Chris Trengove

Writing about writing

CLAWS OF VENGEANCE – PROLOGUE & CHAP. 1

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ONE YEAR EARLIER

Scarab fought hard, bringing into play every Man-Jee-Do move she knew. She landed some telling blows, but she was outnumbered five to one – and clearly her captors knew she was a master of the Mangy martial art. The snatch squad carefully kept their distance, using weapons rather than paws to subdue her, finally laying her low with a scything sword slash to her left shin. Scarab went down with an anguished howl, and the squad – masked and covered from head to toe, could have been Katzers or Mangies – grabbed and manacled her, quickly and efficiently. As she struggled and lashed out, one of them rammed a gag into her mouth.
Without a word, her captors dragged Scarab out of Tantamount’s house and into the street, where a covered farm wagon was backed up to the door. It was unremarkable, just a battered wooden cart of a kind used by both Katzers and Mangies. The leader quickly looked up and down the street – it was empty. The hooded driver of the wagon held his whip at the ready, as the sturdy farm rat between the shafts shuffled its paws, awaiting the signal. The squad bundled Scarab into the rear of the wagon and pulled the covering across. As the crew piled in after her, the leader signalled to the driver, who lashed at the rat with his whip. With a jerk, the wagon set off, and the leader leapt up on to the driver’s bench alongside him.
The rat and wagon picked up speed and quickly reached the T-junction by the mouse butcher. Here it took a left turn, just as Mynx appeared from the street on the right. She glanced at the rat and wagon with little curiosity – they were a common sight in Katzburgh – and continued on her way home to Tantamount’s house. But as she approached the familiar thatched cottage she started to have a feeling that something wasn’t quite right – the fur on the back of her neck was ruffling.
Moments later she’d reached the front door – and now every muscle in her body tensed, ready for action. For on it, daubed in crude red letters she saw the words:

MANGY LOVER

oOo

CHAPTER 1

‘I can’t believe it’s been a year since Scarab was taken,’ said Tabith. ‘There was a time you’d have been glad,’ replied Ninelives. ‘That was when I first met her. I hadn’t got to know her. I just thought of her as a Hunting Poodle. A Mangy. But now… it’s hard, not knowing what happened to her.’
Ninelives shrugged, put his arm round Tabith’s waist, drew her towards him as they padded towards Katzburgh’s main gates. ‘We did the best we could Tab. We followed up every lead. If she was taken by Katzers, they either killed her or smuggled her out of the city. It was as if she disappeared into thin air.’ ‘I just can’t believe that Katzers would do such a thing. Everyone liked Scarab. I went to her Man-Jee-Do classes. Everyone thought she was cool.’
‘I know,’ said Ninelives. ‘But some Katzers just saw a Hunting Poodle. A Mangy. They couldn’t accept it.’
The two young Katzers strode arm-in-arm through the gates, acknowledging the guard who watched all those who came or went. His name was Maxwell Tibbles, latest of a long line of Tibbles called to be gate guards. His uncle, Rampart Guard Marvel Tibbles, had laid down his life a couple of years previously, defending the city against Warrod and his hordes.
Ninelives and Tabith had to shoulder their way through crowds, for it was the day of the Festival of Fish – a Katerwaul, one of the many Katzer festivals that divided up the year. There was nothing the citizens of Katzburgh liked better than a chance to eat, drink, sing and dance. Today most of the traffic through the gates was heading outwards, as the Festival was held just outside the city walls.
Ninelives and Tabith were more solidly than ever a couple since they’d both almost died in the Upriver territory a year previously. But they were still close to Mynx, Ninelives’ sister, and Spacer, their enigmatic psychic friend, and it was those two that they were now hurrying to meet.
They reached the edge of the Festival ground and surveyed the colourful stalls and wooden rides that covered a half-mile square. Looming over the area, a massive dark presence, was The Flat Rock, a local landmark. All around, there were tents in which rough wooden tables groaned with bowls and platters of Katzer favourites: smoked carp and roach, eel fingers, crayfish and snails, as befitting the ‘fish’ theme – but also starling kebabs, fillets of mouse and all kinds of milk, cream and yoghurt dishes.
Although it was a cloudy day, the Festival had attracted a good turnout. Young kits rode brightly painted roundabouts and swings, squealing and purring with pleasure as their parents whirled them round or pushed them higher and higher. Over the whole festival floated the joyous sound of music, played by a dozen bands, as well as individual singers and players. Closest to Ninelives and Tabith was the teenage band Skratchers, whose screeched vocals and pounding beat made conversation almost impossible.
Tabith leaned into Ninelives, shouted into his ear: ‘Where did you say we’d meet them?’
‘By the salt fish stall.’ Ninelives pointed ahead. ‘There… next to the helter-skelter.’
Mynx had already arrived, and was munching on a snail-on-a-stick, the garlicky smell detectable yards away. Ninelives hugged his sister, as did Tabith, warmly but a little less enthusiastically. Ninelives and Mynx were bound by ties of family, but Tabith and Mynx had had their differences in the past.
Now the trio gazed around them, trying to locate the fourth member of their crew: Spacer.
‘Did he say he was going to be late?’ asked Tabith.
‘Not really. Well, not as such,’ replied Mynx. ‘You know Spacer… he can be hard to pin down.’
‘Where’s he been anyway?’ asked Ninelives. ‘It’s been weeks since I saw him.’
‘He’s been doing some kind of class,’ said Mynx. ‘He told me he wanted to use his powers to help people.’
‘Spit and screech!’ laughed Ninelives. ‘Really? Spacer? Is he learning or teaching?’
Mynx shrugged. ‘I dunno. He didn’t say.’
Ninelives looked around the milling crowds again. Still no sign of their friend. He checked the sun, now starting the descent from its zenith. ‘We could be waiting for hours. Let’s check out the Festival – Spacer knows we’re here, he’s bound to catch up with us at some point.’
‘All right,’ said Mynx, ‘let’s go on the helter-skelter! Last one to the top’s a furball!’
Pushing and shoving each other, laughing and squealing, the young Katzers rushed to the stairs that led to the top of the wooden tower.

