Hey guys! I’m still deep into my rewrites so no normal blog post this week. Instead, because everything is kind of terrible at the minute, I’m doing a short guide for surviving your common or garden period drama, for when we eventually get that whole time-travel/parallel universe-hopping thing sorted.
Always make sure you’re properly dressed. Every task requires its own special outfit, all of which are even frillier than the list. What do you mean, you don’t have your egg-coddling gown? What will the Marquess say??
Nighties must only ever be white and billowy.
Everything is lit by candles, which come in two varieties: romantic or spooky.
You can only trust certain kinds of aristocrat. Barons and Counts are highly suspicious. Earls are usually OK but can be bounders or cads – same goes for Dukes. Knights and Lords are generally a safe bet. If in doubt, check how many handkerchiefs they’re carrying: if it’s more than two and they’re all frilly, they will gamble away your childhood home and should not be trusted.
Never, ever cough – you’re a goner then. Swooning, however, is completely fine and never the sign of any underlying illness.
You can never be rude to your enemies, only your closest friends.
Girls: if you ever want to get out of a difficult situation with a gentleman, just yell “But think of my reputation!” He will be so paralysed by chivalry that you can escape.
Girls: do not rely on this reputation trick too often, or you won’t get to have any fun.
All laughter must be snooty, or a childlike giggle. There is no middle ground.
There are only two cities: London and Bath. Everywhere else is nebulous green pasture or – brace yourselves – The North.
If someone tells you they’re going to Scotland, you will never see them again.
Guys: do not starch your collars too much or wear them too high, or you’ll put your eye out when you turn your head.
GET YOURSELF A SWORD. Everyone needs one.
Should you feel the urge to pass yourself off as a mysterious thief and/or bandit, all you will need to do this is a cape and quite a small black mask. Don’t worry about being recognised, even if most of your face is still visible.
Half your social interactions will be tense conversations in ballrooms. Marriages are built on more than three.
Everyone wants to be rich. However, talking about money, working for money, showing that you have money or being rich but in the wrong way is vulgar and must be avoided at all costs.
If you feel the need to fight someone, you can’t punch them. You must slap them with a glove and duel them, at dawn. No, you cannot have a lie-in.
Always pay attention to letters that arrive in the third act.
If you’re a woman over twenty-five you are officially past it. Frankly, over twenty-two is pushing it.
Everything must be announced with the phrase “Such news!”
Friends! You may have noticed that everything is kind of terrible at the moment. We’re in the middle of a pandemic and everything has all gone a bit Day-After-Tomorrow-ish. I’m also in the middle of my next round of rewrites, so blog service is going to a bit patchy until I get those in.
But now that we’re all going to be stuck inside for a bit, I thought I’d share some of the tips and tricks I’ve picked up while I’ve been doing my rewrites, and helping other people do theirs. If any of you are planning to write a novel to take your mind off everything, you might find some of this helpful.
You need it! I learned this the hard way because when I’m writing a manuscript, I typically don’t write in chapters. I just barf it all out onto the page, sometimes throwing asterisks in there willy-nilly to break up the sections. I told my agent this when I first handed in the manuscript and she nearly cried.
But while you can pull off not having chapters if you’re very good (see also: Terry Pratchett) your story does have to have a coherent shape about it. Think of it as being like a song: when you see the music written down on the page, there are no gaps, but when you’re actually performing your singer is going to need places where they can breathe. Stories are the same. Most people don’t read all in one go, so you’re going to want to put in some places where they can easily put the book down without losing the thread.
Here’s how I force my formless mess of words into an actual shape. I start off by looking at the overall structure of my story. To use a random example: say I was writing about a team of crooks who had fourteen days to pull off a heist. I might choose to break that into fourteen sections, one for each day.
Of course, if you already write in chapters then well done you! Have a cookie, you’ve made your editor’s life a lot easier. But your chapters all have to have a certain mini-structure of their own as well. They need to establish things about your characters and help them progress through the plot, and if they aren’t doing that you might be better off cutting them. And they, of course, need to fit into the overall structure of the book itself. You should be able to take out any one of your chapters at random, read it blind, and know roughly where in the story it came from, based on the progression of your characters, establishment of setting, pacing, and any number of other details which I’m choosing not to list because I’m tired. If a chapter from the beginning of the book reads the same in terms of pace, setting, character and prose as a chapter from the end, you’re doing something wrong.
One of the best pieces of writing advice I have ever received is this: every single scene and every single character in your novel should serve a purpose. If it doesn’t, cut it.
You might think that this is harsh. Well, maybe it is, a bit. But if you’re rewriting your own work you might need to be a little ruthless. Think about how people read these days: not many of us actually have time to sit down and devote a whole quiet, peaceful afternoon to a good book. (This is a crime, of course, and when I am elected Queen of Everything I will be fixing this immediately.) A lot of people read in snatches, or in public, and there’s any number of distractions around. If a reader feels like your novel isn’t moving forward, or has a bit too much padding, they might let themselves be distracted.
Here’s how I applied this to my rewrites. I went through my manuscript and listed every scene in it. Then I went through the list and underneath each scene, without reading them through again, I wrote down what I thought the purpose of the scene was. If I couldn’t work it out in thirty seconds or less, that scene got cut. This was also really helpful in factoring in my editor’s notes, because I could use this list to work out exactly where I needed to add extra scenes that they’d requested. The result was a draft where every scene moved the plot forward and a much more streamlined manuscript.
“But Jo!” you cry, “what am I to do with all my brilliant prose? Is it to be lost forever?” Well, friend, that is where your cutting doc comes in.
This is something I got from writing Twitter and it’s dead useful. If you find yourself cutting large chunks of your MS, or lines you’re very attached to, start a new doc and paste them in there. That way the bits you like aren’t lost forever, and if you’re particularly attached to a phrase it’s easier to slip it back into your manuscript in a scene that might be a better home for it.
They’re not just for eight-grade book reports, D&D.
Think about what you want to say with your book. Think about how you want to say it. Is there anything you want to make your readers think about? If you’re aiming to become a famous author, because we all dream of being the next JKR deep down, you should think about these things because this is what your readers might end up asking you. You don’t want to sit around making goldfish faces every time you’re asked a question.
This is something that there isn’t really an easy fix for. I don’t have any tips and tricks for this one because all you really have to do is sit and think, but it’s too important to leave out. But a good starting point is always how you’re trying to make people feel, and who or what you want them to focus those feelings on.
And those are my tips and tricks for how to approach your rewrites! Hopefully some of you find them useful. If you’ve got something you’re considering sending out to an agent, this might help you in the redrafting process – or if you just want to get better for your own satisfaction, then that’s fine too.
And now I’m going back into my rewrites fort. It’s got blankets.
So! As many of you know, in my day job I am an editor. I work in genre fiction and spend most of my time working on novels, whether that’s getting them off to press or actually editing a manuscript. I haven’t talked about my day job on my blog all that much because I do that at work like, all the time.
But it occurs to me that many of you might actually be quite interested in this kind of thing. If you’re an aspiring author, knowing how books get made is really helpful as it gives you a clear idea of what to expect. If you’re an aspiring editor, great! This is what you’ll be doing all day.
