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Hello from out here on the Thames Delta, where the wind and the rain are driving the leaves over the land and everything is becoming green and grey.
Today I am wrapping the first draft of The Project I Cannot Talk About For Fear You Will Guess What It Is, ahead of a phone conference on Monday that will probably put a date on the schedule of its announcement. (I really need to update all the project codenames this week.) Also finishing episode 5 of JAMES BOND: VARGR, and realising that I need to nail down the idea for the second volume of BOND this month.
I was in Brighton during the week, where, as ever, I met a shedload of wonderful people. And my daughter found an amazing little bar down at the bottom of the North Laines called The Yellow Book where they keep a spiced mead that would be worth moving to Brighton for all on its own. So I went there and drank it, which began a day that ended in the Brew Dog pub with Georgina Voss, Wesley Goatley, Stephen Fortune and Emma Harrison at 1 am. And I mention all their names simply to prove that I cannot have been that drunk because I remember them all. Ha ha. I win.
Other names you need to know, from Ville Haimala's Progress Bar night: Jenna Sutela, whose superb short film "When You Moved" was screened, and sound artist Claire Tolan, whose #shushsystems sound art/presentation was clever and often funny as hell. These were both strongly narrative pieces -- Ville, who brought them both in, also has a powerful narrative streak to his sound art. Storytelling never goes away. I especially recommend you see Jenna Sutela's film if at all possible, because it builds like a lyric essay to a beautiful conclusion -- I'm hoping it shows up on Vimeo at some point. And Claire is on Berlin Community Radio once a week, it turns out (I rarely get to listen to the evening stream, so I've been missing it all year!)
I am vaguely annoyed this week by pressure to get back on social media. It's really difficult to make a point of sailing away from it all for a while and then having to schedule "by the way my publisher wants you to buy my new book" tweets. Which is an absurd thing to be mildly annoyed about, and is always quickly cured by other people spotting me and deciding that I need to be a help desk or an advertiser for their Kickstarter or Gofundme.
And, of course, there are things you just can't put on social media. Like wondering aloud if we could somehow get Michel Houellebecq, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Jonathan Franzen on a Russian plane to Egypt.
I saw an article the other day from a guy who intends to go "write-only" on the internet, publishing to Git and tweeting from a command line. He was in turn inspired by a guy who lives in a shack in the woods and writes code on a netbook powered by a solar panel. (Also ref. this.) The knots we twist ourselves into just to somehow remain visible to the world while maintaining an environment of peace.
Sometimes I think about re-routing all the lifelogging applications to Twitter. I just discovered that I can post working links to every podcast I listen to to Twitter in two taps. That's dangerous. I wonder how quickly I could destroy my Twitter audience with that. Perhaps the people of Tumblr have suffered enough, and I should redirect my poisonous data exhaust.
Damn. I'm actually thinking about this now. This could be awful. Act now to save the world from me.
Speaking of social media: I just followed a link into Goodreads (I couldn't remember the order of the "Duluoz Legend" books - my kid's reading ON THE ROAD), and apparently my Kindle posts my book ratings to Goodreads now. Also there were like 300 friend requests piled up. I wonder if the Amazon purchase of Goodreads is genuinely leaning people into using it. I followed a bunch of them, and then went over to my private Facebook account and discovered that, at some point in the past, I connected Facebook to Goodreads, and now I'm apparently going to see the Goodreads activity of EIGHTY-TWO PEOPLE in my Newsfeed.
++ Benjamin Percy
I first met Ben a few years ago, when he, I and Lauren Beukes did a reading night in Brixton. He wrote RED MOON, which is the best werewolf book in many, many years. He is a giant with a gravelly voice. Reading from GUN MACHINE after he did a bit of RED MOON in that midnight forest growl was, frankly, really kind of annoying. I made him answer three questions in punishment.
