Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Coming attractions

Leo and I don’t get out nearly enough in a job like ours. So it was nice to have a bit of an outing yesterday, converging from our respective homes in Somerset and London for a meeting at our publisher's offices in Oxford.

As plans for the DFC Library proceed apace it’s all getting very exciting. David showed us cover mock-ups of the first titles due out in spring next year. The series is kicking off with three great DFC strips:
Mezolith, Spider Moon and Good Dog Bad Dog. If you subscribed to the DFC you will have seen this material already, but the high quality printing and prestige hardcover editions will make them worth having even so. I loved the Mezolith cover in particular – a dramatic and at the same time contemplative image that expresses the whole central concept of a father passing traditions on to his son.

Think of all the great titles to come:
Monkey Nuts, Robot Girl, Frontier, Spectrum Black, Mo-Bot High, Bodkin and the Bear… Oh, too many to mention. And then there are the strips that are on file but didn’t get the chance to appear before the DFC was closed, like Garen Ewing’s eagerly-awaited Tomb of Nazaleod, for example. Where would a UK publisher get an incredible graphic novel list like that? These books are going to prove the real value of the DFC as an incubator of top comics IPs.

And what about Mirabilis? Bless your ‘eart for asking, guv’nor. The first book, Winter, is almost complete. It’s over 200 pages so a fair old stocking-filler, and one that could keep a chap quiet most of Christmas Day. But Christmas of which year? At this stage we cannot say.

After the meeting we had nine hours to kill (the problem of pre-booking to get affordable tickets) but there’s plenty to do in Oxford. We strolled around the
Pitt Rivers Museum, took in Bruce Willis’s new movie Surrogates at the Odeon in Magdalen Street, and had a fine meal at the Bangkok House in Hythe Bridge Street – an acceptable substitute for the sadly defunct Opium Den that used to stand nearby. Then back home to work on the last few pages of the Winter book.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Eye candy

While talking about dialogue-heavy scenes recently, I went over some of the ways to make the action and conversation in the scene more interesting, but I didn't discuss how to ensure there's visual interest.

This scene is of Estelle's father and Jack's colonel honing their shooting skills by taking potshots at empty champagne bottles. (Before clay pigeons, glass bottles really were used for this, though not usually ones with Moet et Chandon written on the side.)

So what have we got here? A high angle close-up of Lord Deerdand aiming straight at the "camera". Reverse that for a wide angle as he shoots. Close on the bottle shattering. Two-shot of them ducking shards of glass. New angle two-shot past Lord Deerdand as he breaks open his gun. Pull out to show the gamekeeper setting up another bottle in the foreground while the conversation continues in the background. Then a high angle looking down on them.

If you jumped the camera around like that in a movie, people would have epileptic fits. But in a comic it's essential. If you just had half a dozen panels that kept more or less the same angle on the characters, your reader would lose interest even if the dialogue was by Tarantino. So instead you go for a mix or close-ups, long shots, high and low angles, and cutaways to keep the eye from getting bored.

Rules can, of course, always be broken, but this one only if you deliberately have a sequence of panels where you keep almost exactly the same view. For example, two guys sitting on a park bench:

Panel 1: no dialogue
Panel 2: first guy says, "It's nice here, isn't it?"
Panel 3: no dialogue
Panel 4: second guy says, "As nice as anywhere, I guess."

Well, that's a style that suits a certain kind of comic. But notice it only works if you keep the exact same angle throughout. When you have two consecutive panels that are closely but not quite the same shot, it doesn't come across as a stylistic effect, it just looks wrong. In cinematography this is the 30-degree rule: in two consecutive shots, the angle on the main character should always change by more than 30 degrees. (The jump cut is an exception, though between two comic panels a jump cut looks a zoom anyway.)

On the following page, incidentally, there's a big panel that shows us where Deerdand and Griffin are standing in the grounds of Dunsayn Manor:

Providing an establishing shot like that is not always essential, but if you skimp on establishing shots too much it creates a sense of disorientation. Try watching too many episodes of Beauty & the Beast or Alias season 1 and you'll see what I mean. I often prefer to come into a scene on a tight shot and leave the establishing shot for a page or more, as here, and that's just a style choice.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Too cool for schoolkids?

The next X-Men movie is reportedly going right back to the original Lee & Kirby Silver Age stories in which Professor Charles Xavier first sets up his School for Gifted Youngsters.