Ladies, gentlemen, and all the beautiful people in between: this is how you do a book.
The first step of the process. You’re an author, you’ve written a manuscript, and you think it’s ready to be published. Great! Well done for getting to this point, a lot of people don’t make it this far. But now you’ve got to go through the acquisitions process, which is what it’s called when your manuscript gets sent around the publishers to see if anyone wants to buy it.
If you have an agent, this is going to be a lot easier for you. A good agent should’ve talked about where your book would sit in the market, and maybe done a couple of edits that helped you resolve any plot issues, or bring it closer to the audience you’re trying to reach. They’ll already have contacts with editors and will be able to give them a proper sales pitch, and negotiate the details of the contract with you. If you don’t have an agent, you can still do all of this yourself, but it’ll be a lot harder, as most of the bigger publishing companies won’t look at anything that doesn’t come from an agent unless there’s exceptional circumstances.
The editor will read your manuscript and, if they like it, they’ll take it to their acquisitions meeting. This is where it’ll be discussed with other editors and people from sales, marketing and publicity departments. They’ll talk about the kind of audience they’re expecting you to reach, whether it should be hardback or paperback, how much publicity they’d want to put behind it, and what kind of return on their investment they’d expect. Your book won’t be the only book that gets talked about here: people will want to know about how similar books have done, as sales figures for those other books will demonstrate whether there’s an appetite for your story.
If it goes well, then great! A publishing house will make you (and your agent, if you have one) an offer. This is where the contract negotiation would begin. You or your agent would negotiate the level of advance, the nature of the royalty rate, and the number of books on the contract, if it’s for a series. When that’s all been agreed, then congratulations: you are officially signed as an author.
This is the real nitty-gritty of it. When the acquisition has been completed, the editor will receive the full manuscript (unless they asked for changes during the acquisitions process, which can happen) and the editing process will begin. This is also when your publication date would get set too, and it’s usually going to be about eighteen months from the date of signing the contract (yes, we really do need that much time).
There are four main stages to the editing process:
Structural edit: The first round, which tends to look at bigger stuff. Any big plot problems, worldbuilding issues, or character development should get ironed out at this stage. Your editor is going to be thinking about the shape of the story as a whole here, and will likely discuss the biggest changes with you at this stage.
Line edit: This focuses on how you write the story, so your editor will be looking at your prose in some detail. It’s not about grammar, really, but about whether your sentences make sense and whether they’re conveying the emotion you need them to. It’s where you get arty, basically.
Copyedit: This is about grammar. A copyeditor is usually a freelancer who will go through your manuscript looking at the nuts and bolts of it. Are your sentences all grammatically correct? Does one character’s hair colour change halfway through the manuscript? Did they use a typewriter in 1890? This is what a copyeditor will be checking for.
Proofread: Slightly separate from the editing process, because this happens after your manuscript has been typeset (i.e. laid out ready for printing). A proofreader will be focussing on grammar, but mainly looking for typos etc. instead of sentence structure. They’ll also be looking for any layout errors, so it’s a little more design-ey than the other stages of the process.
Once these four steps have been completed, you’ll have the final text. Publishing houses can do these stages a little differently: sometimes a structural edit and a line edit might be rolled into one, for example. How much time all of this takes is going to depend on a hugely different number of things, including what’s going on at the publisher, what’s going on with you, and various external sales deadlines that need to be met.
There’s two important things to remember: you should expect to be edited, but you don’t have to agree with all of your editor’s changes. Nobody is good enough to churn out a perfect first draft, and if you are precious about making amends to your manuscript you could find it much harder to sell your second book. However, that doesn’t mean you have to accept everything your editor says. If they propose a change you strongly disagree with, you can and should argue your case – it is your book, after all. If you can’t understand why they suggested the changes, do ask, and remember that a good relationship with your editor is going to make your life a lot easier. At the editing stage, they are going to be the people all the sales, publicity and marketing people ask questions of, and you don’t want them saying that you aren’t good to work with.
This often happens at the same time as the editing process, but I’ve put it after the editing section because I’m an editor and I’m biased. Here’s how your book will actually be designed.
First off: your editor will draw up a cover brief and hand it to the designer. This will make reference to other covers of similar books and maybe also some feedback from the marketing and publicity departments. People do judge a book by its cover, and they want to make sure it gets to the audience who are most likely to buy it.
Your designer will then draw up some roughs, which will be discussed internally. Any special finishes will also get discussed at this stage too. You likely won’t get to see the first roughs stage, unless you have a good relationship with your editor and you ask very nicely. The cover roughs will be discussed with marketing and publicity departments, as well as with the editor, and when they’ve chosen one it’ll get sent to you for a first look before it gets sent out anywhere. If you have any feedback, you’d give it at this point, but bear in mind that your editor is going to have to juggle a lot of different opinions as well as your own and not all the changes you want might be possible to make. When this is all finished it’s called your sales cover, and will start showing up on retail sites. You can usually expect this to be ready about nine months before your pub date.
Once the cover is sorted, and once the manuscript is ready to be typeset, your interiors will get designed too. This is done with reference to the cover, so that it all feels like a cohesive package. If you have any special styles in your interiors, those would be sorted at this stage (like text that is supposed to be styled like a newspaper extract, for example), but any graphics that would need to be included (for example, a map right at the beginning) would need to be started earlier. As with the sales cover, you’d get to look at the interiors before they got printed too.
Once the interiors are underway, the full cover gets briefed into the designer. This would include any quotes that go on the front cover and all the text included on the spine and back cover. Your cover finishes would be finalised at this point too, including foil, sprayed edges, and anything else that might make the book look fancy. As with everything else, you’d get to look at this before it went anywhere. This and the interiors for the final book would usually be ready about three months before your pub date, sometimes earlier depending on format.
The one thing that you have to remember with covers is this: always, always, always check with your editor before sharing them. Cover reveals are a huge part of the publicity efforts for upcoming books, and these get set up well in advance with magazines and popular blogs. If you leak your cover early, you can undermine all of this, which is going to put a real dent in your publicity campaign. That said, you can definitely drum up some enthusiasm by tweeting ‘OMG guys I’ve just seen my cover it goes live on Friday and it’s gorgeous’, which everyone is going to appreciate.
Marketing and Publicity
This can really vary depending on the book. Sometimes, it starts at acquisition, when the publicity department will make an official announcement that a book has been acquired. Sometimes, it starts much later in the process. It gets discussed from the very beginning of the process, but as an author, you might not start hearing about it until much later down the line.
I’m going to be focusing on the marketing and publicity stuff you’d get before a book comes out, because I’m an editor and we have no concept of object permanence: once a book is published it is finished and therefore gone forever. However, this is very much something that would continue after publication, I’m just not as familiar with it.
Let’s go ahead and define some stuff. Marketing is something that a publisher would pay for, publicity is something that a publisher would expect to get for free. So for example, the announcement that your book had been acquired, if your publisher decided to put this out with a newspaper, would count as publicity, because you wouldn’t expect to pay a journalist to write that story. However any advertising campaigns would count as marketing, because a publisher would have to pay people to rent the advertising space.
