SPS-168: From Soap Operas to Serial Killers – with M.J. Arlidge
Matthew Arlidge began work as a TV writer in his very early 20s, writing for one of Britain’s best-known soap operas, Eastenders. He now divides his time between writing novels and writing intermittently for television, including the 2018 hit, Innocent.
- An update on the auction fundraiser for Tommy Donbavand
- On Matthew’s beginnings with Eastenders and moving into writing novels
- The high-pressure, fast-paced world of writing for a soap opera
- The vulnerability of putting our creative work out into the world
- On the balance between accuracy and story momentum
- The technique of writing a ‘treatment’ for each book, as you would a TV script
- Tips for getting into the TV industry
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
LIVE EVENT: Mark will be speaking in June at Slaughter in Southwold
Transcript of Interview with Mark Stay
Announcer: On this edition of The Self Publishing Show.
Matthew Arlidge: It’s always amazing, I think, that any good TV or films get made, because a number of people, who have a stake in that final product, be it producers, directors, actors, money men, whoever it may be, is vast. Actually, it’s so easy to end up with a committee project for TV writers and producers coming to write novels. That is the most exciting thing, is that ultimately it’s basically your voice, and that’s tremendously exciting.
Announcer: Publishing is changing, no more gatekeepers, no more barriers, no one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing?
Join indie best-seller Mark Dawson and first time author James Blatch as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is The Self Publishing Show. There’s never been a better time to be writer.
James Blatch: Yes, hello. It’s the Self Publishing Show with me, James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: And me, Mark Dawson.
James Blatch: Here we are in England without mentioning the meteorological conditions. You have a good week there, Mark? Look how good I am, not mentioning weather.
Mark Dawson: I did. Yes, I’ve been … This is Easter holiday here. My kids get four weeks off for Easter, which is-
James Blatch: A lot.
Mark Dawson: -frankly ludicrous, given that we’re paying for them to go to school. Yes, they get four weeks off. So that means– also, they don’t coincide, so Samuel’s been on for a week, then Freya comes off. Then he goes back and she has another week. It’s all busy and, well, slightly annoying.
Just to make it easier, I took Freya and Samuel down separately to my mum’s and my dad’s in Lowestoft, where I’m from; for two separate weeks over the last couple of weeks, so I’ve been driving a lot. By American standards, it’s nothing at all, but for the UK…
James Blatch: It’s the equivalent of driving from –
Mark Dawson: To the shop, yeah.
James Blatch: -well, from somewhere like Phoenix to New York.
Mark Dawson: Five hours, yeah.
James Blatch: West country to the east coast of England. I mean, it’s not quite the same distances.
Mark Dawson: The roads are terrible
James Blatch: It’s a long journey.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, it’s five hours there, five hours back. So lots of driving. I got some writing done, got some stuff done, but it was a lot of parenting. It just kind of goes with the territory, I suppose. So that’s been interesting.
Getting back into it today, I’ve done a bit of writing last night actually and I’m doing some today. I’ll be writing tonight, as well. I’m slightly behind on the tons of different things I’m trying to get caught up.
James Blatch: What are you writing at the moment?
Mark Dawson: I’m writing a Beatrix Rose book, which is going to be called “Tempest”, I think.
James Blatch: I think that name has been taken.
Mark Dawson: In the same way that “In Cold Blood” has been taken, but I don’t worry about those kinds of things. I think I can probably get away with “Tempest”. So, yeah that’s fun.
That’s going to be set in Hong Kong and Cuba, which has been quite fun to write about. It’s been a real slop to write, it’s really hard. I had a breakthrough– several breakthroughs over the weekend with regards to the ending and some quite cool things that I’ve worked out that I think are going to be very affective. So I’m looking forward to getting that finished.
James Blatch: So you don’t really plot.
Mark Dawson: Not terribly, no. I tend to, I’m what you call a discovery writer. I’ll have some idea where I’m going, but in the kind of edit, I continuously edit. In the third or the fourth front to back parts I’ve done of this book, the whole ending changed so I jumped.
Last week, I deleted, on Thursday morning, 15,000 words. I just went like, “Delete, Delete, Delete.” Actually, I’ve been resistant to it because it’s like, 15,000 words, that’s a week’s work that I was deleting. But, at the same time, it felt really good, because I knew I was only being resistant because I didn’t want to lose the words, but I knew that by doing that, I was making a better book. So, it actually felt quite good at the end of it and I know I’ve got to go and sort of write the new ending now.
James Blatch: How many words will your book be?
Mark Dawson: I think about 80,000.
James Blatch: Do you want to know what I’m up to? We have to wait a bit, because it now takes –
Mark Dawson: Oh I do, 200,000?
James Blatch: – quite a long time to count. I get the spinning wheel of death on my Mac for a few seconds when it’s counting. Well I’m close now.
Mark Dawson: Are you close to finishing? How many words there?
James Blatch: It’s just coming up.
Mark Dawson: Is it steam powered, your computer?
James Blatch: 172,118 words at the moment.
Mark Dawson: Oh my goodness! That is a big book!
James Blatch: But you’ll be please to know, I’m on the penultimate day –
Mark Dawson: I should hope so!
James Blatch: -of the story, so it’s all happening now. It’s all exciting now. I’m really enjoying the writing, so I’m getting words done, 2,500 or 3,000 a day, at the moment to get there.
Mark Dawson: That’s too long!
James Blatch: Yes, well it is. It is too long. But I think it’s going to be a long-ish book. The revision process, which is all going to be brand new to me. Because I’ve never revised a book before so I’ve got to learn how to do that.
Jenny Nash has very kindly indicated that she may take the opportunity for me to revise this book to do some teaching on revision, using me as a guinea pig.
Mark Dawson: Ah, cool.
James Blatch: So we are plotting that out, maybe a webinar, something like that, or maybe a podcast episode, or maybe all of them. So, yeah, so I’m getting there as well. I might blog recently, because I don’t know if I mentioned this on the podcast, but I have given my book to somebody to read for the first time.
Mark Dawson: Your dad?
James Blatch: Did I say that on the podcast?
Mark Dawson: You did.
James Blatch: I did, repeating myself. I am moving to that next phase now of the outside world seeing a bit of it, which is quite exciting.
Mark Dawson: That doesn’t count.
James Blatch: My dad doesn’t count?
Mark Dawson: No, it doesn’t count at all.
James Blatch: Well, of course an editor’s been seeing lots of it, so it’s not like –
Mark Dawson: Yeah, that counts, but you’ll be most nervous when you send out to people who are not invested in you at all.
Send it to me, you know I’ll be fighting for you.
James Blatch: Have you got time to read 172,000?
Mark Dawson: I can certainly read some, but yeah I might struggle a bit.
James Blatch: 50,000 are a lot of the same words just repeated in the middle of it.
Mark Dawson: How very good!
James Blatch: Good okay, well it’s exciting. It just feels like it’s going to happen this year which is amazing. Well, I should say before we move on; I do have some Patreon subscribers to welcome to The Self Publishing Show, people who want to support us at Patreon.
