Ian Drury - Sheil Land Associates Ltd. - 52 Doughty Street - London WC1N 2LS

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Anyone Here From Porlock?

Famously, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge woke up from a laudanum-fuelled dream with a complete poem perfectly formed in his head. He rose and instantly began writing out the inspired verse, which became known as Kubla Khan.

Coleridge had only got a few lines in when there was a knock at the door. It was an unidentified man from Porlock, a nearby village. No one knows what the man from Porlock wanted, but he kept the poet occupied for upwards of an hour. When he finally left, Coleridge had forgotten the rest of the poem.

The world is full of people from Porlock. They are the writer's nemesis. There you are, struggling to make headway. Maybe you've just built up a head of steam, struck a rich vein, and you can start to feel like you're getting somewhere, and just then ...

Knock, knock.

Or the phone rings.

Now, I'm a Piscean. Which means I'm torn. When I'm on my own I get listless and crave company. And when I'm with other people I wish I was on my own.

But, being a writer, I know that the being-on-my-own time is vital. Without it, nothing gets written. But achieving being-on-my-own time, and keeping those Porlockian interrupters at arm's length, is getting harder and harder these days.

Bardic poets used to lie in the dark with a heavy stone on their stomachs overnight. In the morning, their latest poem had to be fully formed in their heads.

So I'm off to find myself a heavy stone. Those bards knew a thing or two. One of them being, never answer the door to a Porlock type when you're trying to get something creative done. The stone, I think, is there to remind you of that. And it gives you a very handy excuse: 'Sorry, can't come to the door just now, I've got a huge stone on top of me!'

BTW: progress on the Arthur book - I've introduced Camelot (yes, it existed) and started work on Arthur's ancestry. Woke up this morning reminding myself to mention that refugees to Armorica (Brittany, or the Lesser Britain) recalled their homeland as Leon or Leonais - the legendary Lyonesse. We know it today as Lothian.

Now, where's that stone (he says, just as the phone rings)?

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Can I be paid by the word, please?

As a screenwriter I never paid much attention to the word count. It was pages you'd be keeping your eye on, not words. But I've done a few calculations, and it seems that the sample chapters I'm doing for each of my books are longer, in word terms, than a full-length screenplay.

No wonder I struggle sometimes. I mean, yes, a large canvas can be great fun, but when even your sample is longer than the longest script you ever expected to write, then you're into a new realm, really, where everything is bigger and more complicated.

This has just occurred to me again, because yesterday I read a screenplay. One of my sidelines is reading and reporting on scripts for film and TV. It's quite a responsibility (when you've received a few crits yourself you begin to realise just how much damage can be done by an inept or callous editor). And the one I read yesterday was actually the rewrite of one I read and reported on a few months ago.

And here's the good news. This revised draft is pretty darn good. It works. A lot of the stuff I didn't like in the earlier draft has either gone or been subsumed more successfully into the story. The characters are credible, the scenario believeable, and what has emerged is a really good domestic thriller with some great surprises - the last few pages were especially tense, and the whole thing built in pace and pressure brilliantly. Overall, a terrific result.

Now, all this was a thrill because I read a lot of scripts but I seldom if ever get to see the rewrites. Each script gets a detailed report, but I very rarely get to find out how the writer received the good/bad/indifferent news, and what they did with it. Part of me dreads bumping into a budding writer one day and finding out that they bear a grudge (I'm a nice guy, really, and I only ever completely rubbished one script - it had it coming, by the way). So to see a revised script and to find (with immense joy and relief) that it's really cooking is great.

But, of course, that's a screenplay. Not quite as many words are there are in just my three sample chapters (let alone the full manuscript, if and when I get to write it all). It costs enough to get a detailed report on a TV or movie screenplay. To get as detailed a report on a full-length book MS must cost a bomb. Maybe two bombs.

This is one of the things that makes writing (when you're exploring a new field) such a trying passtime. How do you know whether what you're doing is any good or not? How do you judge the quality of the feedback you're getting? Where is the detailed advice you sometimes need so badly?

It's London Book Fair this week. Over the past five or six years it's been the non-fiction deals done at the LBF that have turned out to be successes. So I'm typing this with fingers crossed, which is hard work, I can tell you. But not as hard, I'd say, as writing in the dark.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Keeping the Faith

I realised, after many years as a screenwriter, that writing is essentially an act of faith.

People talk about the 'magic' of cinema. When you think about it, though, there isn't a lot of real magic involved (and, with the advent of CGI, there's arguably even less). But where there is still magic - where something is made out of nothing, or where nothingness is given shape, form and life - is at the scriptwriting stage.

Anyone who can take 120 sheets of plain white A4 and turn it into a gripping and memorable story of fascinating characters in complex situations with some heartstopping moments is without doubt a magician.

And novelists - well, they just have more paper at their disposal (and don't have to worry about too many other departments wrecking their precious baby).

