Tricks of the Trade: Writing a Comics-inspired Novel, by Steve MacManus

Former Tharg, comics editor and writer Steve MacManus shares his experience of writing his first novel, The Sheerglam Conspiracy, a story set inside the world of 1970s British comics. 40,000 words long, it took 14 long months to write – and is on sale now…

The Sheerglam Conspiracy

“Write about what you know” is a maxim generally considered to be a good place to start with when considering the notion of a book. For me, this made perfect sense, having previously written books about my childhood and working life.

The difference with The SheerGlam Conspiracy was that it could only be a novel, my first in fact. As such, I was venturing into uncharted territory, even though I had witnessed many of the events that were to be described in the book.

When I was writing comic scripts for Battle Picture Weekly and 2000AD, I made the mistake of thinking I did not need any help, other than the advice of editors like Pat Mills and John Wagner. By this, I mean I saw no reason to improve such technique as I had by attending story-telling seminars or scripting courses. What arrogance! How I wish now that I had taken the art of writing seriously – made it my passion, embarking on a ceaseless journey of self-improvement.

Bearing this fault in mind, I went out and bought a guide entitled something like, How To Write A Novel. Leaving my hubris at home, I took the book to The London Library, where I am a member, and read it through from cover to cover, making sure to complete all the exercises and utilising all the story-telling tools therein.

The chapter on ‘Characters’ was extremely helpful, insisting that you should know your characters inside out, know where they grew up, went to school, their first job and so forth. But also know their temperament, likes and dislikes, hobbies etc.

Above all, two questions were posed: ’What does your character want?’ and ‘How is your character changed by the events that form the plot’?

The initial idea for the book was for it to be set in a publishing house that specialised in Comics. As it happened, my first job in 1973 had been in a similar workplace, (he said with a wink…). Had you asked me then to summarise the plot, I would have said, “It’s where Titus Groan meets Richard III, fully-flavoured with the cream of P.G. Wodehouse.”

The plot was quite simple. A junior in the post room of the publishing house would have the ambition to rise to the very top of the tree, usurping the publisher’s crown in a dramatic denouement. With Shakespeare’s Richard III and Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan now firmly in my head, I decided my junior’s rise to power would be achieved by murder. Several, in fact!

During the course of this, the reader would be introduced to the staff and the titles they worked on, learn of their secrets and desires, petty antagonisms and jealousies. (If you’ve yet to work in an office environment, that last sentence pretty much sums up office life!) These staff conflicts would be the P.G. Wodehouse comic element of the book, while the murders and building itself would be described in a darker tone, such as that found in Titus Groan.

Having got this far, I was quite pleased with myself and began creating the comic titles the staff worked on, the comic strip characters in each title, and the actual characters of the staff themselves. I ended up with twenty-five members of staff, editing five comic titles. Each title was genre specific, and the comic strips within required their own characters, each with their own challenges.

This was Russian Doll territory. I wondered whether I had overreached myself. There was only one way to find out.

The aforementioned guide had advised that any novel should begin with a big event. And so I decided the publisher would announce work to begin on a new title, one designed to crush the rival publisher across the road. The announcement came in the form of a memo. I liked that and decided each chapter would begin with a memo – all from the publisher of course and each one contributing to the readers’ knowledge of the company as they read through the book. Of course, the publisher had to have a reason why he was keen to launch a new title. There had to be an inciting incident, as film script guru Robert McKee preaches. Delving into my memories I came across the perfect device, one that, I later realised, needed its own explanation.

Since I knew the ending, I reasoned that all I had to do was write towards it. I even had a title, The Sinful Shenanigans of Selina S. (My former schoolmate, Phil, soon made me ditch that, which wasn’t surprising as he was the son of J.P. Donleavy, author of The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B.) However, barely had I begun when I realised plot of the book was suspect. On top of that, I realised I didn’t want to write about someone murdering their way to the top. Such a plot was best left to Bill and Merv.

The breakthrough came when I realised I needed a sympathetic character, one whose journey the reader could follow from the day she joined the company, through to the bitter finale.

After that, everything just seemed to fall into place. And I found that as I wrote each chapter, some characters would seize the narrative while other characters would wither on the vine, so to speak. The book became a living world, one that I would visit each day, never quite sure where its occupants were going to take me.

• The Sheerglam Conspiracy is available now from Amazon as both print and digital editions now.

Steve MacManus

Image via Steve MacManus

Steve MacManus began his career in 1973 as a sub-editor on the weekly comic Valiant, published by Fleetway Publications. He went on to work on Battle Picture Weekly and Action, before moving to 2000AD, which he edited from 1979 to 1987. Subsequently, he sought to establish a market aimed at older readers, launching the titles CrisisRevolver and the Judge Dredd Megazine in quick succession. 

He was written two books: his memoir, The Mighty One, and  Elmsworld: My Life At Dartington Hall School 1963 -1971 – about his days at a progressive boarding school, Dartington Hall in Devon

Once you’ve read The Sheerglam Conspiracy, join the tie-in Facebook group Steve has set up for readers to upload their art based on the scripts or characters in the book. To get the maximum benefit from being a valued member of this group, it is probably a good idea to have read it first

Categories: 2000AD, Books, British Comics, downthetubes Comics News, downthetubes News, Other Worlds

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