This week’s newcomers: John Lilly, Anna Apmer, and Kenton Abott from California. Thank you very much indeed, John, Anna, and Kenton. You can go to patreon.com/selfpublishingshow if you would like to sponsor the show, you can do it for as little as a dollar a week. You get access to the Self-Publishing Formula University. Which, Mark, is not-
Mark Dawson: It’s absolutely not a University. Under no circumstances whatsoever could it be described as a legitimate University. It is not any of those things.
James Blatch: But, you do get regular instructions.
Mark Dawson: You do learn there.
James Blatch: You do learn there. You learn incredibly valuable things.
Mark Dawson: To be honest, you’d probably learn more at the SPFU than I did at my University.
James Blatch: Well, maybe if you had M.I.T you might learn more there than Oxford. Yes, really good. So you got access to the University even for a dollar an episode. Which is excellent.
These are live instructional webinars which then get posted, so you can go back and watch them in slow-time. We’ve done cover design, we’ve done K-lytics, we did newsletters.
We’ve got good stuff coming up on that as well. Good, and Kenton Abel is a name that we recognize as well. Whose that last of the three people who joined us this week on Patreon.com.
Kenton is the person who bid and won on the auction that you set up for Tommy Donvaband. Tommy who we’ve mentioned from time to time, excellent author who writes really great children’s books; has just been dealt the worst possible hand in health terms. He’s had throat cancer which he’s been fighting tooth and nail over the recent years. But the latest news is really not good. A part really of Tommy worrying about the future, and worrying about his family; he did make an appeal for help. We were only too happy to do so.
So he’s set up an auction, Mark. And it went really well.
Mark Dawson: It did yeah. I’ve reached out to a few people. We put in both of our courses. Kenton at some point will be on the book lab.
Normally you can only do that if you’re a Patreon subscriber. I spoke to Nick Stevenson and he gave a copy of his course “10k Readers”, Tammi Labrecque we just mentioned, has offered Kenton a seat in her newsletter “Mastermind”. What else?
There will be a new cover Stuart Bache will do a cover as part of the book lab which, normally, we don’t actually do covers. Brian Cohen will do a blurb.
So basically lots of people that we know, and like have all chipped in to produce a pretty valuable prize. Kenton I think bid up to around about 2,600 pounds so…maybe 3,200 dollars, something along those lines. We’ve matched that, and so have Craig Martelle, and Michael Anderle from “20 Books to 50K”.
We were really thrilled to be sending the thick end of 8,000 pounds, maybe 9,000 dollars over to Tommy.
That will be, I hope, very helpful for him. He actually sent me a message not too long ago thanking us for doing that. So that was–it was really, it was fantastic. Everyone really chipped in and came together. So thanks to everyone who’s contributed to that, and to everyone who bid on the auction as well. Congratulations to Kenton who came through with the highest bid.
James Blatch: Yes, well done Kenton. We look forward to seeing you. Kenton has said to me that he’s–I think he’s in the process of writing his first book, which sounds familiar. Or at least on his current book. It’s going to be a while before we see him on the book lab, but that will be something to look forward to. So well done.
Thank you all very much. Everyone who bid on it. We had quite a few messages from people saying that they were bidding on the auction, and wanted to do so. That’s great for us to come together like that. Our best wishes go to Tommy and his family.
Right, now. Are you going to mention the fact that you’ve won an award? You’ve mentioned it fifteen times online so far. You going to mention it one more time in this–
Mark Dawson: Um, yeah.. no.
James Blatch: Mark have you won an award recently?
Mark Dawson: I did. I won my first ever award which was very flattering. It probably would be fair to say its not the most well-known award in the world, but I don’t give a–you know what. It was a fun night.
It was the Wiltshire Life… Wiltshire Awards. Pride of Wiltshire I think it was. Wiltshire is the county that I live in for those who don’t know. Salisbury is in Wiltshire in the UK. It was held in a really impressive venue. A massive tithe barn. It was the biggest tithe barn in the country apparently.
James Blatch: Wow.
Mark Dawson: Fact fans.
James Blatch: What is a tithe barn?
Mark Dawson: Well, tithes are basically taxes. So, in olden days the local farmers would bring their tithes to the landowner. That would be kind of… grain, or things like that would be deposited in this barn. It’s this massive building. It was all decked out nicely. Its an art gallery now so they had lots of impressive tapestries on the wall.
Must be fifteen awards, so Lucy, Mrs. Dawson, and I sat and got quietly drunk, not expecting to win anything. It got to the award for–I think it was for creativity or something along those lines, a creative award, and my name was called. Which was extremely flattering. So, I went up there, made a slightly drunken speech.
James Blatch: It wasn’t a valedictory rant?
Mark Dawson: It wasn’t a rant, no. I can’t remember what I said. I tried to be charming. I’m not entirely sure that came off. I then went back and the next award, just to put this all in perspective was the “Pride of Wiltshire” award went to the Emergency Services who responded to the Novichok incident last year. So, we had the Chief Constable of Wiltshire was there, and the person who was seeing the police officer who was in charge of the operation, which was really significant.
There were tens of thousands of Police, and military personnel in the city last year. There was Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey. I think it was Nick Bailey… he was the– he was in hospital. He touched the doorknob, they think, of the Skripal house, and therefore, came into contact with the nerve agent and his life was in the balance for a while.
His life has been thrown upside down; he can’t go home because obviously he went home after, and then infected everything in the house. Everything in the house had to be destroyed, all his kids toys… nothing could stay, they had to incinerate everything.
It was really humbling, actually, to have shared the stage with them. Everyone gave them a massive standing ovation which was very well deserved. It was actually quite nice. I found out Nick was running the Salisbury Half-Marathon to raise money for the ward where his life was saved. So, I threw in a bit of money for that, and he tweeted his thanks.
We’re going to go have a beer soon. He’s actually going to join the team as a Professional Liaison with the Police for the new book that I’m writing set down here with the Police.
James Blatch: Wow.
Mark Dawson: It was a really good night.
James Blatch: Excellent.
Mark Dawson: I was very pleased with that.
James Blatch: Sounds like Nick has a story to tell. There’s a book in there, isn’t there?
Mark Dawson: Oh yeah! Yeah, but he’s been on–he’s had TV– he did Panorama, which is a TV show–current affairs show in the UK. What a story that is. To kind of, go there and then–I think he said he kind of went home, felt fine. Woke up the next day, and didn’t feel fine. Went to hospital, and then he was in a coma for a month. Or something like that, he was pretty seriously ill.
So, yeah very interesting evening, but very nice to get a little bit of recognition for my books. Very nice.
James Blatch: Yeah. Good well that sounds like a great evening, and congratulations.
Mark Dawson: Of course I’m much more important than the Emergency Services.
James Blatch: Put you’d produce us a good book to read. I mean, you might be in hospital, so you need a book to read right?
Mark Dawson: Exactly, yes.
James Blatch: We all play our part. Good, now, we’ve got one more thing to mention before we get on to today’s interview.
