I’ve had some terrific reviews for my novel Beck Le Street, which I’m both grateful and thrilled about. After all you don’t write something with the intention that it’s going to be bad. You want people to enjoy it. I wish I was one of those people who didn’t read reviews, but I do. Hate them when they’re bad, love them when they’re good. The other day I got a couple of reviews, both giving it five stars and both from people I didn’t know. One was Hannelore and the other was from Robin Landry who is a top 1000 reviewer. I’m tempted to insert both reviews here, but that would pretty much defeat the purpose of doing a blog. So instead I just wanted to pick out a couple of sentences from Robin Landry’s review.
“I read a lot, and find that so many novels, while totally enjoyable, follow a pattern. I almost wonder if there’s an outline they all follow–but this novel was different–in the way discovering not only a new restaurant–but a restaurant serving a kind of food you’ve never tried before.”
I found it exceedingly rewarding that someone had picked up what I’ve constantly strived to achieve in my writing. I vehemently believe that writing a novel, a script, a film or a stage play, shouldn’t be about following some ‘outline.’ Yet the business is inundated with people telling writers that there is a formula – like some mathematical equation. Character x action x 90 pages = script. Absolute bollocks!
Did Shakespeare use the same blueprint for The Tempest as he did for Othello? Did Jean Le Carre use the same blueprint for his novels about Smiley as Ian Fleming used for his spy novels about James Bond. It goes to prove my theory that a lot of people that are in this business, shouldn’t be. They should be civil servants. They’d be far better suited to that type of work. Everything nice and ordered and filed away. These are the people who will then point out that The Tempest is exactly the same as Othello and go on to explain why. But if you put your mind to it you can justify anything – all you have to is look hard enough and make a ton of assumptions. You could justify that a man didn’t land on the moon and hundreds, probably thousands of people that worked at mission control, have kept it a secret to this day. Or I’ve heard people justify it by saying those scores of technicians simply didn’t know. Come on …. if you were creating a hoax on that scale it would take more than one man and his dog to get away with it. So please don’t try and tell me that Catcher In The Rye used the same blue print Dickens used for Great Expectations. You have to see how ludicrous this all is.
The first episode I wrote for EastEnders, was the first piece of serial drama I’d written that wasn’t originated by me. I hastened to add I’d never been on a creative writing course, I’d never been to a single lecture about writing and I’d never read any books on the art of writing. I just asked the pertinent, probably sensible questions, questions about which characters I could use, how many guest characters could I have, what was the deal about the amount of exterior filming to interior filming, which studio sets were available, how many scenes was the average number. To the last question the answer I was given was 25 scenes. I delivered a script 38 scenes long. There was a sharp intake of breath and even a sharper one when they saw I’d put in a slo-mo moment. I learn a valuable lesson that day, they were so concerned about the slo-mo scene, that they didn’t argue about the number of scenes. Having that number of scenes gave the show a speed that wasn’t in any other soap opera at the time. I’m not sure how it works now, but I bet they’re very prescriptive and strict about cast and scene restrictions. These restrictions now shape the way the drama unfolds and inevitably the story.
Three or four years into EastEnders I noticed that when I went into a script meeting, I was suddenly bombarded by streams of jargon. The jargon was about ‘inciting incidents’ ‘first reversals’ ‘crisis, climax and resolution,’ all of which meant nothing to me. It turned out that the BBC had been sending their producers and script editors to a course run by an American called Robert McKee. Another writer, Tony Jordan, and I decided we should go along and find out what it was all about. We coughed up our own money and went for the weekend course, only to learn that all these terms were just things if you were a writer you would do anyway. They were nothing new. Inciting incident – exciting start to get the script into gear, first reversal – a good twist, crisis, climax and resolution – a good end. All of which are just common sense. But then you ask yourself are all these an absolute necessity. If you don’t hit these specific marks, then will the drama fall part? No will it fuck – if it’s good story.
The actual start of The Godfather is very low key – “I believe in America.” Is that the inciting incident – apparently not. I’ve read that the inciting incident is when The Godfather gets shot whilst out shopping. Great scene. But it’s approximately 44 minutes into the movie. Does that mean the first 44 minutes of this masterpiece is just marking time or even worse, wasting time?
I believe natural writers rely on their instincts, not on some pre-planned design. That doesn’t mean to say you don’t go through a process to achieve the end result. I have a process, but that process is totally flexible. It allows for inspiration, inspired moments and mistakes.
Starting this coming Friday 13thDecember 2019, I’m doing my own 12 days of Christmas on Twitter @Tonymchale11 There’ll be no Lords A’Leaping or French Hens doing what ever French Hens do, but each day on Twitter for 12 days I’ll go through the process I generally, not always, but certainly sometimes, go through to try and achieve a finished product that is good enough to show to other people. If you’re at all interested in my 12 Days of Christmas, looking forward to having you on board.