CO WRITING WITH SIMON SCARROW
How did you and Simon come to work together?
Simon was one of my lecturers at college. After I left university, we swapped occasional emails, and when I started work in the film industry, we would have catch-up buffets, often running for several hours. Simon and his brother Alex have various interests in film and TV, and where I could I would recommend their screenplays to producers, write coverage on their scripts and share insight into the production and development process. Occasionally I would shoot promotional videos for them and Alex Scarrow is also a great author: be sure to check out his Time Riders and Last Light series!
I developed and wrote a few high-concept screenplays (Crash & Burn, Nikolas Origins) and a short film (Those Glassy Eyes) – all attracting interest and development meetings with production companies, but nothing further due to lack of serious investment. After four years I decided that I would re direct my creative passions to novel writing, which would give me more creative control. For us, the story is always the bottom line and I named our triptych the Story Architects.
Over the years we would often meet and have joint brainstorming sessions. The seed of the story that became Playing With Death was sewn by Simon initially around fifteen years ago. He wrote a three-page radio play called Echo, featuring Playing With Death’s villain and a grisly murder. In 2011, Simon dusted it off and asked me to take a read. I had a read and thought, ‘It would be really cool if this idea also involved a police force and near-future technology, with different stories panning out through different characters and family members you are invested in.’ Simon and I chatted some more about this and we agreed to develop it together. We did so, first as a TV series (which got optioned but nothing further after two years). After nearly four years between us, the final result is Playing With Death.
How does the process work in practice?
Simon and I have strong yet complementary ideas as to how the series will unfold, and have multiple plot lines for future books already in mind. The crime thriller market is hugely saturated and competitive, so this is our way of doing something different, with stories very plausible, while also looking a few degrees into the future.
In the process of creating Playing With Death, we established our way of working. First, we both make notes, researching areas we find useful and interesting in relation to plot, technology and character development. Research immersion is a genuine pleasure; nothing is stranger than real life, and you can find incredible insights that really elevate your story. Research can, however, go on for ever, so it needs to be managed. And, because it involves technology, where everything is evolving very fast, we always have to think ahead. When we started writing Playing With Death, most of the technology was just being talked about. Now, that’s all changed!
Next we meet up (normally over a massive buffet) and freebase the most promising ideas, see where that leads us, navigate any creative cul de sacs and draft a skeletal structure so we know where we’re headed. Some writers start with a blank page, but because of our multiple characters and ongoing threads, an outline before we start, like a road map, is essential. We then know pretty much where we are going, but we’re not afraid to deviate if we get a great idea.
The first book took a lot longer than planned, over a period of nearly four years, for a variety of practical and personal reasons. Many authors cannot co-write, but writing is a solitary and psychologically isolating occupation, so for me working with a co-writer of Simon’s calibre and experience is a real gift.
Tell us about your inspiration.
The real world is a source of all sorts of horrifying creative inspiration. I feel we have entered a point of no return politically, socially and technologically. In the last few years technology has had an irreversible impact on almost every feature of our lives and our values, both an incredible asset and a frightening liability, which is something of a key theme of the book and planned series. Our characters, just like we are, are trying to keep up in a constantly shifting world. So there’s plenty of inspiration on a daily basis! We wanted an entertaining crime series that reflected that, and also allowed us to explore characters as emotional human beings, very easily damaged by other’s ill-thought-out, selfish actions. In the book the large majority of characters are quite rounded, neither entirely good nor bad, but somewhere in-between.
Thomas Harris, Michael Crichton (taken from us too soon) and Phillip K Dick are my main literary influences for the series. Thomas Harris for his characters and horror in the original Hannibal trilogy, Crichton for his sheer genius and high concepts (Jurassic Park, Westworld), and Dick for his obsession with multiple, unreliable realities. George R R Martin to a lesser degree, but the idea of a continuing story, the allegiances of characters shifting from hero to villain and even from villain to hero; and the notion that evil sometimes is just about a point of view. Yes, perhaps some people in this world are born evil, but in many cases the reasons for their heinous crimes is a damaged point of view on the world, often with an underlying sad story.
The TV series Black Mirror expresses a similar sense of unease with the reckless embracing of technologies without fully understanding the consequences, explored in a satirical and entertaining style. Minority Report’s increasingly prophetic take on the future has also been inspiring. I’ve also travelled a fair amount of the USA, and real places are helpful too. Screenplay style has been influential as we both wanted a distinctive punchy narrative written in the present tense, reflecting that the future is rapidly becoming the present on a daily basis. We wanted the novel to have a sense of immediacy: the reader is there discovering the story alongside the characters, with no sense that the characters already know what happened next. Our experience of stories is now cross-media – through screens, videos, texting and so on – and we wanted our writing style to allude to that. This story is happening NOW.
It is our hope that, thanks to our using an innovative writing style, and tackling contemporary fears and anxieties, readers will enjoy our books not only as entertainment, but also as food for thought long after the final page has been read.