That is a conference that’s just taken place here in Europe, actually in the UK. Very nice place on the East Coast called Southwold, where the gentrified, hunter-welly, Barbour coat wearing set go; Chelsea by the Sea–actually I think Burnham is Chelsea by the Sea. I don’t know what Southwold is… its Kensington by the Sea.
Mark Dawson: No, its Chelsea on the Sea.
James Blatch: I know its Chelsea– but I thought that was Burnham. Burnham was Chelsea– anyway…
Mark Dawson: Yeah.
James Blatch: Either way, there is a conference there. Specifically aimed at for the writers. You mentioned I think before, “Slaughter in Southwold” it was called, or something like that?
Mark Dawson: Slaughter in Southwold, yeah.
James Blatch: He’d been invited to that. I am currently down to do a bike race for the REF on Lincolnshire on that Saturday. So I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to make it, but if I can, we’ll come and do some interviews while we’re there.
So people can go along and press the flesh, and meet–they could meet a real-life hero who’s won an award couldn’t they? You, not Nick obviously.
Mark Dawson: I will be there yeah, I’m there on the Sunday. The thing is the 16th. It’s pretty good, there’s some good authors with lots of books, McDermott, McCarron, people like that will be there, so its a good opportunity to go down there.
Southwold’s gorgeous, its a lovely place to visit. I was there last week. I actually booked the hotel I’m going to be staying at–its very expensive. Very expensive.
James Blatch: Is that The Swan you’re staying at?
Mark Dawson: It is The Swan.
James Blatch: That’s quite nice. Yeah, it’s very nice there. By Adnams Brewery who do excellent beers. Good, so, you’re there on the Sunday. I may be able to make it then. I’ll be doing my bike ride-
Mark Dawson: Sunday morning, 10 o’clock.
James Blatch: Okay, we’ll see.
Mark Dawson: At least three tickets have been sold. Two to my parents, and one to a fan who lives in Southwold.
James Blatch: Oh, excellent. Okay. Good, well you can spend all weekend with your fan in Southwold.
Mark Dawson: I could, yeah.
James Blatch: Really great for him.
I think that’s it. We’ve got quite a busy time at the moment, but that’s it for now. We are working on some stuff in the background to do with some of the instructional stuff that we do. All of that will become clear in the future.
This week’s interview is with a man who has had a really fascinating, interesting career. One thing that shines all the way through it is–this man is a brilliant writer. You’ll hear from this interview that –
Mark Dawson: Is it with me?
James Blatch: It’s not with you. He cut his teeth writing for a Soap Opera called “Eastenders”.
Mark Dawson: That’s not me.
James Blatch: I’m going to explain what Eastenders is for our American friends, because I suppose–I don’t know what the famous Soap Operas are…”All My Days” is it? Or “Days of Our Lives”-
Mark Dawson: Days of Our Lives.
James Blatch: Dallas did a scene, yeah. I mean these–think of the biggest Soap Opera that’s watched by the most people in America; that’s what Eastenders is in the UK. Its the modern–well probably for 20 years its been that. Before that it might have been Coronation Street. But, Eastenders– and it’s always been right from the beginning, Eastenders has been better written, better quality. It’s had proper story-
Mark Dawson: More miserable…
James Blatch: More miserable, but you know, more real and all the rest of it. It changed the face of the Soap Opera in the UK. It’s been a brilliant program.
Now, I long since the day I used to sit there and watch it I used to– a long time ago. It is a huge deal. This man produced it, and then as he explains in the interview, it was a bit like a Soap Opera in the background. They would sack writers at the last minute, and he’d end up writing the episode.
But what a way to learn how to write. When you know that the next day you’re going to have highly-paid actors saying your words with TV cameras and the lot people all around you ready to go on that.
So, he’s now morphed through the world of television, particularly crime dramas on television, into novel writing. He’s done that very successfully. He publishes under M.J Arlidge. He’s actually called Matthew. Its a really interesting interview, and again, a good insight into how other people operate and how they get their writing done.
Let’s see if Matthew, and then Mark and I have a quick chat off the back.
Okay Matthew, welcome to the show. You’re a man with a really strong television background, and you write novels as well. Lots of people we speak to start as novelists, and then listen intently to interviews about how to break into television, and go that way.
You’re sort of living the other way, is that right?
Matthew Arlidge: Yeah that’s right. I started working in TV about 20 years ago now. Which is a bit embarrassing. In the late ’90s when I had just come out of film school, and I started working on Eastenders. That was the first job I ever had.
James Blatch: For our American listeners we should say Eastenders is The Days of Our Lives in the UK.
Matthew Arlidge: Absolutely.
James Blatch: Very popular Soap Opera.
Matthew Arlidge: Very popular Soap Opera. Yeah, and I worked on that for a couple years, which was incredibly hard work. We were doing three episodes a week. Everyone was falling out, and getting fired the whole time, it was very intense.
James Blatch: That sounds like the storylines in the show.
Matthew Arlidge: Exactly right. Then went to work on for a number of other BBC shows like Monarch of the Glen, and various other things.
Then moved into Crime Drama. Which is my thing. I did that for many years. I’d always sort of wanted to write, but the TV industry is filled with producers who sort of–which is what I was doing, who think they can write, and then they write a script and are loudly laughed at by the rest of the industry.
So, I thought I would write my first original piece in a different industry as a novel; so that if it did crash and burn, then nobody would know.
James Blatch: As a producer, how involved were you in the writing?
Matthew Arlidge: Um…-ish. I would say, I think the truth is, is that writing is a very exposing thing to do. When opt for a novel or a screenplay you are inviting peoples criticism. I think a lot of people run scared of that because it is very exposing. I think a lot of people, therefore, including myself get jobs which are sort of involved in the creative industry, but you’re not necessarily the person with whom the buck stops.
I was a script editor, I was a development producer, I was a producer–so you’re involved with the script, but you’re involved in lots of other stuff as well. You’re a sort of a jack of all trades. Whereas it falls to the writer, or the director, or the actors to have those moments of real sort of pressure and vulnerability.
That’s the thing is producing is one of those wonderful jobs which there are a few people who absolutely have it, and are perfect at it, and it is a really tough job. There are also people, including myself, who did it perhaps because they weren’t quite bold enough to do what they really wanted to do initially.
James Blatch: On Eastenders, were you writing or producing then?
Matthew Arlidge: I was script editing and storyline. The very first job I ever had was storyline on Eastenders where you’re planning six months in advance, seven months in advance. It was great fun, I was 22 and all the rest of my mates have really tedious sort of trainee jobs or whatever; and I was planning out what happened to the Jackson family. So it was quite fun.
Then I went on to script editing. What was so interesting. The reason someone advised me to go work for soap opera was that people do burn out so quickly, because it’s such hard work. So they’re always replacing staff. So they said, “get in there”.
I think the very first block I ever did which was three episodes that went out in one week. I think we fired the writer quite early on, and it was being shot in like three days time, and the first assistant director was going nuts running around going like, “where are the scripts?” So you just end up writing them basically yourself.
