How Bryant & May Saved My Career
You don’t need imagination to write drama, you need empathy
This week I finished the main draft of ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’, the 20th Bryant & May novel, and became aware that I’ve entered a new stage of a writer’s life.
I started very young with no confidence at all, fooling around with elaborately drawn graphic novels and short comic tales, then published some silly gift books, then many horror stories, a couple of fantasies, hipsterish zeitgeist novels, experiments and outright bombs like ‘Red Bride’, written in a muck sweat and published to diminishing effect, so I was relieved when Bryant & May came along to free me. With a steadily developing series of murder mysteries I could still write those other books of more minority interest (‘Hell Train’, ‘Plastic’, ‘Nyctophobia, ‘The Sand Men’, ‘Little Boy Found’ etc) and come back home, as it were.
My working methods have dramatically changed over the years. Writers go through career stages from Discovery, Ingenue, Steady Hand (when publishers realise you’re in for the long haul), Mid-List, National Treasure and Past It (Martin Amis). After this comes death and rediscovery, with the selective republication of your backlist.
I have taught classes a few times and it’s shocking how opposite the experiences were, one truly horrible, mainly because I had been mis-briefed, one an utter delight because the woman booking me was an author herself and had hand-picked the right pupils. I wrote a tutorial which formed the basis of the course but now it would have to be massively updated, partly due to changes in technology, partly because my own working methods have altered so much.
The above artwork is from a tale about a modern-day Pasiphaë which appeared in a collection. The purity of writing up an idea as a short story still gives me a thrill.
The old schedule for a novel was; Research – Notes – Synopsis – First Draft – Second Draft – Third Draft – Tidy-up. Now, thanks to Word eradicating any need for intermediate apps (I don’t mind that Grammarly exists, I just wish it would stop ad-targeting me) my schedule has shape-shifted. The first draft is also partly the second and the third as I roam back and forth, adding and removing ideas. Only the final draft stands as a thing alone.
It’s now possible to see a 400+ page document as a single holistic entity, so there’s no need for postcards or pinboards. The process is organic and looser, especially when I think back to those months spent sitting on the floor literally cutting and pasting sections of book together. Do the young realise that every time they cut & paste they’re duplicating a process that began centuries earlier? I have friends who were paste-up artists, always gluing together magazines at midnight to catch the next print collection.
Writers’ interests change over time as we settle into our obsessions. James Hawes starting out writing cheeky-charlie zeitgeist romps and ended up writing about Kafka and the history of Britain. I began with gaudy cinematic shocks and am now more interested in human stories. I know my weaknesses; I’m not good at intimate scenes or fine detail. I’m not David Nicholls or, sadly, Patricia Highsmith. I’ve always enjoyed writing big scenes, big ideas, big fun – even my memoirs ‘Paperboy’ and ‘Film Freak’ are as brassy as movies – but I’ve been tempted a few times to write more personal dramas. You don’t need imagination for those. You need understanding and empathy. I assume that’s why there are so few SF and fantasy writers who can create memorable characters.
One of the key tools of Imagination Writers – can we use that as a group identity? – is exaggeration. Emotions and events are writ larger than life. Look at costume designers in films. In ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’ Bob Ringwood (later to move onto ‘Batman’) massively exaggerated fashions popular in the brief reign of William & Mary to point up the absurdity of the upper classes.
Bryant & May are exaggerated – not absurdly so, judging from the police I’ve met, but in unexpected ways. The books went from what were effectively police procedurals to a group participation exercise with about 15 characters – the Springfield effect, where you end up having to keep tabs on dozens of speaking roles. Perhaps that should be called the Dickens effect.
‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’ will be my last ‘Everyone Into The Pool’ book for a while. The plots are in danger of becoming too grandiose and unmanageable, so the 21st novel will be a little different, more intimate and human, but still with the series’ trademarks in place. It will allow me to reduce incident and increase depth.
Between each novel I write a standalone book, the next to appear being ‘Hot Water’, but soon I’ll be branching off to explore other passions; a dark fantasy of the kind I used to write, and a time-twist novel a little like ‘Calabash’. Bryant & May will go forward, though, acting as a bellwether for our times. No-one has managed to film them because they’ve never understood the fundamental purpose of them; as avatars taking readers through all of the kinds of mystery and crime fiction they’d like to see.
Who knows what the next stage in development will be? The great thing about the creative process is that if you keep your mind fresh it never needs to stop.