TV Work

Generally I don’t talk about all the TV work I’m doing. When you’re creating new series, there are usually long periods of ditch-digging with the team, sweating, bouncing ideas around and drafting and re-drafting pilot scripts as conceptions change. And even then it doesn’t always come together.

But, as several people have asked, I’m currently in development with seven returning series for UK and international streaming broadcasters, across a range of genres.

More when I’m contractually allowed to speak about any of them.

Political Language And Why The Words We Use Matter

In which I talk about dragons and fascists.

At time of writing, a suspect is in custody for the murder of eleven people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, the worst anti-Semitic attack in US history. The details of the atrocity are gut-wrenching and difficult for decent people to contemplate.  Equally hard to accept is the slow-dawning realisation that this may well be the new normal.

Across western society, we are having to fight battles we thought we’d won, ones we thought we’d never have to fight again.

There are numerous causes.  Hate-filled demagogues.  The Communication Age giving a voice to people who probably shouldn’t be empowered.  The disillusion of those who are finding it impossible to adjust to the 21st century.

But all this leads towards one outcome: the normalisation of things that in past times were so far beyond the pale they wouldn’t be discussed in polite society.  (“Mainstreaming’, in a piece of jargon – something I will get on to shortly.)

And key to that normalisation is the use of words.

When I began writing my urban fantasy series, Age of Misrule, about ancient myth and legend transforming the modern world, I began with one very key decision.  I’d be using some familiar tropes.  Concepts that we all know extremely well from childhood through the fairytales and mythic stories that we’re told almost from the moment when we understand what a story is.

As an author, this created problems for me.  These fantastic ideas would be so familiar to readers they came pre-loaded with assumptions, descriptions and prejudices.  In my books I wanted them to be seen with new eyes – the wonder caused by the shock of the unfamiliar – and free of any symbolism and metaphor so I could use them in my own way.

So I could give them the meaning I wanted to convey.

That’s why I decided to call them by unfamiliar names.  Dragons were Fabulous Beasts.  Vampires were the Baobhan Sith, the blood-drinking supernatural figures of Irish mythology.  And so on, with all the other core concepts of myth and legend.

Hopefully all those preconceptions would be re-set as readers tried to work out who the Baobhan Sith are, say.  It seemed to work.  The books sold all over the globe, and are still selling.

It’s an important lesson.  Tell someone the thing they thought they knew well is now called this new name, and they re-set their opinions.  They start working out how it now fits into their own worldview.

This is how fascism becomes just another strand of the Left-Right political battle, rather than a reprehensible philosophy that caused the death of millions.

The term Alt-Right is key.  It’s thrown around in the media as if it’s simply another strand of Conservatism, harder edged, more pure, something that young men (usually) can jump on to to appear cool when they can’t get girls, or boys.

The Alt-Right is, as Wikipedia tells us, “a grouping of white supremacists/white nationalists, anti-semites, neo-Nazis, neo-fascists, neo-Confederates, Holocaust deniers…and other far-right[2][3][4] fringe hate groups.”

Nazis like Hitler.  Fascists who slaughtered Jews in their death camps.

Does Alt-Right make you think of that?  No, it makes you think of some sub-genre of music that all the cool kids like.

Don’t use Alt-Right.  You’re helping them win.  You, you and you.  And, yes, you, CNN, NBC, BBC, Washington Post, The Guardian and all the other media organisations.

Words are not about what they mean.  They’re about what they make you feel.

The name Incel – Involuntarily Celibate – was self-selected by boys who can’t get girls and feel very sad about it.  That one word allows them to become a movement, disenfranchised victims who should be treated like any other minority.  It allows them to terrorise women – as a right.  To ‘mainstream’ hatred and even to justify murder.  One word.  Because without that word, everyone everywhere has their perception of who and what they really are.  They’re very clever, mainstreaming their own troubles.  It gives them legitimate reasons to both feel bad and be collective victims of a societal problem.

Revenge Porn.  We all know what that is, right?  It’s there in those two words.  Porn – “the portrayal of sexual subject matter for the exclusive purpose of sexual arousal” (Wikipedia again).  Porn – a bit dirty, but a bit good too, yes?  ‘Arousal’.

