Monday, 30 November 2009

Strange planets in a strange galaxy

Talking of larger-than-life characters, there were few bigger or badder than Bill Hartnell's Doctor in his prime. Here was the archetypal Trickster figure, sabotaging his own ship just to have an excuse to visit the mysterious metal city on the edge of the petrified forest. And see how well that worked out.

Playing the Doctor as a cross between Odin and Loki, Hartnell gave us an inquisitive, irascible, haughty, ruthless, twisty old rascal - quite unlike the lead in any other TV drama, and certainly a million miles away from the action hero with magic - er, sonic - wand that those BBC morons have turned him into. Oh, there I go again. Ahem. Sorry.

Anyway, here's some rather nice colorization work by Stuart Humphryes of some of those episodes from the Hartnell years - the ones the BBC didn't erase, that is. It's interesting to see how striking some of the shot compositions were (pretty amazing, in fact, seeing as they were turning out a new episode every week throughout the year) and it reminds me that, before his memory problems became too obvious, Hartnell played the least pantomimey of all the Doctor's incarnations, apart perhaps from the great Paul McGann.

Btw all this discussion of compelling Trickster-figures just makes me think how much I would love to be living in the timeline where Robert Carlyle took the part. Sigh.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Never fear, Smith is here!

Dr Zachary Smith on Lost in Space… I guess he was the first one I noticed. Then I started to pick up on them in literature. Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop. Long John Silver in Treasure Island. Mr Solon Aquila in Alfred Bester’s short story “5,271,009”. Loki, of course – he's pretty much the original template. Was Falstaff one? Maybe. And most of the classic, highly-flavored fictional detectives from Holmes to Columbo certainly fit the bill.

Disney movies have always featured them, from Baloo to Cap’n Jack, forever upstaging the bland hero and heroine of the story. But it’s in television dramas that you’ll spot them most often. Ben Linus in Lost. Rocket Romano in ER. T-Bag in Prison Break. Uniquely, Fringe has two: the magnificent Walter Bishop (obviously) but also the deeply sinister David Robert Jones, who was sadly wasted, in both senses, at the end of season one.

They are characters who emerge as larger than life. Characters who, through their unpredictability and eccentricity compel our attention. We know that whenever they appear we’re going to be entertained, and that the story is about to spin off in a new and surprising direction.

Very often they started life as secondary characters or just as guest stars, but the combination of script and performance creates a personality that steals the limelight. Ben was only supposed to be in Lost for a few episodes, but pretty soon he’d become the main reason to watch. Michael Emerson’s portrayal of the character has to get at least half the credit for that, just as – a generation earlier – the young Robert Hardy did such a show-stealing turn as Sergeant Gratz in the WW2 drama Manhunt.

I’m intrigued by this type of character because it seems unlikely that the writer knew in advance what they were tapping into. You can’t really cook them up to a recipe, it’s more of a happy accident.

They are mostly aspects of the Trickster, of course: clever enough to initiate far-reaching schemes but rarely wise enough to look ahead to the consequences. Viewed in that light, Benjamin Linus and Sgt Gratz are uncustomarily sensible examples of the type. More often these fellows are wilful high-maintenance characters, stirring up continual trouble by reason of the very flaws that make them so interesting and that set them apart from the rest of the cast. Gaius Baltar, for instance – he’s a perfect Trickster figure: brilliant, selfish, careless, devious, capricious, craven. An absolute gift to a storyteller.

I’d love to create such a character in one of my own stories. Caelestis in The Chronicles of the Magi comes closest, but he’s at best a Topher, which is very far short of a Spike.

Anyone got any favourite Tricksters of their own?

Friday, 27 November 2009

More thoughts on DIY

The Writers’ Digest has an interesting article on “The 3 Self-Publishing Paths You Should Understand.”

In the past, self-publishing wasn’t really viable – hence the frequent confusion with vanity publishing. Everybody talks about how a self-published copy of Shadowmancer was discovered on a jumble sale table by a little nipper whose dad happened to be a publishing bigwig. But for every G P Taylor there’s a hundred J R Hartleys, forlorn, unread, and tweedily loitering.

