Saturday 24 November 2018

Five things I learned about stories from Scrubs

I'd explain why I want to write this article and think it might be useful but I've got a stinking cold so I'm going to borrow from Kelso. Blah blah blah, nostalgic story, on with the article. Oh, and spoilers ahoy.

1) Laughter and Tears

Scrubs is a lot of things but mostly its a comedy. The majority of things that happen are played for laughs. But like all comedies, its founded on bad situations. Most - at least in Britain - have the bad things happen to bad people. But not Scrubs. In Scrubs most of the core characters are good people, and a lot of the bad things happen to their perfectly pleasant patients. There's some pretty hefty gutpunches; there's an element of pathos usually missing from the comedies I grew up with Fawlty Towers and Blackadder.

And I think that adds to the appeal. I can empathise with the Scrubs characters in a way I can't with Basil and Edmund. I get a wider spread of emotional stimuli. I think it also makes it funnier in some ways. Humour often relies on unpredictability and the greater the range of possible outcomes, the more unpredictable things are.

Its not a particularly original statement that humour needs to be cut with something to increase the effect, but Scrubs is what really brought it home to me.

This is the reaction I'm expecting to this article

2) The importance of opposites

Scrubs is a comedy about a young doctor's (reluctant) coming of age. I feel kinda bad putting it that way as it's a lot bigger than that but at heart, that's what it is. I mean, good grief, the kid's narrating almost every episode and they're all called "My X". It really is all about JD. And the fact that Scrubs is a comedy that's about characters changing rather than a fairly immutable situation puts a certain amount of stress on the storytelling. The story has to be more than a vehicle for the laughs, but it can't get in the way.

This is where having secondary characters who mirror the MC's most important traits are so important. The inherent conflict in that contrast not only makes for easy laughs, but its the straightest and truest path to showing what a character really is. JD's weird relationship with Cox betrays JD's insecurities about his non-alpha male nature and desperate need for approval. His tight bromance with Turk helps to highlight just how slow JD is to grow up compared to his peers. And of course the on-off relationship with Elliot showcases front and centre his fear of commitment and tendency to self-sabotage. Again, the value of characters that have natural conflicts with each other built in is not new, but Scrubs is what helped me understand it.

3) The importance of secondary characters

You might have got a hint from that I think JD's a tad unbearable. That's because he is. He's a egotistical special snowflake with huge maturity problems and - the kicker - not that funny. Fortunately Scrubs is filled with characters who are less grating and also a lot funnier. There's times when I want to call it a ensemble comedy. You've only got to go up a few paragraphs to know why its not true but in terms of making the story, it's deffo a group effort.

Now, pretty much everyone says that the secondary characters are always more fun and that MCs have to be a bit duller due to their everyman status. I think Scrubs is a good example of this. We see the secondary characters when they're going to make the story interesting. We see JD all the time. Of course he's going to be less interesting. That means that the secondary characters really need to bring it.

I'm on Bobbo's side here

4) Flawed people should lose

I didn't learn this one entirely from Scrubs. It took Brooklyn 99 to bring it home as well and I've made that point before here on the blog. But I'm going to make it again. A lot of Scrubs' characters are pretty decent humans but some aren't. Bob Kelso in particular is a piece of work. Perry Cox is a fundamentally altruistic and upstanding human being, but its cloaked by so much insecurity that he openly admits that he needs people to appeal to his giant ego to help. And so on and so on.

But when the Scrubs' characters flaws come up - when you see them being overconfident or narcissistic or overly needy - you know there's a damn good chance they're going to lose. And characters need that. Not just to fit my morals - although I won't lie and pretend that has no part of that - but because characters struggling with their flaws make them more interesting.

5) You can break your own rules and people will love you anyway
This is the big one and the one that made me write this article. Among the many gutpunches that Scrubs has delivered over the years that has really stuck with me is when Dr Cox is talking to a pyschologist that "relationships don't work the way they do on television". Its the start of a speech that goes straight to the heart of the matter in a way that fits the general theme of Scrubs. That theme is generally that everything worthwhile is hard so you simply have to face up to it, work hard, stay with it... and maybe it'll happen. Maybe. Maybe not. But it won't if you don't.

Except of course JD's and Elliot's relationship does indeed end working out like it does in television. They're right for each other and they finally realise it and that's that. They're not wading through the same crap everybody else does. There's a few more fairytale endings in the later seasons that feel like they came from a different place. And? Know what? I don't think anyone really cares now. Maybe that's part of why the show is no longer on the air, but it doesn't taint the memories most people have. Because ultimately mistakes here and there don't matter as much as the whole.