It is pressurized, but it is fantastically exciting and valuable nursery ground. The skills that I learned then in terms of interweaving different stories, generating cliff-hangers all that sort of stuff; I still use now 20 years later.
James Blatch: That’s learning at the coal face.
Matthew Arlidge: Totally.
James Blatch: What’s it? Necessity is the mother of invention.
Matthew Arlidge: Exactly right.
James Blatch: When you absolutely have to do it, you kind of learn how to do it. Well, that’s quite exciting, because 20 years ago was probably the time when I’d last watched Eastenders.
Matthew Arlidge: Yeah, exactly.
James Blatch: I think I’d grown out of it a little bit. I was probably watching some of those storylines. Had no idea they were thrown together three days before filming. I thought they were carefully crafted.
Matthew Arlidge: Yeah, well the truth is, is it is really hard work. It’s the weirdest thing because you are planning probably 18, 20, 24 episodes of it being written at the same time.
Of course, if one person changes one thing, then that has a ripple effect through all the other 24–so constantly trying to not only do the episodes your working on, but reading everyone else’s and trying to corral what the hell is going on, basically. It is a chaotic, but enjoyable process.
James Blatch: You cut your teeth in soap opera there. You’re very much in, I guess procedural is that how you’d describe your work?
Matthew Arlidge: Yeah I guess so. I mean, it depends. I’ve been doing Silent Witness so I’ve obviously done three episodes of that, and that is absolutely procedural because– and I guess its not sort of a natural fit for me in some ways, because although it’s crime, the joy of procedural is you go from A, to B, to C, to D; and every little link in the chain gets you to the answer in the end.
With the novels I write, thrillers. It’s completely different. It’s more about how you get from A to Z as fast as you possibly can with a massive ticking clock.
Crime and thrillers is the area that I enjoy because it quickens the pulse. Back in the day that–I’m old enough to remember sort of video stores, pre-streaming, back you know when you went to the Blockbuster there was comedy, there was romance, there were thrillers.
I would always go for the thriller section, because that was a thing that, for me–you know we all crave escapism in some way, but it was thrillers that for me that were the most exciting. Taking me to Goodfellas, or whatever it may be. Just taking you out of your world into a world that’s sort of more exciting.
I often say to people when they’re talking about writing books or whatever. I say, “well you just have to write a book that you yourself would enjoy reading.” So its no surprised perhaps that I’ve sort of ended up doing crime both in TV, and in books.
James Blatch: You decided that you would write a novel to learn how to write. Then have you then gone back into TV writing, or are you still producing?
When you talk about Silent Witness for instance, was that producing or was that writing?
Matthew Arlidge: No. It was interesting, I didn’t write anything for TV until after I’d written the first book. I think it was “Eeny-Meeny” which was the first Helen Grace novel. Had two sort of important consequence for me. One, by chance it was very successful so I could give up the day job and just continue writing full-time, which was lovely. Secondly, it gave me the confidence to write. I thought, okay this is decent.
I think “Eeny-Meeny” I was still producing then so I would try and finish work around 5. Then I had about an hour before the kid’s bath time. So I had about an hour every day to write a little bit of my novel.
For the second book, I had all the time in the world, because suddenly I didn’t have to do my day job anymore, and I could just write. And that was tremendously exciting, but I do think writing is a confidence thing. Whenever you offer anything out there, there is all that fear that you will fall totally flat, and people will laugh at you and all the rest of it. I think that that is a massive boost when, A: a publishing company buys it. More importantly that readers actually buy it and appear to like it.
James Blatch: I can see that some of the TV work has been a good grounding for you in terms of–I mean, actually we had Lynda La Plante on the podcast-
Matthew Arlidge: Oh brilliant.
James Blatch: -earlier this year. Of course she talked about-
Matthew Arlidge: Quite a character.
James Blatch: She’s quite a character, yeah we could’ve talked for several hours.
Matthew Arlidge: I’m sure.
James Blatch: Yeah, a real raconteur. She’s an amazing character as well. I think when you think about her as a young woman, blonde, quite good looking and being typecast into a sort of carry-on type roles.
In there was this incredibly intelligent writer. Gutsy writer, and she had to push and forge her way. So she’s a great person to listen to.
The reason I mentioned it is because she’s so finnickity about authenticity, and she really drums that into people that’s what she spent most of our interview talking about, almost berating writers to learn the trade – talk to police officers, find out how they operate. Don’t make mistakes, and don’t say things that just simply would never happen.
I’m assuming that that’s something when you’re working on the Silent Witness atmosphere that must be a key part of it.
Matthew Arlidge: It is. And it’s the part interests me least in a way. I would take issue with her a little bit on that one, because I think it depends what you’re writing. I think certainly with Silent Witness you have to sort of stick to certain rules because you are focusing on pathology and forensics, and they are sciences.
It’s well known that they take sort of wild liberties as well in the idea of a pathologist doing all the things that she does is ludicrous.
I did do a lot of research for the first one, “Eeny-Meeny”, but I think the ins and outs of how a police station works is crucial to a certain type of crime drama. I like escapism. The type of books I write are quite unusual for British authors I would say they are much more akin to American authors like James Patterson, Harlan Coben. With incredibly short chapters and absolute sort of hopefully killer last lines of chapters. So you just have to read on.
I think there is a reader, and writers out there who love immersing themselves in the tiny details of pathology. I’m much more interested in generating pace, and excitement and that forward momentum. I sort of think, in a way, as long as what you say you write is believable and credible, and the people reading it believes it at that moment, in a way you can slightly–you know because, my main character Helen, she’s been nearly killed sort of, five or six times. She would have retired long ago by now and been sort of riven with PTSD, but because she’s out heroine she gets back up and goes again.
It’s a bit like Jack Reacher the sort of–I think there have been 22 novels now, haven’t there? Of this tall stranger ghosting into towns and dispensing justice like The Equalizer. It’s obviously absurd, but actually people love that character so much, and love that idea that out there is a good, strong, handsome man who’s going to sort of you know–but actually they are very, very happy to go with it.
James Blatch: Of course, James Bond is the other example.
Matthew Arlidge: Exactly.
James Blatch: He would definitely be PTSD riddled. A range of sexual diseases as well.
Matthew Arlidge: Yes, I would’ve thought so.
James Blatch: I can remember, the Silent Witness thing; I was a BBC reporter as I’ve mentioned and I used to cover quite a lot of those grizzly sort of murder cases, and Doctor Nat Cary is our local pathologist. Forensic Pathologist. You’ll not get a more straight-laced, quiet, studious individual.
She used to go into the crime scene, spend hours there, come out. And then months later in the Crown Court case, and he would read in a very meticulous way what he found. If he got drawn on anything he’d be very clear about, “this is the science of it…” and then he’d go off again.
I thought, that’s quite a contrast to Silent Witness, who suddenly turns up at the relative’s homes, and then has taken it upon herself to investigate everything.