I've met two kinds of writer, broadly -- the ones who do a deep outline and build from that, and the ones who strike out with a scene or image and just follow the book wherever it wants to go. Which are you, and why?
Ellis asks, Percy obeys.
I’m braver with short stores. Less afraid to fail, to trash the thing and start all over again. That’s because they only take a few days to write. Maybe I’ve got an image—more likely two or three of them—with only the haziest sense of how they might fit together. Like stars in a constellation I can’t quite make sense of yet.
But novels? Novels take a long fucking time. I wrote four failures before publishing my first. That scared me straight. The possibility of all those pages turning to dust in my hands. I always work with an outline now. Everybody has a different process, but I don’t trust myself to build a cathedral without a blueprint.
Here’s the way I generally work. I tack a ten-foot scroll up on the wall. Along the left side, I sketch out characters. Little drawings and Wikipedia entries. Once I figure out who they are, I figure out what they want. And once I figure out what they want, I set obstacles in the way of desire, the first stirrings of plot. I could go on—about the way I modulate narrative spikes and emotional valleys, about the arrangement of set-pieces—but here’s the thing: now matter how carefully I plan, everything changes once I start writing. It wouldn’t be any fun otherwise.
I remember picking up RED MOON and the first thing I thought, honestly, was "that's a big fucking book." I mean, now I know why -- you're fucking huge and you roam the Oregon woodlands circumsizing trees with your teeth or whatever. Can you do other things when you're in the middle of a novel? Does a novel eat your life and brain, or can you keep producing other stuff? I reach a point in a book where it's all I can do.
It is a big fucking book. It was supposed to be three fucking books, but my editor asked me to mash it all together and stitch it into an epic monster. So let’s blame her for all the forests (and the cute little owls) pulped and processed to print my mayhem.
I like a lot of irons in the fire. If I get stuck or bored, when I’m working on a novel, and I inevitably get stuck or bored, I crush out a comic script or a movie script or a short story or an article or a pornographic haiku or whatever, and then I return to the novel refreshed and with a better perspective.
But…even as I say this, I recognize that a novel demands an exhausting amount of concentration. You’ve got to see the whole thing at once. Live the characters. Manage the chapter and follow the through-line. I could really use a good solid month during which I didn’t travel for any events, didn’t work on anything but the new book, so I can slay the bastard, finish it off with a singular focus.
From coming out of short stories and novels, how are you adjusting to comics, in terms of production? How long does it take you to produce a full script? Totally different set of demands on thinking and daily production, right? (No?)
My first script assignment: Batman. Incredible luck but incredible pressure. I spent a long, long time on those two issues (Detective Comics #35 and 36). In part because I wanted to make them as bad-ass as possible (this was a childhood dream come true, and I wasn’t about to fuck it up). And in part because I wrote too much (my description of a two-page spread was three pages single-spaced). And in part because the form — breaking down panels, narration, dialogue — felt alien. And in part because…well, comic scripting made my weaknesses abundantly clear.
Here’s what I mean. You can cheat in a short story or novel. Distract the reader—with all your fancy language, deep thoughts—from realizing that nothing is actually happening. But in comics? Shit needs to happen and happen fast. All six cylinders blazing. You’ve got a panel with two dudes sitting at a table, and then another ten panels with the same two dudes sitting at the same table, it doesn’t matter how insanely smart your dialogue is, there’s probably a problem. I learned a lot writing those first few scripts. And I’ve become a better novelist because of comics.
These days — working on Green Arrow — I’m much faster, much more efficient, and hopefully getting better with every issue. I think my editors are weirded out by how ridiculously far ahead of schedule I am. But I just love writing comics so much — it’s a giddy, perverse pleasure really — that I can’t help myself and wish I had some other series, along with the emerald archer, to occupy me.
Ben's new book is THE DEAD LANDS (UK) (US)
You can track him @Benjamin_Percy and at benjaminpercy.com.
Next week: Catherynne L Valente. Yes, this is a whole thing now.
Yahoo lost $42 million on making original online video, including the sixth season of COMMUNITY. Which was unavailable online in this country because it was buried on a cable channel (Sony Entertainment Television) in a deal with Yahoo that I'm sure was worth more than ten dollars and helpfully reduced the potential audience to the eight people in this country who know that channel even exists.
Sony Pictures Television, of course, co-produces COMMUNITY, and a ton of other brilliant series - the list might surprise you, as it includes JUSTIFIED, HANNIBAL, BREAKING BAD/BETTER CALL SAUL and, previously, THE SHIELD.
I kind of want to talk about HANNIBAL at some point, just to unpack the violence it did to the US broadcast tv drama format, the deeply strange performances they created the space for (Gillian Anderson's as the main example, which was incredible, difficult and clever and miles away from anything you'd expect on US broadcast tv), and its quite perfect conclusion. And the way they preserved the cast by reframing the premise: the only thing worse than dying at the hands and teeth of Hannibal is surviving Hannibal.
Formats are a thing I find myself thinking about near-obsessively from time to time. The containers for things, and their shapes. I sometimes think about doing a monthly ebook serial, for instance - coming from comics, I'm as likely to consider serials as monthly as I am to think weekly. Formats are a language all their own. The placement of a main titles sequence against its cold open, the location of a series logo, the "home base" in a series, or the motif of character and intent, the point of rest or launch. John Rebus standing at the bar facing the optics. There is narrative pleasure in these things.
Soundtracks for the week:
Talking of containers, I skimmed a thing today announcing a "cinematic universe" to be assembled around the CALL OF DUTY game. Cinematic Universes, if you've missed this, are The New Thing in film franchise development. The Marvel films are the basic example - developing a cast and a set of core concepts that are extensible through multiple film series. This is a thing that's occasionally occupied my mind of late, because it is somehow baroque, and by design can have no real finish line - it in fact has to be a mad, rambling, picaresque novel of infinite branches.
The hope of the film business is that cinematic universes will act as broad-spectrum antibiotics for their ills. I also kind of suspect that we'll soon start to see $45M cinematic-universe entries in October as well as the usual summer tentpoles.
This all actually got me thinking about story. Not least because, of course, the notion is led by how comics universes were grown in the 20th Century. Kind of surreal how an emerging dominant economic model of film-making in the 21st Century comes from a small bunch of people working out of a shitty office in 1960s New York making marks on paper with pens and brushes.
And meanwhile, across town, my publisher, Farrar Straus, was publishing the Jack Kerouac books that formed the Duluoz Legend mentioned above - the sequence of autobiographical fictions ("Jack Duluoz" was Kerouac's pseudonymous stand-in within the books) that contained his life and defined his career. Within them, you will also find (renamed) figures such as William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer and William Carlos Williams, Alan Watts, the list goes on and on. If an enterprising studio bought the rights to DESOLATION ANGELS alone, they could have their own Cinematic Universe. They could run separate film series for William Burroughs, Ginsberg et al and then circle around for DESOLATION ANGELS 2: THE DHARMA BUMS. And then DESOLATION ANGELS 3: BATTLE OF THE FIVE INFINITY MUGWUMP ARMIES or whatever. I'm a genius.
I'm also out of time, and will have to leave a bunch of other things until next week -- I just delivered four scripts and have to deliver one more before I can rest or do anything else. Most of the time I have to use my private Instagram account just to remind myself what other humans look like. So! I will see you next week, I hope, and also hope that the slightly bitty and truncated nature of this week's rant hasn't put you off. Until then, you know the drill -- stand outdoors for five minutes and just take in the view, lock the toxic and the vampiric out of your life, and remember to pour bleach over everything if you have to murder someone. And I'll talk to you again next Sunday, right? Stay alive. It remains better than the alternative.
Unsubscriptions will be punished by awful life events that you will only later realise were punishments. Think about that.