Meet Ben Mcleod, cover artist for The Wanderer and the New West

My next novel — The Wanderer and the New West — is getting closer to publication! A key part of that process is designing a cover, and I’m thrilled to announce illustrator Ben Mcleod will be taking on this important job.

Hailing from Manchester, Ben has created art for an array of cool clients like Disney and 20th Century Fox, working on such popular franchises as Star Wars and X-Men! Check out some of his recent work below and on his Tumblr blog.

I’ve seen some of Ben’s ideas for The Wanderer and am thrilled with the direction. Can’t wait to share the cover with you when it’s complete!

The Time Machine
Credit: Ben Mcleod
Star Wars
Credit: Ben Mcleod
Big Hero 6
Credit: Ben Mcleod
1984 by George Orwell
Credit: Ben Mcleod

Indie author’s guide to adapting your novel into a screenplay

Film for a movie

I love films. I write novels. So I’ve always wanted to give screenwriting a go.

I began by reading some great books, including Save The Cat by Blake Snyder and The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier. I soon plan to continue the learning process at the end of February through a free online course via Futurelearn and the University of East Anglia.

There’s nothing like hands-on experience, though, so while learning I figured I’d dive right in. I purchased Final Draft, which is the screenwriting software used by most of the pros.

As an author, I guess I have a small advantage jumping right into screenwriting. I’ve often been told that my writing style in novels and short stories is cinematic. I think this is because I tend to keep scenery descriptions short — just long enough to evoke an image — and then jump into action and dialog.

However, screenwriting is still a different language to writing a novel, with its own syntax, vocabulary and even indentation styles! I knew going in that the hardest part would be learning the actual style and formatting for screenplay.

Screenwriting software like Final Draft helps, of course, since it automatically keeps indentations correct and guesses when you’re writing dialog or a scene heading. But there’s still a lot it won’t automatically do for you, from things as basic as capitalizing a character’s name the first time he appears, to more complex questions like the proper style for a quick series of flashbacks. If you couldn’t spell, you wouldn’t rely on auto-correct, right? It’s much the same here — you still need to have some knowledge to be sure the software is doing the right thing.

So that I could focus on getting the format right, I decided not to spend a lot of time creating a new story from scratch for my first screenwriting effort. Instead, I chose to adapt my first novel, We, The Watched.

Cover for We, The Watched by Adam Bender

We, The Watched follows an amnesiac who wakes up in a dystopia. Told from a first-person present perspective, the story places the reader in the shoes of Seven as he struggles to go unnoticed in a surveillance society and discover his true identity.

It seemed like an easy one to turn into a screenplay. The way I figured it, I could basically just move the book over scene by scene. I imagined fuzzy shots through the lenses of surveillance cameras and exciting gun fights between the Underground rebels and the government police force known as the Guard.

However, when I started thinking about the movie in a traditional three-act structure, I immediately found pacing problems in my story. They were scenes that I maybe got away with in the novel, but now seemed extraneous when I was trying to cram the book into a two-hour film. In a screenplay, each page represents about one minute of screen time. So while novels can be anywhere from 200 to 1000 pages, a spec screenplay has got to be about 100 to 120. And you’re not writing with paragraphs that fill the page with text. Thanks to all the indents, loose line spacing and Courier New 12-point, there’s actually quite a bit of white space on each page!

Rather than freak out about all this, however, I looked at the project as a fun puzzle … and an opportunity! We, The Watched was my first novel, and while I am proud of it, there are things about writing stories now that I did not know then. So it was actually great fun to analyze each scene and pull out only the most essential details and dialog.

I ended cutting a few scenes and even a few minor characters (sorry, Eric). I also massaged the logic of a few bits, like how the hero meets the Underground for the first time. It wasn’t all cuts and edits. I added a few bits between characters to add more tension and amplify character emotions.

Another challenge was that I didn’t want to use voice-over narration, even though the novel is told in first-person present tense. I had to think of ways to convey the hero’s emotions through his expressions, actions and dialog. While inner monologue can totally work in a book, it can come off as a bit lazy in such a visual medium as film. This proved not to be an impossible task; I just had to be creative — which is the whole point, right?

While I ended up having quite a bit of fun every time I sat down to write, I must admit that I had trouble keeping on track. For most of this time, I was simultaneously writing a novel (also coming soon!) and working full-time as a journalist. I’d given myself a loose “finish by end of 2015” deadline, but I discovered this wasn’t great motivation for most of 2015.