Matthew Arlidge: That’s the thing, I mean, it’s like there’s a certain type of person who wants to be a writer, who enjoys spending quite a lot of time in a room by themselves. I think with pathologists as well, there’s a certain type of character who is happy to spend long periods of time alone, or with one other person with dead bodies. That doesn’t generally translate to being an action hero, or–do you know what I mean? They are sort of distant disciplines.
James Blatch: He’s a brilliant man, Nat Cary.
Matthew Arlidge: I’m sure, I’m sure.
James Blatch: Not an action hero.
You wrote your first book. When did that happen, and tell me how you approached that in terms of plotting it out and so on?
Matthew Arlidge: I wrote it in 2012, and it was picked up in 2013 by Penguin. I didn’t tell anyone I was writing it, not even my wife. I just wrote it completely in secret because-
James Blatch: Wow.
Matthew Arlidge: -there are lots of people who basically say they are writing novels, and actually never do. I didn’t want to be one of those. So I did it.
Then I did something slightly sneaky. I finished it, and I thought, well this is decent, what can I do with it? And I happened on somebody who worked in publishing at a publisher called Headline. I asked her to ask the crime editor, who I’d never met, who the best agents were for crime.
I got some names back, and then using the name of the crime editor, again who I’d never met, I said, “so-and-so said I should write to you…” just to get the agent to actually open the email and read it. That’s the hardest bit basically.
It’s probably easier to get published than it is to get an agent. Anyway, so I eventually met with people and managed to get that. What was interesting is that people who read it had a universal response which was, they liked it, but it was about 25,000 words too short. It was only 55,000 words, and 80,000’s the minimum. So that was a bit of a bind.
I had to go back and write. What was interesting, is that I would say 90% of the people who read it were women at that stage, different agents who were thinking about representing me. They all came up with the same thing, which is; in order to expand it what you need is more emotional cruelty. Which I found interesting.
It’s probably quite sexist of me, but I wasn’t expecting that female response. “Eeny-Meeny” is about a serial killer who abducts people in pairs, so it could be a husband and wife, or just two work colleagues. They get abducted and when they wake up they are in a locked room with a gun in front of them, with one bullet in it, and the killer says that one of them has to kill the other one in order to survive. It’s a moral dilemma for the victims.
What all the people said was; it’s great, but you’re dealing with each of these pairs in that one chapter. Let’s have that three of four chapters where we see them circling each other in the room, and thinking, ‘Should I go to sleep? Can I go to sleep…’ because maybe the person– and all that sort of stuff. They really wanted to dig deep.
That of course was tremendously exciting, because when people ask you to add more cruelty, you know what more could you want really?
So that was fun. So I managed to do that, and eventually got an agent who thankfully managed to interest Penguin in doing it. And that was great, because you get to call your mum and tell her you’re going to be published by Penguin, and that works.
James Blatch: How many Helen Grace books are there now? Was that Helen Grace?
Matthew Arlidge: Yeah that’s Helen Grace. There are eight Helen Grace novels. The eighth one, “Down to the Woods” which is somewhere behind me.
James Blatch: Yes there it is.
Matthew Arlidge: Came out in September, and there’ll be another one in 2020 because I’ve got a stand-alone coming out next year.
James Blatch: And still with Penguin. Is it Michael Joseph with the imprint?
Matthew Arlidge: Yeah. Michael Joseph that right.
James Blatch: Still with them?
Matthew Arlidge: I’m not actually. I’ve got “Down to the Woods” with them, and then my stand-alone is called “A Gift for Dying” which comes out in April, and then after that I’m moving to Orion who are a rival of Penguin’s, I’m sad to say. They publish Ian Rankin, and Michael Conlan, a lot of the big beasts. The guy I’m working with there is–I used to work very closely with at Penguin so… a slight switch.
James Blatch: They’re a great stable to be in.
Has the indie world caught your attention at all? Is it something you’ve considered or you think this–the right thing for you is the traditional deals?
Matthew Arlidge: So far the traditional deals seem to work fine for me. But there are a huge amount of success stories of people doing it in the indie sector. I think for me, I’m still so new to it really, I mean, 2014 was when the “Eeny-Meeny” came out, and I was so amazed that, A: anyone wants to publish it, and B: that it was successful. For a long time I felt, well listen, I’m just going to stick with Penguin because I owe them a lot and they’ve done well by me.
I don’t really know that many people in publishing. I don’t really know that much about it. So for me I’m kind of still feeling my way towards some sort of knowledge of both the indie sector, and indeed the traditional sector.
James Blatch: Okay, so the book itself, you wrote it–I guess what they call a pantser in the industry. You sat there and did it by the seat of your pants, rather than did a careful detailed plot. Then you got some good editorial advice afterwards about what they felt was missing, and fleshed that out.
How has that changed your writing process now? Do you plot? Do you do the Lee Child thing where you spend eleven months just thinking about it, and sit down and do it in one month?
Matthew Arlidge: Well, sort of. I was doing two books a year. So I had to be quite on it. That’s why I’ve managed to get so many out so quickly. I know I’m a plotter. I always have been actually.
I didn’t really do it by the seat of my pants at first, because all I did in writing the book was do exactly what I would do in TV. Which is, before I write a script, before I write anything, I work out exactly what happens. If its a screenplay, in each scene. If its book, in each chapter. So I have the whole thing mapped out before I write a single word.
That’s purely a hangover from TV, because in TV it costs a lot of money to pay for a script. So people often ask us to do a treatment first, which costs a tenth of the price, where you outline pretty much exactly what happens. Just so people know what they’re getting scene by scene before they commission a script.
Basically, I do the same thing now with novels. I sit down and I spend as much time planning as I do writing, and I probably–each book has about 120, 130 chapters, and I’ll have at least a line for each chapter where I know exactly what’s happening. Just so I know the plot is robust. That also comes from me having been a producer and having spent a lot of time reading novels thinking, could this be the next big thing we could adapt for TV.
Actually, a lot of them had really, really disappointing endings, and I think that’s a bit of a crime to drag someone all the way through a novel, and then give them a bad ending. So in a way, I have to know the ending, which should be the climax of the whole story; where everything all sort of comes together. I have to know that first before I start. I think a lot of people start out that way.
I remember Val McDermid saying she used to do that. Now she just writes, but she’s obviously hugely experienced, but she still refers to it as driving at night with the headlights off. If you’re not an experienced novelist you might very easily go down a cul-de-sac if you’re not careful, and write yourself into a hole.
I love to plan, but that is as much about my insecurities as anything else.
James Blatch: A couple of practical questions.
How do you plot? What source, do you use any software, do you just open a Word document?
Matthew Arlidge: Purely Word. I’m a Luddite. I like having that, printing it off, and then going through it, scratching bits out. I’m a sort of mixture of long hand, and computer because I just love to sort of–I guess keep refining, keep trimming, and editing really, the story even before I’ve begun to make sure there’s no fat that the characters actually don’t need. You want it to be as lean and taught as possible.
James Blatch: Are you doing any TV work now? Or is this just–writing novels?