oOo

If Scarab stood on the tips of her hindpaws on the one chair in her cell, she could just see out of the high barred window. There wasn’t much of a view – just the scrubby courtyard in which she and the other the prisoners took their exercise, the high wooden fence that surrounded it, and, beyond, a gaggle of drab and indistinguishable wooden buildings. Still, she occasionally made the effort to peer out, if only to get a glimpse of the sky and, if she was lucky, the sun.
She wasn’t sure how long she’d been captive, although she thought it was about a year. Her captors hadn’t told her why she was locked up, or what they wanted, or what her fate was to be. Her cell was positioned in such a way that she could only communicate with the occupant of the cell across the corridor from hers, whispered exchanges through the food slots in the heavy iron doors. She found out that the prisoner opposite, an ordinary Upland citizen, didn’t know why he’d been imprisoned either. Not that it mattered now – he’d been taken away months ago, and she hadn’t seen him since.
Apart from twice-daily visits by guards – first to deliver a bowl of almost inedible food, second to allow her access to the small exercise patch – she was in solitary confinement. She spent her time doing mental exercises and, when she was sure that she was unobserved, practising Man-Jee-Do. Her cell was just big enough to allow her to carry out the complex manoeuvres.
Already a Man-Jee-Do Black Collar, being able to practise for so many hours a day had enabled her to develop several new moves, unique in their daring and complication. She was also developing extra strength in her claws, hooking them one by one into the wooden headboard of her bed and forcing herself to lift it with one claw. She worked her way through these exercises for several hours a day, and was confident that if anyone tried to grab her today in the same way they did a year ago, she would prevail, whether they were armed or not. Trouble was, her captors didn’t allow her anywhere near them. Food was shoved through the slot, and at exercise time the door was opened by some sort of remote control mechanism, leaving her to walk the enclosed corridor to the courtyard. While she exercised – fast walking or gentle jogging, enough to raise her heart rate, nothing that could cause suspicion – they looked on from a gallery above.
Now Scarab relinquished her vantage point on the chair. It was a dull day, and she couldn’t even enjoy a ray of sunlight on her face. She sprang down, landing lightly and silently. She decided to spend the next few hours, until the arrival of food, developing a Man-Jee-Do move that she’d started to work on a few days earlier. It was a work in progress, but she had high hopes for it. In any event, she had nothing to lose, and it passed the time.
Suddenly, a commotion: doors banging, shouting, an angry yell. Scarab padded to the door and looked out of the food slot, but couldn’t see the end of the corridor where the noise seemed to be coming from. She put her ear to the slot: more noise – screeching now, thumps and bangs. Scarab’s brow wrinkled. There was something familiar about that screech…
Scarab peered through her food slot again, desperate to see what was going on. But the corridor was dark, and clearly the four guards had either drugged or stunned their captive, for they were carrying a limp body, taking a limb each. The bodies of the guards were between Scarab and the unconscious prisoner, so that she could make out nothing, not even whether the body was male or female. One guard reached for his keys, allowing the prisoner’s head to fall to the stone floor with a crack. Scarab winced. If they hadn’t been unconscious before, they would be now. Another guard got the door open, and Scarab saw all four throw the prisoner into the cell like a sack of grain. There was a thump as the body hit the floor, followed by a clang as the door was slammed shut.
There was nothing further to see. Scarab abandoned the food slot, paced up and down. This was the first new prisoner in… what? Must be months anyway. Of course there were other captives in other cells. She saw them looking at her on her way to exercise… rheumy, hopeless eyes peering at her through their food slots. But this one was different. She knew she could communicate with the occupant of the cell opposite, or at least had been able to, until he was taken away. Briefly, Scarab allowed herself a glimmer of hope. Two heads were always better than one… and she at least had nothing to lose. Scarab went back to the food slot, looked left and right, even though she could see no further than a few feet either way. Nothing. No one. She put her mouth to the slot and whispered: ‘Hey!’
Nothing.
She whispered again, a little louder: ‘You, in the cell. Can you hear me?’
A moment passed. Then, a moan… barely audible, the sound of a creature in pain. From its timbre, Scarab could ascertain only one thing: that it was uttered by a female…

Written by Chris Trengove

April 12, 2017 at 4:06 pm

COMEDY WRITING: THE DIVINE ART

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I’d never claim to be a comedy writer. It’s a hard row to hoe, whose best practitioners are among the finest writers in any genre, but who also suffer from chronic lack of respect – after all, it’s just a laugh, isn’t it? Still, I’ve written plenty of funny stuff in my time, including loads of animation and, with co-writer Peter Lawrence, several well-received comic novels and a bio of Keith Moon (not without laughs.) Equally to the point, I’m a lifelong comedy buff, the sort of person who’ll watch a TV sitcom if he’s familiar with the writer.

In a desperate attempt to hold back the effects of gravity and pizza, I row regularly. Not on the nearby Thames, but in the living room on a Water Rower, with a telly on the wall opposite to stave off tedium. Recently I acquired, via EBay, a collection of ‘classic’ British sitcoms on DVD, originally giveaways with the Daily Mail. Swallowing my natural aversion to the Rothermere product, I settled down, over the course of several weeks, to work my way through some landmark BBC comedy. I was interested to see which series stood the test of time and which didn’t. Were the seventies and eighties the high water mark of British TV comedy? Or would the water cooler shows of those times now seem dated, corny and irredeemably naff?

