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Wednesday 20 February 2013

Writer Fortune Cookies

It's Lucy Hay's fault. She asked for some twitter-length quotes for her forthcoming Writing and Selling Thriller Screenplays book so I went through my folder of old interview responses - because yes, I hoard such thoughts like unspent pennies - and picked out anything that might fit the bill. And now I'm left with this useful-looking list that serves no useful purpose.
    Fortune Cookie Image
  • Audiences show up for story, not for big themes or great characters. But it's the big themes and characters that send them away happy.
  • Flawed heroes. Complex villains. Mythic everyman figures in classically-structured story forms.
  • Stuff happens that obliges someone to action. The action generates incident. The developing effect of those incidents is the drama.
  • Link every beat with "So then they have to..." or "But they can't because..." If it's, "Then they decide to..." then your story is weak.
  • Everybody wants to be edgy and relevant and issue-driven. And no one wants to see it.
  • I can see a place for professionally-done exploitation in any healthy industry.
  • A feature film is a one-off universal myth. TV’s a continuing parade.
  • The Thirty-Nine Steps, in its combination of personal conflict and open landscape, is the closest thing we have to the Great British Western.
  • Does the anti-hero even exist as a concept any more? It seems to me that yesterday's antihero is the model for all heroes now.
  • Research is about continuing to write with authority after you've detected the limits of what you know.
  • Never use someone else's fiction as research. It's already been diluted or corrupted to the author's purpose.
  • It’s a terrifically delicate thing to manage suspense and darkness without falling into the trap of mere unpleasantness.
  • Postwar British thrillers took the war story ethos (protagonist has to improvise/survive in enemy territory) and gave it a peacetime spin.
  • The prose writer and the screenwriter live in two universes that move at very different speeds. The screenwriter who doesn’t get it will turn out books that read like novelisations. The novelist will write a script that can’t be shot.
  • All kinds of people can make changes to your work, but you don't get to change what anyone else does.
  • American TV has its flaws but a failure to understand showbusiness isn't one of them. It makes a lot of our stuff feel like school homework.
  • (And this one's over-length but won't be cut down:) 
  • Getting the money for a production is like getting a celebrity to show up for your party; all your timing needs to be just right, because if things ain't ready then neither will hang around.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

Free eBook Reminder

As if you needed reminding...

In the years following the Great War, a skeptical conjuror and a spiritualist medium merge their interests to tour the regional lecture halls of the United Kingdom.

This eBook novella is a free download, offered to coincide with US paperback publication of The Bedlam Detective. After the promotional period you'll be able to buy it from Amazon.

Set in the aftermath of the Great War, it follows the pairing of stage magician Will Goulston and spiritualist Frederick Kelly as they tour the lecture halls of provincial Britain.

Friday 15 February 2013

I Think I Invented Netflix, So Where's My Money?

First House of Cards, then Arrested Development... with Netflix now making its own shows for direct download sale, a complete season at a time, I've been reminded of a thought that I had back in 2009.

I said at the time that I had mixed feelings about the jail terms and fines passed by the Swedish courts on the operators of the Pirate Bay filesharing setup. I reckoned I'd have had more sympathy over the sentencing if the guys in question weren't such clanging arseholes.

Piracy is, by its very definition, a parasitic act, and the successful parasite is the one that doesn't damage the health of its host. The parasite that taunts, defies, derides and generally abuses what it feeds on is an evolutionary dead end. If you cause pain when you feed, you'll get swatted. If you dance around, hooting and flicking V's, you can be sure you'll get swatted first.

And a kind of evolution is surely what's happening here. Not so much in movies, where the ripping and redistribution of DVDs is hard to defend as anything other than freeloading. But with TV... and TV drama especially... I believe the pirates have set up a genuine model for the future. It's really just a question of the industry catching on to the fact that, just as the pirates stole product from them, they can now steal something back in the form of some free R&D.

