John Milton, Screenwriting Don

I’ve just listened to the first episode of the BBC’s adaptation of Paradise Lost, with Ian McKellen as Milton and Simon Russell Beale as Satan. The adaptation, by Michael Symmons Roberts, is?exquisite, but I had some thoughts on Milton’s work itself, and why it’s endured for so long. Yes, the poetry is transcendent, but it’s the?storytelling that comes through beautifully in this adaptation.

Basically, Milton was a screenwriting don. Look at the evidence.

Start in the middle of the story

We open with Satan and his hordes groaning in the pit. How did they get there? What will they do once they’re there? We’re right in the story, with zero exposition.

Establish motivation

Milton uses the demons themselves to explain Satan’s plans. One suggests war. One suggests doing nothing. One suggests revenge, in cold, hard verse. Guess which one the Fiend goes for?

Use flashback creatively

Raphael tells the story of the Fall to Adam and Eve, which allows Milton to absolutely go to town on describing the bloodbath (plasma bath?) on the fields of heaven.

Set up the what before the why

We know what’s going to happen to Adam and Eve. But Milton’s got a better plan to keep us on the hook. It’s not?what they do, it’s?why they do it. In fact, it’s not even?why, but?what in Heaven were you thinking, Father and Mother, given how clearly the danger had been laid out for you. The inevitability of the sin is remorseless. We’re locked into it as surely as Eve is. It’s cold and hard and awful.

So, if you’re thinking of trying your hand at an epic poem about Original Sin, the Fall, and the Birth of Humanity, remember this: it’s gotta have a story. However good your versification is.


The island that came in from the cold

My fourth novel,?The Detective and the Devil, is partly set on St Helena and is published on April 21, 2016. This post, inspired by a very special day in the island’s history, gives a brief introduction to the place, and deliberately?fails to mention any French emperors.

The first recorded resident of St Helena, the British territory sealocked in the South Atlantic, was Fernando Lopez. A Portuguese?nobleman, he had deserted his troops in Goa, and as punishment he was disfigured horribly – his right hand, left thumb, ears, and nose were all cut off. Unwilling to be returned to Portugal with such an appearance, he asked to be abandoned on St Helena in 1516, a recent Portuguese possession on the return track from the East, where he was left with nothing but a pet cock for company. He grew lemon trees and kept goats (which had themselves been left on the island by the Portuguese – it had had no such wildlife when they came across it, and it was uninhabited). It’s not known what happened to him.

St Helena had been ‘discovered’ for?the Great Nations of Europe (as Randy Newman describes them)?by Joao da Nova Castella on St Helen’s Day 21 May 1502. Vasco da Gama visited?the island again the following year, saying that from the Cape of Good Hope ‘the wind is very constant and carries you in 16 days onto St Helens Road’. The?Portuguese set the template for what St Helena would become during the Age of Navigation – they put?livestock on the island, principally?goats, and they planted fruit trees and herbs. They also used the island as a kind of?quarantine camp, putting?sick men ashore with food and oil and picking them up a year later – if they were still alive.

View of St Helena From the Sea, George Hutchins Bellasis, 1815
View of St Helena From the Sea, George Hutchins Bellasis, 1815

In 1588, Thomas Cavendish visited?the island during his circumnavigation, describing a?’marvellous faire and pleasant valley’ in which stood the Portuguese church – hence the name today, Chapel Valley. He saw ‘pompions and melons’ growing, along with?oranges, lemons, pomegranates, and dates. Cavendish described a kind of Eden, and may have inadvertently set the template for English literature’s tradition of mystical islands. Shakespeare may even have had St Helena in mind when he wrote The Tempest, though Barbados would have been knocking around in there, too.

'A View of St Helena from the sea', Capt. Tobin RN, 1815
‘A View of St Helena from the sea’, Capt. Tobin RN, 1815

As the Portuguese empire declined, the Dutch and English ones rose, and as they fought for mercantile dominance in the East, the English decided St Helena would make a useful stopping-off point for the new East India Company. The EIC decided, effectively, to invade St Helena and take it for themselves, doing to the Portuguese what they would later do to the ancient empires of India.

