Saturday, March 06, 2010

One for Harry

My writing career has been far more successful than I could have possibly imagined. As a naive and optimistic teenager, I felt I could become the next big British writer and when I completed my first novella in 1979, I was convinced that I had what it takes. Three years later, I finished my first novel - The Future - which, to be fair, has some usable ideas in it...

Then some good things and some bad things intervened and I never picked a pen up in any imaginative sense for a long time. My typewriter gathered dust and when I got my first PC of any description the word processing package was one of the least used.

The turning point came in 1989, fully seven years later. I had opened Squonk!! and I wanted to connect with my customers even more than the personal touch. I wanted to produce an in-shop fanzine that told the people who kept me in business, all the things that went on in the shop, in the comics industry and with their favourite comics. This, cheaply produced, bundle of A4 pages only managed one issue, but that was enough to raise my head over the edge and I got noticed. By 1990, I'd submitted my first article for what was to become Movers & Shakers - comics first gossip and marketing column, forerunner to anything Rich Johnston or any other Internet bods came up with.

Writing Movers, led to more article writing and invites from leading US fan magazines to contribute to them and eventually when Squonk!! rode into the sunset, I started to get paid for writing about comics. I had articles published all the time and I became rather blasé about it. However, I rarely sat down at the monitor and wrote for pleasure or for any other reason than to talk and discuss the industry I was in.

Then, in the mid 1990s, I had an idea and that idea grew into a story and that story grew into a sprawling epic that, when I stopped slogging my guts out over it, ran to 345,000 words. It was, essentially a story about a group of people, who had grown up together, but when one wins a massive amount of money on the lottery, how it changes their lives, despite the insistence that it wouldn't. I was looking at it the other day - thank someone for still building PCs with floppy disk drives. I was amazed how it ran to so many words, so many chapters... and yet nothing really happened. It was written like one huge long play, incredibly dialogue heavy and 15 years on makes my first effort look classic. The thing was I needed to write some stuff out of my system. You don't just sit back at a keyboard after a huge long gap and start writing with any verve or panache; you have to practice and, more importantly, you have to be aware and observant.

After that aborted effort, the floodgates opened and currently I have over 120 ideas in various stages - some are as long as 100,000 words, others have a title and a brief description. There have also been two completed projects: the first Gentle By Name is one of my least proudest moments. It was written in the space of 3 months in 2000. It was a landmark story because I actually finished it! It is also amongst the best and worst prose I have ever written. Only a handful of people have read it - it needed a good editing and a thorough rewrite, but I wanted to get some reaction. Only two people finished it; not because it was so badly written, but because it was just thoroughly nasty and bereft of any levity, whatsoever.

The second is a curio as it doesn't really have a title and unlike the story mentioned above, which was 83,000 words, this was well over a quarter of a million and it attempted to an autobiographical spin on the comics industry - sounds boring and it was described by someone as one humongous blog entry. From a personal point of view, it left out key things that just couldn't be shoehorned in without it seeming like I'd just shoehorned them in. It didn't focus firmly enough on elements I wanted to get across because of my fears of lawsuits; but above all else it was cathartic, Once I wrote that sprawling mess, I'd managed to exorcise most of comics from my system.

That happened probably as long ago as 5 years and while I've been busy knocking out ideas by the van load, I've rarely finished anything. I've tried writing short stories and they either end up developing into bigger projects or petering out. But in 2008, I had this idea, one that I believed might possibly be the kind of break one needs.

With the assistance of some time collaborator and dear friend Martin Shipp, the two of us started work on Sea View - what we believed would be the greatest TV show since the last one. I had this idea of a kind of Ballykissangel meets Monarch of the Glenn meets The Twilight Zone meets Lost kind of Sunday night drama. It involved a no-life waster inheriting a run down hotel in a place not too dissimilar to Lulworth Cove - a World Heritage Site - which boasts millions of visitors a year; except this place is a bit odd. There were an assortment of strange characters, the kind you often get in TV series set in the middle of nowhere and the idea was to have this young guy turn up and try to work out why his new hotel, situated in such a popular place, is making no money at all. Gradually, as the first six parts of the series unfolds, you discover that the hotel and the coastal village it sits in have some rather strange things going on.

The plan was to have six tales of quirky life in the village with the hotel as the backdrop; interspersed in this would be some strange people, things and happenings, just to make the viewer wonder if everything they are seeing is right. Eventually we would reveal that the village sits on a temporal anomaly and most of the villagers are either from different times or continually use the rift to go backwards and forwards in time to steal and cement their own easy going lives - chief amongst these are the current management team in charge of Sea View - who don't trust the new owner one bit and constantly try to obstruct him.

Martin and I spent over 6 months developing ideas, writing, rewriting, meeting up and doing timings and reworking things all the time. We edited each other, cut and pasted and worked it into a completed script for a pilot episode. The plan was to take it to production companies and see if we could sell it.

Then we got feedback. Not as much as we wanted, but enough. we did something interesting; we sent copies of the pilot to friends and to friends who have experience working with scripts and writing. Exactly what we thought happened with the bunch sent to friends - they all loved it, thought it was great and because we'd furnished them with a synopsis sheet, they knew roughly what all the mysterious references related to. With the other friends, we sent along no synopsis page - we sent it to them the way we would have sent it to a production company.

The reaction wasn't good. The criticisms came back - it was confusing and the dialogue was just awful - full of stereotypical characters and no one person has a distinct voice. Martin and I were stunned. We had spent so much time working on the dialogue that this was a shattering blow. But instead of going back to the drawing board, we just scrubbed the idea and consigned it to the 'maybe another day' pile. Which, I think is a bit of a shame, because I still think the idea has legs. It would be relatively cheap to produce; would have pushed all the right cosy Sunday night drama buttons as well as offering something a little weird for those who like a bit of oddity in their viewing.

The reason I'm talking about this now is the number of atrociously bad dramas that are appearing on both sides of the pond. I sat through 4 seasons of Heroes aghast at the incomprehensible and disconnected dialogue being delivered; the number of times I shouted at the screen, "People don't say that!" But Heroes is nothing compared to say Smallville, which has dialogue that sounds like it was written by an algorithm rather than a person. In fact, most television series with a fantasy element have some god-awful spoken words. Just look at most British sitcoms of the last 15 years - the only people that talk that way are people in bad sitcoms.

The biggest problem, I feel, with Sea View is that it's a big idea wrapped up in a small premise. If you want to sell an idea cold to a production company, you have to grab them by the balls immediately; they haven't got time to read through all the accompanying background info; they want to pick up a script and flick through it and say, 'yeah, this looks good.' we couldn't achieve that because we were aiming far too high and ambitiously. We're both clever men, we know what the average British viewer watches, even if we don't watch them ourselves, and we tried to cater for this demographic and probably forgot to make the intro as dynamic as we could. I think we figured if we could get some interest, we could sell the idea through talking.

Both Martin and I have toyed with doing something again; we can only have gained from our last attempt. We both have a desire to either resurrect an old 70s classic and update it, or do our own style version of something that wouldn't have seemed out of place in the 1970s. We both seem to be erring towards mystery and detectives with quirks. Martin seems to be going the Champions route, while I'm more into the Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) idea of having a zombie detective and his glamorous assistant (an idea that has been done in comics, but one I can date back on my PC to 1998). I think we're pretty much destined to have another go at this, mainly because we both wonder how most writers get work on telly (well, we do know, but we're hoping there's more comfortable ways of achieving success).

That just leaves me with the latest in my long list of attempted projects. It's something to do with the future and is about the end of civilisation as we know it and the discovery of two things that give humanity hope. I'll say no more, because if the law of averages is constant then I'll never mention that again...

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