Except it’s Domestic Violence.  The psychological abuse of a woman, and sometimes a man.  Not so kinky now, is it?  Not so much arousal.

Stop calling it Revenge Porn.  Call it Domestic Violence.  Then we’ll feel it, instead of grasping to understand it.

This goes much wider and deeper.

People used to fighting political battles understand each other.  They use a shared language, packed with technical terms.  And while they have no problem with understanding, and while the public may generally know what the jargon means, it doesn’t have the gut-punch of a well-used word. It doesn’t convey meaning.

Anti-semitism is seemingly the root cause of the atrocity in Pittsburgh, and was a major issue on the other side of the Atlantic all this year with allegations levelled at the British Labour Party.

We know what antisemitism is.  But we don’t feel it, do we?  Call it Jew Hate, then we get it.

Many of us know what misogyny is.  It’s a term bandied around by political campaigners in the UK and US.  Talk to people on the street, and they know it’s bad, in that detached I-kind-of-understand-what-that-means way.  Call it Woman Hate, then they get it.

Words matter.  All writers know that.  But they matter more than any of us may realise in shaping the society we live in, and the one we want to live in.  George Orwell understood it when he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Let’s re-learn that lesson so we don’t have to keep re-fighting old battles.

One Simple Rule To Sell Your Writing

Writing for a living is filled with many amazing moments. Seeing your book on the shelves. Your name in the credits of a film or TV show. Cash in the bank account. Paid! For doing something you love so much you’d do it for free. What a world to live in.

There are hard times too. Those rejections. They never stop, even when you’re a professional. Sometimes you feel like that’s all there is.

Some people make it even harder for themselves by not applying brutal logic to what they’re doing.

Pop quiz. What’s the essential nature of a publishing company? Most people say publishing books. They’d be wrong. The essential nature of a publishing company is the same as every other business: making a profit for shareholders. Publishing books is just the way they’ve chosen to do it.

It’s the same answer for film and TV production companies, and for agents. It’s a simple notion, but for many writers it comes as a revelation. They spend their lives immersed in art so that in the end that’s all they can see.

RULE # 3: If you want to get paid, remember it’s a business.

Ram that idea deep into your mind: everybody who might buy your work wants to make a profit for their shareholders, and allow all the editors and commissioners to keep their jobs and put food on the tables for their loved ones. They’re not going to turn down an opportunity to do that. They’re just not. And you need to run that rule over everything you do: will this idea connect with enough people for the publisher/TV/film company to make money out of it?

Here’s the thing: nobody in the creative industries cares about you. Nobody cares if you live or die. Nobody needs to publish your work – they’ll get along just fine with all the thousands of other ideas that cross their desk every year. They don’t have to give you a chance. They don’t need to try ‘new stuff’. They don’t need to push back boundaries. The publishing or film and TV industries don’t owe you a living. They don’t need to change their business practices, however much you rant about ‘gatekeepers’, because: You. Don’t. Matter.  Your art doesn’t matter. Your great, world-changing idea doesn’t matter.

But persuade them that your idea can reach an audience and make a profit for their shareholders and they’ll be all over you. Because that’s their business.

Writers hate to hear this. They absolutely hate it. They think it puts them on a par with, you know, people who do actual jobs. Money is grubby. Writing for cash makes you a hack.

(The truth is, they’re just patsies for big business. There’s nothing the sharp-suited sharks like more than creative people saying I do this for art…while they do the profit.

Do both.

In fact, you owe it to every other writer to try to get cash. The more you perpetuate the idea that art is it’s own reward, the easier you make it for business predators to depress earnings across the industries.)

Then those whining writers disappear down the rabbit hole of reasons why their work isn’t getting bought. Most people find it psychologically hard to accept that their genius is being rejected – there has to be some explanation, some massive failure in the system. So here’s a little psychological salve: in the end there’s really only one reason. The people doing the buying don’t think they can get good returns on their investment.

That’s quite liberating, in a way. Seeing it as all about cold cash means it’s not about you personally and that it’s simply about finding the idea and style that convinces.

