Payback's final third owes a fair bit to John Buchan's The 39 Steps, and I figured it deserved a re-read. I know the book well - I re-visit it every three or four years, I guess. I love it... but I'm not above a little criticism. I'm talking about the ending, folks. The ending.
The last time an adaptation graced our screens, it was the Beeb in 2008. The writer of the screenplay, Lizzie Mickery, seemed keen to return to the source text rather than refer to the previous film versions. You can see why, right? Forerunners – Hitchcock’s in 1939, a remake of Hitchcock’s original in 1959, and a seventies version I was brought up on as a kid – all play pretty fast and loose with Buchan’s story; characters are added, others are absent, the plot is mangled and blockbusting set-pieces are conjured up.
In the end though, Mickery found herself needing to make adjustments of her own. “I have added fun and romance, I hope, and a bit of oomph,” she said, speaking to The Guardian before the BBC broadcast its Christmas showcase adaptation. Mickery’s a quality writer (she worked on The State Within which I loved) but she, like others before her, recognised the novel’s limitations when reimagined for a visual medium.
What all four movie adaptations have in common is a total disregard for Buchan’s original ending, and re-reading it again, you can see why. Buchan wrote the novel whilst ill with an ulcer. Reading the closing paragraphs, you can’t help but suspect he felt suddenly better and fancied downing tools in favour of a nice walk and a kickabout with a few mates. Dashed off doesn’t even begin to cover it.
It starts well. Hannay, our plucky protag, corners a trio of German secret service agents in a coastal cottage. Trouble is they’re such accomplished actors, their roles as public school educated chummy Englishman are masterfully executed. He bursts in and accuses them of being murderers and spies but their masks don’t slip; they’re all jolly and polite and flabbergasted. Hannay ends up – pretty preposterously – playing bridge with them during the awkward moments that follow his accusation.
Finally a fight breaks out, back-up arrives and the good guys triumph. But the speed with which Buchan puts this final scene to bed is breathtaking. If I didn’t know better, I’d wonder whether he was being paid to complete the novel under a certain word limit.
“I blew my whistle. In an instant the lights were out,” Buchan writes. (The darkness comes in handy. There’s virtually nothing to describe.) “I grappled the old chap and the room seemed to fill with figures.” That’ll be the reinforcements then. Phew! One guy escapes. In a three-sentence thriller that comes as close to extending the drama as Buchan will allow, we get; ”Suddenly my prisoner broke from me and flung himself on the wall. There was a click as if a lever had been pulled. Then came a low rumbling far far below the ground, and through the window I saw a cloud of chalky dust pouring out of the shaft of the stairway.” I think that means the 39 steps down to the beach are obliterated by some sort of bomb? Presumably wired to a nameless lever in the room of the cottage? Lacking any specific detail I’m reduced to guessing. Anyway the lights come back on and our hero gets his chance to triumphally wisecrack: “As the handcuffs clinked on his wrists I said my last word to him.”
Then there’s a paragraph break followed by three more sentences that begin, “Three weeks later…” and within 46 words, we’re done and dusted.
Perhaps Buchan was writing under exam conditions and fast running out of time. Whatever the explanation, there’s a reason Lizzie Mickery et al. mess with Buchan’s ending. All the components are there I reckon, but it’s outlined rather than written; a bizarre and slightly sad final scene whose shape, tone and proportion have almost nothing in common with the remainder of what is a brilliant novel.
Hopefully I didn't screw Payback's ending up in quite such a blatant way.
Is your idea for a novel good enough? How will you know if it is? Or isn't? What do you write next?
With Payback safely out, I'm 20,000 words into a new project. But how did I pick it from the dozen-or-so I could have chosen? The book above provided a bona-fide epiphany, folks. Or more specifically, Terry Rossio (Aladdin, Shrek, The Mask of Zorro, Pirates of the Caribbean) did.
His extended, detailed account of idea selection and development begins on page 47 of Karl Iglesias's The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters, and is of course concerned with cinematic story-telling. But it struck me as so relevant and useful I've reproduced the bulk of it here. Rossio's is a long, spoken answer. So the paragraphing, subtitling and numbering is mine, for the sake of structure and clarity. Run your idea through the man's handy ten-point-process, and you'll be in pretty good shape to start, I reckon.
"I like to feel with absolute certainty that the idea for the [story] is an exceptional premise. Next I ponder why the concept is compelling. How does it achieve its beauty and could it be enhanced even more?"
2. Two concepts
"I want to stack the deck in my favour by taking the first inspiration and going past it, adding to it with a second inspiration. [Something that] derives from the original idea and pushes it further. I always keep thinking, "How can I push this more than I already have?""
3. Character Relationships
"I don't go too far without starting to think of the main character relationships. Not the main character, their histories and such. That's not so important. The relationship between the characters is what needs to be defined."
