Saturday, May 25, 2013

What I Learned About Writing By Writing, Part 5

This epic blog is all about those doors that open and whether or not you choose to go through them or not.

In late 1995, the biggest door I've encountered in my career opened for me. It was totally unexpected. I didn't ask for it. I never dreamed it was possible. It wasn't even a fantasy because it was such an improbability.

I was asked by Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. if I was interested in taking over from John Gardner to write official James Bond novels.

The invitation came out of the blue. I was still working as a computer game designer/writer when I received a phone call from Peter Janson-Smith, the Chairman of IFPL--at that time it was called Ian Fleming (Glidrose) Publications Ltd. He said John wanted to retire from the gig after 15 years, and he asked me if I wanted "to give it a shot." As mentioned in an earlier part of this blog, Peter and I had gotten to know each other when I wrote The James Bond Bedside Companion, published in 1984. We had stayed in touch, become friends, and I had performed little oddjobs (no pun intended) for the company over the next decade. Although I had not had a novel published, Peter and the Fleming Estate people must have been confident that I knew Bond's universe well enough to tackle the job.

The shoes to fill were huge. Ian Fleming? Kingsley Amis? John Gardner? Were they kidding? Me? An American with no previous novel published? Yes, I knew how to write fiction. I had spent the last decade penning fiction, just not in the format of a novel. I could easily have said, "No, I'm not up to that task, find someone else," but come on, how could I say that? I had to "give it a shot." I would have always wondered "what if?" if I hadn't.

There was an audition of sorts. I had to write an outline of a plot on spec, which would have to be approved by not only IFPL but also the British publisher and the American publisher. This is where I learned that the outline is the most important piece of writing a novel. Of course, there are plenty of authors who don't outline, and that works for them. There are also plenty that do. It works for me, and since Peter insisted on an outline, it trained me to do one for every bit of fiction I've written since.

My outlines are really prose treatments. They're broken down into block paragraphs, and each paragraph represents a chapter. In each block paragraph I detail what happens plot-wise. There's no dialogue or setting description. Just plot. "X goes to <location> and finds <plot device>. He is discovered by Y. Big fight. X wins but is badly injured. He escapes with his life and the secret <plot device>." That kind of thing. It goes on for about 15-20 pages, single-spaced. I spend a long time on the outline, maybe a month or two, because this is where I work out all the twists and turns, the red herrings, the act structure, the climax, and the ending. It becomes the blueprint of the novel. It doesn't mean I'm married to it. If, when writing the actual book, I get another idea--I simply change the outline!

After the outline was approved, I had to write the first four chapters on spec. Same approval process. When all was said and done, I got the contract to write the next James Bond novel. By then it was Spring 1996. I remained in my day job as a game designer for another year while I wrote the book. But I took some time off to travel to the locations and do research. I traveled to all my Bond locations--it was an essential part of the process.

My first published novel was a James Bond novel. I'm still pinching myself. Zero Minus Ten was published in April 1997. Then I quit my job and became a full-time author and haven't looked back. What followed was six more years of "Bondage." Part of my duties as the Bond author was to novelize the current films (because they were original screenplays). In total, I wrote six original novels, three movie novelizations, and three short stories. I traveled around the world and met dozens of very cool people. I was thrust into a spotlight. This was also at the time when the Internet was just becoming The Next Big Thing, and fans of all big franchises (Star Wars, Buffy, Star Trek, Batman, whatever) suddenly had a vehicle through which to gather, criticize, discuss, criticize, fawn over, criticize, and deconstruct their favorite things. And they could do it anonymously if they wanted. I quickly found that I had millions of fans who loved me and just as many who hated me. I received love letters and death threats. It was truly a bizarre, sometimes unnerving experience. Those seven years became a roller-coaster.

But I survived it and am very proud of the work I did for Bond.

WHAT I LEARNED: The outline is king. It's the most valuable tool a writer can have if it's done correctly. I also utilized new kinds of time management (there's that theatre training again) and discipline. When I wrote my first novel back in the 80s, I discovered that just completing the darned thing was an achievement. With Bond, I had to not only finish the books, but I had to do them fairly quickly. For the movie novelizations, I usually had around six weeks from start to finish! The original novels had a much more relaxed schedule, but there were milestones that had to be met within a year. The outlining, traveling, research, writing, and revising all had to be done in twelve months. Finally, I learned to grow very thick skin. Like with all big franchises, Bond fans are very opinionated. Most are lovely people. Others... well, we won't go there. At any rate, the Internet, with its message boards and fan sites, allowed readers to praise and criticize authors in ways that were unprecedented. And that was the biggest lesson of those seven years.

To be continued...

Friday, May 17, 2013

What I Learned About Writing By Writing, Part 4

In the last installment of this scintillating story, I was still in New York, attempting to write fiction and learning by doing. By the end of the 1980s, I had a family. Although we would have liked to have stayed in Manhattan, we couldn't afford a larger apartment that could accommodate a toddler. We really didn't want to move to Brooklyn or Queens or New Jersey... so we investigated leaving New York altogether and going back to Austin, Texas, a city my wife and I both loved. So, in 1990, we moved across country.