Wednesday 21 November 2018

Letting Off Steam: An Interview with Mark Huntley-James

A while back, short of victims for the interrogating chamber, I put out a plea for attention and Mark Huntley-James answered. So I read his book Hell of a Deal, enjoyed it, and decided to go for the old third degree. Read for yourself what a wily answerer the man is...

PL: What gave you the idea for your book series Demon Trader and the trader himself, Paul Moore?

MHJ: It was an accident. Honest.

I was doing a job 200 miles from home, stuck there on my own for months on end. On the way back from the nearest shops with a bottle of milk I passed a nail salon called Monica's. In my head, I wondered what they would sell if they were called Demonica's. So, I started a file, wrote the opening line (no idea where that came from) and kept writing during my 'down time' to keep from going nuts. I had to go back and re-work the first chapters once I had an idea of what was going on. It was never meant as a series - that only came about because a reviewer asked about a sequel. 

Paul himself came about because I wrote it first-person, when I was pretty isolated and grumpy whilst dealing with one challenge after another, and I think that coloured the writing. At the time I was juggling a dozen things at once, so it wasn't much of a stretch to write about a guy who's trying to keep his business going, fight the demons and save the world.

PL: Well they do say write what you know! What about Barrowhurst? Is it influenced by anywhere in particular?

MHJ: Barrowhurst is not any one place, but very much influenced by the places I have lived and worked. It is primarily a cut-down version of Reading, Berkshire - that's where I went to uni and then lived for twenty years - with a touch of Launceston, Cornwall thrown in to confuse the mix. Both of them have odd alleys off more major streets and pockets of old industrial sites. Reading changed a lot over the time I lived there, but some of those alleys in the centre of town were home to all sorts of small and interesting shops, including my favourite - Keegan's secondhand book store.

There really is a Race Hill in Launceston - not as steep or long as I made it, but it drops down into the centre of the town, running along the side of a hill so on one side the houses truly do sit atop high retaining walls. I crossed that with Summer Hill in Bristol, just down the road from where I grew up. Strictly speaking, Summer Hill is not that bad, it's Vale Street just a little further along that is officially the steepest in England, at about 22 degrees gradient!

PL: I can very much believe Reading would have that many demonologists and sexual deviants. So some of its influenced by your own life - are there any writers who've particularly influenced or inspired you?

MHJ: I think it's fair to say that Reading is a very diverse town. I ought to use it as the location for the headquarters of the British Association of Demonologists.

It's hard to pin down specific influences - I'm too much of a book sponge, devouring every bit of sci-fi and fantasy in the local library, the school library, finally reading Lord of the Rings from the hall of residence library during a bout of gastro-enteritis in my first year at uni. (I was later advised that it was best to eat elsewhere over holiday weekends.) Then I discovered secondhand book shops...

I do have a particular set of favourites. It almost feels like a writerly cliche for penning fantasy, but I do adore Terry Pratchett. His characters are often boldly drawn stereotypes, but for me that is some of the power of it - I know personally some of those stereotypes, or I've worked with them, and no matter who they get to play Lord Vetinari in the various tv adaptations, I STILL see my first boss. I also have a great fondness for Lois McMaster Bujold and I'm currently re-reading her Vorkosigan saga - again boldly painted characters who also feel real because I have met their paler, real-life counterparts.

I'm sure I also have a whole raft of subconscious influences. In my teens I read Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat (my copies are pretty well-worn) and someone compared Paul Moore's Simone to Jim diGriz's Angelina. I didn't consciously put in the psychopathic girlfriend, and hadn't registered the parallel myself, but it really feels like a powerful influence echoing out of my teen years. I'm sure there are others simmering away in the back of my head.

PL: I can only agree with your love of Pratchett and second hand book shops. Are you one of the writers who dream casts who'd play the characters in the screen adaption of their book?

MHJ: So, short answer - No.

Longer answer - Definitely no.

OK, sometimes my partner says things like 'if they ever made it into a movie...', but really my head doesn't work that way. I see people online who put a 'cast list' at the front of their books, which boggles me completely. Fair enough if attaching an actor to a character helps with the writing, but putting that detail at the front of the published book feels like listing the world-building, hinders the reader from visualising a character the way they want and the really boggling bit for me, feels like an admission from the writer that they couldn't describe their characters with actual words. Perhaps if I had it stuck in my head that Paul absolutely had to be John Cleese (or not!), and that was somehow really important to me, I *might* sneak a mention of it into an afterword right at the end of the book. I haven't felt the need so far...

