Friday, November 30, 2007

2008 is just a wall planner away

Every year the local weekly paper publishes a free wall planner with its final edition of November. That turned up yesterday, giving me the chance to pin over the top of 2006's wall planner and just underneath this year's wall planner. After a crowded, madcap, lemon-scented kind of year, it's nice to have the broad, empty expanses of a new year ahead on which to plot, plan and peregrinate. [Hold on, let me check in the dictionary that peregrination actually means what I think it does ... to travel or wander about from place to place, to voyage ... well, it doesn't mean what I thought, but it kind of works in the context, so it'll do.]

First thing to go on the 2008 wall planner was a 25 day round trip to New Zealand, starting in mid-March. Various birthdays and anniversaries get marked up next, followed by less salubrious events [dental appointments] and more salubrious events [the third Screenwriters' Festival in Cheltenham, taking place July 1-3 next year]. Other than that, 2008 remains a big blank for me. No burning deadlines to meet, no university assignments to hand in. The veteran freelancer in me sees all those emtpy dates with no work attached and starts to hyperventilate. How will I pay monthly bills?

But the writer in me sees opportunity. Finally, a chance to tackle those projects I've had to set aside for weeks, months, even years while I paid the bills and completed my screenwriting MA. The radio play I've been threatened to develop for grud knows how long. The novel I'd like to write - not for money, but for the love of storytelling. I need to keep refreshing my portfolio of TV scripts, and one day should probably dive into a feature-length screenplay.

Fellow writer Isobel Wright has challenged me to write a play for the stage, something that utilises my strong grasp of structure and tendency towards more muscular, action-packed storytelling. Character-driven explorations of feelings are not anywhere near my comfort. I like plot-driven stories and, if I can't have plot, I'll go for humour - dark, bleak and mordant, but humour nevertheless. There's no reason why that can't be for the stage as well as the page.

So I've no idea how I'll be paying the bills next year, but I've got faith they will get paid. Somehow. In the meantime I'm letting myself imagine. That's what storytelling is about, the great 'What if...?'

Thursday, November 29, 2007

My novels #7: Empire of Death

DOCTOR WHO: Empire of Death (BBC Books, 2004)

In 1856, a boy discovers he can speak with the voices of the dead. He grws up to become one of England's most celebrated spiritualists.

In 1863 the British Empire is effectively without a leader. Queen Victoria is incolsolable with grief following the dath of her beloved husband, Prince Albert. The monarch's last hope is a secret seance.

The Doctor and Nyssa are also coming to terms with loss following the death of Adric and Tegan's sudden departure. Trying to visit the Great Exhibition of 1851, the time travellers are shocked when a ghost appears in the TARDIS, beckoning them to the Other Side.

What is hidden in a drowned valley guarded by the British Army? Is there life after death and can it be reached by those still alive? And why is the Doctor so terrified of facing his own ghosts?

This adventures features the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa.


After the car crash that was my sixth novel, The Domino Effect, I returned to the writing methods that had served me well in the past. But it took me most of this novel to regain confidence in my own abilities, and I suspect there's a tentative streak that held it back from being all it could. I was writing the book when Doctor Who's return to TV was first announced in 2003, and it was obvious the need for new novels featuring old Doctors was fast coming to an end. I sensed Empire of Death could be my last Who novel and so it's proved, thus far. So there were a lot of emotions swirling round this book.

The choice of Fifth Doctor and Nyssa was easy. This TARDIS team had featured in several Big Finish audio dramas, but had never had a book to themselves. More to the point, Nyssa had always felt chronically underdeveloped, so I was determined to flesh out the character as best I could, given her some added dimensions and depths. Most reviewers agreed that was one of the book's strong points.

I did a ton of research into the Victorian era, the life of Queen Victoria, the rise of spiritualism in this time, the structure of the British Army in the 1860s, how the railway system work, what 1860s life was like in the Scottish settlement of New Lanark where much of the action takes places - you name it, I researched it. I've read an estimate that says perhaps 5% of research ever makes it into any research-heavy drama or novel, so I probably wasted a lot of time, but it all added depth and colour to the book.

I was going to include a modern day protagonist who would get dragged back in time to the Victorian era and even write several thousand words exploring that subplot, before dumping it. Indeed, the first draft of this novel ran some 99,000 words before being edited down to 76,000 for the final manuscript. Cut and polish, cut and polish - sensing this would be my final Who novel for a while, I wanted it to be a lean and muscular narrative. Did I succeed? Maybe.

Perhaps the biggest problem was whether to stick with a pure ghost story, or to explicitly state there was some sort of afterlife, or to resort to parallel dimensions and alien invaders. Some readers were disappointed becasue they thought this was a pure ghost story until the last 100 pages, when the parallel dimension and alien invaders were introduced. They could well have a point. I had to laugh at one reviewer who believed my novel was trying to evoke The Turn of the Screw, as I've never read that story. Readers will project their own memories and prejudices into any narrative.

Empire of Death is chock full of tropes and story elements that have also been used in the new Who series - but that's just coincidence. The Doctor meets Queen Victoria and becomes her scientific advisor? Check. The Doctor must protect Queen Victoria from alien entities in Scotland? Check. Seances that bring spirits from a parallel dimension who reanimate the dead as their vessels? Check. But these are proof of nothing more than common influences.

For example, Empire of Death features supernatural weirdness that seeps out from beneath a waterfall, something that's apparently a plot point in an early Russell T Davies show called Century Falls - which I'd never heard of until the coincidence was pointed out to me. Coincidences are all too common.

This book may have been my last Who novel to date, but I was about to become a very prolific author indeed, thanks to the launch of a new franchise fiction imprint called Black Flame. Nearly a dozen novels followed in the next four years, and at one stage I was writing a new book every three months on top of other projects. I'm happy to say most of them aren't bad, either. But first I would return to the character that launched my career as a novelist - Judge Dredd.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

My novels #6: The Domino Effect

DOCTOR WHO: The Domino Effect (BBC Books, 2003)

The TARDIS lands in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, during Easter 2003. The city is almost at a standstill, its public services close to collapse and its people terrorised by a bombing campaign.

