Monday, 8 May 2017

Kubo and the Two Strings

Last time I was over at Leo's he recommended some movies I needed to catch up on. One of them was Kubo and the Two Strings and -- wow. Just wow. I don't want to say anything spoilery (even that trailer gives away a little surprise that's waiting in the end credits) so I'll just urge you in the strongest possible terms to watch this asap. It packs in ten times the wit, charm, imagination and originality of the typical blockbuster SF/fantasy movie. Oh, and fans of my Blood Sword gamebooks will realize by the end why I especially cherish this story. A real delight.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Making characters compelling

1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. You know the deal. And it’s never truer than when you’re developing character designs. Here’s just a peek at the process we went through for Mirabilis...

In very early versions of the comic, we started off with Jack in a more modern style of army uniform. As you can see (left), that really wasn’t working. Possibly it would have been more historically accurate in a story that nominally begins in 1901 but, as Emerson said, "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." The flamboyant hussar’s uniform that we eventually settled on is much more in keeping with Jack's romantic streak.

The very first pages of Mirabilis were a prototype pilot episode that Leo and I did (Nikos wasn’t on board yet) for The DFC’s dummy issue. The experience was… eye-opening. It wasn’t just the clothing that was wrong. Jack and Estelle needed to be way more attractive. So we opted to give Estelle a look that modern readers would find more relatable. She cuts her own hair – that was part of the character description from day one – and she does so with garden shears, so that gave us a legitimate excuse to avoid that off-putting Princess Leia hairstyle. Tom Fickling, son of David Fickling (the “DF” in DFC) put it succinctly: “Give her fit bird hair.”

Jack also looked rather too young and unathletic (even podgy) in the dummy episode. Partly that was to get the gig, because we had to please David Fickling and his initial brief was a comic for 7-10 year olds. At 10 I was reading Daredevil and Spider-Man, but that’s not how publishers see kids today. In fact the age of the strip was something that we and the Mezolith creators had to fight for all the time the The DFC was running.

Anyway, when we knew we had a green light for the series, Martin and Leo got to work on giving the characters a more dashing look. Martin even got out a camera and started snapping some action poses to give the comic panels a bit of vim. The dashing uniform he came up with shows off Jack’s heroic figure and incidentally shows that he is in the same regiment in which Coleridge briefly enlisted: the 15th (Elliott's) Royal Dragoons.His version of Estelle (bottom of this post) is a lot more engaging than the original "dowdy granny" look.

The striking poster image that Leo drew of Jack (top of this post) makes a great piece of concept art, although I don't think it will end up being an actual scene from the story because the giant lion is a touch too Narnia. But that doesn’t mean that he won’t be astride something with wings in the Spring book.

All this development work takes time, and even though it may seem blindingly obvious that the finished version is better, it isn't always that clear when you're groping your way through the maze of creative choices. Good creative development is a matter of trying things out and learning from your mistakes.

Apart from the character’s appearance, there are several storytelling tools that the writer can apply to make readers care about a character:
  • being resourceful 
  • being brave 
  • being clever (not the same as merely resourceful) 
  • doing a good deed ("save the cat"
  •  being unfairly treated (“kill the cat”) 
  • standing up against unfairness or injustice 
  • doing something we can relate to - especially if funny, but can be as simple as cleaning teeth, having breakfast, if made into an interesting bit of business 
  • being in a relationship we can connect with - even two apparently despicable characters start to become relatable if we see a friendship forming between them
  • in a situation we recognize - stuck in the rain, needing a pee, late for a meeting, etc 
  • being interesting - this is how an audaciously badly-behaved, rude or even evil character can be made very compelling: what will they do next?
Next time you’re reading a story or watching a movie, take a look and see how often those tricks are used right from the start.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016


"Hapless", "vengeful", "ruthless", "snapped"... That was the vocabulary of those British comics stories I grew up with. Kelly's Eye ran in the UK weekly comic Valiant. Tim Kelly stole the jeweled eye of the idol of the Inca god Zoltec, which turned out to be a handy accessory for an adventurer, seeing as how it made the wearer invulnerable.

Kids today might have iPhones and videogames, but they never got to thrill to the likes of Kelly's Eye and The Steel Claw and giant robot ape Mytek the Mighty. There was something in the UK drinking water back then, and those strips were masterpieces of focused fantasy storytelling that skated on the fine line between brilliant and barmy.

