Friday, 9 January 2015

Flashback to the Future

For some reason, I started thinking about flashbacks today (perhaps the reason will actually become clear in a later blog, explained through the use of a flashback?)

The flashback seems to be in vogue at the moment in serious TV drama, as a narrative device to add character backstory. The final season of Boardwalk Empire had them, Broadchurch is now including some, and Game of Thrones will apparently have a flashback at the beginning of its forthcoming fifth season. This latter decision is interesting, given the avoidance of flashback in the Game of Thrones world up until now. Considering how much of the plot revolves around lineage, longstanding grudges, references to dead kings and inter-family rivalry, a few judicious flashbacks would have made the first season much more digestible for the casual viewer. But perhaps that isn’t the point of Game of Thrones - it’s a story that you have to swallow whole or not at all.

Lost was the series that cemented the use of the flashback in serialised TV drama, focusing on a particular character’s backstory each week. The timelines involved were deliberately blurred, and it often wasn’t until the final flashback segment of an episode that you understood how (and when) the strands fitted together. Sometimes, you didn't immediately know which character the flashback was even about! This was a neat formula that kept the viewers guessing and allowed the writers to play some clever dramatic tricks. The most surprising was surely the final episode of season three, when it was revealed that what we presumed were flashbacks were actually a flashforward to season four. That very much threw the cat among the narrative pigeons, but in retrospect, it was perhaps also the point where Lost became too clever for its own good and started going downhill (a few years later, a series unimaginatively titled FlashForward tried to reuse the Lost template to greatly reduced effect).

So, what accounts for the current popularity of the flashback? Dramatically, it adds weight and structure to a story, which can make these TV series seem more important when awards season comes around. As serious drama continues to have more money and time in the schedule allowed to it, so space opens up for subplots which enrich character (and what is flashback if not just another kind of subplot?)

But there are dangers to the technique too. What begins as heavyweight and important can quickly drift into self-importance. It’s easy to indulge in excessive world and character building when you should be pushing the main storyline forward. When I think of a series like House Of Cards (which has incredibly detailed character work with minimal use of flashbacks), it’s clear to me that time spent in the past would greatly reduce the number of present-day characters that could be depicted, along with the ever-shifting web of allegiances that gives the narrative its tension and drive. It may be heresy to admit it, but I find the portentous flashforwards in Breaking Bad to be more annoying than tension-building, especially since the series is so damn tense already as to be almost unwatchable!

There seems to be significantly less use of the flashback in books, possibly because there’s a range of easier ways to deliver exposition. J.K. Rowling came up with a neat way of packaging flashback using Professor Dumbledore’s pensieve, which allowed Harry to experience other people’s backstory as it happened. Often, when flashbacks are used in books, they tend to be so numerous that they form a parallel narrative instead.

Maybe novels don’t need such devices to convey a perception of weight and importance, because just by being novels they’ve already achieved this status. I’m reminded that one of the key objectives of the HBO series The Wire (a strong influence on much serialised TV drama today) was to be more novelistic in its storytelling than conventionally televisual. So, I wondered to myself, how many flashbacks were used in five critically-acclaimed seasons of The Wire? Exactly one (in the pilot episode), which was demanded by network executives, worried that viewers wouldn't be able to follow the story. Where flashbacks are concerned, less is definitely more.


Monday, 22 December 2014

The Museum of Me - The Lost Years

I hadn't expected that the shameless trawl through my archives which is the Museum of Me would turn into an annual event, but here we are for the fourth instalment! So, Merry Christmas, and I hope you enjoy the lunacy that I've dredged up from the deepest recesses of the internet for you (and if this instalment doesn't put you off, you can also catch up on parts one, two and three of this monumental series)

I'd implied last Christmas that there wouldn't be another Museum of Me this year. That was primarily because I'd run out of decent content to present, and I didn't want to descend into barrel scraping. But there remained two major gaps in my personal archive, both of them from around the turn of the millennium.