In some cases, my suspicions were confirmed, in others I was pleasantly surprised. Hancock is still great, due to the genius writing team of Simpson and Galton and the lad from East Cheam himself. Only Fools and Horses is still pretty funny, in spite of some rather iffy of-their-time racial references. One Foot In The Grave stands out for its superb plotting, the ability of writer David Renwick to drop surprise comic bombshells. I still enjoyed Hi De Hi – It Ain’t Half Hot Mum not so much. While comedy often deals in stereotype, Perry and Croft kept just the right side of the line in HDH, but went too far in Hot Mum. (Generally, they’re pitch perfect – witness the perennial appeal of Dad’s Army, still running forty-odd years after it was first shown.)

CHARACTER STUDIES

It’s been said that sitcom only works if everything works – script, cast, production – but watching these old shows made me realise how much good comedy relies on character. Plotting is great, gags are fine, but it’s the characters that reliably make us laugh. That’s usually why catchphrases work – they’re an integral part of the character that says them. Which leads me to Are You Being Served? This is a show that has attracted equal parts praise and opprobrium, both then and now. Does camp character Mr. Humphries present an unacceptable ‘mincing queen’ stereotype, or is he bravely out and proud in an era when the tabloid press routinely referred to gays as ‘poofs’ or worse? I always found the show funny (partly because I’d worked in a store very much like Grace Brothers) and looking back, I realise that again, it was the characters that made the show. The actors went to town on them, and in most cases it was their finest hour. Mollie Sugden was a fine actress with an impressive body of work, but she’ll always be remembered for her versatile and much-loved pussy.

Recently the BBC made a new ep of Are You Being Served?, with the show supposedly updated to the eighties. I tuned in without much hope – in my book, most remakes are pointless exercises – but was pleasantly surprised. I laughed quite a lot, and later, reviewing it in my mind, realized that writer and actors had again concentrated on the characters, sticking as closely as possible to the original template (and props to John ‘Boycey’ Challis here – his Captain Peacock was almost superior to Frank Thornton’s original.)

INTO THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

But what of the modern product? Do we have anything these days that stands up to comparison with the so-called ‘golden age’ of the seventies and eighties? Here goes – and I’m aware that comedy is the most subjective of all the art forms, one man’s hilarity being another man’s knuckle-gnawing tedium. First of all, much of the comedy from that era often wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I never found Till Death Us Do Part that funny (and a lot of it is wince-making now, despite writer Johnny Speight’s intention to satirise working-class Toryism rather than celebrate it.) Nor Steptoe and Son, nor The Good Life (although I loved Bob Larbey’s far less successful The Other One.)

Over the last couple of decades we’ve had the sharp satire of Ab Fab; the game-changing mockumentary style of The Office; the demented and often semi-surreal Father Ted; and the retro homage of Miranda. Which leads us to now. If you were to believe the pundits, TV comedy is currently a desert. I beg to differ. Plebs – writers Basden and Leifer – is sharp, filthy, and crucially, very funny. It’s been largely ignored, perhaps due to its berth on ITV3. Robert Popper’s Friday Night Dinner has got funnier and funnier as the series have progressed (in passing, Mark Heap’s loony neighbour is superb.) Greg Davies’s Man Down is consistently entertaining, and occasionally hilarious.

But to me the current reigning monarch of TV comedy is Sharon Horgan. A few years back Pulling raised the bar for anarchic, female-centric mayhem, and recently Catastrophe confirmed that Horgan has staying power. But with the recently broadcast one-off The Circuit, documenting a dinner party from the deepest abysses of hell, she staked a claim to Mike Leigh territory and established herself as a major comic writing talent.

Denmark has apparently got the happiest population in the world, and it does sound like a nice place to live. But it’s never going to produce a B B King or a Lenny Bruce, or for that matter a Hancock. Too happy, see? By the same token, the UK is full of miserable exploited bastards who are scraping by on fourpence a week and spending tuppence of it getting off their heads. But we’ve always produced great comedy, from music hall stage to the age of the podcast. In my opinion TV sitcom is in rude health, only matched by our reputation for stand-up. Nice to know we lead the world in something.

Written by Chris Trengove

September 5, 2016 at 5:06 pm

BREXIT – FADE TO BLACK

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Going back a few years, I was a mentor on a two-part scriptwriting workshop that took place in Poland and Germany, with Polish, German and British involvement in its funding and organisation. Between the first and second halves of the workshop, the British funding was suddenly pulled, so abruptly that the British organiser was unable to pay for the flight to attend the second session. It turned out to be a sign of things to come, with successive workshops lacking British funding entirely and the British contingent of students getting fewer and fewer. Since the Brexit vote, I see this as a metaphor: as Britain becomes more and more a hard-right, market-driven society – as will be the inevitable result of this turkeys-voting-for-Christmas event – the ideas of co-operation, internationalism, all that hands-across-the-water crap that sustains the likes of us creative types, will wither and shrivel even further.

Take a look at the leaders of this revolution: Johnson, Gove and Farage. Johnson’s a hard-right ideologue in buffoon’s clothing, who has pursued a career as a Murdoch lackey. Gove as Education Secretary famously pulled To Kill A Mocking Bird and Of Mice and Men from the school curriculum. While Farage… well, what can I say? He is on record as saying that he doesn’t listen to music, watch TV or read books. Of course at presstime there’s no saying who, if any, of this gruesome trio will end up in positions of power (Farage is already whining that he’s being excluded from the negotiating table – apparently, hard-right politicians are not very nice, who knew?) But in setting a general tone, it’s not looking good.