Without hours one of the Doctor's friends is caught in a deadly explosion, while another appears on television confessing to the murder of twelve people. The TARDIS is stolen by forces intent on learning its secrets. When the Doctor tries to investigate, his efforts are hampered by crippling chest pains.

Someone is manipulating events to suppress humanity's development - but who and why? The trail leads to London where a cabal pushes the world ever closer to catastrophe. Who is the prisoner being held in the Tower of London? Could he or she hold the key to saving humanity?

The Doctor must choose between saving his friends or saving Earth in the past, present and future. But the closer he gets to the truth, the worse his condition becomes...

This is another in the series of original adventures for the Eighth Doctor.


I rate this among my worst writing experiences, though the novel itself has some merits - they're just too few, and too infrequent. The book was the second in a series of three alternative histories tales, meaning whatever happened would be wiped away by a giant reset button when the story ended. As a consequence, any regular reader knew going in that nothing in the novel mattered, and there was no need to care about any of the characters it introduced - all of them were doomed from the start, killing any suspense or empathy. The book also included a shopping list of things to achieve, few of which added anything to the narrative.

But the real problems stemmed from the way I chose to write The Domino Effect. Normally I create a very detailed roadmap of my story's journey, but leave plenty of spaces for sidetrips, diversions and shortcuts. I write from the beginning to the end and let the characters react to changing events as they happen. It gives them a chance to evolve spontaneously when required. By the time I wrote The Domino Effect in 2002, I was feeling cocky. I'd had five novel published, I figured it was time to change my methods. Big mistake.

My story divided the three person TARDIS crew and sent them off in different directions, before reuniting them in the time-honoured Doctor Who style. I decided to write all the scenes involving one character from division to reunion first. Then I went back and wrote all the scenes involving the other companion. Then all the scenes involving the Doctor, and finally everything that needed to be slotted in between. The result was a nightmare. I found myself writing the same material over and over and over and over. Events in the first strand forced characters in other strands in act in the most idiotic fashion to make the plot work.

When my usual method allowed me to improvise and ignore my synopsis if necessary, the single-stranded approach locked me into whatever I'd written in the first sequence. My improvisation allowed, everything had to follow as if by rote. The result was lifely, lacking in any spontaniety or narrative drive. Writing it was like pulling teeth and giving blood simultaneously. Writing a novel's never easy, but when you're flying your fingers can't type fast enough for your imagination. That never happened on The Domino Effect.

I did enjoy writing the tragic lovelife of computer genius Alan Turing, and the best moments in the novel revolve around him. There are also some lovely interludes set in various pasts, particularly a brief sequence involving the [fictional] murder of Charles Babbage. But as a whole the novel is lifeless and dull. It got shredded by readers and reviewers, and rightly so. The horrors of this novel shook my confidence, and it'd take me another novel or two to get my writing mojo back in action.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Buy now to get Thrill-Power for Christmas!

Thanks to a glut of people buying the book as a Christmas present for their loved ones [or themselves], THRILL-POWER OVERLOAD has been surging back up the sales chart at in the last week or two. Stocks of the first edition are running low and when that sells out, there won't be time left to reprint my mihty history of iconic British comic 2000 AD before the anuual present giving frenzy that is December 25th. So, if you want a copy or you know someone who used to read the galaxy's greatest comic, get your orders in quick to avoid disappointment.

Got back from places south late yesterday and have a full plate of projects to progress over the next few days so lengthy blog postings will just have to wait. Sorry, but deadlines come first. In the meantime, look outside your window and you might see the most amazing sunrise of pink and orange and black clouds [depending where you live]. It's like a Disney Princesses Tim Burton mash-up.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Away visiting my latest niece

After a week of writing, writing and more writing, I'm now off until Monday afternoon to head south and see my latest niece. [Usual rules applies with my absence: play nice with others, and anything you break, you pay for.] Happily, my labours have been productive, rather than Sisyphean. I finished writing the front half of a novel and revised my Inspector Morse guide book for a new edition to be published next year. I also had a couple of pieces of good news during the week, but they're still in the balance so I won't put the curse on by talking about them. Just keep your fingers crossed for me, okay? That's metaphorically, not literally - life ain't easy with fingers crossed, though it can make certain activities more interesting. Onwards!

Friday, November 23, 2007

My novels #5: Amorality Tale

DOCTOR WHO: Amorality Tale (BBC Books, 2002)

'Those people that die must die. It's history, it's already hapene and there's nothing we can do to prevent it, Sarah.'

East Eng gangster Tommy Ramsey emerges from prison in 1952, determined to retake control of his territory on the streets of Shoreditch. But new arrivals threaten his grip on all illegal activity in the area.

An evangelical minister at St Luke's Church is persuading people to seek redemption for their sins. A new gang is claiming the streets. And a watchmender called Doctor John Smith is leading a revolt against the Ramsey Mob's protection racket.

But when Tommy strikes back against his enemies, a far more terrifying threat is revealed. Within hours the city's air begins turning into nerve gas and thousans are killed by the choking fumes. London is dying...

This adventure features the Third Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith.


In 2001 it's been six years since I last wrote a novel. For most of the intervening period I was editor of iconic British science fiction comic 2000 AD, a job that doesn't leave much spare time for freelance work. But in the summer of 2000 I quit to go freelance as a writer, journalist and editor. A year later I was ready to take another crack at novel writing. Amorality Tale was the first fruit of that effort.

The story was inspired by a fact I'd once read in a newspaper article. Between 4000 and 12,000 Londoners died in the space of a few days during December 1952, due to a smog so thick it chocked them to death. Imagine that happening today, the outcry there would be. This tragedy helped pave the way for environmental legislation that cleaned up the air over London. It's thought smoke from household and industrial coal fires combined with a heavy, persistent fog to poison the air. But what if they'd been another cause, something more alien?

