Monday, 27 January 2014

Rules of Writing via Nazis, Kafka and Peter Sellers


If anyone reading this post has not read Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing, stop now, do a Google search (other search engines are available but they’re not as good and the FBI won’t get to read your history – seems a shame to keep them out in the cold) and enjoy. Oh, and do come back won’t you. I’ll be here…


I’m not a great believer in rules when it comes to most things. Testing boundaries, stretching them even, produces the best from everyone.  There are of course some of Elmore Leonard’s rules that should not be broken, ever. For me, and I’m paraphrasing here, ‘cutting out the parts that readers skip,’ is an absolute. Quite a few of the other rules can be bent. ‘Don’t open with the weather,’ - lots of books open with the weather and some great books at that. Before we go any further, I would like to state that Elmore Leonard didn’t mean to have his rules be hard and fast deal breakers. He meant it more as a guide, to be used or not, as the case may be, however, a lot of what he says is good advice. Then you have the vast amount on the internet that is concerned with ‘rules’ of writing.

 If you read enough ‘advice’ articles on the net you feel as though there’s a rule book of writing. I’ve read a number of these articles and they all seem to have a common theme.

(1) Your protagonist (hero) has to be likeable. I’ve no idea where this came from but you see it time and again.

(2) The antagonist (villain) has to be in direct opposition to the protagonist.

(3) The protagonist has to have a strong moral motivation that the reader can really get behind i.e. the protagonist’s goal should be a noble one.

Bear these three in mind.

Because it’s possible to have an incredible story by breaking all three of these rules which come up often in writing advice articles.

To illustrate, for a moment, let’s pretend that the world is a darker and lonelier place. We are imagining a world without the movie ‘The Producers.’ For the next part of this blog post, strike that movie from your mind; it does not exist.

Now imagine a young writer is calling his agent, today, January 2014, to pitch him an idea for a movie. I stress, this is not my agent – who is a very nice man indeed.

Agent: So what’s this great movie idea you want to pitch? I can’t wait to hear it.

Writer: Okay, so the movie opens in a run-down apartment building where we find the office of Max Bialystock, Broadway Producer. He’s fending off a sex-crazed octogenarian. Max leeches money from this little old lady to finance his terrible plays. In exchange for cash Max indulges in sex games with the old lady…

Agent: Wow! Great villain.

Writer: Villain? No, no, no… you don’t understand, he’s one of the heroes.

Agent: What? So who’s the villain?

Writer: There isn’t one. Not really.  

Agent: No villain? So Max is a hero, okay, who’s the other hero?

Writer: Well the other hero is about to enter the story. Leo Bloom is a neurotic accountant who has just arrived to inspect Max’s books.

Agent: Hang on…so there are two heroes in this movie: Max - a pervert who exploits the elderly, and Leo, a neurotic accountant?

Writer: Yeah. So, while doing the books Leo notices that the last play Max put on was over financed. He’d raised more money than it cost to produce. But the play closed after a week and didn’t make any money. The IRS won’t audit that play. Nobody is interested in a flop so Max could keep the extra money that he didn’t use to stage the play. That’s when Leo has an idea – technically it would be possible for a Broadway producer to make more money with a flop than a hit. They would just need to raise a lot more money than they needed to produce the play. Max thinks this is genius and persuades Leo to join him in a scam.  

Agent: Tax fraud? This is a movie about a sex maniac and an accountant defaulting on their taxes?

Writer: No, not at all. The fraud is on the little old ladies that Max persuades to finance the play with their life savings by promising them sexual favours in return for the cash.

Agent: That might be…problematic. Let’s move on - why do they need the money? What’s their real motivation? Does a kid need a life-saving operation? Or maybe they’re raising the money to save the local orphanage?

Writer: No, nothing like that. They want to go to Rio.

Agent: Rio. So the two heroes in this movie are on a quest to scam a whole bunch of little old ladies out of their life savings so they can move to Rio?

Writer: Yeah, well, actually no. The move is really about gay Nazis.

Telephone falls to the floor.