Back in May I wrote a blog outlining what I thought the result might be for writers and other creatives if the UK voted this way. I wasn’t sanguine about our prospects then, and now it’s actually happened, I’m even less sanguine. With successive right-leaning governments since 1979 (and I’m putting the New Labour lot into that category) there has been a progressive erosion of support and funding for the arts and creative industries, to the extent that it’s a wonder that our creative people have managed to survive, let alone hold their position amongst the world’s finest. They – we – have somehow managed to thrive in spite of official and governmental indifference. Now, with an incoming regime which will probably make the Thatcher era look like some kind of hippy-dippy love-fest, the situation looks blacker than ever.

Although at presstime there’s no certainty as to what’s actually going to happen post-Brexit (clearly there was no Plan A, B or C in place) there’s a pretty good likelihood that there will be some cobbled-together alliance of – I nearly said crypto-fascists, but that’s a bit seventies-ish – right-wing ideologues, steering the ship of state. For us, the creative community, it’s likely to be a catastrophe (and I know this sounds like a classic ‘first world problem’, but hey, we live in the first world.)

Leaving aside the lack of empathy at state level, in practical terms the only way is down. Clearly, while the new government is busy building a hospital a week and giving everyone in Sunderland a thousand quid, the arts and creative industries are going to have to take a back seat, and by back seat I mean a small fold-down just behind the guard at the back of the guard’s van. One of my colleagues, a long-time pan-European creative consultant, is already talking about relocating from London to Berlin (and that’s probably going to be difficult enough.) For people involved in animation (another area in which we’re among the world leaders) it’s as though a rug has been whipped out from under our feet. Most of the work I’ve done over the last ten or fifteen years has been either been directly for European production houses, or for European co-productions, in some case involving four or five different countries (could be a nightmare to work on, by that’s another story.)

At the very least, the layers of bureaucracy involved are likely to reduce the possibility of such co-productions if not eliminate them altogether. We’ve all got used to European co-operation, we’ve taken it for granted, as can be seen by the reaction of other creative industries: advertising for example, with big players reporting large chunks of business being pulled. The music industry, the ultimate cross-border business, had its say in a pre-vote Twitter poll, with a resounding 91% saying it would be bad news.

I could go on, but you get the general idea. What can we do? Well, individual writers are often at the bottom of the food chain (I once heard a producer describing us as being ‘two a penny’) but at times like this, we probably need to put that commission (if we’re lucky enough to have one) aside for a moment and have our say, in blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, any medium in which we can make our voices heard. I’ve already seen a handful of posters on windows proclaiming “Brexit – not in my name!’ We need to make it clear that’s where we stand too.

Written by Chris Trengove

June 28, 2016 at 1:52 pm

IN OR OUT? A WRITER’S P.O.V.

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11th May 2016

In a quiet, leafy area a mile or so from the centre of Brussels, there’s an imposing period building that houses a number of businesses and enterprises. One entire floor is taken up by an arts organisation, which, judging by the elegant panelled rooms and up-to-date equipment, and the fact that it’s situated in Brussels, you might think is the hub of some vast pan-European, or even international organisation. In fact, it houses Vlaams Audiovisueel Fonds, aka the Flanders Audiovisual Fund. This is an organisation devoted to supporting and funding the audio-visual arts in Flanders.

Here’s an extract from the VAF’s manifesto: “The aims of the Flanders Audiovisual Fund are threefold: to develop a sustainable audiovisual industry, to encourage and support upcoming audiovisual talent and to promote a vibrant audiovisual culture in Flanders. VAF accomplishes four main tasks. It provides financial support for audiovisual productions (1) and promotes these in Flanders as well as abroad (2). The Fund also grants scholarships, finances professional training and supports/organises workshops (3) as well as carries out surveys on the audiovisual field (4).”

Impressive, eh? I think so – and I have to emphasize that this organisation is for the benefit of Flanders, not the whole of Belgium. Flanders is about the size of the West Country, and although it’s densely populated, it’s home to no more than about 6 million people – half the population of London. I know all this because a couple of times now, the VAF has invited me to conduct short scriptwriting workshops for students of animation. Good fun on both occasions, and judging by the feedback, the students seemed to get something out of the sessions.

However, bear with me; I’m not just blowing my own trumpet. The point I’m leading to is that here, young people working in the visual arts are being supported. Not just by being able to pick the brains of a ‘veteran scriptwriter’ (as one of them described me) imported from the UK, but by a whole range of support services, particularly financial. Not long after my last session I heard that one of my students had received the funds to have their (excellent) project fully produced.

This nurturing culture is not confined to Flanders, or to Belgium. Over the last few years I’ve led many European scriptwriting workshops, and again and again my students – whether they’re from Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden or Poland – have mentioned that they’re developing their projects with a view to gaining funding. Even if they’re developing projects for their own pleasure or satisfaction, there’s a chance that they may be able to apply for, and receive, financial support. What’s more, funding bodies are often local, even more local than the Flanders fund.

Nice work if you can get it – and in the UK, by and large, you can’t. There are few funds available to support creative projects, and what there are aimed more at the ‘fine arts’ end – particularly writers of novels. Although Britain is still a world leader in the creative arts, particularly television, it is in spite of rather than because of encouragement and support by the state.

Why does this matter? Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment. The French film industry is often derided for its pretentious, self-consciously ‘arty’ output, the result, critics say, of its sucking at the government teat, of not having to stand on its own two feet. Of course, there’s something in that argument, but counter to it is the fact that France retains a thriving industry that is distinctively French, and that regularly manages to turn out artistic and commercial successes alike.

By comparison, the British film industry, always oscillating between boom and bust, seems doomed – with a few honourable exceptions – to churn out either ‘diamond geezer’ gang movies or period toffery. Meanwhile, publishers’ lists are filling up with ghost-ridden celebrity drivel, while actual writers find their incomes in freefall. (Just today I read about an elaborate launch party for the debut novel of ‘Lady’ Victoria Hervey – a woman hitherto known mainly for falling out of her clothes on various red carpets.)