Not before time. If they’d done that to begin with, instead of the down-n-dirty, angst-ridden trilogy about what a tortured life Wolverine has had, then they would have scored roughly twice as much at box office. How do I know? Simple: Raimi and Favreau showed everyone how to do it with their Marvel movies.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, comic books shifted from being simple, relatable stories for a broad (and mostly young) market to brooding fare for the college-age crowd. To anyone younger than 13 or older than 30, Wolverine looks like the kind of surly git who mutters to himself while hogging the pool table. But to that specific demographic – or rather, to the very narrow slice of them that buys comics – he’s all about how, like, hard it is, y’know?

For those who don’t read comics, these movies shape perception of the medium. So The Times will go on
at great length about something like Rex Mundi - as if that niche of avid fans represented anything at all. Now, I’m not dissing the quality of Arvid Nelson’s work. Quite the contrary. I’m just saying that media interest in something like Rex Mundi is about as relevant as who won the Booker prize. Let me assure you: I grokked that Dark Phoenix cycle of stories by Claremont and Byrne that the X-Men movies were based on. Man, it was life-changing. But I was a 19-year-old role-playing, SF-reading, physics undergraduate Lene Lovich fan at the time – so hardly representative of the mass market.

Because of the media’s take on comics, it’s hard for people who don’t read them to separate the medium from the content. That’s why book publishers mostly just don’t get it. If you say “Harry Potter” or “Spiderwick”, that they understand. It’s a book, it can be a movie, a videogame… It can be enjoyed by adults and kids alike, in big numbers. But when you talk to them about graphic novels, they don’t connect it with that kind of crossover high concept stuff that pays for all their other fiction. Best case, they start to think in terms of Fun Home or Persepolis. Challenging masterworks that are brooding, brilliant - and bloody unlikely to hook a broad readership.

Maybe movies could give a useful steer here. The average PG film is ten times as profitable as the average R-rated film. Really, it is. Now go find a producer in the UK who isn’t trying to get a horror flick made. And the banker never wears a mac in the pouring rain…

This kind of thinking, in an industry as chronically panic-stricken as book publishing, becomes self-perpetuating. A publisher releases a hip, dark, ultra-violent graphic novel that appeals to teen male sci-fi geeks. Or it might be a downbeat, leisurely, surreal exploration of angst-ridden daily life aimed at thirtysomethings. Razordeath: Alien Infarction or All the Ways My Life Hurts (okay, I made those up). Either way, the book sells 15,000 copies and the publisher concludes that’s the limit of the market. Oh sure - and prior to J K Rowling it was a truth universally acknowledged that children’s fantasy never made it as far as the bestseller lists.

I love the works of Adrian Tomine, Daniel Clowes, Alison Bechdel - and I even like the two-fisted horror/action stuff, as long as it’s all driven from character the way guys like Arcudi and Brubaker write it. But I wouldn’t be enjoying comics today if I hadn’t had Stan Lee and Roy Thomas to open that magic door for me. They did it with simple, powerful stories about universally relatable characters, exactly as Pixar was to do 30 years later. And that’s the kind of readership, 9-12 years plus family, that book publishers ought to be looking at if they want to see the kind of business that graphic novels could really do.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Season of myths (1)

After spring, this is my favorite time of year. Animals sense the change of season much more than at the beginning of summer or winter. On the first day of September, regular as clockwork, the horses were getting rolly-eyed and jumpy. Officially autumn doesn’t start until tomorrow, but they smelled it on the air even then.

Autumn is a story with a beginning, middle and end far clearer than the meandering narrative of summer. On a day like today (in London, at any rate) we have pale clear sunshine and the crispness on the air. This is harvest festival time with all its mellow fruitfulness. Later, after the leaves fall, we’ll have bright and biting days, and then the smokiness of Halloween and the gathering evenings as the year curls up.