That was the seed for my story. Next I needed a structure, so I sought inspiration elsewhere, away from the continuity-heavy world of Doctor Who. Having written Who Killed Kennedy, a novel suffused with fanwank, I wanted to create a completely standalone book without references to other Who stories. Instead I borrowed a few ideas from the great British movie The Long Good Friday, substituting a malevolent alien race as my terrorist threat. No reviewer's ever noticed the parallels.

I chose the 3rd Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith as my TARDIS team because I don't think anybody had used that combination in a novel before. Besides, I grew up watching the 3rd Doctor in New Zealand [where his adventures ran about four years after they were screened on the BBC], and Sarah Jane had long been my favourite Who companiion [probably still is]. Then I did plenty of research into the period to get the little details right about East End life in the 1950s.

I honestly can't remember the writing process for this novel, but I suspect that's been blotted out by having written more than a dozen other novels since. The book got decent reviews, including a lovely write-up by Vanessa Bishop [no relation] in Doctor Who Magazine, but some online critics griped about a lack of originality in my aliens. That's probably fair comment. Nevertheless, I was happy with Amorality Tale and fancied having a crack at writing for the 8th Doctor. Little did I know that way disaster lurked.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

My novels #4: Who Killed Kennedy

DOCTOR WHO: Who Killed Kennedy (Virgin Books, 1996)

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on 22 November, 1963.

Now, the publication of this volume reveals frightening new information about the assassination, the real reasons why the Present of the United States had to die and an incrdible plan to save the man known as JFK!

These stunning relevations involve an ultra-secret military force disguised as a minor off-shoot of the United Nations and an international terrorst leader who has twice brought the world to the brink of nuclear conflict.

For more than three decades the public has been fed lies, half-truths and misinformation. Now - despite government attempts to halt the publication of this volume - the comple, shocking story can be told. Read the book they tried to ban!


By 1995 I was itching to write another novel. I'd had three Judge Dredd tomes published, but the last of those was an unsatisfying experience. After a year away from writing novels, the urge to create another was strong. Having been a been a life-long Doctor Who fan, it made sense for me to pitch an original Who novel to my regular publisher Virgin, as it then held a licence from the BBC to publish original Who novels. There were two ranges at the time - the New Adventures featured the 7th Doctor and had built an extended continuity of stories and characters, all set after the show was cancelled in 1989, and the Missing Adventures, novels featuring past doctors slotted into gaps between television stories.

I pitched all sorts of ideas to editor Rebecca Levene, none of them good enough to get commissioned. Finally, I suggested a Doctor Who version of the comics mini-series Marvels. That took a sideways look at Marvel Comics continuity, showing epic moments from a photojournalist's point of view, giving a fresh perspective on familiar events. Why not take the same approach to classic Who stories, like the Pertwee era when the 3rd Doctor was stuck on Earth in the early 1970s? How would normal people react to the spate of alien invasions that occurred in that period?

Somehow this burgeoned into a book written in the breathless style of non-fiction expose, blending Who continuity as seamlessly as possible with real history to create a new reality. Everybody loved the idea, but I didn't have an ending. I suggested the book could culminate in events that saw the Roger Delgado Master dying and regenerating. Virgin suggested swapping that for a JFK assassination theme, to broaden the book's appeal to a wider audience. I bought into the idea, knowing it would get me a commission. The hybrid book I was writing didn't fit easily into the New or Missing Adventures, so it became a new kind of Who fiction - miscellaneous.

Looking back from this distance, the JFK elements still feel bolted on, despite my best efforts to incorporate them into the text. But Who Killed Kennedy is a masterpiece of what's termed fanwank - the blatant, sometimes gratuitous use of continuity references to further a narrative. It's easily the most popular and best-selling of my Who novels, and still gets remembered fondly.

In its own way, Who Killed Kennedy is a forerunner of sorts for the new series TV story Love and Monsters. Both feature a man on an obsessive quest to discover the truth about this mysterious individual called the Doctor. Both characters fall in love and the women they love suffers a terrible fate as a consequence of that obsession. Both characters only meet the Doctor near the end of the story, as events shudder to a climax. But Who Killed Kennedy features considerably less ELO and there's no implications of paving slab fellatio.

You can read Who Killed Kennedy online, accompanied by extensive author's notes and annotations, by clicking here.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Deadlines, deadlines, deadlines

Too busy to blog today, so here's something to distract you from the absence of fresh content: look - kittens!See? I knew it would work.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

BBC to expand writers' academy?

This has been rumoured for some time, but may slowly be coming to pass - an expansion of the BBC Writers' Academy. Speaking to the Royal Television Society last night, Vision Productions chief creative officer Peter Salmon said the BBC was examining way to extend the scheme beyond its London base and into other genres beyond drama. 'It's a really imaginative and successful scheme,' Salmon says in a report published by Broadcast this morning. 'At present it only covers England – but I'd like to find a way to spread coverage to the rest of the UK, and also other programme areas.'

Anybody in the UK can apply for the BBC writers' academy at present, but the cost implications for those who don't already live within commuting distance of London are verging on the prohibitive. So it would be great if the BBC could extend or expand the scheme to other areas, such as Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and the north of England. There was talk of an expansion to the scheme at the TAPS continuing drama workshop in Cardiff earlier this year, but no official word at the time. Now that Salmon has broken cover on the subject, perhaps there'll be some action.

Alan Moore knows the score, Bart

Alan Moore and other comics legends get buff and kick arse on The Simpsons. Yes, really. 'League of extraordinary freelancers - activate!'

Monday, November 19, 2007

You shall go to the ball, Cinders

Went to the Scottish BAFTA awards in Glasgow last night, thanks to a kind invitation from Skillset Scotland. Felt a bit like Cinders having blagged her way into the ball at first, but soon relaxed and enjoyed myself. Ran into author Alan Bissett, with whom I did a radio drama lab last year, so we had a good old gossip. Also met comics writer Mark Millar and his lovely wife, saw no end of Scottish TV actors and comedians, and talked with several producers during the evening.

The awards show ran long, as these things always seem to do, but it was great to see another Screen Academy Scotland graduate on a winning team. Chris Grady was chief writer for Blowout, a sketch pilot on Channel 4 that won best Scottish TV comedy. Talked to him afterwards and he was well made up. His breakthrough stemmed from the Gags To Go opportunity run by The Comedy Unit last summer, proof positive that entering competitions works.

Anomaly of the night had to the best film actress award, where there was only one nominee, Sophia Myles for Hallam Foe. Find it hard to believe there wasn't another performance by a woman in a Scottish film in the last year worthy of praise, but I'm no judge. The discomfit of the situation was made even more acute as Myles was the only winner not present to collect their award [she's making a vampire detective TV series in Los Angeles called Moonlight, at least until the scripts run out].

The awards finally finished and everyone got bussed across town to the Hilton for their dinner, followed by dancing to the wee small hours. I went to the dinner and got nattering to plenty more people, but made my excuses at 11am. It's an hour to drive back home and I've got no shortage of work to do today.

But my highlight of the evening was probably talking to Julian Mitchell, who won best TV writer for his BBC4 drama Consenting Adults. Mitchell wrote all the best episodes of Inspector Morse, including my all-time favourite Masonic Mysteries. It was lovely to get a chance to tell him that, and he was friendly and a joy to meet. All in all, a fun night out and highly recommended. Now, back to work.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

My six month review

Back when I was a fulltime editor, the company I worked for was big on personal assessments and charting the developmental progress of its staff. All that stops when you go freelance, but you still need to find ways of challenging yourself. In May this year I wrote a list of goals and objectives for my writing career, and gave myself until May 2009 to achieve them. Six months on, it's time for a review of progress to date. How much progress have I made? Have my priorities changed since May? All good questions, worth considering. So here goes...

1. GET AN AGENT: I've written to a dozen agencies and half of them agreed to read one or more of my calling card scripts. I only started that process in the last two months. I waited until I have three different scripts I could send out, each designed to show my capabilities and - hopefully - my voice as a writer. Winning an international screenwriting award for my short film script has definitely helped my cause. No agent yet, but this objective is being actively pursued.

2. GET ANOTHER RADIO PLAY COMMISSIONED: Been full of good intentions but haven't progressed this beyond a few conversations with a radio producer. Need to set aside some paying gigs to devote creative head space to this project. Have got a bunch of ideas I want to develop, but need to step up and do that. Mostly, I've been talking the talk, but not walking the walk. Bad writer. Bad!

3. GET FIRST TV DRAMA CREDIT: Probably the toughest nut to crack among all my goals. Most of the past six months have been consumed by finishing my MA and paying the bills. Now the MA is done, I've been devoting much more energy of late to this objective. Made contact with key personnel on two continuing dramas, and am working my way towards consideration for a commission. But this is most definitely the long game, where patience is essential. Mark this down as being actively pursued.

4. CREATE TWO MORE TV PILOTS: Back in May I had the pilot script for my contemporary conspiracy thriller serial in good shape, and my short film script Danny's Toys. Otherwise, the cupboard was bare of calling card scripts. I've since written the pilot [and storylined seven more episodes] for a WWII continuing drama, and a 23-minute standalone TV drama script. But I need more, particularly stories aimed at ages 16-24. Some good work done here, but much more needed.

5. GET WORK EXPERIENCE IN STORYLINING OR SCRIPT EDITING: Didn't think I'd get far with this after one opportunity didn't come to pass, but have done more than I expected. Took part in the first storylining for continuing drama workshop run by the Script Factory in May and loved every second of the experience. More recently I spent a day with the Emmerdale story team, and learned a lot from that as well. Getting script editing experience is tougher, particularly in Scotland where there aren't that many openings. But I have been taken on as a reader by two agencies, so that's a step in the right direction. Actively being pursued.

6. GET ON ANOTHER SCRIPT WORKSHOP OR MENTORING SCHEME: Have to confess I've done bugger all about this. Almost every script workshop scheme like Moonstone is based on features, not TV where my enthusiasm lies. The only TV script workshop scheme I could find was run by Lighthouse, but that's on hiatus until it gets new funding. So, do I want to spend months developing a feature to get on a scheme, when I'd rather be writing TV? Or would having a feature calling card script add an extra dimension to my portfolio? Something to consider over the next six months.

And that's my goals and objectives report card for May-November 2007. I'm actively pursuing four out of six, reconsidering another and need to get some focus on the one I'm been mostly ignoring up until now. Still, not a bad effort for six months. Let's hope the next six months are just as productive, if not more so.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Groovy posters for TV Terminator

The Terminator film franchise is being reborn on TV early next year as The Sarah Connor Chronicles, starring Lena Headey [from 300], Thomas Dekker [cheerleader Claire's friend in the first season of Heroes] and Summer Glau [freaky River in Firefly and Serentiy]. The show's set in the aftermath of the second Terminator film Judgement Day, neatly ignoring the third feature in the franchise. The show's getting a big January 2008 across the Atlantic, having stockpiled a bunch of eps before the writers' strike hit. IIRC, digital channel Virgin One has the UK broadcast rights. Anyways, these are a couple of groovy promo posters that caught my eye recently...

My novels #3: Silencer

JUDGE DREDD: Silencer (Virgin Books, 1994)

Sector 66 is on the verge of civil war. The Ape Gangs aren't going to give up their position as crime overloards easily - and they're got a weapon of mass destruction to prove it. The mysterious She-Devils, meanwhile, have Justice Department weaponry to back up their claim.

When citizens begin to go missing and Sector Chief Kozwall is found horribly murdered, fear and paranoia reach fever pitch. Sector 66 needs the iron hand of the Law - and who better to provide it than Judge Dredd?

But one Dredd's investigations are under way, he finds gang warfare is the least of his worries. Something nightmarish is stalking the pedways of Sector 66, and there's a traitor at Justice Central. Somehow, it all ties in with the sinister experiments known as the Prometheus Project.


Hmm, it's funny re-reading that back cover blurb now, when the phrase 'weapons of mass destruction' has taken on a much more political dimension than it had back in 1994. But I can't muster a lot of love for Silencer as a novel. After bashing out two Dredd tomes and learning a little bit of craft, I wanted to write a Doctor Who novel for Virgin's New Adventures or Missing Adventures ranges. But my best efforts are creating a story for those ranges proved hackneyed and ineffective. Virgin needed another Dredd novel and I greedily accepted the money.