Agent: Sorry, what? I dropped the damn phone. For a second there I thought you said the movie was really about gay Nazis.

Writer: (pause) it is really about gay Nazis, well super-camp Nazis. You see, Leo and Max have to put on a play that is a sure-fire stinker, a guaranteed loser that will close on opening night because it’s so bad. So they find this play which is basically a love letter to Hitler.

Agent: Hitler, as in Adolf Hitler?

Writer: You know another Hitler?

Agent: I’m not sure this is such a good…

Writer: So they find this awful, offensive play and they hire the worst director in the county who’s going to turn it into a fabulously camp musical. Then they employ this permanently-stoned actor to play Hitler…

Agent: A drug addict Hitler?

Writer: Sure. The play has beautiful women in SS uniforms dancing in swastika formations and tanks and the lead tenor is dressed as a member of the Gestapo. It’s just spectacular and the actor playing Hitler is so bombed and the songs about invading Europe are so camp and gay that the audience actually thinks it’s a satire. So instead of the audience hating it, the play becomes a surprise hit. Of course, the Nazi playwright isn't happy and he tries to blow up the theatre...

Agent: So in the finale, how do they get away with the money and fly to Rio?

Writer: They don’t. They all get caught and end up in prison. I’m going to call the movie ‘Springtime for Hitler: A Gay romp with Adolf and Eva,’ or ‘The Producers.’ I haven’t quite decided yet.  


Writer: Hello? Hello…you still there?

If I pitched the same project to my agent, he’d tell me it was a great idea, superb, wonderful. He’d hang up the phone and call my wife and tell her that I’d had some kind of mental breakdown and she should call the doctor (I told you he was a nice man).

What astounds me is that The Producers ever got made. I’m not sure if it were to be pitched as an original idea today that it would stand a chance of getting the green light. It’s amazing that this movie went into production just 15 years after the end of the Second World War.  Upon release the critics hated it but it went on to win an Oscar for Mel Brooks for his screenplay and has since been recognised by the American Film institute along with the Library of Congress preserving the film in its archives due to its cultural significance. That brilliant screenplay and the performances were the key to the film’s success. It’s funny, it’s original and despite Leo and Max’s motivations, you’re with them all the way. You want them to get the money and fly away to Rio but you’re not sure why – you just fall in love with them. If you analyse the film, it’s easy to see that the play within the movie actually serves as a metaphor for the film as a whole; in the film, the play ‘Springtime for Hitler’, shouldn't work, but, in spite of everything, it does work and it’s genius. Same with the film itself – on paper it should not work, it should in fact be one of the worst films ever made. Instead, it’s amazing.

As an aside here's a couple of little facts: 1) The character of Max Bialystock is based on a real Broadway producer that Mel Brooks worked with but has stoically refused to name (2) Peter Sellers was supposed to play the part of Leo Bloom (3) Dustin Hoffman was cast as the Nazi playwright Liebkind, but begged Mel Brooks for permission to audition for a lead part in another movie. Mel knew this part was a lead alongside his then partner Anne Bancroft and didn't think Hoffman stood a chance of getting the role so he let him audition. Against all odds Hoffman got the lead role opposite Bancroft in The Graduate and pulled out of the Producers.

This film breaks all the rules of taste, commercial appeal and story arc together with every one of those basic 3 rules of writing quoted above.


Lots of other artistic works broke all the rules.

When Leo and Max are sifting through scripts looking for the worst play ever written, Max reads aloud a first line – “I woke up one morning to discover I had transformed into a giant cockroach. No, too good.”

That’s a line from Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’. An existential story that also broke the rules. Kafka didn’t have any real success as a writer during his lifetime but is now thought of as one of the most influential writers of the last hundred years. Interestingly, while doing a little research on Kafka I found out that he never managed to become a full time writer. His day job was practicing as a personal injury lawyer. I knew he was a lawyer but I didn’t know that he devoted most of his working life to representing employees in accident at work claims. He went on to open an Asbestos factory. Somebody reading this who is smarter than me can probably tell if that is merely ironic or veritably Kafkaesque.