The official British attitude – more so than ever with the current government – is that everything must have a monetary value. Ideally, an immediate monetary value. Long-term cultural strategy? Nah. Wellbeing of the artistic and creative community? You’ll be lucky. All right then – how about ‘it’s the duty of the state to foster an educated, aware and questioning population, who in the long run are likely to be happier and more productive?’ I should coco. With a Culture Secretary with no apparent interest in culture, who seems more interested in whipping the BBC into submission and having a professional dominatrix do the same to him, this situation doesn’t look likely to change any time soon.

Back to my headline question – in or out? I’m not going to pretend to offer a balanced view – I’m a lifelong internationalist, and don’t think there’s a single good reason for cutting ties to Europe. But as a writer, I’d naturally like to see opportunities for people in the creative fields expand rather than contract, and as things stand in the UK – and as they are going – I think this is unlikely to happen. I doubt that the environment for writers and creative will radically improve if we do stay in the EU, but I think that they’ll get worse if we don’t.

It’s a question of tone as much as anything else. It’s already feared that the government will make a bonfire of workers’ rights if we pull out, and I suspect that Brexit will also make things worse for creatives. The market will become even more of a free-for-all, and it will become ever harder for writers and their like to make a living. (Just as an aside, look at the leading lights of the Brexiteers: Johnson, Duncan Smith, Gove, Galloway, Farage – every one a potential book-burner if you ask me.)

Having worked for several French production houses over the years, every month or so I get a handy payment, sometimes for shows that I worked on more than a decade ago. These payments are courtesy of the SACD – the Societe des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques – a French organisation that takes the radical view that scriptwriters and authors should be properly paid for what they do. As I understand it, there’s a pot of money that producers and other ne’er-do-wells (just kidding, producers) can’t touch. It’s purely for writers, and gets distributed when shows get repeated, sold abroad and so on. Of course the ALCS performs a similar role in the UK, but I can’t help noticing that, script for script, the SACD is the organisation that coughs up the more serious funds. In my view, France has got the right idea.

Overall, I doubt whether the UK exits or remains will make much material difference to writers, at least not in the short term. Times will probably be hard, and continue to get harder, whether Britain stays in or decides to go it alone. But in terms of setting a broad cultural agenda, I think Brexit would send a signal to the free marketeers and the cultural deadheads, and that message would be something along the lines of ‘thank God we’re rid of those continentals and their poncey, artsy-fartsy subsidizing ways.’ Which is why, come June 23rd, I shall be marking the box marked ‘remain.’

Written by Chris Trengove

May 12, 2016 at 3:13 pm

CAN YOU LEARN TO WRITE?

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19th April 2016
No. Not really. But you can learn to write better, if you have some talent, or flair, to begin with. As the actor Steve Martin famously remarked: “Some people have a way with words, and other people… oh, uh, not have way.” You need that way, and if you haven’t got it, no amount of creative writing courses or workshops is going to make much difference (although your grammar and spelling might improve, which is always good.) It’s the same with most branches of the arts: you could (probably) teach a chimpanzee to play the piano if you gave him enough time and enough bananas, but the end result wouldn’t be art, or even entertainment. Because by and large, chimps don’t have a flair for music.

So, flair, talent, call it what you will – what else do you need? Something else that can’t be taught: the ability to come up with ideas. Good ones, preferably. A young acquaintance recently sent me some fragments of her writing, just a few hundred words each, stream of consciousness really. They weren’t poems, they weren’t journalism, they didn’t fit into any recognizable format, so weren’t publishable. But they had an energy and rhythm that showed that the writer did have a way with words. Even better, there were the beginnings of original ideas swimming around in there, unformed and undeveloped, but ideas nevertheless.

My old friend and long-time writing partner Peter Lawrence has recounted how, as showrunner, he picked new writers for the iconic show Thundercats. He was prepared to overlook inexperience and unfamiliarity with the format, provided the script had an imaginative idea at heart. Scripts can be edited for structure, style, dialogue but you can’t edit in a good basic idea.

Flair, talent, ideas, they all coalesce in the creative imagination. It’s not a coincidence that people proficient in one branch of the arts often excel in another form: Steve Martin (again) is an interesting writer and a banjo player of professional standard; funny man and movie star Dudley Moore was an internationally recognized jazz pianist; writer Henry Miller was an internationally exhibited artist, as was ‘godfather of punk’ William S. Burroughs. There are many more examples. Flair, imagination, ideas, these guys had them all in spades.

So if you can’t learn to write, what can you learn? I have to go back a few years, to 2004, when I was first asked to mentor at a scriptwriting workshop. I was a little sceptical, as my writing career had been firmly based around the principle of ‘write; then write some more; then write some more.’ Honing my craft, I’d worked as a journalist and an advertising copywriter. I wrote a lot, and over the course of the years worked out what was bad and what as good, and bit by bit impressed enough people that I was able to make a living at it. Workshop? A word that I’d hitherto only associated with piles of old tyres and an ailing Ford Mondeo on a ramp. However, I said yes, as I was curious, I was going to get paid, and I make it a professional rule to say yes to everything.

Truthfully I had no idea what to expect, or even what I was supposed to do, but over the course of the first week, at a big old house in the Kent countryside, it slowly became apparent that I wasn’t expected to be a teacher of writing – the participants all had at least some professional experience – but a kind of roving counsellor-cum-sounding-board-cum-sympathetic ear. I was able to help not by commenting on paragraph structure or the minutiae of dialogue, but by talking, guiding, suggesting, throwing ideas at the participants that they might not have thought of themselves.

What I was offering them was the practical expertise that I’d built up over the course of a couple of decades, helping them out of holes that y might have written themselves into, working with them to make their projects as good as they possibly could be. Often, it was simply a case of pointing out a way forward that hadn’t occurred to them: “why don’t you try this?”, “why don’t you try that?” In the end you have to teach yourself, and a good educator is someone who gives you the tools and inspiration to do just that.