Electronic formats change all that. You don’t need to shell out for print costs, but that’s not the real advantage. Where e-publishing comes into its own is the opportunity to get your work out in front of a hell of a lot of eyeballs. (Or, in case the Rev Mr Taylor should be reading, a heck of a lot.)

Face it: printing up a thousand copies and selling them for $20 a pop isn’t going to do you much good. So what you get to keep all the profits? After paying the printer, that leaves you with maybe $15,000. Better than the $1500 you might have got in royalties from the same sales, sure, but it’s still a drop in the ocean compared to all the work you did creating that content in the first place.

As Tim O’Reilly has said, your biggest problem is obscurity. That’s why it was always better in the past to take the 7% royalty from a publisher - because they would get your work out to a wide market. Ten years back, you’d often hear authors griping about being whittled down to 5% of net on book club editions – but that was still a good deal (or the best deal you’d get, anyway) because it was all helping to deal with your obscurity problem. Better to have 30,000 sales at $1.5 each than 3000 at $15, even though your revenue’s the same either way.

Now we have electronic publishing and it’s a new day. You can potentially reach anybody in the world. If you’ve just written a literary novel I’d still urge you to take it first to a traditional print publisher. But if what you’re working on is, for example, a comic – well, unless Marvel are showing an interest, you could do a lot worse than going the Freakangels route and sticking it up online.

You could also go to an e-publisher like Genus Apps and aim to get an iPhone version. Or you could license (or code up) a comic reader app and do it yourself through App Store. E-tail is already ahead of retail and the gap is getting bigger. You can reach ten times as many customers through iTunes as all the major bookstores put together.

Nobody will pay to read a comic on the web, but a surprising number of people who read your web comic for free will then ask about buying a print copy. At the same time, people will pay for a comic on their iPhone because that makes it convenient; they can read it on the train or during a coffee break. The 70% of sale price that Apple gives you back makes it tempting to charge, but don’t be reluctant to give the iPhone version away free to start off. You can reach millions of people - but so can everybody else with a comic. O’Reilly’s Rule is so important that it bears repeating:

Your biggest problem is obscurity.

And where does this leave print? Truth is, the publishers benefit just as much as the authors, because they need all the help they can get swimming against the tide of consumer indifference. Take your project to a publisher when you’ve had 650,000 verifiable downloads – as Cory Doctorow has with just one of his novels – and they’ll get a contract under your nose before your backside hits the chair. And you can take that to the bank.

Play time

This is kind of cool until you realize that the book doesn’t add a whole lot apart from size. If you’re at home, you might as well use a laptop or the TV screen and then the characters could be part of the interactivity. If you’re on a train, lugging the book negates all the convenience of the iPhone. Doh.

Of course, the book would serve to make the whole interactive experience more comforting if young children were conservative creatures afraid to embrace new media. But no, that’s their parents. Children are continually engaged in forming a model of the world from scratch and will take on board anything that’s put in front of them. To them, iPhones are no less familiar than books. And there you have the USP of the human race in a nutshell.

Seeing this after reminiscing so recently about interactive stories set me to thinking about Figments, a "story world" game for young children that Leo and I dreamt up in the late ‘90s. We couldn’t sell it to games publishers nor to TV networks either, though not for want of trying. (The games execs only had eyes for twentysomething boys, the TV execs were dazzled by reality TV and thought interactivity meant choosing from multiple endings. As they still do, in fact.)

Figments used a “cascade of events” concept to create narrative strings that the user could influence by pointing things out to the characters. Think The Sims only the characters are like little playmates rather than lab rats to be tormented and studied. When I have a day to spare, I’ll tell you all about it.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Shelf is Up

Phew! Just finished all of the inking of Mirabilis. 187 pages! I thought I'd better make an effort with the blog though actually I'm avoiding the giant list of DIY my wife has drawn up for me over the past 2 years.

Dave knows I'm a time optimist. Yesterday I tried fitting an awkward shelf that I thought would take and hour, but took the best part of a day and a lot of blue language. To cap it all my wife returned from work to tell me I'd got it wrong. She was right, so I had to take it all apart and make adjustments. Eventually I stood back with satisfaction. The shelf was up now housing a neat row of baking trays, and I'd gained a few brownie points! Still, I hate DIY.