Matthew Arlidge: I’m sort of trying to balance–juggle all of them.
In May I had a show out on live TV called “Innocent”. Which I wrote with a writing partner Chris Lang, who writes “Unforgotten” for ITV. That was four part drama about a miscarriage of justice and all the different lives that were affected when an innocent person goes to prison. Obviously, the wronged person, the family of the victim, but also the real killer and all those other things.
It went out–they stripped it so it went over, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday of one week on ITV. So we sort of dominated that one week. Which is great, and it did really well. It was ITV’s highest rated new drama this year. So we’re hoping to do a sequel to that.
That’s the only thing I’ve ever done–cause I’ve done quite a lot of TV where people really were into it. I would sort of go into the hairdressers, and people would pounce on you and say, “Who did it?” You’d hear people talking about it in restaurants and things like that. That’s just tremendously exciting. I would love to do another one of those if we can.
James Blatch: So you’re writing primarily now on TV?
Matthew Arlidge: Yeah. I do a little bit. Really now, I’m kind of only really doing my own stuff. So in a way that’s writing, casting, and being involved in the edit too. So its all the fun stuff.
James Blatch: The difference between TV, and the novel writing. So one of the things I struggled with that as a–first novelist on his millionth draft of the book, its getting there now. Is the rookie mistakes at the beginning was concealing too much?
Matthew Arlidge: Yeah
James Blatch: I had it now pointed out to me that you could conceal so much but basically its the story unfolding that is gripping to people, not hints at something that happened in the background which is what I did a lot. So I’m glad you’re working that out.
I think a lot about TV and film, and actually, I feel they conceal more feels to me like you are able to hint at other things happening, and gradually reveal it; is that true?
Or do you think its the same thing, you really have to kind of show it on screen?
Matthew Arlidge: I think you can conceal a lot more in a novel and you can be much more manipulative with a novel. Often when I’m describing a perpetrator, I just refer to this fleeing figure, or this–and in a way it’s very easy to be quite vague about: is it a man or a woman, are they tall, are they short, and all the rest of it. You can hide behind language I think, a lot more than you can–and you can pull more tricks basically, than you can in TV.
Obviously, you can mislead with the eye, and all the rest of it, but because you actually have to film it, and you are staring at something that’s there in three dimensions for you. I find its much easier to be manipulative in novels, which is great because you can just hold things back a little more, and just tease them out.
When you’re making TV there are always practical constraints and things that will hamper the final product. That may be just to do with collaboration with other people, or it may be, for example, I filmed an episode of Silent Witness; so it was supposed to be really dark and brooding lots of night scenes, and we filmed it in June. Which is when it never gets dark.
So, all of those scenes took place in broad daylight, and that was fine, that’s just the way it had to be. Whereas, I think what’s amazing about books clearly is you are in complete control of all the elements, and there’s no budgetary constraints. You can set it anywhere, and it is also more purely your vision, and I think that’s–its always amazing, I think, that any good TV or films gets made, because the number of people that have a stake in that final product be it producers, directors, actors, money men, whoever it may be is vast. It’s so easy to end up with a committee project, or a kind of Euro-pudding you know, or whatever it may be.
For TV writers and producers coming to write novels, that is the most exciting thing. Ultimately even though your editors, or your agents give lots of good input, its basically your voice, and that’s tremendously exciting.
James Blatch: I can’t remember which film director was who said that, “the more you know about the film process, the more you realize its a miracle any film every gets made.”
Matthew Arlidge: Yeah, exactly. Quite right.
James Blatch: So what about your books being adapted for TV then?
It seems like you’re in the perfect place to write and have them perfectly adapted for TV.
Matthew Arlidge: We’ve had a go at the BBC, and we’re sort of still seeing whether that’s going to pan out. I’m really torn on that one, because I think it would be great to have them made, because that would be tremendously exciting. I think Helen is quite a kick-ass character. And cinematically–the book is quite cinematic, so I think it would work.
I think that the downside of it is, as soon as you do an adaptation of it, at least 50% of the audience say, “no that’s not Helen. I don’t like her.” There’s this sort of disappointment. Jack Reacher being the obvious one with Tom Cruise who they’ve now dropped, and likewise I remember seeing a lovely two-hand between Mark Billingham, and Lee Child when he was saying–Lee Child was saying, “Tom Cruise is just too short…”, and Mark Billingham saying that, “David Morrison had been too tall…” for his one. So there was sort of–
I think what’s lovely, and I haven’t really realized about novels is that; clearly a novel is a dialogue between the author, and the reader. The image you have of Helen Grace in your is different to mine, is different to everybody else. So there are hundreds of thousands of Helen Graces sort of running around out there, and that’s rather lovely.
I think that the downside of adaptation is that there will always be lots of uber fans who are disappointed. So, we’ll see how it goes. I think probably now is not the right time to be producing serial killer things.
I think as Britain slowly sort of crashes out of Europe, and we all sort of go to Hell in a hand cart. I suspect you might be seeing quite a lot of more cozy, commissioning choices. Perhaps slightly nostalgic shows that looks back. I think some of the evisceration by sort of twisted serial killers may just be on hold for a year or two until life is a little less scary.
James Blatch: Let’s talk you a little about that, spotting those trends and how to get into TV, cause you’ve got a bit of an insider’s guide for some of it. Not for this, but, just on that point about the book being completed in the mind of the reader. I think that’s a really important aspect of all art actually. One of the jobs I had was at the BBFC watching films. We did a little project there, and tried to take a rather lofty almost academic view at what film classification was.
We explore this area that; any work of art, whether its a statue, a painting, a film, a book, whatever, is completed at the point where it’s consumed. That’s an integral part of the piece itself. Its nothing by itself; it’s completed then.
Therefore you lose ownership of it. The creator loses ownership, loses direction of it. I do like listening to authors who don’t want to talk about the character in the book, because they know that it’s not really theirs. It’s in the mind of the other people.
J.K Rowling does this a little bit, and I find it slightly irritating when she talks about the backstory of her main characters, and I’m thinking, “Well, its not in the book, this is your version of Dumbledore, but actually other people have their version of Dumbledore…”
Equally valid strangely. Just the wax to go on about that point, anyway. Let’s ask you about TV and getting into TV then. So some top tips from an insider. So you’re approaching the BBC now.
Do you use your own contacts and inside channels to do that? Or is there a process that you could advise people to go down?
Matthew Arlidge: My gut feeling is that there are well-established routes you can go to getting work at the BBC, to apply to get into the writers’ rooms, or whatever it may be. I’m never sure how useful those processes are. I think in a way you often have to sort of think around the problem, and just try, and find any–whether you’re trying to get into TV or publishing whatever it may be.
Any sort of personal contact, because you will know someone, who will know someone, who will know someone who works in TV or publishing. Trying to find some sort of personal connection to go and meet them, find a way, and they will then recommend you to other people– I think sometimes you do have to sort of work around the system a little bit, otherwise you’ll always end up just being a number on a piece of paper.