In 1658, a party of forty under Captain Dutton (who had a Dutch wife) was sent by the EIC to establish a plantation on St Helena. They stopped at?Cape Verde to acquire ‘plantoon rootes’ (plantains or bananas) cassava, ‘jamooes’ (yams), potatoes, peas, beans, oranges, lemons and ‘gravances’. They also picked up five or six ‘Blacks or Negroes’. Slaves would be a big part of St Helena’s economy from this point until the mid-19th century.

The Dutton party landed in May 1569. The island has been British ever since, apart from one brief interlude when the Dutch snatched it away for a few years in the 1670s. It remained an important staging post, but as England, and then Britain’s, trading empire declined, it became cut off, accessible only by a Royal Mail ship from Cape Town, in a crossing which takes several days.

Until yesterday, that is – when this happened.

The island’s airport has been a long time coming, and it won’t be fully operational until May, but the paradise of Cavendish’s description is once again connected to the world’s transport system, as it once was when that system relied on sail, not jet turbines. One wonders what Fernando Lopez would have made of those gigantic metal birds falling from the sky onto his island prison.

As an incidental aside, the opening of the airport has obviously been big news on St Helena, and the islanders should be congratulated for their years of work and campaigning to get the thing built. How did the British government feel about it? I couldn’t find a single tweet. Odd that we should have such a dysfunctional sense of history. Needless to say, the islanders didn’t need telling how significant yesterday was….


Art needs rules

Two videos courtesy of, both of them illustrating that great art, and particularly great comedy, grows from constraints and discipline. Firstly, a lovely piece by Tony Zhou on the art of Chuck Jones.


And then, as if to illustrate the point, Jason posted another video a few days later, this time showing every entrance by Kramer in Seinfeld.

Watching both these together is mesmerising, and points to something else – the more you strip it back, the better it gets (until it doesn’t, of course). I could watch Road Runner followed by Kramer’s entrances all day long.

Goodreads is a pub conversation, not a literary journal

This is a follow-up post to ‘The reviews that make you sad‘, which I wrote two evenings ago after a raw encounter with a caustic one-star review. I still stand by what I said there – essentially, that people use words in online reviews which can scar, and which seem to disregard the humanity of the author while doing so.

I didn’t mention Goodreads in that post, but I did have a discussion online about it with the always reliable Archie Valparaiso and the excellent Andy Miller, in which Archie said this:

At the time, in the heat of the conversation, I thought this was an odd thing to say. But thinking about it afterwards, I think he’s got a point. I think I’ve been looking at Goodreads in the wrong way.

Goodreads isn’t a literary journal. It isn’t, actually, even a collection of reviews. It’s a collection of people, talking (and often arguing) about books. The key word in Archie’s tweet is ‘eavesdropping’. It suggests a closed conversation between people. If you think of Goodreads as a group of people round a table in a pub, your attitude to it shifts.

And this is how people use Goodreads, I think. They listen mainly to the reviews of people they trust, and when a drunk person goes off on a rant about how this book is a load of steaming turd, they ignore them. They might not even see them, to be frank, just as I’ve been unaware of the Sad Puppies thing on Twitter, even though the noise from it in some quarters is louder than a plutonium rock band from the Gagrakacka Mind Zones.

So the standard viewpoint on Goodreads is the individual within a circle of online acquaintances. But this is not the viewpoint an author has. Her viewpoint is her book, and the aggregate reviews and ratings of it. She can see the reviews as they come in – the good, and the bad – with no social context whatsoever.

This is not a good thing.

On top of that, I do begin to understand the mild impertinence of my being on there at all unless it’s at the invitation of the community (which was Archie’s point about ‘eavesdropping’). If you were chatting about a book in a pub and the author came over and sat down at your table, uninvited, you’d find it presumptuous and you’d find it annoying. As an author, I don’t want to be presumptuous and annoying towards readers.

So, my new rules for engaging with Goodreads:

  • Don’t look at aggregated reviews and ratings
  • Only join in a conversation when invited to
  • Don’t pretend to be a ‘reader’ on Goodreads when I’m in fact a ‘writer’
  • Encourage my publisher not to use aggregated Goodreads ratings in other contexts (like its own website). Without the social context, these ratings are potentially harmful
  • Trust in my books to find their enthusiastic audiences, in Goodreads and in the world, and live with the fact that some people will just hate them

I still think people’s use of intemperate language, on Goodreads and elsewhere on the Internet, is a modern plague. But that doesn’t mean I have to engage with it in a way that injures good people just trying to share their views on books.