One of those gaps was my epic biography of Mark Tastic (something that I mentioned in my Evolution of Max post earlier this year). I knew that I had the basic text of this, but had lost all the photos I'd taken of my friend Peter in the titular role. The other missing item was my wholly unprecedented foray into home cinema satire. Called Reverse Spiral, this column ran for about 9 months in the early noughties, on a very popular (but now long defunct) DVD website.

A few months ago, I made a systematic search of all my old backups, in the hope of finding any trace of Reverse Spiral. I didn't, sadly, but in a long-forgotten folder on a long-forgotten hard disk, I found the fully-illustrated saga of one Mark Oswald Geronimo Tastic:

It's That Man Again

I should say up front that Mark's biography isn't for the easily offended - in fact, it contains something to offend almost everyone. At the time, I think I envisaged it as a sort of anti-Forrest Gump, or how Martin Amis might write after a lobotomy ;-) Fifteen years later, many of the references are dated, and (in a post Operation Yewtree world) a couple of the jokes cut closer to the bone than I'd intended. But it also prefigures the London riots and the unstoppable rise of Simon Cowell. I wouldn't (and probably couldn't) write something like this now, which is why it's worth presenting in its original form.

Who is Mark Tastic? (1999) - Click image to open website in a new tab

The biography was intended for inclusion on a website spin-off of my CheeseCrank fanzine, which should explain the references to that publication and its editors A.C. Wilton and Bartholomew CheeseCrank. It's puerile, sexist, thoroughly debauched and also rather amusing. Enjoy!

The Internet Never Forgets

And now, onto the archaeological find of the year. My search for Reverse Spiral had yielded nothing, and it seemed that the site would continue to exist only in my memory. But then I discovered an amazing resource called The Internet Archive. Since 1996, the non-profit organisation behind the archive has been crawling the internet and saving the results. With 435 billion web pages in the archive, it seemed like there might be a chance. After typing the URL for the DVD website, I found some captures stretching back to the year 2000. But what about my section of the site? With baited breath, I clicked the link.

Suddenly, there was Reverse Spiral. I can barely express how excited and happy I was at that moment of rediscovery. The archive wasn't perfect, or complete, but it was something I could work with. A great deal of work, as it turned out. Although The Internet Archive contained a lot of the web pages, many of the images were not present. Thankfully, the glorious Crayolavision of How DVDs are Made survived almost intact, because I don't think it would have been worth reading without them. For other parts of the site, though, I've had to reconstruct the pictures from memory with only the image filenames to guide me. Here's an example of the work I had to do on Ask Agony Ninja:

For all that fiddling, I'm really pleased with the results, and I hope I've maintained the slightly amateurish feel that the articles originally had. Sadly, a number of the pages were hosted on a separate site and seem to be lost forever, which unfortunately means that you won't get to search the Anne Widdicombe Film Censorship Database any time soon. Perhaps that's a blessing.

Reverse Spiral (2000-2001) - Click image to open website in a new tab

I've added a short glossary at the top of the site, which should help with some of the technical terms that crop up. For instance, the name Reverse Spiral comes from Reverse Spiral Dual Layer (RSDL), which is a process used to fit twice as much data onto a DVD. See, you've learnt something already! I'd also like to stress that the letters sent to Agony Ninja did genuinely come from users of the site. Reverse Spiral was wildly popular in its day - How DVDs are Made was read 2,875 times and the most popular article (which was too damaged to present) received nearly 6,000 views. It's nice to think that a few more people will now get the chance to read it.


Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Why You Should Support Stew Magazine

I’ve taken a break from the Stew Magazine short story I should be writing, because I wanted to talk about the Kickstarter campaign that’s just launched.

Stew Magazine is looking for £18,000 in crowd funding over the next month, to ensure the magazine’s survival and continued growth. That the magazine has reached the end of its first year is down, in no small part, to Ali Fraser. As editor and publisher, Ali’s vision and drive (together with the creative skills of the many, many contributors) have ensured that six terrific issues have reached hundreds of kids during 2014.