Big mistake. Never, ever, ever write a novel just for the money. It's hackwork and cash is not inspiration enough - at least for me - when it comes to grinding out tens of thousands of words. Authors should be burning to tell a particular story, not writing words merely to reach a minimum level so they can collect their fee. The whiff of hackery spoils this book for me. It's a tired mish-mash of continuity elements lifted from a dozen different Dredd comic strips.

Occasionally the story takes flight, but mostly when I was actually inventing something new instead of rehashing old material. The basic concept of having Dredd take charge as a sector chief was later reused in the classic comics mega-epic The Pit, but there it was done with wit, verve and masses of talent [i.e. by John Wagner]. About the only things in Silencer that make me proud are the title, and Frank Quitely's cover art. A supremely forgettable book, and a depressing step backwards for me after Cursed Earth Asylum. I didn't write another novel for two years after Silencer, but when I did it was worth the wait...

Friday, November 16, 2007

There endeth the lessons

Graduated from Napier University and Screen Academy Scotland yesterday, attaining a Master of Arts in Screenwriting with distinction. Arrived far too early for the ceremony, picked up my tickets and gown, got all suited and booted - but discovered I still had two hours before the graduation ceremony started. So I did what all sane people do in such circumstances; I shopped. [Live to Shop, Shop to Live, that's my motto.] Bought a new book about screenwriting.

Returned to Edinburgh's Festival Theatre and took my seat in the auditorium. We still had half an hour till kickoff, but it gave me a chance to natter with some of the other people from my screenwritng class who were graduating. There were 12 or 13 at the ceremony, the other half of those eligible to graduate choosing to do so in absentia. There were hundreds of nursing graduates, a rowdy mob.

Inevitably, the hood kept coming apart from my robe and going everywhere. Academic robes and hoods have been used for centuries by universities, you'd think the design flaws would have been corrected by now, wouldn't you? I guess there's no great imperative when it only gets worn on rare occasions these days.

The ceremony started with processions, speeches, pomp and circumstance. Two honorary doctorates were awarded, one of them to legendary guitarist Bert Jansch. The vice-chancellor singled out several examples of students who's work has already attracted attention and awards in the wider world. I was somewhat mortified when my name got mentioned, thanks to the Page International Screenwriting Award I got for Danny's Toys. Felt like I was being mentioned in despatches.

Then it was time to get the piece of paper. Row by row, school by school, we marched up to the steps, handed over our cards and got our names announced. Walk across the stage, try not to fall over your feet [funny how the simplest of acts became a tightrope of tension when watched by a few thousand strangers in a room], shake the chancellor's hand, collect piece of paper, back to my seat.

Due to a combination of alphabet, surname and getting a distinction, I was first from the MA Screenwriting class to collect my degree certificate. I was also given the university medal for topping the class, recognition for having attained a distinction in every module on the course. The medal's quite heavy, but there's no ribbon attached and no cash prize. Alas, screenwriting is not the sort of world when winning a medal at university is going to be worth anything beyond novelty. Still, it's a special memento of the day and the course.

Afterwards there was a reception on the other side of the city that didn't quite work. More sensibly, lots of graduates gathered at the Filmhouse cafe in central Edinburgh for a celebratory drink. Got to see lots of folk who didn't make the graduation ceremony, and catch up on how they're doing. Got the last bus home and staggered through the front door twelve hours after leaving, now officially a Master of Arts in screenwriting. With distinction. And a medal.

Today it's back to reality. I'm writing a novel, got a fistful of script submissions to read for a screen agency and am doing revisions on my reference book, The Complete Inspector Morse. All of which should keep me busy and help erase the dull ache inside me borne of the knowledge I'll never see most of the people from my course again. We laughed and learned together, and now we're flung to the wind, hoping against hope we can turn what we've learned into some sort of career. Fingers crossed.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

My novels #2: Cursed Earth Asylum

JUDGE DREDD: Cursed Earth Asylum (Virgin Books, 1993)

Twenty years ago, the Justice Department built an asylum called Erebus to house the surviving atrocities from early experiments with cloning, eugenics and psi enhancement. The inmates were grotesque, disfigured beyond belief. One of them was evil beyond imagining.

Two weeks ago, Judge Dredd led a Hotdog Run into the Cursed Earth; the only survivor returned to accuse Dredd of murder. Now a group of Judges is sent to find him and brink him back - dead or alive.

Is Dredd a traitor? Perhaps the answer lies in Erebus, where the inmates have taken over the asylum, and madness is no longer just a state of mind.


I think Virgin commissioned my second novel before the first was even published. The company had committed itself to launching with three novels at once, to establish a presence on shelves in bookshops, before following that with fresh additions to the range every few months thereafter. They needed another Dredd novel and I was eager to write another, having enjoyed my chaotic efforts with The Savage Amusement.

Cursed Earth Asylum is the best of my early Dredd novels, and the book where I discovered I could write. That moment came when I wrote a sequence so creepy, so repellent, so skincrawlingly unnatural that I didn't know where it could have come from. The answer was simple: my imagination. I'd discovered I could tell a story, drawing on reserves of imagination I'd nevr known I had.

This is also the first of my many seige stories, all inspired by seeing the film Zulu at an impressionable age. Trust me, you can't go wrong putting your cast in the midst of a seige and seeing how the different characters cope in different ways. You shouldn't do it in every novel you write, but it's a useful set piece to find unknown corners and quirks among your creations.

Like my first novel, Cursed Earth Asylum was bashed out on a semi-electric typewriter in ninety-minute bursts at five in the morning before going to work. My memory is that I wrote the book in spring, and it wasn't so cold, dark or difficult getting up at that time to write. I was determined not to sign away all my rights on this book, and negotiated a deal to get royalties - which I did!

