The Blog Tour: What, Why, and How I Write

So Jason Arnopp tagged me into this a while back, and today’s the day to publish my answers! It’s a sort of Q&A thing about my writing.

Gosh, this takes me back. I remember in the days before Twitter, where everyone updated their blogs on a weekly basis, these things used to go round all the time… I kind of miss those days…

[gaze drifts off into the distance, reminiscing]

Anyway. Here are my answers.

1) What am I working on?

I’m writing something for a game which I can’t tell you about, but it’s a really nice and interesting gig.

That probably wasn’t terribly helpful.

The  thing I’m working on which I can tell you about is a spec feature. I’ve had the idea in my head for, I don’t know, maybe five years or so now. It’s a big, ballsy period action-adventure in the Hollywood style, and it’s something I’ve wanted to write for ages.

I spent most of last year plotting it.

Most. Of. Last. Year.

The cards were on the corkboard all that time. Sitting at me. Jeering. “Call yourself a writer?” they whispered. “You can’t even fix this. Also, I had your mum.”

Little fuckers.

They moved around, they were replaced, rewritten, scribbled-and-re-scribbled. Act three was thrown away in its entirety. Because it was shit.

Finally got the little fucker beat, though, and I’m now 30 pages in out of an estimated 120. Going well so far. He says, fate-temptingly.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Hm, not something that’s easy for me to answer. But here’s a couple of things that I move towards and away from.

I like short, sharp scenes rather than lengthy ones.

Character revealed through action rather than dialogue.

The thing that I hate most on screen is a long, lingering shot of the beautiful countryside. There’s a lot of that in UK TV and film. Stop it. Get me to the bloody story.

3) Why do I write what I do?

Because I don’t see enough of the stories I like to see in the world.

4) How does my writing process work?

Well, I’ll start with an idea. A paragraph maybe, scribbled in a text file. Then perhaps  half a page on the main characters  - who they are, what they believe, what their attitude is. I might skip this step, though, and go straight to the corkboard.

I talked about the corkboard earlier.

I’ve got two cards pinned above the corkboard as lodestones. They help keep me on track.

The first is John Rogers’ three rules of writing:

  1. Who wants what?
  2. Why can’t they get it?
  3. Why do I give a shit?

And the other is this:

  • How does that make it worse?

I’m a planner. I like to have a map. With the use of the corkboard I know that every scene in the script will have a purpose. Sure, I can go off-map later if I find something interesting to explore, but having the scenes plotted out beforehand means that I already know the shape of the piece, and the major protagonists.

I’m never going to have writers’ block, because the heavy lifting’s already done.

Once I’m happy with the cards I’ll go to script. I used to write a treatment from the cards and then work from that, but these days I just move the board onto the wall behind my computer and go straight from there.

The first draft is Draft Zero. It splurges from my head onto the page. I write fast and – crucially – don’t go back and revise anything. The aim at this stage is to get words onto screen. Not good words, just words. I get to make them good later. But if the scene cards are the skeleton of the script, this is where the muscles to make it move go.

(I know some people who call this the vomit draft, because it all comes out quickly and messily, but I don’t like that phrase because, well, puke.)

Some days this is easy. You get flow, and the pages come quickly and easily, and you know that they’re good, and this is the best job in the fucking world!

Other days it’s like pulling teeth.

But either way, on either day, when I’ve scheduled myself a writing day I sit down and write the damn pages. I have a target number, and I keep working until I hit it. These days I generally aim for five pages a day, but I can crank that up if there’s a deadline.

When it’s done, I put it away. For a month if it’s for me, for as long as I can if it’s for someone else. After that it comes out and I re-read it.

This is the point where I realise that some of it is all right. Some of it might even be quite good. And some of it… Well. Let’s cheer ourselves up with the thought that now we get to fix those.

I print it out, grab my favourite pen (Pilot G-2 black with a 0.7mm nib, since you ask) and start to scribble. Read from front to back, fix. Type up changes. Repeat.

The first couple of passes are for plot. Does it make sense? Am I communicating what I mean to? Is it exciting where it should be exciting and funny where it should be funny?

After that, I use an old actors trick. For each scene, I become the character in the scene and think as that character:

  • What are they feeling at this point?
  • What is their objective?
  • How are they going about achieving their objective?

And changing dialogue and action to reflect their point of view and decisions.

Their objectives will change over the course of the scene. For example:

  • Find out what the ticking sound is
  • Warn everyone else about the bomb
  • Flee through the door (but, when they find it locked…)
  • Flee through the window

Stanislavsky called these individual moments “beats”. If you hang around with actors (and you should, it’ll help you write) they will be parsing the script into these beats to find out how to play the character. And if you don’t put the beats in, the actor will make them up.

They have to. They need something to play.

