We are pleased to announce the audio drama podcast serial THE DEPARTMENT OF MIDNIGHT.
THE DEPARTMENT OF MIDNIGHT stars James Callis (Battlestar Galactica, Castlevania, Picard), is created and written by Warren Ellis and is produced by Kevin Kolde, Fred Seibert, Brian Guicciardo and Warren Ellis with casting and voice direction by Meredith Layne.
In THE DEPARTMENT OF MIDNIGHT, haunted scientist Dr. John Carnack is employed as a crash site investigator by the Department Of Experimental Oversight: colloquially known, after the Doomsday Clock that ticks down to 12, as The Department Of Midnight. When a breakthrough, esoteric scientific experiment goes wrong, he’s there to find out why, and to save who he can. THE DEPARTMENT OF MIDNIGHT presents six stories of mad science and otherworldly horror.
THE DEPARTMENT OF MIDNIGHT will be released this spring. Further details to follow.
A thing I’ve been asked often in the past: how can I tell when a new idea is a graphic novel or a prose novel? I’ve previously answered that it’s instinct from experience, but that’s not very helpful. And the question occurs to me again this week because in the past few days I’ve started work on a new idea that I instinctively knew was a comics series. I usually don’t develop comics ideas without a specific artist in mind: I develop for and with them, to their skills and interests. TREES, for example, comes as much from Jason Howard’s curated moodboards and curiosity collections as it does from my own obsessions.
To begin with, I will say: this is my personal approach, not an immutable physical law. Find your own way of doing things, make your own rules.
The two things I consider first are information and interiority. The comics page radiates less information than the prose page. And serious interiority tends to require lots of words, and the comics page can only usefully interpolate a certain volume of words.
(Various people have expressed various different “rules” for that. Stan Lee claimed something around 28 words of text in a panel, as I recall. Mort Weisinger said it was 35. Alan Moore once suggested it was 210 words per page. See how those work for you. Lettering was a lot bigger in those days, but lettering is a graphic actor in the panel. And then look at the brilliant Emil Ferris in MY FAVORITE THING IS MONSTERS breaking every “rule”)
The third – how boring is is going to be for the artist to draw?
These things can connect in different ways. There are artists who love nothing more than drawing acting, physical language, facial expressions. This is one of the reasons why I prefer to develop comics with an artist in mind. If your artist is absolutely allergic to “talking heads” comics, then your calculation will shift.
What does your artist want to say? (This is the rule I’m breaking right now with this story idea. Maybe I’ll find an artist who finds what they want to say in it, or just fancies drawing it. Maybe I won’t. It happens.)
Comics and books have different toolkits. One is not “better” than the other. Each is capable of effects that the other is not. There are things I can do in comics that would be near-impossible to even attempt in books, and they wouldn’t have the same effect anyway. (Also, be aware at all times that a comics script is only ever half a piece of art — it’s not a complete statement until your collaborators have finished.) Prose has access to a bunch of tools that comes can’t always get near. Comics and prose even have different ways of approaching time itself.
What does the idea require in the way of length? You need a very long graphic novel to tell as much story as in a mid-length prose book. Most things we think of as graphic novels would come in as novella length if they’d been done as prose. This can be the killer. If I know I’m going to need sixty thousand words to elaborate the idea, the decision’s been made for me.
But also: how does the imagery of the idea strike me? How specific is it, in my head? Describing an image down to its finest edges in prose can freeze it and kill it — you have to suggest it, so it takes on its own life in the reader’s head. If you need to see it on the page in all its clarity for the thing to work for you, then it’s a visually-led story.
I only had a handful of very strong images for GUN MACHINE, but they were simple enough that they’d have more life in prose. And almost everything else happening in that book was happening inside John Tallow’s head. In NORMAL, the visuals had strong and complex motions to them, and, aside from that book being very interior indeed, they would have been a pig to draw.
TREES needed the Trees. It wasn’t going to work unless you could see them, feel their massive presence in the landscapes, the sheer alien pressure of them on the seen world. It wasn’t enough, for the story, to just tell you they’re there. Their silent weight had to be present.
(Which is a weird thing to say because Jason Howard’s art is generally all about motion, as anyone can tell. But Jason can do anything, basically.)
What does the story need to be its best self? That’s the thing you learn by trying.
