Tag Archives: Robert Ludlum

The Intel: James Swallow

James SwallowThis week’s Intel Interview is absolutely fascinating for anyone interested in the life of a commissioned writer. James Swallow is an author and script writer who has written a host of novels, short fiction, audio dramas and video games. He’s also the only British writer to have ever worked on the Star Trek TV series, providing story concepts for two episodes of Voyager.

As well as his own novels and stories – including The Sundowners steampunk western series – James has written a huge number of tie-in novels for movies, television series, comics and games, including Doctor Who, Star Trek, Judge Dredd, Stargate and Warhammer.

His latest novel, published by Titan Books, is 24: Live Another Day – Deadline. It fills in a missing part of the eventful and unhappy life of 24‘s rogue agent Jack Bauer.

James gives us the Intel on working with Jack, writing across different media and how ideas are the hard currency of any writer…

Tell us about 24: Live Another Day – Deadline. How does it differ from the events of the television series?

Deadline follows the 24 TV show model of a storyline told over 24 hours of real time, following Jack Bauer as he races across America from New York to Los Angeles in order to keep a promise to his daughter Kim, to see her one last time before he drops off the radar and vanishes – but Jack is being pursued by an investigation team led by a vengeful FBI agent and a strike force of Russian assassins, so he has a target on his back… And along the way, he stumbles on a dangerous situation in a small Midwestern town that he can’t walk away from.

In terms of how the book differs from the TV series, the key thing is that a novel allows you to show an internal viewpoint – you can get inside the heads of the characters in a way the television can seldom do.

As the events of the book pick-up where the show left off, how much freedom were you given to imagine what happens next to Jack Bauer?

Deadline is actually set before the events of 24: Live Another Day – specifically, one hour after the end of the previous season Day 8. There’s a four-year gap between the 8th and 9th seasons of the show, so that’s a lot more bad days that Jack can have!

In terms of freedom to tell stories, I was given a good degree of latitude to bring in elements from previous seasons and invent new events for Jack Bauer to be involved in. 24’s Writer-Producers Evan Katz and Manny Coto were consulted every step of the way to make sure the story in the novel connects directly to the TV show continuity.

24 DeadlineHow have you recreated 24’s famous countdown sequences within the structure of the book?

It would be almost impossible to replicate something like that in prose, as the ticking clock is such a striking bit of visual iconography – so instead I went for a story that takes place over a 24 hour period, told in 24 chapters, each with the same sense of fast-pace that the TV show exhibits.

You’ve written a lot of tie-in fiction for series such as Star Trek, Doctor Who and Stargate, as well as games and comics – how does the process of writing a tie-in differ to your own novels?

Working from a blank canvas can be very liberating but it can also be intimidating.  Working in an established world can be fun, because you’re finding new ways to play with a toy box of ideas that are well-known, but it can also be quite restrictive. The key in both cases is to find what you love about the fictional world and tell the best story you can. I try to give both my original and tie-in work the same creative energy.

Are you often given a series ‘bible’ and other related material and strict parameters to work within?

Generally, the parameters are the elements of the franchise itself – the movies, TV episodes or games that form the fictional world you’re writing for. The source material is always the best resource to draw from, because it’s the origin from which all other stories spring.

You’re a writer who works on novels and short stories, as well as audio dramas and video games – how important is it that writers explore different media?

It’s not for everyone. Not all writers can shift gears and write in different formats – some are better suited to long-form stories, others to scripts, etc. But for me personally, I like moving between different media because it keeps me interested and it keeps my skills sharp. At the end of the day, it’s all writing, all words on the page and storytelling – but having to fit that narrative into different structures is a great challenge.

You’re an extraordinarily prolific writer – what’s your secret?

The secret is that there is no secret. I honestly don’t consider myself prolific, not when I look around and see other authors with sixty, seventy or more titles to their credit. I write because I love it and also because it pays my rent, but my secret to doing that is nothing more amazing than just sitting my backside in the chair and writing, day in and day out.

Take us through a typical writing day for you?

Up at 8.00am, in front of the computer by 9.00am. Check and answer emails, then editing of the previous day’s writing before stating the current day’s assignment. Try not to waste too much time on social media. Break for half-hour’s lunch between 1.00pm and 2.00pm. Write through until I hit my target word count for the day or until my wife comes home from work around 6.00pm, which ever comes first.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

Don’t be precious with your ideas. Don’t treat them like gold and hoard them away. Ideas are the currency of the writing game, which means you have to spend them. And if you can’t generate more ideas at a moment’s notice, you’ll have a hard time being a writer of fiction.

How do you deal with feedback?

I find I get the best results when I use a flamethrower.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

In thriller fiction, I’d have to say Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, Ian Fleming – all very different writers but they cast a long shadow over the genre, and have helped shape it to what it is. In science fiction, I enjoy the works of William Gibson, Philip K. Dick, Iain M. Banks – just for the sheer amount of creativity that goes into the worlds they write about.

Give me some advice about writing…

Two words: FINISH IT. All too often, people tell me they want to be writers, but they don’t have time or they have half a story they just can’t get around to completing. The fact is, if you can’t finish a story, you are not writer. You’re just playing at it. Even if you write and finish your thing and you hate it, the act of doing that has made you a better writer. It’s how you earn your experience, how you ‘level up’. No-one wants to read half a story, just like no-one wants a half-cooked meal.