How you change perceptions of the commerciality of broader cultural issues is a totally separate post. Why did Marvel break with long-standing movie tradition that only a predominantly all-white cast finds an audience? Black Panther blew that one out of the water. The short answer there is that it’s not down to the individual writer or director or producer. Society itself does the heavy lifting to change minds on the earnings potential of creators, subjects and markets. What we’re focusing on here is what the individual can do.

If you have only one idea, you’re not a writer. All writers have multiple ideas so they can sift and discard and then decide which one they want to devote the hours of their life to. So the first thing you need to consider if you want to make a living out of writing is, can someone make money out of this? Is it a pale copy of something else? If so, people will always buy the original. Does it have themes and subjects that reach into the lives of a majority of people?  If yes, there’s an audience.  If it’s niche appeal, there’s likely no audience. Is it original? If yes, then people like to invest in new experiences, new information or a new way of seeing. Is it so original that you can’t explain it to friends without spending ages setting up the context? Your idea won’t reach people if it needs a rulebook.

It means pulling out of the story, and the idea, and looking at it objectively. Which is exactly what the ones buying it will do. Do the art thinking, and the business thinking.

If you want to sell your work, all of these are questions you should ask yourself very early on in the process. There are no real surprises there.  The only really surprising thing is that a great many people think the rules of business don’t apply to something where money changes hands.

All of the glamour industries are businesses, and they operate by the rules of business.  Don’t like that, don’t work for them. Give your stuff away for free. But if you do want to get paid, you have to play by their rules. You have to accept you’re playing by their rules.  Because they won’t change.  The only choice lies with you – do it or not.

Writing For A Living – The Big Payday Fallacy

All you need is that one big break and you can quit the rat race and live your dream.

That’s the thinking, isn’t it? It’s also the mistake that just about every writer makes.

You’ve spent your life reading books, or watching films and TV, and you’ve decided the life of a writer is a great one. Better than wasting the days of your life in an office, or on the shop floor, or digging ditches. And you’d be right. It might not all be unicorns and stardust – it’s a job, what job is? – but it’s about as near-perfect as it gets.

You set your own hours. You don’t have a boss needling you in your place of work. More importantly, you get time. To reflect on life. To spend with your thoughts. To appreciate the world around you.

That’s a big deal. (And most writers will tell you, it’s more valuable than money.}

But money is still the key in the equation.

Everyone has responsibilities. When you’re in your twenties, it’s making sure you can pay the rent and eat. When you’re a little older, it’s, perhaps, a significant other, perhaps children. How many get to be self-indulgent and take a leap into the dark to launch that fantastic writing career?

And so the plan is to steal all your free time, in the morning when everyone is asleep, or late at night, or in your lunch break, and scribble away. And then you sell your novel/script and take all that cash, replace your salary, and ease seamlessly into the writing life.

That’s not a plan. There are no milestones, no measurable data, no paths to an achievable target.

It’s a fantasy. A child’s wish.

You’ve read the stories of the writers who get big, life-changing pay-outs, but you’ve never read the stories about the ones who get some, but not quite enough. Because those stories are boring.

Most book advances are the equivalent of a year’s salary on minimum wage. You might think you can scrape by on that until the bigger stuff starts rolling in. You might be right. Or you might never be published again. You might sell one TV script and no more for years. To stake the existence of all those people who rely on you on a roll of the dice like that, is not kind, or wise.

So if you’ve got responsibilities, that’s it for the writing dream. Is that what I’m saying? There’s no way to gain escape velocity from the mundane life into the place where you’re making a living from writing?

Wrong.

There’s no simple way, but there is a clever way.

Forget the idea of a big pay-day as a mirage that will lure you away from the path you should be on. Once you ignore that impetus, you can start plotting the way ahead.

RULE # 8: Build your portfolio.

We’re in a new world now. You no longer need a ‘job’ like mum and dad. Increasingly, people are carving out a good living away from the nine-to-five. They get money *and* freedom *and* fulfilment.

The trick is building multiple income streams so you’re not relying on one paying gig that could fall apart. This is your portfolio. It’s what all 21st century writers are doing – and it is something you can start putting together while you’re in regular employment.