I also quickly realised that what I was doing was what a good editor does: clearing a way for the writer to best realize their ‘vision’, without compromising their creative signature. Like most writers, over the years I’ve edited and I’ve been edited, and I’ve come to realise that the greatest gift the good editor can bring to a project is simply a second pair of (informed, interested, expert) eyes. When you’re working on a project, there’s always a point at which you can’t see the wood for the trees. To mix metaphors, you’re so involved in nurturing your baby that you don’t notice that it has an extra couple of toes. It takes someone else to do that, to gently point the fact out, and to suggest solutions. Many psychiatrists see psychiatrists: to quote a fictional example, in The Sopranos, Tony’s psychiatrist Dr. Melfi regularly sees a psychiatrist herself, colleague Dr. Kupferberg, to maintain and tune her own mental balance.

What else? Well, interest is all. I’m a lifelong jazz fan and occasional musician, and if I can’t play something, at least I know how it should be played, because I love the music and have spent countless hours listening to top players. But from talking to music teachers, I know that many come to jazz playing without any real history of listening – they’ve heard Norah Jones in a wine bar and think they like jazz, whereas what they like is something that sounds a bit like jazz. If you’re not into it, why would you want to play it? Same with writing – if you’re not a reader, you’ll probably never be a writer, and why would you want to be? Again I, and others in my field, report that many would-be writers seem to have read little. Or, if they’re scriptwriters, they don’t have a working knowledge of the classic movies or TV shows, even in the field they’re working in.

So, to go back to my original thesis – can you learn to write? No – but if you’ve got the spark, the basic skills, the right help can make a difference. Help you speed the process up. Perhaps help you bypass some of the heavy lifting that writers had to do before the advent of creative writing courses and the like. My experience of workshops over the years has shown me that overall, they provide a positive and inspiring experience for both mentors and participants. The people who take them already pretty much know to write; but by listening, trying this, trying that, experimenting within a nurturing environment, they can learn how to write just a little bit better.

Written by Chris Trengove

May 12, 2016 at 3:11 pm

SAT NAV FOR WRITERS

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16th March 2016
The great thing about writing rules is that they’re there to be broken – just ask Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and any number of others. In any event, these aren’t even rules, they’re just a rough guide, a sat nav if you like, that can get you onto the right road, and, most of the time, get you where you want to go. However, if you wanted to go to Hampton Court and ended up at a block of flats in North London, well, you should have glanced at a map too. By which I mean that these are just tips that I’ve worked out for myself over the years. Mostly, but not always, they’re useful…

1: Keep going

Don’t be discouraged if you have a sneaking suspicion that what you’ve just written is rubbish. All writers know the feeling, however long they’ve been at it. Just press on. Don’t look back. Get to the end. Then go back and assess what you’ve done. Chances are that what you wrote first time wasn’t so bad, and if it was: so what? As the old Hollywood saying has it, writing is re-writing.

2: It’s in there somewhere

Whatever you’re writing – book, TV ep, screenplay – don’t think of it as linear. Instead, consider it as a whole, as if you’re starting off with a block of stone and creating a statue. Somewhere in that block is the story you want, you’ve just got to chip off the rest of the stone. As you’re writing, think forward, think back, make the connections that turn a sequence of events into a coherent story.

3: Set yourself a target

Set yourself a daily word or page goal. 1000 words or 7 or 8 pages of a script is a reasonable target – although some can write much more (and some less.) At 1000 words a day, in a couple of months you’d have most of a novel.

4: Make a plan

Everyone who works in TV or film is familiar with writing to an outline, sometimes provided by others. Literary novelists may scoff, but it’s generally useful to map out a narrative in advance. At the very least, it’ll provide a rope and tackle to help climb that mountain of a first draft, and you don’t have to stick to it rigorously (or at all.)

5: Cut and cut again

When you’re getting close to final draft stage, analyse every line. What is it doing? Why is it there? Is it funny? Is it dramatic? Does it illuminate character? Is it advancing the story? If it’s not really doing anything, cut it. Very few pieces of work have ever suffered by being made shorter. As Truman Capote said ““I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”

Written by Chris Trengove

May 12, 2016 at 3:09 pm

‘CLAWS OF FURY’ – Prologue and Chapter One

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CLAWS OF FURY was originally published by Bloomsbury in 1996, under the title KATZERS. It was one of the first swathe of titles to be published by their just-set-up children’s division, soon to become awash with money when Harry Potter took off. Despite the promise of publicity and promotion for KATZERS, little was forthcoming, and the book was also saddled with possibly the most hideous cover of all time. CLAWS OF FURY is now available again on Amazon Kindle with a great cover by renowned comics artist Kev Hopgood, as is its sequel CLAWS OF THUNDER. I’m working on the third book in the Trilogy, CLAWS OF VENGEANCE, aiming at publication in 2015.

PROLOGUE
As he approached the foothills, the young Katzer warrior reined in his mount and turned to look back over the plain.
It was a day’s ride away now, but in his mind’s eye he could still see the battlefield: the scattered dead, the wounded supporting each other as they staggered from the scene of slaughter, Mangies to their tented camps, Katzers to their walled cities.
He shook his head as if the gesture would rid him of the pain, the dull ache that had been his companion for every step of the ride. He felt the place where his right ear had once been. Now there was nothing but a ragged stump, the fur around it caked with dried blood. It was the legacy of a wild stroke from a Mangy shortsword . . . and the beginning of the legend of One-Ear Tom.
It had been a great victory for the Katzers. The Mangies outnumbered them, and they were savage fighters, giving no quarter. But they were disorganised and undisciplined. In the end, they were beaten by the subtle strategies of the Katzers, led by three warrior chiefs – Tom, his brother Tamm and Fleekolla.
Yet for Tom, it was a hollow victory. He had seen many friends killed or wounded. He had also seen Tamm die, going down under a howling, snarling pack of Mangies. Pity his poor young widow,and the kit she was expecting!
Tom wanted no more of it. His taste for fighting had been dulled by years of war. Now he just wanted peace, quiet and, above all, solitude.
He turned away from the plain. He flicked the reins, and the big dappled war rat snorted once and moved off, picking its way carefully over the loose rocks.
Above him, in the distance, he could see the snow-covered peaks of the Stony Mountains . . .

