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THE TRANSGRESSIONS CYCLE
3-book series of supernatural gothic horror. Published by Simon & Schuster. August 2015.

Monday
Aug242015

Developing new TV in Tasmania

An extraordinary few days in Tasmania recently as showrunner Vicki Madden and I worked with emerging TV writers in an intensive workshop on the business and craft of  television. The workshop funded by Screen Tasmania, and dubbed ‘The Masters’ Apprentices’, is the first stage in a development program that will see four writers selected to come into the writers room with Vicki and I on our new drama series. There was no shortage of talent and enthusiasm, and Tasmania itself is the richest story-setting location in Australia - no where else in the country has such a mix of landscape, dark history and diverse society as Tassie. It’s a writer’s gold mine!

My new book, The Mothers (released in just 6 days time) is set in Tasmania and it certainly won’t be the last time I set a  story there for either page or screen.

Friday
Jul242015

The New Gothic at the Melbourne Writers Festival

The 2015 amazing Melbourne Writers Festival​ program has been announced and I’ll be showing up to speak on ‘The New Gothic’, discussing the Pleasure of Terror with renowned short story writer, Kelly Link​; Why gothic is back – or why it never went away. Kelly and I will be in conversation with Meg Mundell at the ACMI ‘Cube’ 31st August. 

The event coincides with the release of my new supernatural horror book series, The Transgressions Cycle. Very much hope to see you there!

Saturday
Jul112015

Monsters and Madness: Horror Story Cause and Effect.

Recently the Queensland Writers Centre ask me to pen some thoughts on my writing process, particularly in regard to my new supernatural gothic series, The Transgressions Cycle. How does a writer explain the process by which they create stories that scare them as much as the reader? Is it all just staring into the darkness, or is there a strange kind of logical cause-and-effect to bulding a scary story?

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into an abyss, the abyss looks back at you.” - Fredrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil 

 When I was in the 5th grade I wrote a story for my school class about a Knight who goes into a dark Forrest to fight a demon. He narrates the story in the first person but at the end of the story he dies and it is revealed to the reader that the Knight was dead all along and that he is trapped in a nightmare watching himself fail to defeat the monster, and destined to repeat that failure over and over. 

My teacher made me re-write it. She said it was ‘wrong’… When I asked how a story I made up could be ‘wrong’ she replied - “how can someone who is dead tell their own story?”

It was only in later life that I found myself bewildered at how a teacher, of all people, could be so detached from classical metaphoric mythology, or so ill-read in the classics of gothic literature..? Good thing my 10 year old ego was too big to let the first dumb critic deter me.

Yet the truth was that I was very much afraid of the demons I felt compelled to write about. The monsters of Greek myth, fused with a healthy dose of western-Catholic guilt,  had formed themselves into very personal spectres that gave me shivers when I wrote them into being… And yet it was exactly that sensation that I lusted after every time I put pen to paper. Every writer should be afraid of their creations…  

The Transgressions Cycle is 3-book series of supernatural horror. Each book is a self contained novel but the collection is linked tightly together by concept, imagery and shared themes of madness, mystery and redemption. People running from their sins, their personal demons and from themselves. Broken figures who must confront haunting spectres, monsters and manifestations of a dark past that compel them toward restoration. Characters caught in labyrinths of memory, shadow and regret manifesting as minotaurs to hunt them in the dark.

The above quote from Nietzsche sets out the heart of all three stories - and perhaps for me as a writer. I’ve printed it and stuck it to the wall of my office as a creative linchpin. The monsters come from within…  the scariest demon is that which is personally tailored to You, that drives your own transgressions in hideous form and from which you cannot escape. Yet, like Pandora’s box, once all the chaos and evils are released, Hope still remains at the bottom of the container. This is horror but it is not nihilism.

The second book of the Transgressions Cycle is entitled ‘The Scrimshaw Marionette’ and it builds on metaphoric imagery that has long haunted me.  

 This is a story that began with a photograph of a doll.

