel Ashdown’s secrets and lies

We had the fantastic thriller writer Isabel Ashdownon the Bestseller Experiment podcast this week. Isabel is the author of bestselling thrillers Little Sister and Beautiful Liars, and she walked away from a successful career to focus on her writing and it all stepped up a gear when she entered a competition in a newspaper. I was also joined by stand-in co-host Sam Eades who is always good fun and does a mean jigsaw… You can listen to the podcast here.

Like many science fiction and fantasy authors out there, I found myself sighing in despair at this comment from Liz Thomson in the Bookseller. I am beyond proud to have been published by Gollancz, and I realise that this kind snobbery exists, but you expect better from Liz (who’s always been very chatty and friendly whenever I’ve met her) and the Bookseller, a publication that should celebrate all publishing regarding of genre. Sigh…

And a quick update on my fantasy novel The End of Magicit’s now 80% funded over at Unbound, so it’s not too late to pledge to join the adventure and get your name in the book along with some other cool extras. Click here for more info.

Till next time, happy writing!

Mark

Surviving your first year as a debut author with Ed McDonald

I had the pleasure of speaking to the superb Ed McDonald on the podcast this week. Ed talks very honestly about his first year as a professional author, achieving his dream of getting published, and then he asks the question, “What next?” It’s a very revealing chat and you can listen here.

I was over the moon to see my friend Deborah Haywood’s movie Pin Cushion premiere at the East End Film Festival last weekend. It’s funny, dark, and cat lady mad with a brilliant cast. Have a look at the trailer here.

And if you’re looking for a major time suck, the BBC have opened up their sound effects archives for non-commercial use. There’s some really freaky stuff available for your delight. Listen to this doll singing Oranges and Lemons and tell me you won’t be sleeping with the lights on tonight…Oh, and I’m 77% funded on The End of Magic with less than a month to go! If you’ve not pledged already, now would be a wonderful time to do it. Just click here and hit that lovely blue pledge button.

Till next time, happy writing!

Mark

I got a rejection this week… and I’m in good company…

I loved this Tweet from VE Schwab asking authors if they had received rejections of their work recently…

She was deluged with replies, some from some very big names, and one from me. Only last week, I had a book pitch rejected by a publisher. The response I got was, “We pissed ourselves laughing, we loved it, we just don’t know how to sell it.” And that’s fine. I appreciate the honesty and know that there would be nothing worse than slogging away on a novel for however many months only for the publisher to give a shrug on publication.

I more positive news I was inspired by blog posts from a couple of writers friends. Julian Barr talks about what he strives for here, and Laurence Doherty talks about working up from rejections to the NI New Writers Focus Scheme here.

And the big treat for the week is the Bestseller Experiment live show with Orion editor Emad Akhtar (pictured above). He answered all sorts of listener questions on writing, editing, storytelling and WWE wrestling… Yes really. You can listen here.

Till next time, happy writing!