Anyway, even though the critics hated The Producers and it didn’t do great business in the US, it is now regarded as a classic. One of the great endorsements it received at the time was from Peter Sellers, who took out a full page ad in Variety and called The Producers the greatest comedy ever made.

I suppose the real lesson here is not to stick too closely to the rules. If we all wrote according to what we thought agents or publishers or the market was looking for, or if we listened to every single advice article and shaped our characters to a demographic, we wouldn’t have great pieces of art like The Producers. And the world would be a darker place for it.

By all means, write something commercial, write something that everyone will love. It can still be original. Break the rules or stick to them. The trick is believing in what you write. If you want to write a love story between a golden retriever and a hooker with an artificial leg who enters a bowling tournament in order to win a lifetime’s supply of hair gel, then go right ahead. As long as you have talent you might be able to pull it off. And that is the one thing that agents and publishers are looking for – talent. Not badly written, but likeable characters on a noble quest that they’ve read hundreds of times before.

A great character doesn’t have to be a likeable character. In reality, there are no rules. Write whatever you want. Sometimes crazy can be good; if it’s good-crazy.

To illustrate good-crazy, and for one final little joke, we return to Peter Sellers.

It’s the early Seventies, Peter Sellers is one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. It’s three o’clock in the morning and Seller’s best friend, Spike Milligan, is awakened by a loud and insistent knocking on his front door. A bleary-eyed Spike puts on his robe, goes downstairs and opens the door to his London home. Standing before him is a completely naked Peter Sellers who simply says, ‘Do you know a good tailor?’

To me, that’s crazy, but isn’t it good crazy?


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Be good.


Monday, 13 January 2014

Write What You Know: Rebus, Bosch, Cannibals and Kebabs.