For me as a writer imagery is almost always the key origin point. I can’t write a story until I know how it ends and knowing how it ends means knowing what the last image is - what is the final thing the audience ‘sees’ (be it literally in cinematic form, or mentally in literary form).

The process of developing the story, breaking down its plot and characters into beat-sheets and outlines is a process for me of finding all the key images that build the story like storyboard cells.

The image that triggered The Scrimshaw Marionette was one shown to me by curator Penny Edwell of the Australian National Maritime Museum. I had been working with the ANMM on a immersive narrative exhibition experience when she showed me a very creepy object. A hand-made doll carved of whale bone ivory and made by a whaling sailor more than a century ago. The doll was simple but held such emotional weight - a hand-crafted gift, carved at sea by a sailor for his child. It was beautiful yet haunting. Its darkly uncanny face and rough features made it tortured in some strange way, the pain of the whale being slaughtered somehow imbued into the dolls limbs. And most of all, it was the physicality if it - delicate and brittle and yet carved from the bones of an ocean leviathan, a creature so massive is dwarfed the ships that hunted it.

So the writer in me began to think, asking the question that build the causality of story. A doll must have an owner and such an owner would be a child… But a child who knows more than they should know and who can sense and see more than they should see. A child who has been broken and wronged. A changeling. The emotional weight of the whale bone somehow empowering the spirit of the little girl who treasures it as her only comfort in the darkness.

And from this comes the idea of a Marionette. It’s not just a type of puppet, it’s a wonderfully delicate and antiquated word, yet one that is loaded as metaphor for control and manipulation. 

And finally there comes the Scrimshaw itself - an ancient craft of carving designs and images into ivory. Most Scrimshaw from whalers depicted images of whaling itself - the ships they sailed and the whales they fought. This was the cinema of the ocean hunt, vivid and alive on the bones of the slaughtered giants of the sea.

All this imagery of carved whale bone marionette dolls intertwined with the spirit of a changeling child generated a vision that scared me and gave me that shiver I was so eager to evoke - a doll possessed by a broken child that puppeteers the living by invisible strings and drags them into the sea… 

So, I now had a demon monster but this doesn’t make for a story until there was someone to struggle against that monster. Such a demon could haunt anyone, but randomness is the least effective horror story technique. The big question to ask is “who should be the most afraid of the scrimshaw marionette…?” Who deserves to be haunted? Who has transgressed in such a way that the Marionette appears to be a personally tailored demon?

This is how I found my protagonist - William. Guilt-ridden, depressed, addicted. A broken man, but not one out of reach of redemption. A man who could and should be a loving father. But a man who might soon fail that test.  

But characters do not live in a nowhere place, the demand to know what is the physical space of their story - the environment, the location, the topography, climate and architecture. And of course When? What time-frame provides the right collision of forces for the story, the right energy and tone?

For The Scrimshaw Marionette the object itself dictated the place as much as the concept of the monster.  Hence the story is set on a remote southern whaling station, a craggy rock in the Tasman sea where the whalers hunt the migrating southern right whales from shore in longboats.

The decidedly cinematic imagery of such places - the scale of the ocean beasts hauled to slaughter, the brutal weather that breeds hard men - was self evident.  But for the full effect of haunted remoteness to impact on an audience they need to experience it as an outsider, a new arrival, a stranger in a strange land who is cast upon a place they do not, and cannot, comprehend. 

So my protagonist William needed to be an outsider - a man who knows nothing of whaling and from whom such a place is an anathema to everything he knew before. 

Of course, this presents a narrative problem-solving challenge with questions that need answering - What could compel a man to go to such a place? And Who is the opposite of a remote island whaler? Clearly a man born and bread in the crowded confines of a city is the antithesis to one living on a cold remote island. So, What would drive such a man to leave the city and go to such a place where he is so much a fish out of water? There are perhaps many answers but the one that gave me narrative momentum, was the Great Depression.

As economic collapse grinds the city to a pulp of poverty and despair, William is compelled to leave and find work wherever he can… A remote island whaling station where few wish to go provides the only answer for Will and, perhaps his only chance of redemption.

