I finished ITV's The Loch last Sunday night. It was a pretty good show. Thing is, it had started so well – the mist-shrouded landscape, the implacable gunmetal grey of the water, the chain of lochs and queues of boats, the cast of quirky characters and a great pair of leads – that it couldn’t help but disappoint. For a second or two towards the end of episode one, when the eyes of the bedridden boy snap open, it almost had a Twin Peaksian feel to it; a macabre weirdness that was borderline supernatural.
Eventually though, stuff got so crazy the touchstone became not Twin Peaks but Lost, millennial society’s go-to example of a show collapsing under its own complexity. The Loch’s characters, having served their purpose, suddenly evaporated. The Mancunian dude with the shady past? He was vanished in episode four along with his childhood mate. The manipulative teacher? Sidelined by six. The maybe-gay Doctor having an affair? Dispatched in five. The students involved in the shooting? All weirdly absent by the end. None of the poor buggers got screen-time again.
This week I took a long train journey – I’m typing this in Carriage C, seat 3 on the way back home – and sped through Terry Brooks’ account of his writing life, Sometimes The Magic Works. I have fond memories of reading Brooks’ work as a kid, and he has some interesting stuff to say about endings (particularly, I reckon, to those of you familiar with King’s advice in On Writing.) Brooks asks us to consider stories that suffer from “a plot element that seemed never to go anywhere…” or whose “first three-hundred pages were wonderful than everything fell apart…” or – crucially, given The Loch – stories which “involved you with a character who wandered off somewhere along the way and never returned.”
“I’d suggest all these problems are organisational in nature,” Brooks points out. His answer? Outlining. “Let me give you my thoughts,” he says, “on why I think outlining is a valuable tool that doesn’t have to deflate your excitement.” What follows is a decent chapter of helpful advice I know I’ll be drawing on.
It’s the way of these things to sometimes cluster or arrive in threes. I’d got onto Brooks’ book having heard it recommended on Hank Gardner’s Author Stories podcast, and on the train I dipped into an episode with Chris Paolini, the Eragon dude. I should point out I’ve not read the Inheritance Cycle (anything, in fact, described as a cycle or chronicle since I was sixteen come to that…) But wouldn’t you know it Paolini too espoused the necessity of outlining; almost urged aspiring authors to map out their books, build blueprints, complete chapter by chapter synopses. He outlined the whole cycle, it turns out, before returning to each individual book to outline them again in detail.
Is the universe trying to tell me something?
Maybe. With Takeback submitted, I’m in The Hangfire Smokehouse ruminating over a couple of possible ideas. At the moment, I have an A4 synopsis for both.
If Brooks and Paolini are anything close to right, I’ve got a long way to go yet.
One of the most enduring features of TV drama scripts has to be the ‘Seemingly Unrelated Anecdote’, a trope so important it will henceforth appear in both bold and italics, people. Whenever it shows up in TV or film I give a little cheer. I love it. And once spotted you see it everywhere. They must teach it in script-writing school or sump’m.
Anyway. Here’s my handy ten-part guide to making a correct identification… and perhaps even using it in your own fiction.
Sample script illustrating Seemingly Unrelated Anecdote
The ‘student’: Frank is 32, a recently widowed young father learning leadership in difficult circumstances following the outbreak of a deadly virus.
The ‘sage’: Alberto is 67; Mexican, a wizened Psychology professor from humble beginnings.
Frank: We’re trapped in this compound. The guards mistakenly think we’re criminals. My boy’s out there somewhere and I can’t even begin to search for him. What the hell do we do?
Alberto: (beat) When I was a child, my father was a fruit farmer. One night after school he took me out into the fields. The wind was up, singing in the caged branches of the pines. It was a dark night festooned with glittering stars. He’d been working the fields all day. As he took my hand I remember feeling his calloused skin, seeing the dark circles beneath his eyes. The sleeping field of ripe fragrant watermelon perfumed the air. We walked to the middle, where he stooped to examine the fruit and together we split one open. We ate. (Alberto opens his hands and stares at his palms) The melon was sweet and the flesh was smooth. But the seeds – I’ll never forget the seeds. They were like bullets. So hard; so unforgiving. I knew then I could never work the land the way my father did.
Perhaps you too are no farmer.
Alberto turns and leaves.
Frank: (beat) But wait – what?
A few weeks back I bought this wristband.
You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s nothing more than a hollow pop-culture reference, a bit of shallow and insignificant fun. But there are three reasons this line from John McTiernan’s 1988 Die Hard works so well as a motto or a (pun alert!) ...call to arms.
Here we go.
The Outsider. Firstly, it’s John McClane’s line, right? And McClane is everyone’s favourite maverick-New-York-cop-on-an-ill-advised-Los-Angeles-stop-over. While coke-snorting white-collar corporate America parties on the 30th floor of Nakatomi Plaza, elevated above the working lives of the less fortunate like carefree Gods on Olympus, out-of-towner McClane arrives on the ground floor, a determinedly ordinary cop in a place he doesn’t belong. Dammit, the dude’s so friendless even his wife has denied his name. The twelve bad guys – his judge and jury – are also classy fellas; their leader Hans Gruber swaps chit-chat about Saville row suits with Mr Nakatomi in his plush office before offing him. McClane, by contrast, moves most freely through service tunnels and vents; a bro clearly most comfortable below-stairs.
The Man of Modest Means. In contrast to the generous luxury of the plaza building, McClane is hopelessly ill-equipped to achieve anything. He begins his mission lacking almost every advantage others have over him. His clothing is reminiscent of a shiftless vagrant; he suffers bare feet throughout the movie – he can’t even scavenge trainers from the dudes he kills – wears a filthy vest, forages makeshift tools and props, and writes the line in question, awkwardly, left-handed, using lipstick. All he seems to own is a zippo. The guy is the very definition of under-resourced.
The Parvenu. Having risen suddenly in rank, any upstart worth their salt mocks the growing discomfort of their former oppressors, right? As McClane begins to stubbornly tip the odds in his favour, his premature celebration of unexpected progress – Now I Have a Machine Gun Ho Ho Ho – works like some sort of declaration of imminent revolution. Remember that zippo? The guy’s like Prometheus! He’s got the fire(power) and he’s gonna use it!
So it’s my liberation wristband, y’all. Rise up.
I’ll never listen to Elvis Costello again.
That comes as an unsettling realisation. I don’t think I’m overstating the case when I say that in the past I’ve been a complete Costello obsessive. I knew every album backwards. I listened to songs on a loop. I read biographies, studied lyrics, re-bought CDs when they were issued with new liner notes, collected stuff he’d penned for other singers, watched crappy movies purely on the basis of a tune on the soundtrack.
I was an unapologetic Costellophile for fifteen years. Case in point: I was in a band in my teens and twenties. This being pre-social media, we advertised for replacement drummers, new guitar players etc in the NME. We’d send interested parties a demo tape so they knew what we were about. Having listened, one guitarist phoned to withdraw his interest. I took the call while the rest of the band slouched around my parents’ kitchen table. “It’s just Elvis Costello all over again,” the guy said. “Exactly!” I beamed, delighted.
So when did it stop? Hard to pinpoint exactly, but a while ago now it just vanished. I mean, I still love the guy, but there must be five albums now that I’ve never heard a note of. I’ve no desire to check ‘em out on Spotify either. I just know – in some way that I can’t hope to successfully express – that my Costello period is over, like it was too intense and burned itself completely out.
Which gets me wondering. Will my Aesop Rock fixation die too? Will I wake up one day and suddenly find I’m not into sci-fi survival horror, zombie-flicks, Indiana Jones or heist movies? Or that I find Stephen King tiresome? Will I write a blogpost declaring a complete and detached neutrality on football matters relating to Huddersfield Town? Or – here’s the crux of it, folks – will I one day go off YA?
Each of us is a bundle of obsessions, I guess, but which of them are in the bone, which in the skin, and which in the haircut, tattoo or t-shirt? Or have all our fascinations a certain half-life or potential energy and the more we fuel them the faster they burn up? And then there’s this: so far, for me at least, when one fixation goes another one comes along to replace it. But will that always happen, or do we start to run down our reserves as we grow older, so that we end our days unable to feel any thrill of anticipation even when the next Star Wars movie comes out?
Scary thought. But equally you can’t live life cooling the heat on the stuff you love in the hope that it’s preserved for longer. Stoke the flames and burn that baby up as bright as brilliant as possible, I say.
And when it dies, whatever it is, you can always get into zombie-flicks. Or Elvis Costello, right?
This week I fired off Takeback to my publishers.
It’s lined up for a July 2018 publication at the moment, which means a fairly long wait until it sees the light of day. Just in case you’re wondering… (go on, admit it, you’re wondering. You are) …this is the 8th iteration of the novel, and comes in at about 66,000 words. I’ve tried, really tried in the past to plot out every last scene of a book and motor through looking calm and composed. But it just doesn’t work for me. I find it virtually impossible to actually put words down once a story’s all neatly planned.
I was relieved to hear Lisa Williamson say something similar at the St Helens Book Awards recently (Lifers was shortlisted – Yey! – but didn’t win – AARGH…) when she explained to the audience how she might spend weeks writing scenes that don’t make it into the final draft because she can’t tell precisely where the story’s going to go until it actually does.
I’m the same. I know the direction of travel roughly. I know the destination; the rest just sorta happens.
Aa-nyway, now Takeback’s being read and considered, I’m in the Hangfire Smokehouse until I hear more. (The what? I hear you ask. Check out the tab at the top of the page, pal. All will be revealed.) This particular stint in the Hangfire is different from others because I have non-fiction work to finish for a May deadline, so that’s right up in my face at the moment.
After that though, I’ll be building ideas. And I have tons. Loads; piles. Plenty. OK, an elegant sufficiency. OK, two. I’ve got two.
Someone recently told be the secret to generating good ideas was ‘the 3 Bs of creativity’. Familiar? No, me neither. They are: bed (sleep on it) bath (meditative quiet, basically) or bus (a metaphor, this one. Movement, travel, fresh environments.) So that’s where I’ll be for the first week or so of May.
Two ideas, three Bs. What could possibly go wrong.
Tom Hardy, eh? Look at the dude. Check his beardy chops, chunky-knit sweater (hey costume department - that's M+S isn't it?) and thousand-yard stare. If you haven't seen Locke, get your ass to the back of the class, it's a straight-fire classic. I blogged about it at the wonderful Author Allsorts and part of that blog is reproduced below:
The story's like this. I was alone in a hotel room many miles from home. Underneath the battered wall-mounted TV was an old curiosity – a DVD player – and down in reception were a lot of terrible films for guests to borrow. Hunting through the trash I found a gem: Locke.
Locke is one of my faves, a truly remarkable movie. It’s written and directed by Steven Knight. Its one actor, Tom Hardy, is always on screen. It has one location – the interior of a car. It is about ninety minutes long. For an hour and a half, we’re travelling south on the M6 while a single character makes phone calls, his life falling apart. It ends on the outskirts of London.
As I was watching, I kept thinking about my current WIP, a YA heist thing called Takeback. Not because of any similarity in subject matter though. My wife always gets to read first, and some months ago I’d given her a hotel-chase scene in which a porter liberates a suitcase from a penthouse apartment, escaping down flights of stairs through a maze of corridors and out onto the delivery bay via the kitchens. There, he meets a mysterious girl who hits him on the head. A conversation ensues. When I asked for feedback, my wife (clever and measured as always) said “It gets good when the talking starts.”
I kept thinking about that as I watched Locke. So much of visual media seems to be caught up in an arms-race towards the ultimate boss-battle; entire stories built around supposedly killer last-act set-pieces in which New York burns.
Locke represents the best of what scripted drama can do because all we get is talking. The conflict is in conversations and the gaps between conversations. We watch a man struggle with his conscience. At moments of anger or release, he monologues to an imaginary father sitting on the back seat. Then he makes or receives another call, staring at the road ahead and gripping the wheel.
When you’ve got a character as rounded, deep and flawed as Ivan Locke, you don’t need exploding cities, disintegrating planets, collapsing skyscrapers or hair-breadth ‘scapes in th’ imminent deadly breach. You just need conversations.
Cut to now.
