Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving

James O. Born

I thought we might take a short break in learning how to write a novel on a holiday like Thanksgiving.  I tend to be a little on the sentimental and schmaltzy side when it comes to holidays.  I try to observe each one for its actual significance.  I understand the revisionist tendencies to discount holidays and traditions.  Like to say about all that Thanksgiving should represent is the subjugation of Native Americans or that Christmas is built around a pagan holiday.  I don't debate those things.  I simply like that certain days are set aside to give us time to consider the circumstances of our lives, as well as our place in the world.

I am indeed thankful for a number of things, including my relative health in this incredibly fleeting life and the happiness of my family in an increasingly stressful world.  I'm also thankful that I have friends like Patty, Jackie and Paul who support and encourage me in all sorts of endeavors.  They also talked me into participating in this blog, which has become a regular part of my week.  I hope I can continue to engage each of you with my view of how to write a novel.  In the meantime, please enjoy these assorted humorous tidbits I have found on Facebook over the last few months.  They have no connection to writing a novel or to each other.  I just thought they were funny.  Forgive me if you are the creator of any of these and I have not attributed them properly.

Next week I intend to finish the story of how I found my first agent.  By writing it in three parts I consider it a trilogy.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Friday, November 21, 2014

What I've Been Thinking About This Week ....

from Jacqueline

I’m not usually one for fluff. I don’t watch every YouTube video I’m sent via email, and I am not generally one to send on jokes unless they’re really, really funny.  I don’t do the thought of the day either.  But while recovering from that fall from my horse, unable to drive, and in pain pretty much all the time, therefore unable to think straight to accomplish anything of note (though I checked copyedits on the next book and have been working through my research reading list in preparation for the novel I’ll begin writing on January 1st) – I have been watching all sorts of daft stuff.  Here’s a mere smidgeon of my viewing:

The 10 Funniest German Shepherd Videos
20 Best Jennifer Lawrence Movie Stills
The Sainsbury’s Christmas Ad (I forwarded that to everyone I know and posted it on Facebook – it was passed on some 30,000 more times from there).
Many sessions from Dressage Training Online
Dogs Who Can Say I Love You
The “We rise at daybreak” scene from The Trip – I love Steve Coogan

This is what my world has come to – though I give thanks every day because I know this pain and discomfort will pass. I know I was really lucky – I could be dead or paralyzed right now, and I know that millions of people are facing way more troubling illnesses than my silly broken clavicle.  But here are some things that came to my attention in the past week or so.

Seen in a British newspaper – article about the fact that the National Lottery is now 20 years old. Article comprised interviews with the 20 biggest winners – and believe me, we’re talking big ££££. Good for them.  However, placed just underneath this particular article was the story of a young girl, 7 years old, suffering from a rare brain tumor. Her medical team had fought hard for her, exhausting all treatment options, and the parents – clutching at any straw they could find – were trying to raise the £160,000 necessary to send their precious child to one of two hospitals in the world where she could undergo the type of proton beam therapy that might give her a chance at life.  The parents were selling their house and moving in with other family members, but that wasn’t going to make the whole amount needed, so they were fundraising any way they could.  Hmmm, I thought – the newspaper missed a chance to create a bit of synergy by passing the hat round those 20 lottery winners, decked out in their finery.  £10k each would do it - chump change – and what a great way to spend your money. 

Back to my own brush with the healthcare industry.  No error there – I meant to write “industry.”  About a week ago I started receiving the emergency room bills. I don’t know if you’ve received a hospital bill lately, but it seems hospitals are perhaps the only commercial enterprise that does not give you an itemized bill for services rendered (unlike, say, a building contractor).  You just get a big final “Pay this amount” after your insurance has kicked in the lowest they can possibly contribute, based upon your plan. And I ask you – why should healthcare be subject to “plans” or be a for-profit business hiding behind a non-profit smokescreen?  I’d read a New York Times article on this subject a few weeks ago – about a man who’d had surgery and upon asking for an itemized bill, realized that a doctor he had never met, had never heard of, was billing him for well over $100,000.  That’s a lot of dosh.  So he did some research and found out that this doctor was “observing.”  His presence was not required, nor was it requested, but he wanted to watch the procedure.  Then he billed for it.  Six figures. Nice work if you can get it.  So, when I received my statement, I thought I’d ask for the itemized bill.  Here are some interesting little points I picked up.

