Monday, 30 September 2013

A map is so much more

A couple of weekends back I found myself in Oxford at the Bodleian - as you do. They had an exhibition on about magic and fantasy in writing and had chosen to fix Oxford firmly in the centre of that particular universe. The writers they were focusing on were Tolkien, CS Lewis, Phillip Pullman, Alan Garner, etc. There were notes and drawings by each and all in all it was a nice little exhibition with much to interest the child in this particular adult - not least because the stories these authors wrote (with the exception of Pullman who was much later) fuelled my nascent interest in writing when I was no more than a wee girlie.

Half way round the exhibition I had a bit of an epiphany. One of the reasons I loved these stories so much as a child was because they weren't just stories; they were entire worlds - worlds I could get lost in - worlds that could be explored by map, no less. In fact my love of a good map goes all the way back to a book by Annette Mills entitled Muffin the Mule. British children of the late 40s and 50s will remember Muffin on TV of course, but I had the book, complete with a map of his 'world' - the garden in which he and his friends lived.

So there I was in the Bodleian thinking, that's what I need to do - I need to draw a map of the world I am creating. Good authors provide maps. Good authors provide a world their readers can inhabit alongside the characters. Or, to my mind, they do anyway. That's not to say I haven't read a good many books that don't have maps, because I have. But you know where you are with a map.

Yesterday, online, I found a map of London drawn in 1767.  I managed to cobble together a jpeg of it and took it along today to Hobs in Marylebone Lane to get it printed. For the princely sum of £5 I now have two black and white maps, 150 cm by 95 cm (so, big) entitled A Plan of the Cities of London and Westminster and the Borough of Southwark with the new buildings 1767. From this I will create the 'map' of the world my character Annie Beaumaris lived in at that time. I have other, more detailed maps, showing the courts and alleyways of central London in the 18th century, but this big map enables me to plan all of my characters' movements as they negotiate a world full of bubble stock dealers, murderous loan sharks, corruptible lawyers, extraordinarily exotic whores, idle gossip-mongers, murderers, religious fanatics, philosophers, actors, property developers, highway robbers, journalists, Bow Street, Runners, Magistrates, grocers, actors and witty raconteurs with ease.

I cannot recommend highly enough the need for a good map!

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Marlon Brando and me

Way back in 2001 Marlon Brando was appearing in The Score, his last film before he died.  The film was being produced by Bernie Williams, and it just so happened that, at the same time, I was working with Bernie on a sequel to his 1985 movie, Bounty, with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins.

I should explain – In 1990 I heard of a proposal to cull a herd of wild bison in Canada because they supposedly carried brucellosis and TB, and it was being spread to cattle destined for the United States meat market. I wrote a short piece about it, which was bought by the BBC World Service and went out at the time of the Gulf War. I remember thinking no one is going to be interested in this – they’re all listening to news about Kuwait going up in flames. Nevertheless, it bump-started my writing career, and from that point on I worked on documentaries in the UK. I would research a subject that interested me, write up a one page outline and submit it to an independent TV producer. I was fortunate enough to have an actor friend Stewart Bevan (who had been in Dr Who in the early 70s) and he introduced me to Norrie Maclaren at Tartan Television. Norrie had been Stanley Kubrick’s assistant on the film Barry Lyndon and I learned a lot from him about writing for TV and film. For the next few years we developed many projects together.

Move forward a few years and I meet a man called Stephen Walters. Stephen was a maritime consultant and colleague of film-maker David Lean, and had worked on Bernie Williams’ movie Bounty. Stephen suggested I talk to Bernie about an idea we had to follow the story of the Bounty mutineers after they arrived on the island of Pitcairn. He gave me Bernie’s phone number in LA, and I called him. On the strength of that one phone call I found myself working with one of the all-time great producers. The Bounty was his passion. He had always intended on making a second movie, but the money ran out and Hollywood’s appetite for ‘ship films’ had shifted.

Over the next couple of years I wrote with Bernie. We emailed manuscripts back and forth. I didn’t earn anything. I considered it a privilege to learn from a master in this way. He took me seriously as a writer. He encouraged me, and I learned about characters, plots, and the way Hollywood views its writers.