 When I first started writing again in 2011, after a break of 15 years, I heard people use the phrase – ‘write what you know,’ and until recently I don’t think I ever fully understood it. I do now, but the real meaning behind that nugget of writing advice is better put another way;
          To be a good writer you should practice cannibalism.
Let’s take Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly and John Grisham.
Not to put too fine a point on it, these writers are cannibals, but not in the modern, everyday sense of the word. Nor do I mean it to be a derogatory term – in fact I consider it to be one of the finest qualities of a writer.
I do want to be clear about this ‘cannibal’ business. So I should say, straight away, that neither Michael Connelly nor John Grisham have ever consumed human flesh. There is simply no evidence to suggest such a terrible thing.
Unfortunately I cannot say the same thing for Ian Rankin. In Mr. Rankin’s case, and indeed my own case, neither of us has ever KNOWINGLY consumed human flesh. I feel compelled to add this caveat in light of the recent horse meat scandal and one further factual set of circumstances that applies both to Mr. Rankin and myself (and a good many others I might add). Those circumstances are well known. We’re both Celts (Northern Irish and Scots share a common heritage), both of us have been known to enjoy the occasional beer, both of us have been known to sample the particular culinary delights so unfairly labeled ‘junk food.’ So picture the scene – it’s late, Mr. Rankin leaves the Oxford Bar suitably refreshed, I leave the Crown Bar in a similar state of refreshment, we both find ourselves in our home cities with an abundance of fast food outlets and, by contrast, not a single taxi in sight. Well, you don’t need me to draw you a picture. Suffice to say that I feel the majority of cannibalistic peril derives from the humble kebab. I mean, what is it? It’s supposed to be lamb; it could easily be elephant, it could be processed mongoose or, for all we know, the succulent ingredient could in fact be a sixty-two year old, retired civil servant named Geoff.  I have to confess that as long as it’s covered in garlic sauce I try not to think about it too much.
Incidentally, if you're a kebab shop owner, I love you and your lovely kebabs and I know, they do have a high quality 100% lamb content. I was only jokin 
So, what do I mean by cannibalism in the context of writing?
I suppose that I really mean cannibalisation – the removal or utilisation of a part of something to create a new entity. In this case, the new entity is a novel and a damn good one at that if it comes from either Messrs Rankin, Connelly or Grisham.
What Ian Rankin has achieved, in his best works, is to take a bite out of the arse of Edinburgh; a bite that includes sex trafficking, drugs, alcoholism, a little bit of religion, the oil industry, Scottish nationalism and to chew it up and remake it on the page. To give it an arc, a shape, as he says himself. When I say a bite, it is often a polite nibble as Edinburgh has prospered and grown proud of the Cardenden lad whose portrayal of the city is tinged with genuine affection and yet, he can take a scalpel to every social class of the city with his most famous creation, Rebus, a detective whose work can let Ian Rankin loose on every cultural, social and political facet of Scotland. At the heart of every Rebus book is a crime, a mystery to be solved, and yet because Ian Rankin has the ability to take his surroundings, his people, his hates, his loves and inject that reality into the novel it adds immeasurably to the weight and importance of the work. And not just what’s going on in the wider picture. Ian Rankin gives much of himself to his work. In his breakthrough novel, Black and Blue, Rebus becomes his creator’s punch bag and the punishment that Rebus is subjected to in the book is mirrored in the difficult time that the writer experienced in his own life during the writing process. It doesn’t have to be an outpouring of joy or pain in every work, even the most subtle of life’s daily influences can be writing gold.
If you get a chance to watch the fantastic arena programme – ‘Ian Rankin and the Case of the Disappearing Detective,’ you will get a brilliant insight into the creative process of one of the worlds most talented authors. When Mr. Rankin is talking to Alan Yentob about writing the opening scene of ‘Standing in Another Man’s Grave’ he recounts that he had very recently attended a funeral. The opening scene of the book is of course a funeral, with mourners watching the coffin being lowered into the grave and one of those mourners, who doesn’t want to get too close to the grave, is Rebus. This scene marks the return of one of the most popular characters in crime fiction and what a way to do it! The juxtaposition of the formality, inevitability and ritual of death next to a very much alive and kicking (and gasping for a cigarette) Rebus is about as perfect and potent a re-introduction/resurrection as one could imagine.
