During the twenty-one minutes it takes to name all the alleged murder victims, no network dares to enrage the bereaved by cutting to commercials. It makes for surprisingly gripping television. The camera pans round the court and picks out all the actors in the drama, subtitles providing background so that no voiceover drowns out the roll-call of the dead. Here's the judge, famously relaxed: he's known for his twin habits of occasionally closing his eyes to aid concentration, and suing for libel anyone who suggests that he has fallen asleep. Here's the prosecutor, a rising star: this is his first high-profile case. Has he applied a touch of make-up in fear of TV's unforgiving glare? You can't decide. Opposite him sits the defence, nicknamed St Jude after the patron saint of lost causes: this may be the toughest case yet in her long career. Then there are the minor players, functionaries and security guards each granted a brief moment of celebrity by TV's roving eye.
Wherever the camera goes, the accused cannot escape scrutiny. He is constantly on-screen in an inset box bordered by prison bars.
In 1997 I decided that I wanted to become a writer, and so it felt natural to enrol on a creative writing course. I attended evening classes at Leeds University (where, seven years earlier, I graduated in mathematics). All sorts of people turned up to these classes, and as I soon discovered, most of them were more interested in the dream of being a writer than the hard work of actually writing. The first time we had a class assignment to write something, I was one of very few people to draft a complete short story and bring it in for discussion. The others brought, if anything, fragmentary scenes and snippets of dialogue.
We split into groups to read and critique each other's work. I had written a story set in a future utopia, where a party in an artists' commune was disrupted by rival posers pretending to be time travellers, aliens, and visitors from parallel realities. The piece was densely packed with speculative detail and a sly, ironic humour. It was flawed, of course — I'd only been writing for a few months, so it could hardly be perfect. But I was proud of what I'd accomplished, and I waited eagerly to see what people would say about it.
The response I actually got was a stunned silence. No-one could muster any reaction beyond bafflement. I realised at that moment that I was the only person in the class who wrote science fiction. The others didn't read SF or Fantasy at all. My far-future utopia was as foreign to them as if I'd written in hieroglyphs or Linear B. They simply didn't understand my story, not because it was flawed, but because it was science fiction.
I realised that if I was going to get anything out of the classes, I would have to write stories that the rest of the group could understand and respond to. I needed to be more accessible. So for my next story, I abandoned the far future and wrote something a little closer to home.
At the time, court cases were all the rage. The media gave saturation coverage to the Louise Woodward "shaken baby" case, which came not long after O.J. Simpson's murder trial. But in the UK, we didn't get the actual live pictures of the slow-speed car chase, or the trial itself; we simply got stories about how the story was swamping America. As a media consumer, my experience was much more the story of the story, rather than the story itself. This narrative dislocation created a space in which my imagination could operate with minimal contamination from the actual events.
Inspired by the whole meta-media extravaganza, I wrote a story about a major court case, concentrating on the average person's experience of passively absorbing media coverage. Having only a vague impression of what such media coverage actually looked like, I relied on my imagination to create a variety of simulated TV. For instance, I imagined sports punditry translated into the legal arena — as if the presenters of "Match of the Day" were discussing a court case. (For American readers I should explain that "Match of the Day" is a popular TV programme showing football highlights. And by "football" I do of course mean real football, i.e. soccer.)
The result was a story in which nothing happened, except that an undefined character watched TV. I used present tense and second person to create the tone I wanted. Technically speaking, there was no plot and no characterisation. Indeed, there were no conventional ingredients at all. However, to give the story some kind of point, I allowed myself a little SF-style extrapolation, concluding with an "if this goes on" satirical punchline.
Despite the lack of conventional story ingredients, "Drawing the Line" succeeded in evoking some response from the writing class when I brought in the first draft. After all, it was essentially about television, and everyone could relate to that. Reaction was mixed, as is usually the case in any critique group, but at least the readers could understand what I was trying to do.
I look back on this episode as an important early lesson in the necessity of writing with a readership in mind. It does no good to be self-absorbed in attempting to create a masterpiece, if all you end up doing is bewildering the readers. Those blank expressions after my utopia story will stay with me as the ultimate critique.
I refined "Drawing the Line" into a submission draft, then tried to market it. However, because the SF element was so slight, it didn't fit any SF magazine. After a few rejections, the story sat in my bottom drawer until I saw an open call for an anthology entitled The Mammoth Book of Legal Thrillers. Perfect, I thought, and I sent in the manuscript.
Eight months later I got a letter saying that "Drawing the Line" had been accepted. Just five days after that, I received a parcel containing contributor's copies of the anthology (one British edition, and one American edition). Either the book had been typeset and printed with truly astounding speed, or the editor had been somewhat lackadaisical in sending out acceptances.
He was certainly lackadaisical in respect of sending out payment. A year after publication, I eventually received some money. In the meantime I had the pleasure of seeing the anthology in the shops — not only on the shelves, but piled on display tables next to the latest Jeffrey Archer. There is a certain thrill in dragging your friends into a bookshop and pointing to a stack of books with your story in. Although this was my third story acceptance, it was only the second piece I'd seen in print (the previous acceptance appeared much later), and a mass-market anthology was a huge step up from a small magazine. I was beginning to feel like a real writer.