 What’s next for you?

I’ve just completed an original action thriller novel of my own,  and I’m splitting my time between work on the script for to-be-announced videogame project and a science fiction tie-in based on the Star Trek franchise.

The Intel: Alex Blackmore

We love writers here, and we’re keen to learn from them. Last week we reviewed Alex Blackmore’s international thriller Letha Profit. Now Alex tells us just how she goes about the business of getting words onto a page.

ABWhat’s your writing process? What comes first – plot or character?

Setting is probably the first thing for me. I think locations are important as they can have a lot of influence over the feel of the story. I’ve set the book I’m writing at the moment in Berlin because that city sends shivers down my spine. After the location is the research and then come the main characters and the bare bones of a plot, followed by the flesh of the smaller characters and the different layers of story.

Take us through a typical writing day for you? 

I’m at my most lucid in the early mornings – at least once I’ve had a coffee! So if I’m writing I tend to get up around six or seven and just start work straight away. Those early hours when the world is still and unrushed have a magical quality to them, creatively speaking. I find if you live in London peace is hard to find so the early mornings are precious in terms of mental space.

I write in one or two hour chunks but I tend to be spinning numerous plates seven days a week, so unless I’m on holiday or it’s an unusually quiet weekend I have to take writing breaks to answer business emails, make phone calls or go to meetings. If I’m lucky enough to have an entire writing day then I just shut out everything other than the dog and immerse myself in what’s going on in my head. When I was a kid and I did that at school I got told off for daydreaming so I’m still adjusting to being ‘allowed’ to do it and not feel guilty about it!

Who are the authors or you love, and why?Unknown

I’m a big fan of Karin Slaughter, Henning Mankell and Robert Ludlum’s earlier books – I mostly like books that have lots of action, aren’t afraid to be a bit political and/or make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. I thought Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was interesting – a good, gripping plot with that twist half way through, as well as astute observations on women in society. I found her idea of the ‘Cool Girl’ really resonated with me.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

If you don’t have any discipline then you’ll never finish anything. You need to have a pretty potent imagination as a writer and lots of good ideas, but there also has to be a process through which those ideas get to other people. It took me a while to understand how non-creative the creative process has to be sometimes. I had to force myself to do it initially – rigidly at the same time every day and without distractions. I thought a daily routine (which is something I’ve always hated) would restrict being creative but it was what made it possible to bring it all to life.

How do you deal with feedback?

I’m much better with feedback than I used to be, mainly because I feel like I can tell the difference now between what’s objectively constructive and what’s purely subjective. The thing is that even if something smarts a bit when you first hear it’s actually often really useful for the next piece of writing you take on.  Ongoing progress and development are really important to me and you have to listen to criticism to achieve that. Sometimes people just don’t get your writing though and that’s fine – they’ve just picked up the wrong book. You can’t please all the people all the time…

How have your own experiences shaped your writing?

I used to work in the City and I used to live in Paris so they have been pretty instrumental in terms of the Book 1 setting! The way I think and see the world has seeped in to some of the characters I’m sure, although I think it’s more interesting to challenge yourself to produce characters that aren’t just versions of you or people you know. I’ve been careful not to include anything that is too close to real life too – there are elements of things I’ve done or seen, people I’ve come across in there but no whole transitions from the real world.

Give me some advice about writing…

I’m not sure I’ve hit such dizzy heights of success to be giving advice but here goes…I think discipline is the big one – getting yourself into a good routine and then sticking to it. Follow your instinct in terms of your plot and your characters and avoid copying other writers. Most important of all, ignore the doubters and the people who raise their eyebrows and suck their teeth when you say you want to be a writer. ‘Oh doesn’t everyone’ is often the reply, especially if someone has tried to publish their own work but failed. You have to be a bit arrogant, a bit blinkered and be convinced of your own opinions if you’re going to get your work heard (I have these character traits and I’m sure it drives the people I work with slightly mad…).

 What’s your best advice for an author looking to get into the marketplace…

Be a bit creative about it. Unfortunately now it’s not just about being a great writer you need to market yourself too from the word go. There are many more routes to getting published now than there used to be. You don’t have to be with a big publisher to be a best seller and there could be all sorts of reasons why an agent or reader for a publisher passes over your work when many others would like to read it. If you really believe in it then just be relentless.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently trying to finish book 2 and it’s proving challenging with everything else going on and the inevitable fear of trying to produce something that follows on well from the first book. However, I’ve just got back from an inspiring trip to Berlin so I can feel the ideas starting to accelerate…

Alex Blackmore trained and practiced as a finance lawyer in the City before leaving to pursue a writing career. As well as penning Lethal Profit she works as a freelance copywriter and runs an online fashion business championing new designers. Alex lives in north London, loves hot yoga and is a big fan of a perfectly made margarita.

You can find Alex on Twitter: @AlexPBlackmore

On Facebook: www.facebook.com/AlexPBlackmore

And she’s got a website: http://www.alexblackmore.com