10 Writing Career Lessons from Disney’s Frozen

frozen-olaf-running

Frozen, as the highest grossing animated film of all time, has commanded the attention of filmmakers everywhere. There have been in-depth analyses of what makes a successful animated film and how Frozen hits those buttons.

This is not that kind of post.

Instead, let’s imagine the characters of Frozen have turned writing coach – what words of writing advice can they share? What do their life anecdotes teach us about how to be better writers? How can we learn from their mistakes?

Here are 10 writing career lessons out of the mouths of Frozen characters:

frozen-good-girl

Don’t let them in, don’t let them see – be the good girl you always have to be.

Most writers start out writing for themselves, for the joy of it. Because they can’t not write. However, there will come a point when someone will ask why you spend all your time with a computer screen and may ask to see the finished product…

I have always been something of an exhibitionist, so I spent my tween years showing all my masterpieces to anyone who would listen for five seconds. As I grew older, I realised they were bloody awful and deleted them from the face of the earth. I regret that now.

Because while there will always be a part of you that fears people seeing your flaws – even when you’re a published author – getting it wrong is a vital step on the road to getting it right! You need to dare to suck.

First drafts exist to suck – the first step is finishing them. They are my favourite part of the writing process, but editing is what turns a misshapen lump of ice into an exquisite sculpture.

Basically – you’re gonna get it wrong, but when you’re getting somewhere towards right…

let-it-go-frozen

Let it go!

If you want to write for your drawer, that’s cool. But if you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing you’re halfway interested in your writing living outside your head and your furniture.

Giving your script/novel/poems to untrained family and friends is problematic. My husband does read my novels before my editor, but that’s because he’s a professional subeditor and I know he doesn’t spare my feelings. A good first stop for a piece of work is a beta reader – preferably someone whose judgement you trust and knows writing – then a writing group or professional editor.

THEN you can think about competitions, production companies, agents and editors.

frozen-what-theyre-going-to-say

I don’t care what they’re going to say.

Writers need to have a thick skin, like Frozen’s resident reindeer Sven. A writing career is full of rejection. On the flip side, if you can’t take criticism, you have no future in this business. And this occurs throughout a project – from a query rejection to a negative review at the box office, everyone will have something to say about your work.

I think you need to care just enough. Criticism is not personal – it is about your work, not you. However, when looking at criticism – whether they are elaborating on a rejection or part of development notes – you have to understand why the reader is responding in that way. With Binary Witness, agents had difficulty caring about the characters because I wasn’t immersing them in deep POV. I needed to take on board that criticism and evolve my writing style to work on that problem.

tell-him-frozen

frozen-dont-you-dare

On the other side of the table – if your friend asks you to read his stuff and it sucks, what do you do?

Tell him!

Maybe you make him feel good about himself now, but when he has twenty rejections and no idea where it all went wrong, he’s going to feel pretty crap. You don’t have to be blunt, but you do have to be honest. Establish that as soon as you agree to read – before you actually read – because then everyone knows where they stand.

Friends don’t let friends melt into a puddle.

frozen-the-one

I can’t wait to meet everyone! What if I meet The One?

Writers are usually solitary creatures, but occasionally emerge for social interaction. Sometimes it’s a friendly chat with other writers. And sometimes it’s a Networking Event.

From the London Screenwriters Festival to drinks down the pub with some mates who’ve invited An Agent, these can be both nerve-racking and exciting.

And in the back of your mind, there’s a tiny little voice that says “maybe I’ll meet someone who can give me My Break”. These things do happen (just check out the LSF blog for success stories!) but most writing careers are built on lots of little moments.

So don’t head for the biggest name in the room and spend the whole weekend stalking her. You know never know which friends may give you a leg up five or ten years down the line.

frozen-doors

All my life has been a series of doors in my face – and then suddenly I bump into you!

Yet sometimes, quite unexpectedly, those little moments snowball. Let’s take Phill Barron. As I mentioned in my Writing Blog Tour post a few weeks back, Phill got me my first IMDB credit for Persona, an app-based drama. Phill also recommended me for another job – which came to nothing for a variety of reasons.

However, while working on Persona, I met Jack Delaney and Cameron King. With Jack, I went on to co-write Small Chances, performed at the Brighton Fringe Festival. Last year, Cameron asked me to write the script for a short film – which led to A Work of Art.

One opportunity can lead to many more. But, on the surface, it’s often really difficult to tell which ones will go where.

frozen-engaged

Wait, you got engaged to someone you just met that day?

So, say you go to LSF and you meet this AMAZING producer and he’s like “hey, baby, wanna write my film?” And you’re like “ZOMG YES” and then he speeds you away in his Ferrari for cocktails with Peter Jackson.

Taking on a writing gig is like embarking on a relationship. You may well be stuck with this person for months or years and it’s important that you establish from the outset whether you really want to get into bed with them (metaphorically speaking…).

I have been approached by drunk directors at writing events trying to persuade me to work with them. I have been emailed out of the blue asking if I want to write a script (including by one of the people who approached me drunk). And I have entered pitch competitions on Twitter.

What I’m saying here is two things: Don’t commit to anything until you know who you’re dealing with, and Google is your friend.

reindeer-frozen

People will beat you and curse you and cheat you.

Unlike Frozen’s Kristoff (or “Sven”), I don’t want to be that person that warns you about strangers on the internet and monsters under the bed, but seriously – there are scoundrels out there.

Simple rules go a long way: agents don’t get paid until you get paid, don’t pay to have your books published unless you know you’re self-publishing, Hollywood “insiders” should have a name and reputation.

Good starting points are Writer Beware, Absolute Write Water Cooler, and checking them out (in a non-public forum) with your trusted friends and industry experts.

frozen-bad-choices

People make bad choices if they’re mad or scared or stressed.

As we can make impulsive decisions based on love-at-first-sight or an exciting offer in the inbox, we should also consider desperation and despair.

If a round of querying has gone badly, that is not the time to self-publish to Amazon – no matter how tempting. While I am poorly-qualified to wade into the debate on traditional publishing vs self-publishing, I will say this: self-publishing should be a positive choice, not a default alternative. To go down that route on a whim is disrespectful to your work and self-publishing.

Give it time. Work on something else. Consider your options.

frozen-snowman

Do you want to build a snowman? (It doesn’t have to be a snowman.)

If you get through our Frozen characters’ list of hurdles and warnings above and meet a well-researched director/production company/agent/publisher, what next? You’re on the home strait now, right??

What if, after all that, you want to build a snowman and they want to make sandcastles?

You have a decision to make. Either you can decide that hey, you wanted to build a snowman, but maybe Winter Isn’t Coming and sand is kinda hot right now. So, sure, let’s make sandcastles.

Or you can walk away and find someone who wants to build a snowman.

Because, seriously, sandy snowcastles are not a thing. Eric Heisserer’s tweets on this subject explain why there are TV shows where the audience isn’t really sure what the beast is.

I have run out of GIFs, so it’s time for our Frozen friends to leave us and let us get on with other procrastination. Do you have any writing advice you gleaned from a Disney character? Please share your thoughts/arguments/GIFs in the comments!

A Work of Art – short film

A Work of Art is a British horror/drama short film I worked on last year and am proud to share with you all today!

