Customer reviews for Planetfall

Tonight I put out the call: “Have you read Planetfall? What did you think?”

Two readers came back with comments, one on Twitter and one on the book’s Facebook page.  Here’s what they had to say:

The first review was on Twitter, and straight to the point!

Planetfall is bloody brilliant

Planetfall first customer review

Phew! It’s always good to know that a reader likes your book. But what about the other readers? Here’s some more feedback, this one from one of the lucky competition winners:

Competition winner's review of planetfall

Competition winner’s review of planetfall

As you can read, they “loved it” and thought it was “great writing”. This is the point where my head starts to explode. But fear not dear reader – hopefully soon there’ll be a magazine review which totally demolishes it to bring balance back!

I probed a little with this competition winner, to find our what they specifically liked. They mentioned the main character and the pacing of the book:

Strong female protagonist

What was your favourite part of Planetfall?

I’m relieved that the main character, Kate, has come across so well. I put a lot of effort into writing Kate, and it was very important to me to have a strong female protagonist; science fiction is often lacking in these.

One of the early criticisms of initial drafts of the book was its slow start: the opening chapter was slow and cinematic and atmospheric. But of course readers need a hook and action. I’m really happy that the reader has said that they “loved right from the first page there was action”.

The comments about Kate are reflected by another reader who compared the book to Iain M. Banks’ work. The first comment comes from their experience part way through the book:

Customer feedback6

Then a little further in in which they compare it to Iain M. Banks (nice! thanks):

Customer feedback5

And finally after finishing the book:

Tweets about planetfall

A series of tweets about planetfall

That final comment is great, “More please” and chimes with the reader further above who asked for more.

After five years of writing the book – and indeed, as the first book I ever wrote – this is a huge relief. I remember when I finished the first draft, and somewhere on Twitter is a tweet proclaiming it. And now I’ve had my first reader reviews I feel like I’ve finally completed a journey with it from decision to write, developing as a writer, finishing the book, having initial drafts proof read, making amendments, beefing up certain characters, re-writing the opening chapters endlessly… The end of a journey, and a happy one at that.

If you’ve read Planetfall: All Fall Down and have a review, I’d love to hear it – good, bad, indifferent, I don’t mind. Please let me know what you thought of it.

astro x

Competition winners

A few weeks ago I ran my first ever competition to promote Planetfall: All Fall Down. I put up two signed copies of the book.

Not to be falsely humble, but as a self published author with no commercial backing or significant public profile , I knew that there was a risk no one would enter.

I am, therefore, hugely pleased to say that I had four entries to the competition to win the two books. And because I was so relieved, and because the number of entries was just a couple more than the number of books available, I’ve decided to award all entrants with a signed copy.

So congratulations to:

  • Martin in Neath
  • Paul in Huddersfield
  • Carolyn in Leicester, and
  • Holly in Chingford.

They’ve all won a signed copy of the paperback, which *cough cough* is available from Lulu through my store with a 15% discount for the next few weeks. Well done to all of them.

The correct answers to the quiz questions were:

1. All Fall Down is set on a desert planet, where there are important minerals in the sand. Which famous science fiction book (and later film) was set on a desert planet devoid of water and full of giant worms? – DUNE by FRANK HERBERT

2. All Fall Down is available in paperback and as an e-book. Which platform/website is each available from? (Hint: check my Store.) – KINDLE and LULU.COM

3. The final question is actually just a question from you: what was your book of 2012? I’ll collate the competition entries and produce a list of favourite books from you all. There’s no right or wrong answer, I’m just looking to share reading tips!

The books recommended by our lucky winners are:

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Walking Home by Simon Armitage

Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson, and

Will We Ever Speak Dolphin? by Mick O’Hare

I hope the winners enjoy the book!

astro x

How to self publish

I recently published my first novel on Kindle and paperback. And between 2010 and early 2012 I published two shorter books, Ayla’s Journey (a dark and surreal illustrated children’s book) and Dark Things (short dystopian stories, some of them flash fiction). This experience has led me to giving advice to other authors about self publishing, which I thought would be useful sharing with a wider audience. So here we go – an Idiot’s Guide to Self Publishing.

Part one – Preparing your text

1. Make sure you have a complete text you want to publish. By complete, I mean it’s been properly proof read for spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, punctuation and formatting. There are a number of ways of achieving this. Read it yourself in different formats: I recommend printing it, going somewhere different to your usual writing environment, taking a red pen with you, and running the nib of the pen over the paper as you read. You will pick up different problems to reading on the screen (which if you only edit on paper, you must also do). Then ask someone else to read it. You should be doing this anyway – texts that want to be published are as much a product of the writer’s imagination as they are of the reader’s. So have a couple of friends read the text, and ask them to circle all of those errors, as well as give critical feedback on the story, its characters, those all important opening paragraphs, page and couple of pages, and how satisfying the conclusion is.

We’re not quite finished with the text. A few little prescriptive things:

a) Font. You might have a favourite font that you use. But is it readable once printed? If you’re going to publish as an ebook only this isn’t so important, because you can change the font on your device. But if you’re publishing to paper you need to choose your font. There’s a good guide to choosing fonts on the self-pub.net website. I would avoid Times New Roman (it looks amateurish in print), and stick to a font like Book Antiqua or Bookman Old Style (note the hint in the font title).

b) Page layout. For this section we need to pick up a book and open it to the first chapter. I’d like you to look at how paragraphs are laid out. Note that the first paragraph of a section is aligned with the page margin, while subsequent paragraphs are indented, like this:

First paragraph in line with margin.

