Note from the Author
Herewith aftermatter from my new book Black Squadron.
Note from the Author
The book currently in your hands started life as a screenplay.
Actually, it’s a little weirder than that. After the initial outline-and-note-card stage of story design, I turned it into a 60,000-word prose treatment – because that’s what James Cameron does before writing every one of his screenplays, and how the hell could he be wrong? So it turns out this prose treatment phase is both completely brutal (you’ve got to know everything that happens in your story down to the finest level of detail) and also totally indispensable (for the exact same reason). Anyway, then, after that, I did the work of writing it as a proper formatted screenplay for a feature film, which was the whole game plan all along. And but then the game plan went to hell, and in the end I reverse-engineered the damned thing yet again and wrote a novelization of the screenplay – more about which, much more, in a second – which has become the book in your hands.
Anyway, to back up a bit: I took the entire first half of 2019 out to write this original screenplay, my first. As some of you probably know, I’ve been pretty tirelessly studying screenwriting for about a decade, mining it for the priceless secrets of storycraft it brings to fiction. (Fiction of course being my day job.) But I was always way too intimidated by the form of screenwriting, its brutal economy and elegance, to actually attempt an actual screenplay.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum.
As some of you also know, there’s been a low-simmering interest in the ARISEN series as a film or television project for a good few years now. (Don’t get too excited. The one thing I’ve learned is that nothing ever happens in Hollywood. Nothing. Ever.) Anyway, around mid-2018, the simmer started approaching something a little like a boil, and I figured, Hey, if someone’s got to take a crack at adapting ARISEN for the screen, it may as well be me… right? So I took a crack at it, writing a 65-page ARISEN pilot teleplay, based on the first book. And, as it happened, I had really the oddest experience doing that…
It was so easy!!! Well, I don’t quite want to say it was easy. But it was definitely weirdly intuitive, and felt right, and it all just worked. My best guess as to why is that, during that decade of assiduously studying screenwriting for storycraft lessons… I’d accidentally internalized all the other lessons of writing for the screen. The nuts-and-bolts ones. It turns out: I can do this!
This would have implications.
And then another funny thing happened in this funny thing called life. So, to back up a bit more, I’d recently completed the hardest job of work of my entire life, past, present, or future – namely, finishing the main ARISEN series. I’d just spent a whole year story-designing the last two books, the climax and conclusion of the series, and banging out a third of a million words in a 100-day furious and deeply unhealthy writing paroxysm. I know that was the hardest thing I will ever do because if I tried anything like it again it would kill me. It very nearly killed me the first time.
So, anyway, by some complete miracle, I’d just pulled off finishing this 6-year, 16-book, 1.6-million-word project, and was dazed and trying to recover from it, when I got a kind of an out-of-the-blue invitation to go hang out in Colombia with a friend. Turns out she had rented this beautiful, white, light-filled apartment overlooking the water in Cartagena, and she wanted some company for traveling around the country – and then, weirdly, going on to housesit in another beautiful place overlooking the ocean just outside L.A. And I said, Yeah, hey, sure, why the hell not? What the hell else am I doing.
As it turned out, what I probably should have been doing was reconnecting and belatedly putting down some roots in London, where I actually live, but I’m not so smart that way, and so I packed a huge trekking bag and took off. Also, I figured, while I was in L.A., I could take a few meetings – including with my A-list Hollywood screenwriter buddy, who first contacted me about the film rights to ARISEN a few years ago. (We talked about that for about five minutes – then spent the next however many years rapping about writing, and life, and the writing life, and he became this wonderful part-time mentor to me, for which I will always be profoundly grateful.)
And, anyway, the A-list Hollywood screenwriter buddy, who I think for present purposes I will call Edna, and who had also recently gotten a television development deal at Paramount, said to me, Yeah, hey, come on out, we’ll sit down – and you can pitch me your ideas! I hadn’t known it, but this is what people in Hollywood, particularly writers, do – they pitch their ideas. You’re supposed to have ideas. That’s the whole point of you.
And I couldn’t bear to say back to this lovely man, What? Ideas!? I don’t have any freaking ideas! I’ve spent every waking moment – and most of the sleeping ones – for the past six years blowing my brains out on this one story, ARISEN! I mean – that’s it. This epic series seriously had over 500 named characters, with probably two dozen of them needing to arc convincingly and successfully, plus scores of intertwining story lines that all needed to converge and resolve, and plus somehow needed to live up to and exceed all the dozens of gargantuan blasts of completely over-the-top-action and emotion that came before, and finally wrap everything up with a couple-dozen pitch-perfect bows… and you think I’ve been sitting around thinking up other ideas!? New ideas!?
So, yeah, I couldn’t bear to tell Edna that. And so I had no idea what I was going to do when I got to LA.
And but then a funny thing happened on the way to the Lost City. As part of this weird and ill-advised trip, I had also signed onto a jungle trek, into the Colombian interior, departing from Marta on the coast and terminating in La Ciudad Perdida in the deepest jungle. (Think Machu Pichu – except only about 5,000 people make it there every year, rather than a million.) I signed onto this because I thought it would make this whole weird random trip make more sense. I mean – I love trekking! It’s what I do! (Right?)
And then, so anyway, on this jungle trek into the Colombian interior gone horribly wrong – dominant themes were 95° heat, 100% humidity, deep sucking mud, giant reptiles and insects, plus literally ten thousand steps up to the lost city (if you count a steep, scrabbly, slick, absurdly perilously narrow little ledge of stone as a step), horrifying conditions in the jungle encampments, and general misery – I miraculously found my ideas.
There I was lying in my little sleep cubby in a jungle encampment, underneath the mosquito netting that didn’t keep the mosquitos out, slathered in mosquito goop, further slathered in sun goop, dripping with sweat from the heat and humidity, feeling completely disgusting, totally unable to sleep… when these ideas just started hitting me. I mean, just one after the other. Boom, boom, boom.
Pretty soon I had my headlamp out – along with my pen and notebook – and, two hours, later, I had pretty well fleshed out ideas for four television shows right in my genre. Four good ideas. (Some better than others.) Also, it turned out it was only three TV show ideas – as Edna later pointed out, one of them was actually closed-ended: a feature film, rather than a series.
(I never did make it to LA – after the jungle trek gone horribly wrong, and I got back to Cartagena, I freaked the fuck out about what the hell I was even I doing in Colombia, sweating to death in the high summer of the southern hemisphere and just waiting to die in a deathtrap taxi with broken seat belts and drivers who had patently lost the will to live and a national motor vehicle fatality rate 9.5 times that of the UK, and panic-booked a flight back to London for the next day. But I pitched Edna my ideas on the phone.)
And not long after that I decided to go ahead and develop the closed-ended one – the feature film. It was time, finally, fortified with the confidence from writing the ARISEN teleplay, for me to sit down, right there at the very beginning of 2019, and finally attempt an original screenplay. (!!!)
But, jumping back yet again, it’s probably worth mentioning that I’d also just spent all of 2018 writing my first post-main-series ARISEN book – namely ARISEN : Odyssey. And this had just been, let me tell you, a profoundly terrible experience. You see, the whole time I was trying to finish the main series, across all of 2017, I was also just nonstop whining and crying and begging, bargaining with any god that would listen that if he just let me out from under this blighted oppressive thing (the main series), I would never complain about anything ever again. If I could just somehow finish this horrendous, gigantic epic I’d stupidly saddled myself with, everything would be okay, it would all be gravy after that.
And I spent a lot of time and emotional energy fantasizing about the first non-main-series book I would write: a nice single (or dual) protagonist story, a single unified linear story arc, unrolling in a nice straight line. It was going to be so easy! It would write itself! Never again with the gigantic freaking epics with 500 named character and dozens of storylines! So help me, dog.
Well, as you’re probably already guessing… it didn’t turn out to be so easy after all. Or even easy at all. It was, in fact, hard as hell. (It turns out this is because: writing always just keeps getting harder. There are reasons for this, which I’ve written a lot about on my blog, and which are outside the scope of this already-way-too-long discussion.) And I was just heartbroken about it. To finish the main series, to develop and maintain the focus required, I’d basically put myself in isolation for a year. This was supposed to be the year when I rebuilt – rebuilt my life, friendships, work/life balance. And that whole plan went to shit. Was writing Odyssey easier than finishing the main series? Yeah. Was it less all-consuming of my mind and spirit? Yeah. But not a whole hell of a lot easier. And not a whole hell of a lot less all-consuming. I was gutted.
But, fuck it, I said, onward, that’s done, new year, let’s just write the damned screenplay, and see how that goes.
And… for the first few weeks, it went like a wonderful fever dream! Every morning I got up and worked on story design. And every afternoon I went out for a long run in the freezing sun. And the ideas! They just flowed! And swirled, and interconnected, and metastasized, and grew together! It was amazing! I was so jacked. And then… and then…
I got down to the hard work of weaving all these vaguely interconnected and metastatic ideas into something that cohered into something like a unified and logical story arc. And the complexity of the infinite possible story space – it’s always there, lurking, like the void – just stopped me in my tracks, floored me, stunned me like a bolt to the brain. I could kind of see my way through untangling all this horrendously complex shit – but I knew in my bones, it was totally obvious, that it was just going to be another KILLER job of work. Once again I was looking at just a cognitively crushing series of tasks, to have any hope of banging this thing into anything like usable shape. And I just couldn’t face it. I couldn’t.
I was like: this just never stops being a total killer.
Also, predictably enough, Odyssey had sold like a seventh of what the last two books in the main series had. And so I was also like: Why the hell am I still doing this? My sales are in decline. My brain hurts all the time. This just keeps getting harder. It makes me miserable.
Fuck it, I said. I’m out.
And I was. I meant it. I had no idea what I was going to do instead, but I sure knew it wasn’t writing. I put the Scrivener file for the screenplay in a drawer. And I quit writing – forever. (For six weeks.) I got up every morning, walked down to the banks of the Thames, hung a right – and just kept taking longer and longer walks out the Thames Path. I stopped at waterside pubs and drank a few beers. I worked on my Spanish on Rosetta Stone on my phone. Mainly I just watched the light change on the water, and the riverbanks, and the bridges spanning the water. I sat there and I watched the light change.
And I tried to remember how to breathe.
Obviously, eventually, I had to find my way back to writing. (And, deep down, I probably always knew I had to.) This turned into its whole own pretty significant project, also outside the scope of this document, but if you want to read more, it’s in the “How to Keep Doing It” series of dispatches on my blog.
And, in the end, I finally took the Scrivener project back out, and I crashed and tore and clawed at the wild impenetrable thickets of all those ideas and story strands, and I banged the sonofabitch into some kind of usable shape. The notes became outlines and beat cards, those became the 60k-word prose story treatment… and that became a 135-page original screenplay. Finally.
But what happened after that was really shocking.
Of course the whole time I was working, I presumed if I pulled this off, if this screenplay was as great as I knew it could be, I could definitely get it at least looked at. I mean, there was Edna for starters, my A-list Hollywood screenwriter buddy. And his agents at William Morris, whom I’d spoken with briefly. There was my Hollywood entertainment lawyer. (I’m, by far, his least important client, but he signed me.) Plus one or two other connections I’d made along the way. You know, I’d get this thing into the hot hands of a few agents, development execs, producers. It would get a fair hearing.
And, by the time I was done writing it, I was convinced it was truly great – better than the last 50 movies I’d personally seen. It just blew the doors off most of what was out there. Yeah, I was a first-time screenwriter – but I was a first-timer with 20 years of experience writing military action, and a decade of studying screenwriting, playwriting, teleplay-writing, dramaturgy, story structure, etc.
And this screenplay blew the doors off.
But then, suddenly, the like four people I knew in Hollywood all stopped returning my email. (N.B. This is absolutely not to indict anybody in any way whatsoever. None of these people owe me anything. In the case of Edna, he’s exactly the opposite of owing me anything. He’s already done me kindnesses and good turns I can never repay.)
So. I never really expected that this screenplay would get produced as a feature film. I had some hope that it might at least be purchased by a studio in a shamefully lucrative sale. But what I never expected, not for a minute, was that no one would ever even read the damned thing.
Just – damn, dude.
So, that was a little disappointing. I sat around being disappointed and licking my wounds for a while, and then got to work planning new ARISEN books that would, you know, at least be read. Plus pay the rent. And but then it hit me: you know what? Screw these guys. (Hollywood.) Who the hell needs them? I’d been making it as an independent author for the better part of a decade, free of my former publishing industry overlords. Why the hell do I want new overlords? I’m absolutely fine on my own. And you know what I can do? I can just novelize this bad boy. Turn the screenplay into a book. (The experience of novelization was also a pretty damned interesting one, but also out of scope for now.)
And then what? Then it will be published. The story will be out there. And it will be read. (And it will make some money.) Not least because I was very sure this was the best and strongest story I’d ever created in my life, this plan started to sound pretty good. And, hey, I thought, who knows, maybe in an ironic turn it’ll even drum up some interest in the sale of the screenplay again…
So. The book in your hands started life as a screenplay.
Thank you for reading this whole rather self-indulgent epic mini-memoir.
Thanks for reading my stories – more than I can ever say.
13 January 2021