What ended up really helping was finding a competition in which to enter the script. It was December when I learned about a “first ten pages” contest. The script was mostly done, but I hadn’t spent much time reading through it to work out the kinks. When I heard about the competition, I thought to myself, “Hey, I can definitely spend time polishing up the first ten pages of my script!”

Lo and behold, just focusing on tidying up the beginning motivated me to get the rest of the screenplay in order, too. You know what? I have no idea how well I’ll do in this competition, but it doesn’t really matter. Having a formal deadline gave me the encouragement I needed to finish.

Well, anyway, thanks for reading my ramblings! Happy to answer any questions in the comments below, and I hope to share the screenplay (and hopefully one day a movie!) with you soon!

 Get We, The Watched (e-book) for free!

Review: Tarantino shows defter touch in ‘The Hateful Eight’

The Hateful Eight, like its predecessor Django Unchained, is a western with taller-than-life characters filmed at epic scale. However, director Quentin Tarantino shows a nimbler hand in his eighth film.

When so much of the press has centered around Tarantino’s use of 70mm film for a super-wide screen presentation, you could easily be fooled into thinking that The Hateful Eight is a movie full of massive set pieces. On the contrary, most of the action takes place in Minnie’s Haberdashery, a cozy rest stop for bounty hunters and other wanderers of the wild west.

Boy, do you get to know that rest stop. It’s essentially one big room, and by the second half of the film I felt like I knew every corner of it. Point me in any direction and I could tell you which way to the bar, coffee pot, piano or Sweet Dave’s chair.

Like a good theatre production, the economy of the set puts the spotlight on the actors. Luckily, this is a talented cast with major presence. Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell shine the brightest, making it look easy to portray an uneasy friendship. Jennifer Jason Leigh is positively despicable, while Bruce Dern delivers half his excellent performance just by the expression on his face.

And look, eight killers trapped in a room together during a blizzard might sound like an obvious premise, but it’s also a very effective one. It’s impressive how much tension can be created by the presence of a mere coffee pot in a snake pit like this. Also, while every person in this “Hateful Eight” may be a bastard, they all — in typical Tarantino fashion — deliver immensely enjoyable dialogue that drips with secrets and hidden meanings.

Of course, this is still a Tarantino movie, and he brings along the stylized gore and indulgent distaste he’s known for. On occasion, the conductor sends his picture off the rails.

Actually, the first scene where this happened wasn’t even violent. At the start of Chapter Four, or immediately following the intermission, Tarantino actually starts narrating. For me this broke the fourth wall. Up to that point, I felt like I was stuck inside with the Hateful Eight — a sort of “Objective Ninth,” if you will. Tarantino’s narrative reminded me it’s a movie. I’m glad he’s proud of what he wrote, but I’d rather hear why he thinks a given scene is clever on the Blu-ray.

This particular scene is, of course, almost immediately followed by the first real gross-out blood scene in the film. To be fair, for a Tarantino movie, the gore in this film is pretty restrained. It’s also used more often to comedic effect, as in Kill Bill or an episode of South Park. It is rarely hard to watch, like the dogs or wrestling slaves scenes in Django Unchained.

Speaking of Django, slavery and racism continues to be a theme for Tarantino in The Hateful Eight. However, I appreciated this movie’s approach in conveying that through the characters’ histories and personalities rather than making it the focus of the plot itself. For example, we know that Major Marquis Warren (Jackson) fought in the Civil War and carries a letter from President Abraham Lincoln. This builds the world and adds to the tension with other characters, especially the former Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Dern). It is not, however, the main plot. It’s a more subtle approach to addressing slavery than Tarantino took in Django Unchained, but works just as well.

I’ve always preferred Tarantino when he seems like he’s having fun — Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction are my personal favorites. While critically acclaimed, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained left me a little cold with their more realistic and hard-to-watch violence.

The Hateful Eight marks a return to the lighter, character-driven approach of Tarantino’s early days, but his characters’ discussion of race issues show more maturity than those first films’ chats about Burger King and how much to tip the waiter.

It’s engaging and also a whole lot of fun to watch. Pass the popcorn.

Note: I saw the “Special Roadshow Engagement” version of the film, which is a slightly longer cut presented in 70mm that includes a musical overture and intermission. This presentation was great fun and highlights Tarantino’s nostalgia for cinema. It’s definitely recommended if you have the option.