The reviews that make you sad

One does not talk about bad reviews, seems to be the rule. If you’ve written a book or three?and you want people to read them, the default position has to be resourceful cheeriness. In these days of mass-publishing, when anyone with something to say can find somewhere to say it, you need a thick skin if you’re going to put something creative out into the wild on which people will, inevitably, pass comment.

It’s the price you pay for being a writer, people say, and of course they are right. A great many people want to see their writing published, see it made available, see it being bought and read and (we hope, oh my we hope) generally enjoyed.

Take the rough with the smooth. Don’t read the reviews if they upset you. The positive ones?outweigh the negative ones.

Every now and again, somebody does lose it, spectacularly, as somebody did just recently. And everyone circles around, says?tsk tsk and playground-laughs because really, writers should know better than to get upset at reviews.

And yet. And yet. Sometimes it is different. Sometimes, someone hits you with a one-star review on Goodreads, and it makes you question everything you do. Which is?mad, it’s?insane?and it’s?silly.?But it’s also?human.

Take this, for instance:

Seriously boring – why would anyone stick with this one to the bitter end? I?m one of the 15% of reviewers who didn?t like this one ? and proud of it!

A slow, dull, ponderous and overstuffed read littered with minor and pointless details and descriptions that weren’t relevant to the story and got in the way of progressing through the book. By page 75 I had enough and gladly abandoned it.

An additional irritation was that Shepherd?s style of writing seems dumbed down, too simplistic for adult reading.

So, OK. She didn’t like it (she’s talking about my first book, The English Monster). But did she have to be so gleeful about not liking it? Does that help anyone, that enthusiasm to pour ice-cold water on the poor writer’s head? Why would you be proud of not liking something?

A one star rating is fine – I mean, I don’t like it, but it’s fine, I write books that put some people off (and, secretly, I’m a bit pleased with myself about that). But language like this seems to reflect something else going on, something I am frankly mystified by. Is this the kind of thing you?would say to a writer’s face? Is it the kind of thing you?would say to any professional when critiquing their work?

How was the?meal?

It was seriously terrible.

People just don’t speak like this to each other. Put a screen, a keyboard and the whole of the Internet in front of them, and somehow they lose sight of something – that there is a person at the other end of this.

And that’s the thing that disturbs me most. That another person, someone out there in the world, wrote those gleefully angry words – about?me. About?what I do. I have literally never – not?ever?– described another person’s work in terms like this.

But, no, that isn’t true – I have, of course. In private conversation with another person, I will go to town on any piece of creative work you care to mention. But then I imagine the creator sidling up behind me and listening to what I’m saying. And I cringe. Because that’s the human thing to do. Because unless the other person is vicious, or evil, why would you want to upset them?

A small plea for kindness, then. Pour cold water if you have to. Express your dislike if you want. I get it, I understand it.

But, please, try and be nice about it. Try and imagine going into work tomorrow, and someone standing in front of you and telling you your work is poor, is in fact lacking in any merit whatsoever, and what is more this someone is mystified that any colleague could hold any different view, your contribution being so pathetic and devoid of value.

I’ll be back at the desk working tomorrow. Other people will say nice things about my work, and other people will say nasty things, the world will go on turning. But as of right now, my world is just that little bit less pleasant than it was before I read that review.

Is that, really, what the reviewer intended?


Do more with less, already

I’ve just been reading a really interesting post about CGI effects in current movies, and why they have become so screamingly underwhelming. It’s a long piece, but worth your time, particularly if you’re in the business of telling stories, and what it comes down to is this: pacing, style and creativity will trump raw power,?every single time. Here’s what he has to say about this scene, from the upcoming (and obnoxiously crap-sounding)?Jurassic World.


Sure, that looks pretty awesome, but destruction on that scale should blow our fucking minds. The response to dinosaurs wrecking a helicopter should be nothing short of paralysis, but this scene has no sense of gravity or consequence. Theres no scale to it. Theres even going to be a scene where (minor spoilers) a Pteranodon picks up a woman and literally drops her into the mouth of the Mosasaurus. It doesnt matter how real the CGI looks, because that scene belongs in a fucking Sharknado movie. Its an absurd cartoon orgy.

via 6 Reasons Modern Movie CGI Looks Surprisingly Crappy |

As I’m writing a thing at the moment which could, unless I’m very careful, degrade into an ‘absurd cartoon orgy’, I found this very relevant.