I sawed down some huge holly boughs the other week, and they needed to be cut into plant stakes. Holly is, of course, just horrible to handle, and the leaves prick even through good gardening gloves. But, with care, you can strip the branches and leaves off. Holly is a very hard wood that tends to grow fairly straight – it used to be used for chariot axles, and is in demand today as material for walking sticks. Veteran walkers are known to cut themselves a holly stick at the start of their rambles, as noted in Robert Macfarlane’s THE OLD WAYS. (UK) (US/CAN/EUR+)
I live in what was probably the outer edge of Catuvellauni territory, and it’s an interesting thing to grasp a holly trunk and imagine it being cut into an axle for a chariot being ridden against the Romans. Caratacus of the Catuvellauni fought a resistance against the Romans, and the story goes that when the Brigantes betrayed him and handed him over, the Romans took him back to Rome as a prize and made him allocute in the Senate. His speech was so impressive that he was immediately pardoned and he and his family were invited to live in Rome. His last recorded comment is something along the lines of, “you live in the greatest city in the world, what the fuck did you want with our shitty huts?”
That was our holly that Caratacus flew across Essex on.
I needed the stakes to pin back some over-energetic bedding plants. Once the season is over, I can cut back the plants and remove the stakes, which I can then saw into smaller pieces for firewood. Holly will burn very well when “green,” but I’ll probably bundle and hang the pieces for a few months as a brief seasoning before they go in the fireplace for Christmas house heating.
And, the whole time I’m doing this, I’m working. Listening to podcasts while I’m doing the physical stuff, thinking about stories in the rest periods. I’m currently working on a project that I’ve been told to think about it as a “label.” It only has one piece so far, and we’re aiming for three. I’m doing construction in my head.
Being told you have a label is the sort of thing you dream about as a younger writer. You enter the field bursting with all the ideas you’ve been thinking about for years. Usually regardless of whether or not they’re any good.
They’re yours, and you’ve been dreaming about being able to tell them for so long, and all you want is the chance to get them out of your system. The test of you as a writer is whether or not you have more ideas once your original box of dreams is empty. Sometimes you’ll plant up the new shoots of ideas before they’re ready, just because you need to prove you can come up with new stuff. God knows I’ve published enough not-ready-for-sunlight stories with rotten roots. Once you see that you’ve done that, you know, A LOT, you get pickier. You distrust your first thought. And your second, and sometimes your third.
Aaaaand then you reach the age of 103 and some people show up and place their trust and resources in you and say, “this should be like your label,” and you immediately distrust all your first thoughts about what that could contain. You can’t fuck around with that. You have to show up as your best self, at full power, to justify that trust. You’re very aware that there’s a gulf between the ideas you might, in an idle moment, want to give some oxygen to, and the stories worth telling.
So, yeah. I may be digging holes and building things and shredding my skin as I whittle myself some holly stakes, but I’m working. I’m thinking about what’s next, and what stories are worth telling. And trying not to get potting soil inside the notebook pages. I need some solid axles for the chariot I’ve been asked to make.
The only good notebook is the one you’re carrying. It’s no use to you if it’s still sitting at home because you don’t want to bend it or it’s too difficult to carry or you can think of any other excuse to not have it with you at all time. The only good notebook is the one you can afford. I wrote the first draft of an entire short book in a reporter-style notebook I bought in the local post office for 50p, and that was only a few years ago. Stephen King doesn’t write ideas down because he believes that if he doesn’t remember the idea later, then it wasn’t interesting enough to be in a book. You are not Stephen King.
I, and other writers I know, fetishise notebooks because we work in them a lot and we eventually get picky about them and have disposable income for that sort of thing. We don’t get out much. But I started out writing in the cheapest notebooks I could find. My earliest professional comics work was all roughed out in crappy notebooks on the back table of a late-night burger bar with a Biro, scribbling away at three in the morning while drunks and ravers with nerve damage staggered in and out of the place.
It doesn’t have to be an expensive or fancy notebook. It just has to be the one that doesn’t leave your side. Write it down.
No, really. Graham Greene only wrote five hundred words a day. Which sounds like nothing, until you take the long view:
“Over twenty years I have probably averaged five hundred words a day for five days a week. I can produce a novel in a year, and that allows time for revision and the correction of the typescript. I have always been very methodical, and when my quota of work is done I break off, even in the middle of a scene.”
And that produced 25 novels, two books of poetry, four autobiographies, four travel books, eight plays, 11 screenplays, four children’s books and a shitload of short stories. All off 500 words a day.