CHAPTER ONE
With all the fluid grace of his cat forebears, Ninelives padded down the dark alleyway, his smoky grey fur blending with the shadows. He scanned the grimy, peeling walls for an escape route – a door, a window, anything. He was only seconds in front of his pursuers, and – spit and screech, it was a dead end! No, wait. There, in the wall, a gate . . .
He wrenched it open and found himself in a courtyard, a green, shady place walled in on all sides. He looked around. Which way? Not much choice – back the way he had come, or through an archway that led to some steps. There was no cover, just a few shrubs and plants, nothing that would hide even his slim frame. So if he didn’t hit the steps they’d got him for sure . . .
Ninelives sprinted for the archway and leaped up the steps, taking them three at a time. Moments later, his pursuers arrived in the courtyard.
There were two of them; a girl with salmon-pink fur, a boy with a glossy black coat and white hind-paws. The girl pointed at the archway. ‘He must have gone that way. There’s no other choice.’
The boy grinned. ‘Ha! I know this building. My uncle used to live here. There’s only a couple of flats up there, and then the roof. We’ve got him!’
Whooping excitedly, the pair rushed for the archway and up the stairs.
Ninelives had already reached the roof. Claws of hell! A sheer drop on all sides! The nearest building was five metres away, across a side street. He looked down at the street, which was
thronged with Katzers, rushing to finish their shopping for the coming Katerwaul Festival. It was at least ten metres down, a risky drop even for a young, fit Katzer like Ninelives.
There was no way, and yet . . . Ninelives could hear the stairway echoing with footsteps as his pursuers closed in on him. He made a fast decision. As the boy and the girl burst through the door onto the roof, they saw Ninelives dashing for the edge.
The girl put her forepaw out in a warning gesture. ‘Hey, don’t . . .’ she shouted, her cry dying in her throat as Ninelives launched himself into the void, hind-paws pumping like a long-jumper’s.
He nearly made it. If the rooftop on the other side had been a few centimetres lower, he would have. But instead of hitting the roof hind-paws first, Ninelives slammed awkwardly into the wall, his claws scrabbling at the edge of the roof.
For a moment, Ninelives hung. But his strength had been knocked out of him by the impact, and his grip quickly began to falter. He looked down. Some of the Katzers in the street below had spotted him and were pointing upwards. On the opposite rooftop, the girl and the boy were shouting and waving their arms.
Ninelives didn’t hear them, nor the Katzers in the street. He relaxed his limbs, letting the key muscle groups fall into place. Then, as the crowd below gasped, he dropped, feet first.
The moment stretched out, dreamlike . . . then suddenly, halfway down the wall, Ninelives seemed to stop in mid-air, as if he’d hit an invisible safety net. Actually, as he dropped, he’d seen a waste pipe which ran across the side of the building, and had instinctively grabbed it. For a moment, it held . . . then sheared away. Again, the crowd below gasped. But instead of breaking away completely, the pipe buckled. Under Ninelives’ weight, it bent towards the ground, creaking and cracking, until, a metre from street level, the young Katzer was able to drop lightly down onto the pads of his feet.
The crowd heaved a sigh, a mixture of relief and disapproval. One of them, a well-dressed, middle-aged Katzer with long, waxed whiskers, shouted at Ninelives: ‘Hey, kit, you want to watch yourself, larking about like that! You might have fallen on someone!’
But Ninelives was already away, his body singing with adrenaline. He was used to being lucky.
‘Sorry! Gotta go!’ he called back over his shoulder as he sprinted off.
By the time his pursuers dashed out into the street, Ninelives had disappeared and the crowd had dispersed. Hands on hips, the girl glared up and down the street. ‘Spit!’ she exclaimed. ‘KatHunt is supposed to be a game! How dare he take risks like that! Wait till I get hold of him! I’ll kill him myself! I don’t care if he is my brother!’