Stick or twist? The art of stretching yourself

I’ve just been reading a fascinating piece from the Guardian about Amorphous Androgynous and their experiences working with Noel Gallagher on new material. Gallagher brought AA in to stretch his sound, and it’s fair to say it didn’t end well.

We tried to force him to write new material. But he dragged his heels and failed to stretch himself. Eventually, we came up with two new backing tracks for The Right Stuff and The Mexican to justify it being ?like Pink Floyd?, the two songs that ended up on Chasing Yesterday. We spent six months on them. Now people are citing The Right Stuff as one of the best things he has done, and proof of how good he can be when he explores.

via Amorphous Androgynous on Noel Gallagher: ?He was too afraid to be weird? | Music | The Guardian.

I’m listening to The Right Stuff as I type these words. It’s excellent – essentially Gallagher, but with a new and fascinating twist. It’s a shame he didn’t put more of this stuff out, but there’s a lesson in here. If you’re not stretching yourself, you’re turning in on yourself. And that can’t end well.

Amorphous Androgynous on Noel Gallagher: ?He was too afraid to be weird? | Music | The Guardian

The Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club


It’s been a while – for which, apologies. But my absence is at least partly explained by the project I’d like to tell you about now (I’ve also been working on a new book, which is finished and set for spring 2016, but I’ll tell you about that another time).

I’ve teamed up with my old friend Tim Wright to conduct?an experiment in reading.?We?re planning to have an adventure by means of a book. The book in question is The Riddle of the Sands, the first spy novel. It was written in 1903, and it takes place between the dates of September 23 and October 26 in an unspecified year.

It starts in London, it finishes in Amsterdam, and in between our two heroes, Carruthers and Davies, sail their way from the Baltic to the North Sea, via the Kiel Ship Canal, and uncover an extraordinary plot among the windswept and tide-drenched East Frisian Islands.

That?s their adventure. Our adventure is to follow in their footsteps: to visit the same places, in the same timeframe as they did, to try and experience the world through their eyes, to try and make this vivid, extraordinary, riveting book come alive again.?We call it taking a book for a walk, and we?d like you to join us.

How? Well, to start with,?you can visit our website, the Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club. There’ll you’ll discover the text of the book, and a whole range of stuff we’ve dug up about its background – the history, the literature, the methods of travel. You can read about Danish princesses, German champagne, Flushing steamers and northern anchorages. Each week, we move forward in the book by another day, and try and dig deeply into what’s going on.

Also on the Adventure Club website is our weekly podcast, in which we try smoking pipe tobacco, sample naval grog and interview people who know things we don’t – from spy novelists, to transatlantic sailors.?Our?sixth podcast went?online this week (it’s available on?SoundCloud?and on iTunes), and includes a tasting of German Sekt (not from the bilge), everything you ever wanted to know about Danish princesses, and a possibility of us all heading off to re-enact the Battle of Als.

All this is leading up to September 23 this year, when we plan to start reliving the action of the book, in exactly the same timeframe. Yesterday, we announced that we?re working with Unbound, the innovative publisher of crowd-funded books, to raise the money to set out on the adventure for real in September, and ultimately publish the Handbook Edition of ?The Riddle of the Sands?.

For full details of how you can support us on Unbound, please go to

?10-?25 ENTRY LEVEL: The Adventure Club will be free right up to the point we leave for Flensburg. But from September 23 2015, you?ll need to be a supporter of the Unbound project to get onto the site. For ?10, we?ll give you access, so you can follow us live, day by day, as we take on the Adventure for real.?For ?25 you get the Handbook proper (including the text of the original novel). Other reward levels include a Field Audiobook and a deluxe ?Navigator? edition of the book.

SPREAD THE WORD: Please pledge what you can at, but even more importantly do spread the word about the Unbound offer, and about all the good stuff we?re doing on

Tell your sailing chums, tell the lovers of this classic novel, tell history buffs, tell Childers fans, tell people interested in exploring northern Germany, tell people who are interested in new forms of digital storytelling. Please, spread the word.

And please sign up to be an active member of the Adventure Club online at are so enjoying sharing this adventure with the people on there. I really hope you?ll join us.


Oliver Sacks will be leaving us soon

For all sorts of reasons that I won’t go into here, I wanted to record this beautiful piece by Oliver Sacks, who has been diagnosed with secondary liver cancer:

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

via Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer –