Thursday, 30 August 2007


The Red Planet script I recently submitted was my first that utilised the ‘Power of Three’ peer review method, or at least a Chinese Whispers passed-down version of it. The experience was useful, but flawed. (This may be because I was using a Chinese Whispers passed-down version of it, having never attended Adrian Mead’s celebrated seminars where he expounds upon it properly).

Yesterday, I was musing about posting sometime soon about my experiences, as it may help someone learn from my mistakes (e.g. don’t use a Chinese Whispers passed-down version of it, you idiot!). Then, I read English Dave’s amusing recent post lambasting the whole process, even down to its name! So, it seemed timely to get my thoughts out there. And they are here:

In Robert McKee’s infamous tome, 'Story', he talks about pitching your script to someone, and watching their reactions: when are you losing them, when are they looking confused, excited etc.? This is a very useful thing to do for testing a pitch, and for testing the quality of your story. But, for a spec script, it’s all about how it reads, and – as anyone who follows Lucy Vee’s blog, will know – that read can go well or go badly, and this will often have nothing to do with the quality of your underlying story. So, what’s to do?

Amusingly, McKee tells us that the best reaction we could hope for is a hushed silence at the end of our pitch, as the pitchee takes in the God-like genius of our work. Anyone who has ever asked for peer review will know: this never happens. Never. (Or, at least, not to my scripts; and I suspect I am a God-like genius.) The reason for this is that, if you ask people what they think, they want to give you value. And blanket praise seems a bit empty; except to your Mum, maybe. (Your Mum – not mine: she’d give the late Alexander Walker a run for his money.)

Everyone thinks they’re a critic. And everyone is, of course, exactly right. So, who should review your work before you send it to the important someone who might want to make it?

  1. You. You’re best placed to get this script right, but you’re biased. The only real way I’ve ever found to get the right objectivity is to leave a script in a drawer for a lengthy period. By then, though, that important competition deadline will probably have passed. Plus, there’s a lot of dick-swinging that goes on about rewriting. Yes, it’s important never to send out first drafts. But whenever I hear “I never show anything to anyone until I’ve done at least twenty drafts", I always think “What - no one?” All scripts are made for collaborative media, after all, or else you wouldn’t need a script; so, there’s something amiss to me in writing something so hermetically. But then, I’m not a rich, world-famous writer, so don’t take my advice.
  2. Punters. There’s no shortage of them - we are all punters of TV and film, and we are all knowledgeable about what works and what doesn’t. But, unless you’re prepared to hand out scripts on the street, you’re going to have to know the person first. And that brings the problem of familiarity.
  3. Friends and family with no screenwriting knowledge. Let’s face it - they’re probably going to be too easy on you, or too hard on you. The balance is hard to find, but not impossible.
  4. Script reading services. Prohibitively expensive if you’re going to use them for every single draft of every piece of work you do. And readers employed by these services have their prejudices too. And it’s probably best to get more than one set of coverage on a screenplay to get a wider idea of its merits.
  5. A screenwriters’ group of your peers. Screenwriters’ groups have two purposes: 1) to help people’s work become better with assistance and critique, and 2) to act as a friendly support group for aspiring/desperate writers. These two aims can end up being contradictory, and you often find ‘rules’ like “you must always start on something complimentary”. Which is no help to the writer if it’s a lie. You might find yourself in the position – as I have been – where you really want to say “This script has absolutely no redeeming features, and you should give up on it now”. But you keep quiet, and try to say bland things about what needs to be developed. Then, in the next session, it’s your turn and no one holds back. They tell you your latest opus is rubbish, and you’re wasting your time. You get upset. You leave the group never to return. True story. Ish.
  6. Professional writers, producers or mentors higher up the chain that you. It’s hard to find someone who believes in you, and has the time enough to give feedback more than once in a while. I have been lucky enough to find more than one professional person who has offered to read my work on occasion, and has even tried to get it to people who might want to make it. Nothing’s come of these efforts, so far, but those contacts are there for ever (I hope). Whether they would still be speaking to me if I sent them scripts on a regular basis, though, is unlikely.
  7. A virtual screenwriter’s group (i.e. your peers in the blogosphere). Similar issues to the screenwriter’s groups, but people find themselves able to be more honest in print, I think. And, there is the possibility that you might make contacts here that are in the process of becoming professional writers / producers / mentors, and will review and champion your work because they remember when you were very complimentary about them on their blog. (Everybody go to English Dave’s and say nice things. He might offer to read your work!)

As for the Power of Three method: I think it has many advantages, and specifically addresses some of the drawbacks I’ve mentioned above. The idea is to have three rounds of review, with three different people each time: 3 x 3. Hence the name – it’s got nothing to do with empowerment. It’s got nothing to do with the power of three, either, but it’s only a name, and it would be hard to sell a review method where you have to find 27 people to comment on your script.