I liked
Rowan Pellings’s recollection of her mother’s riposte to Keats, pinned to the school noticeboard:
Mum [believed] that Keats's take was too darn hazy, over-ripe and somnolent, with its "soft-dying day" and mournful gnats. In richly purple doggerel she defended the crisp, taut energy of autumn: the first frost, the harsh, pure light, the crunch of leaves and the crackling of fires. How could Keats have failed to note the sorcery of the harvest moon, or the sheen of a conker fresh from its shell?
The last of the four Mirabilis books is Autumn. (Or Fall – we still can’t decide between those two titles, as the American version has other connotations, of course, which become significant as Jack faces his ultimate challenge.) It’s going to be the best opportunity for Leo and Nikos and Mike to really show their mastery as we see, not only the close of the year, but the seeping away of fantasy as the green comet fades:
“Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.”
Ah, but that’s all a long way off. We have five hundred more pages to do before we get to write “the end” and mean it. Hope you’ll be along for the whole journey.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Show not tell

My wife, though an author under her own name and a ghost writer with over one million books sold, also does a lot of literary consultancy, editing and story polishing. One day, looking over her shoulder as I brought her one of many morning cups of tea, I saw another editor’s notes she’d been sent. The other editor had been working on a short story by Angela Williams and had come across this passage:
“Max had rather quaint ideas about a lady of nobility. As a result, to please him, I took to smoking Black Russian cigarettes in a holder (without inhaling) and drinking neat Cognac as an aperitif before dinner.”
The editor had seized on this as a failure to “show not tell”, and gave an example of how to expand it into a 250-word scene in which Max introduces the narrator to Russian cigarettes for the first time.

That advice was completely wrong. Because Ms Williams had shown, and very elegantly too in only 37 words. The telling version of that passage would have gone something like this:

Max had rather quaint ideas about a lady of nobility. As a result, to please him, I began behaving in a more sophisticated way.”
There are two writing rules that often, as here, get confused. “Show not tell” is a corollary of Forster’s “Only connect!” (the most important rule of all) and it means that the writer shouldn’t just communicate a fact, but must also make us feel it. “The room was very big.” Well, “The room was as big as a cathedral nave” at least evokes a mental image, though possibly, “The room was so big that it made Jeff feel like a child being led into a classroom for the first time” is better because more personal.

The other rule, which I suspect the editor who commented on Ms Williams’s story was thinking of, is “make a scene of it”. This is a lot less of a hard and fast rule. In There Will Be Blood, for example, we might expect a scene of Daniel Plainview dragging himself back to town after breaking his leg in the shaft where he’s just struck oil. Instead, Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer/director, just cuts straight to Plainview on a stretcher watching the men he’s hired tally up his newfound wealth.

You’ve got to be a little bit careful about breaking the “make a scene of it” rule. Audiences can be mistrustful of things that happen off-stage and that they only get to hear about later. It’s safe enough if the scene you’re skipping would only have covered routine details that the reader or viewer can fill in for themselves. For example, after Episode 8 (“The Sleep of Reason”, DFC #37) we cut straight to Jack in Paris. You didn’t need to see him pack a bag, go and get his ticket from the Royal Mythological Society, and catch a boat – all that was obvious. But if we’d missed out the earlier scene of Gus escaping from Bedlam and just referred to it in a later episode, you’d have wondered if the info was kosher. And quite right too.

Show not tell comes in when, for instance, Jack balks at shaking Gerard’s hand in Episode 1. Or later, on the beach at Selsey, when he remembers himself as a child watching his parents go off in a boat. Hopefully you empathized more with Jack then than if he’d simply stated his feelings – though indeed, dialogue can show instead of tell:

This is it.

This is what?

If I take one more step it'll be the farthest away from home I've ever been.

(Frodo gives Sam a pat on the shoulder.)

Come on, Sam.
That is showing. It connects us with Sam even more effectively than a wide aerial shot of the two little fellows slogging across a big field, and certainly more than any factual statement of distance would have done.

My wife, by the way, has a thousand writing tips like these and she explains them a whole lot better. (I know, I know – but I’m a fiction writer. When it comes to nonfiction I’m as articulate as Gort the robot.) Anyway, you can read more of Roz’s tips

Friday, 18 September 2009

Jane Espenson on comics

Mentioning Jane Espenson yesterday sent me back to her blog, which I should look at more often because it's packed with inspiration and creative wisdom. She's not posting much at the moment, and I have mixed feelings about that because obviously it's nice to have a Hippocrene spring* of ideas** from the mind of one of today's top scriptwriters, but if it means she has more time to work on new TV projects then who can complain?

Recently (okay, a year ago) she did a post on
writing for comics:

"I try to carve my story up into roughly page-sized pieces. I will find out during the writing process (every darn time) that I've overestimated the content of each page and I'll have to simplify the story."