Storytelling is, in many ways, problem solving. The cause and effect chain is crucial and it’s assembly is a construction of creative logic as it is of imagination. The story of The Scrimshaw Marionette was built from a photo of a doll, to the creation of a demon, to a character forced to go to the end of the earth where a collision with that demon is inevitable.

And as William gets lost in the nightmares of the labyrinthine whaling station, caught between past and present, he should beware that “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into an abyss, the abyss looks back at you….”


Tuesday
Jun232015

Putting the Audience in the Story

Interactive narrative – stories where the audience has some level of agency to influence, effect, control, manipulate, or progress the story – presents a very deep bucket of creative potential.

But interactivity is also a broad spectrum. A 3D, open-world, video game might provide a great deal of agency, where as a tablet-based interactive graphic novel might allow for only limited or specific agency. Yet both (and anything in between) still make the audience active and demand that they participate in order to progress the story.

This idea of agency in an interactive narrative is predicated on a role for the audience to play and the most engaging role play actions come from active verbs – to fight, find, assemble, help, escape, create, and so on. In many ways this is no different to creating active protagonists in a book or film where a person trying to do something is much more interesting than a person passively having stuff done to them. But for any such role play action to be effective for an audience as ‘player’ the action must be tempered with motivation & reward. The audience needs to be motivated to play the role and they need to be rewarded for doing so. Action, motivation and reward are the foundations of any good interactive story.

But what is also important – though perhaps less obvious – is how we position the audience within the story, and how their position relates to playable action. This is a problem I’ve been wrestling with on a daily basis over the past year as I produce a series of adapted interactive projects for studios in the US – studios whose development language stems from cinema, not from game play. So to break it down I began to frame writers’ room meetings around four types of audience position – Progressive, Reflective, Parallel & Extraneous…

Read the rest of the post here at Queensland Writers Centre. I’ll be in Brisbane 18-19 July to deliver a workshop and masterclass program entitled, ‘The Adaptive Writer: Storyworld Design and Writing Across Platforms’. 

Monday
Jun152015

SUPANOVA!

Supanova Pop Culture Expo is about to land in Sydney and I’ll be there Friday 19th June to talk about writing page, screen and intercative stories, and building storyworlds. Along the way I’ll be sharing some insights on being a cross-platform writer, working with studios in the US and developing successful local SpecFic projects like Wastelander Panda. 

Program Blurb reads:
“In this exclusive workshop for Supanova, writer and creative producer Mike Jones will introduce participants to a grounded framework for expanding their writing opportunities, explore some of the trials and tribulations of being a working writer, and focus on high concept genres of Fantasy, Science Fiction and the Supernatural.”

Hope to see you there!

Monday
Jun152015

Byron Bay Writers Festival 

There’s a lot of great writers festival events on the calendar but few offer the appeal of superb location as much as the Byron Bay Writers Festival/ And, as if the idilic setting wasn’t enough to get me up there to be part of it, the line-up of internationally regarded writers and events makes the BBWF every bit as compelling as any of the major city festivals. 

With my new three-book series, The Transgressions Cyclereleased in August the timing is perfect for me to make an appearance in Byron Bay and talk all things writing, multiplatform, genre and gothic.

Over the course of the August festival I’ll be speaking at three separate events, starting off with a masterclass workshop entitled ‘Storyworld and Adaptations Across Platforms’. This session will look at a process of defining stories as multiplatform storyworlds and narrative engines that can generate ongoing stories for page, screen and interactive media.

As the festival proper kicks off I’ll be appearing at an event entitled ‘Narrative Futures’ where, with popular film critic and broadcaster Marc Fennell (That Movie Guy), I’ll be discussing working in digital, interactive and cross-platform media. Then to finish off the festival triptych I’ll be sharing the stage with, among others, eminent Australian screenwriter Andrew Knight to talk about adapting stories form page to screen (and beyond)

Screen adaptations are a bit of a hot topic at the moment. A high profile event at this years ‪Vivid Festival in Sydney identified that a very low percentage of Australian screen productions are adaptions, and focused on forging better partnerships between publishers and producers.