Start off writing for some online sites that pay. Work on an ongoing relationship. Self-publish on kindle. Do some journalism. Ghost write. Do ad copy. Teach a class at your local college. Write some comics. The thing here is, you don’t need to make a lot of cash from each individual job, but cumulatively a little becomes a decent amount.

There are plenty of tiny pots of money out there if you’re spry and you pay attention.

Keep a good account of earnings. Data is everything. Once you can see you can pay the month-to-month bills you’re close to take-off. And then when you do sell your book, or a script, or get a pitch accepted, or get to write an episode of Doctors (the entry level for screenwriters and who accept *lots* of new writers every year – £4,700 for a half-hour script and you can do several a year), you’re ready.

Even so, there’s still going to be one key moment when you have to take the big decision: stay where I am or take a leap into the unknown?

Question any person who’s found their way into one of the glamour industries, or any successful person anywhere, and they’ll tell you that at some point they were faced with risk. Taking the risk – a calculated one, of course – was the key factor that moved them out of the pack and into the front-runners.

There is no safe path to being a success. There is no easy road to making a living out of writing.

But if you treat it like a business, building your client base, you can minimise that risk and dart through the open door.

The Stories We Need To Tell Ourselves

There is a shiny red apple filled with poison and a crone with eyes like steel. There is a virginal girl as pure as snow, a sleep like death, and a kiss that wakes her into a new life of Happy Ever After.

This tale has survived from ancient times because it was always more than just entertainment. It was an instruction for living.

We’re moving into a new age now, one of unparalleled and accelerating technological change. Every aspect of our existence is being transformed. Hang around in the coffee shops and bars and you will catch murmurs of unease. Old friends are vanishing by the day. Familiar, comforting ways of doing things lost. Nowhere seems safe.

Never has there been a more important time for stories that instruct and guide and explain. A new narrative for a new age.

Read it all here, by me, on Medium.

2018 – The Year When Everything Changes

For a while there, I was thinking of changing the name of this blog to The View From The Bunker.  On a personal and professional level, 2017 was all-round great, if not one of the best for a while.  But…you know…out there in the world…

Now, stuffed full of turkey and mince pies and brimming with martini and champagne, I feel a bit more optimistic.  Still, whichever way you look at it, this year is going to be another one where Big Things Happen.  No point trying to ignore it.

Everything is connected.  Outside/inside.

On that theme, I plan to be writing a lot more here.  For a while, I’ve wanted to pass on what I’ve learned about the writing world.  How to go about making a living from novels and TV and film and journalism, say.  Because when momentous events are occurring out there, it’s also a good time to shake up your own life.  If you’ve ever wanted to walk away from the mundane world of 9-to-5, to carve out the existence you’ve always dreamed for yourself, now’s the time.

One thing the current Age of Upheaval has taught us is that time is running fast, life is short, and there’s no point counting on the status quo to see you through.  The people who win big are those who take calculated risks.  There won’t be a better time to reimagine who you are and what you do.

I’ll be talking about all that here.  Maybe you’ll pick up something that might help you.

My own work-front is looking pretty crammed.  I have three TV series in various stages of development with major broadcasters, and a movie script underway.  Can’t say any more about any of those right now.

There’s a new book out from my pseudonym, James Wilde, in July:

The paperback edition of Pendragon is out in March:

And various foreign editions all hit the shelves across the globe.  For a while, I’ve kept the “Mark Chadbourn” name just for screenwriting, but this year I’ll be publishing something under that moniker which will appeal to Age of Misrule fans.

And in the summer, I’m being inflicted on the poor students and conference visitors at the University of Oxford, talking about fantasy, Tolkien, writing and more.

Hold on tight. 2018 is going to be epic in all the right ways, if you decide to make it so.

A Guide To The Pubs Of Britain

I like pubs,and not just for the amber stuff.  Map out any history of writing in Britain and you’ll find pubs woven into the heart of it.  Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in London has entertained the likes of Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, G K Chesterton, Samuel Johnson, Alfred Lord Tennyson and P G Wodehouse since the first iteration appeared on the site in 1538.  The Cheese is not alone.  Any pub tour of London is a tour of creativity.