I was given one Vicodin pill – well, the generic (which I could not keep down once I'd arrived home, but that wasn’t the hospital’s fault): $20.  At a pharmacy, a 20-pill prescription is about $10, dependent upon your “plan.”

One pill to stop nausea – clearly didn’t work: $20

2 X-rays – over $900

Emergency Room and “procedure” - $1800.  Now, this is the kicker – the procedure amounted to the doctor asking me to grasp his hand so he could check whether I had any feeling, then he sent me to be x-rayed.  A nurse gave me the pills, and left.  After 15 minutes I had to shout to flag down another nurse to ask if someone had any ice for my shoulder (you would have thought that was a no-brainer).  The doctor – who was very nice indeed, I should add – popped his head in one more time to confirm that the clavicle was broken in two places, and I should come back if it started to poke through the skin. Another nurse gave me a sling ($80 – and it was a cheap one.  After I was home, my husband went out and bought a much better one at CVS for $12).  I queried the $1800 charge, and was told it was a standard charge for my level of emergency room admittance, and it paid for things like the ER nurses, and the nurse who admitted me, etc.  Now, I can live with paying extra to have a hospital nearby - as a member of the broader community in the county, I want to pay my way - but when I spent no more than (let’s be generous) 5 minutes with each of two nurses, and 10 minutes with the admitting nurse, I think $1800 is a bit much. Oh, I sat on the bed for about 45 minutes, so parking my rear on that bit of real estate clearly pushed up my bill.

Then yesterday I received the doctor’s bill (remember, I spent 10 minutes with him, plus he had a gander at my x-rays, which probably took a minute or two):  Over $1600, of which I pay about half and my “plan” pays the other half.

I consider myself fortunate, because I had money stashed away for this sort of eventuality – take part in potentially dangerous sports, and you’d be remiss not to.  Yet I cannot help but think that this is just one example of why healthcare in the USA is in such a terrible state.  Hospitals cost a huge amount of money to run, but here’s something interesting – an illuminating experience I had when I first came to America to live. I landed a job with a company contracted by a major hospital group in California, to inventory every item worth over $500 in every hospital and medical office across the group - about 30 facilities, some quite massive.  I worked in all sorts of medical environments, and often late at night, because hospitals are quieter at night.  But there were two incidents that seemed to echo down the years when I received my recent bills.

The first was the evening my team went into the executive suites after hours to get the contents of those offices inventoried while the “movers and shakers” were out.  You should have seen the size of those offices!  And you could not imagine the money spent on furniture, on artworks and expensive chairs – better than any ad agency I’ve ever worked with.  The legal department was so plush it made me angry.  The following day we went along to the marketing department (yep, the marketing department).  Lots of brand new Apple hardware everywhere, gorgeous desks and the de rigueur Aeron chairs.  When we thought we’d coded everything, I asked the manager if I could check a room that was locked.  He opened the door to reveal boxes and boxes – right to the ceiling – of brand new hardware.  I asked why the computers weren’t being used. “Oh, we had to spend our budget, so we ordered a load of kit and here it is.  We’ll never use it though.” 

That, dear reader, is your insurance $$$ at work.

And even though we have finally limped towards something akin to universal healthcare here in the USA – it's a start, but needs much, much more work – there are still people in this country struggling to pay medical bills and unable to fully insure themselves.  We may have “affordable” healthcare insurance, but doctors, hospitals and emergency room care are still far from affordable for the majority of people.  I’m lucky - I had the money saved.  But what if I hadn’t?  I’d be like that poor girl in Minnesota I read about this week – suffered a heart attack at work and (unconscious) was rushed to a hospital that wasn’t part of her “plan.”  She’s 26 and now filing for bankruptcy because she still owes $50,000 – and that’s after the hospital had “made allowances” and her insurer had paid a bit more than they normally would for an out-of-plan hospital.  