And certainly adaptations are a dominant part of my own work… I’ve spent the past 18months working on developing interactive adaptations for studios in the US, whilst also adapting my own book series as both TV and interactive experience with multiplatform studio The Project Factory. In addition, I’m currently working with showrunner Vicki Madden on a new TV series drama entitled ‘Shrewsbury’ which is itself loosely adapted from Shakespeare’s ‘Henry IV’; and I’ve been working with Deadhouse Films on a game-film adaptation of ‪‎horror‬ first-person game ABSENTION. 

So, needless to say, the processes of developing adaptations has been very much at the front of my head and I’m much looking forward to being part of this discussion in Byron Bay.

The BBWF, is a superb festival and I hope to see you there. Come and say Hi.

Saturday
Jun132015

Dark Mofo and The Kettering Incident

A deeply suspenseful, supernatural mystery drama set in one of the most unnervingly beautiful parts of the world… ‘The Kettering Incident’ premiered its first two episodes last week to a sold-out crowd at Hobart’s Odeon Theatre and launched Dark Mofo Film Festival.

It’s been a long road for this extraordinary production. Veteran TV writer Vicki Madden created the kind of show that Australia should, but almost never makes. In her opening speech Vicki wryly observed that many broadcasters talk about making ‘brave and bold’ TV drama but are rarely actually either brave or bold… ‘The Kettering Incident’ is a genuine demonstration of both qualities.

From the early writers-room sessions testing all manner of plot avenues, through to long discussions of folklore, myth and supernatural traditions, it has been a honour and privilege to work with Vicki and producer Vincent Sheehan on this gig. And hopefully it is a production that opens the door of possibility for all Australian screenwriters.

  

Stay tuned for the broadcast premiere on Foxtel, coming soon……

Friday
Jun052015

Genre: East, West and Authentic

“we have to distinguish between something that’s part of the essence of the genre and things that are merely characteristic of it.” Neil Gaiman leads a fascinating discussion of Narrative Genre with Kazuo Ishiguro and touches on all manner of topics - from porn to sword fights. Genre is obviously a topic very near to both my passions and my work and this interview circles a rich discussion that merges the pragmatic with the creative - between genre as a toolkit and genre as audience contract.  

The conversation Gaiman and Ishiguro have regarding the difference between western and eastern sword fights is particularly interesting. I’ve spent the last few weeks working intently on a slate of live-action VR and interactive projects that are derived from Gothic and Supernatural Horror ideas, but are set in China and Korea, attempting to draw upon Eastern cultural customs and traditions when it comes to things like Ghosts, Death Rituals and Dark Magic. 

As a result, a story I had originally perceived as centred on loneliness and isolation - the aspirational manor house on the moors that had fallen from grace and was haunted by an aggrieved ancestor - fell flat in a Korean context where family aspiration is more likely to covet the lavish inner-city apartment than the house in the country. So, resetting the story into a haunted, ultra-modern, penthouse apartment in Seoul took the story in different spatial dimensions and narrative mechanics. A haunted ‘smart-home’, a house of perfection on the outside, but with a dark past embedded in the walls and wiring…

The bottom line, which certainly comes out in the interview with Gaiman and Ishiguro, is that for writers all the trappings of genre are secondary to the balance between Authenticity and Emotional Consistency. A genre story needs to feel authentic, that it is honouring the genre, understands and loves the patterns and ideas and themes the genre embodies, is honestly aware of the tradition in which it sits. At the same time the genre - no matter how it is dressed up or down - must deliver on the feeling-states the audience expect. When I choose to read, watch or play a genre story I have signed up to particular emotional expectations; SciFi, Horror, Fantasy all promise to make me feel a ‘certain way’. Too often I see genre stories that are all tropes and trappings but fail to deliver on these two simple ideas - Authenticity and Emotional Expectations. Without those, you’re just paying lip-service to the genre, not genuinely immersing your story in it.

Be sure to read the whole article, its a gold mine of great insight. In particular I felt deeply affected by the story Neil Gaiman tells of going to the first Chinese State-Sponsored SciFi convention… 

“I took aside one of the Party organisers, and said, “OK. Why are you now in 2007 endorsing a science-fiction convention?” And his reply was that the Party had been concerned that while China historically has been a culture of magical and radical invention, right now, they weren’t inventing things. They were making things incredibly well but they weren’t inventing. And they’d gone to America and interviewed the people at Google and Apple and Microsoft, and talked to the inventors, and discovered that in each case, when young, they’d read science fiction. That was why the Chinese had decided that they were going to officially now approve of science fiction and fantasy.

 

Tuesday
May262015

Talking art, craft and passion in genre cinema

Is Genre the Universal Language? Audio podcast of panel session I hosted at the 2014 Screen Producers Australia conference (ScreenForever) is now available. Joining me on stage where three eminent producers and directors - Roy Lee (The Ring, The Grudge, Bates Motel) Michael Rymer (American Horror Story, Battlestar Galactica, Hannibal) & Chris Brown (Daybreak’s, Bait, The Railwayman).

It was a great discussion offering genuine insight on both creative and commercial elements of development & production of Horror, SciFi and Fantasy films. You can listen to the full discussion here.

“Genre films are understood universally – and make up the greatest proportion of the top films at the yearly box office. A genre film can dissolve cultural and language barriers at film markets all over the world. They attract audiences and have the most commercial appeal in the international marketplace. However creatively they are often misunderstood. 

While some of global Hollywood’s great masters of cinema are acknowledged for their classic genre work (Ford, Capra, Scott, Scorsese) – or for transcending genre with high concept work in these categories – the commercial success of genre tends to position most films to play to the lowest common denominator.

Genre films provide globally recognisable plots, characters and settings, but they also involve a complex layering of psychology and thematic, compelling and enduring characters – and an intense sense of place – all packaged with ironic flourishes and kinetic energy.

This session will unravel some of the challenges of staying true to a genre and to your audience. It’s this combination of elements that makes producing genre films fascinating. Panelists will discuss their approach to the highly creative aspects of genre filmmaking.

In today’s challenging environment of rapidly changing consumer habits, producers are also recalibrating approaches to releasing and marketing a genre film. While genre films are known for their box office clout many do also fail – what are the pitfalls? How easy are they to finance? Panelists will also discuss their experiences of setting up and producing a genre film compared to their work in drama”

Speakers:

Roy Lee - Producer, Vertigo Entertainment US

Michael Rymer – Producer/Writer/Director – Astral Pictures

Chris Brown – Producer, Pictures In Paradise

Mike Jones – Head of Story Development, Portal Entertainment, UK

Sunday
May032015

WebiPod - WebSeries Development Program

Over the next few months I’m going to be showing up all over the place to talk about writing and run a series of masterclasses and development programs for writers and producers working across platforms and genres. 

The Melbourne and Byron Bay writer’s festivals, Supernova, the Queensland Writer’s Centre, Storycode Sydney and PlatformX with the Australian Writer’s Guild are just some of the events I have locked in through June, July and Aug.  

And in the middle of these is the very exciting WebiPod with ScreenACT in Canberra.  

WebiPod is the latest in a long line of intensive development programs run by ScreenACT focused on generating new and innovative works by writers and producers. In July I’ll be running WebiPod centred on the creation of WebSeries and OnlineTV projects; a program that will blend writer-centric processes for episodic storytelling and storyworld building, with audience and business model thinking. 

The days of the Youtube amateur free-for-all are gone. As the distinction between ‘broadcast’ and ‘online’ TV collapses, audiences are becoming increasingly demanding and broadcasters see the online space as a first-run environment for commissioning and developing programs. The rigour and discipline of storytelling for the online space has become more sophisticated. 

In WebiPod we’ll be exploring the spectrum of online-series forms - from indie stand-alone projects, to integrated cross-platform productions, to commissioned series for MCN’s (multi-channel-networks). And to meet the challenges of these opportunities we’ll be fleshing out a craft-centric process for shaping episodic stories and storyworld engines that can generate ongoing narratives. 

This link has all the information and how to book. Hope to see you there in July.