Subsequent paragraphs start indented.

This is industry standard, and you must also follow it. This might mean re-formatting your entire book. Sorry, it’s necessary if you want to be taken seriously.

c) Section breaks. Some writers like to put an asterisk or other symbol between sections within a chapter. The standard is to use a single line break. It’s up to you. Most texts will look better with a single line break, unless your text is in a particular style (like a Gothic horror) and the symbol adds something to the atmosphere.

d) Font size and line spacing. Tricky. On ebooks you can adjust it on the device, so there’s not much to worry about. In a print book there’s only one way to tell if your print size and line spacing look good on paper: print and be damned. That means going right through this process, ordering a copy of your book and seeing how it looks. For guidance, I’d advise 1.5 line spacing and a font size of around 11. However you should also check the typesetting information in printed books you own, which sometimes describe the font and size.

2. Still here? Now you need a cover design. Some people are lucky enough to know artists and designers who they can ask to create book covers. There are also freelance book cover designers (find them through internet search engines).

If you’re creating an ebook, you will need your cover image prepared.

If you’re publishing on paper only, you can use the self publishing site to create a book cover.

3. We’re still in preparation mode aren’t we? So let’s go back to your book text because there’s a few things it needs: legal information, acknowledgements, copyright notice, contact information and page numbers.

a) For the legal information, simply copy the text from the front of an already printed book. I advise slightly amending any wording that isn’t about legal things to make it your own, but as a minimum you want to say something like: “Copyright © Your Name 2013 The right of Your Name to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her/him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.”

b) Acknowledgements are those thank yous that you want to give to whoever helped you write the book or encouraged you along the way. You don’t have to put them in. You might have noticed that they’re sometimes at the end of the book (my preference) instead of the start. It’s up to you if you include them.

c) Copyright information. You’ve already shown your copyright in the legal information. Now you need to say how and when your text can be copied, re-distributed, transmitted and so on. You’ll find this in the legal information text in the front of most books. Like I said, I recommend just copying the text from a book – you should notice that they’re pretty standard paragraphs across different publishing houses.

d) Contact information: these days being a self-published author is all about building an audience, and that means people need to be able to contact you. You don’t have to, of course, it’s simply advised. There are a number of ways to achieve this. Set up an email account specifically for your writing (do not use your own email address), set up a Twitter account, Google+ or Facebook page, or create a blog which has feedback options.

e) Page numbers. If you’re not sure how to insert these into your document, you can either click on the Help option inside your word processor, or in most word processors, you can use a drop down menu called something like “Insert” or “Edit”, and then an option like “Fields” or “Special”. In OpenOffice go Insert > Fields, and in Microsoft Word go Insert > Page Numbers. These instructions work for PCs; I don’t know much about Macs, sorry.

4. We’re still in preparation mode. We’ve done a lot to the text and the contents, and we’ve started thinking about the cover. You might have made a lot of changes. If so, rest your text for a week or so, come back to it with fresh eyes, and read it through again with a red pen. Self publishing is all about polishing and polishing and polishing. Now make a cup of tea, you deserve it.

Part two – Registering with self publishing sites

1. This is probably the bit most want to know about. You’ve heard of other people self publishing, but you’re not sure how you do it yourself. Let’s manage your expectations right now: this is going to take a while. You can save your progress and come back to it, if you’re pressed for time. Just be prepared for this to be easy, even while it’s time consuming and laborious.

2. We’re going to use Amazon as our self publishing site. Once you’re up to speed with using Amazon, you can use other sites, like Lulu or Nook or Google Books. So, go here https://kdp.amazon.com/self-publishing/signin and create a user profile. This site is called “Kindle Direct Publishing” or KDP. It’s going to be your central resource for getting an ebook out.

3. Now you need to set up a different user profile on a different site for the print version of your book, so go here: https://www.createspace.com/ This is called CreateSpace. If you have a central Amazon account, you should find that the KDP and CreateSpace accounts are automatically linked together.

4. Later, you can register on Lulu.com for print and ebook if you want. I prefer Lulu for printed books, because the book creation process is a little easier to use. But for the moment, let’s concentrate on the Amazon facilities.

5. Go back to Kindle Direct Publishing or KDP. Once you’ve registered, you should see a screen like this:

Image

To start the process of publishing your ebook, click on that yellow button “Add new title”.

Step three – Creating your ebook

1. Click on that button! You’re taken to a page which is headed by Your book, and then there’s probably a box underneath about enrolling your book in something called KDP Select. Ignore this for now, you can come back to it later.

2. Start filling in the details for your book. That’s how easy it is: you’re just filling in boxes. But now comes a tricky part. You’ve been asked for a Description. This is the short paragraph that people will read when your ebook is listed on Amazon, which should grab their attention. Rather than spending hours trying to think what to write, go to a successful book’s page, say Life of Pi, read the text, and adapt the style to suit your own book.

For example, the Life of Pi text says this:

One boy, one boat, one tiger …After the tragic sinking of a cargo ship, a solitary lifeboat remains bobbing on the wild, blue Pacific. The only survivors from the wreck are a sixteen year-old boy named Pi, a hyena, a zebra (with a broken leg), a female orang-utan and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger. The scene is set for one of the most extraordinary and best-loved works of fiction in recent years.