I was approached by Cameron King, who I met through Persona. His directing partner Emma Ashley had an idea for a grisly psychological horror and asked me if I wanted to write the script.

I was delighted to work on this gruesome and frankly terrifying idea, with themes of obsessional love and the lengths an artist will go to for his work.

If you would like to read my original script – the version we finalised before shooting – you can download it here. It’s interesting to see what made the final cut and how the words on the page were translated to screen.

If you enjoyed the film, please share and like the Facebook Page. We’re hoping to take it on the film festival circuit this year and it would be great to rally some early support.

Freudian Script: Stalking, Erotomania and Othello Syndrome

Stalking, Erotomania and Othello Syndrome – When Love Goes Wrong.

Trigger Warning: This post contains discussion of stalking and sexual violence

stalking

This week on Freudian Script, I am going to talk about two disorders beloved of crime fiction writers and close to every stalker’s heart. We’re going on a little tour of stalking because that’s the most common manifestation of these disorders in fiction. I will talk through the definitions of stalking, erotomania and Othello Syndrome, infamous examples in fiction, and how you can write better love-sick stalkers.

DISCLAIMER: This blog post is designed for writers of fiction. If you are concerned that you or someone you know has symptoms of mental health problems, please see your doctor. If you think you are being stalked, please contact the police.

What is stalking?
Stalking has no specific mental health or legal definition in the UK, but it’s generally considered to be unwanted and/or obsessive attention towards an individual. It can take many forms, including physical following, contacting, or intrusions into privacy, like hanging around their house or even their Facebook page. It is closely allied with harassment.

There are five common types of stalker:
> Rejected – pursue their victim after a failed relationship, either seeking reunion or revenge
> Resentful – seeking to intimidate and distress the victim because of a sense of grievance
> Intimacy seeker – desire a loving relationship with the victim, because they are soulmates
> Incompetent suitor – attracted to victim and want a relationship, but have poor social skills
> Predatory – spy on a victim in order to plan an attack, often sexual. This can be more typical of serial killers and psychopaths.

What is erotomania?
Erotomania – also known as delusions of love – is a delusional disorder where the sufferer imagines a love affair between him and someone else. And when I say “imagines”, I mean believes totally and unshakably that the person is in love with him and that they should be together. (Psychology students may also recognise this as de Clérambault’s syndrome after the bloke who put it all together).

What is Othello Syndrome?
Named for the protagonist of Shakespeare’s Othello), Othello Syndrome is also know as delusions of jealousy or morbid/pathological jealousy. In this delusional disorder, the sufferer believes completely that their partner is in love with someone else and/or having an affair.

Delusional Stalking
Stalking occurs in erotomania because the would-be lover is trying to connect with his one true love (i.e. Intimacy seeker, or possible Incompetent suitor). In Othello Syndrome, the supposed cuckold looks for evidence of his partner’s affair and therefore watches her every move (i.e. Rejected – even in advance of the anticipated rejection).

Notable examples
Let’s talk Fatal Attraction. I’ll hold my hands up straight away and say that I haven’t seen it. However, the thing I wanted to draw attention to here is the inciting incident – i.e. the affair between Dan and Alex. Therefore, the intimacy between them cannot be classed as delusional – i.e. erotomania – because it happened. The problem arises from the differences in their perception of what that intimacy means – he thinks it’s a no-strings weekend fling and she thinks it’s a sign of deeper affection. That would place her more in the rejected stalker group.

The Bodyguard (1992) has a great example of erotomania. The besotted fan believes he has a connection to Rachel Marron. He stalks her and collects her possessions to prove their closeness.

However, the content of his letters shows a late delusional stage where he has decided “if I can’t have you, no one can”. This is when erotomanic stalking is at its most dangerous – the stalker makes his move, leading to kidnapping the victim to consummate their relationship or murdering the victim to prevent her being with anyone else.

These risks are also present in Othello Syndrome. And what better example to examine than Othello himself.

Interestingly, experts have debated whether Othello is actually a good example of Othello Syndrome – because he is deceived into his jealousy because of Iago’s handkerchief’s antics. However, Othello does go on to “gather evidence” of her infidelity, particularly noting every time she mentions Cassio. Shakespeare does embellish a bit of the “madness” – trance states and so on – but as modern writers struggle to get a grip on mental health issues, we’ll forgive him his sins.

A better example is Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. He’s hypersensitive to any little “sign” that his wife Vickie may be interested in someone else. This culminates in him confronting the suspected lovers, including his own brother Joey in the infamous scene below (NSFW!):

It ends with verbal and physical aggression towards Vickie, and violence towards Joey.

Writing Stalking, Erotomania and Othello Syndrome
Stalkers and those with erotomania are often painted as villains. We could also use more protagonists with erotomania. There are some examples that leap to mind – One Hour Photo, for instance – but there could be more of these fascinating characters.

However, there are some heroes with Othello Syndrome. In a far more popular scenario, the hero cheats with the possessive bad guy’s woman and his jealous rage is at least partially justified – The Illusionist, Moulin Rouge. The hero then gets to save the poor damsel from her hideous relationship, so he can possess her instead. It would be great to see more focus on the impact of this stalking behaviour on the victims and more self-rescuing damsels in these plots.

One problem with these disorders is that they feed into the Hollywood culture of violence against women. Sensationalised violence is partially the purview of the writer, but also of the whole creative team in broadcast media.

In Binary Witness, the killer has a severe case of erotomania. He idealises a woman that he met once – his freebird – and, to attract her attention, stalks a series of women and posts their photographs online. By using the killer’s POV, I tried to give some insight into his delusional system and how love can be used to justify violence. In this instance, he uses stalking in two different ways – the intimacy seeker in relation to his “true love” and predatory when hunting his targets.

I had difficulties balancing my desire to tell a serial killer story without playing into the fetishism of violence towards women. I’m not sure that I succeeded, but I tried to give the victims voices and give them a chance to fight back.

Writers’ Tools: Plot Hog

This post was brought to you by April Fools Day 2014

Plot Hog is a unique writers’ tool that I am proud to unveil for you today. Unlike previous writing aids discussed on this blog – such as Story Forge and Google Maps – this is a revolutionary technique of my own invention.

I can guarantee that incorporating Plot Hog into your work will change your writing forever. You will never look at an index card the same way again.

What is Plot Hog?
Currently in its fourth month of development, Plot Hog is a relatively simple technique which capitalises on the prior successes of notable individuals like Punxsutawney Phil and Paul the Octopus.

It is particularly useful for those times when you haven’t a clue who the murderer is but you have a deadline tomorrow. It’s also fantastic for choosing which character to kill off in your season finale (If you’re feeling particularly Whedonesque, you can use this every couple of episodes or so).

All you need are:

index-card-plot-hog sharpie-plot-hog

and…

plot-hog-activate

THE PLOT HOG

The Plot Hog is a highly-trained specimen, whose seventh-sense leads him to the absolute best choice with 99.3% accuracy. As his eyesight is bloody awful, he cannot cheat and read the cards, led only by his strong magnetic sense of Snyderian cattery.

In this demonstration, I will choose the murderer for my next mystery novel with Plot Hog.

First, I form a list of likely suspects and devote a whole index card to each precious one.

murderer-plot-hog

And then you simply UNLEASH THE PRICKLE MONSTER!

As you can see, the Plot Hog’s unerring sense of plot leads him to seek out the Hot Blonde, stomping on the card with his almighty claw.

recharge-plot-hog

As with all techniques, this has some limitations. Plot Hog’s optimal run time is after dark, with peak operation between midnight and three a.m.. He also requires occasional refuelling with mealworms and approximately one tablespoon of dried cat food in twenty-four hours. Always remember to recharge your Plot Hog to ensure that he can meet all your plot needs.

Plot Hog is a versatile writing tool that you will never be able to put down (except when he spikes your hands and you drop him). Drop me a comment to find out how to source one of your very own!

[DISCLAIMER: No hedgheogs were harmed in the making of this post.]

Location, Location, Location: Choosing Settings for Fiction

paddington-location

Photograph by Patrick Gosling

Location – every writer’s delight and every producer’s bane:

ME: “I’ve written a thrilling chase scene set in Paddington Station at rush hour!”
PRODUCER: “Could it be Gunnersbury at 3am?”

In this blog post, I’m going to talk about the use of location in novels, low/no budget screenplays and stageplays – and how to make the right choices for your project.

First, what is a location? This may seem like a stupid question, but I want to emphasise that locations are not just externals – fields, castles, deserts, mountains. Locations are office buildings, hotel rooms, toilet cubicles. Anything you would put after EXT/INT in a screenplay.

Locations are also towns, countries – or planets. Space, The Final Frontier. A hotel room may look the same in London, Paris and Dubai, but the context of being in that country may determine the action of the scene – in fact, I would argue that it should.

Locations are not incidental. Setting your film in Australia for the tax breaks is a disservice to your story. Unless you plan to embrace Australia with all your writing heart, get to know it intimately and deeply, and lovingly depict both its triumphs and its flaws.

Locations can be made up! Famous examples include Narnia, Middle Earth, Vulcan, Galifrey, Isla Nublar, and The Lost World’s plateau. There are also mythological/legendary locations, like Atlantis, Kumari Kandam and Valhalla.

And, finally, locations are times. There’s a reason The Doctor travels in Time and Space and that Shakespeare called the future “the undiscovered country” (also my favourite Star Trek film, in case you were wondering). The 9th, 19th century and 29th centuries are location choices that have a significant impact on your storyworld.

Choosing Locations
With that in mind, how do you go about picking a location?

Write what you know

millennium-stadium-location

Photograph by DJ LeeKee

I chose to set The Amy Lane Mysteries in Cardiff. Why Cardiff? Firstly, I love Cardiff. I wanted to show it off for an audience. Secondly, I lived there for five years – I know that city, its dodgy streets, its cheap cafés, the feeling of being in the Millennium Stadium when Wales are playing rugby. I was born in England, but I know something of what it means to be Welsh: the patriotism, the tensions of a devolved government, caught between nationalism and dependence.

But, perhaps most importantly, it was the place for the kind of story I wanted to tell. If you set a serial killer story in New York, you join a multitude – to the point where at least 20% of the NYC population must be serial killers, and the rest victims or cops. If you set it in London, you tap into the anonymity of a big city, the Underground, some history of multiple murders – you probably evoke Jack the Ripper, at the very least.

Wales has a murder rate of three people per year. There has never been a serial killer in Cardiff. The UK has been known to obsess over the disappearance of one solitary student for days and weeks. A serial killer in Cardiff throws the local police into disarray and attracts national media attention. It creates an atmosphere of fear in a fairly easy-going city.

The other advantage of Cardiff is that my ex-con Jason is a known face. He has a reputation with the local gangs and the police. The criminal community is small enough that everyone knows everyone – and that everyone can be found and hunted.

But what if you need to set your story in a small rural village and you’ve always lived in Birmingham? Or vice versa? If possible, try to stay in a similar place for at least a weekend. In a village, you need a feeling of how well people know each other, the chat in the local Post Office or Co-op, the public transport, the mobile phone signal, how it feels to walk out at night. If you can’t get there, find someone you know who lives in a location similar to what you need – this particularly applies to foreign countries. Read books by locals – not professional tourists – and watch YouTube videos and documentaries, preferably filmed by natives.

This applies equally to specific settings, such as military bases and hospitals. I actively avoid hospital dramas, because I don’t want to take my work home and because I spend more time railing against the inaccuracies than I do enjoying the drama. Seek out a professional with specific knowledge of the location and consult them at every stage: planning, first draft, final beta.

“Write what you know” means that if you don’t have experiential knowledge of a thing, you go out and get it – or do your research until you can blag well enough to convince an editor/director/genuine local that you know your shit.

Think budget

budget-location

The budget of most projects I’ve worked on

In broadcast media, the screenplay is only one part of a vast clanking machine that runs on money (or, more accurately, the promise of money). Your job as a writer is to write a highly-entertaining film that people want to watch and also makes some other people profit. Obviously, the smaller the initial outlay, the higher the profits.

If you’re working on a low/no budget movie, that starting pot of money may be virtually non-existent. In which case cheap and free location choices are the way to go. However, what may seem like a reasonable location for a budget movie may bloat into a cash-draining nightmare.

When I was a teenager, Realm Pictures – now-renowned for their breath-taking and revolutionary underwater filming and $100,000 Kickstarter – was called Three Arrows Productions. And made a medieval romantic tragedy. First off, this concept did not exactly lend itself to no-budget filming but the team have never been less than ambitious.

Anyway, there was a scene where our hero was attacked by bandits. In the woods. At night. In the rain.

Assuming we already have the cast, costumes and swords, the woods are a free and easily-accessible location. However, as soon as you film after dark, you need a complex and high-powered lighting setup. Also a generator. You also need a rain rig. Additionally, your soaked, freezing and exhausted cast and crew have no ready exit to hot drinks, food, indoor space or toilets.

General rules (and there are definitely exceptions) are that indoor locations in the day are much kinder to budgets.

Historical period drama isn’t necessarily a problem. We are fortunate in the UK to be glutted with buildings in excess of 500 years old. Finding a castle is easy but acquiring filming permission may be difficult. However, finding an old pub or cottage is significantly easier and then all you require is an indulgent landlord/homeowner. There are also reenactment societies who may be keen to advise and get involved in your production. When Realm Pictures needed a spitfire cockpit for The Underwater Realm, the Spitfire Society were an amazing help.

The other important factor is number of locations. The more locations, the higher the budget – and the longer the filming schedule. Having one elaborate, complex high-budget location is preferable to having ten cheap/free ones.

Use of space

hole-location

Act your way out of THAT!

Particularly relevant for the theatre, this also applies to film/TV and to a lesser extent novels – how do your characters interact with the space and how does the space push back?

I have a horror stageplay in a drawer from last year where there are no staging changes but four different locations. The main location is a theatre (yes, I know – there’s a reason it’s in a drawer) and so the “props” littering the stage become significant features of the location when the scene shifts. This can also be emphasised with good lighting, though a lot of smaller theatre spaces have limited capabilities. If you’re putting on a play in a pub, can you use the tables and chairs, the bar, the closeness and claustrophobic atmosphere?

In Binary Witness, Amy’s building has gone through several redesigns to account for the rooms required for the plot and because I was so involved in that location that I didn’t realise it was largely indecipherable to an outsider. The solution to a particular access problem, in the end, was to swap out a staircase for a lift – in a novel, you have total control over every aspect of the environment.

In TV, you don’t have that luxury. Unless you’re writing Doctor Who and you want to add another room to the TARDIS, but there’s that old budgetary concern again. In serial dramas and soaps, you are limited by what has gone before, the constraints of the series. It’s noteworthy that Albert Square is being extended for filming purposes, but the layout remains the same.

A really good example of using space and location is Cube. You take a room and you shut your characters inside. The location is fixed but innovatively used – a cube has six sides and we are constantly reminded of the fact.

Potential Pitfalls and Workarounds
So, if we put together the above points, what do we see?

CONFLICT.

What if you want to set your feature film in China, because you know and love it absolutely, but your producer has no budget? What if you have the perfect free location in your local wine bar but your director can’t light the space? What if your play’s being staged in a basement but the location you’re desperate to write is the Kansas Prairies?

Well, can you make London look like China? What about an empty warehouse? What bits of China do you absolutely need to make this work? Can you film in China – do you have contacts over there, or can the Twitter network help you out?

What are your options for natural light in the bar? Can the production team source different-sized equipment? Does someone know an alternative wine bar down the road that offers a larger toilet and higher ceilings?

What do you need to make a prairie? How can you aid your audience’s sense of disbelief – turn up the heat, turn up the lights, cover your cast in dust?

Or maybe you need to set this project aside, no matter how much you love it. Perhaps it would be feasible in a different medium. My beloved Steampunk Assassins feature has shifted towards becoming a graphic novel, because that medium allows me to tell the story I want to without relying on a billion dollar budget.

Question your choice of location at the planning stage. Choosing to set your novel in the 1920s because Downton Abbey is so hot right now might not be the best creative decision.

New worlds, alternate history and the future come with their own headaches. If you are creating a new storyworld, how does it function? Does physics work the same way there? If your world uses magic, what are the rules? Who lives in this world – humans, aliens, creatures? What is society like? There’s a reason that Middle Earth and the Seven Kingdoms bear a striking resemblance to medieval Europe. And if you choose the future, you have to create a feasible technological progression, or post-apocalyptic struggle.

If you fail to define the boundaries and laws of your new world at the beginning, you will probably tangle yourself in a confusing mess of contradictions and half-finished ideas (See: Almost Human. Also: Lost).

Write a history of the place. Draw a map. Think about how you might compose a tourist guide. Read Trip Advisor for ideas of common things about a place people like to know and examples of how different those countries can be, in myriad surprising ways.

In summary, your choice of locations – settings, geography, space and time – are unlimited in your imagination, but may be constrained by your knowledge/research, budget, and use of space. However, if you’re prepared to be creative in your workarounds and thorough in your preparation, the worlds are your oysters!

The Writing Blog Tour

Writing is not a mystical process involving tea leaves and libraries of how-to books. At least, not in my (somewhat limited) experience.

However, the choices individual writers make about what they write and how they write it can often seem inscrutable. I’ve always been interested in how other writers go about their business, mostly in the hope that their words of wisdom will somehow improve my own attempts.

So, thank you, Mysterious Person Who Began “The Blog Tour”. You are the reason why I am writing this post today.

Because I am a glutton for punishment, I agreed to be tagged by Phill Barron, screenwriter extraordinary, and become part of The Blog Tour before passing the dubious honour of baring their writing souls to two more unfortunates – I mean highly-privileged writers.

But first, let’s talk about Phill.

phill-barron-writing

Phillip Barron is a UK scriptwriter who’s had nine feature films produced. In addition to movies he’s written for BBC3′s BAFTA and Rose d’Or nominated sketch show, The Wrong Door, and co-created Persona, the world’s first smartphone-delivered drama series.

Our paths first crossed in 2011, when I was a green young writer desperately consuming any and all aforementioned words of wisdom. And so, obviously, I started following Phill’s blog and Twitter. When he started working on Persona, I jumped at the chance to be involved. Phill strangely enjoyed working with me and “Megan’s Persona” aired in May 2012. So I am heavily indebted to Phill for giving me my first IMDb credit and I therefore agreed to this pleasure, on pain of pain because he asked nicely.

Without further ado, here are my answers to these devilish questions:

binary witness cover

1) What am I working on?
I’ve just finished the developmental edits on Code Runner, the second novel in The Amy Lane Mysteries series. The first novel Binary Witness is out on May 5th, so I’m also getting my head around marketing and promotion for the first time. This is the flipside to being a novelist that no one really tells you about – the actual writing of the book is nowhere near the end of the journey, and getting accepted for publication is just another waypoint.

The writing part is usually why we get into this crazy world, but it’s the other skills that can limit your progress if you don’t invest in them. Pitching and salesmanship is one facet, and actually getting people to buy/watch/read the thing is another.

My other writing projects are therefore taking a backseat but, as per usual, the projects I’m not actively working on are the ones desperately competing for my attention. “Ooh, look at me, I’m so much better than mystery novels! Think of me! DEVELOP ME!”

My other slow-burning projects include:
1) An historical urban fantasy mystery novel based on a pre-existing property no longer in copyright – this is in the “pre-contemplation” stage of research, plotting, character development and world-building. AKA The Fun Part.
2) A romantic comedy feature – editing and polishing stage, post-notes from the delightfully excellent Michelle Goode aka Sofluid. Highly recommended for all your script reading needs!
3) A drama feature – in development with an indie producer, lots of drafting and redrafting in response to notes. This is the point where it’s really important to have a shared vision of where you’re going, even if neither of you is really sure how you’re gonna get there.

Plus a number of TV pilots that I REALLY want to write but don’t have time for right now. This usually means that I daydream about them for half an hour, add some notes to the rough files I keep for each of them, and then forget about them again. Most of my ideas percolate in this way – I estimate a mean lag time of 2-3 years between first having an idea and writing a first draft.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Ooh, tough question! But I guess it’s what we’re asked every time we pitch – “What’s your USP? What’s so special about you?”

I feel my work has a strong sense of location. I like to write about places I know well, acting as a tour guide for the stranger in town, with the plot enmeshed within the place. I wrote Dragon Chasers after visiting Bryn Celli Ddu, experiencing the magic of the place first-hand. The Amy Lane Mysteries are set in Cardiff, where I lived for five years. My rom com is set in London, where I now live, and the drama feature is set in one specific wine bar, where I had to enjoy a glass of wine in order to write the damn thing.

And I love British characters. I want the characters in my work to reflect Britain, diverse in gender and ethnicity, in age and experience. I am also passionate about accurate portrayal of mental health, which I promote with my Freudian Script series, and which is reflected in my work. Amy Lane’s crippling agoraphobia and depression is part of what makes her so enthralling to me, how she overcomes a disease that makes getting out of bed difficult, how she excels in spite of her limitations.

I also have a flare for the dramatic. People ALWAYS get hurt in my fiction. Often repeatedly. I was writing this cosy romantic comedy feature about this GP who moves to Wales and clashes with the pub landlord, but they secretly fancy each other…one thing leads to another…and then someone gets shot and the local mine explodes. Average day in North Wales, y’know. Even I realised I’d got a little bit carried away with that one.

3) Why do I write what I do?
I write things that I want to read/watch. I’m not yet cynical enough to just Do It For The Money (though some money would be nice, if anyone wants to give me some).

Genres I love include mystery, SF&F, historical, action-adventure, and rom coms. I’m an eclectic girl and therefore I struggle to stick to one genre or medium. Sometimes, a plot will shift medium – the TV/short film/feature film swingometer is pretty common, but one idea made the leap from feature to graphic novel.

But the common theme of my writing is identity. Who am I, what is my purpose, how do I define myself, how do others define me, what is the contribution of my gender/ethnicity/culture/family/occupation/sexuality to my sense of self? As a bisexual mixed-race cis-female psychiatrist, this is something that crops up, oh, every now and then in my own life. I think that’s why I find the question of identity fascinating and why I choose to explore it in my work.

4) How does my writing process work?
Firstly, I’m a professional writer but not a full-time one. Therefore, by necessity, my writing fits in around my fixed-time commitments – like the day job.

When I have a stretch of writing time, I like to Pomodoro (thank you, Jason Arnopp, for introducing me to that). Basically: 25 minutes work, 5 minutes rest, repeat until you fall off the chair. It’s been brilliant for my productivity and I wish I’d discovered it sooner.

As for how an idea becomes a fully-realised product, I work through a number of stages depending on the nature of the project. I usually start with plot – I have an exciting idea, usually sometime inconvenient (e.g. while driving, middle of a clinic), and I note it down ASAP. I then come back to it at a later date, and embellish it with additional points – characters, set pieces, random dialogue. Often, this is an organic process, unless it’s an idea I dig out for a specific purpose (e.g. I need to write a TV spec – what TV spec ideas do I have lying around?).

With screenplays, when I have enough basic material, I write an outline, usually with a beat sheet – my favourite is Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, but it depends on the medium (for example, it doesn’t work for sitcoms). After that, I flesh out my characters, and my go-to tool for this is Story Forge. I then jump straight to index cards, because I really hate treatments. Treatments, for me, are sales documents that come later if someone asks for one. From index cards, I go for a first draft and then several more drafts. I sent out for script editing notes and then I write more drafts. Eventually, I decide It’s Ready and send it out into the world!

My experience with novels is a little different. With novels, I start with characters and a very basic plotline. I flesh out the characters first and then outline the plot; with a murder mystery, it’s important to work backward – whodunit plus means, motive and opportunity. I move on to the victim(s) and the details of the crime scene that will be analysed by the sleuths. I then layer up the obscuring features of the plot that make the mystery harder to solve – the decoys, red herrings, missing evidence, etc.. I would like to say that I plot everything down to the last detail, but I tend to swerve off at a tangent somewhere in the middle and then have to write myself a list of what needs to happen at what word count to actually time the final acts with the end of the novel.


Now it’s my turn to pass this honour on to two more writers. Here they are:

robin-bell-writing

Robin Bell lives in Hope, literally, a small village in North Wales. He is lead writer and produces the Guardian Top 25 web TV show Twisted Showcase; Series 3 starring Gareth David Lloyd, Sarah Louise Madison and Norman Lovett launches later this year. His romantic comedy feature is currently in production with Dark Arts Films.

sandy-nicholson-writing

Sandy Nicholson is the head writer at Box Room Films, and has been working as a television writer and dialogue “flirting” consultant for five years, including writing on the remake of the HBO show, In Treatment. He was also nominated for the 2013 Peter Ustinov Prize by the International Emmy Awards Foundation.

Tune in to their blogs next week for insight on their writing!

Freudian Script: Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

Today we have a special Guest Post from Katherine Fowler, my good friend and go-to girl for Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) – take it away, Katherine!

It is a great honour to be asked to do a guest post here, on ASD (aka my favourite topic in all the world). So, without further ado…

DISCLAIMER: This blog post is designed for writers of fiction. If you are concerned that you or someone you know has symptoms of mental health problems, please see your doctor.

What is ASD?
ASD, or autism spectrum disorders, cover a wide range of developmental disorders, ranging from full-blown classic autism, to the catchily named PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified). As the word “spectrum” suggests, there is a huge difference between those at the far ends of the scale. And, with such a diverse range of symptoms, even those placed in the same spot along the scale may come across very differently.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s divide the spectrum into three.

Autism is defined by the ‘triad of impairments’, or in other words, three main families of symptoms. Whilst these are often described as distinct families, the links between them are strong and, ultimately, they feed off of each other. These triad of impairments are:

Social and emotional difficulties
People with autism struggle to interact socially with others. Problems with empathy, and understanding the viewpoints of others (often referred to as “theory of mind”) mean that it can be hard for those on the spectrum to make and sustain friendships.

ASD tends to go hand in hand with mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, due largely to problems with socialising, leading to loneliness and social anxiety. As people with autism also tend to struggle to understand and regulate their own emotions and reactions to the world around them, they may also come across as volatile, over-dramatic or over-sensitive. This tends to be due to their inabilities to process and understand their feelings, but can often come across as being “a bit of a drama queen”.

Language and communication
Autistic people can struggle with communication and conversation. Eye contact feels awkward and unnatural, and so those with ASD tend to avoid meeting another person’s gaze if possible. Combined with awkward body language, and autistic people may come across as stand-offish, bored or uninterested. This is, normally, not the case.

Autistic people also tend to take things very literally, with jokes and sarcasm often not registering or being taken as deadly serious. This can easily, and commonly, lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

Flexibility/imagination
Those on the spectrum tend to have very rigid views and interests. The world is normally seen in black and white, rather than shades of grey. Autistic people tend to have a few very obsessive interests, rather than a wider range of general interests.

This rigidity spreads into everyday life, as well as just in extra-curricular interests. Routine is key to those on the spectrum, and when a routine is suddenly thrown off-kilter this can often lead to feelings of anxiety and distress. Change, similarly, tends to lead to upsets, as this will, by very definition, affect the familiar day-to-day life that those with ASD find so reassuring.

Asperger’s Syndrome is a form of autism, characterised by high levels of cognitive ability. There is a great deal of debate amongst the scientific and medical communities as to whether this is truly different from high-functioning autism (those at the most able end of the autism spectrum). Those who believe the two conditions are distinct cite an increased level of clumsiness in those with Asperger’s, alongside no delay in the onset of speech and other forms of communication (those with classic autism tend to start speaking and communicating later than the “average” child). More than any other form of autism, those with Asperger’s are known for above average levels of intelligence, sometimes even bordering on genius.

PDD-NOS tends to be used as a catch-all term for those who display autistic behaviours and symptoms alongside clinical impairment, without fulfilling the full diagnostic criteria for autism (or Asperger’s). For example, someone who clearly ticks the boxes of two of the triad of impairments, but doesn’t quite reach the third.

As already mentioned, all of these symptoms come on a spectrum, and nothing I say is true of every person with a diagnosis of autism. Those with ASD are known for lacking imagination, however I know of autistic people who are successful fiction writers. Those with ASD are known for struggling socially, and being loners, and yet there are those with large groups of friends, partners, spouses. There are those with autism whose communication skills are so limited they never speak a word, whilst others will go through a mainstream school environment and go on to University. Everyone is different.

Notable examples
Ask anybody about the portrayal of ASD in film and television, and the title that comes to mind is Rain Man. Rain Man tells the tale of Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) and his roadtrip across America with his autistic brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman).

At times, Rain Man does a superb job of portraying the severe end of the autistic spectrum. For example in this scene, Raymond’s need for pattern and routine are clearly established, as are his anxieties and problems with communication.

Where Rain Man falls down is in regards to the social and emotional difficulties seen in ASD. Whilst Raymond does have the occasional emotional outburst – the most memorable being in a scene where his brother tries to take him on a plane, something that terrifies him and leads to a meltdown – there are also many scenes where this aspect of autism is overlooked in favour of The Plot.

Later on in the film, Charlie tries to exploit his brother’s memory and observation skills by taking him to a casino, hoping to win big money with the help of Raymond’s ability to spot patterns in the cards. The casino is loud and busy, something that is very much emphasised in the film’s direction; however, Raymond shows little concern for this. He is also happy to sit around a cramped card table, spectators crowded over his shoulders and loud conversations all around him. This does not affect his concentration or provoke any additional feelings of anxiety. For the vast majority of autistic individuals, loud and busy environments tend to be very anxiety-provoking, due to the very common inability to process a bombardment of stimulation to the senses.

Instead, the film plays up the trope of the “idiot savant”, a common pitfall in fictional characters with ASD. Whilst there are autistic people who do show exceptional skills in areas such as memory, even when they may be highly disabled in others areas of cognition, this is not as common as the media leads us to believe. The exceptional intelligence, etc. that is the trademark of “Hollywood” autism is actually far more commonly seen in those at the higher end of the spectrum, who are capable of functioning adequately in every day society.

Another character that lends himself to ASD is Sherlock Holmes. The latest incarnation, written by Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss and portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, has garnered a great deal of discussion as to whether or not he is meant to have Asperger’s – although the debate can be found to go back to the time of Arthur Conan Doyle and his original Holmes. For the current incarnation, the writers’ intentions seem unclear, with both Moffat and Gatiss refusing to definitively say whether they feel Sherlock has the syndrome. In the series 2 episode The Hounds of Baskerville, Lestrade and Watson joke about “having the same faces back together” appealing to Sherlock’s “Asperger’s”, but this one jokey line of dialogue does not constitute proof of the writers’ intentions.

Sherlock does at times display several elements of Asperger’s. However, these displays are erratic and contradictory. It is made clear that he struggles to understand human behaviour and social interaction – for example, his ridiculously over the top apologies to John (again, in The Hounds of Baskerville) after they argue. However, at other times, he uses a very intimate knowledge of human behaviour to trick others into assisting him (the best example being his “relationship” with Janine throughout series 3, or his way of gaining entry into Irene Adler’s home in the series 2 episode A Scandal in Belgravia).

His range of interests is small, and obsessive, but doesn’t quite hit the “austistic” mark (obsessions so great that all conversations are forced back to it, and strong mental anguish felt if forced to abandon these interests). And whilst Sherlock does come across as mostly antisocial, he doesn’t have the awkward sense to him that so often comes across in those with Asperger’s. He allows a Christmas party in his flat without complaint, and even allows and gets excited by visitors that bring work. Whilst it is common for those with Asperger’s, or high functioning autism, to wear a “normal mask”, Sherlock wears his just a little too well at times.

Da Vinci’s Demons is a sadly underrated show, probably because of its late night slot on an obscure satellite channel with quite frankly terrible CGI. However, it is the very definition of a hidden gem, and, whether on purpose or not, the character of Leonardo da Vinci has been written with all the hallmarks of a sufferer of Asperger’s Syndrome.

Leonardo brings the savant without the Hollywood idiot. He lives a solitary life, or at least as solitary as circumstance allows, and clearly finds company more of an irritant than a pleasure. He fixates on certain ideas obsessively, to the constant frustration of his small group of friends (or, more accurately, followers and acquaintances), and to the point where he can zone out from anything else that is happening around him. This is often done to the considerable detriment of the work he has been commissioned to carry out by the Medici family. He is prone to sudden outbursts of anger or violence, most commonly when faced with communication barriers, and he finds himself unable to understand why the people around him are behaving as they are.

The scene above highlights several of these key Asperger’s traits. Notice Leonardo’s single-minded fixation on his current obsession (namely breaking into the Vatican’s Secret Archives), and how he only joins in the conversation around him when it is directly relevant to what he wants to discuss. Jokes that make others laugh go straight over his head. The way he thanks the man hiding them feels awkward, as though he only says it because he knows he should, rather than with any real feeling. And when his friend Zo tries to broach his personal space to try and pull him from his obsession, the reaction is immediate and strongly negative.

(I should probably state here that Series 2 of Da Vinci’s Demons has begun in America but as a law-abiding British citizen, I won’t be watching until it comes to the UK in April. So there is a chance that the new season ruins everything I have just written above. If so, forgive me and pretend this never happened.)

Editor’s Note 26/03/14: In response to this article, Tom Riley, who plays Leonardo on Da Vinci’s Demons, commented on Twitter that he portrays the character with ASD and researched for accuracy with people on the spectrum.

Writing ASD
If you are writing a character with an ASD, the triad of impairments need to be at the forefront of your mind. If you focus on the socially awkward, but give them a wide range of hobbies and interests and a deep understanding of the human psyche, then you’ve probably got somebody who’s shy or, at most, socially phobic. Focus on the struggles with empathy, understanding and emotional regulation, but give your character a wide social circle, and you’ve got someone who, sure, may have low levels of emotional intelligence, but is far from autistic. Or, as is the most common pitfall when bringing ASD to the page or the screen, if you only focus on the obsessions and rituals, without the social aspects of autism, then you’re probably going to end up closer to OCD.

As well as a well-rounded autistic character, with clear signs of all three impairment areas, I would also love to see more “every day” characters with ASD. The “idiot savant” has been done to death, and tends to give the impression that ASD = low intelligence/requiring institutionalisation or constant care. Those with ASD who live ordinary lives, go to work, get married and have children are constantly overlooked. ASD can be, and often are, invisible. It would be good to shine a light on them.

Footnote: I decided against talking about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time here, as I wanted to keep the focus on TV/film. However, if you do want an example of an expertly written character with autism, I cannot recommend the book enough. I’ve yet to see the stage play, though, so cannot vouch for that.


Katherine Fowler has a background in psychology, and a Masters degree in developmental disorders. She chose to focus on autistic spectrum disorders throughout her studies. She has worked with autistic children and teens in school, social and research settings for over 7 years.
She also blogs book reviews, and anything else that comes into her head, over at her Hodge Podge of Miscellany.

Dynamic Duos: The Crime Fighting Partners Formula

batman-robin-partners

What makes great crime fighting partners? One mind, two bodies? Opposites attract? An office romance – or bromance? Or do you simply need a yes-man for your genius?

I explore what makes crime fighting partners successful and compelling – and the building blocks required for writing a solid partnership. As the old Hollywood maxim goes: “The same, only different”.

But first, a little background…

Crime Fighting Partners: A History
From the very beginning of detective fiction, our heroes have worked in pairs. C. Auguste Dupin and his anonymous narrator friend, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson – a great detective can hardly impress if he has no one to question him.

Early cinema derived heavily from detective fiction, including Dupin and Holmes, and brought Lord Peter Wimsey and his camera-wielding valet Bunter to screen. In the world of comic books, Batman Issue #1 introduces both Caped Crusader and acrobatic sidekick Robin.

In the world of television, the 1960s brought an explosion of crime fighting partners in the form of the Buddy Cop Show. Starsky & Hutch, Adam-12, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) – the forefathers of a tradition that continued with Miami Vice and Cagney and Lacey in the 1980s and into the 1990s with two of my personal favourites: The Sentinel and Due South.

As we increasingly acknowledge the existence of women, crime fighting partners in the present day are increasingly of the opposite sex (with the obligatory Unresolved Sexual Tension). There is also more “high concept” involved, usually someone bringing a special skill to a police outfit – con artist turned good, crime writer, android.

But what is it about crime fighting partners that make them so popular? And how can a writer creating such a partnership tap into that success with an original twist?

Here’s what I consider to be the vital ingredients in creating great crime fighting partners:

Complementary Skills

crime-fighting-partners-jam-watson

Hark, a vagrant: The Case of the Two Watsons

Each partner should bring something to the table. In the original Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories, Holmes is a genius private detective and Watson is an ex-army doctor, diarist and sounding board. Holmes is the senior partner, but Watson has a valid role. Some later adaptations sought to “dumb down” John Watson, a similar fate to Captain Hastings with Hercule Poirot. In BBC Sherlock, our titular hero gives a lovely best man speech about what John brings to their partnership.

In the aforementioned case of the special character landing in a police procedural, the “typical” partner brings the power of their official role and knowledge of sound crime fighting methodology. They are usually gifted at interrogation, like Kate Beckett in Castle or Teresa Lisbon in The Mentalist.

Sometimes, the benefit is in completely opposition, lending insight to each other and balancing out the extremes. This is seen in conservative former Army Ranger and man’s-man Jim Ellison and hippie touchy-feely anthropologist Blair Sandburg in The Sentinel, with the additional benefit of Blair guiding Jim through his Sentinel experience. Slightly outside crime fighting, this dynamic is also seen in The X-Files – Mulder’s belief and Scully’s scepticism.

Seamless working

From finishing each other’s sentences to always having each other’s backs, the perfect crime fighting partners become one. They are inseparable, they are interlocking pieces of a puzzle – one cannot function at their best without the other. It is this element that primes the UST in many crime fighting partners, which may lead to romance or disaster.

This is often best demonstrated when one partner is temporarily removed from the equation. In similar fashion to the infamous horror movie line “let’s split up”, this never ends well. Starsky and Hutch do this A LOT, and it forms a vital component in 2004 movie adaptation. With police consultants, they often get chucked out by higher-ups, leaving their cop companions to struggle on – or consult them on the quiet.

And last, but by no means least…

The Crime Cannot Be Solved Without Both
This last component is a property of the plot more than the partnership characterisation. The writer must sell a convincing argument that these are the Only People For The Job – this crime can only be solved by these people, working together as a partnership.

In the Millennium trilogy, Mikael Blomkvist uses his investigative journalism skills to start uncovering the mystery but it takes Lisbeth Salander’s skill as a hacker to further their cause. In TV shows like Psych, Castle, The Mentalist, Numb3rs, and Almost Human, the special skill of the “other” partner must always be part of the crime-solving process – whether it’s the writer’s imagination or mathematical modelling, it has to a vital step.

Putting It All Together
The key to The Crime Fighting Partners Formula is this: the crime cannot be solved without both partners and the unique skills they bring to the relationship, working together seamlessly as one high-functioning unit.

In my novel Binary Witness, Amy is an agoraphobic hacker, making capable of immense technological feats but unable to step outside her front door. Her crime fighting partner is Jason, a streetwise ex-con who can be her man about town, gathering information on suspects that’s outside the limitations of the internet. At first, they completely fail to understand each other, but by working as a pair, they are able to solve the mystery – which they could not do without each other.

Who are your favourite crime fighting partners? Do they fit the formula? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Freudian Script: The Psychopath

psycho cabbie

“Psycho” – Psychopath? Psychotic? Psychological bullshit?

The Psychopath – favourite of Hollywood and tabloid journalism alike. This week’s Freudian Script attempts to clarify the definition of psychopathy, identify people wrongly called psychopaths, and uncover how you can write better psychopaths.

DISCLAIMER: This blog post is designed for writers of fiction. If you are concerned that you or someone you know has symptoms of mental health problems, please see your doctor instead of doing a test on the internet.

What is a psychopath?
Unlike other conditions I have detailed in this series, psychopathy is a murky concept at best and is often the subject of controversy. I will therefore digress into the details of classification to shed some light on the problem.

Psychopathy is considered a personality disorder, often sub-typed under either anti-social or dissocial personality disorder – depending on your classification system. The International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10), baby of the World Health Organisation and preferred by UK psychiatrists, bundles the term in under dissocial personality disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), beloved child of the American Psychiatric Association and used by most psychologists, revised their classification this year and shuffled around their personality disorder categories to form Antisocial/Psychopathic personality disorder.

The reason I have bored you to tears with the minutiae of classification is the important distinction in criminal law. In the UK, psychopathy is not recognised as a distinct entity and those with dissocial personality disorder are more likely to wind up in prison than a secure psychiatric hospital. However, in the United States, the psychopath label affects sentencing, likelihood of bail, imprisonment, parole and whether a juvenile should be tried as an adult.

In both cases, whether or not you are a psychopath is determined by a test.

Are You A Psychopath?
The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) has recently garnered publicity in the UK when Channel 4 had a Psychopath Night. Part of their “celebrations” included a cute little test that you could take to see if you were a psychopath.

Some advice? Never take a test on the internet. They prove only that there is no limit to the number of morons who want to take tests on the internet.

The PCL-R is a specialist test for which practitioners need to take a course and involves a semi-structured interview. (Interesting aside: the threshold score in the UK is 25, but in the US, it’s 30). It is the best guide we have on the defining traits of a psychopath and is based on three categories:

> Boldness – increased risk-taking and self-confidence, with a very high fear and danger threshold.
> Disinhibition – poor impulse control, demand for instant gratification, difficulty resisting making fantasy reality
> Meanness – lack of social empathy, disdain for close attachments, exploitation and manipulation of others for their own ends

(Wiki has a nice breakdown of the sub-traits)

Not A Psychopath
Due to Hollywood and, that bane of mental health accuracy, tabloid journalism, let’s make a list:

sun-mental-patients-front-page

Psychopathy =/= Psychosis
These are two completely different things. Sadly, the word “psycho” has been used interchangeably with both psychotic and psychopath, all completely devoid of sense. Often, when you see any of these words in a newspaper, the implication is “mad and dangerous”. For more on the media’s role in perpetuating mental health stigma, I recommend the research of Mary O’Hara.

Psychopath =/= Murderer
Not all psychopaths are murderers and not all murderers are psychopaths. Not even all serial killers and mass murderers are psychopaths. While the definition doesn’t nail it to the mast, there is a high probability of criminality but it doesn’t need to be fatal or even violent.

Psychopath =/= Intellectual
In Hollywood, all psychopaths are smart, calculating and one step ahead of the good guys. They are also usually successful, cultured and middle class. This makes for interesting plotlines and witty banter. However, IQ is not part of the equation – some studies have even suggested that psychopathy is associated with low IQ.

The grandiosity associated with the disorder does not have to be remotely true. Charm, however, is very important – the cliché goes that if you walk into a room with a reportedly hideous person and leave feeling pleasantly inclined, you have just met a psychopath. Deception forms a large part of the personality, which includes the clinical and colloquial term “pathological liar”, and this can lead to a “con man” lifestyle.

There have been loud noises about psychopathic traits being beneficial to certain careers – corporate CEOs and surgeons foremost among them. There is a certain truth to this, but the emphasis here is on traits. Whether that crosses over into the pathology of psychopathy (remember that threshold?) is debatable.

And finally…

Sherlock =/= psychopath/sociopath/any such thing
I suppose we had better start with the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath. Bluntly, there isn’t really a distinction. Sociopathy and psychopathy are sometimes used interchangeably – the two terms came from parallel areas of research.

I imagine Sherlock may be referring to one of Hare’s distinctions that psychopathy is amoral and sociopathy is merely having right/wrong views that differ from the norm. He may also have fixated on the meanness element, using his lack of strong personal relationships as evidence (a theme built upon by the first season of Sherlock – “I don’t have a heart”, etc.)

However, I think John Watson’s assertion in Season 2 that Sherlock has Asperger’s Syndrome is closer to the mark (an area to be explored in an upcoming instalment of Freudian Script).

Writing psychopaths
My first question is this: does this person need to be a psychopath?

Hollywood is glutted with psychopaths. From Hannibal Lecter to Dexter, every man with a sideline in murder is a bloody psychopath. The danger with this default is that it can make for lazy writing. As Castle explains in his eponymous pilot: “At one death, you look for motive. At two, you look for a connection… At three, you don’t need motive because mentally unstable serial killers don’t usually have one.”

If you do want to write a psychopath, consider going against the grain. Think about focussing on a different strain of criminality – why so many heartless murderers and loveable con men? Consider Danny Ocean or Dominic Cobb as psychopaths. I’d like to see more characters like Simon from Trance – the antiquities trade is the biggest industry of organised crime, after all.

Also, if your character secretly has a heart of gold, he is not a psychopath. He is probably using an array on unhealthy defence mechanisms instead. Psychopathy is resistant to management and treatment, on the whole, though some people just learn to cover better – that charm, again.

I would also like to see more female psychopaths. Not a territory readily explored, because serial killer profile tends towards male and violence against women is endemic in Hollywood culture. Find me a psychopathic con woman and I will delight in watching that movie.

Who are your favourite fictional psychopaths? How do they measure up to the traits described? And how could you improve upon the depiction, armed with knowledge?


If you need advice or guidance on writing a character with a mental illness, please contact me by e-mail or in the comments below – I am always happy to help out!

Rejection is Encouragement: Agent Hunting Improved My Writing

Rejection letters piling up? Sick of putting yourself out there only to get knocked back? THERE IS HOPE!

rejection

Listen up, querying writers: rejection during your quest for representation and publication is not the end of the world – in fact, it can be good for you and your writing!

My own hunt for an agent ended without success. BUT my writing improved! To illustrate this, I contacted various literary agents who rejected my book and asked to share their comments with you.

In April 2013, I participated in #carinapitch and ultimately landed myself a book deal with Carina Press.

While I was waiting to hear back, I decided that I was in need of an agent. I had a newly-polished manuscript in hand and I was determined! I eagerly collated a list of agents and sent my partial out into the world.

To say my first query letters were a disaster is an understatement. They were dire. I’m not even going to go there. Suffice to say, I then got my act together and, by the time I received my offer from Carina Press, I had some idea of what I was about.

I had already accumulated a handful of rejections by this point. Some were obviously forms (though nicely-worded), some rejected on a “no answer means no thanks” basis, and some had personal notes.

Every personal note made my day. And these people were saying no! To a partial! Juliet Mushens, literary agent with The Agency Group and regular #askagent font of wisdom, said “Personal responses, no matter how brief, can be real encouragement that you’re getting there.”

Camilla Wray at Darley Anderson wrote me the following note:

Both myself and our agency reader have read your chapters of [Binary Witness] and especially enjoyed Amy and Jason’s character interaction. It is real, honest and darkly entertaining. Overall there is so much to admire in your work and you have a great narrative voice. However I’m really sorry but we have decided we’re unable to go further. It is essential you find an agent who is as passionate and determined as you are and very sadly my reaction wasn’t strong enough to be the right advocate.

This is a common response I received – passion, personal preference and strength of feeling. Also, after I had an offer in hand, I received a lot of advice about carefully checking contracts and advising I seek assistance from the Society of Authors.

I received two full requests – one from Juliet and one from Oli Munson, A.M. Heath agent and Spurs fan. They are both active on Twitter, which is a NIGHTMARE for a querying author. The urge to stalk is strong, often too strong to resist, and any mention of reading a manuscript, liking a line, hating a character, must be about your manuscript. It’s unhealthy – don’t do it (but you will anyway).

In the end, both rejected me – here’s what they had to say:

Thanks so much for sending me the full, and your patience as I considered it. I was very torn about this one, but ultimately I don’t feel passionately enough about it to take it on. I loved the concept, and I think your dialogue is a real strength, but ultimately I didn’t buy into the characters enough to want to take this forward. Another agent may well feel differently and I wish you the best with that.

~ Juliet Mushens

I have now thought about this long and hard and I’m afraid it just doesn’t quite hit the mark for me. There is genuinely so much I like. Your writing is very good indeed, the pages keep turning and the characters have the potential to be truly interesting. But I just didn’t feel that potential was realised and there was a lot I didn’t buy into…

Overall it just lacks an extra layer of depth for me, but I don’t think I’ll read a manuscript this year which is more suited to the screen. Perhaps that was part of the problem. It often felt like I was watching an hour long tv drama rather than being fully immersed in the novel and the world and characters you were creating.

Honestly though, this is better than 95% of what I usually receive. It just wasn’t quite there for me but if you don’t have any joy with this manuscript, I’d be more than happy to take a look at what you do next.

~ Oli Munson

At the time, I was distraught. However, if I’m honest with myself, they had highlighted flaws I already knew. I struggle with depth in prose – and I’ve spent most of the past few years writing for screen. Characterisation is hard for me. I love plot and my character development often suffers for it.

But when I threw myself into editing with Deb Nemeth, my wonderful editor at Carina Press, I had this additional solid feedback to take with me. To find deeper POV, I amputated thought verbs. I delved into my characters more and I tried to carry that across to other projects, with the aid of Story Forge.

I learned. I grew. I wrote.

Agents want to find gold in the slush pile. They are not your enemy, even if it feels like they’re torching your babies with their fiery emails. And they feel your pain. As one agent told me: “Agents get rejected too – sometimes editors can ignore my submissions. I’ve had one copy and paste an intern’s reading report before and write ‘I agree’ underneath. Sometimes they can be brutal, sometimes they can be positive, or really helpful.”

Ultimately, Binary Witness is the book it is today because of rejection. The compliments were comforting, but it was the constructive criticism that drove me to iron out the creases, strive to be the writer that can ignite passion.

In May, I will be a published author. But rejection does not end with publication – “Getting and learning from rejections is a key part of the process and doesn’t stop even with an agent.”


Want to read the book that rejection made? BINARY WITNESS will be published by Carina Press on 5th May 2014. Like the Facebook Page for updates!