There’s all sorts of stuff a publisher might do on the marketing and publicity side of things:
ARCs: Advance Reader Copies. These are early editions of the books, printed about six to nine months before the pub date. Usually you would use the line edited or copyedited version of the manuscript to make these, and they’d get sent to journalists, reviewers and bloggers to see if anyone will give a quote that can go on the final edition.
Paid advertising: Think Amazon banners, Tube advertising, enormous billboards, and advertorials. Your editor might be involved in these, but only in the capacity of checking that nothing’s been misspelled before they get printed.
Samplers: Like ARCs, but smaller. Usually just containing the first chapter, or another really good bit from the beginning of the book.
Promotional freebies: Badges! Bookmarks! Tarot cards! Sweets! Anything that can be shoved into an envelope when your book gets sent out to reviewers, basically.
Reviews: Every author’s favourite thing/worst nightmare. These aren’t paid, so you know they’re genuine, which can be something of a double-edged sword.
Social media campaigns: A vast, vast umbrella covering everything from blog tours to book trailers to Instagram campaigns.
I have by no means covered everything that a marketing and publicity department will do for an author: there is so much to choose from that it was actually quite hard to narrow it down. Publicists work really hard for their authors, often as unpaid overtime, as a lot of publicity events like conventions, launch parties etc. will happen at evenings or weekends. Much like with your editor, one of the best things you can do as an author is to develop a good relationship with your publicist. The easiest way to do that is to work with them. As an author, it’s easy to retreat into the solitary nature of writing, but if you are prepared to show up, put in the work and do it all with good grace that’s going to go a very long way.
And there you have it! That is how books get made, and how you as an author can expect to be involved in the process. It’s a lot of work and it doesn’t stop there. Marketing and publicity efforts will continue once a book is published. Your publisher might decide to put a new cover on the paperback edition of your book. And of course, once a book is published it gets sold in by the sales team, who will approach booksellers and retailers and persuade them to place orders – another thing that can start much earlier in the process, as increasingly sales reps want to set up their orders earlier and earlier. I have by no means covered every role within a publishing company (and I will have to apologise to my colleagues for that on Monday, if they read this).
But hopefully this has allowed you, curious reader, to understand what goes on before a book actually comes into being. It’s a very long process that usually ends up taking the best part of two years, sometimes longer. But now you know what usually happens, that might make all that waiting a little bit easier.
Now you know what to expect, what are you waiting for? Get on and write that book!
Time for another book recipe! This one’s on how to write a police procedural so it’s going to be very gritty and full of ‘orrible murders. Let’s get started!
One grizzled, hard-bitten detective with a plethora of issues
An attractive young woman who definitely won’t be murdered, what no
A lab to send things to
A superior officer who is only ever seen behind a desk
One very mucky-looking city
A suspicious person who the reader knows couldn’t have done it because they’re the first one on the list
A really suspicious person who just sort of hangs about being a red herring
An even more suspicious person with a personal connection to the detective
Someone to rescue at the end
It is raining in your mucky-looking city. Ta-dah! Your scene is set.
Oh no a beautiful young woman has been murdered who could’ve seen this coming
Introduce your detective. Make it clear that he’s super cynical by never, ever allowing him to shave, shower, or eat a green vegetable.
Investigate the murder. Oh boy, A Clue! Send it to the lab.
Introduce suspect number one. They’re never the murderer, but they’re arrested anyway, for Drama.
The Clue you found earlier has revealed an important thing. Your superior officer tells you that it’s not important. Blindly focus on it.
Uh-oh, here’s suspect number two! Oh boy, how complicated.
The lab results have come back and they completely exonerate suspect number one, how about that? Who could’ve seen this coming, what a surprise
The detective drives around in the rain for a bit and mopes about his personal life. It is always very bad.
But what’s this? Another Clue! Send it to the lab.
Introduce suspect number three, who has a personal connection to the detective. Sure would be terrible if they turned out to be the murderer.
Your superior officer yells at you for not fixing crime fast enough.
Oh boy, another Clue! Send it to the lab.
The Clues seem to point to suspect number two, but our grizzled detective’s Spidey-sense is tingling and he knows that they didn’t do the murder.
Mope, in a bar.
Suspect number two is charged with the ’orrible murder but our detective keeps on digging. Have a veiled conversation with suspect number three.
The superior officer calls in the detective for some yelling. TURN IN YOUR BADGE
Investigate on your own, as a dangerous maverick! A loose cannon! A – oh wait, you’ve found the murderer. It’s suspect number three, in a SHOCKING TWIST
Confront them! You might want to agonise for a bit about turning in your neighbour/friend/cousin/favourite pet fish, but luckily, it’s all made a lot simpler when they end up holding someone hostage.
Arrest them and get reinstated onto the force, but in a surly way so everyone knows you’re still very dark and broody.
THE END. Serve gloomy and covered in wet cigarette ash.
Your detective must have a dark and terrible secret that haunts them to this very day. Substance abuse is always popular, but so is a dead relative/partner/significant other. So much trauma to choose from!
Nobody has a happy home life. Nobody.
Your superior officer is either a corrupt career politician or an even-more-grizzled cop who’s two days away from retirement. Guess which one’s going to die!
No sunshine, please, this is a serious novel. Rain and fog only.
If your detective ever actually meets a lab technician, they must always, always, interrupt them and say “Speak English,” when the technician is explaining stuff.
Always make sure to add something quirky to your murder. It’s not enough to have someone shot, that’s been done before. But shot, and then ritually shoved into a chicken costume – now that’s a hook.
Spice things up a bit by having your detective flirt with a hot murder suspect. It’s sexy because someone died.
And here’s one I made earlier…
Detective Sergeant Brett Stone slumped over his desk and sighed. He’d never had a case like this one. The rain hammered on his office window as he ran his fingers through his hair and went over the facts one more time.
The victim: up-and-coming model, Lola DeMise. Twenty-three years old, tall, blond, gorgeous, and very dead. She had been found in her luxury penthouse apartment, dressed only in a fur coat, fluffy socks and a replica of Tutankhamun’s death mask. Mushrooms had been growing on her bedside table, and she had been surrounded by pages torn out of a Russian dictionary, on which some select words had been circled: they were a list of groceries, with or is it tacked onto the end.
This gave him absolutely no clues whatsoever.
The outfit was obvious: Lola’s latest spread had been Vogue’s famous ‘fluffy socks and fur coats’ issue, and she was well-known for her collection of replicas of Ancient Egyptian artefacts. She’d been learning Russian and mushrooms were her favourite food. There was a logical reason for everything to be in her apartment, but there had to be a clue in there somewhere.
He stroked his stubbly chin, thoughtfully. Against his better judgement, his eyes strayed down to the bottom drawer of his desk. A little of the white stuff might help him think… What was he thinking? He was working on a murder case. This was no time to – but surely one wouldn’t hurt. One little packet couldn’t hurt anyone. He might even work better with it, even though the crash would be terrible.
He caved, yanked open the drawer and scrabbled for the nearest packet. The door banged open and Stone yelped, spilling sherbet everywhere.
“He’s arrived, sir,” said the constable. “Ooh, is that a Dib Dab?”
Stone crammed the empty packet into the bin, shaking powdered sugar off his clothes and avoiding the constable’s eyes. “No.”
