Thursday, May 31, 2007

Let's Try That Again

In response to my last post Simon commented on how he sometimes has to write the wrong story before he can write the one he needs to be writing, peeling away the inital story until the real story emerges.

I remember doing this years ago with 'Spirits of Darkness and Light.' Originally it was a SF story but after completing the first draft I wasn't happy with it so I stuck it in a drawer and started work on something else. A looong time passed before I remembered the story was still stuck in the drawer. But when I finally dragged it out I realised that what I thought should be a SF story should in fact be a ghost story. Much more fitting for the tone and setting. Plus this change also allowed me to bring in an emotional undercurrent that had been entirely lacking in the story's first incarnation.

In theory outlining allows me to get this part of the process out of the way a lot quicker. I'm just bouncing ideas around, the plot is still fluid, malleable; I can add or subtract as I wish. Entire subplots can live and die in a space of seconds. Even if I end up mulling over them for longer periods at least I'm not distracted by the need to write beguiling prose at the same time as I'm trying to figure out the story's plot.

In Mask I realised that a plot development I was toying with wouldn't fit into the word count so I collapsed the whole thing into a couple of lines whilst still in the planning stages. Saved me having to write out a half dozen or so pages of story and then trying to shoehorn it into the rest of the plot; shedding dialogue here, descriptive passages there, all the time cursing the need for this gutting of my muse.

Other times the outlining hasn't worked so well. I've added in subplots that have absolutely no place in the story I'm writing but I don't realise until after I've finished the first draft. I then have the problem of working out how far this soon to be deceased subplot has entwined itself around the main plot, the story's heart. If small but telling details of the subplot have wormed their way into the main body of the story then continuity errors probably fill every page. So as well as the fun of cutting out all the stuff I don't want to keep I also have to rewrite all the stuff I do want to keep. This is never fun.

It doesn't help that lately I seem to have totally lost the ability to judge the intended length of a story. Scenes that are only supposed to last a couple of hundred words drag on past the thousand word mark, rapid fire exchanges of dialogue turn into bloated discussions. All of which means I not only waste time writing this rubbish but I also have to trim it all down again afterwards.

Unfortunately there's no one best method to write a story. There's only the best method to write the story you're currently working on. Sometimes you find that method first time, sometimes you have to scream and shout and pull out a few clumps of your hair first.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Ally made a good point in her reply to my last post where she said it sometimes takes her three outlines to nail a story. I'm not sure if she means three entirely separate outlines or two revisions of her intial outline. I'm guessing that different writers have different approaches to outlining.

The method I tend to have used over the last few years is to bounce ideas around in a mind map. I create different threads for each character, thinking about who they are, how they behave and what they could within the story which would be fun or exciting or scary or whatever. Hopefully by this point I have a fairly good idea of the basic shape of the story.

Then I flip the page over and write out a scene-by-scene synopsis, adding or shedding ideas from the mind map as appropriate. With this first outline I'll try to strike a balance between brevity and detail. I'm trying to keep everything lean by only mentioning key details but at the same time I'll jot down vital pieces of dialogue, description, foreshadowing etc so I know where they occur in the story. And as I'm working in a 3-act structure I'm also figuring out where to drop the big bombshells that need to occur at the end of each act.

After reading through this outline I'll go through the adding/shedding process once more. Perhaps there are too many scenes at the beginning of the story, it's messing up the pacing. So I'll see if I can ditch some scenes or perhaps combine two scenes together so I'm still conveying the same amount of information to the reader but in a more succint manner. At this stage the outline will be much more stripped down than the first one as I've already established most of the fine detail. Whereas before I used several words to describe a scene, along with several arrows leading off to notes dealing with the embellishments, here I'm working in telegramese. "Fight. Gloating. Rescue" -- stuff that only makes sense to me.

Sometimes I nail it more or less straight away. Other times I have to polish the outline two, maybe threee times.

And sometimes the outline is more flexible than others. With the infamous "no headers" story due to time constraints I only did a bare bones outline and altered a lot of stuff as I went along. Setpieces would still be in the same place but often they weren't the setpieces I had planned.

And sometimes I don't even bother with writing an outline and just work out the whole thing in my head.

Monday, May 28, 2007

I feel the need, the need for speed

Okay, so if you've read my previous post you know I made a complete balls-up of my latest story submission. That's the problem with writing fast, sometimes you get caught up in the story and don't spot your mistakes until it's too late. When you're just flinging words down on the page it's all too easy to get sloppy.

Not that writing fast is always a bad thing. Sometimes being up against a tight deadline helps a story. For a start it's a great motivator. And it can lend a story tremendous energy.