To adapt this for your book, break it down into the elements, and include your own book’s details. So let’s assume you’ve written a book about a family at war over several generations.

One family, three generations, one deadly secret. [See how we get a quick description with very short elements.]

When Arthur graduates from college he expects a bright future. [Now we have a male lead, and we have something to gain and lose: a bright future.]

But his attempts to leave behind his working class background bring him into conflict with his parents. His struggle to move on with his life brings out a secret hidden by his grandparents, which threatens to tear apart the entire family. [Now we have a problem establishing, conflict, and a hint at the consequences.]

Spanning three generations, Arthur’s Kitchen Sink explores the tensions at the heart of every family and how love can tear us apart.

Anyway, you get the idea. Use the hook, give us the context and then create the conflict and what’s at stake for your character. Then finally place the book in its genre: scifi, fantasy, literary fiction, thriller, etc.

3. When you get to section 2. Verify Your Publishing Rights, you should click the following:

a) This is not a public domain work… Most authors will use this option. It means the work is yours and belongs to you.

b) This is a public domain work… If you’ve taken works that are out of copyright you have to choose this option. For example, some people collect old versions of The Brothers Grimm stories originally published in the 1800s and now out of copyright, and publish them as collections.

4. Now you need to upload your book cover. Fortunately we covered this in Part one – Preparation, and you have a file ready. Make sure it’s saved as a .jpg. Once you’ve uploaded your image, you should see it appear on the page behind the upload box. Now just click the little [x] in the top corner to get rid of the upload box.

5. Upload your book file! You can upload a .doc, but I recommend something first. Open your word processor and then open your book file. Now we’re going to save it as a different file format. If you’re not used to doing this, it’s really easy, and here’s the step by step guide:

a) Open your file

b) Click on the File menu

c) Click Save As (note: do not click “Save”, you must click “Save as”).

d) Now you have the save window on your screen. Look near the bottom and just below your file’s title is an option saying “Save file as type:”. Click on the little arrow on this box.

e) Go through the file formats and click on HTML or HTM. Now click SAVE.

f) When you upload your book, look for the .html version. It makes the file conversion a but easier for KDP.

6. Now you’ve uploaded your book you can preview it online. Finished? Almost there. Click Save & Continue.

7. Now we’re into pricing. This requires a little bit of thought.

a) Click Worldwide rights.

b) Choose the 70% royalty rate if the book is your original creation. If it’s a collection of other out-of-copyright works, then click the 35% royalty rate.

c) Choose your prices. KDP gives you minimum prices. It’s up to you what you choose, but some advice first. If you have no audience, no public profile, no previously published works or reputation, setting a price at book store levels will work against you. Try setting a price of USD $3.50, and click the boxes for the other territories saying “Set price automatically based on US price.”

8. Done that? At the bottom is a little box you need to check saying you’ve read the Terms and Conditions. Click it and press Save & Publish.

9. Well done! You think you’ve published your book. Not quite. First Amazon needs to check that you’re not publishing porn or anything illegal. If all is well, within 24 hours you’ll receive an email telling you that your book is now available for sale. You’re a published author! Brilliant. That’s the end, right. Right? Well, it could be. Or it could be time for…

Step four – Marketing your book

1. First we need to understand “marketing”. If you think it means “advertising” you need to read this. If you know what it means properly you can skip forward.

2. Marketing is about making your product visible, attractive, interesting, desirable and of forming a connection with your potential audience and purchaser. Advertising is a part of that, of course. If it helps, imagine you’re in a physical market, surrounded by market stalls, each selling foods and clothes and consumer goods. There are hundreds of them. How do you know which stalls even exist? Which stall do you choose? Do you even know what you’re there to buy? Now consider it from the market stall holder’s point of view. You’re selling clothes, but everyone else is selling similar clothes. How do you make yours stand out? Even worse, your stall is stuck down in a corner behind 100 other stalls. This is where marketing comes in.

3. First you need people to be aware of your product. We do through that different forms of advertising. This can mean using Twitter, Google+ or Facebook, or through more advanced measures like having our books reviewed in magazines or by well known new book blogs.

4. So people have followed the direction signs and are looking at your stall (your book). Now you need to create and maintain their interest. This is where the product description and the cover image help. People are a sucker for a pretty picture. That’s not cynical, it’s just true. Many decisions to buy a book are based on the cover. But they also want a book that’s suitable for them. If it says “scifi” on the cover, you’ll hook the scifi fans and lose the romantic fiction fans. That’s fine. Know your audience and market to them. The book description you put into KDP when you were creating your book helps here. What else helps? Well they’re on your page, and they’ll want to read reviews to see what other people though. Never underestimate the power of social recommendation. It is not acceptable to write your own reviews. But you do need 1 or 2 to start you. Go back to the friends who read your book and ask them to write a quick review.

5. By the way, we’re following the classic marketing model called AIDA here. It would be worth your while reading the Wikipedia page about it.

6. You have their awareness, you’ve grabbed their interest, and you’ve created some desire. Now you need them to commit and buy. Price is important here. Your readers need to feel they’re not risking too much money for what is still an unknown quantity. But you don’t want to appear cheap either. That’s why we’ve set the book at USD$3, above minimum but not greedy. I’m no marketing expert, so from here on in I advise using a search engine to look up ideas on marketing your self published book.