You’d better go to YouTube, find the 10 Funniest German Shepherd Videos – it’ll take your mind off it.

Wishing you a great weekend, and a wonderful Thanksgiving.  See you back here in a couple of weeks. 

PS:  It has occurred to me that we should all understand more about where our healthcare $$$ are going, and though the information is probably in the public domain, I'm not sure I know how to find it.  More information from hospitals  - perhaps online - showing running costs, and how money is spent, right down to the executive offices, would be handy.  That would enlighten me, and perhaps I would then see certain lines on my bill in a new light.  

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Finding an agent for your novel

James O. Born

So last week I started telling you about my path to finding an agent.  Most published authors took a similar path.  We’ll hear from some of them over the next few weeks.  But let me continue my story from last Thursday.  I won't even summarize.  If you missed it just scroll back on the blog a little bit.  As little as Paul posts, it should be just a few inches below this post.  (Sorry Paul, I just felt like throwing you under the bus.)  As I said, I was rejected time after time and it hurt on a number of levels.  Blah, blah, blah.  Most writers have the same story.  We try and try and try.  The difference is that some of us succeed and some of us just give up.  I won't tell you when it's time to give up.  That's a choice each of us has to make on our own.  And, frankly, today there are other options.  Self-publishing on Kindle is certainly an easier route.

I finally did give up on my first novel, and on the advice of one agent, who was intrigued by my stint working undercover on a case involving the Ku Klux Klan, suggested I write a novel related to those experiences.  Once again I set to work on a novel with everything I had.  Although this time I had learned a great deal about writing through trial and error on my first novel and I was finally able to attract more interest.  One agent suggested I use a professional editor he knew to help me improve the novel.  He felt it was close, but still needed work.

After doing my due diligence and ensuring it was not a scam, I hired the professional editor to see if he could offer some insights and make the novel good enough for publication.  After another year of hard work, and with the guidance of the editor, I resubmitted the novel to the agent who agreed to represent me.  That one little bit of acceptance more than made up for all of rejection I had experienced in the years prior.  Now I learned a whole new level of rejection as publisher after publisher turned down the project.  But at least I was getting it in front of actual New York editors.

During this long process, and it lasted at least a year, I started to work on what became my first published novel, Walking Money.  It was based on several experiences I have had in police work, but was still not a true story.  Not in any way, other than the setting and some of the interactions between police.  I can remember making notes on it after one of the Miami riots that our SWAT team was called out to help contain.  Suddenly, I had an idea for an entire story.  What would happen if someone stole a safety deposit box full of cash while every cop in the city is distracted by a major riot?

The only problem was that my new agent was not interested in a different novel if he couldn't sell the first one I had provided.  He wasn't exactly discouraging, he just said he, "Couldn't get into the new novel."  I was discouraged and just let it slide for quite some time.  Finally, sometime in 2003, I spoke to the editor who had help me with the previous novel.  He asked to see the new novel, Walking Money and I decided I had nothing to lose.  I was ready to give up, I should've given up, but for some reason I decided to send him the novel to look at.  At least by now e-mail provided a much more convenient method of delivering manuscripts.

This was probably the most important decision I've made in my publishing career.

Stay tuned next week for the conclusion of my personal odyssey.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Remembrance of Things Past - On Memory and Place

from Jacqueline

I am fascinated by place, and how a narrative depiction of place – in time, geographically, emotionally, physically – can transport a reader beyond the here and now to the extent that they will not hear their name called or a ‘phone ring.  I love to read authors who get it right; writers who take me beyond myself, so that I am walking their streets, into their homes, their places of work, and I’m right there, caught up in the fibers of the story, where I am supposed to be. Place is as much a character as, well, a character.  So is Time.  I think we can learn much about place and how to write about it by delving into memoir.  How do we take people to the places where we grew up?  How do we lead the reader by the hand so that they are on our highways and byways, walking to our shops, or meeting our neighbors?  It’s good practice – and if nothing else, as a writer you should be practicing, as much as a runner, a concert pianist, or a vocalist has to train every day.  That’s why, on this blog, you will read about all sorts of things, and not just about writing – that “naked truth about life” is a golden opportunity for us to cross-train. 