A few years back I submitted a story to an anthology. This was well before the deadline and so I had plenty of time to polish the story before submitting it. Even better, due to the lack of pressure I didn't have to give myself an ulcer in the course of writing it. All was well in the world.

Until the story got rejected.

Although the editor loved the story and thought it was one of the funniest stories she had received she couldn't use it. Turned out I'd followed the guidelines a little too faithfully and the story I'd produced was too similar to a host of other stories she'd received.

Normally, this in itself wouldn't be the end of the world. After all, I could always send her another story.

Except I received the rejection on the final day for submissions. Anything I was going to email her I was going to have to send now.

Frantically I came up with a new idea for a story, bouncing dialogue and plot points around inside my head. Grabbing a pen I scribbled down an outline, simultaneously filling in themes and character arcs. Okay, I could do this.

Sitting down at my computer I had the whole thing written in a couple of hours. All I had to do now was submit it.

And that's when my email stopped working.

Didn't matter how many times I tried sending the email the screen just kept flashing the same error message.

"Oh dear," I said. Or words to that effect.

Several hours and one hundred failed attempts later the email still refused to let me send my story. I kept trying. The anthology was a US publication, the time difference meant that I had an extra five or six hours before I blew the deadline. All I had to do was keep trying.

It became a battle of wills. Me clicking defiantly on my mouse and my computer sneering at me as it flashed its error message. On and on we fought, no quarter asked, none given.

Finally at two o'clock in the morning my computer admitted defeat and let me send the email.

Normally this is the point where I would tell you that when I crawled out of bed I found an email telling me the story had been rejected. But apparently irony was on holiday that morning because instead I found the story had been accepted. Despite my lack of sleep I uttered a cry of triumph. Although to the casual observer it probably sounded more like an exhausted yawn.

Anyway, it just goes to show that fast writing and last minute submissions do sometimes pay off.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

First Impressions

Just had a story bounced from an anthology I was trying to get into. Kind of pissed off about it -- I could really do with some good news right now -- but not entirely surprised.

I only found out about the anthology at the last minute and then wasted a few days researching an idea which I ended up abandoning as I couldn't get certain historical facts to tie up with the story. Then it took a couple of days research before I could start work on my new idea. Add in a few other factors reducing my recent writing time and before I know it the day of the deadline has arrived and I still haven't finished the story. Worse, I need to be at work in a couple of hours.

So I knock out the last part of the story, type it up, and then print it out. Okay, couple of characters still don't have names, I'll just have to make something up off the top of my head. And there's some clumsy phrasing here and there, best cut that out. Aaarghh, and I still haven't established an important prop that ties into the story's climax, so I need to shoehorn an extra bit of description into the opening scene.

I check my watch. Only minutes to go before I have to leave for work. I start writing out the email that's going to accompany my submission whilst simultaneously proofreading the manuscript. I'm only four pages into the story when time runs out, if I don't leave now I'm going to miss the beginning of my shift. Praying that somehow the rest of the manuscript doesn't contain similar mistakes to the ones I've just corrected I click my mouse, submitting the story literally seconds before I run out the door.

So I know this isn't the slickest story I've ever written. I didn't finish polishing it up, I didn't have time to insert a couple of ideas I had to increase the dramatic tension, and the bit where I tried to sound really clever and profound got cut out because the language was too clumsy and imprecise to convey even the slightest sense of what I was trying to get across. Plus, those last minute character names I came up with? Really bad.

Still, I tried to be optimistic. Maybe if the editor liked the story enough he would ignore its rough edges. He might even let me tidy it up before publication.

But then, a couple of hours into my shift, I realised I had made a big mistake. I hadn't put any headers on the manuscript. No page numbers. No title. No author's name. Yeah, okay, I had the title and author's name on the front page but after that, nothing. The kind of mistake that most editors jump on as it gives them an excuse to reduce their slushpile. "This moron doesn't even know enough to put headers on his manuscripts, how can he possibly have written a decent story??????"

The annoying thing is that every submission I've ever made has carried headers. It's the last thing I do before submitting a story, the thing that lets me know that a story is ready for an editor's perusal. But in the rush to meet the deadline I completely and utterly forgot.

Admittedly, that may not have been the reason the story got rejected. Like I said the story wasn't the finest tale I've ever penned. But in his email the editor said he'd been forced to switch to form rejections due to the amount of submisions he received. That means a big slushpile. That means an editor stops looking for reasons to publish your story and starts looking for reasons not to publish it.