Don’t let an actor write your script. Put the beats in yourself.

After I’ve done that for every character in the scene, I’ll do a pass of the action lines to make sure they make sense. Is there enough room in here for what’s going on? How does the environment affect the world?

And then onto the next scene.

Once I’ve done all these passes (probably a dozen or so), then the script is ready to show to someone else.

As far as I’m concerned, this version is the first draft.

On a show or game, it’ll go to the script editor or lead writer. For a spec, I have writer friends who’ll have a read and give me notes on it. Either way, when the notes come back I print them out, and mark them all up. Line underneath the note, and a circle in the margin. When I address a note then I’ll put a line through the circle to show that it’s done. Sometimes, more rarely, I decide that the note isn’t a good one. Those ones get a cross through the circle to show that I’m deliberately not doing it. This way I can go back and double-check later – did I really mean to ignore this note?

I’ll go through the script, correcting and amending notes as required, until everything’s done.

I might do this two or three times on a spec, sending it to different people each time.

Then it’s time for the table read. I get some actor buddies round, they read the script aloud. I’m making notes the whole way about where the words cause people to stumble, and which speeches go better (or worse) than they did in my head. Where the laughs and gasps are, if there are any.

Then get some feedback from the actors. Were they confused at any point? Any comments they have on characterisation? Anything unclear?

Then take those notes away, and rewrite again.

Finally, after all that, it’s ready to send out.

So, there you have it. The What, Why, and How of my writing. Hope it was of some interest.

I’m probably supposed to have passed on the tour at the bottom here, like some form of benevolent chain letter, but I haven’t.

Sorry.

 

Some thoughts on BBC3

Reports are coming through that BBC3 is going to become an online-only channel in the near future.

I’m absolutely fine with this.

Back in about 2000, I saw my first TiVo, which itself was the first PVR. A PVR (Personal Video Recorder) has a big-ass hard drive, and gathers information from the Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) that’s transmitted along with the programmes. When it sees a TV show that you’ve asked it to record, it saves it to the hard disk.

What this means is that, unlike previous TV-recording formats, you could set up the PVR to record your favourite shows. And it would carry on recording them, week after week. TiVos even had the technology to record shows it thought you might like, based on the ones you were already recording.

That’s when I knew that channels were dead.

A channel has a curatorial aspect. You know the sorts of programmes you’re going to get on BBC1 vs ITV1 vs C4 vs ITV3. Pre-PVR, you could have loyalty to a channel. One of my exes, growing up, had a mother that wouldn’t let her watch ITV.

Post-PVR, the loyalty drops as you can get recommendations based on what you already like, rather than what a channel controller thinks you’ll like.

Barring special events such as live TV or Christmas, I cannot think of a single person I know my age or younger who watches television live any more.

Not. One. Person.

Sure, they watch TV on their telly, but it’s mediated through iPlayer or Apple TV or a PVR or downloaded off the naughtywebs and piped through to the living room over wireless.

This is how I watch television now. The only reason I even know what channel a programme was broadcast on is because of the dog when I watch it on TiVo (And weren’t we all so snobby about those when they came in? I include myself there.)

The statement makes clear that BBC3 the brand will continue in its curatorial aspect; it just won’t be going out over the telly box any more. But, importantly, this aspect is no longer tied to the broadcast capability and bandwidth of the transmitters.

I think the future will be virtual channels.

Consider: the BBC creates a virtual channel on your EPG called BBC3, which curates all of the shows that are BBC3-like. Some panel shows or comedy shows shift to BBC2 or BBC1 – but they are still marked on your virtual channel as BBC3. Some shows are commissioned directly for BBC3 and are broadcast in dead space on one of the BBC’s muxes, in the middle of the night, say 2-6am.

Why stop at four? You can have a hundred BBC channels, one for every taste.

Disruption will occur. Old shows will get cancelled. New ones will be commissioned.

Good.

The only thing that surprises me is that this hasn’t happened already. Think of the new BBC3 in the same breath as Netflix, Amazon, or Geek & Sundry. All commissioning for online premieres already.

This gives the BBC a chance to get ahead of the US networks, and I think it’s nothing short of visionary.

A basic introduction to UK libel law.

I am not a lawyer.

But I did once work at the BBC, where a very helpful woman once came round and explained to us the basics of UK libel law.

To be libelled in English law, you have to have a) something written about you which is b) untrue c) may cause serious harm to your reputation and is not d) an honestly-held opinion or e) a matter of public interest (this last defence is a new one).

The Defamation Act 2013 is available on the UK Government website. It’s short, and very easy to read.

I urge you to have a read of it before threatening to sue anyone for libel. Especially if the things you’re threatening to sue them for are b) true c) cause little harm to your reputation and are d) honestly-held opinions.

Because, otherwise, you come across as a bit of a dick.