Many years after following the adventures of Tim Kelly, I got the job of writing stories about another indestructible man: Captain Scarlet. It wasn’t easy. Captain Scarlet got blown up, he just came back to life. The only time I managed to inject a bit of tension was when he was shot in the chest but people were in danger so he couldn't afford the luxury of dying and coming back to life again.

Tim Kelly's invulnerability was something quite different. Because it depended on him having hold of the Eye of Zoltec, there was plenty of drama to be squeezed from situations where he'd lost the Eye or had to give it to somebody else.

My enjoyment of those British comics of the '60s will never approach the all-consuming and utterly obsessive ardor I have for Marvel Comics of the time. But with hindsight I can see that they were little gems of imaginative fantasy that fully deserve that cherished place in my heart. Hope you like this glimpse into the past.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

"Not by me - D."

We have a little vignette here from The Fabulist (autumn 1915 issue) that is often attributed to Lord Dunsany, though it seems it was actually penned by a fellow named William Addison Dwiggins. Rumours attributing it to Dunsany must have begun early, because in his own copy of The Fabulist he apparently wrote: "Not by me. /D." I'm posting it here just to drive the stake into that particular myth - although it is undeniably a nice piece of writing, given extra puissance by the historical circumstances.

La Dernière Mobilisation
by W.A. Dwiggins

On the left the road comes up the hill out of a pool of mist; on the right it loses itself in the shadow of a wood. On the farther side of the highway a hedgerow, dusty in the moonlight, spreads an irregular border of black from the wood to the fog. Behind the hedgerow slender poplar trees, evenly spaced, rule off the distance with inky lines.

A movement stirs the mist at the bottom of the hill. A monotonous rhythm grows in the silence. The mist darkens, and from it there emerges a strange shadowy column that reaches slowly up the hill, moving in silence to the sombre and muffled beating of a drum. As it draws nearer the shadow becomes two files of marching men bearing between them a long dim burden.

The leaders advance into the moonlight. Each two men are carrying between them a pole, and from pole to pole have been slung planks making a continuous platform. But that which is heaped upon the platform is hidden with muddy blankets.

The uniforms of the men--of various sorts, indicating that they are from many commands--are in shreds and spotted with stains of mould and earth; their heads are bound in cloths so that their faces are covered. The single drummer at the side of the column carries slung from his shoulder the shell of a drum. No flag flies from the staff at the column's head, but the staff is held erect.

Slowly the head of the line advances to the shadow of the wood, touches it and is swallowed. The leaders, the bare flag-staff, the drummer disappear; but still from the shade is heard the muffled rhythm of the drum. Still the column comes out of the mist, still it climbs the hill and passes with its endless articulated burden. At last the rearmost couple disengages itself from the mist, ascends, and is swallowed by the shadow. There remain only the moonlight and the dusty hedgerow.

* * *
From the left the road runs from Belgium; to the right it crosses into France.

* * *
The dead were leaving their resting places in that lost land.

* * *

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Reading: the first line is your gatekeeper

You know about Sturgeon’s Law. ‘Ninety percent of science fiction is crap.’ Actually that’s the first law. The second law comes in with a (possibly) Pandoran note: ‘Ninety percent of everything is crap.’ I heard it was Ted Sturgeon’s wife who came up with that one. Or maybe I made it up. I suppose if you’re crotchety enough it may sound like consolation.

These days, the universal constants have changed. It’s so easy to publish a book that they may as well have automated the writing process. Faced with the evidence of Wattpad, we might have to adjust the Sturgeon Coefficient to more like ninety-nine percent.

The new books keep coming, thicker and faster every month, every week, and most aren’t going to be worth the time it takes to pick them up, but we still don’t have a formula to know which ones to fling aside. What future masterpieces might we miss amid the clamour? How can we pan for gold in all this muck? There is need, as Descartes said, of a method. So let me offer this…

A few years ago I was laid up in bed with a pole-axing cold. Wait, did I say a cold? This wasn’t just a cold; it was a veritable Fimbulwinter, a Plutonian hibernacle, a blistering absolute zero of a virus. I found it hard to stay awake more than thirty minutes at a stretch. Reading a novel was out of the question. I had a big anthology of short stories, but with a temperature of a hundred and one it was a struggle to get through the bad ones – and there were a lot of bad ones. So I went through the whole book reading only the first sentence of each. If that impressed, the story got marked as to-read.