7. A final comment. Be prepared for the amount of work marketing needs. You need a presence on Twitter where you’ll find a large community of indie authors. You need to advertise it constantly – one tweet on Twitter won’t do it. One post on Google+ won’t don’t do it. It needs several per day over the course of several months. It needs time and commitment if you want it to sell.

That’s it. Well done, you’re finally a published author. You’ve taken your first step into a wider world. I promised to include details on CreateSpace and publishing to printed books. That information will appear here in the next couple of weeks when I have some spare time, so check back in early February.

If you have any tips to share or want this blog post updated with extra information, then please leave a comment below, and I’ll look into editing and improving it.

Debut novel launches on Kindle and paperback

Today is a proud day! Today I finally published my debut novel All Fall Down, the first book in the planetfall series.

I started this book (originally just called “planetfall”) in September 2007, and finished the final final final final final final draft in August 2012.

Writing my first novel has been one of the most rewarding and satisfying experiences of my life. Let’s not beat around the bush: it is hard to write a novel. If it looks easy to anyone, if it looks like it’s just scribbling a few words down when inspiration strikes, then I can only suggest looking harder.

Writing a novel is hard work. At every sentence on every page in every chapter across the whole book, you have to bear in mind how it affects every other sentence on every other page in every other chapter across the whole book. You have to invent people and their lives and hopes and contradictions and life histories and families and let them live inside you and interact with each other. There are rooms to describe, worlds to invent, references to embed, colours and sounds and smells to be aware of. And all of this – for most of us who write – against the background of going to a normal day job, shopping, cleaning the house, trying to have a life, pay the bills and keep up with our own reading and watching movies and so on.

There are harder things, to be sure. Bringing up children is no doubt harder and more rewarding. But that’s not to dismiss the dedication needed to create a book and the world and people and stories inside it. It is akin to a child being created. And like all children, it must at some point be let go to fend for itself.

And so to my debut novel. Planetfall: All Fall Down, my first novel, is now available on Kindle and paperback. There are links in my store, or follow one of the links in the text above.

Good luck with your own writing projects. And if you have a minute available, please visit the Kindle page and “like” the book, even if you don’t download it. I’m told if it reaches 50 likes, that it will be promoted on Amazon’s new books email to thousands of customers. Thank you.

The Dark Knight… sinks, badly.

Last night I went to see The Dark Knight Rises at the BFI IMAX in Waterloo, London. I hated it.

I started my writing career by writing film, book and music reviews for the BBC Collective website (see portfolio). It takes a very different approach to writing than does fiction, but it shares enough in common. You need a point and you need structure. And the whole thing has to flow. I learned a lot by writing reviews. And after watching The Dark Knight Rises, or rather, enduring it, I came out so upset by the film’s failures that I wanted to write a film review again, for the first time in 6 years.

But a tirade of negativity just isn’t me. What’s the point in raving at walls? And then I thought… What if something positive could come out of it instead? What if rather than just slating it, we could learn from it? So let’s do that. Let’s break down the film and find out why it was rubbish, and how any writer can learn to avoid the same mistakes.

[Note: contains spoilers. But then who cares, there was so little tension in this film – indeed one friend fell asleep watching it – and it’s so crap, that I don’t care if this is full of spoilers. Batman falls in love with Catwoman and they live happily ever after at the end. There’s your first spoiler. You don’t believe it, do you?, because it’s so unlikely given the first two films. But it’s true. The last shot is the two of them acting young and free in Florence. What a crock of shit.]

A. The story

This has to be where it starts, with the story.  I’ll recap and then break down why it doesn’t work.

Bruce Wayne has lived in exile for eight years. Batman has not been seen since Two Face died, and is accused of his murder.

Bane, a hulk of a man who wears a mask over his face kidnaps a nuclear physicist and then disappears for ages.

A board member of Wayne Enterprises wants to take over the company. He steals Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints, and has Bane place most of Bruce Wayne’s money on the stock market in a lot of dodgy deals. Bruce is penniless, his body broken, his will to be Batman at a low. The board member is then primed to take over the company. Except Bruce asks another board member, Miranda, to stop him. Apparently she does, though we don’t see any of this. It just happens, as if by magic. Then the evil board member is killed by Bane. Just like that.

Bane steals a fusion reactor that promises clean energy for everyone. He turns it into a neutron bomb. And then does not much with it for a while. Batman comes back for a bit. Bane faces off against Batman, and defeats him after a minor punch up. We jump to somewhere unspecified (somewhere in the Middle East by the looks of it) where Bruce is put into a dark pit. We are told there is no escape from this pit, and that only one person has ever done it. We are repeatedly told that it was Bane who escaped. Bruce has his back stretched, does a few sit ups, and then escapes. And somehow, without money or a passport, gets back to America. Oh and into Gotham, which has been closed off to everyone. But we’re not shown that. Perhaps it’s by magic?

Batman tackles Bane, who ends up dead. The bomb is still around somewhere. Miranda turns out to be the baddie, and runs off with the neutron bomb. Batman stops her vehicle, she dies. The characters stand around for a bit while the neutron bomb counts down to some supposedly tension-inducing final couple of seconds. And then stand around a bit more, snogging. Because you’d do that. Eventually Batman flies the bomb out over the sea, where it blows up in a big mushroom cloud. Everyone is saved, and some children look at the mushroom cloud and don’t appear to be upset by it. Bruce Wayne hooks up with Catwoman (oh yeah, Catwoman’s in this. But don’t worry, she’s not a character, just a plot device, so you missed nothing from the story synopsis). The end.

