Dave Morris: Not so much cockpit as pulpit

Dave Morris: Not so much cockpit as pulpit

Editor's Note: "I’d better not go under a bus, put it that way," writes Dave Morris. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles author and Fabled Lands co-creator's interactive adaptation of Frankenstein is a production of Profile Books and inkle, and he's at @MirabilisDave on Twitter. Now starting several months of intensive writing on a new television series, Morris looks at how today, "The writer, having bombinated that story into the vacuum of the blank page, is bound and charged to act as the keeper of the flame." His essay becomes a point of pride in an industry that, even begrudgingly, is like to recognise a writer as "the showrunner of your IP." - Porter Anderson

I spent the last fourteen months setting up a television drama series. It beats working, and Asia can take care of its own land wars. The budget now almost in place (don’t breathe on it just yet), I can buckle down to my job as the show’s creator. But that involves a lot more than typing “INT. WRITER’S STUDY – DAY”.

The 250-page show bible is the tip of the iceberg, the outward manifestation of a seething dark energy of plotlines, characters, imagery, references, story seeds for future seasons… That’s “INT. WRITER’S HEAD – DAY and NIGHT”, folks. The wastebasket overflows with yesterday’s brainwaves. Coffee grows a skin. Unfinished sandwiches bear my dental records. I’d better not go under a bus, put it that way.

While the scripts are yet but indecipherable notes on the backs of many envelopes, suddenly it’s time to go look at locations, judging one crumbly old castle against another. No shortage of those in Britain, but this story is set centuries back, so the castles need to have that origami look of fresh-cut stone. And so we pan around to the chair where the VFX director should be sitting – oops,  it’s still empty. That’s another decision. The production designer too. Each of these and other key roles are all-important in deciding whether this thing has creative coherence, integrity and vision – or whether it ends as a dog’s breakfast cooked up by incompatible temperaments.

Seeing it like that in black and white, I’m not sure how I’ll sleep tonight. There are plenty of other people to help shoulder the responsibility, of course, but the whole project is built on the foundation of the story. The writer, having bombinated that story into the vacuum of the blank page, is bound and charged to act as the keeper of the flame.

This doesn’t just apply to television drama. If your agent or publisher is jumping up and down at the thought of your novel, it’s because they’re picturing the movie poster on the side of the bus. (Rank cynicism, you say? Hey, I’m quoting the very words used by a Big Five senior exec.) Increasingly it’s likely that, whatever medium you’re working in, you will need to be ready to lead the team out towards the promised land.

Maybe you’re not tempted by the view from Mount Quarantania. Not for you the breakout cross-media hit. Listen, I’m first to bend the knee at the altar of creative integrity, but it doesn’t have to be Harry Potter. It might be The Casual Vacancy. It might be Tinker Tailor or House of Cards or Wolf Hall. There is a great insatiable hunger for good stories throughout the media. As Michael Bhaskar puts it as part of the rallying cry for publishing start-up Canelo:

When you look at the content that works best today – Game of Thrones and a subscription to the Premier League included – what stands out are the stories that transcend medium.

And what  better place to find those stories in the first instance than in that perfect development platform: the book?

In short, you can’t be sustained solely by the ineffable vapours of pure art. Michelangelo didn’t climb up there under the Sistine roof because the air was any sweeter. Even Shakespeare worked to eat.

If you think it all sounds rather horrible, this having to groom your innocent brainchild to twerk it as a brazen Hollywood property, give thanks for the passing of the old days when nobody even wanted the writer in the room while the grown-ups were talking.

When I was starting out in the business, you’d get sent the galley proofs, but other than that a publisher would no more think of consulting you than they would ask a befuddled great-aunt for stock market tips. You got the cover you were given. If it bore no relation to the theme, tone or even the story inside, all you could do was grin and bear it. The marketing plan? A closely guarded secret, as though any knowledge the writer managed to pick up could only scuttle the whole venture.

It’s different now. Publishers were ever eager for authors to do their own publicity because nobody else was willing to do it for nothing. But then it became clear that if you want somebody to champion the story, there’s nobody better than the person who made it all up. As social media have become so vital a part of the process, the authentically evangelic voice and vision of the author have blended into a secret sauce that no marketing department could hope to fake

Think anybody these days would disregard George RR Martin or JK Rowling on the subject of typeface or cover design? That’s even if they could. Jonny Geller wrote for The Bookseller recently about how Susanna Clarke’s deal for the miniseries of Jonathan Strange & Mister Norrell gives her more control than the original film deal twelve years ago. That’s not a concession, not a sop to the author’s preening ego. It’s a win-win. An author like Ms Clarke, as demiurge of their story universe, sits at the heart of its sun. From there, everything is illuminated. By comparison, anybody else can only know half as much – and most of that will be wrong.

Even The Economist, more usually to be found discussing the consequences of a Grexit or the prospects for President Xi’s reformation plans for China, recently took note of the change that’s stirring among the book stacks:

Standing out as a writer today requires more than a bright idea and limpid prose. Authors need to become businesspeople as well.

This isn’t a call to burn down publishing’s Reichstag and declare auctorial law, but so many writers I see bend too far the other way. They all but bare their throats for the knife. Sure they’re at a disadvantage in those gruelling corporate meetings, for by their nature they must be comfortable with doubt. The writer, as Graham Greene says, knows “the long despair of doing nothing well”, but it does no good to bring that attitude into the room. By all means take comfort that your agent is beside you, but you must gird yourself for this struggle or your voice will be drowned out – and then it’s the story that will suffer.

Take a look around that long corporate table. Others there are able to speak with the illusion of certainty only because they know so little about the idea. And that idea, the thing that has brought them all together – you created that. You are the reason they are there.

Why do you think the showrunner in TV is so often the writer? It’s not a special favour. A hard-nosed business like this makes precisely calculated decisions. The job isn’t telling other people what to do, it’s the kindling of a shared vision so that the story takes on a life of its own. The writer gets that job simply because they are the best person to do it.

Do you know the great advantage of starting with a book? If my TV show gets fubared, all I can do is take the money and run. As an author, your position is much stronger. You own the whole thing. Unless you choose to give it away, you are the showrunner of your IP.

Now get out there and act like it.

Main image - Shutterstock: Mny-Jhee