The book sold quite well and there's nothing nicer for an author than getting a royalty statement saying you're getting money for work you did months or even years earlier. By the time my royalties ground to a halt, I'd probably made as much money by going the smaller advance and royalties route from this novel as I did from taking a single fee and no royalties on its predecessor. Such is life.

I haven't read Cursed Earth Asylum for more than a decade [and it's been out of print just as long], but I've got a lot of affection for this book. It's where I discovered I could write, that my imagination was a disturbing and creepy place - making it a useful resource for the years and novels ahead. Nice cover by Arthur Ranson too, but it's always made me wonder: why is Dredd breakdancing?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

My novels #1: The Savage Amusement

JUDGE DREDD: The Savage Amusement (Virgin Books, 1993)

'It's election day in Mega-City One, and Judge Death is leading the polls. He's running for mayor on the All Life is a Crime ticket. But if the Psi-Judges' predictions are right, the BIg Meg may soon be a crime-free zone.

Out on the streets, the city's top Lawman is doing his job. A robot-torturing maniac has taken over Weather Control - but Judge Dredd can handle it. Then he finds out that a satellite housing development is heading straight for the ground, and someone has let the supervillains out of Iso-block 666. Meanwhile, a clone-killing virus is spreading through the ranks of the judges.

Even for Mega-City One, it's shaping up to be a bad day.


In the early 1990s it was announced Sylvester Stallone would star in a feature film adaptation of the British comics character Judge Dredd. The fiction editor at Virgin Books, Peter Darvill-Evans, secured a license to published original novels based in the Dredd universe - but he needed authors to write them. At the time I was editing the fortnightly Judge Dredd Megazine, but had always wanted to write a novel. When the Virgin editorial team asked for possible author names, I suggested myself.

This was the result, my first novel and something of an enthusiastic mess. Being fairly clueless about structure and never having attempted to write a novel before, I threw as many plot elements into the mix as I could imagine. Dredd was given seven tasks to perform in a futuristic version of mythic quests by heroes, a scheming villain behind it all and a strictly limited timeframe to solve the problems. More by luck than judgement, I correctly identified several structural imperatives that still serve me well today. However, I over-stuffed the novel with plot and struggled to fit everything in.

The book was written on a semi-electric typewriter, one step up from a manual. I didn't own a computer at the time and couldn't afford to buy one. As a consequence I only had one copy of the mauscript. Lose that and I lost everything. I wrote the 70,000 word novel in ten weeks, while working 9 to 5 at my day job. I got up at 5am and wrote for ninety minutes, until I'd completed four sides and about 1000 words. It was January, the dead of winter, and crawling out of bed to write a novel wasn't much fun, but I wanted to make a decent job of it and already knew the importance of hitting a deadline. If you can't be a great prose stylist, at least be professional.

I also wrote at weekends and threw a few sick days to get the novel finished. It was bashed out in a single draft, no rewrites, no going backwards. The end results are enthusiastic and all, but not a work of shining subtlety or wit. Some nice moments and a few interesting characters. I was writing from a place of excitement and panic, a heady cocktail that doesn't guarantee great work. I foolishly agreed to Virgin's offer of an all-rights buy-out, so I never got any royalties on the book, even when a Finnish language edition was published a few months later. Live and learn.

Despite the shambolic nature of my plotting and stubborn done-in-one no-rewrites attitude, Virgin still hadn't found enough other authors to keep the Dredd novel line going. So I was asked if I wanted to write another in short order. The results were a considerable improvement, and made me think I had some glimmer of talent as a storyteller, even if my prose would never be much more than functional.

No idea if this book sold, as I didn't get royalty statements for the reasons stated above. The book's been out of print for mroe than a decade, but can be purchased for pennies thanks to the marvels of eBay and online reselling.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Utter fecking genius

From the sublime to - well, you decide

Across the Atlantic the writers' strike is taking a toll on US TV. The effects on film production won't be so evident for months, even years, depending upon how long the dispute lasts. But TV is already taking a hit, with late night chat shows switched to repeats and traditional sitcoms shutting down. Several dramas have closed their doors and most will follow in the next few weeks. Meanwhile Variety reports several writer-producers on US daytime soaps are contemplating crossing the picket line to save their jobs. Tough times if you wield a copy of Final Draft for a living in America.

In other news, cable network FX has announced its ordering a second and third season of legal drama Damages, despite ho-hum ratings for the first run. The gripping thriller is unique among shows about lawyers because it never goes into a courtroom. The series stars Glenn Close and unpeels layers after layer, slowly revealing its characters and twisty-turny plot through a complex but compelling series of flashbacks and flash-forwards. But the mediocre ratings and writers' strike left the show's future uncertain, until FX gave two new seasons a greenlight [once the strike ends].

The BBC will be happy to hear this, as it has already purchased Damages for broadcast on this side of the Atlantic. It's also bought the much-praised Mad Men, a slow burn series about advertising creatives in 1960 Manhatten. Perhaps less joy will be felt at the BBC toward comments by Heroes creator Tim Kring that the opening episodes of the second season were seriously flawed. Kring told Entertainment Weekly the show got too many things wrong in its sophomore run, but he's hoping to correct those mistakes once the strike ends. In the meantime the BBC is stuck with some duff eps, reportedly purchased for a six figure sum. Ouch.

In other Stateside news, that beloved family TV series Little House on the Prairie is becoming a musical. It's planned to open the show in Minnesota next summer, with a possible Broadway transfer to follow if all goes well. They even got Half Pint herself, Melissa Gilbert, to read the part of Ma for an early try-out of the script. All I can say is: 'Pigtail in the face!'

Monday, November 12, 2007

Monday deep frozen

It is cold outside. Really cold. Minus four degrees cold. That's not so bad in and of itself, but we'd been enjoying a late autumn spell of mild weather. Suddenly, winter takes an early bite and it is cold. Did I type that already? Well, it is. Anyway, work continues on the novel, so no time for deep or meaningful posts - not that you get many of those from me anyway. Instead, here's three photos I took yesterday. One feels a bit Christmassy, one more like autumn and the other is a stone carving I did a few years back that is weathering up nicely.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Strip the willow, knacker the knees

Went to a friend's 50th birthday bash last night, where a ceilidh band had us dancing for hours. Most of the steps I could pick up, but it's always the bit where you waltz your partner around in a circle that catches me out. Never had any dance training and thus don't know where my feet should be going. Still, enthusiasm wins through where precision would be more helpful. I'm sure there's probably some parallel I could draw between ceilidh dancing and screenwriting, but right not my knees hurt and I need a cup of coffee. Feel free to create your own allusions.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Anyone know where to hire NZ national dress?