Bernie also told me all about the film he was making with Edward Norton, Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando. It was called The Score. Frank Oz was directing. Frank also having some kind of emotional problems and the script was unfinished. Eventually, Ed Norton stepped up and completed the writing and Bernie took over direction, though he was never credited for it. Half way through shooting Bernie gave my Bounty sequel to Marlon Brando and asked him to read it. Brando of course had played Fletcher Christian in the 1962 film of Mutiny on the Bounty. Fitting then, that he should pronounce on the newest offering.

He loved it. He told Bernie, he should make it. It was a winner. Bernie talked to Anthony Hopkins, and he agreed to a cameo. The proposal went to studios in Hollywood. I expected to get very rich – well okay, not very rich. It was explained to me that as I was not a Writers Guild of America member, I would at best only be credited with the first draft script. Subsequent drafts would be written by a guild member. In any case, it never happened. Hollywood still didn’t want a ‘ship film’. Even after Master and Commander came out, it still didn’t want to reprise Mutiny on the Bounty. My sequel entered ‘development hell’, which is where it has been ever since.

In many ways, it doesn’t matter. Marlon read my script. Loved it. Recommended it be made. What greater accolade can a writer have? I suppose yes, winning a major writing prize would trump it, but for me? No. Marlon Brando read what I wrote. I can’t ask for more for more than that.


Monday, 12 August 2013

Writing software (particularly scripts) and my adventures with computers

In 1988 I started writing on an Amstrad word processor. It did the job. The internet was naught but whimsy. The Amstrad went out of date very quickly and I bought my first Mac. I still couldn't connect to the internet, but then I don't remember it being a very big thing. It was something university students used to connect with each other - and there really wasn't anything to download, not like now. The Mac had an early version of Clarisworks on it. It was functional.

When the Mac died (it was second hand) I bought a computer from Time. For a while Time offered cheap PCs with all the software. It had Lotus word processing. To tell the truth it wasn't much better than the Amstrad. The Mac was way superior, but I couldn't afford another Mac - not even second hand.

However, the Time machine (!) offered me my first glimpse of the internet and I discovered writing software that helped plot and format. Now, let me explain - I had learned to write scripts by formatting tabs just as i would have done had I been writing on a typewriter. I still set up a page in this way. The software is great, but I didn't 'grow up' with it, and as a result if feels clunky. That said there are some really good packages around. Celtx is one of them. You can use it to plan and execute novels, scripts, comics etc... and you can store everything in the 'cloud'. (Something else you couldn't do back in 1988).

Final Draft has long been an industry standard for script writers, but when you know how to set up a page the old way, there's little point in using it.

A new one on me is Adobe Story. Here you can create online if you wish, collaborating with like minded people. Or the one I like is Scriptware. Perhaps because it's got a friendly interface.

For novelists... well you don't really need software to start writing a novel do you? I mean Word will do won't it? There's no fancy format to adher to beyond double spacing, and indenting the first line of a paragraph. Well there is some software that will help you sort out your plot and characters. The one I like, though I've not used it extensively is New Novelist. It helps you set everything out so that you know where you're going with your story.

Is any of this going to help you actually tell your story? Not really. There's the illusion of help - and if you're a systematic kind of a person then yes, I suppose you will gain order and lessen confusion, but the bottom line is, if you don't have a good story, if you can't tell it with passion, and if your characters aren't real and your dialogue sucks - well no amount of software is going to fix it.

It's fun playing with it though!

What happened next on my travels through the history of computers? When the Time machine died, I had a Gateway PC second hand from work. It has been and remains the best computer ever. It never crashes, never hangs and still works perfectly. But it is slow and can't handle the internet. So I bought a Mac off ebay - it was wonderful... for a while. It's hard drive was minuscule, so I swapped it for a secondhand G5. It lasted a year before it burned out. (G5's had a habit of doing that, so I'm told.) Now we've got a Mac mini, brand new. It's not mine but I am allowed to use it. I bought it for my son's birthday. He needs to use Logic Pro on it. It's set up as a recording studio. It has way more functionality than my poor old Amstrad ever has but you know, I still set up scripts in the old way.


Sunday, 11 August 2013

Genres? Or not

Here's a good question: as a writer, is it important to stick to one genre?

At school I was taught a variety of subjects with a view to giving me an all-round education. From this I was meant to whittle it down into one subject I liked above all others and go to university to study it. I chose art. It was an easy choice. I was terrible at everything else.

