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Storytelling on TV

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but most recently it’s because of new TV series appearing from new places like Netflix and Amazon Prime. These series are shorter, in terms of the number of episodes, compared with the traditional network shows, which can vary from 22 to 26 episodes. This isn’t a new thing of course. Shorter TV series have been around for years with the likes of HBO and for the last 8 years one of my favourite shows ever, Dexter, had seasons that were only 12 episodes every year. More recently some American TV channels have moved away from their traditional content, creating fresh new stuff which starts out small and if successful grows to longer series. AMC did it with The Walking Dead which was only 6 episodes long in the first season. By season 4 it had swelled to 16 episodes and it seems to be holding at that number for now and I hope it stays there. All of which brings me back to my original thought.

There is so much more content out there now than ever before across all media. Hundreds of TV channels filled with content, some good and a lot of it quite poor. Then you’ve got all of the stuff on the internet and the free content that people create, plus books, comics, video games and so on. Maybe our attention spans are shorter, or maybe we’ve just become more demanding, but I’m steadily falling out of favour with the longer TV series that are still in that traditional 22+ episode mould. There are a couple of exceptions, but even then I have a few issues.

Very recently season 2 of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD concluded and I won’t spoil it, but in general terms, I feel that it was all over the map. There was a lot of bloat, lots of sub-plots that were started and then skipped over, then picked up a few episodes later which I think leads to uneven storytelling. I appreciate with more episodes there needs to be more content to fill the screen, but it’s very rare that a show keeps a very tight focus over 22 episodes. Even some of my favourite shows that are longer, like Arrow and The Flash, have wobbled in places. Although to be fair, Flash season 1 has to be one of the strongest I’ve seen in a long time. It came flying right out of the gate, it knew what it was and where it was going and never stopped. The cast did start to bloat after a while, which created some problems, but now that DC has spun out a new 3rd show, Legends of Tomorrow, several characters from both Flash and Arrow will emigrate over there. Both shows will have a stripped down cast, back to basics really, and I think both will be better for it. It allows them to explore the characters they have in more detail. It allows the stories to breathe and have room for quiet moments. It doesn’t always have to be pace, pace, pace in every single scene.

There is also the problem of scheduling. In the UK we sometimes have breaks, but I believe it’s fairly common in America to air a few episodes in a row, then break off, then come back later and this can occur several times in one season. Even if that didn’t happen, keeping someone entertained for 22 consistent weeks is not easy as there is so much more noise to pull them away and make them forget.

This won’t happen but I wonder what would happen if the network went to the people running Flash and Arrow and said, ok this season we’ve only got 16 episodes, so you need to cut out some stuff.  There would be fewer monster of the week episodes. They would strip out certain plot-lines and push them to next season or just dump them altogether.It would be a fascinating experiment.

There are some shows that I absolutely love, and I always want more episodes, like Person of Interest, Castle or Blue Bloods, but these are more episodic and not really constructed around a seasonal arc like a lot of genre TV, for lack of a better term. You can go away, miss 6 episodes and come back and pretty much catch up. So I’m going to put them to one side for now, shows like CSI and NCIS etc.

Looking at some of the shows I’ve been watching in about the last ten years, some of the most memorable have been those with shorter series. Even BSG, for all of it’s problems at the end, started on 13 a season and then went to 20. But looking at other shows that stick out in my mind they are things like Dexter, Six Feet Under, Longmire, Sherlock, Haven, Game of Thrones, The Shield, The Wire and Deadwood. There are some shows I’ve not mentioned that are critically acclaimed with shorter series, but either I’ve not seen them or was not a fan.

Do we have shorter attention spans than we used to in the past? Is the old 22+ episode model just too long these days? Do prefer more episodic TV or shows with more of a seasonal arc?

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My experiences at Eastercon 2012

I’ve made the title of this post specific to me on purpose as not everyone had as enjoyable time at Eastercon 2012. I missed out on some of the controversy as I was elsewhere attending other panels or I was out to dinner at one point, but I’m sure other people will go into detail about the bad. In general though the feedback has been very good and the event was a huge success as it sold out for the first time in many years. Given that the good outweighed the bad from my point of view, I’ll start with the bad and then end on a much more positive note.

For me there were a few problems with one or two of the panelists and some of the audience members. Being specific, no matter the nature of the panel and the tagline, they were determined to make the panel about something else entirely. They sometimes asked very leading questions or irrelevant questions in an attempt to get the panel to discuss the topic they wanted. This ruined a few panels for me. The moderators valiantly tried to steer the discussion back on topic and they were successful on some occasions, but not always. One of the positives this year was the variety of panels over the four days, so there were plenty of opportunities to discuss many subjects. The organisers provided a daily opportunity for feedback and there were also opportunities before the event to submit ideas and suggestions for panels. I appreciate the programme was not posted until two weeks before the event, but even so it was still being tweaked up to the last minute. So if there was a gap they should have raised it with the organisers instead of trying to derail other panels. I found it really annoying and disrespectful that some people were so incredibly selfish and I was very disappointed by a couple of panelists for the same reason.