It's graduation day on Thursday for the MA screenwriting students from Screen Academy Scotland [amongst many others]. Men are supposed to wear dark suits, a dark tie and white shirt beneath their academic gown and hood. Not sure I've got anything that's (a) suitable and (b) fits. Got a wonderful black frock coat, but it dates back to the days before I lost three stone in weight - so it's a little roomy through the middle.

However, there is an option. Those graduating are allowed to wear their national dress. For males Scots that's probably a kilt and associated accessories. But the hell is the national dress of New Zealand? Twenty years ago I would have said jeans, a rugby jersey and jandals [that's flip-flops to many of you]. If I could claim more Maori in my blood, I could get some tattooes and bare my chest. But in Edinburgh during November?

Guess I'll have to dig around in the wardrobe and see what I can find that fits. If I'm not back by Thursday, I've wandered into Narnia by mistake and am probably gorging myself on Turkish Delight. The recent film version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe starred Screen Academy Scotland honouree graduate Tilda Swinton and was filmed in New Zealand, so it all ties together. Honest.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

I burble on the radio

Just back from Glasgow where I was a guest on a BBC Radio Scotland show, Movie Cafe. In the unlikely event you want to hear me burbling, click this link and fast forward to 12 minutes into the programme - but don't say you weren't warned.

Pure class: 100 movies, quotes and numbers

Sketchbook excerpts #3: Simon Fraser

The Russian rogue Nikolai Dante as drawn by his co-creator, Simon Fraser. Hard to believe it's ten years since Dante first saw print.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Sketchbook excerpts #2: Dean Ormston

Another convention sketch, this idiosyncractic effort is by Dean Ormston. What does it mean? Answers on a postcard to Barnsley.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Sketchbook excerpts #1: Duncan Fegredo

While I'm busy on novel #19, here's the first of several sketches I've collected from different comics artists. This is by Duncan Fegredo, when he was promoting a new Vertigo project called Girl.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Five things some might consider lame

Another meme, passed like internet chlamydia from Helen to Lucy to me. This one requires people to list five things about themselves that others may consider lame, but the writer of which is secretly proud. Here they are for me, in no particular order. I'm addicted to the music of Scritti Politti, a band trapped in a 1985 bubble for most people who were alive at the time. If all you know of Scritti Politti is Perfect Way or The Word Girl, I recommend listening to the group's previous album Songs To Remember - more musical styles than you can shake a stick at.

I'm a Doctor Who fan. Nothing wrong in that you say, Doctor Who is one of the most successful shows on British TV right now. But I've been a Doctor Who fan since I was seven [that's a while ago now], and I kept the faith during the long, long, long period when the show wasn't even being made. And during the 1980s, when it mostly sucked like a black hole. I've even been to a couple of Doctor Who conventions, although I quickly found I'm not a convention kind of guy, unless I'm there for business reasons.

The first record I ever bought was Rock Me, a single by Abba. It's an oddity because the boys in the band take the vocal lead. I don't think it was even released as a single in the UK.

The first concert I ever saw in a licensed venue was Siouxsie and the Banshees, featuring Robert Smith from the Cure on guitar. It was the Mainstreet bar in Auckland, New Zealand - a Monday night during January in the early 1980s. Probably 1984, maybe 1983. Siouxsie, the Banshees and the Cure have been in and out of fashion ever since, but it was a great gig.

I've only read two novels published before the 20th Century [Pride and Prejudice, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, since you ask]. My education in English was avowedly devoted to 20th Century writers like George Orwell, Graham Greene and James K Baxter at school. We did do Shakespeare, but only his plays, not his novels.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Twenty questions answered

The lovely Lianne at Light and Shade inadvertantly created a meme by adapting the 20 questions below from the Arvon site. This is me, jumping on the bandwagon - better late than never.

1. Do you outline?

Absolutely. I'm definitely a roadmap writer, not a journey of discovery type. Quite happy to take shortcuts and diversions, but need to know where I'm going.

2. Do you write straight through a script, or do you sometimes tackle the scenes out of order?

Straight through. The one time I tried to jump around in a story - a Doctor Who novel called The Dominio Effect - was an unmitigated disaster. Don't bother searching out the book, it's pants.

3. Do you prefer writing with a pen or using a computer?

Computer for actual drafting, but pen, yellow legal pads and index cards when I'm plotting and planning. Eventually my writing is too slow and illegible, so I switch to computer to outline.

4. Do you prefer writing in first person or third?

First, but I don't get to do it very often. I find first person much more involving as a writer, and a lot faster.

5. Do you listen to music while you write?

Yes, mainly instrumental scores from films. Thomas Newman, Adrian Johnston, Hans Zimmer, John Powell - great for evoking a mood and blocking out background noise.

6. How do you come up with the perfect names for your characters?

I struggle. Baby name websites can be helpful, especially if you've got a glut of character from a particular country.

7. When you’re writing, do you ever imagine your script as a book/short story?

I always see it as a movie in my head, which is fine if I'm writing for the screen but a bugger when writing a novel or short story. Having to stop and describe the setting is bloody annoying, so don't expect a lot of evocative purple prose from me.

8. Have you ever had a character insist on doing something you really didn’t want him/her to do?

All the time. Once had to chunk thousands of words as I realised the character was leading me in the wrong direction. Git.

9. Do you know how a script is going to end when you start it?

Yes. Try to have a strong central image in mind when I start.

10. Where do you write?

At home, upstairs, in my office. When deadlines bite and I can't work at home, I've been know to work on friends' kitchen tables or even in the back seat of a car with a laptop - kind of drive-by writing.