Stone pushed past the constable and stalked off to the interview room, still jittery. He flipped through the files as he walked, just to have something to do with his hands. His first suspect was Simon Hoag, the victim’s old university housemate. He had been found with a matching Tutankhamun mask, a suspiciously bloody knife and a scrapbook filled with pictures of Lola, most of which seemed to have been taken from inside various bushes. Stone closed the file. It probably wasn’t going to be a very long interview.
Hoag was a thin, nervous young man with glasses and a glazed expression. He barely looked up when Stone came in.
“Well, kid,” said Stone, “I guess you know why you’re here.”
Hoag said nothing.
“We found the knife, you know,” he prompted.
Hoag looked up. “What knife?”
Stone slid a photograph across the table. It showed a very long, sharp knife covered in blood, and Hoag relaxed the moment he saw it.
“Oh, that,” he said. “That’s just my kitchen knife. I was cutting vegetables the other day and my hand slipped.” He pointed to a plaster on one finger to prove it.
“Awful lot of blood to come from such a little cut. And then there’s the scrapbook. You sure did take a lot of pictures of Lola.”
“Well, I was making it for her birthday.”
“From up a tree?”
“Yeah. It was an inside joke we had.”
Stone shifted in his chair. “And I suppose you can explain the matching masks.”
“Oh yeah. It was a whole thing between us. Here, let me show you.”
Hoag pulled out his phone and opened up Instagram. He scrolled for a minute or two, then showed Stone a picture of two people in Tutankhamun masks making peace signs at the camera. The caption read, “Twinsies!!!”
Stone shuffled some papers, really wishing his sugar high hadn’t been interrupted. “If you could just wait here a moment.”
He left the room and legged it down to the forensics department. After some very complicated techno-babble which he only understood three words of (“the”, “when” and “cardiovascular” – he really had needed that sugar hit), the lab technicians confirmed that the blood on the knife was not Lola’s, and that the two people in the photo were, in fact, twinsies.
Stone drove home in a daze. Hoag would be released without being charged, now that all the evidence completely and definitely exonerated him. He felt stupid for ever having suspected him now, even if there had been something off about that scrapbook. But if Hoag hadn’t killed Lola, then who had?
He parked his car and went into his kitchen, where his housemate, Edward Gresley, was leafing through a magazine on Ancient Egypt as he ate his dinner. He nodded to Stone when he came in, but Stone just waved and went straight to the bathroom. He’d been living with Ed for years now, and in all that time they had become the very best of bestest friends. Stone didn’t know what he’d do without him. Once he’d freshened up, there’d be time for a nice long chat about his day with his bestest pal Ed, and then everything would be all right, because Ed would never, ever, ever do anything to upset or inconvenience anyone in literally any way imaginable. Ed was great, he thought.
Stone went into the bathroom and lifted up the toilet lid. In the bowl was a very sharp knife, floating in some slightly pinkish water.
Stone stuck his head round the door. “Hey, Ed! You dropped your knife down the toilet again! Honestly, what are you like?”
Ed briefly choked on his spaghetti, and then grinned. “Yeah. Dropped it.”
Stone laughed. “Classic Ed.”
My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.
Let’s face it, everything is pretty terrible at the moment. The planet is on fire, various governments are in meltdown, the far right is on the rise and certain people with access to nukes are flirting with the idea of World War Three. Sometimes you just wish you could get away from it all.
But where to go? Fiction offers a world of alternative…well, worlds for you to choose from. Pick carefully, though. It’s all fun and games reading about the Red Wedding, but I can’t say I’m desperate for a seat at that particular table. Luckily for you guys, I’ve scouted ahead, so that when the time comes to jump ship into another reality, you’ll at least know which ones to avoid.
I now present to you, dear reader, the absolutely definitive and final ranking of fictional universes to escape to, from best to worst. Bear this in mind if you ever find a wormhole.
Let’s be real, I wasn’t going to put anything else in the top spot. Discworld would be the perfect place to live. It’s got the right balance of narrative causality and personal freedom, which means that it’d be convenient enough to stumble across relevant backstories but you wouldn’t get stuck as a trope for the rest of time. It evolves, it’s funny, it has a warmth to it that is never saccharine. Also, there’s a chance that I might end up as a wizard, where it would be my job to sit around, eat loads of really good food and never do any actual magic and/or work. The dream.
The Invisible Library
For those of you that haven’t read this series: oh my God, what are you doing. The Invisible Library is great – it’s a series about Librarians working for an organisation that straddles multiple different universes and it really does have everything. Dragons, Fae, armour-plated alligators, books, and an unreasonably large amount of fancy parties. A decent knowledge of how stories work and an awareness of what you promise is really all you need to prosper, and if you don’t like the world you’re in you can always visit another one. There’s only two reasons why it didn’t get the top spot: a) there is a very real risk that as a puny human, I would get crushed by the Fae or the dragons and b) my skin might get stolen and I’m not up for that, I need it. Other than that, sign me up.
His Dark Materials
Give me my delightful animal friend. I’ve done the quizzes, I know my daemon would be a cat, now give it to me so I can sit about in Jordan College drinking tea.
Once upon a time, this would’ve been the top spot. However, it’s important to remember that while I would absolutely clean up at the Hogwarts feasts, there is no power on Earth that could drag me back to high school. I want to do magic, don’t get me wrong, but I also don’t want to have to lie to all of my non-magical friends. Also, don’t tell me wizards can’t fix climate change, I know they can.
All the good bits of the Medieval period with none of the plague, dismemberment and raw sewage in the streets, although I maintain that the most interesting bit is the Wood Between the Worlds. Not my first choice, but there’s something appealing about the idea that if you went to Narnia and were basically just a decent person, it’d all turn out okay for you in the end. Marked down for religious moralising and the very unfortunate racial implications, though.
Sherlock Holmes’s London
I’m being a bit cheeky by putting this on the list as it’s so close to the real world, but it’s my blog and I’ll cry if I want to. I think living in Sherlock Holmes’s London is about the closest I’ll get to being named the sole recipient of large and somehow sinister bequests, or being a famous jewel thief, so that’s mainly why it’s on here. Also, as I live in London I would at least know my way around. Major downside is that I would either have to commit crimes or have crimes committed against me. I’d definitely choose the former, as all of Holmes’s deductions seem to rely on making wild assumptions, so I reckon if I left behind deliberately confusing clues (a single peacock feather, a Russian dictionary, or a single bloodstained glove) I’d be able to give myself a decent headstart while he puzzled those out.
All of the good bits of the Medieval period, plus several marauding hordes of orcs, goblins, and the MASSIVE SPIDERS in Mirkwood forest. Only the hobbits seem to have a good time, and not once the plot really gets going. I’d visit but I wouldn’t want to stay there, mainly because I wouldn’t get to do any magic and you know those elves are really patronising.
The Hunger Games
The only things that saved this from the bottom of the list is the food in the Capitol, which sounded really nice, and the cool outfits. Blood sports are not my thing and if I ever came up against Katniss, she’d snap me in half.
All the good bits of the Medieval period, plus all the bad bits, plus all the worst bits, and then with some added modern horrors just to give it that extra edge. I would get maimed within about five minutes.