Moving on to the good. I managed to meet several authors whose work I admire in person and I chatted to them about all sorts of stuff from writing to archery to role playing to all sorts of nonsense. These included, Mike Shevdon, Elspeth Cooper, Suzanne McLeod (again! – *wave*), Anne Lyle and I met a bunch of shiny and new authors whose books are due out imminently. These are authors with Strange Chemistry, the YA Imprint of Angry Robot Books. I had a lovely dinner one evening with Kim Curran, Laura Lam, Natasha from Voyager, Amanda from Strange Chemistry and my mate Adrian Faulkner.

Over the course of the weekend we also invented several harmless games to keep ourselves amused including Author Cosplay and Author Wave. Adrian has all of the details about the games over on his blog here, as well as a third game Pitch! which we discussed but didn’t dare try in person. I think I was ahead by the end on Author Wave as one of the guests of honour, George RR Martin, himself waved at me. I also received confused and puzzled waves from a few other people but didn’t get any points. It was just interesting to test their memory or their eyesight to see if they were able to read my badge and then work out if they knew me after all or not.

I went to a lot more panels this year than last and even though there were some I was not interested in, I’m sure they were to some who enjoyed them, so we all had a piece of the pie. Despite contracting flu during the latter part of the event (I blame being very tired and run down, plus late nights and early mornings) I came away with a renewed sense of purpose. I said this in my previous post, some days I wake up and think every word I’ve written is awful and other days I don’t think it’s half bad. Eastercon was good for many things but it rekindled the fire in my belly and turned up the hungry dial from 9 to 10. As I said before, the final decision is not in my hands, but being knocked back isn’t going to stop me and it hasn’t stopped me this far. I should point out that my current novel is not my first, or second, or even third or fourth novel. I don’t know if you need to have written 10,000 words or a 100,000 words of crap before you get to the good. Some people make it on the first book, some after 13 years of submitting like Ian McDonald, and as John Jarrold pointed out he’s not a ‘bad little writer’. I almost didn’t go to the panel on how to get published but the new faces on the panel won me over and I was glad I did. I made copious notes, some of which I already knew, but it’s good for reinforcement and there were some interesting comments. The short version is, it’s a long-shot, it’s a crap shoot. If they don’t say wow in the first few pages they (the agent then the publisher) will say no. One audience member was struggling with his story which really kicked off in chapter 8 and the short answer again was, page 1 doesn’t have to be a murder, a car crash, an explosion. It can start slow, but it needs to be your voice, have you written all over it, be distinct and special, and it can be poetic and beautiful or blunt and visceral but it can’t just be run of the mill. Revise and revise and then revise again. Then get other people to look at it. Then give it to someone who hates you and listen to their feedback. Then revise it some more. Ok, perhaps not someone who hates you, but I’m sure you can see why. My mum will always say she likes it and is proud of me (probably) but this isn’t a competition where everyone gets an award for taking part (and what is that about! Don’t get me started) you only get one for first place.

The only person who can let you down, is you, be it because of bad grammar, punctuation, not reading the submission guidelines, printing it on red paper, or writing it by hand. They are looking for a reason to put it down, not because they are evil but simply because every day they get 30 or 50 and have to get through them because tomorrow there will be 30 more. That sounds harsh and cruel and cut-throat, but if you get all of the basics right, and they actually sit down to read your double spaced (lines not between words!) submission, then the full weight rests on your story and your style, which is what it should rest on. Also, read the genre guidelines. If they say no romance and you submit it to an agent who only does SFF, don’t think they will give you a chance because your book is special. They won’t. They don’t have time. Revise. Read. Do your research. You’ll never be 100% happy with it but be as close to 100% as you can be and don’t think, oh well cleaning it up is for the agent and the publisher to do, my job is to create Art and I don’t deal with the small details! That’s someone else’s job! Wrong. It is your job.

Anyway, coming back to the event in more general terms I had a great time. I think George RR Martin helped sell out the event, I met some great authors and had a number of very interesting discussions over drinks and dinner, and I was able to spend some time and socialise with some friends that I don’t seem more than once a year. I also met several new and interesting people. I’m not sure if I will be attending next year, it depends on so many factors, but it is closer to where I live, which does make it appealing. I’ll decide closer to the time as I did this year but I believe that despite some issues and controversy, Eastercon 2012 was a big success. I’ve definitely forgotten to mention some stuff, but it’s the end of a busy first week in a new job and I’m still brain addled with the flu, so apologies to anyone I missed. Don’t forget to wave at your author!

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