Can Stephen King teach an old writing dog new writing tricks?

I recently read Mr Mercedes by Stephen King and I found it both brilliant and depressing. Brilliant because it’s a terrific book: strong characterisation, rich and rhythmic language, deft pacing, clarity and so on.   And depressing because it’s a terrific book: strong characterisation, rich and rhythmic language – you get the picture.

IMG_1206Let me explain. Most of the time, whether it’s a book, film or TV show, I see the flaws, the joins, bits that were added as an afterthought and ways that the piece could be improved. Noticing these errors fuels my belief that I too can write. But if a book is too good, as in the case of Mr Mercedes, then I’m thrown into an agony of self-doubt.

Before reading Mr Mercedes, I hadn’t opened a Stephen King book for some years. This was also because he’s a brilliant writer. I found his horror books so terrifying that if I was at home alone and it was dark outside, I’d have to stop reading, put the book down, go round the house whistling a merry tune, whilst checking that the windows and doors were securely locked against whatever ghoulies Stephen King had dreamt up to deliberately terrify me.

After I finished Mr Mercedes, and completed my therapy programme to tackle acute jealousy, I decided to read Stephen King’s book On Writing. It’s half memoir and half writing tips. Again, it’s beautifully written with both humour and humanity but I was less interested in the man – my tormentor – and more in the holy grail. How does he do it? What’s his process?

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Stephen King’s starting point is situation and then he starts writing and lets the story unfold. So in the case of Mr Mercedes the situation is a retired cop who goes back to solve a major unsolved crime. On the face of it this situation is hardly the most original in the world. How many times have we seen a retired cop/spook/soldier/Starship Admiral (delete where applicable) called back to save the world from huge peril? But it’s how you tell ‘em and Stephen King tells ‘em so damn well.

In his book On Writing, there is only one writing exercise. He gives you a situation and tells you to write six pages. Desperate to learn the dark secrets I did the exercise.

I found it difficult. If you are the type of writer who plans – as I am – writing this way is a different experience. For me, it was slower. It was more agonising and more intense. There were moments of discovery and frustration. At the end I had to do a lot of rewriting. More than usual because I had no idea what I was writing about until I finished. But the feedback I’ve had on the piece has been good so I’m now in two minds as to whether I should give it another go.

Meanwhile, crime writers, read Mr Mercedes and weep.

 

 

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Feel The Fear and Write It Anyway

At the moment I’m developing a new project and as I do so, I’m conscious of the stages that I’m going through because no matter how many writing projects I develop, the fear process is always the same.

Step 1

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This is before I actually begin. I have a germ of an idea that I think could work and I’ve been mulling it around at the back of my mind. But then I think: ‘Who am I kidding? I’m never, ever going to be able to turn it into a full narrative. What ever made me think that I could do this?’ I decide that any previous success I’ve had was a fluke, or if I was able to do it then, I’ve lost it now. And so on.

The solution to this is a slap round the face – which is quite hard to do to oneself.

 

Step 2

I start doing the actual writing, there are good days and bad days but overall, the project is taking shape, the ideas are coming, I’m waking up in the middle of the night, jotting down moments, expressions, ideas. However, all of I sudden, I get another great idea, that seems bigger, better and shinier than the project I’m working on. And I’m totally terrified. ‘What if the new idea is better than the old idea. What if I’m wasting my time on the old idea. Maybe I should ditch the project I’m half way through and start work on the new idea.’

The solution to this is making some notes on the new idea and put it in the ideas drawer.DSC00957

Step 3

The piece of writing is finished. I’ve rested, it, worked it over, rewritten it and I’m just about ready to get some feedback. I think it’s okay, in fact, some of it might even be rather good, if I say so myself. But that’s when I think, ‘Who am I kidding? Just because I think it’s okay it doesn’t mean anyone else is going to like it.’

The solution to this fear is to get over it.

What’s interesting is that these three stages happen every single time. But at least now, I recognise them in myself and also in the writers with whom I work.

 

 

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Bitten by Crime – Why it took so long for me to write my psychological crime novel

This post is not what you think. This isn’t a tale of writer’s block and the desperate struggle to fill empty pages. Through the years, I’ve written fairly steadily; comedy, children’s, fantasy, factual drama, but never stories that involve the police, police stations and crime. Until now.

I trace it back to a traumatising experience on the writing nursery slopes when I was being considered for The Bill, a UK TV programme, now sadly axed, that developed many new and terrific writers.

Lord's CopBefore you got a commission to write for The Bill you had to do research. This research included going to your local police station, being shown around and going out in a squad car.  It was in the squad car that my crime novel writing chakra got blocked.

So there I am, in the front, riding shotgun, with another policeman on the back seat. Thinking character development, I say to the policeman driving, ‘Do you guys ever get really stressed?’