Broadcast TV is only good for soaps, news and reality now - background stuff, stuff you can keep one eye on while you do something else, stuff you can dip in and out of, stuff you can talk over. The truly ephemeral stuff with a 24-hour shelf life, or no shelf life at all.

Drama, being immersive in its nature, struggles to thrive in that environment. And, sure enough, it isn't thriving. Even the best dramas don't get ratings these days, because no one wants to settle in for that long, or focus that much, at a time that doesn't necessarily suit them. There's always going to be an appetite for TV drama, but people have definitely lost their taste for being scheduled.

A few short years ago, I can remember celebrating because ITV shifted News at Ten and made all of its nine o'clock dramas ninety minutes long. As a writer I thought that it was going to be a great move - every script would be a feature!

But I was wrong, and it wasn't great. As a viewer, I hated it. Even the slightest story had to be a seven-act marathon. Night after night after night. Imagine if every single meal had to be Christmas f***ing dinner in five courses. The only person who'd be happy would be that mad guy who shows up on the news each December for celebrating Christmas every day (and, frankly, I'm beginning to think he only does it for the attention).

Imagine if the pirates' distribution model was the legitimate one. It's already open to all, but finding and downloading material requires a smidgen of geekiness that excludes the majority. Imagine a global TV market, with fresh product coming in all the time, and with a legal, user-friendly, micropayment-driven interface where you'd pick your shows from a searchable menu and download them to watch, ads-free, at a time of your own convenience. A new season of your favourite show begins... you buy it from the source, right away, for buttons. What's not to like?

That's how it's got to go, I reckon. I'd tolerate a sponsored logo or watermark in the corner of the screen, if that were the only way to monetise the copying and passing-on of downloaded files. But the point of micropayments is to make it all too cheap to bother. I reckon that network TV showings will serve the same function that used to be served by hardcover publication in the book trade, where the hardback would sell very few copies but give the book a profile which would pay off in the paperback edition. Indie stuff will be offered straight to market, with no network involvement at all, and live or die by its merits.

You know, once I would have thought it scary. That the reliable, steady stream of broadcast product from the BBC or my regional ITV station might not always be a part of my life. That it might be replaced by a mosaic of my own choices, continually refreshed and revised. But now I can't wait.

And at last we'll be spared the apologists for piracy, with all their entitled talk of Fat Cats and corporate greed and how much they're being ripped off.

For that alone, roll on the future.

A Criminal History

"We look into a world that is not our own, distanced by time, to find a timeless drama of fear and conflict. The historical panorama fascinates but it’s the crime, the crime that drives the tale." 
From my piece on the use of historical settings in crime novels and thrillers, written for The Weekly Lizard.

You can  read the whole thing here.

Thursday 7 February 2013

Anne Devereaux Jordan

http://g-ecx.images-amazon.com/images/G/01/ciu/4a/79/1667228348a00622b1d6e010.L.jpgVery sad to hear of the death of Anne Jordan. We corresponded over one of my early F&SF stories and met in person at one of the big Brighton SF conventions, where she executed one of the neatest party-crashing moves I've ever seen to get both of us into an editor's suite - the editor (Toby? From Macmillan? Memory falters, and keeps defaulting to 'Carvery')* hadn't planned a party but the gestalt will seemed to be that he was going to host one, like it or not. As we walked down the corridor Anne locked eyes with me, grasped my arm to make an important conversational point, and spun us into the room right under the nose of the helpless and spluttering would-be gatekeeper.

(It was a brilliant party of its kind, as I recall. The next morning I heard that it had been infiltrated by three chancers, young local men not part of the convention, who hid in the wardrobe with the intention of emerging to steal when all went quiet. Upon discovery they fled, but were easy enough for the police to identify as one of them had no ears and a short haircut. His disguise consisted of clamping his hands over the sides of his head as he ran.)

Anne co-edited The Best Horror Stories from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which I'm guessing is what brought us to meet. A kindly, friendly, and well-remembered human being.