And under those cirumstances first impressions count.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Fanboy stuff

Simon Strantzas has written an interesting post on The Punisher over at his blog, comparing Steven Grant's take on the character with that of Garth Ennis. He's also drawn a nice little sketch of old Frankie boy.

Pity he didn't mention Mike Baron's run on the Punisher. Admittedly Baron lost his way pretty quickly but personally I thought the first year or so of his run was pretty damn good. But I seem to remember Simon mentioning that he's not a fan of the Baron stories.

And just to clarify, Simon's discussing Ennis's MAXX stories not his Marvel Knights take on the Punisher. The Marvel Knights version was played for laughs and didn't really appeal to me that much whereas the MAXX version is deadly serious.

Finally, I'll take Simon's quote of the last line from Grant's Return to Big Nothing and raise him the last line to Ennis's The Tyger: "And I show them a face not made by God."

Monday, May 14, 2007


I've got fond memories of watching old James Cagney films when I was a kid. Channel 4 did a season of his films and it was a revelation. He played heroes and he played villains. He did comedy and he did drama. And he did it all wonderfully.

Here's a quick selection of scenes from his films:

Cagney acting hard

Cagney pioneering martial arts fight scenes

Cagney in dance mode

Thursday, May 10, 2007

We Fade to Grey

Good news everybody!

Pendragon Press are publishing We Fade to Grey, a horror anthology featuring novelettes from Paul Finch, Simon Bestwick, Mark West, Gary McMahon and me.

As you can probably guess from the title We Fade to Grey features stories based around the theme of clothes losing their whiteness after repeated washing. My story, Skidmarks, revolves around a pair of demonic Y-fronts terrorising the clientele of a rundown launderette. The book is sponsored by Daz and Shane Richie will be writing the introduction.

Um, no, I just made that up. Gary McMahon did suggest a theme when he approached everyone about submitting a story but it was just something to get the creative juices flowing, we didn't really have to stick to it. In fact at WHC neither of us could remember what the original theme had been. Gary tentatively suggested that it may have been "mistakes." As in, "It may have been a mistake to invite Stuart to submit to this anthology." A feeling probably compounded by the fact that my story overshot the word count by about 3,000 words. (Look, it's not my fault, okay? I can either do short stories or novellas, don't expect me to mess around halfway between the two with these piddly novellette things. Novelettes is a stupid name anyway, sounds like a '6os girl group.)

So anyway, that's We Fade to Grey from Pendragon Press, debuting at FantasyCon 2008.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Shooter/Point of Impact

Saw Shooter recently -- you remember, the Mark Wahlberg film based on Stephen Hunter's Point of Impact?

Turned out to be an okayish action film. Obviously wants to set itself up as a franchise to rival Matt Damon's Bourne series. Does its best to emulate the more realistic lowkey action style of the Bourne flicks but can't resist turning every explosion into a gigantic Hollywood fireball -- "He only threw a hand grenade; should it have been able to destroy half a continent?"

Various changes had been made to the plot and afterwards I amused myself by trying to figure out which changes had been made in order to streamline the plot into a 2 hour film and which had been necessitated by the changes they had already made -- "We've got to keep that great setpiece but we've already written out the main character for that scene due to pacing reasons, which of the remaining characters can we use to replace them?"

The hero's sidekick Nick Memphis benefits from this streamlining insofar that he is less bumbling than his counterpart in the novel. On the downside he loses the tragic backstory that shows beneath his dithery exterior he possesses balls of steel.

On a more worrying note the potential franchise may have shot itself in the foot by excising a lot of material from POI that comes into play in the later novels. Either they're not planning to be too faithful to the novels or they're hoping cinema audiences have the attention span of an amnesiac goldfish.

The politics angle of the story had been brought to the fore which I think was largely so the director could push his political agenda -- apparently the people who sponsor and carry out assassinations and other black ops aren't very nice and shouldn't be trusted. Yes, I was shocked by this revelation too.

And being a Hollywood action film they couldn't end with the courtroom drama that concluded the novel, they had to tag on another action scene just so they could end on a bang. Which kind of backfired on them as the finale was pretty dull. Plus I'm not entirley sure but I suspect the loose ends they left to be tied up by the final shooutout actually made nonsense of the hero's actions at the end of the previous action scene.

On top of this the film made Bob Lee Swagger more brutal than in the novel. In Hunter's version he has to be coaxed back into killing, in the film he pretty much revels in it from the word go. At the end of the novel it is pointed out that during the course of this little adventure he only killed in self defence, in the film he is turned into judge, jury and executioner.

And now for the really petty irritations:

Everyone refers to Bob as Bob Lee even though it is specifically stated in POI that he doesn't like that.