When I started Mirabilis I thought it would be a simple matter of sitting down and completing a page a day, it turned out to be impossible to fit into so neat a schedule. Sometimes I'd find myself struggling with a particular character pose or procrastinating about the best angle to view a scene. Simple things that even I would have thought would take minutes can sometimes balloon into hours. Other factors intrude such as interuptions from my family, or occasionally, and the worst, an "off day", where the brain won't spark and the waste of time breeds a toxic guilt.

That makes it sound as though it was awful, it wasn't. I did get through the frames, then the pages, episodes and chapters, and finally the book. I loved Dave's unfolding story, got to know Jack, Estelle, Dougie and rest, and thrilled at travelling across Europe through Transylvania (a place I once back packed through as a student in the 80's before the revolution) to the mystical Istanbul (a place I'd love to visit!) Now I stand back with satisfaction (not total, I always think my drawing could be a deal better), and a little sadness in that I'll miss my new friends, the travel and adventure... until book 2!

Now, what's next on that DIY list? "Tidy the garage". Have you seen my garage? Ugg!

Interesting choices

This is from a project Leo and I worked on in about 2001 called Dilemmas. It was an interactive animated TV show about a teenager called Cathy who would often break the fourth wall by turning to ask the viewer for advice.

Dilemmas arose out of adventure games, but it always annoyed me the way those would focus on things like whether you could stack up the crates in the right order to reach the rope that you could tie to the hook... and so on. Those are the least interesting elements of any story! The interesting choices are the personal ones: white lies, temptations, keeping your promises, etc.

Not that Dilemmas was about picking the right moral path. That's just another kind of puzzle set by the designer: "You score 5 Niceness Points". Bah. Rather, you had to build a relationship with Cathy. She would almost always take your advice (unless it was really dumb) but the outcome often depended on judging the course of action that suited her character best. She was actually quite an effective liar, for example - though she didn't always feel good about it, and that would have an effect too.

Some of the outcomes might appear better or worse, but whatever you suggested for Cathy to do, you'd get a story. There was no fail-and-start-again stuff. And she remembered the advice you gave her, and whether it got her into trouble, so there was that sense of advising a friend rather than steering a puppet-like character around.

Trouble is, Dilemmas was targeted at 9-12 year old girls - not, in 2001, considered a very big potential games market. And it suited a style of play where a bunch of viewers would sit watching on the sofa, calling out suggestions or letting Cathy get increasingly impatient till she did something off her own bat.

Back then, not a chance. But in the post-Wii era, who knows?

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Jackets

Just back from a short break in the decidedly 18th century atmosphere of Beckford's Tower in Bath. Leo and Jo came over for a day, and while strolling around town we came across some copies of one of our old books (Game Guru: Strategy Games) which we offered to sign for the bookstore owner. I don't think he realized the extraordinary coincidence of both authors being together in Bath, but he was happy enough for us to do it. I did warn him it might reduce the eBay value.

Anyway, that got me thinking about writing (what doesn't?) and I spent the following morning drafting a scene from Sweet. (Note to self: look up the definition of "holiday".) The scene ended up being one of those slightly arch, dialogue-heavy bits beloved of English scriptwriters. You know the kind of thing, Ealing comedy by way of Tarantino: a gangster chucks his wife's lover out of the bedroom window, then picks a chocolate from the box on the bed and says, "You always were a bit too partial to soft centres." Only not that, obviously, 'cause only Guy Ritchie would mistake that for a rom-com.

The UK Film Council even used to have a glaring example of this kind of writing on their website, and normally I can't stand it. Yet there I was, steeped in Gothic atmosphere (that's the 40 Watt bulbs), turban in place and glass of tokay on the ebon pedestal at my elbow - but instead of penning a 3000-line narrative poem about far Araby, I find myself writing dialogue for Arthur Mullard. I'm going to use it anyway. I asked my Muse for something very different from Mirabilis and this is what I'm being fed. It'd be churlish to turn it down.

