Thursday, 29 July 2010

A Random Rattle Bag of Thoughts

I was drafting a new, and let’s face it, long overdue, blog post with an update on where I am with my screenwriting comeback(!) and with some thoughts on writers’ block, which is obviously floating in the air as a topic at the moment. (I’m not blocked, by the way, but I have found that on resuming writing, I needed to relearn a lot of basic skills, like actually writing one word after the other – more on that another time.)

But, a few things have happened that I couldn’t let pass without comment, rant. So, this will be something of a random collection of scraps. Firstly - and I know everyone's talking about it, but I can't let it go by completely - there was the ridiculous and short-sighted decision by the ConDems to abolish the UK Film Council. Needless to say, I'm in agreement with Mike Leigh et al, and I do wonder about the thinking of a government, or any institution, that announces what it's going to tear down before it announces what it's going to build. Still, time will tell how/if any new system will work. Good luck to all of us in our funding applications yet to come...

...we're going to need it.

As some kind of compensation to writers, this year sees the return - in all its austerity-defying glory - of the Red Planet Competition. It is almost certainly the best screenwriting opportunity out there, particularly as it's free to enter. The deadline fast approaches, and my script and 60-word synopsis are being buffed up now, nearing completion despite all that writers' block that I didn't have. Another good luck to all who enter.

Next, and I know I'm late to the party again, but wasn't Sherlock absolutely excellent? I wasn't as blown away as I thought I'd be by the writing in this year's series of Doctor Who, so it's good to see the the Moff be fully Grand again. I've read a few online criticisms about one small aspect: Holmes seemed unnaturally slow on the uptake about the profession of the killer. But this allowed for a big, fantastic "He's Behind You" moment later on, so it was forgivable, I think. The ratings were good, so I'm looking forward to seeing some more.

Finally, it seems churlish to celebrate much, but Displacement Activities has quietly crept past it's three year anniversary as a going concern; and yes, I know there have been times when I've pushed the definition of 'going concern' to its absolute limit, but survival is all that matters: I'm still typing. A moment's reflection then (something along the lines of "Three years, and that's all the posts I managed? Sheesh") and then onwards.

Displacement Activities will Return in - I dunno - a bit, with:

"I done busted my writing bone, and other tales of Writer anxiety".

Thursday, 20 May 2010

I like your manifesto, put it to the test-o

Okay, so what happened is this: I became a father for the second time last Summer, the day job continued to become more and more consuming, and the continuing Global Economic Situation reduced the opportunities across the board for new screenwriters.

I was busy, therefore, and lucky too. But not in screenwriting. I thought it would be nice for a while to use my spare time to relax and be a normal person with a family and a, you know, respectable and profitable career. So, I stopped writing. I pretty much stopped tweeting too, and I let this blog die. I just let the old thing gather dust, no-one to notice it. I let it become a strange little thing in a corner of the internet. And over the months, the world moved on.

I had no ongoing writing projects, paid or unpaid. I had nothing sitting in anyone's in-tray to waste hope on. I was in the middle of a spec script, but someone else's too similar piece was just then announced for Summer 2010 broadcast on BBC4 so I stopped (which is possibly the nicest of the two ultimate ends for my spec scripts).

I did not hustle, I did not network. I read books on my commute, I played with my kids. I didn't relax. Instead of writing in my spare time, I was 'not writing'. Deliberately, consciously. Something still ate away at my mind. Ideas for stories nagged at me, and I had to resist them. Word of opportunities still managed to reach me, some of them (thank you Big Finish) too good to resist entering something.

It's often said that if you give up, you were never meant to be writer. There's something nice and Darwinian about that, but I think it's bollocks. The truth is writers can't give up in the same way junkies can't give up. Whether they're any good or not, or - completely unconnected - whether they have any success or not, is immaterial. We're all addicted.

So what finally changed my mind, and got me fully back on the skag? Well, for a socialist and old Labour party member such as me, a Tory government (or even half of one) is a hell of a spur. I thought - I've got to keep going, because there's things worth saying, things that need to be said. And, so inspired, I was just about to start on my comedy horror spec (it has subtext, okay, so don't judge!) when what hits my inbox but a political screenwriting opportunity. It's almost made to be.

The blog will henceforth be used to chart my attempts to restart. How easy is it to get back into the game? Is it harder than starting out? Don't think anyone's talked about that before - it should be interesting to see how it turns out. So, that's my manifesto...

... i.e. don't be surprised if it turns out I don't do any of it exactly.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Merry Christmas...

...from Displacement Activities. I hope you have a great time; see you soon!

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Pangs and Olson

If you write, professionally or otherwise, and you haven't yet read this piece by Josh Olson, writer of the screenplay for A History of Violence and other things, then I suggest you read it immediately. (Go on - read it now, I'll still be here when you get back; be warned it contains language that may offend from the outset, blah, blah, blah).