The main drawbacks I found were mostly of my making: I’d missed the rule about only getting questions back from the reviewers, not comments or suggestions. Even if I had known, it’s hard to stop fellow writers making suggestions, so you need to be aware of it, and as disciplined as you need to be. A very wonderful, and much appreciated, PO3er gave me the note “I’d like to see more of the mother”. There’s not a lot I can do with that, unless I interpret it as “Where does the mother disappear off to?” But that might not be what he meant exactly.

Also, I hate the unbearable feeling of a being a clod. I get loads of notes in the first round saying “use less adverbs” and I always feel like I should have spotted that myself. Why do I use too many adverbs? I always do it. It’s my first draft sin (alright, one of them). Still, it’s cheaper for this to be pointed out by a scribo-mate than a professional script reading service.

I was unlucky with not getting stuff back in a timely fashion, and this seriously limited the time I had for my third round. I think it was my mistake for using this method for Red Planet. It’s a free competition, so obviously all my reviewers were working on their own entries, and I don’t want to be interrupting their script every five minutes to remind them to do feedback on mine.

Lastly, people sometimes argue. It didn’t happen to me, but I’ve heard tell of writer’s sending email after email explaining the intricacies of the screenplay that the reviewer has missed. You may even be tempted to reply clarifying something yourself. Don't. No one will thank you for it.

One final word about peer review: find a jaded cabbie.

I took a cab to the shoot of ‘Lent’ - a big deal for me, the first ever time a screenplay of mine was being professionally made. We were shooting near Pinewood (not actually in it, though - so near but so far) , so the driver had welcomed many film types into the back of his taxi over the years. He insisted that I pitch him the story while we drove, and I gave it my all. I'd been working on it solidly, and knew it inside out, and I swear it was the best I've ever told it.

I finished, dramatically, just as we were pulling up to the house where we were shooting. There was the crew, there were the vans, there was the camera. Best of all, there was the crane they'd just used for the opening shot. It looked very impressive, and I swelled with pride. The cabbie ruminated on my pitch for a second, then gestured towards the house, crew, crane, and camera, and said "This seems like a lot of old fuss, just for that." That's the last time I'm pompous enough to swell with pride, I can tell you. Welcome to the movies!


I’ve always wanted to put links at the bottom of a post, and feel like a big shot. So here they are. Hope they’re useful.

Adrian’s official, non-Chinese Whispers handout on Power of Three posted on Lucy’s blog

One of the reputable script reading services recommended therein!

English Dave’s recent post on Power of Three, and the informative comments made in reaction to it

David Bishop’s thoughts

An interview with Adrian Mead (Shooting People members only)

Robert Mckee’s Story Seminars

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Can't think of a witty title about Red Planets to go here...

I have finally finished and sent off my entry to the Red Planet competition. Thank you to everybody that reviewed it for my Power of Three: you were all incredibly helpful. Cheers! Keep everything crossed for me (and yourself, because I assume almost everyone reading this will have submitted, or will be submitting, something too).

No time to rest: I'm - still - putting the finishing touches to my radio play 'Lollipops and Samaritans', and have another draft of a short film to do at the weekend. Then there's the small matter of researching and writing a period feature by the end of October. Phew!

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Everything's Gone Green

I've moved to a new colour template, so this place doesn't look identical to James Moran's wonderful blog.


There’s been a bit of a gap between postings. Mea culpa - I’ve been busy. Work on many projects is continuing apace. My Red Planet script is shaping up nicely. Thanks to all those who've provided Power of Three feedback so far. I'm still waiting for some people to get back to me, though. They know who they are! (If you're reading this, I'd love to hear what you think of the script, so please do let me know.)

I don't really need any more challenges, so obviously a couple of wonderful ones are presenting themselves, and tempting me. The first is 2 Days Later which James is posting about, and judging this year. I would love to have a crack at this, and could probably find some suitably insane collaborators. But, even though it's only 48 hours, I'm not sure I can spare the time.

The second was a foolish drunken undertaking made the same evening that Christine (her cat likes Elvis, you know) committed herself to writing a Steam Punk film. I have until the end of the month to pull out, otherwise I must write a feature-length period screenplay through September and October (I'm not doing Steam Punk, though - that's just silly!). If I fail to produce said screenplay, I will be roundly mocked by my peers. Especially Piers. I probably won't also have to jump off any piers, but I wouldn't put it past them.

I've got a great idea, which has rolled around my head for a while. But the amount of research required to get period right has put me off until now. This would be a good impetus to get a first draft written. Or I could just drive myself mad. And sometime in September I wanted to have one of those holiday things that seem to be so popular nowadays. Dear reader, what should I do?

Friday, 10 August 2007

Heads Up: WGGB Writers' Circle

From the Writers' Guild e-mail bulletin, for those who haven't seen it, or for those that still need a reason to join the Guild. I don't know if I'm going to apply for this this yet, because - being a difficult so-and-so - I'd want feedback on radio and TV and film. But not theatre.

The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain is pleased to announce that the first ever WGGB Writers’ Circle will begin in September 2007 and we are inviting applications now. The initiative is being set up to provide Guild members with a forum to discuss and develop their work.
There will be two groups available for applicants to join: one for Full and one for Candidate/Student Members. Writers in these groups will also be separated according to genre: TV/ Film and Theatre/Radio. Please specify when you apply which genre you are interested in.