OK, *small* confession - in another book, nothing to do with Paul Moore, I have a genetically engineered large cat (which doesn't speak, do magic, guide characters or do anything other than spit up very big hairballs) who is based on one of our cats. I even used her real name, secure in the knowledge that she will almost certainly *not* sue.

I have some bad new for you Mark...

PL: So you've been reading a long time. How long have you been writing and at what point did you think "I could publish this"?

MHJ: I started in my teens, but lapsed whilst I was at uni. I really started again when I met my partner which was more than twenty years back. From my point of view, ebooks and self-publishing have been a game-changer because I was getting so many rejections with phrases like ‘not quite right for us’ at the end, along with invitations to submit further work. That gave me a serious indication that I could write, but not necessarily stuff commercial publishers wanted, so I decided it was time to go Kindle.

Perversely, I was mostly looking at publishing science fiction, but wanted something ‘easy’ to try the experiment. There’s plenty of advice out there, but nothing beats actually doing it and learning from the copious mistakes. So, I published Hell of a Deal, in the mistaken belief that it was pretty much ready to go, just a quick final editing pass and press go. That took nine months and would have been a one-off learning experience but someone asked about a sequel...

PL: Are you working on another sequel at the moment? Or anything else?

MHJ: I’m currently multi-tasking between the third Paul Moore book and a time-travelling space-opera that I actually started writing at about the same time I did ‘Hell of a Deal’.

There were never supposed to be any sequels to ‘Hell of a Deal’, but someone raised the topic which got me thinking and resurrecting(???!) an old idea about supernatural parking enforcement which resulted in ‘Road to Hell’. 

That would have been it, but something on the telly got me stamping around the house grumbling that “There’s no such things as bloody vampires” which was such a Paul thing to say that it got me thinking again. So over the summer I wrote “Hell of a Bite” which now needs a ton of work with an aim to publish round about March 2019. (Then I can write number four, “Hell Tied”, the Paul-Simone relationship foundering on the sacrificial altar whilst the lead demons thrash out their own family issues.)

Rather than dive straight into editing I wanted to let “Hell of a Bite” lie and have a change of pace, so I’ve taken the opportunity to get back to finishing book three of that space-opera so that my partner can find out how it ends. Strictly speaking, it tells you how it ends right near the start, but then people start time travelling and changing fine details twisting the story out of line, and some of my characters have the dubious facility of remembering the things that no longer happened. (Which, in a non-fictional context, is the sort of thing to get you locked up in a cell with soft furnishings on the walls.)

Then there are the Moore Letters, humorous flash fiction which is really just a bit of doodling on my part. The first one is out with an online magazine - Lore Publications (
Lore Fiction – Medium) – Paul writing to the local council because they are hassling him over planning consent for newly installed mountains in his garden, and the public hazard of keeping dragons.

PL: You seem to gravitate towards the more comedic end of the genre. Would you agree with that?

MHJ: Yes. And no.
OK, mostly yes.
There is usually a streak of humour in what I write, although Paul Moore is probably the closest I come to outright comedy. Even when I’m being serious, I’ll often slip in bizarre moments or incongruities – humour can be a powerful tool for slipping something powerful/vile/surprising past the reader, and letting the reality sink in later. When you take apart some of the detail of Hell of a Deal, it has some outright, even gross horror aspects to it, but they get toned down by the covering wash of nervous laughter.

I think that the comedic style also comes from the way I wrote it – letting off steam when I was working away from home and not an entirely happy camper. There are not that many one-liners, and most of those are somewhat wry or ironic, but there are a lot of situational jokes. Really, most of the humour comes out of Paul getting dumped on by life, the universe and the supernatural community. At the time I was writing it, no matter how bad my day, Paul Moore was having a worse one.

My humour also tends to the dark side – call it Fifty Shades of Black – and simply adds to the Lois McMaster Bujold dictum of working out the worst thing you can do to your character. When there are so many ‘worsts’ to choose from, I go for the one where there are only two choices – laugh or run screaming down the street brandishing a machete and hope that a police marksman will put an end to the misery. I also hope that some of Paul’s narratorial comments will hit home with the reader, conveying my own cynical observations on the world.

That space opera I’m writing in the background has its own ‘humorous character’, not as overtly comedic as Paul Moore, almost a stereotypical grumpy old fart railing at the universe. Or, as I have sometimes admitted, me but with the brakes off. I hope that hidden away in his foul-mouthed railing against all and sundry in the far future, there are a few meaningful commentaries on modern life.