On my art course I was continually being told to narrow my choices still further by finding one area of interest and one medium that I like above all others and stick to it. I didn't do that. I was good at drawing but didn't want to be pigeonholed. I liked photograph, but didn't want to be a photographer. I liked painting but what to paint when it was all so interesting. I wanted to explore everything about art. No boundaries, no rules. Even the avant garde comes with rules. Poo.

In the event, I left art school and began my 'real life'. That means I had to earn a living. Stuff happens.

Much later, I realised I wasn't an artist at all - I was a writer - but here's where that problem once more reared it's ugly head. Write about one thing, in one genre. Publishers don't like it when they can't pigeonhole you. Agents don't like it when they can't pigeonhole you. They tell you no one will buy what you've written because readers want to read the same kind of book from the same author, time and time again. Well in that case there's no need to spend any money, just read the same damned book over and over!

Okay, so I know what they are saying. You read Stephen King, you come to expect horror. If he gives you romance you don't like it. You might even stop buying Stephen King books.

But this approach is a problem for writers (and in fact for anyone with a creative bent) because your mind doesn't work like that. At least, mine doesn't. Ideas come from who knows where, and sometimes there's no telling whether it's going to be a ghost story, a crime story, a family story, a love story... you catch my drift. And often these genres have cross overs, so it makes it really difficult to pin a genre down.

The other thing is this: I learned to write by working for TV. I wrote on documentaries. I would research a subject (any subject), find experts on it, mine their expertise and come up with a proposal for a TV programme. If I was lucky that programme would get made, if not then onto the next project. Working like that you learn to be an instant expert on something, only to drop it a couple of days later when the next idea comes along. It means that now I've a head full of random information - nothing connected, nothing focussed. That said, it's all grist for the storymill.

So... I write crime stories that are ghost stories, that are literary stories, that are family stories, that are just stories about life. Can we have another genre please? Life. That's my new genre.

I thank you

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

In at the start

Once upon quite a long time ago I wrote a book called Losing Cherry. I sent it off to my then agent in London, and, because the main character was American and the location was New Mexico, he sent it to an associate agent in New York. This agent loved it; thought I had what he called a 'new voice' and proceeded to prepare to send to publishers. He asked me for a biography and I duly sent him one. Oh, but that was when disaster befell the whole project, for I had been honest; I had told him I was British.

You see, Losing Cherry is written from the point of view of a 19 year-old girl from New Mexico and, try as I may, I am not an American and I do not live in New Mexico. I live in London. My accent is decidedly English. The agent told me he could not sell my book because it was not written by an American.

My agent in the UK sent it to various publishers here and their response was that, whilst they loved it, it was too American for them. They said they didn't want to buy what was essentially, an American story written by an American living in the UK. They could do that directly from the States. They wanted a book by a British author, and about British stuff. It didn't cut any ice when I told the commissioning editor at Little Brown that I was, in fact, British. She said it was still 'too American'.

Damned by both the Brits and the Americans for different, but nevertheless associated reasons, I shoved the whole MS under my metaphorical bed and moved onto other stories.

Years passed and I just before Christmas 2012 I realised I may have been missing a trick. Since first writing Losing Cherry publishing has moved on. Paper books aren't what they once were. Most of them are now also online. Authors can often earn more by publishing ebooks than they can by relying on old fashioned book publishing. I fished Losing Cherry out and took another look at it. I did a bit of editing and launched myself as an author on Smashwords and Kindle. Smashwords distributes to Apple ibooks, Barnes and Noble, Sony, Kobo, WH Smith, Diesal EBookstore, Ebooks Eros, Baker and Talyor,, and I had to wait a week for them to review the book but once done they were happy to place me on their Premium Catalog. I'm waiting on links to all the various online stores, but once I've got those I can start to develop a marketing plan.

One thing - you do have to be able to edit to the extent that it will pass a rigorous examination by Smashwords editors. There are several formats for ebooks and you have to be able to submit an MS that will be readily convertible across formats. This can be a bit off-putting, despite really good guidelines on the Smashwords site. Also, as a British author there are tax issues and I've still to get hold of a letter from them to take to the American Embassy here in London. Once I have it I will be able to get an exemption from paying tax in the States on sales made there, and simply pay all my tax in the UK.

So, all in all, an interesting couple of weeks at the sharp end of online publishing.