 

 

 

In Praise of Trivets

I was round my parents house the other day, and we needed to put a hot pan on the table for dinner. It went onto a tablemat, so the wooden table wouldn’t get burned.

I said to Dad “I wonder what the generic word is for that thing you put hot things on so they don’t burn the table?” and he said “It’s a trivet.”

Fantastic, I thought. A new word that I’d always needed. Because it gets really boring when you’re in the middle of cooking and you’re trying to say to someone “Can you put that thing that stops the table getting burned on the table please.”

So far so good.

I had a bunch of people round for dinner the other day, and asked for the trivet, and several among them were “Oh no, a trivet’s a very specific thing that’s made of iron and has three legs.” And according to the OED, they’re quite right.

But the thing about English is, it’s not like some languages I could mention, where there’s a right word and a wrong one, a correct way of saying things and an incorrect way.

Our dictionaries and grammars are descriptive, not proscriptive. In English there’s no equivalent of the Académie française to say what words are correct and should be used, and which aren’t and shouldn’t. Our dictionaries instead draw from a corpus of the language as she is spoke (or wrote), and describe how the language is used rather than how people think it ought to be used.

Which brings me back to trivets.

So, if (as my buddies are arguing) trivet shouldn’t be used for a thing-that-protects-a-surface-from-heat, then what should? A mat1 won’t do the trick, as that definition excludes things made of metal or glass.

So we need a generic word for a thing that protects the table from heat, and there isn’t one coded into the language yet, at least to the level where it’s made it into the dictionary.

Fortunately, it’s English, so if one doesn’t exist we can invent it. But first, a check that there isn’t already a generic word for such a thing. To Twitter!

(And to Facebook too, but they won’t let me embed from there. Walled-garden-loving idiots.)

A good start, but it’s two words rather than one, so IMHO a bit clunky.

Another great choice. Checking the translation shows that the French are actually ahead of us Southerners on this one. And unlike the French, we can steal their word and make it a part of our language immediately.

Still a phrase, though.

Another nice offering. It’s a new coinage, nouning a verb. Because we speak English, we can totally do that. (And if you pronounce it with a schwa, it’s actually a really beautiful word. Rolls off the tongue. Personally, I’d schwa the fuck out of that.)

But what about the options that already exist? A Google Images search for Pot Stand f’r'example, shows that’s probably the winner.

Unless and until, of course, you realise that you can also do a Google Images search for trivet. And there they are. Cork, metal, wood, and silicone. Three legs, four legs, no legs, more legs. Every shape and colour under the sun.

And you can buy them from Ikea. Or from John Lewis.

Trivets.

I love ‘em.

Win a copy of Outside In!

So I was on Croydon Radio last Saturday, chatting away to the hosts of the From Croydon to Gallifrey podcast Janet and Steve about Outside In and Spaceships of Science Fiction.

It was my very first radio interview. I got to plug my books and even choose some records for them to play.

Seriously, I felt like a real writer and everything.

You can listen to the podcast online here, should you have missed it on its original airing. You slacker.

Probably the biggest thing I learned was just how much a person ums and ahs when they’re talking. As soon as I realised what I was doing I tried to cut down on it. But god-damn, it’s much more difficult than you think it is.

If you listen to the podcast, there’s also a competition to win a copy of Outside In. This could be particularly helpful in the UK because it’s not on sale in bookshops here – so if you want to get a copy this is  one of the best ways. Certainly one of the cheapest. :)

They also made me sign it, which is probably going to knock about 20% off the price when you flog it on eBay later.

Sorry about that.

On the Radio on the Internet

Did you know Croydon has its own Internet radio station?

I’ll be joining the monthly SF show, From Croydon to Gallifrey this Saturday to talk about Spaceships of Science Fiction and Outside In, as well as bringing along some of my favourite SFnal tunes to listen to. Some will be soundtracky, and some may come as a bit of a surprise…

Do tune in and have a listen. It’s on Saturday 14 December at 11am via this here player.

New Look

As you’ve probably noticed by now, my old blog has been retired. We’ve sent it to live on a farm, where it chases sheep all day, and is immensely happy.

As well as being a lot shinier, the new blog also has websitey goodness attached to it. See the links at the top? That’s links to places where you can buy my work (if it’s for sale) or watch/listen to it for free (if it’s for free).

Do feel free to have a poke around and let me know what you think…

The Science of the Lambs

So I accidentally bought a frozen leg of lamb rather than a fresh one while Internet Shopping last week.

Fair enough, I thought, and bought a fresh one to eat that week, reasoning that I could defrost the frozen one overnight this weekend.

Well, turns out that a big-ass leg of lamb takes a lot longer to defrost than you might think. 24 hours in the fridge, and it’s still frozen solid.

That’s when I remembered the Roald Dahl story, in which a housewife successfully cooks a leg of lamb from frozen.

Most sources on the Internet reckon that beef or lamb are safe to cook from frozen. But I still worried, because it would make me sad if I accidentally gave everyone in the house food poisoning.

Fortunately, someone has done Science on this very issue. By freezing a joint of meat with a meat thermometer stuck inside it and recording the results as it cooks.

It’s got a graph and everything. And looks delicious.

[goes off to cook lamb]

My Two Dads

So Man of Steel was a huge success then.

There was a lot of chatter when it was first released about some of the choices the writers made in the film. Admittedly this was usually expressed in a howl of “THAT’S NOT MY SUPERMAN YOU’VE BETRAYED MY CHILDHOOD!” nerdrage, but whatever.

It also seems to have been a film which was either loved or hated by people. You can count me among those who loved it. In fact, I went back to see it in the cinema again, and found it even better the second time.

But what I want to do here is to delve into the matter of Clark’s relationship with his two fathers. Because that’s at the heart of this film, and it’s very different to any other version of the story I’ve come across.

SPOILERS AHOY!
You have been warned…

Here’s how it goes:

A lone survivor of the doomed planet Krypton – a baby – is sent to Earth in a spaceship by his father Jor-El. The ship arrives in Kansas where the childless Kent family adopt the boy, and name him Clark. As he grows, it becomes apparent that he has abilities and powers that others do not, and he uses these powers to help humanity.

This much is consistent among all of the origin stories.

Pa Kent teaches the child what it is to be human, that helping others is the right thing to do.

Except, in Man of Steel, he doesn’t. And this is where we have our major departure, the story choice that makes this different to every other telling of the Superman story.

It’s clear that he loves his son, but all of his advice is the same every time he talks to him: Keep your head down. Don’t get noticed. Don’t let anybody know who you are.

Jonathan Kent would rather that Clark had let all of the kids in the school bus die than that he have his secret revealed.

And the thing is, Jonathan really believes that this is for the best. He believes that the world would turn on Clark, hate him for not being like us. This is a man who would rather die himself than let Clark’s secret be exposed.

This change of characterisation from previously seen Pa Kents is huge. No longer is Jonathan the homely American farmer raising his child to fight for truth and justice. Quite the opposite, in fact. He urges concealment and stealth and lies, because he doesn’t think that justice would exist for young Clark from the people of Earth if the truth were to come out.

Clark takes his father’s advice to heart, roaming the Earth, doing good where he can, but never revealing who or what he is, until he finds a spaceship from Krypton’s expansionary age, and meets his biological father. Jor-El then explains to Clark a different vision of his destiny.

Jor-El: You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble. They will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.

This ties in with Jor-El’s words to Lara in the Krypton-based prologue:

Lara: He’ll be an outcast, a freak. They’ll kill him.
Jor-El: How? He’ll be a god to them.

And this is very interesting, because it means that Jor-El knows that Earth will give his son powers and abilities above and beyond that of anyone else on the planet – and expects him to lead humanity.

Later, Zod tells Clark about the codex:

General Zod: You led us here, Kal. And now it’s within your power to save what remains of your race. On Krypton, the genetic template of every being yet to be born is encoded in the registry of citizens. Your father stole the registry’s codex and stored in the capsule that brought you here.
Clark Kent: For what purpose?
General Zod: So that Krypton can live again…on earth. Where is the codex, Kal?
Clark Kent: If Krypton lives again, what happens to earth?
General Zod: A foundation has to be build on something. Even your father recognized that.

And probably the most important conversation of the film:

Clark Kent: Is it true what Zod said about the codex?
Jor-El: Strike that panel.
[Clark strikes the panel and breaks open the wall of the ship]
Jor-El: We wanted you to learn what it meant to be human first so that one day, when the time was right, you could be the bridge between two peoples.

So from this, two things seem quite clear to me:

Jor-El intends for Krypton to be recreated on Earth.
Jor-El intends for Clark to be the ruler of this new world.

Jor-El and Zod both agree that Krypton needs to be recreated on Earth; they just disagree on whether humans get to live in this new world or not. Just like Clark’s adoptive father, Jor-El has his own plans for his son, his own visions of how Clark’s life will plan out.

So how, confronted with these two different world-visions of Clark’s relationship with humanity, does he choose to engage with the world?

Hide from it? Or rule it?

But Clark makes neither of these choices. Instead, he chooses to trust humanity.

Young Clark: The world’s too big, mom.
Martha Kent: Then make it smaller. 

It’s Martha who teaches Clark how to make his own choices, how to look at the world as a thing that can be understood rather than feared or used.

And it’s only when he starts engaging with humanity as equals, rather than listening to either of his two fathers, that he can save the world.