Which brings me to the attic.

When I was three years old, we moved into a Victorian terrace house “in need of some modernization.”  My mother was in the early stages of pregnancy with my brother at the time, and the house – rented accommodation that my parents would go on to buy when I was in my early teens – was considered an upgrade on our previous home, after all, this one had electricity.  The house comprised three storeys, with the large room at the top of the house – the attic – at first used as a spare bedroom for visitors (and believe me, when my mother’s family came to visit, there were people camped out everywhere, after all, she had 9 siblings. I have more cousins than most people have ancestors in the family tree).  It was later, when I was 11 that my parents moved up to that room.  In my estimation, the attic was the most wonderful room in the house.  Mind you, until my parents laid claim to it, it was also the room with the dressing up trunk.

Imagine this – a big black wooden trunk filled with old clothes, two satin bedspreads, discarded lace curtains and another Indian cotton bedspread.  The room itself had sloping ceilings – it was in the eaves of the house - and two windows.  One window looked down to the lane below, to the duck-pond opposite, and if you craned your neck to the left, you could see the pub – a former coaching inn – at the top of the lane. The other window commanded a breathtaking view across a patchwork of woodland and fields as far as the eye could see.  I sometimes wonder why we never had a photo taken from that window, but my father’s box Brownie would not have done it justice.  The room smelled a bit musty; the fragrance of used clothing in a room seldom used, of lavender and moth balls.  Light came into the room in bright shafts that seemed to attract dust motes as if they were tiny insects looking for a place to dance. 

When the cousins came to visit, it was an onslaught of kids looking for adventure in the country (that huge extended family lived in London).  The boys ran down to the woods and the girls to the attic.  I remember one day, there was me, Stephanie, Gillian, Martine, Jane, Susan, Rosanna and Janice in the attic, and we were royalty locked in the castle, with the war going on around us – it might have been the French Revolution. Gillian was wrapped in the pink satin bedspread.  I was wearing a lime green silk-ish bathrobe that had belonged to Mrs. Eldridge at number 6.  Martine was swathed in the dark green bedspread and I think Jane was a princess, wrapped in the Indian bedspread embellished with a lace curtain.  Sue was reading in the corner, and I seem to remember that Rosanna and Janice were part of the play, but really they would have rather been practicing their coordinated dance routines that only Martine managed to follow.  The play-acting had hit some sort of lull, when Gillian suddenly flung open the window and said (in dramatic voice), “The pheasants are revolting.”  To which Martine quipped, “Well don’t eat them then.”  Jane and I rolled up laughing, Martine nearly peed in her pants, and Stephanie – who I think was trying to direct the proceedings – rolled her eyes and walked off to join Sue, adding, “Know your pheasant from your peasant!” And now, as I remember that day, the hardest thing is that three of those cousins have passed away – what a bittersweet joy memory can be.

If the house was a person, and the room was a limb, that window looking out across the county of Kent, had a heartbeat.  On summer evenings, when dusk came late and time ran away with us as we played in the woods, my mother would climb the stairs to that window in the attic and call us home, her voice carrying across the countryside and echoing back again.  And she would know that we’d be on our way (woe betide us if we tarried, that’s for sure).  In truth, the dog heard her first, rounding us up and chivvying us back to the house as if we were sheep into a corral.