Although writers have always looked for ways to bypass the conscious mind to get to the unconscious where all the creative heavy lifting is done – drink, drugs, shamanic drumming and dervish dancing – it’s not really about the booze.  It’s the space itself that’s important.

In the 1970s, Japanese architects turned away from the concept of a house as a machine for living.  Their new abstraction was that it could be a space of alternate reality, protected from the harshness of the outside world.  Kazuyo Sejima, for example, has designed living spaces that she sees as both introverted and extroverted, virtual and physical.

And this has always been the value of pubs to the creative.  They are liminal zones, dream-spaces, both a part of the world and set aside from it.  The unconscious adjacent to the conscious.  Stepping across the threshold, you accept a new set of liberating rules.  Hedonism is acceptable.  Quiet reflection.  Volubility, free of constraints.  A place of both solitude, where thoughts can arise and take form, and connection with other human beings from all walks of life, free of social rules.

The sensory aspects are important – the gloom, sometimes, or the points of light, the ale-smells and rumble of voices.  Drift in this circumscribed ritual space detached from the mundane world and the shackles reality imposes fall away.

There’s a reason why George Orwell felt driven to write a long essay about his imagined ideal pub, the Moon Under Water. Why Charles Dickens and Samuel Pepys before him hung out at The Grapes in Limehouse.  Why Dylan Thomas left his manuscript for Under Milk Wood in The French House in Soho and why Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes all socialise in the Pillars of Hercules, also in Soho, where Dickens also used to drink.

I went to my first pub with friends from school when I was 16.  A pint of fizzy lager, a rite of passage, the feeling of transgression that all creators need.  Since then I’ve drank in pubs all over Britain, created stories, written novels, dreamed up TV shows and film scripts.  They’re vital places – not just for us creatives, but also for the communities they serve.  These days they’re under threat.  In the UK, twenty-nine pubs close every week, driven out of business by shockingly poor management by the industrial pub chains, and by social changes.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  The flagship Wandsworth Council has brought in new planning rules to protect important pubs.  All councils could do that if they were so minded.

But in the meantime we need to celebrate what we have.  I plan to write a regular guide here to the pubs that matter, to me, to us all.  Ones that have a weight of history and tradition, that are doing something different, haunted pubs, unique pubs, but most of all those Dionysian pagan temples to creativity.

Some of the early ones I’ll be writing about will be in London, but I’m always travelling so the aim is to cover pubs in all parts of the country.  If you have any ones you think are worth checking out, mention them in the comments and why you think they’re special.  I don’t need much arm twisting to have a pint in somewhere new.

The first entry in the Guide to British Pubs really has to be my local.  It’s the place where I wrote a big chunk of Pendragon (available now for pre-order, drinking buddies).  Watch for it here soon, and then others at an irregular pace in the weeks and months to come.  These will be the best of the best, ones worth visiting, somewhere you can conjure up your own stories.

Ideas And How To Get Them – A Hack

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Good ideas are a writer’s currency.  But they can be hard to come by in a torrent of deadlines and life stresses.  Here I’ll tell you a simple hack that will get them when you need them.

I say ‘writer’s currency’ but good ideas are key to anybody who makes a living out of what’s inside their head – that can be music, art, games design, running a business, science and tech development, and more.  These people are the future.

Why?  Because within five to ten years nearly 50% of jobs are going to disappear as a result of the widespread disruption caused by technological advances.  Most of those will be jobs where you turn up, get told what to do, and get paid.

The ones that will survive and thrive are the ones where ideation is at their core – the creation of new ideas, because, for the near-future, tech just isn’t very good at coming up with new ideas.  So if you want to future-proof your life, as much as possible, or the lives of your kids, start finding a way to put your ideas at the heart of your earning.  You’ll probably be significantly happier too.

As an aside, I wanted to share an observation from talking to TV producers and book editors.  When anyone has an idea for a new work, they think it’s great, unique, because it’s surfaced for the first time in their head, often in a roundabout fashion, and no one else could possibly have had it.  Then they get annoyed when outsiders aren’t impressed.  Some get very angry indeed, and start raging about ‘gatekeepers’, and a conspiracy to keep them out of the marketplace.  Don’t know why this conspiracy would ever exist.  It’s often not best to start delving into other people’s psychology.