This coming week is for new ideas. Now, I can’t force new ideas, but I have processes for helping them emerge. Let me try and explain by an extended example which will show you exactly how terrible my mind is. Like:
So the last thing my collaborator threw up in conversation was ALPHAVILLE, the Jean-Luc Godard film, shot in black and white and using diegetic found light rather than the usual artificial lighting rigs. That light is nonetheless often quite high-contrast, which brought to mind the first, best and most interesting SIN CITY book, which also connects to ALPHAVILLE through its hard-boiled noir underpinning, and if you read it backwards Miller goes from the artist of the later SIN CITY books to the artist of ELEKTRA LIVES AGAIN, with dizzying one-point perspectives looking down through buildings, which made me think of Coen’s THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH and its abstracted environments:
Which leads me off in a few different directions, like Orson Welles’ THE TRIAL, shot in the then deserted Gare D’Orsay:
And the surviving images of Orson Welles’ black-box-theatre production of MOBY DICK (see how it pops up everywhere?):
In which Welles worked with Patrick McGoohan, whom Welles described as “intimidating,” and McGoohan once put on his own black-box production, which was the penultimate and best episode of THE PRISONER, essentially a two-hander between him and the magnificent Leo McKern (with Angelo Muscat as essential colour), who, tv myth would have it, nearly died of stress from shooting the episode. Wikipedia, in fact, says this:
According to the 2007 Don’t Knock Yourself Out documentary, during production and filming of the episode both McGoohan and McKern became totally engrossed in their roles and almost achieved a near-psychotic state (cited by various people, including Leo McKern).
It is full of very artificial lighting tricks, anxiety and paranoia. The latter two descriptors describe Kafka very well, and Tarr’s WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES to some extent, also a black and white film, also misty like Coen’s MACBETH:
There’s an abstracted environment for you.
(And suddenly I’m thinking about the actual genius that is Renee French:)
Tarr started as a documentary maker, working with available light and handheld characters – just like Godard in ALPHAVILLE. Circle back to ALPHAVILLE for a second:
The contrasts, the structures and the moods they project, the strangenesses made from otherwise ordinary places and things. Even black boxes and found props. Limited settings. Limited light. ALPHAVILLE is about messing with minds. So, of course, is Macbeth – if the three fates hadn’t put the idea in his head, would he have killed Duncan? Or did he get incepted? (Unpopular opinion: TENET is Nolan’s best film, a better mind game, and it uses architecture better. It stars the son of the actor who plays Macbeth in Coen’s film.) Mind-game stories: WERCKMEISTER, and THE PRISONER, and THE TRIAL, and the whole trick of Welles’ MOBY DICK (technically, MOBY DICK – REHEARSED) is that you’re told you’re watching actors rehearse a performance of MOBY DICK but the secret of black-box theatre is that you are immersed in it until you’re tricked into seeing boxes and assemblages of people as the boat in the ocean.
What is real and what isn’t? That’s the central concern of Philip K Dick’s fiction, talking of anxiety and paranoia. (Dick’s Cold War dark half, Steve Ditko, and his 50s b/w horror comics, all sweaty fear and distrust!)
And this still from ALPHAVILLE always puts me in mind of Cocteau’s ORPHEE for some reason and I’m not going down that rabbit hole right now but I’m glad I own it on disc:
And yes, I’m free-associating through previous works of art, but I’m also thinking about the powerful effects these works had on me as I first experienced them and then as I learned more about them, and consideration of these things leads me to examine the tools they used to achieve those effects, while at the same time I’m thinking of moments in my life where I was caused to believe things that were not true, or when I could not decide when something was real or not (in the context of the thing and the moment and my brain chemistry) — and, somewhere in the middle of all that, I have a space in which to garden a story idea or two. It’s a story that grows in anxiety and paranoia, in estranged and abstracted environments, in shadows and mist. I can see the place it lives in, how it moves, and feel its weather.
When I talk about taking in as much information as you can, and then store it and let it compost in the back of your brain and make its own connections? This is part of what I’m talking about.
I can’t remember where I picked this tin cup up. I presume an airport somewhere in Canada. “Exit, pursued by a bear” being the famous stage direction from Shakespeare’s THE WINTER’S TALE. ( Here’s David Tennant absolutely killing Just A Minute on his first attempt, talking for sixty seconds about it.) For the writer’s wandering mind, this joke cup is in fact a writer’s cup.
I like having a few tin cups around because I don’t want to take wine glasses into the garden. I am clumsy. And working.
I haven’t done anything to this garden in probably six or seven years. Honestly, I’m quite fond of the wildness of it. But the edges are closing in, and I can’t grow food out here. So, Thursday morning, I kitted up and came out here with tools, determined to at least clear the round patio area by the east fence, which had turned into a mysterious dark glade. Now, I like a mysterious dark glade as much as the next person, probably more, but this isn’t a big garden and I need that space. As I write this, my hands and the soles of my feet are covered in hotspots and I have a full-body ache, but the round patio is clear. Once I put the PVC mini-greenhouse (bought six or seven years ago) in place, I poured myself a tin cup of red wine, sat in the shade and thought about writing.