That certainly rings a bell, I can tell you. I can tackle today's work knowing I'm in distinguished company.

*You probably spotted that this is a tautology.
**And so is this.

Thursday, 17 September 2009


“Hi how are you I’m fine.”

That’s how the late Blake Snyder characterized bad dialogue. “Engaging characters talk differently than you and I,” he wrote in
Save the Cat. “They have a way of saying things, even the most mundane things, which raise[s] them above the norm.”

So, writers must find ways to say familiar things in an interesting way. That applies to all prose, naturally, not just dialogue. When it works, you get lines whose poetry lets you see even a commonplace scene with fresh eyes.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer ran seven seasons – call it 110 hours – throughout much of which we were watching friends arguing or making up (or making out). Happens every day, right? Yet in the hands of skilled writers like Joss Whedon, Jane Espenson, Drew Goddard, Marti Noxon and others, it was never boring. Buffy always had a new way to say “I love you”, “I hate you” and “I’m gonna dust you.”

But there are pitfalls. In the search to find a new spin on an old line, you can stray off into the realm of the downright peculiar. There was a movie (which will remain nameless because I don’t actually know what it was called) in which the heroine said, “Somebody is trying make me dead” instead of the plain old “Somebody is trying to kill me”. Trouble is, that doesn’t sound like great dialogue, it just sounds like English isn’t the character’s first language. Don’t let fear of a cliché drive you to gobbledygook.
“Match me, Sidney.”
Ah, now - that’s the great Clifford Odets, three words comprising one of the most famous lines in cinema. But but but, you’ll be saying, a simple little bit of dialogue like that can’t work without an actor to deliver it. True; the line wouldn’t have the same impact on the page of a comic as when it’s spoken with chilling egomania by Burt Lancaster. So try this classic Odets writing:
But Sidney, you make a living. Where do you want to get?

Way up high, Sam, where it's always balmy. Where no one
snaps his fingers and says, 'Hey, shrimp, rack the balls!'
Or, 'Hey, mouse, mouse, go out and buy me a pack of butts.'
I don't want tips from the kitty. I'm in the big game with the
big players. My experience I can give you in a nutshell, and
I didn’t dream it in a dream either: dog eat dog. In brief,
from now on, the best of everything is good enough for me.
Nobody talks like that. Of course they don’t. But where “He wants to make me dead” stinks with the sweaty desperation of an impending deadline, Odets’s dialogue comes from truth. It tells us everything about Sidney’s resentments, his fears and what he thinks he needs. And, most importantly, it sings.

But, before you decide how to have a character say something, you need to stop and think whether they need to open their mouth at all. In a moving visual medium, dialogue is the
last storytelling tool you reach for. Hitchcock’s test was to watch a movie with the sound off and see if he could still follow the story. In a comic, you’re not going to get the nuance that an actor can bring with just an expression or a gesture, but you do still have a very mobile viewpoint so you don’t need to use as many words as in a novel. (Well, duh. But remember: I’m just talking about the dialogue here.)

Somebody once said you should never have more than twenty words of dialogue per comic panel. There are rules and there are rules. If you look at pretty much any panel in a comic by Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman or me (see what I did there?) you’re going to count more than twenty words. Some comics it’s “Hey!” “Stop!” “Never!” Fine, that’s different strokes… We’re not going to talk about quantity here, we’re going to talk about what constitutes
good dialogue.

First rule, as always, is hide your exposition. Dialogue doesn’t have to do any work that the images are doing already. Suppose our hero is talking to a wild-eyed guy who’s setting a clock strapped to a makeshift contraption. There’s no need for dialogue like: “Once you activate the timer, this bomb will go off in seven minutes.” We can already see that it’s a bomb, and we know what timers are used for. Instead the hero gingerly picks up the device:
How long’ll I have?

Plenty of time. Smoke a cigarette. Fill out your
tax return. Make your weekly phone call to Mom.
Just don’t start
War and Peace.
Good dialogue serves more than one purpose. The bomb maker is telling the hero he won’t have much time once the bomb is primed. That’s the surface meaning. But notice that every example he gives is a reminder of mortality: cigarettes, taxes, family. Then he caps it with ironic emphasis, because starting a war is exactly what the hero is going to do.