Magic, of course, requires various things if it is going to work. The main thing, I would argue, is faith. I mean, what's the point of setting out to achieve some magic if you don't believe it's going to work?

Which brings me to my current slough. I have started revising my opening chapters for Commanding Youth, my brilliant historical revelation of the real Arthur, who he was, where he fought and where he is buried. It's brilliant, I tell you.

Only, I haven't really worked on CY in well over a year. Back in March 2009 it squeaked into the top five on Authonomy. Two publishers had asked to see it. One of them told me back in September that a colleague of his was reading it and he'd have a firm response for me by the following week. Then, silence, and the occasional glimpse of tumbleweed.

I've spent most of my time in between working on my equally brilliant Will's Treason, the first three chapters of which went winging their way to my agent late last week. So maybe I'm a but bleeuuugghhh because I've been working so hard on that one and I'm waiting to find out whether my agent loves it or wants to get me sectioned.

Maybe it's harder to build up the necessary faith in order to work some magic if you've had a go at this trick a few too many times already. Maybe it's easier if you're tackling something fresh. But, I'll be honest, I feel like I'm struggling with putting the new Commanding Youth together. Okay, so it's early days, but how long, I wonder, before the faith returns ... The faith that this draft will be fantastic ... The faith that somebody out there is going to go nuts over it ... The faith that, one day, it'll be out there in paperback ... ?

Hard to work magic when your faith's not quite up to the challenge, don't you find?

Friday, 9 April 2010

And ... relax

Okay, the deed is done. Yesterday afternoon I had one of my moments and pressed 'Send'.

Actually, it wasn't quite as random as that. Two months it's taken me to revise three opening chapters to Will's Treason (subtitle: 'Shakespeare and the Gunpowder Plot'), although the last week or so of that was mostly devoted to the 'proposal'.

What's a 'proposal', apart from something you do on bended knee? Well, it's like a sales pitch, or a business plan, for a TV treatment, or any of those things which really aren't all that important but people like to pretend they are. The worst is probably TV treatments (although I'm sure a lot of business plans ultimately caused the recent recession), because nobody reads them, they're a waste of time, they're not what we're good at and they end up crippling the writer's freedom and imagination.

And ... relax.

Anyway, after many a long dark night of the soul the three chapters, plus pitch, info, chapter outlines, tra-la-la, were done. Finished. Revised. Pored over. Checked.

So I asked people on Facebook whether I should send the 103-page project straight off to my agent. Some replied along the lines of, 'NO! God, no! By no means! Keep checking it!' Others were more like, 'YES! Send the damned thing NOW!' A few bets were hedged, i.e., 'Check it. Then send it. Or send it. Then check it. I dunno.'

I sent it. And I feel about a hundred pounds lighter. The sun is shining. A fine weekend is promised.

Only I've now got to start on the opening chapters and proposal for Commanding Youth (subtitle - I'm not sure, yet; currently it's something like 'Arthur and the Fall of Britain'. Suggestions on a postcard, please, to: So the whole process starts again. And instead of trying to live my life in 16th century England for two months, I'll be heading back to the Dark Ages.

Forgive me if I only blog occasionally, for a while, at least, or until there's some news. Only we didn't have blogs in Manau Gododdin.

(Curses - forgot to mention a fantastic meeting of the Screenwriters' Forum in Birmingham last week. Great to meet up again with Natasha, Dan, Catherine, Simon ...)

Friday, 2 April 2010

The Night Shift

I'm working nights.

People often used to ask me, when I was a younger writer, 'Do you find working at night is more creative?' And I'd think, is there a sensible answer to that question?

Writing at night isn't more creative - how can it be, unless the Moon somehow influences us? (I believe the jury's still out on that one). It's just quieter.

How often does the phone ring at night? Or someone knock at the door? How often does a member of the family come home early, or start talking to you, in the middle of the night? How many heavy vehicles suddenly discover that they can't get up the lane in the wee small hours?

You can hardly make a sound yourself. The curtains are drawn (so you can pace up and down the room without looking to the outside world like some institutionalised animal or trainee serial killer), the TV is off (or, at least, the sound's turned right down). Everyone else has buggered off to bed. It's just you, your laptop, and your demons. Oh, and buckets of coffee.

I worked nights all last week and managed to revise my sample chapters. I haven't worked this hard on a project since some scripts I did for the BBC back in the late '90s. I wrote those at night, too.

Of course, you become strangely anti-social, divorced from the day-to-day world and a little too familiar with silence. We went en famille to the CSI exhibition in Birmingham's Bull Ring shopping centre today - a Good Friday treat - and I found walking into a busy city centre shopping mall a little like entering Dante's Inferno.

But hey, I've nearly finished the revisions to the Will's Treason proposal I began almost 2 months ago - phew!!! Getting a bit stressed out by the horrors of modern consumer culture is a small price to pay, innit?