*Roxburgh!  It's only taken me three years to remember

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Free eBook Download - IN GETHSEMANE

In the years following the Great War, a skeptical conjuror and a spiritualist medium merge their interests to tour the regional lecture halls of the United Kingdom.

This eBook novella is a free download, offered to coincide with US paperback publication of The Bedlam Detective.

Set in the aftermath of the Great War, it follows the pairing of stage magician Will Goulston and spiritualist Frederick Kelly as they tour the lecture halls of provincial Britain.
"Mister Goulston will begin with a demonstration of spirit effects and fake mediumship. I can tell you now that he's very impressive."

Two of the four journalists present made notes, and the man from the Northern Telegraph said, "Can I ask Mister Goldston why he consents to appear on a bill with a practising medium, when he's declared all clairvoyants to be frauds and charlatans?"

"That's very simple," Goulston said, with a glance at Borthwick to be sure that the error over his name would not go uncorrected. "I'm here to catch Mister Kelly out."

"Have you done that, yet?"

"Perhaps tonight."
As far as the device at its heart is concerned, that came about when I heard of how, in the late 1970s, ideological opponents G Gordon Liddy and Timothy Leary partnered up to tour on the debating circuit. I thought of them berating each other's beliefs at every engagement and then checking unto the same hotel afterwards. I'd been looking for a form in which I could do something about the conflict of science and superstition that would allow for the kind of complexity that I felt it needed, and here it was on a plate. It was human, it was absurd, and yet it still made perfect sense.

Help yourself. No charge. One of the best things I ever wrote.

If you have a Kindle, click here and save the file to your hard drive.

If you have an iPad or other e-reader, click here and save the EPUB file.

To download a PDF, click here.

Or to receive the file as an attachment, send an email to offers@bedlamdetective.com with the required format in the subject line.

And if you'd rather pay to receive it over Amazon's whispernet - there's no need to, but I realise that not everyone's happy moving files around - you can click here.

Click on one of the links above to get it free
Or buy from Amazon

Silent Witness - Legacy

Spoilers here if you haven't seen the episodes yet, but below are links to some of the material that provided inspiration, background detail or information for last week's story.

A producer who should have known better once accused me of 'letting the tail wag the dog' in my insistence on the importance of research. Story research is important for at least two reasons; it provides unexpected inspiration, and it reduces the chances of your being stupid at the top of your voice.

It's not about an obsession with minutiae. Detail is rarely interesting for its own sake. And you'll never get it perfect, nor should you; we're not in the business of reproducing reality.

But I've worked on a few science-based projects now (and we're not counting BUGS here, that was fantasy technology). I've learned a few things as I've gone along:
  • It's OK to compress and exaggerate process, but never to falsify
  • You can use contentious notions, but don't embrace them - don't be a shill for bad science
  • Connect your ideas into a rough structure and then lay them before experts before you go any further
  • Where they point to flaws, don't try to disagree - you've just been handed a gift in the form of realistic obstacles to your story
  • Remake your structure by what you've just learned
These links don't represent the research. They're some of the elements that lodged in my mind, suggested the shape of a story, and began the research. A more comprehensive roundup would include the newspaper story of the man who took a loaded gun into an American ICU and kept staff and police at bay while he unplugged his infant son's life support and cradled him as he died.

The clipping's slipped away from me. The thought of it never will.

Sunday 3 February 2013

The Morning After

I've had a few nice notes and tweets in the wake of last week's broadcast including one from Chimera producer Nick Gillott, which prompted me to dig out this shot of the two of us way back when on that show's location in Kettlewell, Yorkshire.

Nick's on the left. How often do I have to say it, that mullet of mine will never get old.

Of all the general tweets, by which I mean the ones not addressed directly to me, I think my favourite would have to be this one:

@L****s Just watched a silent witness with mum #ActuallyDecent

Friday 1 February 2013

Rare Beast Sighted

"That rare beast, a literary page-turner."

My advance copies of the US paperback arrived by Fedex this morning. Easy on the eye and silky to the touch. And that's just me, you should see the book.

On sale February 5th.