Category Archives: Television

Lies, damned lies and data

At the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate last weekend, I gleaned two very interesting and significant insights into two of my earlier posts –  Which novels ought we to like? and Cooking with data.

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.

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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.

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On being a door-to-door salesman

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

And am now working on the follow-up to Good Girls Don’t Die featuring detective Grace Fisher.

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House of Cards and the Fourth Wall

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.

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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.

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Ask an expert

Accurate research is a vital part of writing crime fiction. I am spoilt rotten in that I have a recently retired Home Office pathologist in the family. He is incredibly patient and generous about answering my questions, which means that I do try very hard not to ring him up every other sentence. However, I did ask him to read the chapter in Good Girls Don’t Die in which the police and a forensic pathologist attend a murder scene. He talked me through exactly what he would do, and was quite happy for me to omit or bend the procedure for dramatic purposes, but he had one total and absolute sticking point: there was no way the pathologist would drive a Volvo.

When my brother was at his busiest, with sometimes only two forensic pathologists covering several counties, he spent far too many hours in his car, sometimes arriving home past midnight from one job only to get another call and immediately have to drive a further hundred or more miles to another crime scene, and then home again, on his own, eating a service station sandwich and working out what would go in his report, what he’d have to think about when he started the post mortem, and what cruelty or tragedy he’d just seen.

So I rewarded my fictional pathologist with a gold Porsche Panamera.

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I’ve been privileged, writing television crime drama, to have hung out with quite a few serving and retired police officers, from a former head of the Vice squad to beat officers, from detectives on a dedicated ‘burglary artifice’ squad to Jackie Malton, the DCI who inspired Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison. I’ve been out in vans responding to 999 calls and followed officers into people’s homes; been out in the area car that would have been the first on the scene (and I mean, the first) should there be any kind of incident in Downing Street; I’ve watched proceedings in both a coroner’s court and the Old Bailey (even lunched with the judges); played the ‘criminal’ in a CID interview training exercise; and visited an identification parade suite.

And yes, I learnt an enormous amount about process and vocabulary and how things work, but the most valuable lessons lay in gleaning some understanding of what makes people in such professions tick.

Although writing fiction seems horribly trivial in comparison to the responsibilities that those who work in frontline services face every day, nearly everyone has been kind, patient and open-minded. Only once did I witness how easily one bad apple can generate untold mistrust and resentment within a south London community.

What has really helped me feel that I’m writing with some vague authenticity is not so much the accuracy of the physical details as the jokes, the attitudes to life, the food, and the everyday frustrations, like finding a parking ticket on an unmarked CID car. Frontline humour is shockingly black – far blacker than it would ever be possible to reproduce when the context is merely fictional – and so is the intense and apparently bottomless empathy for victims.

Years ago, when I was writing half-hour, stand-alone episodes of The Bill for ITV, I grabbed a story from one of the full-time police advisors on the show. A fairly hard-bitten retired sergeant who quite enjoyed making the writers’ lives difficult, Malcolm told me about a night when an old man on a Zimmer frame had been brought in. The old man had had a suicide pact with his wife, killed her but lacked the physical strength to finish the job on himself. It had been Malcolm’s role as custody sergeant to lock him up and then check on him every half hour.

The story for me was not the old man’s, poignant though it was, but that of the cynical custody sergeant who, by the end of his seemingly endless night shift, could no longer hide his emotion. For me, that story said everything about The Job, about the protective armour that officers grow and about what it takes to pierce it.

Which is why I understood why it was important for my fictional forensic pathologist to drive a flash car, for reasons both obvious (speed, comfort, safety) and more subtle – a different kind of safety, perhaps, a protective cocoon both on the way to a scene and on the way back?

Growing up as the only non-medic in a family of four hospital doctors, I’ve always been interested in what attracts people to frontline jobs, and in how the rules, values and responses to the pressures of such exceptionally intense professions gradually become an unconscious part of who they are. So, while it’s been amazing to have experts willing to explain the nuts and bolts of ballistics, DNA or the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, I’ve also realised that such details are seldom of primary interest to them. I always try to watch out for the ‘tells’ that explain what is in it for them, why they first decided to do what they do, what it takes to be the job, and how they feel about the effects of their work on their everyday lives and their families.

So when you talk to an expert, never mind the facts: find out what car they drive, or get them to tell you a joke. That’ll show you what they really do.

 

This piece first appeared in Red Herrings, the members’ magazine of the Crime Writers’ Association.

Dead Women Sell Books

I was recently invited by Shots Blog – the blogspot for Shots Crime & Thriller Ezine – to write a guest post. Here is my piece, continuing the debate started five years ago by Jessica Mann about the levels of violence against women in crime fiction, especially in novels written by women. Others who have written about women’s voices in crime drama and fiction are Boris Starling and Nicci Gerrard.

 

DEAD WOMEN SELL BOOKS

GOOD GIRLS 1A girl is missing … a vulnerable woman is being stalked … a girl is found brutally murdered … Dead women sell books.

So should I really be adding to a genre that glamorises the violent and sadistic victimisation of women?

My answer is ‘yes’ because the fact that dead women DO sell books is very interesting.

Good Girls Don’t Die, my first crime novel, centres on the tense relationship between the police and the media during a big murder enquiry, and – as happened at Soham and Ipswich – the additional pressure that a highly competitive, 24-hour rolling news industry places on a police investigation.

Dead women, of course, also sell newspapers: the more lurid, titillating, gruesome and voyeuristic the details, the better. So, woven through my story is how and why dead women get served up by the media for avid public consumption.

On television, believe it or not, far more men get killed than women, just as they do in real life. But male characters tend to be blasted, blown away, the fallen comrades of either side. And they will almost certainly die fully clothed. When a man is the prey, he’s likely to be hunted down because of something he wants or has done, not simply for his male body. Female victims are presented very differently – as they are on book jackets – with the camera lingering over separate, helplessly exposed, body parts. Blood, bruised flesh, torn garments, sprawled limbs: why?

Perhaps it’s partly because, on a good day, only about 25% of TV writers (of which I am one) and directors are women. It’s even worse in film. Which means that, on screen, more than 75% of the time, men are left to speak for and about women. No wonder that so few Hollywood movies pass the Bechdel Test, which is that two female characters have to be in at least one scene where they talk to each other about something other than a man.

It matters that a balance of women’s voices is heard, especially when it comes to violence against women: thankfully, the gender mix in crime fiction is very much healthier.

Mary Beard has talked about the public voice of women, showing how, since the Odyssey, women have been told to shut up. Mary and I were undergraduates together (at an all-women college where she is now Professor of Classics) and we are of the generation who fondly believed that we had earned the right to be heard.

And of course we have. But this year Mary was targeted by online trolls making disgusting and extremely violent personal threats against her simply because she voiced her opinions. Assertive female executives still report being labelled as shrill, bossy or up-tight ball-breakers. Rape victims are asking for it because they dare to wear short skirts or get drunk. The message is clear: Good Girls Don’t Die.

I also wanted to write about the men who victimise and kill women. Murderers are seldom singular and intriguing serial killers; all too often they’re just sad blokes who suck up a misogynistic culture and assume that women should shut up and do what they’re told. Or are too inadequate to know how else to express their desperate need of women except by aggressive blaming and shaming.

I wanted to explore what such misogynistic attitudes really express; what kind of fear of – or longing for – women they conceal; what miseries they cause to both sexes. And what it’s like for women to be expected to play roles dictated by a culture in which glamorised dead women provide entertainment.

I also had to work out how to give my central detective character, Grace Fisher, a compelling and attractive voice. The noir tradition of male detectives decrees that a brooding, wounded, hard-drinking loner is per se rugged and noble. He can rescue or avenge women and children simply because he’s a man, while a female detective’s motives are more closely examined, and her vulnerabilities risk making her either a recovering victim or just a bit sad and flaky.

I wanted to show how well, or badly, Grace Fisher deals with the difficulties she encounters, with the labels used to shame her, when, as a police officer, she can’t or won’t shut up.

Excitingly, an organic tradition of modern female detectives is now evolving thanks to all kinds of crime writers of both sexes, and I’m thrilled to add to their characters’ wonderfully different voices.

 

 

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An e-book is not a book

Yesterday the nominations for this year’s Emmy awards were announced. As the New York Times reported, Netflix and HBO each received more nominations than some of the long-established TV networks. Delivery platforms have changed. As a result, audiences are bingeing on long-running series, and TV drama is as good now as it’s ever been. I’ve not heard any screenwriter wax lyrical about the good old days when it was so much better to write for an audience who had remote controls and TV sets too heavy to lug from room to room.

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No screenwriter has been harmed by the advent of subscription streaming services. Quite the opposite. So why do so many authors choose to be sniffy and uninformed about what new delivery platforms can do for them?

It’s not screenwriters who are competing with Netflix or HBO for viewers, it’s the traditional US networks. And it’s publishers, not authors, who are threatened by Amazon (whose own dominance of the download market is, in the US at least, beginning to slide).

The recently leaked New York Times Innovation Report pointed out how the Huffington Post is managing to get way more traction out of content created by the NYT than the paper is itself. The report pointed out that NYT staff – especially senior editorial staff – are digitally unengaged. I strongly suspect the same is true of most publishing houses. It reminds me of long-gone days when senior (male) CEOs thought they’d never have to use a computer because they had secretaries. How many people in publishing think they don’t need to know how an algorithm works because they employ some digital guy for that?

I buy and read hard-copy books all the time, but, as an author whose e-books hugely outsell my paperbacks, I’m liking e-books a lot. So I want to know why the big publishing houses left it to Tesco to set up a really bright and attractive online bookstore that, with its TV and movie counterpart, is a perfect one-stop-shop for all storied content? Why bookshops can’t attract those customers who want to read a book on a device designed by Jony Ive by adopting a design ethic closer to that of an Apple Store?

Netflix and HBO use dramas such as Game of Thrones or House of Cards to create and enhance their own brand identity. Why haven’t publishing conglomerates used their various imprints to create If-you-liked-that-then-you’ll-like-this digital brands (for crime or poetry, for instance) that readers can immediately identify with as go-to sites? Or maybe team up with a global brand such as the BBC to deliver books via the iPlayer? Why not?

The e-book is not a book. Amazon is not a bookshop. Its algorithms have absolutely nothing in common with the traditional business methods of the booktrade. The algorithm – how to feed it, how to read the data it produces, how to surf its waves – is how authors get their work in front of readers. We all of us need to know this shit.

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Sure, there’s still a very big argument to be had over pricing so that writers can actually afford to write, but meanwhile there’s also a crying need for publishers to ramp up their digital engagement and to view the e-book not as a pale imitation of the real thing – a print copy – but as a separate concept. There’s a reason, after all, why iTunes didn’t call itself iRecords or iCDs.

In Marrakech once I watched the storytellers in the main square use snakes to attract their audience. Snakes, ink and paper, e-books, they’re all in the same business – finding people to tell stories to.

Cooking with data

Netflix are about to spend £100m on a biopic of the Queen. According to The Atlantic magazine, ‘Royalty’ is Netflix’s second favourite subject (after ‘Marriage’). The new 20-episode drama series is to be written by Peter Morgan and shaped by director Stephen Daldry, both of whom have been nominated for Oscars. ‘Oscar-winning’ is another important Netflix tag for what viewers are likely to watch.

So is this the first drama series to be commissioned by an algorithm? And, if so, does that matter?

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All creative media are constantly a-plunder because artists influence and inspire one another, because artists are sucking on the same Zeitgeist, and because, if audiences and readers have enjoyed X, they’ll probably go in search of more of it. That’s why a successful drama series gets re-commissioned, why Agatha Christie wrote so many Poirot novels, and why we can’t get enough of Scandi-noir.

We all love a good novel, movie or TV show. My aim as a writer is to create something that delivers narrative pleasure and satisfaction, and part of pleasure and satisfaction is surprise, is about pushing boundaries and deepening insight. And, if I were about to chuck £100m at a TV series, I might welcome a steer in terms of my initial creative choices.

There are script gurus who can reduce story structure to a Powerpoint presentation. And, like a Delia Smith recipe, that’s great if you’re not very confident about what you’re doing, or you’re writing in a very prescriptive or over-controlled environment. We all have to eat, and of course there are rules: the cake won’t rise if you use plain flour. But the joy of cooking is adding a bit more, leaving something out, throwing in a dash of something unexpected at the last moment, tasting as you go along – subverting the recipe. I don’t see Peter Morgan taking orders from an algorithm.

But you do have to start with some kind of recipe, even if it’s just the aim of recreating that dish you ate in some little place up in the hills on holiday. And it’s far more fun to cook for other people. So if an algorithm will tell me what my guests would really enjoy (and what they’re frankly indifferent to), that’s the right sort of information.