Write what you know, for me, is to be able not only to cannibalise the conflicts and issues of society but to cannibalise your own past. Just ask Michael Connelly. When he was a kid he often played near a storm drain that in effect looked just like a big dark tunnel to the neighbourhood boys. Connelly describes it as a ‘right of passage’ for kids to go into the tunnel and crawl through to the other side. He never did it and developed something of a phobia. As the went through High School, kids a few years older than him got caught in the Vietnam draft. Some never came back. Of the men that did come back, a former Tunnel Rat, who wore a long beard to hide his scars, worked with Connelly's father in construction. Is it any wonder then that Harry Bosch was a tunnel rat in Vietnam, that the crime at the heart of Connelly’s debut (The Black Echo – thought by many to be the best crime debut ever) revolves around a gang of bank robbers tunnelling beneath a vault containing safety deposit boxes and, is it any wonder that the overreaching arc of the Bosch character, across the books, is a personal journey through the darkness, towards the light. He used his life experience to give depth to his work. Michael Connelly wanted to be a writer from the first moment he picked up a Raymond Chandler novel. He didn’t exactly have the tools to be a cop, so he became a crime journalist, and through that career he came into ‘the know,’ working alongside detectives, many of whom were veterans of Vietnam. But not everything can be planned. Probably over ten years ago now, Michael Connelly sat at a baseball game and got talking to the guy beside him. The guy said he was a lawyer. Mr. Connelly asked where the guy’s office was located. He said he didn’t have an office, per se, that his office was in the back of his Lincoln town car. Five years later The Lincoln Lawyer began what, in my opinion, is the best series of legal thrillers ever written.
Fate had a large hand in the destiny of the foremost legal thriller writer of our time – John Grisham. As a small town lawyer he wasn’t making much money and sometimes didn’t have a lot of work on. While sitting in court one day, he became a spectator in a rape trial and heard a little girl describe her horrific ordeal. Grisham recounts that moment as one of the most harrowing and inspiring he ever witnessed. The details were harrowing, the grace and dignity with which the victim gave her evidence was inspiring. He got thinking what he might do to a man who had perpetrated such an act on his own daughter. How far would he go? He thought he might kill them. He thought a good many people might think the same thing. Without ever having a desire to write before that moment, he took a few years and bashed out what became ‘A Time to Kill.’ You know the story, it was accepted by a small publisher who went bankrupt pretty soon after Grisham’s debut was published and he ended up selling copies of the book out of the trunk of his car. His next book was The Firm. That book spent 47 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List and sold 7 million copies.
 So writing what you know can be writing what you feel, what you understand and want to say about something. Just don’t get caught on a soap box.
I should just say, that this cannibalisation of yourself and your surroundings isn’t unique to modern writers. Dickens explored the social strata and the pain of poverty before most other popular writers. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was inspired by the reports of the sinking of The Essex. Shakespeare’s The Tempest is believed to be inspired in part by stories of a famous ship sinking at sea and the crew finding themselves marooned on an island. In addition, the use of marriage in the play as a political weapon reflected the machinations in the Royal Court at the time.
One of the central characters in The Tempest is of course Caliban.
 An anagram of ‘Canibal.’ The old translation from the French - Canniballes.
Which brings us neatly back to kebabs. Now, how do I work a kebab into my narrative?
Is there a little of me in my work? Of course. There should be. You should put something of yourself into everything you write.
Just don’t put yourself into a kebab.
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Thursday, 2 January 2014

From Disaster to a Dream Come True - Part 1 Getting an Agent

 Getting an Agent – Never Give Up.

There is one absolute irrefutable fact that I can tell you about the process of trying to obtain literary representation. It is also the single best piece of advice I can give to anyone who is trying to land a literary agent. As some of you know, there’s a lot on the internet about the querying process and a lot of it is accurate, there’s a lot of good advice too, but there is one thing for sure that I’ve learned through my own experience that is 100% true and either I didn’t know it or didn’t appreciate it enough at the time.
This is it.
Are you ready?
Here we go – if an agent rejects your book that has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the book itself. A ‘no,’ even if it’s a ‘hey-your-book-stinks kind of ‘no’’ doesn’t actually mean that the book stinks. It’s just one opinion, from one agent, on one particular day.
And I can prove it.
However, before we go any further, I do feel that I have to add a small caveat here – if you’ve written a serious novel in a hard-boiled/experimental-literary-fiction style, and the story revolves around a ninety-six year old detective/itinerant farmer from the future named Fred Kneegobbler who is on the trail of a sadistic, one-legged serial-shoplifter and the identity of the villain is eventually revealed by the protagonist forcibly inserting a miniature ukulele into a parrot’s rectum whilst humming the theme tune from ‘Cagney and Lacey,’ you might legitimately struggle to find both an agent and publisher. 
 Call me an optimist, but I’m operating here on the basis that those of you who are reading this are…well…reasonably sane.
 I’ll always remember 2013 as a fantastic year for me. It was a year of incredible highs; being accepted as client of one of London’s top literary agencies, my debut novel achieving a plethora of international publishing deals either through auctions or pre-empts (from some of the top publishing houses across the world), flying to London to meet my agent and my publisher, meeting some of my favourite authors and enjoying a huge last minute surprise in December. A total dream of a year.
But 2013 didn’t get off to a good start. In fact, I began the year with the belief that my book would never be published.
Like most aspiring authors, I’d decided that getting an agent was the best way to go about landing a publishing deal. This at least I know to be true. Most if not all of the Big Five Publishers won’t even look at your novel unless it comes via an agent; it may be an incredible work, a novel that redefines the genre, a novel with a heady mix of beautiful prose, expert characterization and deft plotting, but unless there is a reputable agent pushing the book then the Publisher won’t care. That is the reality.
It took me around six months to get an agent and like all writers I had my fair share of rejection.
When I began my search I decided that I would try to focus on small and medium-size literary agencies with a decent track record. Looking back at that decision, I must’ve thought that none of the big agencies would be interested and that I would be incredibly lucky to be taken on by just about anyone.
So I began querying – I used querytracker (not religiously) and tried to keep a record of the agencies that I’d queried. At the time I didn’t know about Agent Hunter and I firmly believe that having more information on agents so that you are better able to accurately target your queries is essential.
I did lots of things wrong in the process, but here is what I got right.
(a)  I looked for agents that actively represented authors in my field (thrillers).
(b) I managed to keep to each agency’s specific guidelines.
(c)  As far as I know, if an agent was considering my submission, I didn’t harangue them for a decision. Patience pays off.
(d) If I got a rejection, I moved on, politely.   
There is a lot of waiting involved in this process. You send off a query letter, a synopsis and a sample of the work and hope for the best. And hope, and hope, and wait and worry. You worry that your email hasn’t been received, that you’ve somehow sent it to the wrong address or that your email got lost in spam (that did happen to me). I sent my submission to agencies in the UK and the US (my novel is set in New York) and I waited.
Some agencies responded within two weeks, some within three months, some have never responded to this day. I’ve read a good deal of articles about this process from successful and struggling writers and I believe that those response times are pretty much average for most queries. What were the responses? Well, very encouraging – more than half of the agencies I’d queried said they really enjoyed the sample and wanted to see the rest of the novel.
Now, as statistics go on queries, I was pretty pleased with that and it got me thinking; if most of the agents I’d queried liked the novel, maybe I should try some of the bigger agencies. As I’d no offers yet, I thought why not. It is common amongst struggling writers to feel that their work is substandard. I felt like this (actually, I still do) but at some stage you have to have a little faith in your own abilities. So, I sent the manuscript off to what I felt were the two oldest and most respected literary agencies in London. I did this not in any hope that they might be interested. In truth I did it on a whim, just to be able to say that I’d had a go.
Then a very encouraging email from a small, but well respected, boutique agency that wanted the full manuscript right away. Wow, from the tone of the email I felt assured that this was the one for me. This was a two-agent operation and I’d met one of the agents at an event and the agent had come across as passionate and knowledgeable. An email came straight back saying that this agent had received my full manuscript and would pass it on their partner who was the expert in crime/thriller fiction.
Within days of sending off the full manuscript to the boutique agency, BOTH of the big London based agencies got back to me requesting the full manuscript. I was over the moon but, at the same time, incredibly nervous as I’d been in this position before.
The anxiety that I felt was surprisingly fierce – I was so close now.
March arrived and with it came disaster. The boutique agency, that was so encouraging initially, came back with a big fat horrible rejection. The tone was – you have skill, you can write, but this book will never be published so write something else and we’ll gladly take a look at it.
To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement. I had listened to these agents speak knowledgeably about the business and I felt that what they said was gospel and that it was only a matter of time before the rest of the rejections came flooding in. If I wanted to get published I would have to write another book. I’d failed.
I was wrong.
I got their rejection on the Monday. On the Wednesday I had an offer of representation from one of the best literary agencies in the UK. They loved the book, they knew editors who would go crazy for it (and they were proved right) and they wanted to sign me, now. I accepted on the spot.
And I could not have imagined the incredible response that the book received from the publishers, but more of that in Part 2.
What I learned from the process was that literary agents are just like you and me, they have different tastes, they fall in love with different novels for different reasons. For instance, there are some thrillers that I love, some I think are ok, some I think are pretty poor and some I wonder how they got published at all. Now, your list might be the exact opposite of mine. You might go crazy for book A and hate book B, I could think the reverse and that doesn’t mean that (a) either of the books are less than perfect or (b) that neither of us knows what we’re talking about.
It’s just an opinion given on the day. That’s all it is.
So don’t give up. Ever.
Never give up, unless on page 987 of your manuscript you’ve written a scene where your protagonist greases up a small stringed-instrument whilst a bird of paradise looks on nervously. In that case, put that baby away and try something new.
And then, never give up.