Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Looking back at my writing over the past ten years #1

I started this blog soon after starting an MA in screenwriting at Screen Academy Scotland, part of Edinburgh Napier University [which was then just called Napier University]. Tutor Mark Grindle suggested we kept a journal of our progress through the course, to chart our learning and record the experience. I opted for a blog - this blog.

Ten years ago I was writing a lot, all of it founded in other people's creations, characters and worlds. I'd more than a dozen novels published with more coming - all tie-ins to licensed properties. I flirted with writing for computer games, enjoyed more success scripting comics and audio dramas, and used my journalism skills for non-fiction books.

But nearly all of it was reactive, and little of it felt like my own. I had long aspired to write for TV, but my attempts were stillborn. I knew I could tell a compelling story, but clearly lacked the skills to crack broadcast drama. Fortuitously, Napier was about to launch its screenwriting MA, so I decided to apply in the hope of retraining myself.

I got on the course as a part-time student. There were bursaries available, but as Foreign Scum™I wasn't eligible for such assistance which meant self-funding. That meant a lot of sacrifices, especially as I had to turn down work to study. My income plummeted, my expenses skyrocketed - but I avoided loading myself with student debt, at least.

I learned a lot from the MA, but also reached to grab whatever knowledge I could find - workshops on script editing and storylining, plus nine months of being mentored in TV writing [a massive thank you to the Scottish Book Trust for that opportunity]. I didn't write enough on the course and wish it pushed us more, but I made breakthroughs.

Thanks to pre-course efforts and the encouragement of producer David Ian Neville, I secured my first broadcast commission writing a 15-minute play for BBC Radio 4 in 2006. The other breakthrough came when a project I've developed on the MA called Danny's Toys won Short Film Screenplay prize at the 2007 Page Awards in Los Angeles.

Those two events - coupled with my final project script Families at War - got me a trial at the BBC TV continuing drama series Doctors. My efforts were good enough that I was asked in 2008 to pitch story of the day ideas, working with lovely Caroline Brittain, then a script editor. I set aside most other areas to focus on screenwriting.

It took two years to get my first episode on screen [not uncommon, I was forewarned]. In that time I became represented by Katie Williams [then of Blake Friedmann, now at The Agency]. I got my second radio play commission from the BBC, and a rewritten version of my script Families at War was a finalist in the Red Planet Prize.

Meanwhile, a new focus emerged for my professional life: teaching. In the autumn of 2008 I saw a job advertised at Edinburgh Napier. The university was preparing to launch a Creative Writing MA programme and wanted tutors with expertise in genre fiction, screenwriting and digital media. It was like they had designed the job for me.

I swithered about whether to apply, not convinced I wanted to devote half my week to non-writing activities. My mother had been a teacher and it seemed a rewarded but all-consuming profession. I got shortlisted and was remarkably laid back at interview, simply because I wasn't sure I wanted the job. I got offered it two hours later.

That was the end of 2008. I was skint, still hadn't gotten a TV commission at that point and uncertain how I could sustain myself as a screenwriter. I knew it would take years to build a self-supporting career, even assuming everything fell into place. So I took the job. It was only 17.5 hours, I still had the rest of my week to write, right?

Ahh, how naive. Teaching has occupied into much more than 17.5 hours a week. But the experience has been massively rewarding, and I have learned a lot from it [probably more than the students at times]. No doubt my career would have been different if I wasn't teaching, but it is the pathway I choose so I refuse to regret that choice.

Looking back, it's curious to see the opportunities I pursued and the one I let it slip away. I did next to nothing with my open invitation to badger Red Planet with ideas, preferring to pursue more broadcast commissions with Doctors. There have been other moments I could have chased, but held back through timidity or lack of hunger.

One thing is clear to me: I write best to commission, or the strong likelihood of a commission. My blood is not fired by open invitations to pitch whatever in the vague hope of someone maybe being interested. That makes me less suited to unspecified development opportunities. I respond well to constraint, to the focus of a deadline.

Give me a set of parameters and a narrowing window of opportunity, chances are I will rise to the occasion. Give me an infinite canvas and a free invite to pitch whatever whenever, chances are I will drift away. It's probably why I wrote so much for licensed properties with short deadlines - I need the rush, the barriers, the thrill of the thrill.

I guess that makes me ill suited for some openings and well armed for others. It certainly explains why I have spent years and years not writing a novel entirely of my own devising, despite having bookshelves groaning with reference tomes and a clear sense of what to write. But I have a plan to overcome that reticence in 2016.

Next time on Vicious Imagery: what happened after I got my first broadcast commission.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Vicious Imagery going into mothballs soon

This blog was launched ten years ago - ten years ago yesterday, to be precise. It has long since ceased to fulfill the original purpose, charting my time as an MA Screenwriting student. After that I used it to follow my progress as an emerging screenwriter, which proved increasingly problematic as I actually started to get work in that field. Lately it has been much neglected, with occasional postings - mostly music videos of a Kiwi persuasion.

I had a stat counter on Vicious Imagery, but lost all that data about five years in. I do know that the blog has attracted nearly 650,000 visits in the past five years - despite the fact I haven't been posting nearly so much as I once did - which is nice. Anyway, I'm going to officially mothball Vicious Imagery soon, but I have a few random observations left to make before then. I won't be deleting the blog, it still attracts up to 300 visits a day so there's some useful content in the archive. But the end is coming for new posts here...


Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Kiwi music: 'Magnets' by Disclosure/Lorde

Bit of a fudge to call this Kiwi music, but Lorde did co-write this track as well as singing it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

This is Dreddland '90 - 25 years ago today


On September 15, 1990 a new monthly comic called Judge Dredd The Megazine was published for the first time. It was cover-dated October 1990, but officially went on sale the third Saturday of the preceding month for reasons too arcane to recall. A long-mooted spin-off from 2000AD comic, the Megazine was launched with a special party at the 1990 UK Comic Art Convention in London for the cream of British creators at the time - plus me.

I was assistant editor on the new title, having joined six and a half weeks earlier as the first issue was being prepped for repro. Back in those pre-digital days you had to begin the long production process six weeks ahead of publication. I had originally applied to be assistant editor on Revolver, another new monthly launch from the House of Tharg. I didn't get that job but Steve MacManus hired me for the Meg, working as his assistant.

I had little to do with the initial run of issues, which were largely complete when I arrived with stacks of art already in the plans chest. 1990 was the era of fully painted strips, created half-up or even double publication size. The talent in the first run was incredible: writers John Wagner, Alan Grant and Garth Ennis; artists Cam Kennedy, Jim Baikie, Colin MacNeil, John McCrea and Peter Doherty; plus cover artists Glenn Fabry, Sean Phillips and Duncan Fegredo.

The Megazine might have been all Dredd and his world all the time to start with, but there was plenty of breakthroughs behind the scenes. The first issue sold more than 50,000 copies, triggering a royalty payment to all the creators featured in it - that had never happened before on a Fleetway title. There was a satirical magazine inside the issue, the Mega-City Times, created via desktop publishing - a first back when titles were still put together with glue and scalpels.

I learned my trade as a comics editor under the expert guidance of Steve MacManus, the unsung hero of 2000AD's golden age during the first half of the 1980s. He taught to employ the best creatives you can find and get out of their way - let the talent do its thing. He also encouraged me to find the next generation of British comics creators and nurture them. Giving a new writer or artist their first pro job was often the most satisfying part of my work on the title.

Warren Ellis and Frank Quitely got some of their earliest gig on the Megazine. The comic helped launch the career of creators like Robbie Morrison, Trevor Hairsine, Jim Murray and many others. It broadened the range of Dredd's universe with the first out and proud gay character in Devlin Waugh, and provided a home for creator-owned strips like Al's Baby. And the Megazine certainly had the liveliest letters page in British comics, not for the faint-hearted.

I became editor in 1991, and took the title fortnightly after 20 issues. I switched to editing 2000AD at the end of 1995, but frequently oversaw the Megazine after that. Even after leaving to go freelance in 2000, I have been in the title a few times - scripting Fiends of the Eastern Front: Stalingrad serial, and writing the history of 2000AD articles that became TPO. I haven't been in the Meg for quite a while, but I still read the title which it has a special place in my heart.

There have been so many amazing strips in the Judge Dredd Megazine [as the name eventually became], it seems churlish to pick one out as my favourite - so I'll choose two. America by Wagner & MacNeil is a stone-cold classic that still carries a visceral punch [there's a fresh tale by those creators starting next month in the Meg, don't miss it]. Those 62 pages raised the bar for storytelling in the Dredd universe, ensuring the Meg had its own identity.

My other choice is Bury My Knee At Wounded Heart by Wagner and Doherty. It's only nine pages long, a one-off Dredd in Megazine Volume 2 issue 46, but that story has the emotional impact of a sledgehammer. It reduced me to tears when I read the original script, and Pete's art was the perfect expression of John's delicate, heartfelt tale. In a title full of guns, death and grimness, that story is proof there's more to the Meg than you might expect.

Congratulations to the Judge Dredd Megazine for 25 years of continuous publication, a rare feat for any British comic these days - and here's to another 25 years. Right, I'm off to listen to some Candy Flip, and hope the rumours about Margaret Thatcher being pushed out are true. Step on!