The Eastenders one I found interesting because that was the best piece of advice I got; was just to go to try and work on those shows that have the maximum burnout. So it was Cory, Eastenders, those long running soap operas, where they always need new people.
It always tends to be young people, because people graduate from them. Lots of good writers like Paul Abbott, and all those characters–Jimmy McGovern, they all came from soap operas. So it is a nursery ground for writers, production, anything you want to do in TV.
I remember knocking on the door of the–I can’t remember exactly how I first came into contact with Eastenders, but I went for that job three times in the end. I thought they liked me but they kept giving the job to people who were more experienced, or whatever it may be. I just sort of kept on doing it until eventually, they gave me a job.
I sort of think, in a way, trying to find out where the soft spots are–soaps are a good example, doctor’s, all those other soaps that we have here. Then there’s sort of a bit of imagination and sort of bloody minded persistence, because I think it is a glamorous industry, weirdly TV.
I know it has its fair share of psychopaths, and hard work and all the rest of it, but it is a glamorous place to work. And it attracts an awful lot of people. So somehow you’ve got to find your own wiggle room, really.
James Blatch: The trend you talked about, we’re going through a slightly disruptive political process at the moment in the UK. You’re somebody who tries to think–second guess the kind of the editorial commissioning process that’s going on at the moment as to what they think is going to be needed.
That’s quite an interesting little insight into–so you could write brutally commercially, and even present it as a kind of antidote to the more miserable things outside the window as this cozy mystery, or whatever.
Matthew Arlidge: Totally! I think everything sort of reflects what’s going on. I think people are very sensitive to the mood of the Nation, whatever that may be. I think for the past two years it has been an endless slough of basically worrying news. Whether it’s from America, or here, or wherever it may be.
Terrorist attacks, this, that, and the other. I think without just giving you brain-dead nostalgia. I’m sure if Downton Abbey was still running now, it would be sort of breaking all records because actually, it does take you back to a time of order, and a very sort of British time.
I think people are also wondering, “What does it mean to be British…” now. If we sort of move away from Europe then, Trump doesn’t seem to like us much or seem that interested. The Chinese are investing heavily in this country, but we’re quite suspicious of them. So, its that, “who are our allies now… who are we?”
I think in a way it was interesting–all the war commemoration was quite interesting in the way that briefly it pulled everyone sort of, for a day or two, back together again. You saw us fighting with the French, all the rest of it. I was in Antwerp actually at the book fair-
James Blatch: Against the Germans, I just wanted to point out.
Matthew Arlidge: Sorry, against the Germans, yes.
James Blatch: It wasn’t a complete–
Matthew Arlidge: No, it did, it did. But about, you know, given that Macron’s putting the boot into us recently it was quite interesting.
I was in Belgium, at the Antwerp Book Fair, and on Remembrance Sunday, and at 11 o’clock they had a bugle player there, he played The Last Post, and this entire convention center sort of froze. It was really interesting actually, and very moving to be actually in Belgium where some of the worst battles took place. To sort of remind yourself of why the European institutions, and the UN, and various other things existed, and what they were trying to avoid.
Its a shame really that there’s been so much sort of fragmentation really over the last couple of years. It was interesting to remind ourselves that there’s a point in unity, and a purpose to it.
James Blatch: The converse I suppose, is the world that we live in on the indie side, the sort of digital process is actually the modernizing–almost out of view so I do sometimes think a lot of the talk, when we talk about trade deals and so on, is based around making little black widgets in the Midlands, and selling them in Germany. But lost of commerce now is online, and would be completely borderless if it wasn’t for a few VAT regulations here, and there.
There’s a homogenization going on at least at one level, but its quite difficult to tell that story. Its not very visual.
Matthew Arlidge: No, indeed. I think you know, it’s interesting that the core strength this country has always had is amazing creativity. You look at Rowling, she’s just a sort of one woman economic force as–
James Blatch: She’s a small country.
Matthew Arlidge: She’s a small country! She hasn’t released so much now, but Adele at her peak, again with the idea of this girl from Tottenham, who was also just this sort of mega powerhouse creative economic whirlwind. And you just think at the number of bands, authors, artists, you know whatever–and that still is one of our strongest currencies around the world. Because other people don’t have that. The really don’t.
It’s interesting going to these other European countries and beyond. France, generally their television industry is feeble compared to ours. Just the level of creativity, expertise, professionalism that we bring to it from the BBC eye, and all the people who surround it; its so impressive, and of course musically too. British bands probably are as important as American bands, you know in the…cult.
I think that that’s something that successive governments never quite get behind it as fully as they might because I think that is something unique that we have, that at the moment the Chinese don’t. The French don’t. I think that’s something that we could probably exploit more if we wanted to.
James Blatch: I completely agree. Britain has always packed punches above its weight in terms of creativity output. We only have to remember the 1990 Brit Pop era, don’t we? Dominating the world with Blur, and Oasis around then.
Matthew Arlidge: Absolutely.
James Blatch: And the ’60s was quite good for music in the UK.
Matthew Arlidge: Yeah, not bad.
James Blatch: Apart from my UK lovin’ about how amazing the creative industry is in the UK, bearing in mind most people who listen to this podcast are in the United States. I should also say, that certainly in writing at the moment, the US is a massive powerhouse, and its exciting. I’ve been to, gosh, four or five conferences in the US this year, and stood among–stood next to people who are doing million dollar a year turning out mysteries, and thrillers, and romance books, and…erotica. You name it every author-
Matthew Arlidge: Amazing, yeah.
James Blatch: -that’s a fantastically exciting industry. So that’s what this podcast is really about. Its the opening up, if you like, of the writing world. Making it possible for people who thought they would never be able to see their book– actually get their book out there and write.
It’s inspiring to listen to you the way that you fairly logically approach your writing process with a really good run in of thinking hard about how stories work, why they work, why they don’t work. And you know you probably even without realizing just after the Eastenders phase of your life; must have been able to spot fairly quickly when something wasn’t working and needed fixing.
That’s a difficult thing for most writers to get to.
Matthew Arlidge: No, I do. But I do think planning is so essential, and just actually doing the grunt work. And it is hard, because if you want to write, you just want to start writing prose, you want to write the scene that you’ve got in your head, the opening scene, or write that character, or whatever. It’s so tempting to do that, but I do think there’s a value in self-restraint and actually making sure you have a story that has a beginning, a middle, and a proper end.
When I was writing the books initially, I had to produce one every, sort of four months, which would then be edited for two months. Then I’d have to start on the next one, because I was doing two books a year. So I would plan for two months, and I would write for two months, so I really was writing those first drafts in six, seven weeks.
The reason I was able to do it that quickly is because I knew exactly what was happening. I had my roadmap and I would just go at it. I knew I had to do four, five chapters a day, or I had failed. Now my chapters are quite short, they’re like sort of two, three chapters so that’s not so bad, but I knew I had to do that, otherwise I would have missed my target.
