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?

 

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Writing at Home or Away?

slide_local2 (Small)I’m just back from a week long writing retreat on my own in a caravan on the coast. Well, it turned out to be three and half days rather than the planned five days. On Monday my son had his Viva for his Masters and wanted a bit of parental support. Actually, what he really wanted was someone to take him for celebratory cocktails afterwards.

Not being one to pass up the chance to drink a cocktail or two with my son and his boyfriend I thought I’d leave early on Tuesday morning instead. Then on Monday night the painter and decorator who was going to paint our vestibule six weeks, ago before he emigrates to New Zealand, but failed to do so as he’s signed a contract with a record company and had to work on the material they’re recording, private messaged me on Facebook. He could do the job this week if I still wanted it done. DSCF0901sHe arrived just after 9.30 on Tuesday morning. I always loved the fact he wasn’t one of those workmen who arrive before 8am but this week I’d have welcomed an earlier start. I made coffee while he fed the cat treats. The cat originally belonged to him but we adopted her when he said he was going to New Zealand. The cat – called Bandit – had totally ignored him when he visited her a few weeks ago so he resorted to bribing her with treats. It worked. She’s the greediest cat ever. After coffee and a brief discussion on paint colours I left him with a set of keys (he already knows where the coffee is) and took off on my retreat.

By the time I’d picked up some supplies, unloaded the car at the caravan, set up my laptop, collected the tiny shards of broken glass all over the bathroom floor, reported the smashed bathroom window I was exhausted. I had a glass of a very nice Pinot Grigio I’d picked up in the Co-op – and that was the end of day two of my writing week. Honestly, I don’t understand how Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Parker, Hemmingway and all the many other writers who liked a drink managed to turn out such stunning work. One glass, and my brain is too fuzzy to focus on writing. Went to bed, fell asleep reading and was awakened by the loudest thunder I’ve ever heard.

Day Three, which is actually Day One of proper writing, was bright and sunny and I kept thinking about how much needs to be done in the garden and what a perfect day it would be to be working in it. I’d mentioned to some of my blogging friends I’d be away from all social media for a week so I didn’t feel guilty about deleting notifications and wasn’t too bothered when by late afternoon the internet connection had disappeared. I was writing. I didn’t need to be connected.

I wrote about three and half thousand words – then I started to become frustrated by the lack of internet connection. I needed to know what shower panels are called – not because I’d drifted off on to something else, it’s necessary for what I’m writing – but there was no connection. Okay, a row XXX to mark where the research is needed. Carry on. Four thousand words. Time to go for a walk. My desk is the wrong height, my back is aching. Come back; finish the Pinot Grigio and go to bed with a book. The caravan is a kindle-free zone so it’s a real book. Fall asleep again with the light on.

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Day Four, or Day Two, I re-write most of what I wrote yesterday. In the middle of the night I woke up (probably because I feel asleep with the light on) knowing there’s something fundamentally wrong and it really had to be sorted before I could move on. By the afternoon I am furious about the lack of internet connection. It’s one thing telling people I’m not going to be online but to be forced offline by a dodgy connection is quite another. I’ve only started to sort the problem with the book. Am also cross because the sun shone for most of the day. I want dull weather when I’m on a writing retreat.

Day Five, or Day Three, I wake late. Have chicken broth for breakfast. Should have had it last night and don’t want to have to transport it back home. It seems to work its magic and I sit at the laptop and work. The fact that it’s grey and miserable helps because I don’t think about sitting in the sun or working in the garden. I finish re-writing the first three thousand words and I write another couple of thousand. I stop. It’s time to stop. I may not have a huge chunk of work but I do have the first two chapters and I know where I’m going but if I see one more ‘server error’ sign appear I’ll quite possibly throw the computer through the, as yet, un-mended bathroom window.

I’m thinking now it might be better if there is no possibility of an internet connection then I might finally feel free to write all day. Or, maybe I should stay at home and take a few days away from social media? I think, though, I’ve realised I need to have a better system in place. Work first in the morning, then take an hour for blogs and Facebook before getting back to work with another hour for social media in the evening. That should work, shouldn’t it?

Deadlines – from a traditional author’s perspective

Even if it doesn’t actually tick – the clock is always there.

Flowing on from last weeks post about deadlines from an indie author’s viewpoint, here are some thoughts from the other side of the spectrum.

I am a traditionally published author… and I love a deadline. I mean, seriously love them.

Maybe it dates back to my years as a TV journalist. The nightly news went on air at five or six or seven o’clock, according to where I was working. And whatever story I was preparing for that show, if it wasn’t ready on time, it didn’t go on air. The next day, there would be more news. Yesterday’s story would simply be forgotten and all that work would be for nothing. So I very quickly learned the importance of a deadline and in 20 years, I only missed one (and that wasn’t my fault – but that’s a different story).

So – a deadline is a good thing.

Two deadlines? That’s a bit harder, but still do-able with a bit of planning. A lot of publishers these days like at least one full novel and one novella from every author in a year.

Three overlapping deadlines? That’s really, really hard work and likely to induce stress and much need for chocolate or red wine – or possibly both.

And anyone who accepts four deadlines is a crazy person. Seriously crazy. This is usually linked to writing in more than one genre of novel under more than one name. (Guilty as charged Your Honour.)

When I look at my writing schedule, this is what I see:

  1. New Australian novel to be go my agent by September 30th
  2. September or October – edits for book number 10, due to be released in January 2017 (under another pen name).
  3. Something called “the New York Novel”, which I have promised my agent I will start writing before Christmas and finish by next summer. The END of next summer (she says loudly, hoping that’s true)
  4. A follow up to book 10, due for release in January 2019, which must be started in September/October and be in the publisher’s hands by June next year, with edits for that probably around the end of summer (see point 3).

(Did you notice how I combined a couple of deadlines in the last two? If I hadn’t, that would be five/six deadlines. And no-one their right mind ever takes on five/six deadlines, because that’s just impossible.)

So – how am I going to do all this?

Research can leave you a bit overloaded.

I usually write a minimum of 1,000 words a day. 1,500 words is normally a good day. That’s about 8,000 words in a week. It might not sound like a lot – after all there are more than 600 words in this post. But there’s research and planning and thinking through plot possibilities. Plus of course there is real life, which often includes a day job.

In the past few weeks, I have been inspired by all these deadlines. Yes. Definitely inspired. It sounds so much better than terrified.

I have been writing as much as 3,000 words per day. Sometimes more. And as always when the words are flowing that easily, they are pretty good words. Of course they will still need reworking and polishing and editing, but they are right there on the page. There is also the small matter of going back and changing ‘loko’ into ‘look’ and trying to figure out what ‘naviess’ is supposed to be. I don’t type well when I type quickly.

When I’m this terrified  inspired, a few things have to give way to make those deadlines. These include ironing, laundry (except in dire emergencies), gardening, exercise and being social. As for tidying the house… well, best not think about that.

In about three days, I expect to finish the new Australian novel – with the working title of The Homestead. At that point, my level of terror will subside just a little. But the funny thing about all of this is that I love it. I cannot think of anything else I would rather be doing. Maybe this is the writer’s equivalent of the adrenaline rush that sportsmen and actors and surgeons and stock traders get when things go well and fear is replaced by a sense of accomplishment.

In three or four weeks, I will be able to cross off the first deadline in my list, so maybe I could think about adding that Christmas novella….. after all, I wouldn’t like to run out of deadlines – and inspiration.

Deadlines – an indie author’s perspective

Deadlines – you think when you’re an indie writer, you’ll be free of them. When I left magazine publishing, I was only too happy to escape the mounting panic as the dreaded date approached, production managers shrieking for copy, editors making last minute changes, art departments scrabbling to find a picture for that impromptu article just slotted in. Entrepreneur.com has an interesting article on it here.

Time urgency,’ they say, ‘kills attention spans, rational decision-making skills and, at its most acute, the body itself by contributing to factors that lead to heart disease.’ Now if that thought doesn’t cause you stress, I don’t know what would.

Still, deadlines can be both a blessing and a curse to authors. How many writers have taken their own sweet time to craft a masterpiece of a first novel only to find themselves hopelessly blocked and paralyzed by the need to produce a second masterpiece within their publishing contract’s allotted schedule of 12 months? Some like Margaret Mitchell never go on to write another book but for writers who work within the traditional publishing system, the deadline is both a goad to action and the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.

So if you’re an indie writer, can you put all that behind you? Of course, you could. Most likely no-one’s demanding to see the first draft of your next novel or calling up to check on its progress. Take the week off. Heck, take the month or a whole year off if financial gain or productivity isn’t all that important to you. But still, most of us set targets. If you’re a serious writer, you’ve probably come up with your own discipline. Readers expect a follow-up book and competition is too fierce to make them wait for years. But at least whatever goals you set are your own self-imposed pressure. And when life interferes as it always does – like Lorraine’s husband’s unexpected knee surgery this week or the demands of Pam’s elderly in-laws – you can usually give yourself a little breathing room without feeling like the world is crashing down on your head. And that’s a good thing.

Unless of course you have a blog to write…SaveSave

Summer in Winter, Christmas in August

I’m thrilled that, finally, the announcement has been made that I’ve signed a new three-book deal with Avon Books UK (HarperCollins). Because announcements are never made until all parties have signed the contract, and the contract takes a while to prepare, the agreement was actually reached back in March – and it has nearly killed me not jumping the gun and announcing it myself! But I’m thrilled to continue working with the fantastic Avon team.

The first of the three new books is The Little Village Christmas. The next will be a summer book and the last another set at Christmas. This makes my position as an author ‘seasonal’. Every book will have a seasonal title and cover. You can see that I began exactly this way in my original contract with Avon.

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So, what does it involve to write books with such an overt seasonal slant? Frequently, I’m working on a book set in the ‘opposite’ season to the one I’m experiencing. I’m proofing The Little Village Christmas now, reading about snow and ice while sunlight is streaming through my window (if I’m lucky!). I’m thinking about Christmas decorations, raffles and big coats. Avon has been hard at work writing a Christmassy blurb and creating a Christmas cover. Amazon has even sent out the first promotional email (thank you all those who have preordered 🙂 ).

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My paper proofs

On the plus side, the book I’m actually writing is my Summer 2018 book, working title The Summer of Finding Out. I had the huge pleasure of writing a good chunk of it while on my Arte Umbria writing retreat. (NB If you’re interested in joining me on the writing retreat next year you can find information here.) To write a book set in Italy while I was in Italy was a special experience. My hero, Levi, paints the scene I could see from the terrace and I took hundreds of research pix in Orvieto, to which ‘my’ Umbrian town of Monteliberatà will bear some resemblance. After running out my camera battery I sat down for lunch with a couple of lovely people from the course and remained after they’d gone, sipping Orvieto Classico and making notes about what I’d seen, heard and smelled as I’d walked the cobbled streets earlier.

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I have to be honest, I planned my writing schedule around writing about Italy while staying in Italy. I defended it against the necessity to edit The Little Village Christmas and even asked for a couple of days extension to my deadline in case I needed it when I returned to the UK.

When I’ve finished the first draft of The Summer of Finding Out I’ll be returning to The Little Village Christmas in order to perform a few more edits for the German publisher. Then I’ll write a two-part Christmas story for My Weekly, due in by the end of August, and return to The Summer of Finding Out to write the second draft.

All this time, of course, I’m promoting Just for the Holidays, which is my Summer 2017 book! And in the interests of such promotion you might like to know that Just for the Holidays is only 99p on Kindle and Kobo right now …

Whatever books you love and whenever you like them – Happy Reading!