And then later, if you want the tension that comes with a ticking clock, why not insert a countdown in captions from the moment the bomb is activated? Because, you know, “seven minutes” would’ve meant nothing anyway. With a countdown you get immediacy.

Dialogue like the bomb maker’s there is
overdetermined. On a subliminal level the best dialogue bombards the audience with a whole bunch of associations and resonances designed to grab their full attention:
“He says there’s a storm coming.”

“I know.”
Or how about one of the most effective dialogue exchanges ever written:
“Do you expect me to talk?”

“No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die.”

That’s superb writing because it takes us (and Bond) by surprise and explodes an emotional charge that powers the rest of the scene. Whereas look at something like this:
“You can’t just let them die. It’s inhuman!”

“Who ever said I was... human?”
Yawn. Even the most detail-obsessed sci-fi geeks demand a little more emotional engagement than that. Because most of us are more interested in character than we are in information. And that applies even when the information concerns the deaths of millions of people. On the surface, that’s just a statistic. It takes storytelling to make sense of it on a human level.

Penultimate word on this subject from Mr Blake Snyder: “Dialogue is your opportunity to reveal character and tell us who this person is as much as what he is saying. How someone talks is character and can highlight all manner of that character’s past, inner demons and outlook on life.”

And, to prove that point, the final word goes to Ms Rosenberg, courtesy of Jane Espenson:
“It’s a doodle. I do doodle. You, too. You do doodle, too.”

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

The moving finger writes (and draws)

You’re looking at a turning point, a signpost of destiny. Like the hiss of cosmic background radiation, or that iridium line through the rocks of time that says “Dinosaurs Keep Out”. This is where history made a decision to go one way and not the other. And that made all the difference.

It’s like this. My friend Jamie Thomson used to edit
White Dwarf, which in those days was a role-playing games magazine published out of Games Workshop’s offices on an industrial estate in North Acton. Most days I would go in to write articles and scenarios and generally hang out.

This one morning, a gangling, bespectacled, leather-jacketed artist arrived with his portfolio under his arm. He had an appointment, he had enthusiasm and talent and smarts, but nobody at Games Workshop had remembered. It was close to the monthly deadline. He ended up having to lay his artwork out on the floor as people ran in and out with red-marked sheets of copy. I took time to look at his stuff and I loved it (still remember a great picture of a magic book with things manifesting out of the pages) but, after all, what use was
that to the poor guy? I was just a freelance writer.

A few days later, I signed a contract to write my
first ever professional books, The Crypt of the Vampire and The Temple of Flame. In those days, editors were titans; they made decisions fast and effectively. Angela Sheehan at Grafton said find yourself an artist. My first thought was of Russ Nicholson, whose work I liked, but he was off in Papua New Guinea for a year. The hand of Fate again.

That weekend I happened to go to Pevensey. Halfway there, as the train clacked and swayed through rabbit-dotted countryside, I remembered the artist kneeling on the White Dwarf carpet. Didn’t he live on the south coast somewhere? I called Jamie. Did he still have the guy’s telephone number? By nothing short of a miracle, Jamie had left his wallet out of his jeans pocket when he washed them that week, so the scrap of paper with Leo’s details on it was still legible. That afternoon, we met up in the garden of a pub near to the castle. Leo brought Jo. We walked and talked all afternoon, had tea in a sort of barnacled driftwood shack on the beach. Leo agreed to illustrate my two books. We didn’t know then that it would be a lifelong friendship and creative partnership, that Jo and he would be married with three great kids, and that I would be godfather to the youngest. (Hi, Inigo!)

And this? This was the first drawing Leo did. The very first page of the very first book either of us ever published. And, whaddya know - it’s a gate!

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Hiss clank whirr

I have said before that Mirabilis is not steampunk. Not least because 1901 isn't really the Age of Steam any longer, but also because steampunk has kind of been done to death. I don't think we'd have had much to add to it. (A steampunk story set in the late 1700s, on the other hand - that could be interesting.)
Having said that, Mirabilis is the story of our world when all of fantasy - everything that the human mind has ever dreamed of - gets poured into the vessel of reality. And steampunk is undeniably part of fantasy, so it wouldn't be right if a few of those tropes didn't get a look in.

Anyway, we love airships and robots and big clanking machines just like anybody else. All we need is an excuse...