We love writers here, especially at Christmas. Neil Richards is the co-author with Matthew Costello of the Cherringham eBooks, self-contained mysteries released monthly in short episodes. Earlier in the week, we took time out from all the festive panic-buying to discuss those.
Time will tell whether Cherringham will prove to be a publishing game-changer. However, Neil’s written across many platforms – as a producer and writer in TV and film, creating scripts for BBC, Disney, and Channel 4, and earning numerous Bafta nominations along the way. He’s also written script and story for over 20 video games including The Da Vinci Code, and consults around the world on digital storytelling – so his fascinating interview is a reminder that these days there are many different opportunities out there for writers. Here’s The Intel:
How did the Cherringham series come about?
Matt and I have been writing TV and games together since the late 90’s – but we’d never tried to write a book. There are plenty of TV writing partnerships – but not surprisingly book collaboration is still quite unusual. However, last year we were commissioned to write a YA novel funded by Screen Australia and we both really enjoyed the process. We started to play around with the idea of a US-UK crime series – since Matt is NY born and bred, and I live in an English village, it felt as if there were interesting cultural tensions we could play around with.
At the time I was doing some consulting work for Bastei and their editor said they were looking for a UK-based cozy. So we put a quick pitch together based on our original ideas – Bastei liked it – and we were off. Matt came over from the US and we spent two weeks in the Cotswolds building the setting, the stories and the characters. Then we proposed around 30 thumbnail stories to Bastei, agreed the favourites with them – and started writing. If only all commissions happened like that!
The episodes are self-contained – is the idea to get people to consume them the way they would a TV series?
Interesting question. Matt and I have both written many hours of TV – and the shape and size of these stories has much in common with a classic three act TV hour. Since they’re constructed in much the same way – maybe they’ll be consumed in the same way too… Boxed sets of books, not TV shows?
Possibly. In one sense these stories are designed to be consumed fast, on the run – perfect to be loaded on a Kindle or pad for a train or plane journey. But of course there’s nothing new: Conan Doyle and Dickens were pioneering the same form in print for the 19th century reader.
Do you think this kind of self-contained eBook is going to become more commonplace?
I’ve been working in digital media since the mid-90’s and the one thing I’ve learned is never to make predictions – mine are usually wrong… But the size of these stories (around 25,000 words) makes them consumable in one sitting – so perhaps there is a market out there for the quick story hit.
Take us through a typical writing day for you?
I’m still part of a 7.30 ‘got to get the kids out of the house’ routine which means I’m at my desk by 8.30 latest. I’ll normally have three or more projects on the go at any one time – book, TV, computer game. So I’m constantly juggling writing, meeting, skyping, travelling. I write best in four hour chunks and usually finish around 7.30. Sometimes I’m doing 12 hour days when multiple deadlines collide. Oh to be paid by the hour…
What’s the most difficult writing lesson you’ve had to learn?
That some projects just don’t get made. I’ve had two TV series cancelled at the last minute – each one representing maybe two or three years work. It still hurts – but the lesson is to move on and try and invest the next project with the same passion. That immortal line from Galaxy Quest should be above every writer’s desk: Never Give Up – Never Surrender!
How do you deal with feedback?
It’s massively important. If people have problems with a story – then I just have to accept as a writer that there are problems with the story. The trick is working out what those problems are – and often they lie elsewhere in the book. Feedback reveals symptoms – not causes. Your job as a writer is to work out what the real problem is and where it lies…
Give me some advice about writing.
Get to a desk and start. Get the words down. Don’t stare at the screen – you’re not writing the finished book you’re just having a stab at a first draft. Final drafts won’t exist without a first or a second draft. Eventually you’ll work out whether you’re the kind of writer who needs a route-map or one who works best with minimal structure. As long as you have a pretty good idea what the story is – there are an infinite number of ways of writing it.
What’s your best advice for a writer looking to get into the marketplace?
Work in the genre you know best and which suits your writing style. Don’t give up. Don’t leave it too late though – I wish I’d started ten years earlier than I did.
You and Matthew have written scripts, games, novels and eBooks. Should new writers be looking to explore new writing opportunities on different platforms?
Absolutely. Anyone who wants to make a living these days as a writer has to be able to work in different forms and genres. I write pre-school series, animation, teen drama, interactive TV, web, YA novels, computer games… Years back I worked in movie and TV development: I hired writers who worked in one genre, one form. Unless a writer has had real success in one form and become a big name – those days are over.
What’s next for you?
Matt and I have just spent ten days together planning the rest of the Cherringham series and plotting two more books. The first is a YA thriller. After that we’ve got an idea for a much darker crime story. We also have books 2 and 3 of the YA book series we are writing for Screen Australia as part of a big cross media property. Then there’s the story and script for a game lurking in the Spring…