Masterclass with Jed Mercurio (or not?)

I’m about to confess something: I live in Edinburgh and this year, I put my head down the whole time the Festivals were on and pretended they weren’t happening. I was in the Outer Hebrides for half the time, and when my husband headed off to France for ten days, I decided that the opportunity to get my head down and write was too good to miss.

Of course, it didn’t work like that. I cleared the box room and sorted everything in it; ditto the cupboard under the stairs; and once more the utility room. It all felt good, and the house definitely looked more organised … but work? What’s that?

lod boxI was about to settle down with the wip (honest!), when I decided I’d read the Sunday papers first – and there, impossible to ignore, was a full page article about Jed Mercurio, scriptwriter for the gripping TV drama, Line of Duty. He was in Edinburgh … and he was giving a Masterclass at the Television Festival (which runs concurrently with the International Festival, Fringe Festival, Comedy Festival and Book Festival, as if we didn’t have enough festivals in the city already). It would be sold out, surely? I checked: it wasn’t. I booked two tickets, one for myself and one for a friend who writes thrillers. We’d both benefit from this!

The first thing to say is that the Television Festival feels very different from any of the others. It’s primarily for delegates, though a few sessions (such as this one) are open to the paying public. It’s in the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, which is a large, specially built facility  – and telly people are clearly used to a better lifestyle than writers, because compared with any writers’ conferences I’ve been to (quite a few), this was luxury itself. There was a champagne bar, for starters, plus cool spaces for downing smoothies or moccachinos, and huge TV screens everywhere. Sky Arts had a dedicated area where a harpist was plucking away, and where you could play with virtual reality headsets (I did), or have a go at drawing Rory Bremner from a large image. This was a promotion for the excellent Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year competition (I didn’t stop to try this – there are limits).

There were trendy people everywhere – young guys with Gareth Bale ponytails atop their heads, women with killer heels and … drum roll … I even bumped into Russell Brand on the stairs. Literally. (Sorry Russell).

Jed and VickyThis was going to be good. The seats in the auditorium were so comfortable I could have fallen asleep – and to be honest, I might have done, for this was certainly not a Masterclass in any sense I had imagined. I suppose I was fooled into thinking I’d learn something about writing because the session was being delivered by a scriptwriter, but perhaps the words Television Festival should have sounded a warning, and also the fact that he was to be chummed by actress Vicky McClure (who plays Fleming). Lots of the audience questions were about where the money comes from and how to pitch to access funding, what’s it like doing 30-page interrogation sessions in a single take, and do the women in the cast get equal pay with the men. Obviously I would have liked something much more practical (mastering timing, the reveal, the twist, characterisation, maintaining a meta narrative etc etc), but that’s not to say I didn’t glean some gems. Here are a few:

  • There are some basics – the police officer under investigation has to be introduced, the characters in AC12 have to be re-established and (I loved this), Jed has to work out the elements of their stories at the time the series starts and what elements of these we can collide with
  • Jed likes to keep the construction as organic as possible. The twists and turns occur as he writes, and can sometimes change as the episode is being shot – for example, if he feels a scene can be made more dramatic
  • No character is safe [shivers]
  • The characters are multi-layered
  • There are narrow margins between success and failure. Jed tells us he’s always surprised when something works, but then, you should always find failure surprising too.

There was clearly a lot of respect and affection from everyone in the audience for the drama and there was applause when we learned that the BBC has commissioned two more series. Having to assume that each series might be the last does set up constraints in the writing and planning – so look forward to a roller-coaster ride in the next couple of years!

JedWith six episodes in a series, Jed likes to write the whole of it himself, although he acknowledged that more episodes would certainly require a bigger team. For novel writers unused to the constraints of television, I should point out that casting, schedule, locations and much more have to be sorted well in advance of shooting, so Jed delivers three episodes, then starts to think about the last three. He (and Vicky) were proud of the fact that Line of Duty has a strong female cast (and yes, she does have pay parity with the male AC12 characters).

I could have listened for a lot longer, I would have loved to have asked a load of questions of my own. Above all, I’d have loved to do a proper writing Masterclass with Jed Mercurio over a day or weekend because boy, he’s got an extraordinary gift for drama and tension. And if I left feeling just very slightly cheated, at least I was covered in stardust…

Oh, and finally, Jed revealed that he has a company of his own within Hat Trick Productions where he works with new writers. Perhaps I should take up scriptwriting?

 

Advertisements

How do you create a great bad guy?

VilliancThere’s no drama without conflict – and there’s no conflict like a good, ongoing battle between hero and villain (or, in the case of my next novel, heroine and villain).