About as bad as Westeros, but marginally more up-to-date and with more tentacles. Very racist, very gross, and laden with crushing despair. I’ll pass, thanks.
And there you have it! These are ten fictional universes which I have arbitrarily ranked from best to worst, based on how likely I’d be to survive and/or thrive. I’ve missed many out, and I have Opinions on many, many more. If anyone’s curious, feel free to ask, and if anyone thinks I’m wrong, feel free to make your case. I’ll be here, trying to work out whether I look good in a pointy hat. I’ve got to start packing eventually.
Time for the first book recipe of 2020! This one’s on zombie apocalypses (apocalypsi?) so get ready to shuffle along and groan.
One plucky band of survivors. Choose your own flavours from any of the following:
Hapless comedy bumbler
Woman who is still insanely hot despite the apocalypse
A delightfully cute child who your readers will want to push out the window after ten minutes
Idealistic doctor and/or scientist
A butt-ton of zombies, obviously
Buckets of blood and gore
A hackneyed moral about the human condition
A barrel full of extras who will die for the sake of DRAMA.
Set the scene with a smashed-up cityscape and our brave survivors sneaking around. Sure hope there aren’t any zombies here.
Oh no! Zombies!
Kill off your first supporting character.
Retreat back to the survivors’ hideout and introduce the rest of your characters. It’s so great that they’re all alive.
For plot reasons, the heroes must leave their very safe hideout. Suit up and get ready to go to the place where you will all definitely be safe, I promise.
Oh no! Zombies!
Your survivors manage to get away with only one extra being eaten, how nice. Reminisce about the pre-apocalypse world so the reader knows they should put down their mobile and go outside more.
Uh-oh! Looks like there’s some other survivors here, but bad ones. Hide from them so they don’t murder you extravagantly.
Aww, looks like two characters are starting to bond, despite the apocalypse. Isn’t that nice?
Oh no! Zombies!
The bigger and/or manlier character rescues the smaller and/or girlier character from the zombies. Yay! Relax, everybody, only three extras got eaten this time and our leads are fine.
But what’s this? The science character has been observing the zombies and has had an idea! Could it be A Cure, that will only come into play in step twenty?
Your plucky band of survivors is drawing close to the place where they’re totally going to be safe now, but it looks like there could be trouble up ahead.
Oh no! Zombies!
Time to kill off one of your core cast! It can be anyone apart from science character, the rescuer, or the rescuee, save those for the end.
Hooray! You’ve made it to the safe place! Settle in for a bit and meet some of your new survivor friends.
Some of these survivors seem kind of…murder-y.
Oh no! Your new friends have turned on you! Turns out the real monsters…were humans.
Fighting! It’s very bad, because this time it’s people, and maybe some of your core cast have betrayed you to join the newbies!
Emerge victorious, but not without the heroic death of either the rescuer or the rescuee. It’s very sad, but luckily your science character has found A Cure, hooray! This will definitely fix everything and tie up all outstanding plot points.
THE END. Serve covered in blood.
Zombies are always a metaphor for something. Make sure to spell it out so your reader knows that you are very, very smart.
You’ve always got to have at least one child zombie.
Society has completely collapsed, but your hot lady character has access to razors, shampoo, conditioner, and all kinds of makeup she might need. Everyone else looks like they’ve been through hell; she has one artfully placed smudge of dirt on her left cheek.
Make sure to include vivid descriptions of at least one very smashed-up landmark.
Choose your hideout well. It needs supplies and medicine, of course, but it’s also got to have an aesthetic. Make sure to leave one or more of the following objects lying around:
A discarded doll
A poster for something very innocent with a bloody handprint on it
A torn-up flag
A creepy music box that’s always playing
At least one character must die when trying to approach someone they don’t know has been turned into a zombie, and/or a loved one who is turning into a zombie. Such pathos.
Never, ever run out of ammo, unless it’s for plot reasons.
And here’s one I made earlier…
The survivors crept through the streets, making as little noise as possible. Abandoned cars sat rusting on the side of the road. Broken glass crunched beneath their feet. Doors swung open in the wind, and with every creak of hinges they all flinched and whirled around.
Cal did a quick head count. He was in the lead, shotgun in hand. Teagan stood behind him, one smudge of dirt on her cheek, her combat heels covered in dust. She was holding the hand of Li’l Annie, six years old and trailing a teddy bear in one hand. Behind them was Dr Muerta, staggering slightly, and his research assistant Janet, who was shuffling up the line, looking rather worried. Then came Rosa and Walt Daedmann, clutching each other tightly, and Vic and Tim, both of them armed at the rear of the column. There were only nine of them left now, and –
There was a spluttering noise and a soft thud, and the sounds of several people breaking into a run. And then, a groan.
Cal whirled around. Dr Muerta had dropped to his knees, his face drained of colour. Too late, Cal saw the bite mark on his shoulder. They’d got him.
“Vic, Tim, checkpoint A,” he muttered. They nodded and started running, leading the others away, and Cal walked up to Dr Muerta and shot him before the transformation could finish. So. Now there were only eight of them left, and –
There were a couple of screams from up ahead. “God damn it,” Cal muttered, and set off at a run. He soon found the source of the noise – Rosa and Walt, on the ground with two of the zombies hunched over them. They looked up as he approached, and began the moaning again.
Cal shot both the zombies in the head, and then did the same to Rosa and Walt: those wounds weren’t going to heal, and when they got back up again they wouldn’t be Rosa and Walt any more. He headed for checkpoint A, praying that nothing had happened to Teagan and Li’l Annie.
Checkpoint A had once been a school. He skidded to a halt just inside the main doors and saw them all standing there – bruised, but not bloodied. Teagan and Li’l Annie ran up to him, Li’l Annie throwing her arms around one of his legs.
“Mister Cal!” Li’l Annie squealed, “I thoughted you were all eated up!”
He ruffled her hair, making sure that Teagan could see how brave and stoic he was being. “Not today, kiddo.”
“Not ever!” Li’l Annie insisted. “Those mean ol’ zombies aren’t awwowed to eat up my fwiends!”
“I’ll make sure to tell them, kiddo.”
Teagan flashed him a smile and then, they went about securing the school. Only one room was safe enough to use: a classroom on the first floor with a good vantage point and a heavy, lockable door. He and Tim raided the nurse’s office for medical supplies, and then the cafeteria, but they didn’t find much apart from toilet paper. The corridors were full of discarded toys – skateboards, dolls, and other plastic things that youths enjoy – and just looking at them made Cal shudder. He had been a youth once.
They settled in for the night, barricading themselves inside the classroom, covering the windows and making a small fire in the bin. They huddled around it, hunched into themselves. Vic and Tim were cleaning their shotguns, while Janet leafed through some papers she’d taken out of her bag. Li’l Annie had her head on Teagan’s lap, peeping out from the collar of Cal’s jacket.
“Whatcha got there, Janet?” Tim asked, throwing her a curious glance.
“Hmm?” she said, taking a pencil out from behind her ear. “Oh, just some notes. Dr Muerta had been studying the zombies. I think there’s a pattern here.”
“Why?” Li’l Annie piped up.