4. Character Situations
"I always try and think of ways to push characters into extremes. I worry that characters are too timid or bland. My goal is to present a series of characters in situations... people dealing with immediate problems with no relief. All actions are the result of intent, and intent comes from desire. Character desires have to be designed so that the plot occurs as a by-product."
5. Point of View
"At some point, after having a few characters, scenes and images in my mind, I wonder what the point of view is. Is there some way to limit the point of view that would actually enhance the telling of the story... like "What if we revealed stuff from this character instead...""
6. The Ending
"Early in the process, I want to focus on the ending. [Now} nothing else matters...until the ending is known. Everything else derives from the ending because its setting up that final...rush of excitement. Good endings are hard."
7. Tone and Genre
"I always ask what the tone is and this takes me back to genre. Are there genre conventions that can be mixed, or used to advantage? is it a combination of story patterns? How do I see the pattern in my head? I wonder if I've fulfilled and also exceeded the genre."
8. Title, Theme, Opening Images
"What's the title? If a project doesn't call to mind a cool title, then I start to suspect it's not a good project or I'm not ready to write it yet. Has a theme emerged yet? Is the opposite of the more obvious theme more interesting? I also explore whether all aspects of the theme, or central question, can find form in the story - perhaps characters or relationships can be invented by assigning them different aspects of the thematic argument. Then I ask, "What is a compelling opening image?""
9. Double-checks: setting, characters
"I double-check that the setting is right. What if I changed the gender of my lead? What if I opened at the end instead of the beginning? Would the whole thing be better if the leads were ten years old? These are questions to...shake things up, and make sure I'm fully exploring all options."
10. Double-checks: what's cool?
"I always ask what's cool. What's a cool sequence, character, line of dialogue, relationship, demise, fight or opening image?"
Then: "I repeat this whole process several times until, in an excruciatingly slow process, each solution asserts itself and declares itself "good". And finally, when everything is good or I run out of time, I start writing."
Top draw, Terry Rossio. I love this. (Just today, in fact, a question under number 8 fixed a problem for me as I walked around the block.)
So, yeah. The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters is a superb little handbook. Recommended!
I've not been here for a while.
Which is to say I've been outside in the sunshine reading books and wearing shorts and dark glasses and wishing I somehow had nice socks, rather than ones that inexplicably make me look colourless and middle-aged. Maybe the socks aren't the issue. Maybe it's the legs.
Anyway things are up and running again. I've read some interesting YA, a razor-sharp sci-fi pirate adventure and a neat shenanigans-in-the bush thriller. Though readers expecting edge-of-your-seat pornography from that last description will be disappointed to discover I'm referring to the Australian outback:
Well, it's out in the world. I'm proud of this one. And I've got lots to say. Except not here - elsewhere. I can be found at these five fantastic blogs over the next week, starting Monday.
Last night I went to bed early knowing I had to be up at 5am for work. By 1:30am I still hadn’t got to sleep.
I was thinking about my books, my royalty cheques, my relative status, my limitations. Payback isn’t out yet, so I have no idea what anyone will make of my little novel but I was fretting about what will happen to it.
The rational part of my brain knows exactly what will happen; it’ll do modest business then vanish. If I’m lucky its sales will earn me almost as much as I banked in a month doing my previous job. Some people will like it and I’ll get a mood-boosting blast of positivity on the days I hear good news. (It’s impossible to underestimate how thrilling it is to hear someone has read and enjoyed your book.) A slightly smaller number will read it and dislike it. It’ll end up at about 3.9 on Goodreads.
But the truth is, it’ll be beneath the notice of most.
I know this.
And yet… part of me still hopes it will do well. That it’ll end up on bookstore table-displays or face-out with a staff review, or a national newspaper runs a small but positive review. Or it gets optioned for a spell, or there’s an audiobook deal or calls for a sequel. Just imagine, right?
It’s managing these two opposing thoughts, the rational and the optimistic, that keeps me awake. Last night it took me getting on for three hours to thoroughly think through the issues I’ve expressed above.
I’m writing this at 6:30am the following morning on a train. Here’s a summary of my current state of mind.
Maybe there is no mass market. It might look like there’s wave after wave of hit books with mass appeal, but those books can only represent 5% of what’s published, right? The rest ticks over in the background. I’d need to write twenty books just to be in with a statistical shout of joining the ranks of the big-hitter.
The rest of us are niche. Thousands and thousands of us appealing to a small group of readers with specialist enthusiasms, and earning a modest living doing so. So if happiness is, as some people say, the result of expectation minus reality, one simple solution is to modulate expectation. To make peace with being niche.
Then there’s this. Once, I was the bloke who got picked. The Poison Boy happened because I was plucked out of nowhere, winning The Times Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition in 2012.
I’ve already won the lottery. I should pipe the hell down and get to work.