No one refers to Bob by his sniper nickname, Bob the Nailer. Although to be fair in the film he's a super-secret black ops sniper not a 'Nam vet so he's not supposed to have a famous nickname.

Bob never gets to use his sniping catchphrase, "Time to hunt."

They didn't use my favourite line of dialogue from the novel where, upon learning how many kills Bob can rack up in a single mission, one of the villains comments, "Cocksucker can shoot a little."

Anyway, even though I didn't think the film was as good as the book you're probably better of watching the film first. The friend I saw the film with thought it was okay but he hadn't read the book so he didn't have anything to compare it to. So yeah, watch the film and if you like it read the book afterwards. Unless of course you have a burning desire to read Hunter's prose wihtout it being filtered through the memory of Hollywood's halfhearted adap.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Unquiet signing

Went to a John Connolly signing last night.John read an extract from his novel in progress The Reapers then did a very funny Q&A with the audience before moving on to signing books.

Turns out he has an excellent memory for faces because he remembered me from our brief chat at last year's FantasyCon. "Wow," I thought. "Nothing could make me happier than this." That is until he said he'd read the copy of Mask I gave him and he really enjoyed it and was pleased it won the British Fantasy Award. "Okay," I thought. "Nothing can make me happier than this." And then he invited me along for a drink with a group of his friends and fans. "My God," I thought. "Nothing can possibly make me happier than this ... Unless Jessica Alba suddenly shows up offering to have sex with me."

At this point my luck ran out so I had to settle for drinks with John and his pals.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Hard Bastards

Was chatting to one of my mates about actors who don't mind being unsympathetic when playing heroes. The ones who don't need to have at least one key scene where their character is shown to be a wonderful, sensitive human being. The ones who are prepared to play hard, unlikeable, even misanthropic characters. The ones who are prepared to play real bastards.

Obviously John Wayne came up. As Ethan Edwards in The Searchers -- possibly his most famous role -- he is a bitter, racist, vengeance-driven bastard. In fact I would argue that he's not even the hero of the film. Yes, he gets the most screentime and has his name over the credits but the real hero of the story is Jeffrey Hunter. Even if you don't agree that Hunter is the film's hero he is at least its conscience. He is the moral centre of the film, Wayne is just there to act hard. The same is true of Red River. Wayne starts off in his typical firm but fair persona but about halfway through the film he crosses the line and it becomes clear that he is the villain of the piece and Montgomery Clift is the real hero. Perhaps not coincidentally The Searchers and Red River are considered to contain two of Wayne's best performances.

And James Cagney. Yes, he played heroes. He even played jolly romantic leads when he was in song and dance mode. But he is best remembered for playing villains. White Heat, The Public Enemy -- he was '30s cinema's favourite psychotic gangster. Even later on in his career he could still play bastards. His portrayal of Captain Morton in Mister Roberts is hissably evil and the film's a comedy!

Humphrey Bogart also played his fair share of villains before getting a shot at a heroic role. And then he played Sam Spade; a hard, cynical, virtually amoral bastard. Not exactly role model material. Yes, he played softer roles such as in The African Queen but he still retained his hard edge. The Caine Mutiny shows him going into meltdown, his portrayal of Captain Queeg the dramtic flipside to Cagney's comedic martinet in Mr Roberts.

Other actors come to mind. Michael Caine in Get Carter. Clint Eastwood in White Hunter, Black Heart or High Plains Drifter or the original Dirty Harry.

Wayne. Cagney. Bogart. Caine. Eastwood. And then we added another name to this illustrious list ...

Richard Briers.

Yes, I know he was the voice of Roobarb and Custard. And I know he was Tom Good in The Good Life. But let's face it, Tom was a bit of a bastard. He jacked in his job and decided to basically start a farm in his Surbiton home, subjecting his wife Barbara to a life of hardship and toil and financial destituiton and he expects her to happily go along with it. And while he continually takes potshots at his next door neighbour Jerry for continuing to take part in the rat race Jerry's the one Tom goes crawling to when he needs money. Plus there's the fact that Tom obviously fancies his chances with Jerry's wife, Margo. He sees how worked up she gets when he teases her and he suspects that this passion extends to other areas.

And in Ever Decreasing Circles Briers's character Martin is basically a little Hitler. His obsession with rules and regulations and always doing everything by the book is annoying enough but he has hardly any warmth to him, any humanity. Yes, the occasional episode would show the softer side to his character but mainly he was there to be unlikeable, his desperation to cling to his ordered little world no matter what sometimes shifting from comedy to darker, more unsettling territory.

So here's to Richard Briers. One of acting's best bastards!