Janet put on her glasses. Oh shit, Cal thought, it’s about to get very serious now. “Looking at the data Dr Muerta collected,” she began, spreading her notes across the floor, “it seems as if there’s some kind of instinctual behaviours that the zombies are emulating. Speaking from a neuro-physical point of view, there must be some kind of bio-evolutionary response that causes a synaptic…”
Cal tuned out. He concentrated on making his jaw look as square as possible. Teagan was looking this way and firelight was always flattering.
“Gee, Dr Janet,” Li’l Annie interrupted, “you’re weal smart, huh? I wish I was as cwever as you.”
“Well, thank you, Annie.”
“It’s Wi’w Annie. Dr Janet? Where do zombies come from?”
The room went quiet. Janet took off her glasses, polished them, and put them back on, and that was how Cal knew he had to pay attention.
“Well, no-one’s really sure exactly how it started,” Janet explained. “It seems to be linked to some kind of electronic devices, although I don’t know what kind, as areas with poor electricity coverage didn’t get as badly hit as places were everybody was online. As far as Dr Muerta and I were able to tell, the outbreak started by changing the electrical signal in the brain, and rapidly evolved into something that could be transmissible through a bite.”
There was a distant moaning. It almost sounded like the word “Phooooonneeeesssss,” or perhaps it was just “Weshould’vegoneoutsidemoooorrreeeeee.” Cal shivered. Who knew what went on in the minds of zombies.
Li’l Annie took her thumb out of her mouth. “So you mean a mummy zombie and a daddy zombie don’t have to get mawwied?”
Cal and Teagan exchanged an adoring look. Li’l Annie was so cute.
Janet attempted a smile, but she looked vaguely disgusted. “I’m sure they could if they wanted to.”
“But Dr Janet,” said Li’l Annie, frowning adorably, “if mummy zombies and daddy zombies can want to get mawwied, why do we have to kill them? I want to get mawwied to Mr Teddy,” she said, brandishing her stuffed bear, “so doesn’t that mean that we’re samesies?”
“It’s not quite that simple. They want to eat us, Annie.”
“Wi’w Annie, thank you. I don’t understand, Dr Janet. If mummy zombies and daddy zombies can feel wove, how do you know they awen’t just like us – wiving, feewing things? If we wook at Maswow’s Hiewawchy of Needs, wove and bewonging is the third tier of the pywamid, which impwies that –”
“Don’t kids just say the cutest things?” said Teagan. “All right, Li’l Annie, time for bed.”
Li’l Annie put her thumb back in her mouth and closed her eyes. Teagan was right, Cal thought, kids do say the cutest things.
Janet leaned forward. “That’s not all I’ve discovered,” she whispered. “If, as I suspect, the original virus was triggered by an electrical signal in the brain, it should, in theory, be possible to reverse the polarity of the original signal and wipe the virus from existence. I’d need access to a generator, of course, and a signal tower, but if we can get all the equipment together we could at least twy. Sorry, try.”
For the first time in a long time, Cal felt a flicker of hope. Could it be possible to reverse the effects of the virus? What would happen if they succeeded? But he was getting ahead of himself, he thought. They still had to make it all the way to Pastor Grimwood’s Church of the Redeemed, and that was a week and a half’s hard journey on foot. Not to mention that there were only six of them left –
A horde of zombies burst through the door. Vic and Tim were closest, and were dragged backwards, screaming.
“God damn it,” Cal grumbled, and reached for his shotgun.
My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.
Hey there, friends! 2020 is now upon us and I kind of want to send it back already. But the new year is here, Christmas is done with and I have successfully aged, so it’s time to get back to blogging. I was going to start off the year with another Book Recipe blog post, but then I watched Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s adaptation of Dracula and all of those plans just went right out the window.
Here’s the thing: I love Dracula. I first read the book when I was thirteen and have been re-reading it ever since. I’ve seen a ton of other adaptations with varying levels of quality, and a lot of other stuff which uses the framework and/or characters of the original novel to go off in all kinds of weird directions. I was interested to see what this new adaptation would bring to the table, even if I was a bit wary given Moffat and Gatiss’s track record with some of their other shows.
Guys. I hated it.
And aren’t you all just so lucky that I’m going to talk about it in vast amount of detail?? You sure are. Spoiler warning: while the plot of the original novel is pretty widely known, I’d like to make it clear that when discussing both the book and this new series I will be scattering spoilers in my wake like confetti. The plot of the series is pretty different to the original novel, so readers beware.
Brace yourselves for my opinions, and a lot of screaming.
I’m going to give a quick overview of the series, plus the changes from the original book, just so everyone can have some context.
Episode One is the closest the show gets to the novel: we begin with Jonathan Harker recovering after his stay in Dracula’s castle, being interviewed by a couple of nuns. His story is recounted in flashback and it plays out along broadly the same lines as the first chunk of the novel, until the point where it’s revealed that Jonathan was turned into a vampire by Dracula and that one of the nuns interviewing him is his fiancé, Mina, who he no longer recognises. The other nun is Sister Agatha Van Helsing, who is studying Dracula and wants to work out why his limitations (sunlight, the sign of the cross, and needing to be invited in) are in place. Dracula turns up at the convent, chats with Sister Agatha for a bit, and eventually gets Jonathan to invite him in because Jonathan wants to kill himself after he tried to vampirically attack Mina. It does not go well for anybody in the convent, except for Dracula, who has a big meal and presumably a nice long nap afterwards.
Episode Two is based off the Count’s journey to England on the Demeter, and is essentially a locked-room mystery on a boat as the other passengers try and work out who is killing them one by one (no, it definitely couldn’t be the tall and sinister man who looks like a serial killer, dear me no). Sister Agatha is chatting to the Count in an unspecified location, and eventually realises that Dracula has brought her onto the boat and has been putting her in a trance while feeding on her. She gets out, almost getting lynched in the process, and the Count is revealed as the murderer, though not before killing a few more for the road. The crew work out that they can stop Dracula getting to England by pushing his earth boxes overboard, thereby depriving him of a place to stay in daylight, but of course they miss one and it all goes a bit pear-shaped. Sister Agatha blows up the ship and Dracula sinks, walking along the bottom of the sea until he gets to England, where it’s suddenly the modern day.
Episode Three is where it all goes a bit weird. Sister Agatha’s descendant, Zoe, is waiting for Dracula to take him into custody – she does it eventually but there are shenanigans in the process. She works for the Jonathan Harker Foundation, set up by Mina (who Dracula just let go at the end of Episode One, apparently she was fine) and Sister Agatha’s family with the goal of capturing and studying Dracula. However, Dracula gets out after five minutes because he has a lawyer?? And for some reason this top secret slightly shady organisation that employs mercenaries has to listen to lawyers instead of, I don’t know, just killing them. Dracula tries to bite Zoe but can’t, because she has cancer and her blood would kill him, and gives her a vial of his own blood which she then drinks and somehow this allows her to communicate with Sister Agatha??? Dracula starts up a relationship with Lucy Westenra and turns her into a vampire, but she’s cremated and has a breakdown when she realises she’ll be stuck in a horribly burned body for all eternity, and then Seward (who’s here now, and doesn’t really do anything apart from this next bit) kills her because she asks him to. Dracula and Zoe, who’s sort of possessed by Sister Agatha now, have their final showdown. Sister Zoetha, who both spent their lives trying to stop Dracula, reveals that actually his weaknesses aren’t real???? They’re all in his head????? And he only maintained those weaknesses because he wanted to die?????? Instead of jumping out of the window immediately and launching into a celebratory all-day buffet, Dracula realises that Sister Zoetha was right all along??????? Despite the fact that he took visible glee in being the evilest man that ever did evil. In his last act he bites Sister Zoetha, thereby poisoning himself and killing her (because of her incurable and deadly cancer) and sort of revealing that they were in love all along???????? Oh and also he and Sister Agatha banged in a weird trance state.