Here's where you come in, because we now need your help to continue into 2015 and beyond. I’d like to offer just a few reasons why you should pledge your cash to Stew Magazine:

  • It’s a lovely product
    I wish that this blog post could come (Willy Wonka style) with a free copy of Stew that you could hold in your hands. The magazine is professionally produced to the highest standards, with beautiful full-bleed colour layouts printed on thick matt paper. Every issue feels substantial and yet very accessible – you’ll want to read it and keep it. Ali has a great eye for selecting illustrators with a range of styles and then combining their illustrations with the text in imaginative (but not gimmicky) ways. And it even smells good!
  • It’s advertising free
    Stew is all content from cover to cover, so you can be sure your kids are getting brain food rather than being trained to be mini consumers.
  • It tackles difficult subjects in an accessible way
    Along with all the fun games and articles, Stew has taken a fearless approach to non-fictional topics like human rights and scientific ethics. Even though I write fiction, the magazine’s independent status has emboldened me to tread similar “edgy” ground. Just in the last year, Stew has included stories by me that address subjects like female empowerment, child labour, the end of the world (twice), the effect of technology on personal privacy and the secret conspiracy behind all those free gifts on other kids’ magazines (OK, that last one may be a tad more fictional than the others). As a writer, the freedom to explore the issues that matter to me (and by extension the reading audience) has been priceless.
  • It’s serious without being worthy
    Although Stew isn’t afraid to tackle difficult issues, its content is neither sugar-coated nor moralistic. Today’s kids are smart enough to consider the issues for themselves and make their own decisions. In fact, that’s the only way we can ensure the future is a better place than the world of today.
  • The contributors deserve to be paid
    Now, I’m not suggesting you should do this specifically to pay my wages – I have a decent day job and am lucky to be in a position to freely give my time to Stew. But many of the illustrators are students or recent graduates who I’m sure could really do with the money. And beyond the physical act of payment, there’s a moral imperative to protect and nurture creativity, to value our efforts in the face of outside pressure to devalue what we do. I know Ali has been keen for a while to start paying proper commissions, and this campaign will enable him to do that.

So, for all these reasons and more, please visit the Stew Magazine Kickstarter campaign and make a pledge, no matter how small. Your support will help us to publish many, many more issues of this excellent publication.


Friday, 3 October 2014

What’s the Story?

I’m a keen student of myself (let’s face it, if I don’t study me, nobody else will!) So I’ve been keeping a weather eye on my short story work, especially as I reach the end of the first year of my Stew Magazine contributions. I’ve written ten flash fiction stories for Stew so far, each one between 600 and 800 words. Five of those have been printed, with a sixth coming in the November/December issue. One or two of the others may appear in future issues, but inevitably some stories suit publication in the magazine better than others.