The picture above is nothing to do with all that, but it's some more early concept work. These characters have yet to take shape but I may as well show you the whole process including false starts.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Rounded with a sleep

Mirabilis has been my main writing project for almost two years now. In that time you get awfully familiar with your cast of characters. Now, as we're tying up the Winter book, I'm finding it a bit of a wrench to say goodbye to this extended family. If this was Marvel in the early '70s, I'd run a 5-page origins feature in the back of the book and give each of them in rotation a chance to tell their story. But space and time allow only these potted biographies from the Mirabilis site.

George Edward Sacnoth Meadowvane is the 9th Baron Deerdand, whose ancestral home is Dunsayn Manor near Dorking. On first meeting you'd take him for a typical bluff, whisky-nosed English aristocrat in leather-patched tweeds with a shotgun under his arm. But Lord Deerdand has a poet’s soul buried deep in all that upper-class upholstery. For years he has been the principal patron of the Royal Mythological Society, and after spending most of his money on them he is now in danger of having to sell the family estates. (You don't notice the autobiographical elements when you're dreaming these things up, honest.)

About Toby it is harder to say much, but I can tell you that I think he's probably a good dog at heart but has made a poor choice of mistress in the sour-spirited Miss Bodgkiss. A bit like Toad working for Magneto in the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, 1970s vintage.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Mère des arts

An interesting feature about European graphic novels here in The Bookseller. Paul Gravett asks, “Why are comics so much more respected and successful in France and Belgium, and indeed much of the rest of mainland Europe, than in Britain?”

Some impressive sales figures underscore the difference: almost half a million copies of the latest Largo Winch compared to less than twenty thousand copies of the Artemis Fowl graphic novel. If you want to see what the fuss is about, Cinebook has a fabulous range of the best French and Belgian graphic novels – see images above and below; read previews here. And incidentally, in case you haven't seen it yet, we even have the first Mirabilis episode in French up on our main site.

It would be nice to see widespread acceptance of comics as a legitimate storytelling medium in the UK. Even sales on a tenth the scale of the French market would be something worth climbing Nelson’s Column to shout about.

Going going gone

Exterior shot here of the auction house in Constantinople where Jack is supposed to get the book that will indirectly save his gran. Unfortunately, when the auction takes place, Jack is on the other side of the Bosphorus. Does it all work out in the end? Well, not exactly... you're just going to have to wait and see. Sorry!

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Worth a thousand words

I said no pictures from the last 30 pages or so, but I feel justified in showing this one off because, firstly, it contains no spoilers and, secondly, you would probably not stop and take it in when you're racing through to the climax of the book. Yet, like so many of Leo's and Nikos's panels, it deserves to be framed and appreciated in an art gallery.

There are few sequences that better show Leo's attention to detail. I set a few short scenes in the auction rooms of Mr Kotivedes (that's him with the gavel) which are intercut with some big, fast, spectacular, set-piece action bits. (From action to auction, a classic writer's trick for racking up the tension.) As I can never keep anything simple, even the seating plan at Mr Kotivedes's rooms is vitally important to the story. So Leo devised the full cast of attendees seen here, who have travelled from several continents to buy the sort of article that is appearing in the early days of the year: Nessus's first horseshoe, the figurehead of the Argo, the eighth color that Odin rejected for the Rainbow Bridge, that kind of thing.

But it's not just the detail. Look at the body language. This is just a snapshot moment, a brief cut away from the deadly peril that our main characters are in, and yet this single panel is a story in itself. I feel guilty covering it up with word balloons - hence this opportunity to see it in all its glory.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Adopt a robot

Here's something I found over on John Welding's blog. It's a good ol' point-n-click adventure game called Machinarium developed by Czech studio Amanita Design. You guide a cute little robot through a strange junkheap world of urban decay in his quest for love and a nice place to live.

The story is told in occasional fragments of memory and the puzzles are all logical (not always the case in point-&-click adventures, it must be said). There's a brilliant, wobbly, handmade sort of look to things which evokes Jan Švankmajer - and after all, if Czechs don't know robots then who does?

You can buy it here. If I have any criticism it's that the price is quite steep at $20. If it were half that I'd be recommending it without reservation. Anyway, you get to play a decent chunk of the game for free before you have to decide, so next time you need a bit of creative distraction, pop over and give it a whirl.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

A cute couple

I'm getting to see the final batch of artwork for the Winter book this week, as Leo inks and the pages come swiftly back from Nikos. "Batch" in this context is a term denoting 5 episodes. We don't actually need to work in episodes as the DFC closed down months ago, but it's good to get into the habit of a major cliffhanger every 5 or 6 pages, so we stuck to it.

Anyway, these last 30 pages are absolutely stunning, but of course I can't show you a single frame without giving away the climax of the story. Even so, we do have over a thousand other glorious images, so plenty there to whet your appetite. I particularly like this one which shows, yet again, that great storytelling above all rests on having characters you care about. Leo's drawing has a warmth and depth of character that you rarely see in comics.

Btw when I say a cute couple, I'm referring to Jack and Estelle, not Leo and Nikos. Just to be clear on that.

Friday, 6 November 2009

It's time...

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time in HD

Trailer Park | MySpace Video

Today is the birthday of His Imperial Majesty Suleiman the Magnificent, Grand Sultan, Commander of the Faithful, Lawgiver and Successor of the Prophet of the Universe. And although Suleiman ruled the Ottoman Empire and not Persia, that gives me all the excuse I need to put up this trailer for the Prince of Persia movie.

Screenwriter John August talks here about how he and the game's creator, Jordan Mechner, pitched the movie. I'm rooting for it to be a big success for two reasons. First, it's based on Sands of Time which was the last (and best) PoP game before they buffed the prince up and stuck him in superhero-y black leather. (Yeah, I know, the movie has gone with that look - can't have everything.)

And also I love the idea that the original designer of the game held on the the IPR. I hope he gets all the millions of bucks and the suits at the publishing company are just left sucking their teeth. Which is petty minded, sure, but we creatives don't get the win that often!

Thursday, 5 November 2009

A lad in his cave

On the whole I've avoided putting up any sneak peeks from the last few chapters of the Winter book to avoid spoilers. This flashback to Jack's boyhood appears late on, but was originally intended to occur early in the story - it just got squeezed out with all the set-up we had to do there. It explains why Jack is remarkably well-equipped for dealing with mythological occurences despite having grown up as a working class lad in South London.

Technical note: the colors muddied up (above) when I cropped this for posting, and don't do justice at all to the subtleties of Nikos's original coloring. That seems to be an artifact of exporting JPEGs from Serif PagePlus, which we use to put the comic together, and then editing in Microsoft Picture Manager. You can see that the version below is much better; I edited that in Photoshop, which handled the conversion to standard RGB much better. Don't ask me why PagePlus didn't export in a standard format, though. I'm only the writer so I don't mind parading my ignorance of graphics technology - Leo will fix it but he's currently on Dartmoor.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The Whitby connection

I'm sure I've already mentioned A Dying Trade, the short movie about Indian vampires in Yorkshire, directed by Dan Turner and produced by my great mate Dermot Bolton. Both parts are interred, I mean embedded, here for your viewing pleasure. A little late for Halloween, admittedly, but on these long dark evenings do you need an excuse for being comfortably scared?

I'm hoping we might get a guest post sometime from Mr Bolton on how he put it all together. Whaddya say, Derm?

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Black dogs and blank pages

Confidence is the big issue this week. Of course, self-doubt has always been one of the barrier gods. Graham Greene said that a writer is one who knows the long despair of doing nothing well. As I move from writing Mirabilis to a completely different set of characters, genre and indeed century for rom-com Sweet, I wake up each day to find that long despair all ready for me. I have to find the speech rhythms, the new pace and style this story demands. It has to be funny, for God's sake! Consequently I'm like an actor stumbling ill-prepared into a role. The clothes don't fit. The walk is wrong. I have no business being out at the front of the stage when I'm barely fit to be a spear carrier.

The trouble is, when you’re writing, what you’re doing is always new. A blank page awaits at the start of every day. The difficulty is not in evoking each scene, not the words themselves. A spaceship approaches Europa, for instance: “The faint light of Jupiter fell across the ice, giving the landscape the look of long-weathered mountains seen in an Arctic dusk.” See, the painting bit is easy. But coming up with the scene in the first place, that’s the killer. That’s why, though I am physically capable of writing, say, twenty thousand words a day, I’m content if I get even a tenth of that down in the form of good prose fiction.

Take the first scene in Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Nick walks around his room leaving a funny phone message for his ex. That’s our introduction to both the character and his backstory. As a writing choice, it’s brilliant because it’s so simple and understated. It does the job perfectly. Okay, now just imagine how many scenes the writer (Lorene Scafaria) might have tried. Her pacing up and down probably wore a hole in the carpet. Doing all the work to make it look easy – that’s what a writer has to do every day. It’s not just a matter of sticking words on a page.

So… boo hoo, right? Well, I’m not looking for sympathy. Writing is preferable to digging ditches for a living. (Maybe – though who in the world chooses between those two options?) I’m explaining it because I think it’s interesting. No other job I’ve done is like it. Designing computer games, for example. There you’re faced with a blank slate and, yes, you need to be creative. But it’s a kind of directed creativity, more similar to solving problems in engineering or physics than to writing fiction. Once you’ve come up with the concept for a game like Spore or The Sims (take a bow, Will Wright) you don’t have that agonizing what-the-hell-now feeling. You pretty much immediately know what problems you have to solve and you already have a bunch of possible solutions in mind. Writing fiction, by comparison, is more like being dropped off in the Empty Quarter without a map. There are no routines, no algorithms, to get you out of trouble. Everything is from first principles.

Maybe I’m just making it difficult for myself. Deciding to write a rom-com like Sweet when my stock-in-trade is fantasy adventure would certainly fit the bill. But I’m heartened by the fact that most writers have chronicled their struggles with the demon of self-doubt. My wife Roz talked a bit about Steinbeck’s dark nights while writing Of Mice and Men. And I am always heartened by the fellow-feeling expressed by clever, creative, multiple Oscar-winner William Goldman when he says that half the time it takes him to write a screenplay is spent just building the confidence to do it:
You go into your office, and you know it's gonna suck, and you have hope. You hope you'll have a good day. Sometimes you have a great half-hour or an hour, and then you think, "What did I do that was wrong?" It's not a logical profession, and I think if you knew what you were doing, your career would be going much better. But we don't. It's a crapshoot. And we all have these terrible insecurities. I don't think anybody any good says, "It's gonna be terrific."
Goldman is right, of course, and that’s why I’m not grumbling. The stuff that comes easily is nothing to be proud of. Creative arts are like lifting weights. If it doesn’t hurt a bit, you’re not doing it properly. And when you come out the other side, when you’re not writing but having written… Then the self-doubt is all gone and you are filled with pride, if not outright arrogance. You made something totally new. A story that people will care about. Something that can move them to laughter and (if you’re really talented) to tears.

Above, some character studies by Leo for Sweet. Which I’ll now get back to with renewed enthusiasm, my self-doubt having been exorcised by this post. In fact, I've got a killer idea for the opening scene. I might just be a genius after all...

Monday, 2 November 2009

Season of myths (2)

And now here we are in the other autumn, the season of the night that is separated from Keats's mellow fruitfulness by broad, bleak meadows full of sharp, smoky-scented dusk. If winter is a graveyard, this time of year is a deathbed; and all the sadder and more wonderful for that.

No words of mine could match the numinous prose of Verlyn Klinkenborg in the New York Times:
Darkness seems to collect at this time of year, as though it had trickled downhill from late June's solstice into the sump of November. Fog settles onto damp leaves in the woods - not Prufrock's yellow fog or the amber fog of the suburbs, but a gray-white hanging mist that feels like the down or underfur of some pervasive beast.

White birches line the slopes beyond the pasture as if they were there to fence in the fog, to keep it from inundating the house in a weightless avalanche. The day stays warm, but even at noon it feels as though dusk has already set in. The chickens roost early. The horses linger by the gate, ready for supper.

Usually I feel starved for light about now. But this year I've reveled in these damp, dark November days. It's a kind of waking hibernation, I suppose, a desire to live enclosed, for a while at least, in a world defined by the vaporous edges of our small farm.