Who passed? When I went back and looked at who’d earned a tick, it turned out to be the likes of Lawrence, Graves, Steinbeck, Forster – all justifying their reputation on the strength of a dozen words or so. Ah, you want show, not tell. All righty:
Few things have been more beautiful than my note book on the Deist Controversy as it fell downward through the waters of the Mediterranean. It dived, like a piece of black slate, but opened soon, disclosing leaves of pale green, which quivered into blue. Now it had vanished, now it was a piece of magical india-rubber stretching out to infinity, now it was a book again, but bigger than the book of all knowledge. It grew more fantastic as it reached the bottom, where a puff of sand welcomed it and obscured it from view. But it reappeared, quite sane though a little tremulous, lying decently open on its back, while unseen fingers fidgeted among its leaves.
I couldn’t bear not to give you that whole magnificent paragraph (by E.M. Forster by the way) but you only have to look at the first sentence. It’s enough on its own to tell you you’re in safe hands. And that’s my ‘lit-must’ test, if you will. Forget about evaluating the setting, genre, difficulty or even the story itself. If a writer can craft a fine opening line, they’re worthy of your trust. If only Mr and Mrs Sturgeon had known.

Friday, 19 June 2015


A while back I did an interview for Exeposé, the student newspaper of Exeter University. As it deals with a couple of my main interests (comics and interactive fiction) I thought I'd reproduce it here. The picture is me dressed as Reason at my wife-to-be's "Come as a God" party a good few years ago. Why the pistol? Because you can't argue with Reason.

We notice that you studied Physics at university. How did you go from that to what you are doing now?

I’d have done an English degree too if I’d had the time. I’ve always been on that cusp between art and science, could never quite make up my mind to go for one or the other. That probably explains why I’ve ended up gravitating towards the games industry, where I can indulge my passions for storytelling, visual design, logic, physics and maths all at once.

What attracted you to graphic novels? What do they give writers and readers that traditional books don’t?

If you look at it from a practical point of view, some stories are easier to tell visually. Like if you are creating a completely new world without any real-world references – Avatar, say. If you did that as a novel you’d have to bombard the reader with great chunks of descriptive prose – ugh. At the same time, you might not want to do it as a movie because your story needs more space and depth than you can fit into two hours. Or, of course, you might not have a quarter of a billion dollars to spend.

In fact, though, I never think it through in that kind of detail. You just start working on a story and you either feel it’s right for prose or you start blocking it out in comic panels in your head. Your muse decides for you whether it’s going to be a graphic novel.

As for what graphic novels have that traditional books don’t – well, what does painting have that music doesn’t? They’re different, both equally to be cherished as modes of expression.

Do you have a favourite graphic novel? If so, why?

Wow – I wouldn’t know where to start, I read so many. I like the works of Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine, Alison Bechdel, Posy Simmonds, Matt Kindt, Alan Moore… A bunch of diverse comics creators who don’t have anything much in common, except that they rarely disappoint.

If I’m going to pick my desert island read it’d be Neil Gaiman’s tour-de-force run on The Sandman. That’s an opus of around 1500 pages, so if you want to dip in, start with the collections Dream Country and Fables and Reflections.

Do you think graphic novels are taken seriously enough as a form of literature?

Not in the UK, that’s for sure. Here, a graphic novel has to be freighted with literary significance for critics to get past their aversion to the medium. Like, I was looking at the Guardian yesterday and they had a full-page review of Chris Ware’s latest graphic novel. Now, I’m not disrespecting Ware’s work – he’s very talented, and I like that comics are a rich, broad tapestry with room for all kinds of story. But as Wiki says, “His works explore themes of social isolation, emotional torment and depression.” And that’s why the Guardian will review him and wouldn’t touch 300, say. UK critics don’t know how to read comics; they don’t have a cultural lineage to fit them into. So they view them with the classic cocktail of fear, loathing and fascination. And so the only graphic novels they review seriously are the ones that fit really in an illustrated literary tradition rather than being unashamedly comics.