It’s always been my policy to let the story concepts evolve organically, then once the idea has formed, to write the actual words as quickly as possible. Thus, some months I might write three stories, and other months none at all. Every story is conceptually completely different to every other, and yet it’s fascinating to me to see the similarities that exist between them. Here are some common themes I’ve picked up:
  • Point of view: All of the stories are written in first-person. Many of my protagonists are nameless, and often cast in the role of passive observer – acting as a clear proxy for the reader. In many ways, I can see that these short stories have allowed me to explore passive characterisation in a form where this enhances, rather than detracts from the reader’s experience. If I had a pound for every time I’ve been told off for allowing characters in my various novels to be too passive, I’d be rich enough to lie around all day doing nothing!
  • Bring on the darkness: Without fail, bad things happen in these stories, even the ones that initially seem playful. In fact, the latter stories are arguably even darker because they allow initial rays of light in, before shutting out the sun forever. In The Door Keeper, I take the theme of darkness to its logical extreme and stage most of the story in the pitch black!
  • The end of the world: Apocalypse Wow was the first story I wrote for Stew, and ever since then the apocalyptic themes keep resurfacing. I’m drawn to extremes as a writer, and like to extrapolate current trends to place my characters in seemingly unwinnable situations. Sometimes they barely escape with their lives, other times I kill everyone (evil cackle).
  • It’s not all doom and gloom: Although the above points may make the stories sound depressingly nihilistic, they aren’t intended to come across that way at all. Some of them are actually quite humorous, and I hope they all hold emotional truths. These are stories for and about kids, after all, and it’s often said that children’s stories should end on a note of hope. Even in the story where the world is destroyed, my aim is to express some hope for human nature, to make readers reflect on their own mortality and live more fully while they still can. I’m also very clearly talking to myself on that point!
  • If in doubt, subvert: Now I’ve discovered all these themes, I reserve the right to completely subvert them in the very next thing I write! In fact, this process of subversion is essential to keep things fresh, both for me and the reader. Expect the unexpected.

I retain the rights for all my Stew work, and I’ve been idly thinking about self-publishing the stories in a separate anthology. This is particularly because I know a lot of you haven’t read them in Stew and may be wondering what the hell I’m yammering on about. However, when I pulled together all ten flash fiction stories, they only amounted to 7,000 words – which is a very short e-book. Maybe I need to do another year of this before I have enough content to warrant asking people to pay money for it. In the meantime, I’m looking into bringing some back issues of Stew to the SCBWI conference, if anyone would like to buy one. More details on that when I’ve worked out exactly what I’m doing!


Friday, 26 September 2014

You Don't Have to be Mad to Work Here...

I’ve found myself drifting back towards actual bricks-and-mortar bookshops recently, both in a “use them or lose them” way and in the hope that I 'll discover something completely unexpected (my continuous diet of kids’ fiction over the last few years having started to feel a little constrictive).

Thus, it was while browsing the graphic novels in Waterstones recently that I chanced upon a book called Marbles by Ellen Forney. I don’t know what it says about me as a person that when I picked up a graphic novel memoir by a bipolar bisexual cartoonist, I knew I had to buy it!

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Evolution of Max

Why is it that there are some ideas and characters that won’t go away, no matter how you try to ignore them? I’m not the kind of writer who subscribes to the idea of characters as voices in my head, demanding I tell their story, so I'd prefer a scientific explanation. And that answer, I feel, must revolve around such characters and stories satisfying some kind of deep psychological need.

But first, a bit of history. Actually, quite a lot of history, so bear with me...

I have a character - originally called Mark Tastic - who first surfaced twenty years ago. I’d written a sketch for our student TV club called Do It! in which Mark reeled off a list of leisure activity suggestions to camera, in an extremely anarchic style. I guess, in its primitive form, it was intended as a spoof of Why Don’t You? (which people of a certain age will remember from BBC children’s TV in the 1970s). My friend Peter took the lead role and completely knocked it out of the park, to the extent that I still struggle to separate the character and his performance.

We filmed at least one more edition of Do It!, but that was in no way enough to exorcise the character from my psyche. I wrote a long, rambling history of Mark’s subsequent career, in which he became a reality TV star, drifted into pop group management and finally joined forces with undead rock stars to foment revolution. The scattershot treatise was illustrated with new photos of Peter (including one of him apparently lying in the gutter and drinking Domestos). This all went up on a now lost website and I’m sure it was read by almost no-one. Mark also made an appearance in his “Moral Crusader” form in my CheeseCrank fanzine, which was actually read by a few people and which you might have spotted in The Museum of Me.

Given this ongoing trend, you won’t be surprised that when I came to write my first Young Adult novel, I couldn’t resist a cameo from Mr Tastic. In one very memorable scene, Mark “prepares” my young protagonist for an appearance on his TV chat show, which consists of Mark freaking out in the green room and singing a heavy metal song about darning socks! It was all part of some literary master plan I had concocted to build a connected world in my novels – a kind of Kurt Vonnegut/Quentin Tarantino for kids.