After all, Netflix made ‘House of Cards’, which is pretty nourishing drama.

In book terms, Amazon holds the same kind of data, but won’t share. While digital platforms like Netflix and HBO are using data to drive up the perceived value of scripted content because prestigious drama IS their brand, Amazon is minimising the value of fiction by driving down the price of books. [Full disclosure: they’ve sold shedloads of e-books for me at knock-down prices, and I’m certainly not ungrateful for all the new readers that’s brought me.] All the same, ‘Do you want fries with that?’ seems to be their brand motto. And that’s a real shame when the data is something we could all feast on.

Can creative writing be taught?

Novelist and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi is Professor of creative writing at Kingston University. This is what he said recently at the Independent Bath Literature Festival, at an event supported by the creative writing department of Bath Spa University: “A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.”

I have recently stepped down as Writing Tutor on a screenwriting MA at Central St Martin’s (part of the University of the Arts, London), and totally disagree with him.

How to tell a story is the one thing that can be taught. Kureishi‘s right, it is difficult, but it is a craft skill and, especially for a screenwriter, one that can be passed along.

What can’t be taught is how to become a writer – the individual texture of a sentence, the truth of a character, the veracity of dialogue, how to make us care about a story, all that has to come from who the writer is and what they have to say about the world.

And then it takes hard work. Learning how to write is a process, which is what makes teaching it a skill in itself.

I have learnt more from my students over the past five years than they have from me because I have had to articulate my own process. No craftswoman is going to make a beautiful chest of drawers the first time she picks up a piece of wood and a saw – let alone turn out a Stradivarius. It takes years and years of honing one’s craft skills. Writing is no different.

But a good teacher can aim to lay down the right process on which to build – to show why that’s the best piece of wood to choose, which saw will be right, which smoothing plane, what sort of joint will be strong and tensile enough. Narrative drive, suspense, dramatic questions, set-ups and pay-offs, hooks – all these things “make a story go from there all the way through to the end”, and they can all be taught.

After that, as golf champion Gary Player said: “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.”

Work in progress

Beginning to write novels after twenty-five years of screenwriting is a steep learning curve. Much remains the same, some new skills have to be learned and, as I’ve been rather slow to discover, some assumptions have to be unlearned.

It has taken me two novels to realise – duh! – that I no longer have the advantage of writing for actors. For the screen, it’s possible to explore self-deluding, manipulative, obsessive or selfish behaviour in people whom one nevertheless wants the audience to root for and ultimately like. I’m interested in writing about how and why, under pressure, we can all behave badly, can know we’re behaving badly and still continue to do so . But – and it’s a crucial ‘but’ – when my character is played on screen by a loved and admired actor, it’s never a problem to show someone not being their best self because the audience will always trust in the inherent qualities of the actor so the character comes good in the end. Indeed, the right actor can make us root for even the most despicable screen characters.

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In fiction, one no longer has the in-built advantage of that kind of trust, which is what makes creating character along the knife-edge of psychological suspense so difficult – and such fun.

Hashtag drama

I wrote earlier about how subscription channels such as Netflix are changing the  game in terms of how we consume drama. This week, as the final episode of ITV’s Broadchurch generated 260,000 Twitter messages, a record amount of traffic for a UK drama, I wonder how soon tweetability will become an essential element in the drama commissioning process. Certainly, a second series was announced quickly enough to cash in on the Twitter love.

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The first UK drama to create a perfect storm of device ownership (aired the year the iPad was launched), demographic (Twitter users are known to be older and literate), and genre was BBC’s Sherlock. As with US Twitter-hit Homeland, a combination of tense plot and intriguing, ambivalent characters led to passionate conversations where people would tweet more than once as they debated each episode, leading up to the series denouement.

Unlike reality shows, drama audiences tend to tweet in the commercial breaks so as not to miss the action, perhaps putting BBC dramas at a slight disadvantage over commercial rivals such as Downton Abbey – another Twitter favourite. But I wonder how long it will be before writers (especially in continuing dramas) begin to factor in Tweet-points as well as end-of-part hooks. (Which may explain the squashed slug? ♯Broadchurch)

Given that Twitter’s respect for non-spoiler etiquette means that writers can safely aim for big endings with plenty of twists and double-bluffs, I predict a surfeit of cliff-hangers in 2014!