Twenty kilometres from Katzburgh, out on the plain, Warrod the Cur paced up and down the tent of skins and furs that was his headquarters, twirling the gnarled hardwood ‘war rod’ that had made him famous. Part wolf, part dobermann, two metres of solid muscle, Warrod looked every bit the ruthless warrior he was.
He was attended by his two deputies, Rottler the rottweiler and Gizzard, known as the Merciless, apit-bull crossbreed whose compact build belied his legendary ferocity. They both knew better than tointerrupt their chief when he was thinking.
Warrod spoke, the sudden harshness of his voice making his deputies flinch. ‘A festival, you say?’
‘That’s right guv. They call it the Katerwaul Festival,’ said Rottler. ‘Once a year they hold it. Quite an occasion, I’ve heard tell.’
Warrod sneered. ‘An occasion, eh? It sounds as though you’d like to go and join in the fun. You wouldn’t be a Katzer-lover, would you, Rottler?’
Rottler shifted his feet uneasily. ‘Hey, not me, Warrod. I’m no Katzer-lover. I just meant –’
Gizzard continued for the tongue-tied deputy: ‘He just meant that it’s quite an event, Warrod. It starts off with this big race in the main square, then there are circuses, sideshows, all sorts of things. It usually goes on for days.’
‘Well, it won’t this year!’ said Warrod, his eyes glittering. ‘Because this year those fun-loving fishgobblers are going to entertain some special guests: Warrod the Cur and the hordes of the Mangies!’
Rottler looked dubious. ‘Er, with respect guv, it seems a bit unfair. I mean, attacking them when they’re having a knees-up. Know what I mean?’
Warrod exploded, smashing his rod down onto the table with tremendous force. ‘By the fangs of the Cur! We’re talking about the enemy here Rottler!’
A spasm of fear passed across the deputy’s battle-scarred face. ‘I know guv, but –’
Without warning, Warrod reached out and grasped Rottler by the throat, lifting his heavy bulk effortlessly off the floor. As Rottler gagged helplessly, Warrod thrust his face close to his deputy’s muzzle. ‘The Katzers are the enemy, he hissed, and don’t you forget it. It’s them or us Rottler! Katzers or Mangies!’
Rottler’s eyes were bulging, but he managed to croak: ‘Y-yes, Warrod, them or us. I know, I know!’
As suddenly as he had grabbed it, Warrod released Rottler’s throat, pushing his coughing, choking deputy away from him in disgust.
He started pacing again, for all the world as if nothing had happened. Finally, he turned and looked at Gizzard and Rottler. ‘Tell me, why do you think the Katzers live in comfort, while we Mangies have been reduced to eating lizard meat?’
Rottler and Gizzard had no answer.
‘Wham!’ The war rod smashed down again, this time onto a stout wooden chest. The lid of the chest splintered under the impact. Warrod’s eyes glittered as he hissed at his two deputies: ‘I’ll tell you why! It’s not because they’re cleverer or tougher than us. It’s because they’re better organised. That’s why they beat us forty years ago, and that’s why they’re better off than us now!’ Warrod emphasised his point by sweeping everything off the table with his rod, lamps and dishes smashing on the floor at the feet of Rottler and Gizzard.
Rottler licked his lips nervously. ‘Yeah, right, guv. I couldn’t agree more.’
Warrod turned his piercing gaze on Rottler. ‘I don’t want agreement Rottler, I want action! Finally, under my leadership, the Six Tribes of the Mangies are united. Now, for the first time in forty years, we can grind those milk-drinkers under our heels!’
Rottler nodded enthusiastically. ‘Under our heels! Right! We’ll fix those Katzers!’
‘We’re your men, Warrod,’ said Gizzard softly. ‘Just give us the word!’
Warrod’s cold stare swept over his two deputies. ‘I’ll give you the word, Gizzard. The word is kill! The word is burn! We’ll hit them right when they’ll feel it most – in the middle of their precious festival!’
Rottler looked dubious again. ‘But – with the greatest respect guv – we know that they double the guards. . . and they check out every traveller arriving at the town . . . and . . .’
Warrod interrupted him. ‘You’re forgetting something Rottler. The Mangies now have a leader – a leader who’s survived years of tribal war and four assassination attempts. So this time, Rottler, we’ll use our intelligence.’
Rottler tried, unsuccessfully, to look intelligent. ‘Intelligence, right guv, I’m with you.’
For a moment, it almost looked as though Warrod was going to smile, but he didn’t. Instead he turned to his other deputy. ‘Gizzard, I want you to infiltrate Katzburgh, find out what’s going on, take hostages if you have to. I want an up-to-date report on the Katzers’ defences.’
‘I’m on my way.’ Gizzard left the tent, while Warrod continued to issue orders. ‘Rottler, I want you to call a meeting of the Top Dogs.’
Rottler was all business. ‘Right guv, no problem. Er, when do you want the meeting for, exactly?’
Warrod looked at his deputy as if he was talking gibberish.
Rottler continued quickly: ‘I mean, they’re all pretty busy, being Top Dogs and all . . . how about tomorrow at noon?’
Warrod drew himself up to his full height, his hackles rising as if electrified, his yellow eyes
bulging with rage. ‘Now!‘ he screamed, swiping at Rottler with his rod. ‘You thick-necked excuse for a half-witted tripehound! When I say I want something done, I want it done now!’
Rottler scuttled towards the exit, warding off Warrod’s blows with his thick forearms. ‘Right guv, got you. I’ll have them here right away. They’ll be here immediately, if not sooner . . .’
So saying, moving amazingly fast for such a heavily built Mangy, he escaped through the tasselled doorway of the tent.

Ninelives made straight for the main square of the city, the Katzerplace. He had a plan. He knew that, the day before Katerwaul, the square would be filling up with market stalls, all laden with festive delicacies – smoked carp and roach, eel fingers, starling kebabs, fragrant cream and yoghourt dishes.
It would be filled with strong smells that would throw a cloak of confusion over his tracks.
Ninelives rounded a corner into a street which led to the Katzerplace, only to find his way blocked by dozens of colourful hand-painted wagons and trailers. Spit and screech! The circus! The street was closed and the only way ahead lay through an entrance with a turnstile, guarded by a tough-looking Katzer who was as wide as he was tall.
As he got closer, Ninelives recognised him. It was Sly Squat, a swaggering bully with whom he’d had a number of run-ins over the years. Ninelives hadn’t seen him around in a while, and now he came to think of it, Spacer had mentioned something about his joining the circus.
Ninelives thought fast. He smiled to himself. Here was a chance to put distance between himself and the other two, and get up Sly’s nose at the same time. Ignoring the queue of young Katzers waiting to get in, he dashed towards the entrance of the circus, and, right under Sly’s nose, vaulted over the turnstile.
‘Oi you!’ Sly called after him. For a moment, it looked as though he was going to desert his post and chase Ninelives, but there were too many excited young Katzers in the queue. He contented himself with snarling after Ninelives: ‘Don’t worry, kit, I’ll get you later!’
Then he sullenly turned back to his customers, his hand already out for entrance money.

Written by Chris Trengove

November 6, 2014 at 11:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized