The first concerns the data released by Kobo that seems to suggest that the winner of the 2015 Bailey’s Prize, How To Be Both by Ali Smith, was only finished by 34% of readers. However, in print, readers would purchase one of two versions of the novel, each with the book’s two parts in alternate order. Yet someone from Apple told me that digital platforms include both versions, in which case the figure of 34% is highly misleading – and very unfair.
The second insight came from the Harrogate Festival’s amazing interview with screenwriter Paul Abbott. Asked how subscription channels such as HBO or Netflix affected the way he works, he said that Netflix’s policy was to commission work (presumably on the basis of their viewing data), hand over the money, and then not interfere until the drama or series was delivered. Get it wrong, and they’ll never use you again – fair enough. But presumably Netflix are confident enough of the winning combination of their data and the experience and track record of the talent they commission to stand back and not second-guess the creative process. Which supplies one possible answer to the question of what kind of expectations will be placed upon writers by the growing influence of data.
Screenwriter William Goldman is famous for saying of Hollywood that nobody knows anything. But that was before this kind of data meant that subscription channels do know certain kinds of things. If the Netflix approach becomes the working model for commissioning – in film, TV or fiction – then bring it on.
Does it matter if a majority of readers give up before they get to the end of a novel that wins a prestigious literary prize? It’s a pretty harsh question, but one raised by the data collected by Kobo and – I can only assume – other ebook retailers.
Last month I took part in a debate on Amazon and the Civil War for Books with Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, Erica Wagner and Andrew O’Hagan as part the National Conversation, a series of events organised by the Writers’ Centre Norwich.
We all agreed that telling and hearing stories – regardless of the form in which they are told – is intrinsic to human nature, and that perhaps the most pressing current concern is to ensure that everyone, especially new readers, has access to the widest possible range of stories.
I’m particularly interested in how the stories we tell – and how we tell them – will come to be influenced by the data gathered from digital platforms – the Writers’ Centre Norwich invited me to blog about it here. Amazon is reticent about sharing the data they glean from how people use their Kindles, but today’s Guardian carries fascinating data from Kobo about how readers are getting on with the Baileys Prize shortlist (the winner will be announced tonight).
The data shows not merely which of the six novels was the most purchased, but also how some failed to hold their readers’ attention to the end, while others proved un-put-downable. The Bees, a debut novel by Laline Paull, proved the “most gripping”.
I know from many walks on Hampstead Heath with Laline that it was always her intention to write a thriller set in a beehive, and she must be delighted that not only book sales but also the data analytics demonstrate the success of her literary instincts.
Kobo’s data on these six particular novels show that the number of sessions it took to finish reading varied from 17 to 36. This in itself doesn’t matter – whether I want a slow or a fast read is a combination of taste, reading environment and my desire for variety – but data on why (and at which point in the story) readers might abandon a book altogether must surely be of huge interest to publishers and authors. It certainly would be to me.
The publicity given to literary prizes plays a vital role not only in marketing books but also in telling us what books we ‘ought’ to like. Once the cascade of this kind of data really gets underway, should those who award literary prizes start to pay attention to how readers do actually read? It’ll be an interesting, scary and brave debate.
On Saturday I took part in the awesome KillerReads CrimeFest15 organised by Sam Missingham, Head of Audience Development at HarperCollins. Bloggers, former cops, ex-offenders and dozens of crime and thriller authors – including such legendary names as Ian Rankin, Ann Cleeves and Val McDermid – all took part in online events on Twitter and Facebook and also in store at Waterstones.
My Q&A with Sarah Hilary centred on writing for TV versus writing fiction. The pace on Twitter was fast and furious, and got me thinking about what the most fundamental difference actually is between the two.
And I reckon it’s this: before a script gets anywhere near production, it has to be a sales document in a way that a proposal or first draft of a novel very seldom is. Between a first verbal pitch and the first day of principal photography a screenwriter is grilled many times by different people on what the story is, who the characters are, why they do the things they do, why an audience will engage, etc etc. In other words, a script is a strategic document designed to convince other people it’s a good idea to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds – if not millions – making it, and then to motivate a small village of other highly skilled people to devote months of their time, often far away from home, to bring it to life.
The process has its drawbacks: way too many cooks … As much can go wrong as can go right, but when it all comes together, it’s magic.
And, by the time I deliver a final shooting script, every single line, scene and end-of-part hook has been tested to destruction. As have I as a writer.
In contrast, the freedom and autonomy of fiction, feels – to quote the actress Mrs Patrick Campbell – like the deep, deep peace of the double-bed after the hurly-burly of the chaise-longue. I’m loving it.
In honour of today’s launch House of Cards Season 3 on Netflix, this post is brought to you by Frank Underwood, a master of how to break the Fourth Wall and get away with it.