As it turns out once you've broadened your attention, stuff happens.
About a week after the last blog post, someone told me this. There's a high-speed rail link planned in some distant future where we aren't broke. It would connect Manchester and Sheffield, a mate was telling me. I tracked down a piece in the Guardian to check the facts. And get this (the italics are mine):
"David Higgins’s review of the second phase of HS2 endorsed the two planned routes... Higgins said either a new tunnelled high-speed route or an upgraded rail link through existing but unused tunnels through the Pennines were possible options."
That's right. Existing tunnels, closed in 1981. Here's a picture:
Boom. There it is. A group of surveyors are re-opening a bricked up tunnel to begin work on a new rail network. No-one's been in those tunnels for 35 years. Consider the possibilities, folks...
Cold case! Missing kid! Flashbacks to the early eighties! Other stuff!
This is how it happens, friends. Ideas collide with ideas. Maybe there'll be a third thing. I've a feeling there will...
I wonder whether it’s possible to track an idea from it’s earliest germ to it’s final expression in prose.
I’ve thought about this now and again but never committed anything to blogpost before, mostly because I’ve never been hyper-aware enough to catch the exact moment of an idea’s arrival.
Then - FANFARE!! - suddenly I was.
It happened on Friday 25th May 2018 on a train between Manchester, UK and Sheffield, a second city a fifty minute journey away. I was on the 7:57am service. It was about 8:20am.
A spine of hills and moorland sometimes referred to as ‘the backbone of England’ – the Pennines – lies between the two cities. To drive from one to the other would mean using Snake Pass, a winding and exposed road often closed by snow in winter and a notorious year-round accident black-spot. The train service, of course, takes you beneath the hills.
There are, Wikipedia tells me, a number of trans-pennine tunnels but the one I travelled through is, I think, the Disley Tunnel. It’s three-and-a-half kilometres long and pitch black. Here's the entrance -
Now, these are not high-speed trains. Getting through takes a while. When you emerge on the other side, there’s a feeling of entering a new world from out of a dark portal. You quickly pull up at a station, and – seriously – it’s called Dore. As in door.
There it is. My strange tunnel/portal idea at the exact point of conception!! Or EPOC as I will be pompously calling it, ha ha.
People often ask where ideas come from, and when I show them the earliest form of those ideas – like in an iphone note or a couple of words scribbled somewhere – they’re always disappointed. Jeez, you see them think. I could’ve done that. Well, yeah. You could, you’ve probably done it a thousand times. I don’t think my ideas are any better than anyone else’s, frankly probably a bit below average. But what I do know is this; something else will collide with that tunnel idea sometime soon – something in some way related, because I’ve now got an open file marked ‘weird railway tunnels’ in my head.
Once idea two meets idea one, it’ll grow and change. When that happens, I’ll throw out a quick blog about it. Just so I can track how this whole thing happens and grows.
Or withers and dies.
Back in the day I read a fair bit of Emily Barr's stuff. I'm a fan of her backpacking travel-thrillers and loved The Sleeper, a train-based psycho-drama that pre-dates Emily Blunt staring boozily at her own reflection in that movie with the killer OST and ridiculous ending.
So it was a real pleasure to announce the winners of BASH 2018 and award the 11+ category to Emily's The One Memory of Flora Banks, a book I need to go out and read pretty smartish.
It was a great day run by a team of super-smart enthusiastic librarians who, mired in the middle of awards season, have handed out so many prizes to so may great books they've forgotten who won what and have to check their Twitter feeds to recall what they were doing last week ;-)
Plus I got to wear my new cap and stand awkwardly next to local dignitaries on one side and graphic artist Nick Brokenshire (Star Wars Adventures Issue 9, no less!) on the other... and a whole crew of fantastic kids eager to share their ideas for novels or pick my addled brains for writing advice. All good.
Also good - close to very good, I suspect - is Payback getting a mention in The Bookseller's July preview section. The Bookseller? Yeah, me too. I'm on Wikipedia right now. It's an industry weekly with 30,000 readers in the trade and it gets eyes in over 90 countries. But we knew that, right?
There I am, folks, mixing it with Reeve and Scarrow. With Crossan and Camden no less. Me and Ness Harbour.
When I get the Payback graphics through from my lovely publishers, I'll go-all out updating the site and de-Lifers the headings and banners.
I know. I bet you can't flippin' wait.
This post first appeared on the wonderful Author Allsorts site, here.
If you're interested in other stuff I've written for them - and hell why wouldn't you be? - you can access a few of my posts in the links that follow:
OK. So I signed up for an online writing course. Screenwriting to be precise. The whole thing was beautifully put together; forums to introduce yourself to other students, introductory videos shot super-professionally, downloadable pdfs of helpful resources, links to screenplays and so on. Best of all? The whole lot was free. So yeah, I couldn’t be more positive about the whole set-up and design of the experience. Top draw, folks.