Go back and read the episode three recap again, I promise you that is what really happened.
So some of the changes made in this adaptation were interesting choices, and could’ve worked if they were handled a bit differently. I’m not against making changes for adaptations in the slightest: TV and film is a different medium to a novel, and what works on the page may not work on the screen. This is particularly true for something like Dracula, seeing as it was written over a hundred years ago – it’s got a lot of particularly Victorian baggage which might not sit well with a modern audience. Dracula’s view of his brides was pretty interesting (especially as Jonathan became one), Van Helsing getting turned into a nun was a bold choice and although it happened entirely off-screen, I really liked the idea of Mina setting up a foundation to capture and study Dracula in memory of her fiancé.
My God, it was bad.
While there were some questionable plot choices made, that wasn’t the only reason why I didn’t enjoy the series. For me, one of the biggest problems with Moffatula was the characters. This isn’t to say that I didn’t think it worked because the characters weren’t exactly the same as they were in the original novel: the characterisations in that had some pretty big issues there, too. The female characters in the original Dracula aren’t exactly fleshed out – they’re mostly just there to be pretty and get rescued, or to be pretty and die. In fact, most of the characters in the novel aren’t exactly well-developed. Among the original Crew of Light, the personalities of the men is broadly the same for each character, although this is largely due to the way that expectations of fiction have changed over the past hundred-odd years. A twenty-first century adaptation needs to address these issues.
However, Moffatula had a really weird attitude to its characters. Aside from the Count himself, every other character from the original novel wasn’t really treated as an interesting or original character in their own right. Jonathan Harker didn’t have a whole lot of personality, he was mostly there to be shell-shocked, but bravely so. Mina didn’t do anything apart from scream and cry, and all her cool parts – setting up a foundation that would last after her death to defeat Dracula, the man who killed her fiancé – weren’t even shown on-screen. Lucy was a selfie-obsessed twenty-something (#somodern) who, as the only woman of colour with a significant speaking part, came in for some very unfortunate treatment: presented as a vain and oversexed young woman, she is burned alive (well, undead) and her subsequent ENTIRELY REASONABLE BREAKDOWN is presented as her being shallow when she was literally SET ON ACTUAL FIRE – oh and then she gets killed by a white man when she asks her ex to stake her, an act which is presented as a) done out of love and b) for her own good. Seward, downgraded to a puppy-eyed med student, was lovestruck and drippy, and Quincey was every British person’s caricature of an obnoxious American, but dialled up to eleven (so actually not too far from the original, except OG Quincey was much nicer). Renfield was just Mark Gatiss, Gatiss-ing, and Holmwood wasn’t in it at all, the lucky bastard.
And this is all just the supporting cast.
Sister Agatha, aka. this adaptation’s version of Van Helsing, was easily the most interesting character, but even she didn’t really get the depth she deserved. She starts as a nun who’s devoted her life to studying Dracula, and openly admits that she doesn’t really believe in God, she just became a nun because she didn’t have a whole lot of career options in nineteenth-century Hungary. But this doesn’t really get explored in any detail, and aside from her family name we find out nothing else about her. Her faith in God is restored when she finds out Dracula is repelled by the cross, but then it kind of goes away again when he gets into the convent chapel and eats all the nuns anyway, and what I’m saying here is it just doesn’t get discussed after the end of episode one. With her scientific mindset, propensity for experimentation and slightly amoral attitude to other people, she’s essentially Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock in a habit. But all that goes out the window when in episode three, Sister Agatha and Dracula’s relationship gets reframed as a love story, even though they spent a ton of time trying to kill each other. Having literally blown herself and the ship she was standing on to smithereens in order to stop Dracula reaching England, she then decides that actually, it’s totally fine, and promptly tells him that the only things that could’ve stopped him committing mass murder weren’t actually stopping him at all, they were all in his head! Men, amirite?
Side note: What’s particularly frustrating for me is that this adaptation does that thing that a lot of Dracula adaptations do and has one actor playing both a character and their descendant several generations down the line, and they commit the cardinal sin of assuming that because they are played by the same actress, they are the same person. This is Zoe and Sister Agatha, with the caveat that Zoe has even less personality than Sister Agatha did. Come on, guys. Try harder.
And now we come to Dracula, and here’s what I have to say about him: he’s Moriarty, but with big teeth.
No, seriously. That’s genuinely all I have to say about him. This particular incarnation of Dracula felt like a rehash of Moffat and Gatiss’s more successful villain, with a dash of Hammer Horror thrown in. The stuff about Dracula secretly wanting to die wasn’t built up in episodes one and two at all, so the “reveal” in episode three felt like the showrunners not knowing how to finish things off. It was really weird to watch: in the first two episodes Dracula goes around gleefully slaughtering people with a lot of panache (actor Claes Bang is clearly having a great time) and the only thing that stops him from having a non-stop murder party is the restrictions on his powers. But then in the last episode, these restrictions are lifted, and in the space of literally fifteen minutes he’s like “welp, guess I’ll die then,” and that’s it. That’s how the show ends!
The stuff about female characters is nothing new for Moffat and Gatiss: a lot of people have commented on the roles women tend to play in their stories. They tend to get shoved into a lot of very familiar-feeling boxes: love interest, sexy mystery, tragic inspiration, dead motivation for the leading man. I can’t say I’m hugely surprised that the female characters in their adaptation of Dracula turned out the way they did. But I have to say, I’m very surprised that their characterisation of the Count was as shallow as it turned out to be. Mark Gatiss is a huge horror fan, as noted in the excellent three-part documentary series he did on the history of the genre, and both the story and the character of Dracula play an important part of that. The nods to Hammer Horror are very clear, but once those are taken away there’s not much left, and without a deeper exploration of the Count’s character then the reveal of his secret death wish doesn’t really work.
But for me, the biggest problem of the show was this: I just wasn’t scared of Dracula.
All of the elements were there. If you look at the Count’s powers in detail, they’re terrifying: he’s a shapeshifter, he can make you see things, he can turn your own mind against you. This should be frightening. But I just wasn’t scared. The show spent a lot of time setting up Dracula’s devilish charm and casual glee when confronted with murder, but it didn’t actually spend any time making him scary. This may just be because of my own personal preferences, I will admit. The show really leaned on the body horror stuff and for me, that just isn’t scary, so when Dracula was ripping off his skin I just went ‘ugh, bit gooey’ and didn’t really feel anything. In my opinion, true horror comes from what you don’t see, so because everything was laid out so clearly I just wasn’t afraid.