‘Oh yes…from time to time, there’s the red mist –‘

The radio springs to life, ‘Delta Tango 3, Delta Tango 3.’  The police driver rams his foot on the accelerator, sirens blare, cars ahead part like the Red Sea, my heart hammers against my ribs.  And I’m thinking, ‘Guns, domestic dispute, me in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Oh dear God.’

The police car slams onto the kerb and stops. ‘You wanna come?’ the policeman says over his shoulder. He’s already out of the car, no doubt expecting me to follow. The other one’s already vanished.

‘I’ll er…I’ll er wait down here…’ he disappears.

Five minutes later, the two police are back. It was a false alarm. They get back in the car and off we go again.

IMG_1077The afternoon continues in the same way, meandering drive through the traffic, call on the radio, scary drive, and false alarm. Finally, finally, finally, some action. We’re in Ealing High Street, the police car stops, the police jump out and bring someone to the car. This ‘someone’ is a completely drunk man who they shove in the car. The smell in the car is overpowering.  ‘What now?’ I say moving as far away as I can from the new passenger.

‘You’re all fucking cunts,’ he says.

‘Mind your language,’ says the policeman on the back seat. ‘We’re taking him back,’ the police driver says to me, ‘ Back to the station.’

‘You fucking cunts, I’m gonna be fucking sick if you don’t stop the fucking car, you fucking cunts, I fucking hate you, I’m gonna be fucking sick.’

And so it goes on, all the long, way back to the police station. Once there, I wait in the car while the police check in the poor guy. By the time they come out I’ve decided that I’ve done my research and no surprises, no matter how many times I rewrite my Bill script, I never get the right tone for the show, so no commission.

This is why it’s taken me all this time to go back to my very real interest in writing crime and considering why certain people do certain things under certain circumstances. In other words, writing psychological crime. But sadly, I’m not able to write from the police point of view because I miserably failed the squad car test!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Co-Writing – I Should Coco?

 

DSC00734Recently I was flattered to be asked to co-write an interesting project. Besides my knee jerk, ‘You must be joking, I haven’t got time to do my own stuff,’ it set me thinking about the times I’ve attempted to co-write; when it’s worked and when it hasn’t. In no particularly order, and with no attempt at laying down the law, these are three elements I think you need to make co-writing work.

 

Similar Sensibility

By this I mean, similar value system. You can be from entirely different backgrounds, gender, age, sexual orientation, education and so on, but if one of you has a deep belief in white supremacy and conspicuous materialism and the other believes in the value of drug culture and chemically induced spirituality you may waste a lot of writing time disagreeing.

 

Similar Skill Levels

DSCF6792If you’re calling it co-writing and not ghosting, I think you need to be at the same writing level in terms of craft. You can have different strengths but if you’re a pro writer used to turning out a rough draft at 12 pages a day and you co-write with someone who is on their first ever script, again you’re likely to waste a lot of time. My best co-writing experience was with someone where the necessary “to and fro” was seamless to the point where we passed the step outline back and forth, one of us did the draft, the other one did the polish and I don’t remember who did which bit. As said, it was seamless.

 

Similar Goals

IMG_0770This crosses over slightly into similar skill levels and similar sensibility. If you are working up a project you need to know whether it’s a calling card script, or you’re aiming at a competition, a particular broadcaster, a slot you’ve spotted, or you reckon this is your one good idea that you think will make a million.   In other words, besides knowing what the piece is about – its theme – you need to have a shared goal in terms of its audience and your expectations.

 

That’s my view. I’d be very interested in contradictions.

 

 

 

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With a Little Help From…

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On October 10th this year, my novel BE MY FRIEND is going to be published.

At the moment it is being edited by dear friend and esteemed writer Harriet Castor who besides having written many children’s books has had great success with her young adult novel VIII about Henry VIII.

The draft has also just been read by another good friend Isabelle Grey,  a talented TV writer and novelist (Out of Sight, Bad Mother, Accused among a hefty list of projects). In addition, another respected friend, Joanne Maguire, highly skilled TV writer on the Bill and EastEnders has given me notes.   Collectively and individually, these friends know a thing or two.

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Feedback so far is good and – even better – consistent.

When I facilitate scriptwriters who are giving feedback on each other’s projects, among other things, I say:   “If one person gives you a note, feel free to ignore it. If two people say the same thing, listen hard and seriously consider the note.  And if three people make the exact same comment, don’t argue, just make the bloody change.”

Consequently, I am close to changing the perhaps quirky ending as well as tweaking what I thought was a pleasing viewpoint shift since both Isabelle and Joanne honed in like missiles on those exact same points.

I await Harriet’s thumbs up or thumbs down with calm.  I am ready to take my own advice, not argue and just make the bloody changes.