I found it very helpful, personally, breaking it down to those chunks. Saying, “Right, on Monday I’ll do four chapters, on Tuesday I’ll–” or whatever it may be. If you’re doing it around a day job, you’ll obviously break it down into smaller. I’ll just do one chapter, one chapter, one chapter whatever it may be.
I do think breaking it down into bite sized chunks and knowing the route map is incredibly helpful, because otherwise a novel can seem an enormous, and amorphous challenge. You think, “My God, this could be War and Peace length, it could be… I don’t know what it could be, a novella.”
I do think people often just find the idea of a novel quite intimidating. Whereas, actually if you break it down into sort of smaller challenges, and write just this chapter there, then I think slowly over time, you think, “Oh my God I’ve done over half, I’ve done three quarters. I’ve got the whole thing.”
That’s the most important thing out of any advice isn’t it, it’s just to get to the end of the first draft. That’s not going to get published in that form, it’ll get changed, but it’s just to get it down, isn’t it. Then you can step away, come back, and some of the faults will be obvious, and some of the good stuff will be obvious too.
James Blatch: I’ve mentioned this before on the podcast. My background in news meant that I was terrified of the long-form project. I didn’t understand it.
Matthew Arlidge: Yeah, of course.
James Blatch: I understood how to break down a complex story into two minutes, and then get told you have to cut another twenty seconds from it.
Matthew Arlidge: I find that terrifying, the idea of having to write something literally with no notice, because obviously there’s new stuff coming every day, and you have to turn it into prose in five, ten minutes, and then deliver two minutes of good material. I think to most people that’s terrifying because of the time pressure, and the ability to sort of marshal your words. So I think it cuts both way isn’t it?
James Blatch: Yeah. There’s definitely some skills you took out of it. The idea of the long-form–and I’ve struggled, the first few drafts were all over the place. And also I couldn’t get my head around the size of it. I couldn’t–the prospect of rewriting–revising it was out the window.
I had to rewrite every time because I couldn’t go back it would…now I do what you do. I’ve now plotted the entire book, every time I sit down and write, I’m writing scene and I’m flying, because that’s where I come from. I know what needs to be there and my scenes are like yours.
My chapters are, you know, it could be like three paragraphs. Or, some of them longer but you know exactly what the beginning middle, and end of that scene is. And you can enjoy writing it. So that’s unlocked it for me.
Although we should say, other people write in different ways don’t they?
Matthew Arlidge: I know, technically but I think you know the key thing is to get to the end of the first draft isn’t it because… I was chatting to a novelist the other day who’s trying to write her first novel. And she’s written about a third of it, and she keeps re-reading it, sort of revising it losing heart and all the rest of it.
You won’t know what it is until you’ve got to the end. Then you’ll have your story. Then you can decide, “actually I should have told it backwards…” or you can just take a bit out or you can do whatever you want.
Constantly critiquing your own work, and finding fault with it along the way is really hard I think. Its easy to be hard on yourself, isn’t it?
James Blatch: It comes naturally to writers I think.
Matthew its been a real pleasure talking to you. You’ve got a really interesting career behind you. Going great guns at the moment.
You’re happy with sales, dare I ask? Or with how the books have gone?
Matthew Arlidge: Yeah, it’s all good. They’ve all landed well and seem to be popular which is great. I mean, one of the lovely things which I’ve managed to do as part of this process, is to kind of visit various countries where they are sold: in Greece, in America, of course–I’ve had a nice time in America…New York, and in Texas, and Minneapolis. Meeting lots of interesting people there.
What’s fascinating is you go to these places and you realize that actually–I wrote it initially with a UK audience in mind. Weirdly, people in Greece love reading about rainy days in Southampton and serial killers who’re stalking the South Coast, as they do in Texas, and Russia, and various other places. You realize that actually, the world you present which probably seems quite normal to you because you’ve seen it, but to them seems quite exotic, and quite exciting when they’re sitting in their sun-drenched islands or whatever it may be.
That escapist gene is in everyone. I love being a novelist, I love being a screenwriter. And think as long as that desire to enjoy some escapism still exists I hope to carry on writing really.
James Blatch: Fancy writing for TV, Mark?
Mark Dawson: No, not really. I’ve tried it before, and–well I’ve tried writing a script before and it was quite good fun, but I didn’t really enjoy it so much. So no, it’s not really my thing. Different set of skills.
James Blatch: I think Matthew finds it liberating writing a novel, because when you write for TV or film, you are writing for a team. You are one part of a huge team that lots of people rely on, and that tempers and there’s a strict framework around your writing because you can’t suddenly send them, “five dragons appeared.” Without someone saying, “well that’s going to cost us 50,000,000…”
Mark Dawson: Exactly, I was watching an interview with George R.R Martin last night, prior to Game of Thrones starting again.
James Blatch: No spoilers, please.
Mark Dawson: No spoilers, don’t worry. He said just that, he wrote for TV for the–he did the Twilight Zone for quite a long time. The budget was a fundamental–especially doing sci-fi you have to be very careful with what you have coming into your script. You can’t have spaceships, and dragons if there’s no budget for it.
He said when he switched to writing novels, there is no budget. You can write whatever you want, and it’s up to the imagination of the reader to kind of fill in the blanks.
James Blatch: He has finally gotten to the point where there’s no upper limit for the budget of Game of Thrones anymore.
Mark Dawson: Probably not.
James Blatch: I think I had heard one of the actors saying, I think that Kit Harrington was saying that the budget went up threefold for the final episode–per episode.
Mark Dawson: Well they are longer as well. So there’s only six episodes in this series, so they’re all a bit longer. But yes, I’m sure that’s right. I think that’s why it’s only six, because they didn’t have the infinite budget that–to do a twelve episode run.
James Blatch: We mentioned this before, but we met the woman who wrote District 9 in London at the London Book Fair. Now keeping an eye on her she’s one of our Vancouver residents. She’s currently writing her novel, I think it’s going to be published this year, I don’t want to put too much pressure on her. I’ll keep her secret for the moment, but I reckon she would be a really good interviewee at some point in the future. Just to leave that dangling there for her for a little bit of extra pressure in her life.
Okay, my camera shut down because it’s too hot. That doesn’t bode well for the summer coming. Because it’s not actually that warm today.
Mark Dawson: No. My camera is cool as a cucumber. So if you disappear, I’ll finish off.
James Blatch: I’m now on the screenplay, but that’s fine. It’s still me.
Good, that’s it for us for this week. Thank you very much indeed Mark. Having shaken the hand of the man who dealt with Novichok in Salisbury, I hope you’ve been fully checked out before–
Mark Dawson: After shaking his hand? Yeah.
James Blatch: Okay.
Mark Dawson: I remember doing that.
James Blatch: Do you stand there just with a face mask on when you’re talking to him?
Anyway, congratulations again on winning that award that you haven’t mentioned for a while.
Mark Dawson: I won an award!
James Blatch: Thank you very much for watching. We hope you all have a great week. Its a goodbye from me.
Mark Dawson: And a goodbye from him. Goodbye.
James Blatch: Goodbye.
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