Three or four years ago, George RR Martin had this to say about writing:
I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows.
Most of my idols were architects, I think. Alan Moore had a famous “big piece of paper” for BIG NUMBERS that had every action for every character in every issue of the planned series. Here’s a photo of a photo:
Here’s a curiosity – in the early 80s, Alan visited New York, and wrote (was this in ESCAPE magazine?) about meeting Howard Chaykin and learning that Chaykin painstakingly worked out AMERICAN FLAGG’s structure in advance. There were no more details than that, but at the end of that decade Alan was structuring a book on a vast graph. I always strongly suspected that Chaykin influenced Alan to be an architect. One of Alan’s earlier touchstones was Thomas Pynchon, whom I conceive of as more a gardener. I start to see James Joyce in some of Alan’s latter work, and ULYSSES is a work of architecture.
It was a shock to me when William Gibson turned out to be a gardener. I remember him talking about SPOOK COUNTRY, starting with a compelling image that stuck with him, and just… writing. Discovering what the book was about as he wrote it.
As a writer, I am, I think, a bad architect. I make myself start with an outline, and then I wander. I plough the fields and scatter. A case in point is CASTLEVANIA Season 3. I knew pretty much where I needed every character to be by the end of the season in order to achieve the strict requirements of the fourth and final season. Everybody had to be in place for the last act of the story. I ploughed the field in straight lines. But the field was way over there, and I just went over there in any way that felt right. And, frankly, I think I ended up kind of next to the field in question, rather than at its gate.
I’m bad at plans. I try, but I always end up winging it.
But I grew a lot of stuff along the way – the Flyseyes monologue, which I think was one of the most successful pieces of writing in the whole season, just kind of happened. Grew out of the dirt I’d tilled. Structurally, it was probably one of the worst things I could have done. But stories are not structure. Structure is a set of signposts, and only in the most austere modernist nouvelle roman would you find a set of signposts presented as a story. It’s your story. You can touch each signpost by any route you choose, and decide to skip one or two if they’re not necessary to the journey. Or even if not necessary to the journey that pleases you. And you can pause to raise a plant or two along the way.
Sitting out here in the garden, it may be, at this late stage, that I have to accept that I’m not a great architect, and perhaps it’s okay to be a bad gardener. Build the raised bed, score the lines with a trowel, scatter the seed and accept that the wind and the rain will cover the lines and that I won’t know what grows out of it all until it happens.
Read enough tv reviews, and you’ll start to see the same observation pop up – have they left enough space to wrap everything up in the final episode? This usually follows observations about how slow the story is, or how it’s taking its time, you know the kind of thing.
Reviews are, of course, not the best yardstick of a successful piece of art. Fundamental misunderstandings of how stories work are standard for the field. But if enough different people tell you it’s noon all at the same time, it might be worth looking up at the sky.
Thing is: the final episode doesn’t have to be where all the work gets done.
Instead, consider the possibility that your big climax should be planned for the episode before last.
Outwardly, this achieves a couple of things. The big bang happens where it is possibly least expected, which is often good. It also allows you to spend the final episode “wrapping everything up” by getting to spend extra time with the surviving characters, sitting with the aftermath and closing the arcs of their journeys.
It also makes you look a lot harder at the episodes that precede it. You may find you have to let some air out of the story in order to achieve that confluence of events in the penultimate chapter. This is the “killing your darlings” that writers talk about — losing the moments and conversations and grace notes that may enchant you but do nothing to retain attention, maintain focus and drive the story forward. You may find that you suddenly have some pace and attack back in the story.
And if you can’t achieve the whole of that big confluence in the penultimate chapter after all? You do still have a whole other episode to accommodate the overspill.
Speaking personally, it was important for me to establish early in the process that the penultimate episode of CASTLEVANIA Season 4 was the one where I was going to bring the hammer down, so that I had the whole last episode to deal with its reverberations.
This is a work in progress. I still can’t find some of my tools, which have doubtless gotten scattered into dark places in my house over the last couple of years. But this is what I’m working with right now.
Kindle Paperwhite – this one is 7th Generation, which they don’t make any more (link)
Work in progress. Will add tools as I find them lurking in the dark corners of the house. The intent is to surround every work problem without having to hunt all over the place for the thing I need (or can adapt for use) to solve them.