I don’t want to get too parochial about this because all writers work internationally these days, but Britain punches way above its weight in comics. You’ve got Gaiman, Moore, Ellis, Millar, Ennis, Quitely – too many to list, and many of them among the most successful in the profession. But they’re all working mostly outside the UK because comics here are barely a cottage industry. And the problem with that is it makes it difficult to get a British voice and sensibility across in comics. Those writers and artists have all had to adapt their style to the American market to some extent.

It’s very different in France, where four out of every ten books sold are graphic novels. You can go to a bande dessinée convention and you’ve got whole families there – kids, teens, parents, all reading graphic novels. And because of that there’s a nicely diverse range of genres: thrillers, rom-com, whodunits, science fiction. It’s not all superheroes and zombies.

You often work in collaboration with other writers and artists, what do you enjoy about these collaborations and what do you find more challenging? Has there been a collaboration that has been particularly interesting for you?

Actually, the truth is that my name may be alongside somebody else’s on the cover, but I rarely collaborate that closely. I’ve worked on a lot of series where I’ve split the writing chores with partners, but we usually have a quick consultation and then get stuck into our own individual books.

Comics like Mirabilis are the exception. Those are interesting precisely because the creative collaboration is so challenging. For example, I grew up on movies and Marvel comics, so all my layouts for Mirabilis are informed by that. But the penciller, Leo Hartas, is more influenced by illustrated books and European stuff like Tintin and The Beano. So sometimes it feels like we’re coming from opposite ends of the spectrum. I go for sexy, dark, dramatic with close ups, upshots and wide angles; he goes for funny, sweet, diagrammatic with medium shots, flat/diorama staging, and so on. But that cycle of thesis, antithesis, synthesis can throw up some nice creative surprises, I think.

A lot of your work makes literature an active experience, and puts the reader in charge. What do you hope to achieve by giving the reader a central part?

Only what any writer wants – a connection. An emotional reaction. That’s why the interactivity in Frankenstein isn’t about solving the plot, it’s about the relationship you develop with Victor and his creature. The choices you make affect their degree of empathy, alienation and – most importantly – the extent to which they trust you. That affects how much of himself Victor will reveal to you, for instance. Whether it works or not is up to readers to judge, but I think there’s never been a book anything like it before – and it’s nice when an author gets to say that.

It’s true that I’m interested in ways to make story worlds that people can interact with to discover or create their own narratives. But I think videogames are a better place to do that than interactive literature. I’m just using books (book apps, that is) as a test-bed to try out some ideas first.

Do you think it is difficult to adapt such a well-established story? Has it been well received?

Very well received, especially among younger readers (I mean teen and up) who probably wouldn’t crack open a 200-year-old novel if they’re not doing an Eng Lit course. Frankenstein is one of the modern world’s defining myths, a story that everyone thinks they know but one that is rarely read in the original. I hope my version will encourage more people to take a look at it.

Now the but: it was well received for a book that was only released on iPad and iPhone. I’m working on epub3 and Kindle versions but it was a big mistake not to bring those out at the same time. Lots of people were seeing the reviews ( had a nice one, incidentally, saying “it may be the best interactive fiction yet” – though admittedly the competition is not fierce) but couldn’t read it because they had Android tablets. But, you know, I don’t get to direct the publishing strategy. Unfortunately.

The adaptation wasn’t hard because, seminal work though Frankenstein is, it’s pretty much the worst classic novel ever written. I should qualify that. Mary Shelley was eighteen years old when she wrote it, and I certainly don’t want anyone seeing my teenage scribblings. On the other hand, she revised it in her thirties and only made it stodgier – and didn’t fix some glaring plot holes. So I felt completely free to take liberties with the text in a way I wouldn’t have done with Austen or the Brontës, say.

The end result is that my version is much more modern. There’s a lot of Mary Shelley’s prose still in there, but I fleshed out the characterization and the relationships as we’d expect in a novel these days, and I went for a pastiche style which feels 19th century in spirit but might flow a little easier to today’s readers. A large part of that is because I cut all Shelley’s travelogue stuff. Boy, she really padded that thing with chunks of a Grand Tour guide book.

Oh, and I set the action in Paris during the Revolution. That’s because Mary Shelley had Victor creating the monster in 1792, but for some reason had him at university in Ingolstadt – which seemed a bit of a waste of a rather wonderfully serendipitous dramatic setting.