11. What do you do when you get writer’s block?

I don't get block but I procrastinate like crazy. It usually means my subconscious knows I'm not committed to a story or haven't thought through what should happen next. Research or a pause for creative thought solves the problem.

12. What size increments do you write in?

That's a bit personal, isn't it? Oh, sorry, writing. On a novel I aim for about 4000 words a day when first drafting. On a screenplay, up to ten pages a day - anymore and quality usually suffers. I accelerate towards the end of a first draft.

13. How many different drafts did you write for your last project?

Two for a comic script.

14. Have you ever changed a character’s name midway through a draft?

Not if I can possibly help it, but that has happened.

15. Do you let anyone read your script while you’re working on it, or do you wait until you’ve completed a draft before letting someone else see it?

I prefer to finish a draft before letting it be seen, to allow myself wiggle room.

16. What do you do to celebrate when you finish a draft?

Bottle of sparkling white wine.

17. One project at a time, or multiple projects at once?

I've always got a lot of plates spinning, but try to only be actively writing one first draft at a time - especially novels. Having said that, I have broken off from novels to do other things and come back to the book. It can be a useful pause for breath, but getting the momentum going again is a painful process.

18. Do your scripts grow or shrink in revision?

They almost always shrink. It's all about the winnowing, baby.

19. Do you have any writing or critique partners?

Lots of Power of Three readers. Will also use professional readers when a script is close to as good as I can make it. The one time I tried to write with a partner was an absolute disaster, but our personalities were not exactly compatible.

20. Do you prefer drafting or revising?

Revising. The first draft is often a slog broken by moments of inspiration. Revising is about polishing the diamond [and, hopefully, not the turd].

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Meet the Ad(d)ams family

BBC Scotland's soap River City finally got to make use of a pun that's been lying in wait for years. Among the cast is a clan of loveable rogues called Adams, the sort of characters that cause comedy and tragedy in equal measure. This week was Halloween, so the show got to embrace the obvious pun and have the characters dress up as the Addams Family, a ghoulish gang seen in films, a 1960s TV sitcom and a cartoon series in The New Yorker. It was an instant classic River City moment. There's an omnibus of River City on BBC One from 1.05pm on Sunday if you live in Scotland. If you've got digital or Freeview, you may well be able to access the BBC Scotland feed and see the show south of the border.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Writing novels: it's been a while

I spent February of this year on a page one rewrite of my 18th novel, Fiends of the Rising Sun, in which Japanese vampires attack Pearl Harbour in December 1941. But that wasn't starting a new novel, that was fixing a draft that had gone awry. [Here's a point to ponder: if wry is these days commonly used to indicate te drily humorous or sardonic, why does awry mean off course of amiss? Perhaps because wry originally meant twisted, contorted or askew.] Anyways, it's been a year since I started a new novel, and it's time to start another.

I've been commissioned by Black Library to write 100,000 words over the next five weeks. In truth, I was commissioned back in July but other projects have been demanding my time, such as finishing my screenwriting MA and shorter paying gigs. Writing a novel demands a large chunk of my creative energies, so I try to do it in isolation from other projects. Block off a period of time and give the new book everything I've got. So the next five weeks will be principally devoted to the novel.

No doubt there'll be other things ticking along in the background, such as prepping proposals for Channel 4's TV drama opportunity pilot and chasing the various agents in London reading my work. From now until December 10th I'll mostly be writing my novel. But I also need to be setting up work for after the novel's done. December and January can be a fallow period for freelancers, with little or no new work getting commissioned. If you want to pay your bills in February, you need to be working at some points before, during and immediately after the festive period.

If I don't have any paying gigs on the go then, I'll devote the time to developing and write a speculative script. Thanks to the MA course and the Scottish Book Trust's mentorship scheme, I've got several calling card script to showcase my writing abilities. But I need to keep extending and refreshing my portfolio. And there's the radio drama project for which I never seem to find time. That's an ideal candidate for the dog days of late December and early January.

All of this is by way of saying blog postings may be at a premium over the next five weeks, while I'm devoting my energies to novel #19. I'll still try to post something here most days, but need to be saving some juice for the book. For now, I've got one last committment to fulfil before I dive into the novel. Onwards!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Gripped by 'Britz'; more US TV news

Decided to give Peter Kominsky's drama Britz a go last night, and was glad I did. Gripping, tense, thoughtful and much more. The first part followed a Muslim student from Bradford who joins MI5 in its fight against terrorism. The second half [on Channel 4 tonight] follows the student's sister down a very different path. Great stuff, and a very different take on the world of spies from the glossier, more concept version seen in Spooks on BBC1. I like both shows, but Britz screams important, landmark drama. Just a shame Channel 4 doesn't commission more.

Across the Atlantic writers of drama and comedy for TV and film are contemplating a strike, now their current union agreement has run out. Among the most visible casualties was a planned spin-off from the hit genre show Heroes. NBC had planned to broadcast a six-part series called Origins, with several high profile writers and directors attached as talent. That's now been postponed indefinitely, with uncertainty over a possible strike getting some of the blame.

Meanwhile Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly creator Joss Whedon has struck a deal that'll take him back to TV. The Fox network has commissioned several episodes of a new series called Dollhouse, starring Eliza Dushku [who played Buffy's nemesis Faith for Whedon]. The show revolves around covert operatives who're given new personas, skills and memories for each mission, but get wiped close when the mission ends - like human Etch-a-Sketches. Dushku starts achieving self awareness, and trouble follows. Let's hope Fox treats Dollhouse better than past Whedon TV series.

Having that psychokiller smile

I don't photograph well - either I gurn like an idiot, or else look so pyschopathic it frightens the horses. Yesterday an interviewer needed a photograph of me, but they were in London and I live in Scotland. So I sent them the nearest thing I've got to a headshot. Ten minutes later I got a request for a picture of me smiling, something less... scary. I took some snaps with my digital camera and sent off the most cheerful, optimistic picture I could extract from the bunch. Below is one of the images that didn't get chosen. You can see why, can't you?