The next step, therefore, was to launch into a full-length Tastic adventure, a spoof biography entitled Mark Tastic – The Man, The Maniac, The Messiah? This opened with Mark jumping out of a helicopter into a giant vat of custard and got progressively sillier from thereon. I wrote nearly 20,000 words of this, so I must have been really into it at the time, but clearly not enough to actually finish the book.

I took a break from all things Tastic to write Back from the Dead, which took a couple of years (given the many rewrites that book went through). But, when I was thinking about the next book, who reared their ugly head again? Yes, it was Monsieur Tastique once more, although this time he became an eleven-year-old boy and underwent a name change to the more contemporary Max Tastic. I wrote the first 3,000 words of a 7-9 comedy book in which Max attempts to become a world-famous rock star, while giving useful tips on how the reader can do the same. I got great feedback on this from a critique group and excitedly sent my progress so far to my agent, sure that she was going to love it.

My agent, sadly, was decidedly lukewarm on the book. I didn’t realise it at the time, but her image of me as a writer was very different to mine. From what I can tell, she thought I should be working on more serious teen novels and not bothering with silly knockabout stuff where the main character pretends to be a girl called Abigail Cheesemold, while hiding a family-sized bag of Haribo cola bottles in his knickers.

This is the exact point when I should have put my foot down, and said that I wanted to finish the Tastic book. But I was so desperate for approval that I sent her the harrowing first chapter of an older children’s book I’d been experimenting with. “This is the book,” she said immediately. “You must write this.”

Big mistake.

Thus, Max Tastic went back into the drawer for another four years, apart from a brief cameo on this website. But to paraphrase his great work of children’s fiction, Max Tastic is the character that wouldn’t die. I’m currently 10,000 words into a new 9+ Tastic book, a book that my Oxford critique group have enthusiastically demanded I must finish!

Quite clearly, I can’t leave this Tastic character alone. But what is it that makes him so recurrent? What deep psychological need does he satisfy for me? As far as I can analyse it, I think it’s his anarchic personality that strikes a chord. Exuberant, self-confident and brashly assertive – Max has all of the qualities that I perceive myself to lack. As a free spirit, rule-breaker and iconoclast, he is the Ferris Bueller to my Cameron Frye.

All this being true, I have to wonder why I’ve never completed any of my long-form stories about him. Indeed, my recent creative crisis did cause me to park this latest book for a couple of weeks, while I considered other outlets for the work, such as a website or enhanced e-book. But my critique group are very insistent that the latest instalment works extremely well as a book, and I need to complete it that way first.

So, it looks like I’m writing “just one last book” before I move on to other projects. After twenty years, I certainly feel that Max/Mark Tastic and I could benefit from some closure.


Friday, 5 September 2014

Higher Ground

It would be remiss of me to launch into this post without acknowledging the incredible response to last week’s blog post, both here and on Facebook. I received so much encouraging, perceptive (and occasionally completely contradictory) advice that I'm still struggling to process it all and come to a firm conclusion. Also, the scars of my rejection are still raw, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised if my emotions continue to be as changeable as the late summer weather.

It’s clearly no good continuing to brood, though, and this week has felt like a process of clearing my desk, ahead of finding some new work to get excited about. I put the creepy flash fiction story through another draft and finally got it out to Stew’s editor (who liked it). I wrangled the first three chapters of my 9+ work-in-progress into a semi-coherent form, for my Oxford critique group to look at this weekend. And, after much umming and ahhing, I’ve decided to send a sample of my completed novel for the SCBWI Conference manuscript one-to-one. I was exceedingly tempted to send out 4,000 words of my work-in-progress, because that book is shiny and new and untainted in my mind by rejection. But I’ve also fallen into this trap before, of focusing on the new project and letting the old project fall by the wayside before it’s had its chance.