At each group meeting writers will be given feedback about their work from their fellow participants. After six months two writers from each circle will be selected by a panel of judges to present their work at a showcase. Following this event, each group will be disbanded and new applicants will be invited to form a new Circle.

Applicants will be asked to pay £60 for 6 months in advance. (This works out as £5 per session and will cover the administrative costs of the sessions.) If you are interested in joining please send a cheque payable to the Writers' Guild, to ‘WGGB Writers' Circle ’, Writers' Guild of Great Britain, 15-17 Britannia Street, London, WC1X 9JN. Please remember to include your contact details so we can get in touch with you! Spaces are limited to 15 people per group so please apply early.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Protect Your Writing Time

There have been a few posts recently on other screenwriting blogs about working methods, and about how much material the conscientious writer should be aiming to produce in a given time. They’ve got me calculating how many hours I spend per week writing.

Currently - although I do arrange periodical holidays and sabbaticals where I just write - I am commuting to That Fancy London™ every weekday to earn a living. I’m disciplined and write for an hour on the train each way, with a day off to read the trades or a book. Let’s call it eight hours per week on average. At lunch, I do another hour – I know it’s absolute madness, and I should give my eyes a rest from staring at a monitor, but I need that lunch hour’s writing, I do. Sometimes, I have Day Job work keeping me busy through lunch, but that averages out only one day a week: another four hours for my running total.

My hours after work, and at weekends, are more tricky. My family has to come first, and they deserve my maximum attention. At the moment - and it seems to be working out - I do about an hour and a half every night in front of the computer – half an hour of that will be catching up on e-mail and blog stuff. So, that’s another five hours proper writing to add to the total. Weekends have to be flexible. I try to do some writing every day, but it can be impossible. Sometimes, of course, I do nothing but write from dawn till dusk, without pausing to eat or wash or make conversation. My wife loves those days, as you can imagine. I think it probably averages out to about 7 hours per weekend, throughout the year.

So, that’s 24 hours per week in total. One day. It doesn’t seem enough, but it’s all I have. “Protect your writing time”, as William Goldman decreed: a less famous, but probably more important sound-bite than “Nobody Knows Anything”. As for how much work you can produce in that time, I think it’s pointless to even think about. I realise from meeting other writers that we never feel that we’ve done enough. And long may that itch to produce continue: after all, when we think we’ve done enough we might as well just stop.

Friday, 3 August 2007

Congratulations... all the bloggers out there who - like me (yay!) - have got through to the next round of the British Short Screenplay Competition. The total entries numbered over 2000, which has now been whittled down to just under 600, and there's a great many screenplays still in there from members of the 'Scribosphere'; this speaks volumes about the talent of screenwriters who blog, as well as the wealth of information and support available to them. My fingers are crossed for everyone in the next round.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Progress Report (and ‘Power of Three’ Call Out)

It’s August already. Phew! I’m still keeping busy and have lots of projects on the go, which is great for my morale but doesn’t do much for the frequency of postings to this blog – I apologise for any breaks in transmission you may be experiencing. Still, there are already many (almost too many) lovely things out there to read and view: Robin Kelly has been posting on a method for developing a screenplay to enter into the Red Planet prize that I recommended highly. And head Shooter-scribe Andy Conway’s podcast with Tony Jordan is a must listen.

Besides enjoying those, here is what I’ve been up to:

Shorts. I’m in development on two 10-minute shorts with two wonderful directors, ‘Santa Baby’, a comedy, and a drama, ‘Second Date’. More details as things progress.

Radio. I’m currently finishing the latest draft of a 45-minute radio play, ‘Lollipops and Samaritans’. This will be sent in to the BBC Writers’ Room as my “Invite Next” script.

Features. Through August I will be redrafting ‘Sold Out’, the film screenplay that was short-listed in the Euroscript competition this year. The producer that I met through the Cheltenham Festival ScriptMarket wants to see the next draft, and Screen South may well be prepared to provide some development funding for it. This is encouraging, and makes up for some less good news on the feature front - the separate, paid feature gig that I had a chance of getting seems to be on hold at the moment. I still have hopes that it’ll happen one day, though.

TV. I’ve submitted something for the TAPS Nations and Regions showcase for Soap Writing. Has anyone else taken part in this scheme in the past, or applied to it this year? Fingers crossed for you, if you have.

Red Planet. I’ve completed a first draft of a 30-min TV screenplay called ‘Normal’ which is a possible entry for Tony Jordan’s screenwriting competition. I’m looking for kindly bloggers who are able to give me some Power of Three feedback on this script: if anyone is interested, please e-mail me (the address is in my profile). I will, of course, be prepared to return the favour. Cheers m’ dears.

That all seems much more impressive written down. I thought I was being lazy over the last few weeks: for a start, I took a couple of days out to read the Harry Potter book when it came out, to avoid seeing any spoilers posted on-line by insensitive souls. Great read. Can you believe that she killed off [censored]?