I remember another time being woken by my father before dawn. He half-carried my brother up the stairs to the attic, and I followed, my eyes gritty from being prodded into wakefulness, that smell of musty cold causing me to sneeze as he unlatched the door to the stairwell.  He opened the window and told us to keep watch, because a comet would cross the sky at any moment, and it wouldn’t come again for hundreds of years.  We watched and waited, until finally we witnessed the comet score a line into a slow sunrise, as if a match had been struck across red brick.  “See it, do you see it?” he asked.  “I can see it, Dad,” I assured him. I nudged my brother, who was leaning against my arm, drooling in his half-sleep while trying so hard not to miss whatever he was supposed to have seen.

My mother and father eventually claimed the attic for their bedroom.  And for a college-age young woman, home from London for the holidays, the attic window was a long way up!  I'd come home late from a party, and having lost my key, I began throwing pebbles up to the attic window to wake them. I think my father had slept fitfully, waiting to hear my footfall on the path, for my he soon opened the window to call down, "Just a minute!"  “Nice party then?” he asked, as he unlocked the door for me. And I told him it was, as I picked up the two bottles of fresh milk from the doorstep and brought them into the house.  Our milk was delivered at five in the morning.

When I think about place, in my writing, I bear in mind that a place has history, as does a character, and the writer can breathe life into both the character and the place by memory, even I it’s a recollection of another place.  Sometimes, in November, I can walk out of my house in northern California, and there’s a certain smell to the air – it’s a blend of fog, of yesterday’s warmth and the morning’s chill, and it reminds me of hop-picking season in Kent, where I was born and raised in England.  In writing about it, I explore a reflection of the past as it blends with the present, and doing so I can bring both time and place alive. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t – but exploring place is like exploring character for a writer. You have to climb stairs, look out of windows, know the neighbors.  You have to lift your nose to find the scent of the place and you have to listen to the sounds it makes.  You have to get under the skin and down to the bone.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Back to business

James O. Born

This is pt 1 of 3 of my personal story of getting an agent and ultimately a publisher.  I try not to shade the truth and hope it doesn't discourage anyone.  It is the truth and every writer should know the truth.

It's been almost a year since we started our discussion on writing and the business of publishing.  We have covered a lot of ground in that time.  Personally, I like to focus on the writing aspect more than the business.  Elmore Leonard used to say, "If you write a good book, someone will buy it."  I believe that is true to a degree, but after talking to hundreds of unpublished authors, I know that it is not universally correct.  That is why today were going to start a conversation about how to find an agent.

I’m occasionally approached by unpublished authors who ask for help in obtaining an agent.  This is a tricky situation.  I want to read at least part of the manuscript before I can, in good faith, recommend it to an agent.  The Catch-22 is that, if you don't know the writer personally and pretty well, it's not a good idea to accept unpublished manuscripts.  One of the reasons is legal, so they can't claim that you stole any ideas from them, the other is practical; if you're constantly reading other people's manuscripts you don't have time to write the ones that keep a roof over your head.  I can't stress enough what an awkward situation this is for most authors who truly want to help aspiring writers.

The first step for a novel is to have a completed manuscript.  Not an idea, not a partial manuscript, not even a rough draft.  But a well thought out, well written, properly formatted manuscript.  I understand that content, including dialogue and plotting are completely subjective, but there are certain criteria that must be met in the general marketplace.  That includes a reasonable length (which I would say is between 75,000 and 120,000 words), properly formatted by industry standards, which can be found with the minimum amount of research on the Internet, an opening that grabs the reader's attention, whether it is by action, interesting setting, compelling characters or just flat out elegant writing, and a query letter that succinctly explains who you are, why your background is important to the book, a brief synopsis of the book and your contact information.

Over the course of the next few weeks we’ll discuss each of these elements and bring in help from other published authors as well.  For now, I will tell you my own story on the road to finding an agent and then publication. 

In the mid-1990s (yes you read that correctly, it was about twenty years ago), I started to shop my first novel to agents.  Back then that required the exchange of U.S. Postal Service delivered letters and mailing printed out manuscripts.  It was my first novel, still unpublished, about a group of DEA agents trying to make a case.  I started working on the novel on June 10, 1989.  A little more than two weeks before the birth of my first child.  I had just purchased a Tandy 1000, which was in 8086 processor and had no hard drive in ran at a whopping 8 mhz..  I had no idea what I was doing, I just wanted to write a novel that was more realistic than what I was reading at the time.  The result showed me why there weren't more realistic novels on the market.  That is why it took more than five years before I had the manuscript to the point that it could be shown to agents.  I give you all this background to show you it has never been easy to break into publishing.