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Latkes – Feel the Love

I recently had a party and by special request from my esteemed friend, Isabelle Grey made latkes.

20140219_095932 20140219_083737 20140219_080026The recipe I use and that I have amended is by the late, great Evelyn Rose and this particular batch was the best ever. Potato latkes are a complete pain to make, the house stinks of frying afterwards, they are obscenely unhealthy…but they freeze well and they are absolutely delicious.

Here’s the recipe with my additional notes.

Ingredients

3 large baking potatoes peeled (about 675g/1.5 lbs)

1 medium onion peeled (200g/7oz)

4 level tbsp. self- raising flour with ½ tsp of baking powder (or 4 level tbsp. plain flour with 1tsp baking powder)

1 level tsp salt

speck of white pepper

2 eggs

Any flavourless oil for frying

Method

Using a food processor grate the potatoes and onions using the course grating disc.

Put the potatoes and onions back in the food processor and pulse with the blade about four times.  Don’t pulse to mush – you want some texture.

Take handfuls of the potato and onion mix and put in muslin squares. Using all your strength, squeeze out the moisture. This is very important.

Put the flour, baking powder and seasonings in a mixing bowl, add the beaten eggs gradually stirring until you have a batter.  Then add the drained potato and onion and mix thoroughly.

Put oil to a depth of 1cm (½inch) into a heavy frying pan and when a little potato sizzles put tablespoons into the pan.

Evelyn Rose says one should flatten with the back of the spoon but I didn’t.  I slid the mix into the pan being careful not to introduce the frying oil into the pancake itself.

After three to four minutes turn over, then DRAIN before you take them out of the pan.

Make sure you don’t put too many latkes in the pan at the same time as this will lower the temperature.

And if you are making a big batch you may find you have to drain liquid off of the mixture again by using a sieve.

Allow to cool and then open freeze.

To reheat, arrange on baking trays and hat in a hot oven (230° (450°/Gas 8) for 6-7 minutes until really hot and crisp.

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Where do ideas come from?

When you tell people that you’re a writer there are a few comments you often hear.  The first  is whether you’ve written anything they may have seen or heard about. Then they may say that they have a story for you about their own life.  And the third is, ‘where do you get your ideas?’

DSC00274 Way back, when I was on the comedy nursery slopes, I had a commission from BBC Scotland to write sketches and a mentor – Phil Differ. (http://www.brignewspaper.com/2012/12/interview-only-an-excuse-creator-phil-differ-exclusive/)

I suspect I’ve faded in his memory as one of the many new writers he advised, but I remember Phil and I remember his guidance.   He told me to write about the things that made me angry.

At the moment I am angry about how vulnerable people are treated in a specific environment and an idea is no doubt nesting in my subconscious. I don’t know how the idea will be expressed – documentary, factual drama or some other form but there’s a story to be told.

I think ideas are everywhere.  They are in colours, clouds, scenes, conversations, music, newspapers. blog posts, graffiti.  And I don’t think ideas only spring from anger.   I think they are the children of intense emotion; compassion, love, despair, fear, and joy.

If you consider that the goal of the writer is to elicit emotion from the audience, emotion as the idea springboard is only logical.

DSCF6792Next week I’m going to be talking students at Lincoln University about characterisation in long form.  It’s an annual event I enjoy because the students are consistently smart as tacks.  I plan to ask them what the goal of the writer is.  The first student who emails me with the right answer – indicating they’ve bothered to research the guest lecturer – will get a free read and notes on either outline, treatment or finished script.

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Feared by the Bad, Loved by the Good

Recently I script edited a radio play about Robin Hood.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (TV series)

The Adventures of Robin Hood (TV series) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bouncing the script back and forth to the sometimes beleaguered but always hard working writer, Iain, I couldn’t help wonder why the idea of challenging the rich, powerful and corrupt to help the poor, weak and vulnerable, is a story that we keep revisiting.  Maybe it’s another lesson that the storytellers teach us.  Maybe it’s about the function of drama in making sense of the world and encouraging us to take action.

Because, in order for civilisation to survive, we have to join together and stand up for what is right and take action to protect the less able in society.  In the New Year honours list, two ‘whistle blowers’ Helene Donnelly and Julie Bailey at Staffordshire Hospital, have been honoured.  These are women who took action and made a difference to the way that the elderly are treated.

This year  Nelson Mandela died, a hero who stood up for what was right at enormous personal cost. As we look forward to the year ahead, perhaps with trepidation, perhaps with hope, let this be the year that, if we can, we make a difference.

English: Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gaute...

English: Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gauteng, on 13 May 1998 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thank you to all you incredibly kind people who have followed the blog.  Happy New Year to you all!

If you’re interested in that audio play, it’s available on Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/Hood-Noble-Secrets-Iain-Meadows/dp/B00DYXYDBW/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1388497140&sr=8-1&keywords=Noble+Secrets)

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Write What You Know… Is this really a good idea?

In the dark dawn, as I scoffed porridge topped with home made mincemeat before wrestling with annual accounts, “Yes, yes, I’m doing it,” I scanned last week’s Broadcast.  It struck me – yet again – how fundamental an arresting story idea needs to be.

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The reason for this thought was reading about a new TV series, Hostages recently bought by BBC-4.   The story begins when a surgeon’s family is taken hostage just as she’s about to perform a routine operation on the president. The kidnappers tell her she must kill the president or they will murder her family.

What a good idea, I thought.  But, why?

It’s not simply that the idea is easy to understand, the drama is implicit, the character has a dilemma and is going to be strongly motivated but also, it’s the type of story.

Recently, I’ve been reading the work of talented writers who are working on stories where the main story drivers are issues of esteem and self-actualisation. I see these types of story as a problem in terms of audience accessibility.

Abraham Maslow, a 1970s psychologist developed a psychological model about human motivation.  Called Hierarchy of Needs, the theory has story telling significance. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow’s_hierarchy_of_needs

In essence, it’s a pyramid with needs such as safety and sustenance at the bottom and needs such as creativity, esteem and self-actualisation at the top.  The theory is that when human beings achieve the base needs, they strive for the next level and so on.

An audience easily understands and identifies with the base needs such as thirst, hunger and safety.  We quickly engage if a character is lost in space, taken hostage, chased by zombies, threatened by a shark, and endangered by Daleks.   However, the higher up the pyramid one goes in terms of character motivation – in other words, what the character wants – the narrower the potential for audience engagement.

So the problem for many writers – and I include myself – is that the desire to write, the urge to express oneself, is about creativity and self-actualisation.  In other words, it’s a top tier motivation and one that’s not intrinsically audience friendly.   So the theory of slavishly “writing what you know” is risky because the majority of writers are going to be drawn to issues of self-actualisation.   The minority, of course, will have been lost in space, taken hostage, chased by zombies and endangered by Daleks.

English: Photo of a black and gold plastic dal...

English: Photo of a black and gold plastic dalek model on display at the science museum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The answer is to develop the story with care and thought for the audience.   And perhaps, consider using the two base levels of Maslow’s Pyramid as story drivers and the upper levels as emotional arcs.

Back to the accounts.

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Love, Success, Failure, Disaster and Christmas Stuffing

When it comes to writing, editing and even photography, to quote Moilere, first I did it for love, then for a few close friends, then for money.   When it comes to cooking, I’ve only ever done it for love and my friends kindly put up with the failures, the successes and the disasters.

For me, failure is anything from inedible to, it didn’t quite work out.  Success is delicious and to be repeated.  Disaster usually involves one of the emergency services, or a medical practitioner.   During the last week or so, I’ve had some failures, as well as the Second Great Caramel Disaster.  (NB. Following the First Great Caramel Disaster, I had to attend a walk-in medical unit.)

However, yesterday I had some success.

IMG_0782In 2007, I cooked my first ever full-on Christmas dinner.  This may not seem like a milestone but for a nice Jewish girl from NW London, the mystery of bread sauce and stuffing was exactly that – a mystery.  Bread sauce? How can you possibly make a sauce out of bread and milk?

Not only was it my first ever Christmas Dinner but I was cooking it for my in-laws and their friends.  Ever supportive, as my mother-in-law certainly was, she was also a great cook and home-maker, so the bar was set high.

With great trepidation, I scouted around for recipes to ensure neither failure nor disaster and I found BBC Good Food Magazine December 2007 in which there was the best ever Christmas dinner menu.

Since then I have made exactly the same meal, with a few deviations, such as a killer cranberry sauce recipe courtesy of Rowley Leigh, and this year all stuffing will be cooked outside the bird unless someone gives me a damn good reason to do otherwise.

Yesterday, I made the chestnut and cranberry stuffing roll (http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/4968/chestnut-and-cranberry-roll)  to be frozen till Christmas Eve.   It is, I admit, a bit of a faff but it’s a success, has great wow factor, and the more times I do it the easier it gets.

These are the things I have learnt by previous failures to improve in this dish.

1               Use heavy-duty aluminium foil and use a pastry brush to apply melted butter to avoid ripping and creasing the foil.

2               Overlap the streaky bacon. If there are ANY gaps in the bacon outer level, stuffing will squeeze out.IMG_0776 IMG_0778 IMG_0777

3               However, if you can’t avoid gaps – and it’s jolly hard not to – fill the gaps with streaky bacon. The second image is the patched up version.

4               It seems to take longer to cook than the recipe says.  This may be because of all the opening and closing of the oven at Christmas but worth noting.

Now, off to order my turkey!

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