Kevin Spacey’s sly looks to camera (and of course those of the late Ian Richardson in the original BBC series), and his asides to us, the viewers, all add immensely to our appreciation of the character. It means that we, too, have directly experienced his charisma and been seduced by it.
House of Cards has proved that, on screen, breaking the Fourth Wall can deliver big results. But if the viewer is ever reminded that they’re merely looking at a TV set, then the magic is destroyed. Frank Underwood’s audacity lies not only in his invitation to collude but also in the huge risk he runs that our suspension of disbelief will be shattered, bringing the whole meta-fictional house of cards tumbling down: we feel what it’s like to walk that political tight-rope.
In prose fiction, a deliberately unreliable narrator can add suspense and mystery or, as in Wuthering Heights, a complexity of sympathy and interpretation. Get it wrong, however, and an unintentionally slippery point of view quickly induces queasiness in a reader.
Some writers creatively exploit the possibilities of a first-person narrative, others find it constricting, but either way it removes any confusion about what other characters know or might be thinking. In a third-person narrative, however, it’s all too easy to jump in and out of different characters’ heads, sometimes even between paragraphs, breaking the Fourth Wall and leaving the reader unable to settle down and identify with, or care about, any of them.
Point of view needs to be tightly patrolled. On screen, POV is constructed by who the camera is looking at while dialogue or action is happening, and can radically alter the meaning and intention of a scene. We identify most strongly with the person for whom there is something at stake. I think there’s a fundamental weakness in the opening episode of House of Cards Season 3, for example, (I saw it last night at the gala preview in London) because we share the POV of Doug Stamper far more viscerally than that of either POTUS or the First Lady.
That vital emotional investment in a character has to be there on the page, too. If a reader can effortlessly stay with a character, and get to know them by understanding what they notice and how they think – hopes, fears, self-delusions, denials and all – then they’ll be there, walking that tight-rope right along with them.
On Saturday, as part of an event for the Literary Archive at Newnham College, I chaired a panel discussion on the future of publishing. Karolina Sutton, a literary agent at Curtis Brown, Helen Garnons-Williams, Editorial Director for Fiction at Bloomsbury, and Cathy Moore, founder and director of the Cambridge Wordfest, all spoke passionately about how new digital platforms might affect publishing, writers and writing.
Given that our session followed amazing contributions by Dame Margaret Drabble, Patricia Duncker and Jenn Ashworth (all Newnham graduates), there was no fear in the room that literary fiction was under threat.
We discussed various issues: how to monetise e-publishing successfully (it’s hopeless to acclimatise readers to the idea that they can buy books for less that it costs to write them); whether digital self-publishing is democratic or we still need traditional gate-keepers to judge what is worth reading; how a writer’s ‘discoverability’ functions in a crowded market-place; and how content will adapt to new delivery platforms (Karolina Sutton pointed out that Margaret Atwood is already writing original fiction for the online site Byliner).
A generation of ‘digital instinctives’ is ready to consume stories. Writers must react and adapt to this generation by innovating both how we tell stories and what stories we tell. Narrative form is simultaneously technologically driven and specific to the social and emotional needs and desires of its time. Dickens wrote in weekly instalments for the popular magazines (which he owned) made possible by widening literacy and cheaper printing methods. In a bid to brand itself in the online subscription market, Netflix has just rolled out an entire season’s worth of House of Cards, an original, commissioned drama, to be watched – if so desired – in a single binge-session. Two very different ways for people to consume narrative. But, whatever the medium, the form, the delivery platform, writers still have to touch a nerve, which means using new technology in ways intimately relevant to our readers.
Whatever comes next, it’s an exciting time to be a writer.
We all agreed that – in Tony Garnett’s phrase – crime drama is a Trojan Horse for any kind of story you want to tell.
While technology may provide new opportunities to commit or detect crime, crime itself rarely changes. My baseline has always been that it’s emotions that kill, and Shakespeare already has them all covered. What constantly changes is our attitude to crime and justice, and what those shifts in attitude tell us about prevailing social and personal anxieties. Crime drama has always reflected changing trends in what concerns us – for example, child abuse, identity theft, recovered memory, immigration and cultural difference – and also delivered the kind of hero – or anti-hero – we need for a particular moment in history.
Tom Hanks once said, “At the crossroads, the important questions do not concern the road not taken, or the road ahead, but who else is in the car.” Our detective, or investigator, is the person we most want in the car with us when society faces some kind of crossroad. And among a great detective’s skills are close observation, intuition, instinct, the ability to notice and pick out details about our current predicament, to use them to make sense for us of our world view, and perhaps also to restore order.
A series episode has to have a repeatable structure that allows the story of the week to explore and reveal the values of the main character and his or her world. Over a season, the needs of the main character will drive an exploration of a larger overall theme. If shifts in genre, structure, subject matter, and the mythic qualities of our protagonists (both hero and villain) all reflect us back to ourselves, then crime drama will always remain familiar and satisfying yet also be fresh and original.
“The end of last week’s Accused, Jimmy McGovern’s exemplary, morally-taxing, emotionally-devouring series of short stories, contained a twist: the disturbed boy’s putative step mum really was trying to poison his family. The twist that lauched last night’s, which followed Stephen (Robert Sheehan), convicted of stabbing her, into a young offender’s institution, was that she probably wasn’t. There to visit him, and in every appearance of vitality, was his father, played with controlled fury by the stand-up John Bishop. But psychotic Stephen had been telepathically spun for the last time by Alastair Campbell. He had strangled himself in his cell.
When told of the death, his father let out a strained, almost falsetto, “thank you”, but questions soon replaced shock. Only two people knew the exact circumstances. One was the prison guard Tina who had spotted something wrong with Stephen and told her colleague Frank to “two him up” (writers Isabelle Grey and McGovern trusted us to join dots). The other was Frank, who, sinking amid brutality, under-manning and apathy, neglected to. Tina lied to protect Frank, then told the truth. Thuggish Frank, played with fearsome believability by Ewen Bremner, was misnamed from the start. Having failed to bully Tina into silence, he connived in her rape by a prisoner.
Tina was not a saint, although had she been written as one the superb Anna Maxwell Martin would have made her credible. This actress can change from ugly-tough to sexy-soft in a scene without losing her character’s essence. No, Tina’s candour was born of fear of a perjury conviction; she had a family and a new central heating boiler to support. But a mere bath, least of all one filled by exiguous rations of boiled water, would not wash away what was happening in that hell hole into which we consign failed childhoods. The accused was Tina, a political apathetic who futilely let her next young offender escape rather than enter it. Her co-defendants were you and I. The question Accused asked weekly was: what price are we prepared to pay for telling the truth? 5 stars.” Andrew Billen, The Times
TV review – Accused
You know those people who say prison’s like a holiday camp? Well they would have taken grim satisfaction from Accused, the second series of which ground to a shuddering, deathly halt on BBC2 last night, writes Thom Kennedy.
Last week’s gruesome antihero Stephen Cartwright opened the fourth and final episode of the series in the calm of a car, ferrying him to the clink after his conviction for the attempted murder of his step mother at the close of last week’s episode.
But while Steven’s presence looms large over the final episode, this week we’re more interested in the frowning security guard sitting next to him.
The whole of prison officer Tina Dakin’s world looks like it could do with a moment of silence and a gentle rub to the temples.
At home, she’s shivering and wearing dressing gowns over her clothes to seal against the freezing cold of a broken boiler, surrounded by a gaggle of young children and worrying about money.
But at work, it’s chaos. Young criminals are running pitched battles around the pool table, yelling and laughing even as young Stephen lies dying, choking with a ripped up bed sheet wrapped around his neck in his cell. I must admit I’ve never stayed at a holiday camp, but if this is as accurate as people say, they look like bad craic to me.
Like so many of the accused of the series, Tina is a decent person whose life spirals out of control.
She’s serious, studious and hard working, but loving, and grasping at the brief moments of solace she enjoys in the company of her husband.
Instead she’s raped while doing overtime to pay for the new boiler, ostracised by a friend and colleague for trying to tell the truth about Stephen’s death, and finds herself under suspicion over the death of a young prisoner when it was she who did everything right to save him.
Anna Maxwell Martin was outstanding as the suffering, struggling prison guard, forever trying to do right but forever finding things spiralling out of control.
Eventually, with the images of Stephen haunting her as she ferries another young criminal towards the prison gates, she lets him go.
It is for this that she is in court, but the ashes of her ruined career, of the way her world crumbled, are raked over by a theatrical, waspish prosecutor.
Overall, the second series of The Accused stood head and shoulders above any other British drama I have seen on television this year.
Showing a gentle touch and a fine understanding of the complexity of criminality that goes where few dare to tread, it provided four weeks of uncomfortable, difficult, yet utterly essential viewing.
Jimmy McGovern is always a safe pair of hands, but his daring casting – including comedians John Bishop and Sheridan Smith in bleak, dense roles and the swaggering, masculine Sharp himself, Sean Bean, as a lovelorn transvestite – showed an ability to take the programme in unexpected directions.
There can be no doubt that, just as followed the first series, BAFTAs are on their way.”
Shots Crime & Thriller ezine kindly invited me to contribute a guest blog post about writing an episode of the BBC1 series Accused, and working with the series creator, Jimmy McGovern. You can read it here.