Film review: Citizenfour — Truth scarier than fiction

Edward Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald make a plan. Credit: Madman

This week I had the pleasure of seeing an advance screening of Citizenfour in Sydney, hosted by Greens Senator Scott Ludlam. The movie is coming out in Australia as the government here considers data retention legislation that would require telephone companies to store customer metadata for two years.

Citizenfour is a documentary that unfurls like a spy movie, focusing on filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald’s first meeting with Edward Snowden at a Hong Kong hotel in June 2013. During their visit, they would reveal details of the classified documents Snowden took from the US government about America’s secret surveillance programs. This is largely a cinematic version of the experience reported by Greenwald in the first part of his excellent book, No Place to Hide.

At one point in the film, Snowden says he wants the world to focus on the documents and not on his own personality. Ironically, Poitras focuses her lens squarely on Snowden and provides a sympathetic view of his emotions as he speaks to the journalists and his reactions as he watches the story appear on news channels around the world. Perhaps with it now two years since the great reveal, the players involved are okay with their story being told.

While the film gives an overview of some of the shattering revelations revealed by Snowden, watching Citizenfour acts as more of an introduction than an analysis. For more detail, the viewer will have to read Greenwald’s book or go back to the original news stories that broke at the time of the Snowden revelations. Even so, the film gives one the immediate sense that some pretty dystopian stuff has been going on behind the scenes. It is sure to spur discussion and debate, which is exactly what Snowden, Poitras and Greenwald want.

As a piece of history, it’s a pretty incredible film. Never before has a whistleblower leak been documented in real-time. Usually, you only get the aftermath, or at best a dramatization. Rarely do you get to see the whistleblower himself and experience the sacrifice he has made to do what he believes is right.

As you may know, I’ve written a couple of dystopian novels. I thought I’d imagined some pretty crazy stuff for those books, but at a few points in Citizenfour I found myself thinking, “Damn, I should have included something on that!” It’s pretty incredible to think that the reality of government surveillance might be more frightening than fiction.

Safety Not Guaranteed worth the risk

Safety Not Guaranteed
It’s hard not to like Aubrey Plaza in Safety Not Guaranteed

Laughter is guaranteed in this fun indie comedy about wanting to reset the past.

Safety Not Guaranteed, which had its Australian premiere Sunday night at the Sydney Film Festival, follows a jaded journalistic investigation into time travel.

A man named Kenneth claims not only that he can go back in time, but that he has done so once before. Kenneth needs a partner, so—rationally enough—he takes out a classified ad in the newspaper. Figuring Kenneth is crazy, a magazine reporter and two interns go after the story.

Intern Darius (Aubrey Plaza) finds herself drawn into Kenneth’s quest and realizes they share something in common: They both have been hurt by something in the past and want desperately to change it.

Mark Duplass is perfect as possibly crazy guy Kenneth—he’s sweet but beneath his innocent exterior lurks something dark. You’re never quite sure whether to root for him or to yell pathetically at the screen, “Darius, get out of there!”

Plaza, Jake Johnson and Karan Soni have great chemistry as the dysfunctional journalistic team. Plaza and Johnson, best known for their performances in Parks and Recreation and New Girl, don’t stray very far from their TV roles. Plaza plays a shrugging, sarcastic indie kid while Johnson is loud, angry and yet…somehow sympathetic. But hey, it’s hard to complain when those actors do those roles so well.

The film’s got a smart script. Unlike many comedies, Safety Not Guaranteed doesn’t feel like a series of sketches. Fitting for movie about time travel, each character’s actions and motivations are rooted in their pasts. It’s engaging not because you can’t wait for the next joke, but because you genuinely like the characters and want to know what’s going to happen to them.

Soni’s character doesn’t feel quite as well constructed as the rest of the cast. And the ending leaves a few loose ends. Yes, there is a proper payoff scene, but I couldn’t help but feel unresolved about the fates of a few of the characters.

It is impressive how much the filmmakers did with minimal budget. Speaking at the Sydney premiere, director Colin Trevorrow was quick to point out how little money was spent making the film. Meanwhile, marketing for this film seems to rely heavily on a viral Facebook campaign. But Safety Not Guaranteed never felt for a second like it was a film-school movie or other cheaply made affair.

Here’s hoping the Facebook campaign works and people go out and see it. It’s definitely worth a “Like.”

**** Four Stars (out of five)