I had a crazy idea that I would go to school to be a court reporter. That way, I'd have a day job that would provide me with "material" with which to write mysteries and thrillers. So I enrolled in court reporting school--and surprisingly, I was pretty good at it. I even made "student of the month" the fourth month I was in the school. The problem was that I hated it! I really couldn't stand it. After four months, I realized that it was a mistake. So I quit--without a clue as to what I would do instead.

But then one of those doors I keep talking about opened! It just appeared by chance, like they always do. The newspaper's classified section had a want ad--a computer gaming company in Austin needed writers, programmers, and artists. Duh, that sounded like the job for me, since I already had experience. It turned out to be Origin Systems, a very prestigious company responsible for the Ultima and Wing Commander computer games (remember, this is before Windows, and really before console videogames...these were games played on PCs in DOS). So I applied... and I got the job as a full-time writer. I would be paid to write fiction.

I was immediately made Head Writer for the next installment of the Ultima fantasy series, which turned out to be Ultima VII--the Black Gate. (My official credit was "Screenplay and Story Direction.") This was one of the biggest gaming franchises at that time. The experience was like working on a major motion picture. The game had a huge budget and a very large staff (for the time). I was actually in charge of a team of writers, it was that complicated. My job was to come up with the main plot/storyline of the game, and then my team and I would write all the characters' dialogue ("conversations") and sub-plots.

Again, the theatre training came in very handy. By then (1991-1992), graphics had come into games, so the products were more cinematic than before. I had to "stage" scenes, create storyboards, and juggle the pieces of an epic story.

The game, published in 1992, was a huge international success. It led to more doors opening for me that, once again, I never expected. Another gaming company (MicroProse Software), based in Maryland, recruited me to be an actual "Game Designer," and for more money, so I moved my family across country again. There I had even more creative freedom. A year later, another big company (Viacom New Media) recruited me to come to the Chicago area, so I moved the family across country again. I also managed to slip in a freelance project for an even different company (Cyberdreams) in-between those last two gigs.

Thus, counting my two years in the 80s in which I wrote for computer games, I ended up spending a decade working in that industry. I was still working for Viacom when a very big door opened for me in the mid-90s. A very big door. More like a gigantic gate.

WHAT I LEARNED: I learned how to work within a collaborative team structure. Again, project management skills were extremely important. I learned to look at the "big picture" of a large storyline; I had to create different parts of a story at different times in a non-linear fashion. I also learned what it's like to have a franchise owner looking over your shoulder. In many ways, this was my first "tie-in" work, that is, being paid to write for someone else's universe and characters. This knowledge, as it turned out, would prove to be invaluable.

Tune in to Part 5 and go through that big gate with me...

Saturday, May 11, 2013

What I Learned About Writing By Writing, Part 3

In the last part, I talked about my entry into the computer gaming industry and how I learned to write interactive fiction. It was 1986. I wanted to write prose fiction and come up with another book. I was still working in theatre, and in fact directed some shows and composed music for other works in the latter half of that decade. 

My published work, The James Bond Bedside Companion, was still selling well and had established me as something of a "James Bond expert," whatever that is. Remember, in the mid-80s, there was no Internet. Bond fans had to communicate through fan clubs, printed newsletters and fanzines, and conventions. I became involved with the American James Bond 007 Fan Club (I became Vice President) and contributed articles to the fanzine, "Bondage." :) I also made friends with the folks at the UK fan club, and contributed articles to their fanzine, "007." The Bedside Companion was sold to a British publisher, and I began working on an update for a 1988 publication--it would be published for the first time in the UK in '88, and a new updated edition would come out in the U.S.

The people who ran Ian Fleming's literary business (at the time it was called "Glidrose Publications"--now it's called "Ian Fleming Publications Ltd.") remained in contact. Peter Janson-Smith was the Chairman of Glidrose, and he also acted as Ian Fleming's literary agent when the author was alive. I suggested to Peter that I write a James Bond stage play. The idea intrigued him. The only Fleming title that could possibly be adapted to the stage was Casino Royale, because it's set mostly in interiors and doesn't have epic action sequences. Coincidentally, it was the only title to which Glidrose owned stage rights--everything else was owned by EON Productions, the company that made the films. So Glidrose actually commissioned me to write a Bond stage play based on Casino Royale. When it was done, I directed a staged reading in New York that was very well received. However, due to a number of reasons, Glidrose chose not to pursue a full production of the play. In subsequent years, Glidrose/IFPL sold the remaining rights to EON, so now the film company owns the production rights to my play. It will most likely never be properly produced, so it's one of those "lost" relics of 007 lore. However, I was paid to write it, and that's more than a lot of playwrights can say about penning a play!

For the rest of the 80s, I continued my theatre work and started to write fiction.  I wrote some short stories, a teleplay, and a novel. Two of the short stories from that period are available now as 99 cent e-books, "Thumbs Down" and "The Plagiarist." One is a crime story, and the other is science fiction. They were experiments--I was looking for my "voice." They're not bad.

My first novel is just that--a first novel. It's the one that every author needs to write and get out of his or her system, and then put away in a drawer because it's probably not very good. That was the case with my first attempt, a mystery featuring a one-armed detective. I started it in 1987 and finished it sometime in 1988. And that's the best thing I can say about it--that I finished it! Believe me, when you set out to write a novel, one of the most important things is to get through the darned thing. There are most likely a million half-written novels out there floating around in people's desk drawers, because I've found that too many people tell me that they started a book once "but never finished it."

I showed the novel to Peter Janson-Smith at Glidrose. He said he liked the plot, but didn't care for the characters. My second literary agent had left the agency I'd worked with, so I was agent-less. I still had my foot in the door there, so I could talk to other agents. I showed the novel to a guy there, and he said he liked the characters, but didn't care much for the plot. So who was correct? I personally didn't think the novel was bad, but I knew it wasn't particularly good. So I stuck it in the proverbial drawer. It will stay there.  However, the experience in writing it was extremely valuable.

WHAT I LEARNED: Maybe I should have outlined the novel? When I started it, I didn't have a clue where it was going to go. The outline concept was something I'd learn later. At any rate, I did discover how difficult it is to write a novel, but more importantly, I learned that I could do it and actually finish it. That's one of the biggest hurdles. If you can write an entire novel from start to finish--whether it's any good or not--then you have the makings of being a *novelist*.

To Be Continued in Part 4...

Friday, May 3, 2013

What I Learned About Writing By Writing, Part 2

In Part Two, I'll examine the next phase of my career after the publication of my first book, The James Bond Bedside Companion

So, it was the mid-1980s, I was still in New York, and I had a published book.  My first literary agent had just retired, so she passed me off to another agent within the same agency.  I was prepared to continue my day job, direct more theatre and compose more music, and perhaps write something else--but I didn't know what.  Within a month of the Bedside Companion's publication, though, Agent #2 called up and said there was a software company in White Plains, New York, that needed a writer for some computer games they were doing.  It so happened that the company had a license to do a couple of James Bond titles, so my agent thought of me.

I had always been into games.  I love board games (and still do).  As a teenager I played Avalon Hill war strategy games.  When Dungeons & Dragons came out in the late 70s, I explored that phenomenon and played it with some friends in New York.  In 1983, the James Bond 007 Role-Playing Game was published, and I knew the creators at Victory Games (this was a pencil-and-paper role-playing game, like Dungeons & Dragons).  We became friendly and they hired me to write/design an adventure module for the Bond game, which I planned to do on the side with all my other activities.  That was one door that appeared in front of me as a result of the Bedside Companion.  I had already begun the work when Agent #2 called about the computer game job. 

In 1984-85, PCs were just coming into the home.  I bought my first computer, an Apple IIc in early '85.  Computer games naturally came along, too.  Thus, an even more mysterious door popped up alongside the role-playing game gig, and I chose to go through it.  I found myself on the ground floor of an exciting new industry, something I never planned or dreamed about.  At the time, I had become interested in "text-adventure" games, like the ones published by Infocom ("Zork," "Enchanter," "Planetfall," etc.).  These were story-based role-playing games (no graphics) in which the player is a character that travels through an environment while solving puzzles and ultimately reaching a goal.  By the end, the "game" has unfolded like a novel.  The company that hired me was producing text-adventures, too.  They had a license for not only two 007 titles ("A View to a Kill," the current film, and "Goldfinger"), but also Stephen King's novella "The Mist."  I was hired to write and design these three games. 

Call it what you may, but this was fiction-writing, albeit for a different medium.  These adventures had characters, obstacles, thriller elements, a plot, and dialogue.  In many ways they were like writing screenplays, only three or four times longer because of the variable quality of a role-playing game--the player had to have several choices to make, so I had to create what happens for every possible choice. 

So I quit my day job and concentrated full time on writing the storylines for these games.  Stephen King's The Mist, A View to a Kill, and Goldfinger were published in 1985 and 1986 by Mindscape, and the pencil-and-paper game, You Only Live Twice II--Back of Beyond was published by Victory Games in '86.

WHAT I LEARNED:  Games of this ilk are like writing novels in many ways.  They have all the ingredients of epic fiction.  My theatre training came in handy again, for I "staged" the story in my head as I wrote.  I learned to invent obstacles of all kinds that characters had to overcome--which is no different from what you do when you write a thriller.  I also learned that there can be several possible outcomes when solving a puzzle; it's good to keep your options open when throwing impediments at your protagonist!  And, I learned that you never know how your life and career will change by going through a door that unexpectedly pops up in front of you.

To be continued in Part 3...