Utopia Gone

utopia I was gutted to hear over the weekend that Channel 4 have decided not to re-commission Utopia, the mind-bendingly excellent sci-fi conspiracy thriller. From what I can tell the ratings just didn’t justify the expense, which is a damn shame.

If you missed it, Utopia was a blend of high art and low culture that merged comic books, international conspiracy, grimy horror and comedy along with an unbelievably vivid visual aesthetic that was utterly captivating. It was bold, scary, funny and bonkers, with great character, dialogue and plot. It was, in short, one of the best examples of genre TV to come out of this decade.

Which explains why the concept has been picked up by no less a director than David Fincher, who will apparently be remaking the series for American telly and helming the lot himself. That the cancellation announcement comes hot on the heels of that announcement is a double blow, though. I’m a huge Fincher fan and I’m sure he’ll do a good job, but the original is so quintessentially British and bonkers that I can’t imagine it’ll be as good as the original.

When the remake was announced with some fanfare, I had thought that it might be good news for the UK version; that the publicity and kudos that came with Fincher’s name (especially with Gone Girl riding so high in the charts) might be enough to overcome the poor figures for season two and get a third series commissioned, but that appears not to be the case

One of the things that was so good about Utopia was that alongside a very distinct look and feel, it took a pretty interesting stance on its cast, with an excellent gender balance and a good ethnic mix that made it much more believable, grounding it in a reality that really allowed the more surreal elements of the plot to go where they needed to without untethering it from reality.

I was watching the first series while I was writing the second draft of the book and it really hit home to me just how lazy it is to populate your story with a predominantly white male cast. Quite aside from the fact that representation matters, it really closes off some interesting areas your story can go. Utopia had some very traditionally male archetypes played by women and made much more interesting as a result, and vice versa. It had POC main characters whose race didn’t define their characters absolutely, but who were very real. Throughout its cast it played with convention, made layered and interesting characters and became so much more engrossing as a result.

By adhering to a more realistic view of the world Utopia became more than just another genre offering, and it’s this approach that has me completely reassessing the characters in my own story to see how much of this approach I can bring to my own work.

So goodbye Utopia, you mad bastard of a show. Cheers for the inspiration.

Breaking the back of it

Another fruitful day today in this week of writing, despite (or maybe because of) my little boy being a bit under the weather today. He had to miss nursery, but all he wants to do is sit on the sofa under a blanket watching Power Rangers, so I've been able to put in a fairly hefty shift so far, sat next to him on the sofa trying to block out the intolerable noise. I've been continuing to work on my third draft. More accurately I've been doing the neccesary leg work to start it. It's worth noting that I'm a 'pantser,' which is to say that when I sit down with my first blank page I have no idea where I'm going, who the characters are going to be, or even what kind of book I'm going to be writing. I fly by the seat of my pants. It's an incredibly freeing way to write. I freewheel my first draft, and then if it's any good I can use the second draft to completely rewrite it in a way which means I'm no longer embarrased to show people.

That's the theory, anyway. To be honest this is the furthest I've ever gotten in the process. My second draft reads pretty well, I think, but then I thought I would go through it with a fine toothcomb to see if there's things I'd like to change about it. I started a spreadsheet where I could take my three unique timelines and plot them out to see if they all match up. I created a chapter synopsis to see whether my different arcs all get enough focus, and last of all I started a full character log.

The reason for the character log is twofold. Firstly, I want to make sure that my characters are real people, developed in a way that makes my reader want to spend time with them (or run a mile in some cases) but also, I consciously want to make sure I'm addressing the gender balance as well as the ethnic and sexual balance. I'm a middle aged white guy, and while I may think my book has a pretty decent balance of women and POC, going through the book in this way points out just how wrong I am.

You know the old saying that men believe that women are dominating the argument when they contribute around 25%, well looks like my natural biases bear that out. And while I'm trying to write an apocalyptic tale set in modern Britain, I have precisely one black character, one Polish character and zero people of non-hetero sexual denomination. To put that in context, there are 50 white guys, ranging from two main characters to people barely mentioned. It's not at all reflective of the world I want to write about, so I'm going to try and fix it. I'm always amazed when people don't look at this; quite aside from the fact that it's good to give people representation in the media, why on earth would you limit the appeal of your story to only 35% of the population?

This tooth-combing has probably been the worst part of this whole process so far, but having finished trawling chapter 26 this afternoon I'm glad I've done it. If I hadn't I wouldn't have realised that two of the story arcs are a whole week longer than the third, and that in fact I have a fourth and fifth story arc of incidental characters that cross each of my three main arcs and who miraculously seem to be in two or even three places at once. To put it another way, I have a monster of a to-do list now.

Writing a novel for the first time is definitely a steep learning curve, and there's so many different lessons that you learn along the way. This has definitely been one of the most important for me so far; sure I want to fly by the seat of my pants, but that doesn't mean I can't keep a trace of my route as I go. Next time I sit down with a blank piece of paper, it'll be accompanied with a hefty spreadsheet.