Modern life sometimes makes me feel like this too

PL: So its less you've set out to be funny, and more you've looked at humour as a way to make the unpalatable? The spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down? It feels rather remniscient of the interviews about Pratchett being an angry man (and, incidentally, what is your favourite Discworld?)

MHJ: I think it’s more a life-style rather than a specific writing strategy. Both my life and writing (with humour added) is done by the seat of my pants – figuring out what I did and why comes later, when the dust has settled. Even more interesting is figuring out why I *shouldn’t have done it* – I’m not so good at learning from my mistakes but great at using them as guides for plot embellishment. So whilst I’ve never cooked Ground Zero Rice, I did once eat a spoonful of spicy stew and bite into a surprise chilli pod. I know my head didn’t *actually explode* but it felt like it.

Yes, a while back, I read an interview with Neil Gaiman talking about Pratchett being fuelled by fury and I can hear that in his books – the railing at the brain-aching stupidity of the world in general and people in particular. I think I always heard it, but never had a name to put to it until I read Gaiman’s take.

I think that’s where a lot of my own humour comes from. It’s socially unacceptable to smack people’s heads against a wall, but I am allowed to make jokes about them instead. 

As for a favourite Pratchett – that’s like opening a huge box of chocolates and asking me to pick one. I mean, they’re all so tempting. Of course, if you were presenting the chocolates AND a selection of Pratchett, I’d go for “Guards! Guards!” (With “Men At Arms” snaffled whilst you’re focused on the chocolate.)

PL: Well, I am a sucker for chocolate... I mean, ahem, are there any moments that were particularly cathartic to write?

MHJ: I really had to think about that one – the whole writing process was one big mental diversion from my own life at the point, so real high points are not so easy to identify. After due consideration, I have two. 

Number One is actually easy: Mickey Twitch, all of him, from generic arsehole at the start to specifically nasty arsehole towards the end. I’ve worked with several Mickey Twitches (OK, Mickey’s an exaggeration, but there are some serious real-life influences there) and writing him in all his foul glory felt good. When I first put him in, Mickey was no more than a one-liner right at the start, the archetypal low-rent, high-risk rival demonic broker, but when you’ve got a toilet-roll ornament of that magnitude, who needs a demon to be the villain? My blink-and-you-miss-it one-liner turned out to be a complete sack of instant monster: just add innocent bystanders and stir into a froth of horror. 

Number Two: that was harder to pick out, but it’s the chapter where all Paul had to do was pick the right “wrong priest” to perform the ceremony and it would have all been over. The thing is, Paul is nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is. In fact, the whole book is a sequence of revelations of just how little he knows, and how much of what he does know is wrong. That chapter was where I felt I had the first serious culmination of his mistakes - all he has to do is pick a priest and it’s over. How hard can it be? I definitely had a blast writing that one. Weeks of frustration offloaded onto my character in one arse-kicking catastrophe.

PL: Paul's moment of realisation after the wrong priest was a definite highlight for me.

Shifting the line of questioning - has how you write changed at all since you were young? Do you do different things that you think makes you a better writer?

MHJ: I’m now more concise.
Sorry. Couldn’t resist, but I think an improved economy with words is one of the obvious changes when I go back and compare what I do now with my earlier writing. I no longer write everything in long, rambling sentences. I’ve also mostly got over Adjective Incontinence, dialled down the Purple Prose, and seriously cut out the adverbs. It’s like a writer’s low-carb diet – aiming for the lean and mean style, with a hint of ribs showing through. And maybe a sacrificial knife caught between those ribs.

I hope there are a lot of things that now make me a better writer, but the first thing that springs to mind is I’ve stopped trying to be clever. I used to get a lot of notes on my first drafts about stuff being unclear or downright obscure, most of which came from trying to be too damned clever. When I wrote Hell of a Deal I was too tired and grumpy for clever and just went for fun, and working off frustrations. It seemed to work quite well so I’m sticking with it.

My approach to point of view has definitely changed. When I look back, I have previously done a few first person narratives, but now I find that’s my default. My crazy time-travelling space-opera is done as four first person narratives interwoven, which is not quite as nuts as it sounds and great fun to do. For me, the first person viewpoint helps to keep the plot compact, even if there’s lots of stuff going on that the reader “doesn’t see” because my narrator wasn’t there. I also find that the first-person plot focus carries over when I opt for a third person narrative, winnowing out unnecessary scenes.

The most satisfying change is that I’ve got better at producing a “clean” first draft, which is great for my partner. I’m not sure it's necessarily something I’m consciously doing differently and more a matter of practice. In the dim and distant past, I wrote a rambling fantasy trilogy. I really enjoyed writing it, the story zings along and it has some fabulous characters. It’s just a shame that the writing is total ****. It’s so bad that my partner did the alpha-read, scribbled on it and then expressed a desire not to read it again until it’s totally re-written. I tried to re-read it myself and decided that the best thing to do was start again. When my partner first read Hell of a Deal, she actually commented on how smooth it was, and even that required nearly nine months to set straight. Paul Moore the Third (Hell of a Bite) is probably going to take a couple of months to clean up, but it’s pretty good at first draft stage.

PL: Well played sir *quiet applause* I know you credit here and Absolute Write in the credits for Hell of a Deal. What would you say is the best and worst pieces of writing advice you have received?

MHJ: The best advice is easy – I was talking to Jo Fletcher at FantasyCon many years back, when she was commissioning editor at Gollancz, and she told me to read my writing aloud. It highlights so many things – repetitive word/phrase usage, bad story flow, badly structured sentences, clumsy phrases, typos. It’s like Domestos bleach for authors, kills ninety-nine percent of crap. Reading aloud gives you what’s there without the mental auto-correct hiding mistakes by fixing them in your head as you read, and it gives you time to notice things not working. In the end, I did a complete read-aloud on Hell Of A Deal three times. It’s exhausting, but absolutely worth it.

Worst advice is harder to pin down. There’s a lot of it out there, and frequently heavily didactic as if there is only one right way to write. I think the very worst advice I got was “you need to write this sub-genre, it’s hot at the moment”. It might be the right approach if you dream of making a living as a writer (ignoring the extremely low likelihood of that actually happening) but it strikes me as the route to frustration and middle-of-the-road, cookie-cutter writing. Whatever my faults and failings, I don’t think I’m middle of the road. In the gutter, maybe, or smeared along the tarmac with the other road-kill, but not skipping along the white line in the middle.
It also strikes me as self-defeating advice. If you chase emulating what’s hot now, by the time you’re ready to pitch it or publish, it will be yesterday’s news. So, I pretty much do the opposite – write what I want to write, enjoy the buzz and hope people like it regardless of whether it’s in fashion.

Thanks to Mark for his time and thought. You could find his blog here and his Amazon author page here and his short stories on medium here

Thursday 8 November 2018

The Most Magical Place on Earth

I have just spent a week in sunny Florida, visiting tour parks with my in-laws. That’s an activity that a few years ago I’d have never believed I could enjoy. While I can confirm that some of my skepticism remains, for the most part I am at ease with belonging to a family of Disney addicts, even with my in built disdain for large corporations.


Because Disney, taken on its own terms, is truly the most magical place on earth.

Everything there is built to create an illusion that fairy tales are real, that animals can talk and toys can live and being good matters and the rest of it. There were times when I’d lag behind the rest of the group, just taking in the atmosphere. 

Now, magic is a difficult thing to define, but if we’re talking about it in some sense of using the mind to create something from nothing in inexplicable ways, Disney qualifies. And its probably the largest scale operation of the stuff going. The mind sometimes boggles at the logistics that must be going on behind it. The sheer scale of the thing only increases the sense of magic to me.

And in walking round there, soaking in the magic, wondering why so many people loved Disney’s particular version of the fantastic so much, I had an epiphany. Disney have an incredibly strong sense of vision and it comes through. Its easy to condemn as trite, formulaic, commercial, but the vision and basic ideas are very attractive and easy to grasp. On top of this, Disney’s dominance is self-perpetuating as it is often the first version of the fantastic many of us encounter. We all know that being the first to introduce an idea to a generation is a huge boon towards selling a story. But its those strong basic ideas that ensures they retain the hearts of those they influence.

This blog frequently talks about the technical aspects of writing, of timing and plausibility and storytelling. That won’t stop because I find those things interesting and do still believe they’re useful. But they’re only useful insofar as they magnify the idea at the heart of your story. A simply told story with a clear and attractive idea will always attract more readers than a beautifully told story about something nuanced or uncaptivating. 

To a certain point that’s a great shame and I’d encourage everyone who wants to ignore that to do so. I think I’ll do so myself. Stories interest me for the sake of stories as much as anything. 

But the power of that central conceit - the importance of it - that’s something I’m going to keep far more in mind. Because that’s where the heart of the magic is.