Do you see interactive creations such as Frankenstein as the future of the publishing industry?

Not in the slightest! Take Amis writing Time’s Arrow. He didn’t think, “Now all novels will be written backwards.” My version of Frankenstein is an experiment, that’s all. Literature has always been experimenting and always will. But God help us if publishers suddenly start churning out “classics interactive”.

With the growth of the digital publishing industry, how do you think the issue of piracy will be handled?

Publishing is going to have to learn to get along with digital piracy, unless they have a trick up their sleeve that the music industry didn’t. But it’s not all bad news. We need to look at ways to extend the usual revenue model – slipcase editions with extras, for example, and pre-subscribed serials. Digital can be seen as part of the wide mouth of the funnel that draws paying customers in, whether or not they pay for the digital experience itself.

Do you have any exciting plans for the future?

Fabled Lands LLP, my company with Jamie Thomson, Frank Johnson and Tim Gummer, owns the Dark Lord series, co-created by the two of us and written by Jamie, which won the Roald Dahl Prize and has appeared as a comic strip by Dan Boultwood in The Phoenix. And we have a couple of new series that are about ready to go in book form. We tend to use print as a springboard for properties that we want to go on to develop in other media, which is either cynically manipulative or far-sighted depending on how much of a fiction purist you are.

Add to that my ongoing work on Mirabilis – which was conceived as a 260-page graphic novel saga but is growing to more like a target of 800 pages. And I have a long-cherished videogame project for kids that would be built around forging a real relationship with the characters. So I have more exciting projects than I have time to work on them, that’s for sure.

What would be your dream mash-up novel?

I love mash-ups in music. Have you heard the Arcade Fire v Blondie one? Or that sublime moment in The Sopranos where you realize that, yes, they really are crashing the Peter Gunn theme into “Every Breath You Take”. Oh, and as a role-player I have to give an honourable mention to “Roll a D6” even though strictly speaking it’s a cover spoof, not a mash-up.

So I love that stuff, and I think mash-ups like that are a great modern art form. But (sorry) I have to say that mash-up novels aren’t books, they’re just marketing gimmicks. That “this meets that” thing was always just a formula to get the attention of the dumbest guy in the room. Why, if mash-ups work so well in music and art, do they come across so lame in storytelling? (And, yes, I do mean you, Cowboys and Aliens. Or anything "vs" anything, come to that.) You’d think it would be the easiest medium to do a mash-up in. Maybe that’s the problem. It always feels like creativity by numbers.

But I don’t want to end on a negative note, so let’s take a look at some great mash-up movie trailers. Must Love Jaws and 10 Things I Hate About Commandments are over eight years old but they still haven’t been bettered. Sheer genius.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Old soldiers never die

In 1827, a terrible secret that has long stayed hidden is finally unearthed. The life-generating techniques discovered by Victor Frankenstein are seized by the radical Zeroiste faction, who raise an army of lazarans - resurrected men assembled from the bodies of the dead. As the tide of this unstoppable force sweeps across Europe, lives will be changed forever.

This is the gamebook I've wanted to do for over a decade - in fact, since the days that Martin and I first talked about the idea during our time freelancing at Eidos Interactive around the turn of the millennium. The Frankenstein Wars is a true blockbuster that weaves the lives of ordinary people against a backdrop of hellish war with the soul of humanity at stake. And now, with the help of writer Paul Gresty, artist Rafa Teruel, and the unholy design and code talents simmering in the vats at Cubus Games, The Frankenstein Wars is about to burst into the light of day on Kickstarter.

I call it a gamebook, but this is no ordinary choose-your-own text. Cubus and the team are promising a raw, bloody, uncompromising epic of gritty 19th century sci-fi and face-clawing body horror in which you get to explore interactive maps, direct rival brothers through branching non-linear storylines, pit yourself against ever-shifting goals, attempt time-sensitive missions (the longer you take, the better prepared your opponents will be), direct whole battalions in strategic battles - all of it made nail-bitingly immersive by full-colour artwork and a movie-quality soundtrack.

Even if you're a gamebook fan, you've never seen an interactive blockbuster like this. It's a story with the sweep and scale of a whole alternate-history universe. And with your help this is only the beginning.