The truth is, your idea is probably not unique, no matter how it *feels*.  It may not even be any good.

And usually, despite the no doubt excellent quality of the writing, it is nearly always about the idea.

The people who commission books and TV shows and films stand under a torrent of submitted works, sometimes hundreds a week, all of which are presumed to be unique by their creators.  They’ve probably seen your great, novel idea five times that week alone, because – simply – we’re all swimming in the same cultural ocean and we soak up the same influences that cause ideas to grow.

Here’s the thing.  If you’re ‘thinking’ about an idea, it’s probably not going to be unique.  That’s because any idea of any value comes from the unconscious mind, that dark, shadowy place at the back of your head that you’re never allowed into.  It filters, makes connections, shapes, develops, and produces something that is unique to you – the sum total of everything you are.

This is why you often have your best ideas when you’re in the shower, or exercising, or immersed in a film, when the conscious mind has slipped into low-level mode and the unconscious gets to shout just loud enough to be heard.

All the successful creative/business/scientific/techie people you see have found some way to access that fantastic store of ideas.  I have a few myself.

But here’s that one particular hack.  Before you go to sleep, perhaps for a few hours before, get your mind running on whatever you want to work on.  Set your alarm to wake you in your deep sleep cycle, say around four hours later.  You’ll have your solution, and probably four or five other workable ideas too, all bubbling up out of the unconscious stew.

Some you can quite happily toss out.  But others may well be life-changing.

Alan Moore And The Art Of Magic…And Writing

Image courtesy of Joe Brown
Image courtesy of Joe Brown

A few wise words…many wise words…from Alan Moore on imagination, creativity, writing, and magic. He’s long been an inspiration, and I’m very much looking forward to his novel Jerusalem.

“As previously stated, it is my position that art, language, consciousness and magic are all aspects of the same phenomenon. With art and magic seen as almost wholly interchangeable, the realm of the imagination becomes crucial to both practices.”

And this:

“The Bardic tradition of magic, when satires were justifiably more feared than curses and when the creator was respected as a powerful magician rather than as someone getting by out on the fringes of the entertainment industry, is one that today’s artists, occultists and writers would do well to reacquaint themselves with. You can kill or cure with a word. Get off of your knees.”

Everything is here.

 

Writing By Example: The Silence Of The Lambs

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If you want to be a writer, take a look at Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs.  Read it.  Read it another ten times, tear it apart, analyse it, and then read it again.  The book remains a masterpiece of genre writing, and it’s one I return to time and again.

If you’d rather focus your study, zoom in on just two chapters: the first two encounters between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter.  These capture everything that Harris is doing with this book, the deep themes, the sub-text.  The writing is sparse.  Descriptions are kept to a minimum, and when they do come, they seem lush by comparison.  Three lines tell you all you ever need to know about Lecter. Most of the writing here is dialogue, and dialogue without tags. But in that speech, you not only hear the distinctive voices of the two characters, you also understand their psychology, their motivations, their lives. From these two chapters, you could write your own story of Starling and Lecter because you understand them fully.

The Silence of the Lambs is Harris’ best book by far.  (I have a slowly-forming theory about The Power of the Third Book – see also, Gillian Flynn and Gone Girl. The first is the adrenaline rush. The second is refinement. The third is where everything learned is put into effect. Writers hate to repeat themselves so they change it all up for the fourth and get it all wrong again.)

The true power of this novel comes when you understand that a vast amount of the story exists away from the page, between the lines, in the motivations of the characters. The reader deciphers it unconsciously, and consciously with a little effort. That shows a writer who is the master of his work.

The campaign between FBI boss Jack Crawford and Lecter, personal, multi-layered, cruelly manipulative, is all implicit. The novel is deeply about psychology and psychoanalysis – that is clear on any surface reading. But that is also stitched into the hidden story. What is Lecter *really* doing with Starling?

Most importantly, Harris illustrates a powerful rule for writing: complex, not complicated. (Complicated is one line that ties itself in knots to seem interesting. Complex is layers set upon each other, every one influencing the rest.) The plot is simple, but the effect is powerful and haunting, even on multiple readings.