How Bryant & May Saved My Career

Reading & Writing

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.

20 comments on “How Bryant & May Saved My Career”

  1. Barbara Boucke says:

    Actually I think you have more understanding and empathy than you think you do. What comes through with Arthur Bryant and John May – each in the character’s own way – is an understanding of other people as well as a periodic realization of the character’s own perceptions that may or may not need to be improved. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy your books.

  2. Wild Edric says:

    Very much looking forward to the 21st! Personally I loved Red Bride. I read it on a flight to the US just after it came out in that large paperback format. Parents were telling me to get some sleep but just couldn’t stop reading. I think I got a bit teary at the ending – could have been tiredness though.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    This column makes fascinating reading because a reader is really only aware of the end product of an author’s work and in the case of someone like Chris some of that output disappears because it is in a line that they don’t follow. If you read Chris for the mysteries then Sandmen or Nyctophobia may very well not exist in your landscape. The idea of writing something very different as a sort of palate cleanser is interesting.

  4. admin says:

    The palate cleanser part is necessary to stop you from becoming jaded. Every now and again I read a book that pulls me up short and makes me feel that I need to raise my game. I’ll add a reading list next week.

  5. Ian Luck says:

    No films of Messrs. B&M. How about trying to get them made as an Anime? You could have artistic control, and hand pick voice artistes. An Anime would open up a lot of peoples’ eyes to the characters, too. Maybe even get more book sales because of it, too. It’s an idea.

  6. Brooke says:

    Dear Future National Treasure:
    I foresee a problem. As technology enables you to skip intermediary apps and drafts, scholars and annotation editors will not be able to trace your artistic choices from conception to final product. Thus we will miss much of your thinking about words, language–a sad loss at a time when imaginative use of written English is declining.

    Grammarly is a curse upon human kind. If I see another Grammarly-written letter–correct, lacking any human emotion and complete with hackneyed expressions–I will not be responsible for my actions.

  7. Jan says:

    See i knew it – a D.I.Y jobby. Thought that was the explanation

  8. Peter T says:

    Ian, that’s a brilliant idea. I’d love it. Maybe anime doesn’t carry the weight of an acted production?

    Emapthy is a difficult topic mainly because everyone seems to have their own definition, very few of which coincide with a dic. Speaking of which: ‘Grammarly,’ I googled it. Now I know what is. OMG, I’d been assuming it was something to do with Trump speak!

  9. admin says:

    Sadly, as Brooke points out, Grammerly is another gruesome attempt to make us all the same. I’ve had to turn Word grammar off because it tries to correct things I know to be right. The other day I read in an Edwardian novel the phrase, ‘I shall be keeping an open bed tomorrow’, meaning one of those days when you drift from bed to kitchen and back. Feed that into Grammarly!
    BTW Peter, now that you’ve Googled it you’ll find it appearing in your life, probably every time you open your browser.

  10. Brooke says:

    Peter T–you are on target. G is very like TrumpSpeak in that its algorithms provide or substitute hackneyed sentences and phrases for thought. We now have two generations in the workforce that cannot compose a paragraph without it. Frightening.

  11. Martin Tolley says:

    In the defence of grammerly – at least it might stop “So how r u 2 day r u ok n feelin well”

  12. John Howard says:

    Thank you Admin. A fascinating insight to the process of creation and an indicator of why we enjoy your books so much. Personally I am glad that many years ago I was wandering around the bookshelves in Waterstones looking for something new to read and I noticed a front cover of a book mentioning something about Bryant & May. I idly wondered what matches had to do with a story and the next thing I know here we are. I especially have enjoyed reading what has been written in between and before as it all comes from the same source.
    Please note, all the above is my own work and not the result of some app. You noticed; I’m so glad.

  13. Gary Hart says:

    You are so right John. I cannot wait to pounce on both the latest B&M or the palette cleansers, (what a wonderful description).
    The one for the latest update on friends and to see what they’ve been getting up to, since last we met. The other to see just where the mind of Admin wanders off to next. I think they in their own way are every bit as enthralling as the B&M stories but also a way of keeping them fresh.

    I must admit that when Nyctophobia came out I thought “My God, what were you doing when that idea came to you”, must’ve been a bad day.

    Thanks for all the happy reads Chris, may they continue for many years to come. (That was a demand not a request.)

  14. Liz Thompson says:

    Grammarly. Ugh! I turned off autocorrect after it transformed muscovado into Muscovite. They don’t grow sugar cane in Russia, but that’s no concern of autocorrect’s. Garbage in, garbage out.

  15. Peter T says:

    Considering some of the garbage that I write, perhaps I should give Grammarly a trial.

  16. Brooke says:

    Peter T: don’t make a pact with the devil.

  17. Paul C says:

    Hi Chris

    I seem to remember from earlier posts that you are a fan of the old Bristow cartoon strips by Frank Dickens.
    The ‘Book Palace’ website now has original drawings of these strips for just £75 each if you are interested.

  18. John Griffin says:

    I was reading an early Allingham (Look to the Lady), and wondered if the early Campion verbal digressions had an influence on Bryant’s lateral shifts in conversation?

  19. Carl Clegg says:

    I had genuinely thought you’d stopped writing until I stumbled across ‘Sandmen’ a few years ago and then had a bit of catching up to do with Bryant & May. (I started off with ‘The Burning Man’ then realised it was part of a series so started from the beginning. Being a bit like Arthur myself, when I got to The Burning Man, I had forgotten that I’d read it before so now have two copies! I’m extremely pleased with your Forgotten Authors book which has inspired me to dig around for some of the names in the book. A second volume would really be appreciated if you find the time. Anyway, I’m still not fully caught up with Bryant & May which is pleasing as I really enjoy knowing there’s more to come.

  20. Lauren C says:

    “I shall be keeping on open bed” would certainly make one’s friends do a double take.

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