I would go to the library, because for the most part this was pre-Internet, and would read Writers Market as well as other books related to finding an agent.  I developed several versions of a query letter and a list of potential agents who were interested in crime novels.  I devised a method of printing up several packets to go out to agents one after another, as soon as one of them declined further interest.  It was both a fatalistic view and a pragmatic one.  In some ways it was soul crushing.  Finally, I got interest enough to start sending out the actual manuscript.

Time after time, over the course of several years, I would spend the money to print out the manuscript at the local Kinko's, the same one I use now on the rare occasion I have to print out a manuscript, and I would mail it invariably to an agent in New York.  Several weeks to several months later I would receive the manuscript back with a pleasant, but firm letter of rejection.  I can still remember my stomach fluttering when I would open the mailbox.  It was brutal.  It hurt as much as any punch I have ever taken.  Emotionally, it scarred me.  I have recovered, but I still remember the pain acutely.  Every writer does.  Rejection is no fun.

I seem to be droning on, but there's a lot to say on the subject, so like any thriller writer, I'm going to leave you at this point and hope you pick up again next Thursday when I continue this tale of woe and redemption.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Imitation Game and the beautiful minds of its subject and star

Patty here...

My friend Bonnie MacBird wrote this brilliant post on her blog The Professional Enthusiast. She gave me permission to repost it here.


Bonnie earned a BA in Music and an MA in Film from Stanford University. Her long Hollywood
career includes feature film development exec at Universal, the original screenplay for the movie TRON, three Emmy Awards for documentary writing/producing, eleven Cine Golden Eagles for scripted and documentary work, numerous produced plays and musicals, and theatre credits as an actor and director. A major New York publisher just purchased ART IN THE BLOOD, her Sherlock Holmes novel, written in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle. Bonnie is also an accomplished watercolorist. She teaches a popular screenwriting class at UCLA Extension, a course which develops creativity based on multiple art forms while honing the very specific techniques of screenwriting. Below, she talks about the new Alan Turing biopic THE IMITATION GAME and the beautiful minds of its subject and star.

 So, here's MacB:

THE IMITATION GAME was screened for Screen Actors’ Guild Saturday, November 8, followed by a Q and A with star Benedict Cumberbatch and the director Morton Tyldum. Thanks to my friend Patty Smiley, I was privileged to attend and sat second row center. Well, yes, the director was there, too.


SAG is a tough crowd, but both the film and star received a standing ovation. If Benedict Cumberbatch does not win the Academy Award for this work I would be very surprised. It’s a tour de force performance in which he eloquently conveys the tragic story of Alan Turing, the computer genius who decoded the German Enigma machine and won the war for the allies, and was later persecuted and prosecuted as a gay man, leading to his early death at 41, an apparent suicide.

Benedict found the immense complexity, humanity, and tragedy of this man — the physical awkwardness of the Aspergian genius, the far distant look of the mathematician with cosmic vision, and the gentle humor for which Turing was known. The film is a masterwork. Raw and teary as the film ended, I was then thrilled to get a glimpse into the creative process of one of our best living actors.


Benedict has rarely spoken in detail about his process but he was speaking to an audience of actors, and the subject was craft. As a very minor actor myself, but trained both in England and the US, I had some half-baked theories about what he might be doing. But Benedict’s actual methods went far beyond anything I had imagined. And I’m sure we heard only the tip of the iceberg. Rather than the vaunted English “outside in” approach (the physical details first) or the more typically American “inside out” (finding oneself in the character first), Benedict’s process appears to be far more comprehensive and encyclopedic. It’s almost a body/mind/spirit approach in which he first responds on a macro level to the story and spirit of the character, then drills down to fine details of physicality and interior thoughts and emotions. In fact, Benedict researches like an academic and refines color and detail like an impressionist painter. His speech, like his process, is complex, nested and content rich. First, the gestalt. He read the script while working on Star Trek and the project became a passion.

The scope of Turing’s achievement, his stunning heroism, contrasted with the horror of his subsequent humiliation and mistreatment simply for being a gay man, made a story that Benedict felt must be told. The injustice persists today, not only for gay men but for women and others. Turing’s face, he said, belongs on “our currency.” And Turing’s recent “pardon” was not only too little too late, but a travesty. This film could help change that.


He described physically embodying Alan Turing, how Turing moved, how he leaned away, how he held his head on a slant, then suddenly leaned in to focus on the person he was talking to. And the speech -Turing did not exactly stutter, but did have a strange hesitation to his voice. This hesitation is not unlike Benedict’s own, and my husband’s (computer scientist Alan Kay) and it occurs when one’s brain is moving at a rate faster than the words can come.

Turing was a marathon runner, and grunted with every step.



He had a subtle sense of humor and a sly, sideways grin. And prominent lateral incisors, which were not mentioned, but I noticed that some had been created for Benedict in this film.


 And once again he worked with dialect coach Sarah Shepherd as he had on The Fifth Estate.


But the outside is only part of the story. Benedict delved into Alan Turing’s emotions…his deep love for his only childhood friend, Christopher Morcom, who saved him from bullies, got him interested in cryptography, and then died suddenly of bovine tuberculosis leaving the lonely boy forever isolated. Turing’s grief was lifelong, and he named his computer after Christopher.

Christopher is on the left with the young Alan Turing on the right

Like Turing, the fictional character Christopher Tietjens in Parade’s End was another tragically misunderstood, brilliant, heroic man wronged by those who should most appreciate him. The parallels are strong. The fictional Sherlock Holmes, too, walks the isolated path of the genius, warmed only by the one friend.

Benedict as Sherlock Holmes

On an intellectual level, we all know that Benedict is attracted to and brilliant at playing genius. (Hawking, Holmes, Van Gogh, Tietjens and now Turing). A less than friendly reviewer said he nicely gives the illusion of thinking. But hear the man talk and you realize it’s no illusion. Benedict reads prodigiously. His intellectual preparation for this film involved reading the Andrew Hodges biography of Turing (Alan Turing: The Enigma is no slim volume, by the way), and trying to understand even a little of the math. He referenced the play Breaking the Code and also made a lengthy visit to Bletchley Park. This is an actor who does his homework.

Not satisfied with his shortcomings in getting the math(s), Benedict endeavored to increase the intellectual connection by two physical methods. First, by spending much time with Turing’s machine, attempting to find a tactile connection. “I thought I would weld something…” He ended up burning his hand. And a second…copying some of the notes and diagrams in his own hand (he mentioned that those pinned to the wall in the film were copied by him from Turing’s works). This is particularly interesting, as famous art teacher Betty Edwards and others have discovered that consciously changing one’s handwriting can change one’s mood and even thinking. Can parroting another’s handwriting put you into their mindset? 

Turing's writing

I will admit to trying this also, by copying Conan Doyle’s precise rounded script for a day, as I attempted to recreate the famous voice in my upcoming Sherlock Holmes novel, ART IN THE BLOOD. There is something to be said for this kind of mind connection. And here’s a bit of Conan Doyle’s handwriting.

Benedict’s training as a visual artist (he enjoys doing pen and ink sketching for fun, as he told Andrew Marr recently) may well have influenced this interesting approach to getting “inside Turing” by literally copying his drawings and handwriting. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but it would fit in with a very detailed approach encompassing both right and left brain led techniques. By simultaneously climbing into the body, mind and spirit of his character, Benedict has created a fully rounded human being who pulls us into the story with the force of a wind tunnel.


Tyldum spoke effusively on Benedict’s process and emotional availability as an actor. His star would beg for the opportunity to give one more alternate take on key moments. And the research Benedict had done was beyond anything he’d seen before. Pressed by a ridiculous schedule (only 8 weeks), the film team worked in tight formation. But Tyldum, unlike many directors, “believes in rehearsal” and by squeezing this in, he best utilized his theatre-trained cast. That choice further ensured the quality of this film.

Benedict and Tyldum both commented on the brilliance of the supporting cast, which I will not cover here, except to say that Turing as a boy was portrayed by the brilliant Alex Lawther, whom I had the pleasure of seeing in David Hare’s SOUTH DOWNS in London in 2012. Keep an eye peeled. This young man is a star in the making.

Alex Lawther

Turing’s actual death is a mystery. It was ruled a suicide yet there are those who knew him who doubt this. The movie states categorically that he killed himself. And there is a moment at the end when Benedict’s Turing breaks down and sobs. I have to admit that I was jarred — until I remembered that fluctuating estrogen levels wreak havoc with emotions and one’s ability to think. When convicted by the same law that incarcerated Oscar Wilde, Turing opted for estrogen injections and later an implant (chemical castration) over a jail term. Yes, estrogen. I went through fertility treatments and remember thinking at a key moment that death would be preferable. It is said that Turing tried to dig the implant delivering the drug out of his leg with a knife.

But here’s a puzzle about a scene near the end. Benedict himself brought up that moment, offering what sounded like a kind of explanation. On the set on that day, he was so overwhelmed by the tragedy that overcame this man that he began to weep uncontrollably. And that was used. Upon reflection, he said something to the effect that these tears were his, and not the character’s. I am not certain from his words whether he meant that were he to do it again, he’d make another choice. But it was fascinating insight. (I hope I got this right.)

Benedict/Turing weeps


The film moved me to tears. As Tyldum said, it is “a love story” and Alan Turing never again felt the love he had for Christopher Morcom. He wrote letters to Morcom’s mother throughout his life. And the man who saved millions of lives ended up horribly wronged, punished for being homosexual and condemned, as it turned out, to self destruction.


The Turing Award (often called the Nobel Prize for computer science) was created in 1966 to honor the men and women whose contributions in the field of computer science have changed the world. My husband, Alan Kay, won the Turing Award in 2003. I’ve been privileged to have had close contact with several Turing winners. It began when I studied computer programming with Donald Knuth at Stanford, and later when I did my early research to write the movie Tron (I was the first writer on this and met my husband Alan Kay – who was then at Xerox Parc – and subsequently hired him to be the technical consultant.)

My first scripts for the movie that later became TRON touched on many of the ideas here… how computers are literal, and humor is hard, how machines are beautiful, and yet soulful only when their designers are, how human beings can be furthered, extended, and amplified by beautiful mathematical creations. Little of this (and none of the humor) appeared in the final film.

I do not know a mathematician or computer genius who does not share some of Alan Turing’s odd combination of childlike curiosity, obsessive fascination with the “work” and strange sense of not exactly belonging, coupled with a certain physical and social awkwardness as well. But always with humor. Benedict captured these qualities with uncanny precision and warmth.

In August of this year, my husband Alan Kay and I visited Bletchley Park and spent four hours there. In this picture, the man known as the “father of the personal computer” studies the timeline of the work at Bletchley, while in the foreground his emotional writer/actor/artist wife was busy photographing Alan Turing’s teddy bear, for which Turing sewed the clothes. And to whom he practiced his lectures aloud. Oh, the secrets of that little bear!

Turing's bear

The screening and chance to hear Benedict talk of his process, and the visit to Bletchley Park will stay with me a long time. Benedict, Alan Turing, Alan Kay. Beautiful minds indeed. I am privileged and enlightened to be connected in some small way to all. Science is art…and art is a kind of science. And I am so lucky to be its witness.


Excellent interview with Benedict on the subject 

Bletchley Park 

Alan Turing 

Alan Kay, Turing Award 

Alex Lawther 

Director discusses differences in Brit/American training

Sarah Shepherd, dialect coach