Sunday, April 26, 2009

My Writer's Journey - part two

In the summer of 2000 I quit editing comics to be a freelance writer. I'd lined up a few jobs to tide me over, including a temporary gig as acting editor of the Judge Dredd Megazine. That turned into 18 months of work - brilliant money, but exactly what I'd gone freelance to avoid. That ended in the autumn of 2001, but my hard work elsewhere was getting me new opportunities. I'd ventured into non-fiction with a Sopranos programme guide.

From there I wrote a book about fictional detective Inspector Morse, analysing his appearances in print and screen. It's proven to be a tome that keeps on giving [thanks to the Lewis spin-off TV series], with a fourth edition due out later this year. I began a series of articles about iconic British comic 2000 AD that turned into six years of work and an acclaimed book, THRILL-POWER OVERLOAD [now available in paperback, fact fans].

I also moved from editing comics to writing comics. My efforts for 2000 AD and the Megazine have not been hugely successful, with the honorable exception of WWII vampire thriller Fiends of the Eastern Front: Stalingrad. But I've found a niche writing pulpy adventure hero The Phantom for Egmont Sweden, with 40 issues under my belt over the past eight years. I found The Phantom thoroughly enjoyable to write and that shows on the printed page.

I had four novels published in the 1990s, but abandoned long-form prose while editing 2000 AD. Once I escaped comics editing, I returned to novels with a vengeance. First up were three Doctor Who tales for BBC Books [alas, before the TV series returned, bringing massive royalties for a few lucky authors]. Then Games Workshop launched an imprint called Black Flame, devoted to novels based on New Line films and characters from 2000 AD.

I didn't want to be writing Dredd novels again, but it was obvious Black Flame wanted one as a way of paying my dues. [Freelancer writers have to prove themselves over and over again. Once you get used to that, life gets a little bit easier - but just a little.] So I sucked it up and produced a halfway decent Dredd novel. Alas, they wanted another and I foolishly agreed, forget that simple lesson - never write a novel for the money.

After that I got to experiment and had a lot more fun, writing a trio of Nikolai Dante novels [still among some of my favourite work], a trilogy of novels based on Fiends of the Eastern Front, A Nightmare on Elm Street tome and the first in a planned trilogy of Japanese WWII vampire novels. Black Flame got shut down before I could continue that particular series, so I switched to writing Warhammer novels for GW's Black Library imprint.

I haven't written a novel for more than a year, and have to admit I'm missing it. They can be cruel masters, tormenting you when things aren't going well and taunting you with how much work there still remains to do. But there's few pleasures that match the elation of having finished writing a novel, that palpable sense of achievement. I've had 19 published [20 if you include Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet] and I'm itching to write another.

What am I forgetting? I've written off and on for computer games, but can't say it's a medium in which I've ever done enough work to feel comfortable. Had greater success with audio dramas, thanks to the lovely people at Big Finish Productions. Yet again, Dredd was my point of entry. Big Finish got a licence to create audio dramas based on 2000 AD characters, following the success of their Doctor Who audios featuring Baker, McCoy and Davison.

So I wrote five Dredd audio dramas, and snaffled a few opportunities on other ranges too. Talked Gary Russell into letting me have a crack at the Sarah Jane Smith audios. The resulting story, Test of Nerve, is probably the best regarded of that first series [despite some less than brilliant moments in my script]. I also wrote a controversial story called Full Fathom Five for the Doctor Who Unbound range to celebrate the show's 40th anniversary.

A very traditional Sapphire & Steel audio followed, but I never got invited back on that range [unlike every other writer from the first series]. Maybe All Fall Down was too trad for producer Nigel Fairs. I never seemed to make a connection with him. These things happen. In 2005 I got asked if I wanted to write a whole series of Sarah Jane Smith audios and jumped at the chance. [I didn't even ask how much it was paying until a month later!]

Writing four hours of interlinking stories was brilliant experience. In a way it gave me a taste for continuing drama, the chance to set up ideas in one story and pay them off several stories later. I'd done the same in novel trilogies and multi-part comic strips, but never in a script before. Maybe that was one of the things that nudged me towards pursuing screenwriting. I'd flirted with TV drama writing before, but with no great success.

I knew I could tell a decent story in other media [you don't get more than a dozen novels published without some instinctive storytelling talents]. But I recognised my lack of craft skills. Each storytelling medium has its own rules and methods. Jumping from one to another can be like jumping from one car to another while both are doing 90 miles an hour - painful if you get it wrong. But I suspect the return of Doctor Who also galvanised me.

I loved watching Doctor Who while growing up in New Zealand, and devoured Doctor Who novelisations. When I emigrated to the UK, I haboured a secret fantasy that one day I'd get to write for the TV series. Unfortunately, it was off-air for sixteen years [barring a one-off TV movie in 1996], so I directed my energies elsewhere - hence the Doctor Who novels and audio dramas. But the show came back in 2005 and it was a big, fat hit on the BBC.

I knew if I ever wanted to fulfill the boyhood dream, I needed to learn more about screenwriting. Plus I was beginning to feel like a terrible hack. In the summer of 2005 I realised I was amid a 27-month period in which I would write nine different novels. Throw in journalism, audio dramas, Phantom scripts and other jobs - more than half a million words published a year. Never mind the quality, feel the width was becoming my motto.

I decided it was time to step back from churning out material, time to retrain. I knew radio drama was a great place to learn about writing, to improve your dialogue and characterisation [sadly, areas that still let me down]. So I applied for a radio drama writers' lab and got on. Those two days in Dundee didn't turn me into a great writer, but they gave me a taste for it and a little confidence. Sometime that summer I saw an advertisement...

Something called Screen Academy Scotland was launching a screenwriting MA course where you could learn about writing for film and TV. There were no other such courses in Scotland at the time, I could do it part-time around my existing workload and maybe, just maybe, at the end of it I'd be a step closer to my goal of writing TV drama. I applied in the summer of 2005 and - to my surprise - got accepted. I was on my way, it seemed...



Anonymous said...

Drokk! You've been busy. I stopped reading 2000ad before your stint (that awesome 'Dead Man'/Dredd story is about the last one I remember)but i'm tempted to pick it up again and see how its going.
You should really get stuck into writing for the new Doctor Who series, you certainly can't do any worse than 90% of RTD's travesties.
Although I highly suspect that Stephen Moffat will return the show to serious, imaginative and well-written sci-fi territory, thus killing it dead...again.Time will tell.
Looking forward to the next part...will we get a mention at Napier? and have you seen 'Strange Days' yet?

Werekin said...

Well chief, my fingers are crossed that book 20 (21 if you include your Pirate Planet) will be a third novel exploring Marienburg.

Murder & Massacre have provided hours of entertainment David, so what next? Monster or Mutiny on Rijker's perhaps?

I'd also be surprised if these adventures don't impact on my development groups next big Mordheim campaign project. ;)