Meanwhile, I’ve been giving some thought to my creative direction. If this really is it for my hopes of becoming a conventionally-published novelist, what does that mean? Several writers have suggested taking the artistic high ground, and this is an idea that appeals to me right now. For too long, I’ve shaped my material to fit a preconceived idea of the market, frequently discarding books after a few chapters, as it seemed pointless to spend so long writing a novel that was unlikely to find publication. But when even my most commercial work is not finding favour, it’s time for some new thinking.

Given this self-imposed process, I suppose it should come as no surprise that my Stew stories (many of which have been constructed from abandoned material) feel more creatively vibrant. The short length and low risk has definitely encouraged me to experiment with form and content. I’m not putting my longer work down – it’s just as well-considered and well-crafted – merely observing that it tends to play things safe. Having said that, when I was rereading my work-in-progress this week, I was cheered by how out-there some of the book is. It’s full of the kind of voicey/zany stuff that often gets ruthlessly deleted in my quest for novelistic clarity. It isn't what anyone would describe as high art, but then it's not realistic to expect that I will suddenly start pumping out literary fiction!

Novice authors are often warned against writing a series of novels before they've secured publication for the first. There are good practical reasons around this, namely that a publisher may want major changes to the first book, which will then impact on the sequels. But I think there's also a stigma created by a certain kind of unpublished writer, who has embarked on a massive word splurge series (typically fantasy) and who becomes so lost in their own internal world that they also become immune to sense or reason.

I've always prided myself on being a "good" writer, one who wouldn't dare to send a fifteen-page synopsis of a seven-volume fantasy epic to an agent, and who dutifully parks my series ideas after the first installment is written. But that also means I've been missing out on creative opportunities that might have made me very happy. I fondly remember the day that my former agent asked me if I had any ideas for a sequel to my Undiscovered Voices novel Back from the Dead, as she wanted to share them with a publisher. I hadn't thought about this much, but once I opened Word, a miraculous stream of ideas poured out. Within half an hour, I had a fantastic one-page synopsis for a whole new novel. And yet the first novel didn't sell, so, four years later, I still have only those 337 words to show for it. But when I read those words back, they still excite me, and it's very clear that zombies as a cultural artefact aren't going anywhere.

Should I write it anyway? Even if I'd have to publish it myself? Here's the synopsis, so let me know!



Life should be getting back to normal for Griff Lawford – he and his parents are fully cured of the zombie virus, and his scientist friend Hugo Curzon has just been appointed the head of the government special task force for infection management. With the help of the Remedion 7 serum, it looks as if the zombie outbreak will be brought under control in a matter of weeks. Griff’s parents are still feckless musicians, of course, but he loves them and becomes annoyed at their random behaviour – disappearing at all hours of the day and night, and not being able to remember where they’ve been.

Griff tries to concentrate on helping his friend Sarah, who’s decided to find her own zombie parents. Hugo’s son James has become obsessed by the Broken Scar water-poisoning incident that caused the outbreak and Griff helps him hunt for clues to a cover-up. But then Griff himself starts to suffer from unexplained blackouts, waking up in unfamiliar places and with blood on his hands. At first, he fears that he is becoming a zombie again, but as he repeatedly flashes back to the eleven months he spent as a zombie, he begins to see a more sinister pattern. Griff knows that rogue scientist Roger Forsythe was experimenting on the bodies of the zombies he had captured. Griff fears that he might have been experimenting on their minds as well.

The zombies – previously scared of other humans – become bolder, venturing into towns, stealing and causing public hysteria. Griff’s parents disappear completely and he realises that Roger might be building an army of zombies, but to what end he can’t imagine. Hugo comes into grave danger and it is clear that Sarah’s parents are involved in all of this in a way none of the children could have expected. Griff must again fight against himself and the zombie threat, as he follows the threads of conspiracy that lead high into government and threaten the safety of everyone.