And, er, that’s it.

What’s wrong with the story?

What I described above is a sequence of events. Batman and Bruce Wayne are no more. Someone wants to blow up the city. Batman comes back and defeats them. Fine. The basic structure is there: a character has fallen low, there is a great threat, the character has to overcome their own limitations before they tackle the great threat. The character is triumphant. And so what? All stories do that. That doesn’t get you any points, for following Story Telling 101. So why does it fail as a story?

Let’s go into reverse a bit. “… the character has to overcome their own limitations…” Let’s start there, with some:

B. Character motivation

Your characters need a motivation, a reason to be doing something. Let’s go through the main characters and see what their motivations are:

Bruce Wayne / Batman

Bruce is bored and a recluse. He responds to a threat to Gotham because… because that’s what he does. Even he doesn’t really know. Then he keeps going because there’s a bomb that will kill people. There is none of the personal story of Bruce Wayne and his battle with his darker side here. It’s even exposed in the film. “You don’t fear death,” says one character. “That’s right,” Bruce may as well have replied, “I have no flaws. I do things because they’re right, I’m at peace with myself, and I’ll overcome these challenges after a bit of a rest.”

Bruce Wayne is perfect. He has no serious flaws any more. But that’s not what an audience needs. It wants a flawed hero. That’s what he is in the first two films. Flawed by the darkness inside him, flawed by his conflict with loving someone, flawed by his struggle with friendship. In this film he’s… Well, he’s come to terms with all of that. Even at the end when he hangs up his cape, it’s with no regret, no difficult parting, no tortured struggle within his being, his very soul. He just sods off to Italy, apparently now with some money (after losing everything in the film), and is very happy, thanks.

Where is Bruce Wayne’s struggle with his dark side? Where is his fight against adversity?

Bruce says to Alfred, “If Bane’s a hard nut, I’ll just be harder still. That’s what I always do.” And with that he completely undercuts any tension, any “will he / won’t he?” that might have followed. Bane captures Batman in Gotham, then suddenly we’re in the Middle East (I assume, there’s no explanation of how the characters get from Gotham to this mysterious place, they’re just there), and Bruce is put in a deep pit from which no one has ever escaped (* see Bane section below).

Bruce lies around for a bit, and we’re told that he’s going to have his soul tortured. That he will never escape, and will see his beloved Gotham destroyed. We don’t see any of this soul-torture. Bruce talks to Tom Conti, who does a bit of chiropracty on him, then he does some sit-ups, and is much better. And that point arrives where he could become flawed again, where the internal conflict could come back and make things interesting.

“You do not fear death,” says a handy character. “To escape, you must.”

At that point it could have become interesting – plunge back into the fear he spent so long escaping. Bruce climbs a wall to escape the pit, and he has to take a leap of faith. Which on his 3rd attempt, he does, and he makes it. At no point does the struggle look difficult for him. And this climb out of a pit into the light is supposed to be juxtaposed with his fall from perfection. Darkness should re-enter his soul, the ultimate irony: he should fear death and mortality just as he emerges into the light. And does it? No. He’s magically back in Gotham, and fights and defeats the baddies.

Let’s summarise the character journey here: he’s happy with the world, he has no flaws, he does things because they’re right, he’s captured, he has to become afraid (not face his fears), he escapes from a pit with no real challenge, and then wins. No struggle, no tension, no valedictory triumph. Where is the “Dark” Knight? This is a “Shining” Knight.

Writers: Learning point number 1: your hero needs to be flawed, they need to go on a journey and overcome a great challenge within. That challenge can be externalised – in Star Wars, Luke must face Vader, not just his greatest fear, but later, we learn, his father. Luke must face his own fears and strike down his own father. Now that’s a journey to go on. In this film Bruce has to be… perfect. “I’ll be harder still,” says Bruce and lo – it came to pass, as we knew it would.

2. Bane

What’s Bane about? He’s the baddie, right? Oooh, scary big man.

Nothing, except that he looks cool and gives Tom Hardy a chance to create a bonkers character. Credit where credit is due – Tom Hardy is enigmatic on screen. And this is especially hard given that Bane hardly moves, you can’t see his face, and you can’t hear or make out half of what he says. There’s a physicality to Tom Hardy’s acting that draws you in. It’s just a shame it’s so wasted.

Bane is the baddie of the film, until he isn’t. He stomps around looking angry. He appears to have a plan. He wants to grab this fusion reactor and turn it into a bomb and kill everyone. Except he doesn’t want to kill everyone, he wants to free the people from their rich rulers and their legal oppressors (the police, upholding the rule of law). Except he wants to kill everyone, because the bomb can’t be defused. But he also wants to free everyone from their oppressors. But he’s killed the only man who can defuse the bomb, so everyone’s going to die. But he wants to free… Hang on a minute. Let’s skip this and get to the proper point.

What is Bane’s motivation? If he’s successful, what does he achieve?

Well, we’re never told. That’s right. Bane wants to free people (and kill them) for the purpose of… Um. Er. Nope, no reason is given.

He’s the film’s main antagonist. He’s set up as Batman’s nemesis. At one point, when he captures Batman, he says that he wants to make Batman suffer, that he is going to torture his soul. There isn’t really any reason given for this.

Both Bane and Batman are products of the mysterious League of Shadows. Batman left, discovering they were a bit mental. In the first film, where the conflict is really driven by Batman’s internal conflict (his dark side vs his desire for love and affection) we find the League of Shadows pop up in Liam Neeson, who wants to spread disorder and bring down Gotham’s rulers. There’s no real reason given there, either, and it’s the weakest part of the first film. But it wasn’t so important, because that story was about Batman and his struggle. The League of Shadows was incidental. It wasn’t the point of the story. It was the cause of some bad things happening (Arkham, the Scarecrow and so on) but it wasn’t the major plot device.

Here, well. Let’s leave it there for the moment. We’ll come back to it in a moment.

The other thing with Bane is that he’s just a monster. There’s nothing sympathetic about him. We learn that he’s a protector for the Miranda character when she was young. We’re encouraged to believe that he’s in love with her. But by the point we learn this, there’s no space left for sympathy for him – the misdirected lover, brought into a world of evil by his over-riding love for a woman? No. By the time we learn this, he’s a man in a mask who’s killed loads of people. We don’t like him, and he’s about to die. The opportunity to create a sympathetic monster has been lost. If we’d learned earlier that he was tortured, that he’d followed Miranda into the League of Shadows to continue protecting her, having been blinded by unrequited or promised love, we could be better terrified by his monstrousness. All of that intelligence and might, which could easily have been used as a force for good, channelled into anarchy and hatred. The conflict which lies within us all, the monster we could all have become, and so on. But instead he’s just a monster.

Let’s look at a different aspect of Bane: his face mask.

He wears a mask and characters keep asking why. “A-hah!” you think, “the mask will be important later.” And it is, so let’s find out why.

In story telling if a character in a story has a “thing” – a trick, a knack, something different – it has to be because it serves the story. Continuing with the comparison to Star Wars, Darth Vader is trapped inside his suit and breathing apparatus because it serves to remind us of a couple of things: one, that he is vulnerable, the suit keeps him alive; two, that he was once fully human but has become “more machine now than man” – we know that somewhere inside there is a human. This is underscored by Luke’s assertion that, “There is good in him.” It creates a tragic character. Terrifying to look at, but vulnerable, human, and in secret conflict. And three, because at the end Darth Vader chooses to sacrifice himself. He could survive after killing the Emperor, but he asks Luke to remove his face mask at the point when he needs it most. He completes his journey, his redemption, and sacrifices himself for the greater good. Darth Vader wears a mask – has a thing – because it serves the story.

Bane wears a mask, and people keep asking, “Why?”. We learn the reason behind it – it is some sort of pain control device. Fine, but what’s the point of it in the story? At the end, Batman aims to punch off Bane’s mask (despite the leads coming out of it which you could easily pull out… but let’s gloss over that). And he succeeds! Ah, so now we’ll have some struggle with Bane. Now Bane is in pain, and he’ll battle against his sudden weakness and still try to defeat Batman, driven on by his rage only. He will… Oh no, Batman has him defeated. But Miranda turns up and, with a knife plunged between Batman’s ribs (which he conveniently forgets about a few moments later), plugs Bane’s mask in again. This is where the purpose of Bane’s mask is revealed, the reason it’s important to the story. Let’s change characters to find out why.

3. Miranda

Just as Batman has Bane on the floor, mask compromised, Miranda turns up. She plunges a knife between Batman’s ribs (not sure how she got through is body armour, but let’s gloss over that…) and with Batman immobile, she painstakingly plugs in the two loose leads on Bane’s mask. The sort of job that takes 5 seconds, but we’re entering exposition time.

She spends three minutes explaining what’s actually been happening for the past 2.5 hours. Yes, instead of creating tension at the start, by setting up a goal for the bad people, something we want to avoid happening, it’s explained right at the end.

“Hi,” she may as well have said, “I’m actually the baddie. Surprise! So, you know that bomb and all the carnage that Bane’s been going on about? See how you never knew why he was doing it? It’s because of me. I’m the daughter of Liam Neeson’s character. What’s that? There would’ve been more tension if we’d learned this earlier? Oh shush now. Yes, so he was my father. Both me and Bane were in the League of Shadows, but Bane was kicked out, so fuck knows why he’s trying to carry on their work. And I was too, I think. I’m a bit vague on that, really. I mean, I was, but I don’t appear to know any martial arts or anything. But also, have I talked enough yet? No, let’s carry on a bit more then. Oh yes, Liam Neeson was my father. But he rejected me. So why am I carrying on his work of blowing up Gotham? Um, why do I need a reason? I just am. Ha ha ha! What? Blow up another city? But I want to blow up Gotham because. Well, there isn’t a because. I just do, OK? Have I talked enough yet? Still not? OK, let’s draw this out a bit longer. Yes, I just thought I’d free the people from the rich rulers, like Daddy wanted. Oh, I’ve no idea what I’ll do after that. That’s right, thanks for the reminder, I’ll blow them up. I mean free them. Blow them up. Oh dear, I’m just as confused as Bane on this one. But hey, guess what! Bane said that the bomb’s trigger had been given to an ordinary person. That was because the power to control one’s destiny has been taken from the ordinary people and placed into the hands of the rich. And I hate the rich rulers of Gotham, even though I’m one of them.  So guess what? As a very rich board member of Wayne Enterprises, I have the bomb trigger. That’s right. And I will explain away this contradiction by saying that “I’m a normal person, too.” And don’t point out how that means that the rich rulers are also normal people, because that completely undermines the point of removing the rich rulers. And stop asking why I want to remove the rich rulers. I DON’T NEED A REASON, OK? And I will free the people by killing them, and I don’t a reason for that either. Oh look, I’ve talked for three minutes. Now I’ll run away. Thanks.”

4. Bane (a slight return)

With your big baddie, you want there to be a struggle with the hero. In the ultimate fight, the baddie must almost win, until the hero finds that last ounce of strength, or makes that major internal breakthrough which allows them to rise up and defeat the baddie.

Here the resolution to the Bane/Batman fight is a Raiders of the Lost Ark lie. Catwoman turns up and shoots Bane mid-fight. We see him fly across the floor for about 0.25 seconds, and then – whoof! – we cut away and he’s never mentioned again. Talk about an anti-climax.

And what in the end was Bane’s motivation for killing so many people? We’re led to believe it was for the love of Miranda. Not that we see any compassion between them. At the end, when she runs away to get her precious bomb, she looks at him and says, “Goodbye old friend.” Ouch. Straight into the friend zone. What should have happened after was this:

BANE PAUSES

BANE

What did she just say?

BATMAN

Dude, she put you in the friend zone.

BANE

Bitch. I want my Blink 182 CDs back. BRB Batman. LOLZ!

BANE RUNS AFTER HER. THEY STRUGGLE OVER CONTROL OF THE BOMB. IT EXPLODES AND THEIR ANARCHY IS ULTIMATELY SELF DESTRUCTIVE.

That would’ve been interesting. But instead Bane doesn’t blink. He just tries to kill Batman, until Catwoman turns up – somehow knowing just where to find Batman – and shoots Bane dead, so ner! Is there a lingering camera shot over Bane, a remorseful comment like, “Love can blind even the best of us?” No, he flies across the floor, and before he even comes to a stop (or perhaps I blinked in that 0.2 seconds of screen time) we cut away and he’s never seen again.

Writers: the learning tips here are: even your monsters need a sympathetic side. A flawed bad person is just as interesting as a flawed good person. A “that could have been me in other circumstances.”  And if there is a terrific, final conflict between your baddie and hero, make sure of two things: a) don’t stop the conflict half way through to explain what’s been going on for the last 500 pages of your novel, filter in that exposition throughout your story, and b) let the baddie’s defeat be satisfying. Let the hero fight and be on the point of losing, but then find some hidden strength they didn’t realise they had. Oh, and if your monster has a trick, a knack, a thing like a breathing mask, don’t give it to them because it looks cool, make it serve the story. If it’s their weakpoint, make the hero struggle to reach it.

5. Catwoman

I wasn’t going to bother with anything on Catwoman, but she serves a useful point for writing. If you have a character, make sure there’s a reason they’re that character.

Catwoman serves one purpose only: so Batman can find Bane.

Now, any character can do that. It could’ve been a junkie, one of Bane’s crew who had a crisis of conscience, even a remote controlled bat-drone-camera flying down a tunnel. A device would have done it.

If you make the character apparently central to your plot, like Catwoman appears to be, give them some depth, some of their own conflict, and a compelling reason to be there. In this film Catwoman is completely one dimensional, until she experiences a very strange conversion near the end (or perhaps doesn’t, which I’ll explain in a sec).

Here, Catwoman is a thief, and unrepentant. That’s what she does. She sells out Batman for what she can get out of it. Her character is caught in a bizarre trajectory of committing larger and larger crimes, none of which she’s indicted for, so she can get a computer program to wipe her criminal record, so she can stop committing crimes. She’s not a tragic character, just a stupid one.

At the end, she is ready to flee the bomb. “You’re better than that,” says Batman. “I’m not,” she replies. Flip forward a few minutes, and with no hint of internal conflict, she turns up to kill Bane.

What a strange conversion. No hint of conflict at all. But then there’s the end. In the closing few shots, we see Bruce Wayne and Catwoman apparently in love, and carefree. There is no hint of this through the film (or if there is, it is poorly acted and represented on screen, and not developed), until right near the end when Catwoman kisses Batman for no good reason whatsoever. Then that end shot, of them carefree. Perhaps she hasn’t changed, perhaps she just smelled money on Bruce Wayne, and decided to steal him to end her life of crime? Or… Nah, that’s too deep.

6. Other characters

Commissioner Gordon spends most of the film in a hospital bed, looking relieved to be out of the film. At the end he has some action, but looks bored and confused.

A police man keeps turning up at the right place and the right time during the film. He serves no use to the story, except that at the end we find out he’s called Robin, and he discovers the Batcave. So, you know. Franchise. Oh, and he knows Batman is Bruce Wayne, because as a 10 year old child he worked it all out and everything, so there.

There’s a police commander who gets very confused. Bane has just killed lots of people at the stock exchange and driven off with live hostages. He’s hacked into the stock exchange, for what reason no one knows – but as it’s a stock exchange, you have to accept the risk that it could bring down the global economy. One of the minor characters even says so. And with this as a backdrop, what does he do? Send all of the police to catch Bane and halt the story 30 minutes in? Nope. Batman turns up, so he chases after Batman instead. You know, with Bane having killed everyone and potentially causing global economic collapse. Because that makes sense.

Alfred’s in it, and Michael Caine steals every scene he’s in. What a wonderful actor. Only Alfred leaves about 30 minutes in, when it all starts crumbling into a dreadful film (well done, Michael Caine). We leap from Alfred exhorting Bruce Wayne to wake up to himself, through a very weird edit, to the two of them suddenly shouting at each other on the stairs, and Alfred saying he’s leaving. Just like that. He turns up at the end to preside over Bruce Wayne’s grave stone and see Bruce in Florence, all loved up with Catwoman. Because happily ever after is what happens to Batman.

Writers: if you have a character in a story, make sure they’re there for a reason. Catwoman could easily have been a drone, a tracking device, a Star Trek guy in a red shirt. It was inflated to a lead role because… Because you need a lead female character who looks hot in a catsuit? Surely Christopher Nolan can leave that kind of scripting to Transformers? And if you have returning characters, like Commissioner Gordon, so well portrayed as a troubled, layered personality by Gary Oldman in the first two films, then give them the same role if you bring them back. If Gary Oldman was too busy to shoot the film, then don’t put the character in. Ask yourself as a writer: why is this character here? If it’s “so the bad guy can escape”, then make sure letting the bad guy escape is within the character’s normal behaviour – a second in command police commander who goes chasing Batman when there’s grand larceny, murder and kidnapping going on isn’t a good example of this.

C. Editing

The Dark Knight Rises falls prey to George Lucas disease, which is increasingly affecting Hollywood. Combat scenes are drawn out and receive long camera shots and a lot of screen time. Exposition and story telling are reduced to micro-scenes, savagely cut and presented on screen in a series of disruptive lurches. The flow of character development and story telling in this film is awful, and some of the editing cuts scenes so far back that they have no room to breathe. It’s almost like there’s an editorial decision of “ARGH! STORY! Get it off screen as quick as possible!”

There’s always a tension in writing. Writers often want long descriptive scenes – Umberto Eco does it particularly well – whereas audiences want to be entertained. But sacrificing story for the sake of explosions isn’t the way to do it. If your audience (has been forced to believe that it) needs some action every 36.7 seconds (or whatever), then use the action to push forward the story.

At one point we have a great opportunity for some deeper, darker character development, when Bruce Wayne is cast into a pit. Tom Conti turns up and starts helping him (we aren’t told why). The sequence is essentially reduced to a montage of training, and is all the worse for it. Important parts of Tom Conti’s role are chopped up and spliced throughout the rest of the film, when placed together in a slower, intense sequence, they could have given Bane and Miranda some real character depth. A love forged in the dark and shadows, become tragically twisted by the rejection of Miranda by her father. But no.

Writers: pace is important, of course it is. Heavy exposition scenes (“Let me just explain my master plan, Mister Bond,”) can feel forced. It takes practice, and it needs feedback from your audience. Go by what Kurt Vonnegut said: “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.” Don’t leave the important information out, and don’t leave it so late in the story that no one cares any more. And don’t compress your character development scenes as if they’re annoying. They may need editing for pace, but they don’t need sacrificing for explosions.

D. Some other things while I’m ranting

In the film, a Special Forces team turns up to help the people of Gotham. They are killed immediately. So why have them in? Useless.

Bruce Wayne walks with a stick in the first part of the film. We even see him get a device which goes over his knee to help him walk. Then he’s thrown into a pit, wearing just rags. And… he can climb walls and walk just fine, thanks. Um.

We’re set up to care about some characters, like Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). Near the end we see him struggling to escape a chamber being flooded and… Um. What happened to him? Apparently he escaped, because he pops up later, but otherwise, we don’t see his struggle to escape. He just gets to a ladder and looks a bit panicked.

Gotham is threatened with a neutron bomb. This is later confused with an atom bomb. The two things are different. A neutron bomb would kill all the people, but leave the buildings standing. They are banned by international agreement because their purpose is to specifically kill people, rather than destroy infrastructure to impede an enemy. I don’t want to get in a discussion about arms control, but the reason a neutron bomb is used in the film obviously had some relevance at some point. It’s never drawn out, though. Maybe this is what the League of Shadows wanted? To kill everyone in Gotham so they could take over the buildings. But then… how would they do that? Oh yes, it’s never explained, because Bane and Miranda have no reason for doing what they’re doing, other than that Liam Neeson tried to do it in the first Batman film. You know, you kinda want to send them back to How To Be A Bad Guy School and have a conversation with them:

TEACHER: So, Bane, Miranda, which of you wants to tell me what your plan is for Gotham?

BANE: We want to free the people.

MIRANDA: That’s right. And blow them up.

BANE: Oh yeah. Blow them up.

TEACHER: I’m sorry, kids, you can’t free them and blow them up. Try again.

MIRANDA: Free them, then.

TEACHER: Good, and how will you do that?

BANE: By giving them control of a bomb that will blow up anyway, regardless of what they do?

TEACHER: Let’s go back again. What is it about these people that shackles them?

BANE: Um, oppressors. The police.

TEACHER: Good. And what do the police do?

BANE: Put rapists and murderers and thieves in prison?

MIRANDA: We want to free them of the rich people, stupid.

BANE: Oh yeah. We want to kill the rich. Miranda, you’re pretty.

TEACHER: Let’s stay focused. Once you’ve freed the people of the rich people controlling them, what do you want to happen?

BANE: Um. We kill them?

TEACHER: Sigh.

MIRANDA: I want my daddy.

Writers: Final point. If you write a script like this and it gets made into a Hollywood blockbuster, then well done you. Enjoy your big house and gold-plated pension. But if you want to keep your audience and be respected in the longer term, don’t write a script like this. It’s fucking terrible.