Hey - what about that Tom Hardy, eh? Look at the dude. Check his beardy chops, weirdly-modern-for-a-period-piece oilskin raincoat (oi, costume department - did you just pick that up at North Face?) and thousand-yard stare. If you haven't seen Taboo, get your ass to the back of the class, it's a straight-fire classic. Much like Locke, Steven Knight scripts and Tom Hardy plays protag. But Taboo exists in my mind as a sort of anti-Locke, as an image in a super-dark mirror, as Locke's evil twin.
Rather than an individual, we have an ensemble cast. There's flippin' hundreds of them. And forget conversation, Hardy almost never speaks. When he does, his mutterings are barely decipherable. James Delaney forgoes dialogue in favour of biting out people's throats, removing tongues from those who have betrayed him and getting it on with his sister. Who needs conversation when you can have this sort of nasty visceral action?
As I was watching, I kept thinking about my current WIP, Takeback. I’ve been working on this scene in which porter liberates suitcase from penthouse apartment, escaping down flights of stairs, blah-blah, until mysterious girl hits him on head and conversation ensues.
Here's what I'm thinking. I should replace that conversation with a series of impenetrable grunts, turn the blow into a full-scale bloody rumble and conclude with my tattooed protagonist howling an Obeah chant at the moon, a bib of spit and blood plastering his shirt to his chest.
Whatever criticism you level at me, I can never be accused of (a) changing my tune, or (b) wearing my influences too prominently on my sleeve...
When I started blogging seven years ago, I was an unpublished author finishing a novel called Sleepwell and Fly. Between 2010 and 2015, I battled with the book, submitted it to the Times/Chicken House Children’s Book Competition, won it, found my way to publication… and blogged about it all along the way.
Sleepwell and Fly came out as The Poison Boy in 2014.
I’d long since shut down my old blog but today I thought, 75 posts, five years, and a journey from unpublished to published author? Maybe someone will find that useful.
So it’s all back up if you ever feel inclined to check it out. I’ve just read a few posts, brought back a few memories and winced at a lot.
I’d give the whole project a solid 3 out of 5.
And with that thrilling endorsement ringing in your ears, click here to visit. Cheers!
Hey. It's been ages. What's been happening? Me, I've been hammering away at blog posts for other sites, that's what. What with Lifers coming out in the US a few days ago, I've been spending time on stateside blogs saying hello and answering questions from lovely bookish types like you and me.
Other stuff? The German edition has a killer cover! Look, peeps!
And what else? I'm working on book three, which I am ve-ery excited about. More soon. And I've played Firewatch through twice, just to confirm its beauty and wonder a second time. It's still beautiful and wonderful; that much is official. I'd like a t-shirt with this on the front:
Other things: I'm listening to Honeyblood. I am cutting back on cheese. I am having thoughts so I can write an interesting blog post soon.
In her super-useful guide Write to be Published, Nicola Morgan has some very sensible advice about characterisation and character development. In the section ‘Cardboard Villains and Saccharine Heroes’, she writes; “A bad character sometimes benefits from some soft edges that test our judgement of them.” Similarly, she says, “Avoid the too-good... give your angels a touch of hell’s fire.”
Later, I had an interesting conversation with a six-year-old Harry Potter fan – not yet old enough to read the books himself but currently having them read to him before bed and watching the movies as he goes. He’d had a tough night, his dad explained, plagued by bad dreams. The little feller was terrified and confused in equal measure having discovered that Tom Riddle and Voldemort were the same person. So it seems that denying readers the clear moral certainties of the cardboard cut-out villain – even by the introduction of a backstory like this – makes bad guys more frightening; more real. It tests our judgement of them – something the six-year-old in question clearly found pretty uncomfortable.
(This trick works in the right hands. Given the same material, George Lucas managed to make a laboured trilogy about a whiny teenager.)
Having learnt lessons like these slowly over the course of five books – only two of which have been published - I’ve just finished a chapter of Takeback in which our antagonist calmly dissects the methods and motives of our heroes. And man, he really pulls them apart. He’s older, wiser, and cleverer than them, and his victory (at least in this draft) is pretty unequivocal. Even a cheap jibe from our wisecracking gang-leader can’t rescue the situation. Very satisfying writing session indeed.
By contrast, today my crew are stealing Jaguars and driving them through a shopping centre. That’s the thing about writing – no two days are the same. News on our Takeback – my picaresque heist extravaganza – coming soon, by the way.