But as I worked my way through the materials and completed the tasks, I found my enthusiasm waning. Nothing new there, right? Anyone who knows the psycho-emotional experience of building something new is aware we move through different phases of engagement with any project. So I was expecting a petering off of energy and sure enough it happened.
I pushed on, but it got me thinking about rules. About hard-and-fast versus soft-and-slow, if you like. Here’s what I mean, using screenplay writing as my example. Imagine a continuum with one approach at one end and the other at… well, the other.
Hard and fast = You wanna write a screenplay? Here’s how. There are rules – you do this, then this, then this. Here’s an example of it working in practice (insert clip here.) See how the hero refuses the call? Here it is again (clip.) And here (clip.) Now make your hero refuse the call. What precisely do they say? Why? How? What happens to change them? Good. Next…
You get the picture. First principles, rules and regs, examples to illustrate. Basically, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
The course didn’t go for hard and fast. Nowhere near. It went for soft and slow.
Soft and slow = Everyone’s got a different way. There’s no formula. I’m gonna hint at or imply the existence of rules, sometimes openly discuss them, then contradict, criticise and ridicule them. I’m going use the phrase, “…it all depends,” as often as I can. Then you get to slowly figure out what’s important.
For example, in one video-discussion the four contributors explored the importance of character. One told us an engaging character needs a clear motivation and goal. “Or… perhaps not,” a second said. “Some characters want nothing but stasis.” Characters’ decisions drive the plot forward, one said. “Or maybe not,” said another. “In some screenplays, the protag makes no decisions. Everything happens to them.” Begin your planning by scoping out your characters, one advised. “Or not,” said another. “Begin with theme or place. It’s up to you. It all depends.”
There are advantages here: you get nuance and subtlety, for one. But on the other hand holy cow, folks just gimme the basics so I can figure out how to use and subvert audience expectation.
I guess it comes down to rule and exception. If every rule has an exception, what I need to know is three things. Just three.
Answer those and I’m happy. That’s it.
Oh, wait. One more thing – you can’t tell me it all depends.
Pop quiz: name Philip Pullman’s first two published novels. Struggling? OK, an easier one. Name Patrick Ness’s first two books.
Tricky, huh? Both of these wonderful writers started gaining real traction with their third or fourth publication. (Go to Chris Wooding’s site and his list of published work begins with Broken Sky, his third novel. The first two have been redacted entirely.)
Why’s this on my mind? Because Payback, my third novel, is due out in July. Now don’t worry folks. I’m not comparing myself vainly with the writers above, I know my place in the great children’s-fiction-pecking-order. But in a number of important ways, Payback is my first novel too.
I couldn’t do any of the above with Poison Boy – I was an assistant headteacher working 60 hour weeks when I wrote it. While working on Lifers, my four-year old daughter wasn’t sleeping and I was a deputy headteacher trying to find time to finish a textbook I was co-writing for an educational publisher. I love P-Boy and I love Lifers. They represent the very best novels I could have written at the time, given the person I was in the circumstances I was.
But let me share one story about Payback that illustrates how the experience has been so different.
Recently, as the picture above attests, I got the page proofs through the post from the wonderful people at Chicken House. They look flippin’ great. As usual, I was asked to give the mss one final read, highlight any small changes and return them to CH HQ.
I remember to my shame what this process was like for my first two novels. I was exhausted, haunted by work-issues, pausing to take calls from colleagues, finish reports, plan lessons and mark work. I was doing staff appraisals at the same time as I gave Lifers its final once-over, drafting replies to letters of complaint, reviewing student contracts and re-jigging the school calendar for the academic year ahead.
With Payback, I blocked out three days, settled down and read the whole book aloud to myself. Something I was doing for the third time. The third time, folks. There are sections of P-Boy and Lifers I’ve never read aloud. Third time reading Payback (aloud; my laptop asleep, no calls or emails, nothing but blissful deep concentration) I still found things to change. The sound of a sentence, extraneous adjectives, crappy expression.
It made me think: great writers have lots of things us ordinary writers don’t have. Maybe they have a better ear for dialogue; maybe they have a broader vocabulary; maybe they have the eye of a true observer of human nature, or they have a flair for crisp, concise expression.
But maybe they have something else. Something arguably more important than all the other things. Maybe they have time.
During the writing of Lifers I fired off a blog post for Author Allsorts called Little Pockets. It described how I worked back then – stealing a half hour here and there to get some words down. I finish with this: “I sometimes wish things were different…but I know it’s not going to be any time soon. In the meantime, this is what most of us have – little pockets of opportunity in otherwise frenetic days.”
Somehow I made it out. Payback will too; coming your way this summer.
Give it some love – it’s my debut novel. 😉