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I’m giving my villain a Point of View, so I need to get to know him as well as I know my heroine. Here are a few things to consider:

  1. What has shaped him? Was he bullied as a child? Ignored? Abused? Does he have low self esteem that has to be bolstered through finding power over others?
  2. What is his goal? Does he desire wealth? Status? Recognition? Respect?
  3. Is he a rounded character? Very few people are either all good or all bad – so what are his strong points? Can he be charming? Does he really love someone – more than he loves himself? Can he show kindness?
  4. Am I showing his good side? It’s important that my readers understand him and don’t feel he’s one-dimensional BUT … oooh! He could be evil and ENJOY being evil!
  5. Is he as strong as my heroine? He has to be as accomplished, as clever, as interesting as she is – in other words, he has to be a worthy opponent and she’ll have to think long and hard about how to get the better of him (if she can!
  6. How does he justify his actions? Many villains believe they are the real heroes, that they are boxed into a corner because of x, y or z; that they ‘had no choice’ when doing something wrong; that the end they believe in justifies the means they employ to get there.

There are many really interesting blogs and articles out there on villains – clearly, they fascinate people. One post made the point that villains cause heroes to question their own goals and motivations, even force them to behave a little badly themselves in order to achieve their (morally justified) ends. ‘Villainy leaves a stain,’ says Melinda Salisbury https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/writers/advice/876/dedicated-genre-advice/writing-ya/ .

Another writer,Jerry Jenkins, advises, ‘Tap into your dark side long enough to know what makes a good villain tick.’  https://www.jerryjenkins.com/makes-great-villain-checklist-writing-good-bad-guy/  For example, take a look at the bit you always try to pretend isn’t there (that little lie about being ill so you didn’t have to go to work, the phone call you ignored from a difficult friend because you couldn’t be bothered listening to her problems; the antisocial behaviour you didn’t report because it was just going to take too much time or effort.

Villains should have an element of tragedy about them, says John LaFolette https://www.theodysseyonline.com/what-makes-good-villain. They’re simply fallible human beings.

My villain is certainly fallible – but then, so is my heroine. I going to have to make sure my reader knows which is which!

 

A wonderful (superb, terrific, excellent, fabulous, brilliant, magnificent) writing tool

wordcloudPeter Mark Roget was born in London in 1779 and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Who knew? Not I, for all I live just down the road. Yet I make use of Mr Roget’s most famous achievement almost every day of my working life. We have so much to thank him for. Obsessed with lists from the age of eight, he used them to battle depression and while I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, I’m truly thankful that he turned to words for solace.

As writers we put thousands of words onto the page, and constantly finding new ways of expressing yourself is one of many challenges writers face.

Mr Roget’s idea was to make a catalogue (list, inventory, register, record, roll, index, directory, checklist) of words according to similarity of meaning (sense, signification, import, gist, thrust, drift, tenor, message, essence, substance, intention, purport). So when I want to describe my hero’s raffish air, I don’t need to repeat myself – he can be rakish, unconventional, careless, louche, dissolute, decadent, disreputable or even devil-may-care.

Mr Roget’s visionary (far-sighted, prescient, percipient, canny, discerning) idea not only reminds me of the many options available, I find that it also helps to stimulate my creativity, often taking me down avenues I hadn’t previously considered.

smile

From Apple’s online Thesaurus.

Use of his wonderful Thesaurus requires care, however. Don’t use a word that’s suggested unless you are completely sure of the its meaning – and indeed, the nuances of its meaning. Smile is surely one of the hardest words for which to find alternatives – and, unfortunately, it’s in the group of words writers use most often. Mr Roget offers ‘beam’ and ‘grin’, either of which might be apt (though hardly elegant). But choose twinkle, dimple, smirk, simper or leer and you could find yourself in deep water! Fortunately, my online Thesaurus warns about this. “Choose the right word’ it tells me, and goes on to explain why.

GrayscaleEyeBlue

What word would you use to describe this colour of eye?

Similarly, if I want to describe my heroine’s blue eyes, Roget’s suggestions include azure, cobalt, sapphire, navy, midnight, electric, indigo, royal, air force, robin’s egg, peacock, ultramarine, steel, slate and cyan, each of which will conjure a different image in your readers’ minds. But wait – ‘cyan eyes’? I don’t think so. ‘Electric blue eyes’? Hmm. Rather a startling image!

To be used with caution, then – but I confess that Roget’s Thesaurus is one of the most useful tools in my writing kit (equipment, gear, tackle, resources, toolbox).

As for Mr Roget, he spent most of his life actively involved in medicine. He was one of the founders of the Medical and Chirurgical Society of London, which later became the Royal Society of Medicine. He later became this body’s Secretary and had a full and distinguished career, retiring in 1840, at the age of 61, to prepare his Thesaurus. It was, Wikipedia tells me, an avocation. I confess I had to look this up in a dictionary. It means a hobby a person engages in outside their main career and that often becomes the activity that defines them.

I looked it up in my Thesaurus, but it offered no alternative words. Mr Roget is unique in his own world.

Do you use a Thesaurus when you write?

 

 

Ramping up the suspense

There’s always something new to learn about writing, isn’t there? I’m delighted when my readers tell me they ‘couldn’t put my book down’, or that ‘I’m shattered today – I was reading your book till two this morning’. I thought I’d got it right in my latest novel too, but a report I commissioned told me I need ‘more danger’. First of all I was puzzled, then concerned – then I took a deep breath and thought about exactly what I need to do.

Painted_sign_on_concrete_wall_at_the_Hoover_Dam_(28849021943)Danger isn’t necessarily about violence, or lots of action – it’s about establishing your heroine’s goals quickly, then ensuring that your readers know that there are bad things to come. I believe I’ve felt a little constrained by the need to conform to historical facts, which has made me focus on what I think needs to happen next, rather than asking myself, ‘How can I promise my readers that my heroine is going to be driven to the limit by the challenges that will confront her? Conformity_Hazard.svgI need to make radical changes, and I’ve been going back to storytelling basics. Here are a few great ideas about how I can increase the danger my heroine faces:

  • Make sure her main goal is made clear early on
  • Promise one challenge after another to obstruct her way
  • When one disaster is surmounted – bring in another, bigger and more threatening one
  • Make sure every challenge is properly surmounted
  • If the story sags, don’t throw in action – make your readers worry more. Action resolves suspense, it doesn’t create it, so ramp up the tension by promising another disaster for the heroine to face.
  • What is her greatest fear? Make her face it.
  • What makes her vulnerable? Force her to deal with it.
  • Make sure the goals are big enough – and show why she wants it so much.
  • Danger – this can be an external physical threat or something that hampers your heroine’s ability to rise to the challenges she faces.
  • Raise the stakes. You’ve made her goal clear at the beginning – now increase the price she has to pay to achieve it.
  • Make the problem more difficult to solve.
  • Halve the time she needs to achieve her goal.

My characters need to be set up in a way that will heighten the tension too. My heroine has to face big challenges, so she needs strong opponents. I must:

  • Make my antihero as strong or stronger than the heroine
  • Make him not evil, but human and believable
  • I will consider giving the antihero a point of view, so that the reader can be made aware trouble is on its way even though the heroine doesn’t know yet
  • What does he have that the heroine lacks? A strong place in society, loyal supporters, charm that might lure the heroine’s friends away?

My heroine does have many personal limitations. I’m going to delve deeper into these too!

  • Is she timid? Plagued by self doubt? Overoptimistic?
  • Does she falter under pressure?
  • Make her challenges more difficult by hampering her ability to deal with them

Perhaps it all sounds obvious, but sometimes we become so immersed in the story inside our own head that we forget to stand back and judge how others will react.

So – for me, it’s back to the drawing board, and I’m going to take a big swallow of my own advice!

Putting the ‘commercial’ into commercial fiction

Take two novels: each has lively, interesting characters, each is well written. Each has a theme – let’s say, a love triangle. Each explores the strengths and weaknesses, desires and motivations of the main characters. Yet one is described as ‘literary’, the other as ‘commercial’.

What underpins that distinction?

A year or so ago, a friend urged me to read Jonathan Franzen’s hugely lauded book, Freedom, which I listened to on audio. It was, at heart, about a love triangle. It was very long, extremely well written in the sense that the prose was admirable and his exploration of character profound, yet it seemed to me to amble through various people’s lives and come to no very interesting conclusion. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t either like or care about any of the characters and at the end of the book I was left thinking, ‘Why?’.

Read a great thriller, action novel, romance, sci-fi or any other genre novel, and your reaction is likely to be very different. The characters will leap off the page and into your heart, and whatever situation the author has set up for them to face, you are likely to will them to find the Holy Grail, escape the hit squad, marry the hero, get to Mars and back, or whatever. And you probably won’t stop reading until they’ve succeeded. It’s called PTQ, or Page Turning Quality. (More people like to be entertained in this way, incidentally, than tackle ‘deeper’ but less highly paced prose – that’s why genre fiction is described as ‘commercial’.)

What underpins the difference?

literary novel structure

My diagram a bit simplistic, but this is a basic representation of the structure of a literary novel. Events more or less flatline until near the end, where the author takes us either to a happy resolution or something either sadder or more ambiguous. In between, hopefully, you will be bewitched by magnificent prose, get deeply acquainted with the main characters, revel in glorious settings and more.

By contrast, here’s what the structure of a ‘commercial’ novel looks like:

commercial plot graph

Again, this is very simplified, but you can at once see the difference. Tension drives the action forward to ‘the darkest moment’. There will be many setbacks along the way, but the narrative thrust will be clear – we will know what the hero or heroine is desperate to get, and will take the journey to their goal with them, along all the ups and downs. The ending doesn’t need to be happy, but it does need to be satisfying.

Most readers won’t analyse books in this way, of course – they just know what they like!

What do you think makes a book special?