Read it? Good. Okay - it's a lovely story, as you'd expect from a professional storyteller, and obviously there's a lot of truth there. But I felt the odd pang while reading it. For one thing, I can't help but think that there are plenty of anecdotes, books, and articles out there - a lot of them by professionals like Olson - that give diametrically opposite advice to his, i.e. hustle, network, use any relationships you can to get your work to a wider audience, nothing ventured nothing gained, etc.

Screenwriters can find mentors who are more established, and to do so is a good thing. And to do so will almost inevitably involve at some point asking someone a question that might get a reply along the lines of "I will not read your fucking script". But, it might just as easily get the response "Fuck yeah, I will read your script". Sometimes, it might be worth the risk to ask; but, how to ask the right way, and how to choose the right time to ask? Only experience can teach you those things.

The best advice I ever got was to treat the whole thing like you would asking someone out (and this goes for trying to get any writing gig, not just for trying to get a mentor): tread soft, be aware of non-verbal signals from the other person, choose the right time, don't push too hard, and don't look too desperate. I can't fault this advice. Trouble is, I have hardly ever asked anyone out in my entire life. I'm far too shy, and would end up waiting forever for that right time. It can be like that trying to get a writing gig too. The last thing you want to be as a screenwriter is shy; but, if you're of that disposition, I could see how you could read Olson's article and be scared off. That brings me to my second pang.

Olson says, quite rightly, that you can't dissuade a writer (or else they're not a writer). I agree with this. You need to have that slight mental defect that, no matter what, makes you feel guilty when you don't write. You need that. But you also need other things. You need to be able to forget your shyness sometimes and hustle, network, use any relationships you can to get your work to a wider audience, nothing ventured nothing gained, etc. You might not be able to dissuade a true writer from writing, but you might just be able to persuade him or her to never show anything they write to anyone ever again. I could get all macho here and say that this would be a good thing, as it would cut down on the competition, but I'm a soppy sod and I'd like anyone with the talent and something to say to get their work out there and recognised. And that brings me to my final pang.

How do any of us know we're talented, or that we've got to say is worth saying? It's all very well having self-belief, but deluded idiots have self-belief too. And writers are all - at least in my experience - riddled with doubts about everything. So how can we know? Only by asking someone qualified to answer. And the most qualified person is going to be a professional. So, I don't blame Olson's acquaintance for asking. It wasn't a 'dick move'. (Though it is bewildering to a screenwriter based in the UK to imagine a wannabe who has all their hopes pinned on one movie project - it's like the US have a film industry ferchrissakes; only wannabe novelists can behave like that in my country.)

Olson should have kept to his line and turned him down politely. And, of course, by the end of his tale, he realises this. But the acquaintance was at fault when he rejected the advice that had so carefully and thoughtfully been given. There's no excuse for that.

So, anyway, who wants to read my latest script then? Any takers? Don't all shout at once!

Friday, 4 September 2009

Little Things

A few opportunities for short bits have come to my attention over the last few days:

Two competitions (each with entry fees) came courtesy of Lucy, one of which she is reading for: Prequel to Cannes and Vibe TV.

For the sketch-writers out there, Recorded For Training Purposes Series 4 is accepting unsolicited contributions. The full details are on the BBC Writers' Room website here. And thanks to Christine and Robin for drawing my attention to that one.

Finally, there's a Lighthouse competition for 30-second videos for an exhibition, 30 seconds of Fortune. I'm working on something for this one for two reasons: first, I haven't shot anything for quite a while and so I can warm up my film-making muscles before starting on a (slightly longer) short of my own that I aim to make next year. Second, I like the challenge of doing a narrative in 30 seconds (though entries don't have to be narrative).

If you enter any of them, good luck to you.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Sociable Commentaries

Quite a lot that I know about writing, TV and film-making I have learnt from listening to commentaries on DVDs. I presume other people do this as well: an enormous wealth of useful information is available on the secondary audio track.

Alas, there is a lot of dross as well: I remember one, on a Fawlty Towers disc I believe, that consists of pretty much nothing but the director saying "This is a mid shot..." then "...and this is a long shot..." then "...and we're back to a mid shot now" for six times thirty minutes! And this is why I'm very excited about the forthcoming Fawlty re-release where John Cleese is commenting on every single episode. My wife does not understand this: she just thinks I'm buying stuff again that I already own, for the sake of hearing someone waffle over the action. Which is not even slightly true, obviously. Obviously.

In order that some of the dross be avoided, and that perhaps people can better explain purchases to their wives, husbands or partners (or at any rate just blame me), here are a couple of recommendations. One of the first and best I ever heard was Robert Rodriguez's talk track on El Mariachi, which is a veritable masterclass on getting the most out of a 'low-to-no' budget.

Another good pick is the first and second series sets of Father Ted, on each episode of which Graham Linehan details the writing process, explains why some things work and some things don't, picks holes, mercilessly slags off his own work in the Christmas special. At one point, he even starts explaining how he's going to make the commentaries on future episodes work better. He is incapable of opening his mouth without being informative and entertaining, and it's worth the weight of any comedy-writing workshop, trust me.

My latest commentary hero is Stephen Gallagher. As long-term readers and friends will know, I am a true Who geek. I buy all the Doctor Who DVDs as they come out, and watch and listen to all the extras. Whatever you think of the stories, Peter Davison's tend to have the best commentaries. Peter is always prepared, and always informative, but usually quite tongue in cheek too. It's a good mix. But on recent release Terminus (currently only available in a box set called the 'Black Guardian Trilogy') Stephen G bests him in both trivia and jokes. I would almost go as far as to recommend it even if you don't like Doctor Who (your wives, husbands or partners would love that, I'm sure). He really is that brilliant, and keeps a nifty blog too - check out Hauling Like a Brooligan, if you haven't already (and why would you not have, hmm?!).

And if anyone has any other recommendations of informative and/or entertaining DVD commentaries (film or TV), they'll be gratefully received at the usual address. Cheers.

Monday, 31 August 2009

What I did on my holidays...

Hello, yes - I'm still alive, and so is the blog. I've had this place redecorated ("don't like it!") and changed my profile pic now that my hair's grown out a but and I'm more comfortable with my short-haired 'do'.

So, what have I been up to these last two months? Here's what: no writing. None. No scripts, no treatments, no outlines, no blog entries, barely any tweets, nary even a note for the milkman. It will probably shock a few people that I'm able to admit this. Thou shalt write every day is the first commandment of writers, after all. Oh well. After a sustained period of about five years solidly working on projects both paid for and speculative, I needed a break. Not a lot was happening on collaborations, or with my optioned stuff, and I had some 'real life' stuff to attend to (more on that later).

Does this mean I'm not a professional? Well, I've talked on the blog before about how my 9-5 day job is both a curse and a blessing, as it allows me wriggle-room when choosing what I work on, as my family won't be starving if I choose not to do particular jobs. Of course, this brings with it the risk that a golden opportunity or valuable learning experience might be passed up. Oh well, again. From talking to other professional writers, it seems that the credit crunch is biting, and opportunities are thin on the ground at the moment anyway.

And I wouldn't have had much attention to give them even if they had arisen. In summary: over the last eight weeks, I have escaped a heavy bout of redundancies at the day job, but will be waving good bye to a few old mates soon, as they weren't so lucky. Then, I had the responsibility of giving my sister - who lives about two and a half hours away from me - away at her wedding, and I was expecting the birth of my second son. Both these things are joyful occasions. But some of the joy rubs off when they are both due to happen on the same day.

Yes, as well as all the work preparing the home and family for the onslaught of a newborn, and working double hard at the day job to prepare for paternity leave, a lot of the weeks and days approaching the 15th August were very stressful, as this was not only the date of the wedding, but also the best guess due date of the baby too.

I only have one sibling, and my Dad is sadly no longer with us. I am the only close male relative of my sister - I have to be up at her place, get her to the church, walk her up the aisle, and later do a speech. Have to. I also have to be close to my wife, as I will be needed as her birth partner, to help her give birth to my child, then look after her once he's born. Have to do that too. So, it was up to luck and mother nature as to whether I'd get to do both these things. It was looking very dicey at some points. But it all worked out, my very tired wife, my son and I attended the wedding, came home the following day (without having a baby on the M25) and the day after that my wife went into labour. It's all about timing.

So personal circumstances have got in the way of my writing, but I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing. Personal circumstances are what feed into our writing, and make it better. Thou shalt live every day should be the first commandment of writers... and then write it all down, of course. Besides - as any of the Doctor Who fans reading this will know - there is a celebrated anecdote from the late Seventies of a normally dependable writer finding himself unable to complete a script because of personal circumstances. A crew was assigned and shooting was getting very close, so the producer and script editor had to step in, rework the scripts such as they were over the course of a weekend (hosed down with whisky and black coffee, so the legend goes). That story - a combination of the work of all three men - turned out to be City of Death, a fan favourite and still the highest-rated episode in the show's history. Score one for personal circumstances.

And I was lying anyway about doing absolutely no writing. Of course, I had to write a speech for the wedding. I mention this, because I was dreading it. I put it off for ages. Maybe this was writer's block, but I don't really believe in writer's block. I did the usual thing of staring at a piece of blank paper almost until my forehead started bleeding. But I couldn't think of anything. Do you know what I did in the end? I wrote it. Just put finger to keypad and got it out of my system; it took less than an hour. And on the day, it went down a storm and people were congratulating me for the rest of the evening. I felt like a writer again.

So, I feel good for my break, as if I'm getting some perspective. I stood atop the tower and looked down, I walked along the rim of the volcano and did my dance. Now, I return home with the elixir, etc, etc. Time to do some writing again. It seems apposite to be publishing this on the 31st August; September traditionally marks the start of a new school term. I'm on the cusp of phase 2 of my (so-called) career. It's going to be fun...