Mark Gatiss’s love of Hammer Horror goes a long way in explaining why Moffatula didn’t really ring true. As well as the Hammer Horror elements in Dracula’s character, they were also very much present in the overall tone of the series. The campy, schlocky elements were fun but dear God, there were so many puns, and as with any Moffat/Gatiss production there were a few quality one-liners. But because I just wasn’t scared instead of breaking the tension, stuff like this undermined it, and there wasn’t really enough of the humour to carry it through to the other side. And of course, both the Hammer Horror stuff and the first two episodes’ more traditionally Gothic vibes were massively undermined by the final episode. While I can’t honestly say I liked the first two episodes, there were elements that I enjoyed, but the third one threw all of that out the window and flopped about all over the place. I think it was going for tragic pathos, but it missed, wildly. It is very hard to feel pathos for characters you’ve only just met when you’ve spent two episodes building up pathos for other people, and your only consistent character is a toothy psychopath who likes nothing better than long walks in the murder for two-thirds of the episode.
That is not to say that there isn’t a tragedy waiting to be uncovered in Dracula. Of course there is, and you don’t need the stupid ‘Mina is the reincarnation of Dracula’s dead wife’ plotline to get to it. Just look at the circumstances: the Count is a character who has been undead for four hundred years. Everyone he knew and loved has died, everything that he grew up with and thought was certain has changed, and in staying unchanged for centuries he becomes unmoored, unable to make real connections without revealing to people that he is an unholy monster who has to eat people to survive. It’s really not hard to get a tragic figure out of circumstances like that, but that’s not what Moffat and Gatiss did. It feels like they wanted to have a tragic ending for the Count, but were just having too much fun with throwing all the fake blood around to set one up properly.
For me, this is the main reason why a) I watched the show in the first place when I have serious misgivings about Moffat and Gatiss’s work and b) why I found it quite as frustrating as I did. It’s the missed opportunities that bother me the most.
I think that part of the reason why Dracula has taken hold of the popular imagination in the way that it has done is because it has such a wealth of potential. The original novel contained many things which weren’t always expanded upon – always popular ground for fanfic writers. The various adaptations we’ve had bring out one element more than the others, depending on what the writers choose to focus on. Now more than ever, the themes and motifs of the original novel feel relevant, but Moffat and Gatiss didn’t really do anything with these, and the result was something that felt like it didn’t really have anything to say.
There’s several examples that spring to mind. The biggest one is the role of homosexuality in Dracula. Much was made on social media about Moffatula being gay or bisexual, but that didn’t really ring true for me. In the show, Dracula puts his victims in a trance-like state when he’s feeding on them, and they often imagine that they’re having sex while he’s biting them. However, every time we see Dracula feed on a man, he puts them into a trance where they think they’re having sex with a woman, and when it’s revealed to be Dracula (who tends to have all his clothes on in these scenes) the usual reaction is horror. This reinforces some really harmful stereotypes about gay men and is an insultingly simplistic way of looking at things. Even the original novel was better than this. Academics have been discussing the homosexual and bisexual subtext of Bram Stoker’s Dracula for years, particularly since Stoker’s personal life has led academics to wonder if he was a repressed homosexual himself. Vampirism as a metaphor for repressed homosexuality is a rich vein (yes I made that pun) for authors and readers alike and forces people to confront their own ideas about masculinity. Moffat and Gatiss could have done this, but they didn’t. They just had a throwaway line in the opening of episode one and spent the rest of the show reinforcing how straight everybody was. You even see the Count on Tinder, and he never swipes right on any guys.
And this isn’t the only place that Moffatula missed an opportunity. Dracula as a novel lends itself to a wide range of interpretations and viewpoints, some of which are very relevant today. There are just so many things to talk about! Stoker’s vampire is a very traditional villain – he’s an explicitly Christian monster that threatens the Victorian family when he goes after Lucy and Mina. Defeating him reinforces the social order – but we know now that the Victorian social order wasn’t a good thing for everybody, especially women. How would an adaptation of Dracula change if he represented genuine freedom for the female characters? Equally, Dracula’s tactics and behaviour are reprehensible, but he’s still presented as a seductive and charming figure. This has clear parallels to abuse and coercive control, which is being more widely discussed thanks to the Me Too movement, yet there hasn’t been a Dracula adaptation that reframes the Count’s behaviour as part of an abusive relationship.
I could go on, and so I will. To go back to Moffatula for a second: at the beginning of episode two, a vampire is delivered to Dr Sharma, a scientist in Calcutta. You only get a quick shot of the vampire itself but it does not look fresh. If anything, the corpse looks distinctly mummified, leading me to wonder how old this particular vampire is. Although we don’t see it, this vampire was evidently repelled by Christian symbols, as Dr Sharma and his daughter both know that this is what they should do when they fend off Dracula on the boat. But the most widely practiced religions in India are Hinduism and Islam, and if we assume that as per the Count himself, restrictions on vampires’ powers are only there because of the individual vampire’s beliefs and prejudices, it’s more likely that this particular vampire would have not been affected by Christian holy symbols. Almost every culture in the world has some kind of vampire belief, and yet vampires as we know them today are seen as an exclusively Christian monster. Why is this? The vampire as a Christian monster is a roundabout way of reinforcing the cultural supremacy of Christianity: if Christian holy symbols are the only way of defeating this monster, it is not an illogical conclusion to extrapolate that Christianity as a religion must be holier somehow than all the rest. I’m sure that we can all agree that this is a) incorrect, no one religion is more true than another and b) wildly out of date. What would it say about the nature of faith and belief if in a Dracula adaptation, all kinds of holiness repelled the vampire? What would it say to air that show now, when Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism are becoming increasingly prevalent in British society?
My point is that the original Dracula novel is a whole lot more than the sum of its parts. The book is loaded with themes, subtext and ideas which have proven to be fertile ground for writers, and personally, I think that’s why the idea of Dracula has a) survived as long as it has done and b) survived in a way that is remarkably disconnected to its source material. But if Dracula is more than the sum of its parts, then this adaptation is a whole lot less. There are so many things in the original novel that a modern adaptation could use to make fresh and original points, to make the story relevant for a more modern society, or even just to make you think about the characters in a different way. Moffat and Gatiss didn’t do any of that. They said nothing, and so the show meant nothing.
Moffat and Gatiss’s Dracula was the definition of the phrase ‘all style and no substance’. The show looked great, the costumes and set design were convincing, and the actors were all very well cast. But this can’t make up for the fact that underneath all of that, it was empty. Crammed with references to the showrunners’ other (better) works, it only served to remind me of programmes I wished I was watching instead. The characters were poorly drawn, when they weren’t being rather blatantly borrowed from their other work. Every last drop of horror was squeezed out of a bucket of red paint, which was at best schlocky and at worst just boring. The show was crammed with opportunities to make itself more interesting but with remarkable single-mindedness, not one of these opportunities was taken. It added nothing new to the Dracula canon, had neither weight nor depth, and any themes or story arcs that might have been present were clumsily dispatched in that disastrous third episode. It was a series of cheap shots lined up one after the other, each one taken more lazily than the last, which inspired neither fear nor excitement. Put simply, it was soulless and forgettable and the only emotion that it could get out of me was the disdain which is radiating off this blog post.
In short, Moffatula, I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed.