Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Just a little blog holiday will now ensue for the festivities at Perry Towers.

I'll see you again in a few days. Have fun!

Monday, 22 December 2008

Winter Bits and Bobs

Not much to report from the last week: the day job, which you'd think would be winding down, is just getting busier. The last three working days before Christmas, and I'm working all of them, alas.

I took the decision a few months back to keep going to the wire, and shift all my days off into 2009. So, I'll be able to have a bit of a rest, watch 'The Next Doctor', and – if Santa brings what I'm keeping my fingers crossed for - I'll go to The Wire again, and enjoy the box set of Series 4, and maybe even Series 5 (I have been very good this year!!).

And I'll do some screenwriting work too, of course. I suppose being busy at the day job is a good sign recession-wise, and it's keeping me in pads and printer ink and netbooks and Wire box sets (you see - I'm already expecting to only receive socks and have to buy them for myself in the online Sales). But I'm looking forward to some days where I can get stuck in to some glorious writing.

I've finished a major restructure of the 'Life Support' pilot episode, and am now producing the pages afresh as a top-down rewrite. So far, I'm on page 20 of 60. I'll keep the blog updated with my progress, more to keep myself going over the holiday period than for any other reason.
I have mused and written and mused; and I've decided to follow up the BBC Writers' Room Invite Next with another feature script: I don't want to rush 'Life Support' out there before I've got some extensive feedback. I'll keep the blog updated with progress on that score too.

I recently spoke to another writer who questioned the value of sending material to the Writer's Room slush pile. I can see what he means to a certain extent, but I'm getting good responses from them, so I'm just going to keep sending material as long as they keep asking for it. Another resolution for next year, though, has to be to start sending some of my amassed spec material to agents and producers. Phew! That's enough to be getting on with...

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Three figures high and rising...

Just spotted that the 'Song Meme (sort of)' post was my one-hundredth blog entry. Hurrah! I have reached treble figures, and it only took just over a year and a half of blog life. That's an average of about five posts a month, more than one a week. I always thought my "he never posts" reputation was unjustified. Still, my new year's resolution will definitely be to post more and get that average up; I did say that last year too, though.

(Slightly amusing story: the other night, when I went to the writers' drinkies, photographed and documented so well by Sir Jason here, I met a fellow writer-and-blogger for the first time. She complimented me on my blog, adding that she thought it was wonderful that I was always writing so often about all the interesting things I was doing. A few eyebrows were raised around the table at this, including my own. But I took my praise - one never knows, after all, when it might come again. Turns out, I had been mistaken for David Bishop. To be fair, I was sat down, so the pointiness of my shoes, or otherwise, was not apparent. Then she placed me, and reassured me that my blog was good also. "...But you hardly ever post," she finally added. Oh well.)

Anyway, had a small confidence boost on Friday, when I got another 'Invite Next' from the BBC Writers' Room after sending them a feature script as an example of my work. I'm going to write and muse, and muse and write, about what to send them next, over my Christmas break.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Song Meme (sort of)

Long ago, before my PC went kaput, and before the dawn of time, etc. I was passed the 'song' meme to do something with: specifically, to give an example of a lyric that says something to me about writing. Lots of people had trouble finding something suitable, as I remember. And so did I, 'cos I'm going to cheat! This isn't really the lyric of a song, it's a lyrical picture book for children, called 'Some Dogs Do' by Jez Alborough. I read it to my son on many a night before he goes to bed, and it's lovely and always brings a tear to my eye, because it speaks about something optimistic and beautiful.

It's the story of Sid, a young dog, who when he was on a walk to school one day, "a happy feeling came his way", which fills him up so much that he finds his paws leaving the ground: "without a how, without a why, Sid fell up towards the sky" and flies "in the land of sun and moon, like a doggy-shaped balloon."

Sid comes back down to Earth, and arrives at school, asking his best friend Ben "Did you see me fly just then?" "Don't be daft," came Ben's reply. "You're a dog, and dogs don't fly." "But I did," said Sid. His classmates are just as sceptical, and even his teacher, who says "All dogs walk and jump and run, but dog's don't fly - it can't be done." Still Sid protests "But I did".

Finally, the school bully Gus says "Right, if you can fly, come outside ... let's see you try!" But Sid's happy feeling is gone, and all he can do is flop onto the ground. "You see, you're just a dog," said Gus, "with paws for walking just like us. That will teach you not to lie. Now you know that dog's don't fly."

Sid goes home from school, morose and defeated. And though he did "the things he always did" still "something wasn't right with Sid". His Dad comes out to the garden, as Sid is sat staring at the sky, and asks him what is wrong. But all Sid says is "Dog's don't fly."

Sid's Dad offers to tell him a secret, and when Sid turns to ask what the secret is, he sees his Dad soaring into the air. Sid's happy eyes are open wide. "I knew it... DOGS DO FLY" he cried.

The book ends with Sid's Dad, his Mum, and Sid himself, flying in the sky above their house, accompanied by this couplet:

"Do dogs fly? Is it true?
Some dogs don't, and some dogs do."

No matter who tells you you haven't got what it takes - even, and this is especially important, if it's yourself - always be a dog that does. Till next time...

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Televisual Autopsy - Part 2

So, I was writing a 6 x 60 minute drama about people in an evening class, all trying to write their first novel. My aim was to produce something without any formal shenanigans or fantasy elements (good for the competition, and good for me). I liked the idea, and I was excited to be exploring it.

I spent most of my time for the next few weeks building up characters, their back-stories, how they interacted with the rest of the group, what their arc was going to be, and so on; but, I didn't write a word of screenplay. Perhaps I spent too long on this stage, given the constraints I was working to (although it's very useful material to have now I'm rewriting). A self-imposed deadline was approaching fast: I had to complete my first ten pages soon, as a number of writers, including myself, were taking part in a peer feedback exchange at the end of August.

Just before I started on the script proper, a thought occurred. The format of the show was that each episode concentrated on a single character - would it work if each episode covered roughly a week of their life, the week that their novel would be the focus of the group's attention, being read out and criticised by everyone else? And how about the theme of each character's novel in some way mirroring their main story? This tickled me. I had turned the idea of peer feedback into the structure of my Red Planet Competition entry. Mild worry: was I falling into the trap of making a post-modern joke of this work, already?

I decided not: if you're dealing with characters that are facing some sort of conflict or crisis (and of course I was), and these people are aspiring writers then whatever they are writing is going to – in some way – be affected by what's going on in their life. It was psychologically true enough for me to be satisfied, and it gave the work a Unique Selling Point – each week, a new character, a new story, a new book: nothing over the top, but the character writing the spy story is living a double life, the fantasy author is off in a world of their own, and so on. I was keen to have a USP, as I had remembered the Channel 4 Series The Book Group from a few years back, and wanted to make sure my pitch wasn't too similar.

Still, I didn't want to overdo the literary angle, or else I'd risk creating the over-structured style of story I was trying to avoid. So, I set a rule – you would hear the 'story within a story' occasionally, but only when a character was genuinely reading out a section. Sometimes it would carry on in voice over through the following scene to give an ironic juxtaposition. But nothing more – no fantasy sequences, no sections of adaptation, and no scenes of people at typewriters or computer keyboards if I could help it (that's always death).

My first ten pages and series outline were put together quite quickly, and sent off to a number of very knowledgeable and helpful people. I then carried on working on the remaining 50 pages, but they were basically in a very sketchy outline form at that point, when I was asking for my first ever feedback. So, this is probably where klaxons are sounding in your head. In a perfect world, I would never have sent out the first ten pages of anything, if I hadn't finished it, as things in those first ten pages were bound to change as I kept working. But it isn't a perfect world. And besides: I wanted some feedback on the premise at least. I wanted to see if people said “Is this too much like The Book Group?” as that was obviously a slight concern (no one did).

I got very good feedback and lots of potential notes from people who are out there making a living writing. As usual, I looked for any points that three or more people picked up on. There was one biggie: three people all said (I paraphrase): “Based on your outline, I thought there would be more of the literary genre stuff: fantasy sequences, that sort of thing – you should go for it”. I became very worried that I was being too tentative in my first draft, avoiding the main thrust of what I should have been doing, because it might upset a reader. But with 20:20 hindsight, I now see how I could easily address this threefold note:

Change the outline.

Get rid of the 'story within a story' from the outline as it's distorting people's expectations. But, I did not change the outline, I went against my initial instincts, and embarked on a rewrite of the script, dialling up the literary style and emphasising the ironic counterpoints between the lives the writers lived in reality, and the lives they lived in their prose. And - to be fair - it could have worked. But it was preventing me from doing what I should have been doing, which was finishing the next 50 pages and rewriting to make it more like the thing I set out to write. By the time I submitted them, the first ten pages had voice over, flashbacks, and fantasy sequences; this, as well as introducing my ensemble and setting up the first focus character's plot. I hadn't a chance in hell, frankly.

I still hadn't finished the remaining 50 pages to my satisfaction when I submitted to the competition. I really shouldn't have sent anything in at all, as I didn't have faith in the material. But it's easy to say that now. After submitting, as I kept on writing, I desperately wanted to fix things in those first 10 pages, but obviously I couldn't.

So, I didn't win a competition with material I wasn't happy with: in some ways, this has to be better than not winning with material I am happy with. Plus, I've learned (or relearned) some lessons. I shall publish them here, so I can look back in a year's time before I enter the Red Planet Comp 2009:
  1. Keep hold of your project's core idea or ideas. Work out in your mind what you're okay to change, and what you'd fight like hell to keep. Don't be inflexible, but don't let the rewriting process tear your idea part either.
  2. Don't get seduced by a new direction if it takes you too far from that core idea.
  3. Try not to get feedback until you're finished.
  4. Consider not sending something in to the competition at all if you aren't happy with it: hard, I know, but if you don't feel something's ready, chances are a reader won't either. And there will always be other opportunities.
  5. Consider all notes carefully. Don't rush in to a rewrite: the most obvious way to solve something isn't always the best.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Televisual Autopsy - Part 1

There's a book by Douglas Hofstadter called Le Ton beau de Marot. It covers verse and verse translation, amongst other topics, and uses examples of poems written by Hofstadter himself (an academic, but hardly a poet) to illustrate the creative process. I remember the Poetry Review being very sniffy about this at the time of its publication: the level of detail gone into was, the reviewer felt, unseemly for poems which were previously unpublished and produced by not much more than a hobbyist. I suppose it was a fair enough point, as Hofstadter was probably more surprised at some of the mysteries of the writing process he uncovered than his readership were likely to be, given that they were inevitably poets and writers themselves, and would be engaging in that process every day, for their jobs and everything. It's still a good read though.

I preface today's post with the above tale, because I am aware that it might seem odd to go into detail about a work of mine that has proved a bit of a failure. But I am going to go ahead anyway, and explain what I felt went wrong with my Red Planet script, Life Support. I hope this is useful as an example of things it's probably best not to do. If I'm teaching you all to suck eggs, please forgive me: mine is a cautionary tale, that - no matter how many times one's been told the pitfalls - it's still easy to come a cropper. To put in context exactly how this came to be, I need to talk about the genesis of the idea.

And just in case this seems like me self-administering a public whipping, let me reiterate: I'm not giving up writing. Danny's latest post in his wonderful sequence on professionalism says it all: you have to deal with rejection, and learn from it. Read on for what I've learned this time...

The Red Planet competition was launched at this year's Screenwriters' Festival, and I started working immediately. In a rare quiet moment later that day, I sat on my own and started a mental inventory of possible ideas, but I didn't like any of them. I knew I wanted to do something naturalistic and straight. There were many reasons for this: partially it was inspired by The Wire's brilliant wonderfulness, but mainly it was because most of the longer example scripts in my portfolio have some fantasy elements, or voice overs, or tricksy structures. I was getting a bit tired of that kind of stuff and wanted to do something purer. Plus, all those things can put off a reader unless they're done really, really well.

I also knew I wanted to do a series in a character anthology style (i.e. the genre with no name). I like those kind of shows, and - as this was the first TV drama series I was to write - I thought it might be a more gentle learning curve to start with a structure that allowed me to write six mini-movies, one for each of my characters. I also thought it was a good thing to concentrate most of my time on creating the ensemble and let the plots arise from their characters. After watching all the BBC continuing dramas for so long, I'd firmly decided that characters, and in particular regular characters, are all. A good guest plot is a bonus, but people tune in to watch people, people they know and love.

I needed a linking device to bring my characters together. The idea finally came from one of the speakers at the Festival. There had been an infamous session with a life coach (she of the 'Baby steps, baby steps...' comment). I was musing on this afterwards, and it tickled me to think of what happens to you if you're going through life coaching, and your coach dies. Bing! Light bulb moment.

I still had problems to solve, though: was this a realistic precinct to get my characters together? This was important, as I was going to explode the precinct in episode one, by killing off the mentor character, and then explore whether the group dynamic could come back together and function again. So, it needed it to be a solid and realistic group to begin with; but, life coaching is usually a 1-on-1 activity. Though I did check, and you can get evening classes where groups go through something like life coaching, I didn't know if an audience would buy that.

Did it have to be life coaching? Surely any evening class would become some kind of support group after everyone's been going there for a while. How about a writing group? Write what you know, and all that. It gave me wonderful opportunities for conflict - in life coaching each person's goals would be different, so there would be no real room for jealousy at that level; it would be hard to dramatise 'you're getting yourself together faster than I am' but 'you've got published and I haven't' - everyone can understand that.

This was something I was wary of, though: some readers and script consultants will advise against anything that involves writers or writing: too in-jokey and incestuous. But, as I was avoiding screenwriting and concentrating on wannabe novelists (most of the general public don't think they have a screenplay in them, in fact they probably think the actors and director make it up as they're going along), and as I was working hard to make a distinct group of characters (different ages, different goals, inner and outer, i.e. it wasn't just going to be a bunch of arty twenty something media types), I thought I could get it to work.

In fact, this is the one thing that I'm not attempting to change in my rewrites - I like the novel writing class idea. It may well prove that it's a hard sell, and might not have been the best choice for a competition entry, but I'm sticking with it. Besides, the script had greater problems than that. I'd already sown the seeds of my own destruction (okay, okay, really I'd only sown the seeds for not getting into one competition and having to do a major rewrite - but that doesn't sound so good).

Next: how really really not to deal with peer review feedback...

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Juvenilia #2 and some (possibly old) news

Well, here's a turn up for the books: a play which I wrote when I was eighteen is getting its first ever performance in my old home town, Worthing, tonight and tomorrow. My co-writer back then, Alex Shaw (hello Alex!) is now a drama teacher and is putting it on at Worthing High School.

I don't get any money (hey - it was the first thing I thought of - maybe I'll get the freelancer mentality eventually!); nonetheless - if you're anywhere near there tomorrow night at 7pm - why not go along to see 'Double Glazed': it's just your usual, run-of-the-mill Time Travel Costume Drama Musical Comedy. I'm doing something else tomorrow night which I can't really get out of, unfortunately, so I won't be there - that's the second premiere of my work that I've missed out on in one year.

Still, this is a good sign. Maybe everything I've ever written will be bought and put on...

...eighteen years after I finish it. That's something to really hope for.

ADDITIONAL: As I was drinking with most of the blogosphere last night, some of you out there may not know this (and if you all already did, then forgive me for the old news): the episode of Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe that aired yesterday was not the usual sarcasmfest, but instead an incredibly indispensable set of interviews with some of the best TV writers around: Russell T Davies, Paul Abbott, Tony Jordan, Graham Linehan, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain . It's top! Go to iPlayer, or fire up your PVR/hard drive recorder/video for a repeat. Your brain will love you.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Stock Taken

Well, I have to keep being a scriptwriter to a bit longer. Firstly, because otherwise Jason Arnopp will burn me and Phill Barron will kick me in the nuts; but also, I'll have to keep going until at least October now, 'cos they've changed the dates on next year's Screenwriting Festival. See Martin's blog for a summary. A festival? In a ladies' college? I can't miss that.

Some of my regular correspondents have taken slight exception to my last post. Yes - it was a bit of a vent; for that, everyone has my apologies. But I stand by the thrust of it: there's no point in immediately believing that the work just wasn't right for the reader or the competition. You've got to review the script entered, pull it apart and see if it's as good as it can be, even if this autopsy can be pretty depressing and make you feel like you should give up. And the honest-to-goodness reaction to not getting through in a competition is that it hurts like hell, and I wouldn't be a truthful writer if I pretended otherwise.

In this case, I know the sensibilities of a good few of the authors, and was privileged enough to see a few of the entries at points in their development before being submitted: I know that the subject matter and overall tone of what got through was very varied, and not a million miles away from the stuff I'm doing. So, what more can I have done? It may be nothing. Perhaps I was trying to do too much. Or too little. It may well be that the style I'm going for (white collar versions of Raymond Carver short stories but with more jokes, and on telly) isn't really suited to the schedules of today. Or it could be the kind of thing that's being done too much already. Or maybe it was just a rubbish idea.


Anyway, I'm not giving up, so I've been doing a few things over the last couple of days to make me feel more like a writer, to whit:

  • Analysing new dramas: just caught up with the first two episodes of Survivors. Quick capsule review (warning: very light spoilers): I'm liking it, after a questionable first half an hour where the build up to the apocalypse was a bit slow, and the logic of the contagion/poison was undermined - if it takes a different length of time for different people to die, why did everyone on the final day die overnight, no matter what their symptoms were like before? This is a dramatic virus, methinks. I shall catch up with Wallander tomorrow, and The Devil's Whore soon-ish.
  • Reading 'How to Guides' on writing: the Guardian gave lots of pamphlets away a month ago, on writing lots of different things: comedy, journalism, etc. and someone kept them for me. They make interesting reading. I'm saving 'Plays and Screenplays' until last. Yes - that's right: they're both covered together in one pamphlet. Like they're the same. Twelve pages to cover comedy was ambitious, but six to cover screenplays is just insulting. I'm looking forward to violently disagreeing with it, already.
  • Writing: I'm doing a big rewrite on the Life Support pilot. This isn't a kneejerk reaction to its not being selected. I think the idea has merit, but I've made a few mistakes which I want to rectify. I'll try to share some of that process over the next few posts, as - who knows - it might be useful.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Taking Stock

Congratulations to all those who got through to the next (and final?) round of the Red Planet competition. Jason has handily collated all those winners from the blogosphere here. Well done, y'all.

But: hmm...

When a competition is held, and a large number of fellow bloggers and drinking buddies get through and I fail to get through, it's hard not to think: I should give up.

There, I've said it. No dancing around 'they were looking for something else' or 'it's not the right time' or 'I'm on some kind of different wavelength': despite spending a lot of time on it, my work wasn't good enough. I have to make it better, or quit.

We all need a certain amount of encouragement to keep going, otherwise we'd be insane to keep going. And though I'm not claiming not to be insane, I could do with some official encouragement at the moment, but it's thin on the ground. Maybe I'm missing something that's being told to me, loud and clear.

But I'm not giving up: I'll give it at least six more months before I start trying something different. And I'm not talking wildly different: I'm not going to be learning the ukulele, particle physics or African pottery: I'll just try writing novels, maybe - see how that pans out.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Nobody on their deathbed ever regrets not spending more time at work

Worry not, Phill – I'm still alive! But my computer isn't quite yet. After getting a new desktop to replace my ever malfunctioning old one, I was in the middle of rebuilding it from various back ups and other sources . This took quite a while, and some things are possibly lost for good. I had to type the pilot episode script for my Red Planet entry in from scratch, copying from a paper copy, because the last time I backed things up, I'd hardly started it.

It was quite amusing: after having desperately searched every scrap of paper in my office, finally finding my activation key code, then chatting to a Final Draft support techie in the U.S. using some rather nifty InstantService web-chat instant messenger doodad, and getting the software un-registered from the broken down PC, and re-registered to my new one, I then copied the backup files from my portable hard drive, and – trembling,and with bated breath – clicked to open the file marked 'Life Support – Episode 1' . This is the extent of what I'd written before backing up:

INT.


That was it. Thank the Great God Aethismo I'd printed it out, that's all I can say. Except to add: if anyone who gave me notes has still got a copy of my one page series outline, could they send it to me, please? Don't seem to have that at all, any more. Do regular backups, ladies an gentlemen: learn from my stupidity.

Anyway, I was in the middle of rebuilding the computer when my monitor stopped working. I couldn't afford to replace it until pay day (this Friday just gone – it arrived today) and before that I was making do, using my old RGB projector hooked up to the PC and blasting the screen image all over one wall of the room – it's hard on the eyes (and the screenwriting process: see your script's faults writ large!), so progress has been slow.

I had the natty new netbook too, of course; but, enter another thief of my time: the day job. Don't get the wrong idea - I love my day job. But this time of year is always frantic and fraught. I work as a project manager for a team designing web sites and web applications. It's work I like, and I always find that the writing I do is better when I have a stable and enjoyable job of work to pay the bills; so, it contributes to my proper job too.

And, despite working for a financial institution, my day job seems for now to be unaffected by the credit crunch - fingers crossed. Certainly there's a lot of work coming in for the team. Too much. The problem is that big institutions, even in the web technology area, err on the side of caution (except, obviously in the area of mortgage lending, but let's not go there) and a change freeze operates throughout December when I can't put any websites live.

So, the year end rush of projects happens in November as people use up their budget, instead of in December when people want to be on holiday. It's nice in a way. But it means that round about now I'm horribly busy. It was the same last year too – I had a working computer then, but I was also writing a feature; I seem to remember a November of the comments section bursting with chides for my not posting enough. Plus ca change.

Anyway, all is fixed up now, and by the end of Friday the day job will have settled down too. Expect more blather here then.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

FYI

My replacement desktop is ordered and being built - I'm due to get a delivery date by the end of the week. And, thanks to the blatant advertising on Paul Campbell's blog, I have succumbed and got myself a netbook too (but I decided on the Samsung NC10, Mmmm - lovely!), which should be sent to me on November 1st. It'll be a race to see which gets here first, but whichever it is, I should be returning full time to the Blogosphere very soon.

I've missed you all, dammit!

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

The Machine Stops (Slight Return)

My PC has broken down. Again! And, alas, as my day job is in the financial services industry, unneccesary web surfuing is frowned upon in the current climate of downturn and crunch (nothing to do with productivity, though - it's just that so many people are online checking out the current share price, they're bringing down the web proxy).

So, I'm being a bit naughty and sneaking some time at the blog face to bemoan my computerless fate, and tell you all the things I would have written about, had I the means. Firstly, Russell T Davies's book, which I've just finished, was very entertaining, contains some useful advice (Russell's section on cliched soap behaviour is a must read), and quite scary in places (his description of the punishing schedules of both writing and promotion made me feel sorry for him for a second, until I realised that - yes! - of course I would take on the job if it was offered to me).

And I've also been tagged with the song meme by Paul Campbell and I have a very good idea for a lyric connected to screenwriting to share with you all. But it will have to wait. I need to buy a new computer first...

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Back back back...

...and raring to go. Returned from holiday last week only to fall directly into a big load of man flu. I'm over it now, and looking to get busy with a short film idea for Digital Shorts, work on 'Santa Baby', further obsessive tweaks to the last 50 pages of my Red Planet script, and - not least - catch up with everybody's blogs from the last couple of weeks.


But I'm not doing any of that yet, because I have been reading "The Writer's Tale" by Russell T Davies, a weighty tome about the day-to-day slog and thought process of the showrunner of Doctor Who. I've only read the first few chapters, but it's enthralling. It takes the form of emails going back and forth between Russell and a journalist during the writing and production of the last series of Doctor Who. This captures lots of lovely detail that a traditional 'How To Write' book or even an autobiography would never mention.

I recommend it to anyone interested in professional writing...

...but I really ought to stop reading it and do some writing myself.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

A Voice from Beyond the Grave (Well, the New Forest Actually)

I've only just realised that blogger has a facility where you can post-date a blog entry, and have it automatically populate on a particular day and at a particular time. Woo, and as is custom, hoo!

So, I'm writing this minutes before I get in the car to go off for a break in the New Forest (I'd love to pretend I'm staying in Autumnal England for carbon footprint reasons, but alas it's only because I still haven't got round to getting the little 'un a passport).  But, if all goes well, you'll be seeing this on Thursday midway through my break.  Ain't technology wonderful.

I'm sure I'm enjoying myself, and I hope you are too.  Only a day or two left to get that Red Planet application off: good luck!

See you in October!

Monday, 22 September 2008

Out of Office Autoreply

I don't normally need to make a fuss when I go away for a while, as I usually post so infrequently that it can go unnoticed.  But, having made an effort to up my game of late, it is probably necessary to tell you all that I am off on holiday for a week with the family, so there won't be any posts for a while.

I have left the blog's downstairs light on, so people will think I'm in (and staying up all night every night, without moving from one spot).  If you come by to water the blog's plants, and spot that the freebie newspaper is hanging half-out of my blog's letter box, please do me a favour and knock it all the way through, or else blog thieves may notice, break in, and make off with all my best posts.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to the break, as work's been pretty full on recently. My Red Planet entry is finished, sealed and sent.  I'm keeping everything crossed - I'm pretty pleased with it, and to be honest, just producing the material is enough of a win for me (not that I'll be knocking Tony back if he wants to invite me to the next round, of course).  

Also, once I get back, as well as lot of other ideas that are nagging away at my mind wanting to be written, there's another round of digital shorts to think about.  The scheme is opening for submissions in all the screen agencies across the regions, and I'm thinking about putting in a longer script this year.  While I'm away, if you're also thinking of entering, my posts on the scheme and my experiences with it are as linked below, and may be useful:

Digital Shorts - Part 1: Submission

Digital Shorts - Part 2: Selection

Digital Shorts - Part 3: Script Development

Digital Shorts - Part 4: Shooting

Have a great week: see you soon!

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Inspirations 5: Rectangle of Cloth

Today's Inspiration: El Mariachi

The final stepping stone on my path leads me to the DVD age.

Though I had been 20-odd years watching Private Schultz, Minder, The Ladykillers, Doctor Who, The Singing Detective and many more shows on the goggle box, I'd never owned my own TV. My family had had one, then my college had had one, then flat mates or girlfriends had had one, I'd just shared each for long spells.

[This ain't an isolated phenomenon - I don't think I've ever bought a tea towel, but I always seem to have a collection of them. I've never been to Torbay. I don't know anyone who's been to Torbay. I don't even know where Torbay is: how did I get a rectangle of cloth emblazoned with it's tourist attractions? Mysteries...]

I moved into my own flat in 1999 and had to face the inevitable - I was going to have to buy a TV. I had my eye on a widescreen model, and I was going to buy a DVD player to go with it, as they'd started to become popular. I mentioned this to a colleague, and he said 'You only really need that equipment if you watch a lot of films'. Hmm, I thought, he's right: if I get that equipment I'll be able to watch a lot of films: great! 

And so I did, and the beauty of getting on board when the DVD delivery medium was new was that a lot of old classics (film and TV) were getting reissued in the new format; I had my film school education in front of a cathode ray tube, gobbling up British classics, and Hollywood greats, as well as indie pics.

And you don't get more indie than Robert Rodriguez's mega low budget action flick, El Mariachi, which I bought in a double pack with Desperado. The film is great fun, but the real revelation was listening to the director's commentary. Everything that had inspired me up to that point seemed out of my reach: they were made in fancy studios by Olympian professionals. If I was to get my stuff to an audience, I thought, I'd have to get patronage from someone of that ilk.  But here was some one who'd been successful by just doing it himself, and he was telling me that I could do the same, and not only that, but he was telling me how.

Very soon, I'd bought a digital camera, and got some editing software, and I was making my own movies.  None of them set the world alight but each one was a learning experience, and made me a better writer.  There's nothing like shooting and editing your own material to hammer home what is dispensable or otherwise on the page.  And working with the limitations of budget is always good for the imagination.

I recommend any Rodriguez DVD: even if you don't like the film you get value for money.  As well as insightful commentaries, there's always a ten minute film school featurette on every disc, and even a rather wonderful ten minute cookery school on Once Upon a Time in Mexico.

Next: I realise that I may have created a meme here.  I'm not going to send this out to five other bloggers, because if it's a worthy meme it will self-replicate.  If you want to list five films or TV shows that have been of autobiographical significance to you (you don't have to ramble on as much as I did) then please go ahead, but please do drop me a line to let me know you've done so.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Inspirations 4: Better than normal

Today's Inspiration: The Singing Detective

People like different things, and there's nothing wrong with that. When you're an adolescent and you've been through your taste-defining stage without really realising it, but you haven't learnt enough to appreciate the limitations of what you hold to be of quality, sometimes you can be brought up sharp by different views or attitudes than your own. That doesn't mean those other views aren't wrong however...

I was about 14 when The Singing Detective first aired, and I watched the lot; suitable or not, I didn't care: I knew I was seeing something unique and special. I respect Dennis Potter as a great TV dramatist, and I respect the writer's place as primary author of a work; but, the director Jon Amiel has to take a lot of credit too - he found a visual style beyond anything Potter had imagined, and produced something head and shoulders above Potter's works up to that point.

It was provocative, it was ambitious, it could be called pretentious, you may even hate it. Fine. When it was first repeated, I devoured it once more. I was - what? - a year older and it meant more to me again. By then, I was a hospital radio DJ (apologies, all the other kids were doing it, and it seemed like a good idea at the time) and one night mid-series I was doing some fund-raising event or collecting dedications on the wards or some such. I commented to another hospital radio bod (Stuart Norval - who now reads the local BBC news down here in the South, and good on him) that I had to rush back to see The Singing Detective.

Stuart thought about this, and said: “But it's boring, innit?”

It may be provocative, ambitious, pretentious, you may even hate it. But it's not boring. I was left mouth agape guppy-fish style. I could not believe that anyone really felt like that. But after a short period of time (about twenty years) I got over it, and realised Stuart wasn't lying, and it is possible to be bored by anything, even drama. But I knew I never would be.

I, like every other writer on my blog roll, and every other writer in the world whatever level, will never be bored by this stuff - we can't switch off, we can't ignore it, it nags at the back of our mind and makes us feel guilty if we're not thinking about it. We have to live with that, and some people don't: they don't even know there's a Red Planet competition, let alone will they be scouring their inbox and the world wide web in a few weeks to see if they or anyone they know has won. They call these 'normal people'.

But writers, to paraphrase Philip J. Fry, are better than normal: they're abnormal. Hooray for that!  

Next: El Mariachi

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Inspirations 3: Snake/Buddhist metaphor

Today's Inspiration: Doctor Who

I missed out on Tom Baker, because I got into Who late. The main reason for this was sheer terror - the theme tune sent me scurrying from the room, and the only glimpses I'd catch usually involved that most fearsome of creatures: K9, or as he appeared to my fevered Childish imaginings: 'Doctor Oo's little horse'. He would belch out beams of red death that felled many a guard. Evil.

But I saw a big load of repeats, including all the old doctors, in the Autumn after Baker quit, and then I saw Peter Davison's first year on the job, and I was hooked. I remember having to feign illness twice to get out of cubs so that I could see every episode of Kinda and enjoy odd pre-pubescent stirrings seeing Janet Fielding being all possessed by a snake/Buddhist metaphor.

[Another aside, another survey: I remember everyone at cubs having a vote on their favourite TV show. I told the truth this time, but Doctor Who only got my vote. What won? TJ flippin' Hooker by a landslide. The 80s, they really were a different place.] 

Anyway, as soon as I got into Doctor Who, I also got into a thing called Doctor Who Magazine. And for years, it was the only magazine I read about the making of television. And it was good too: always highlighting the importance of the writer, and covering pretty much every aspect of production, in increasing detail during the wilderness period before the 2005 resurgence. 

It was in DWM that I read about Robert McKee's Story book and seminar in an article about story structures in 1999. I booked myself on the next available London dates: my first writing course. And that was what started my path to where I am now, for better or worse.

Now a parent, I find myself in the same position mine were way back when: should I be too stringent? Or is that worse than being too lax?  As a confused white liberal, I do the whole "we don't like to let him watch too much television" thing, but - you know - it didn't do me any harm (twitch).

This year, as my boy was two years old, and Doctor Who was being shown earlier, I thought I'd give it a try.  The cute Adipose episode was fine, and he seemed to really enjoy it (although at 45 minutes he was getting restless halfway through - Daddy sat rapt throughout, obviously).  But the following week, big lava monsters in Pompeii scared the be-jesus out of him. Who do you think you are scaring my child, Mister Moran?* Well, you're pretty cool, actually. I'm sure some day soon he'll be remembering "the one with the big lava monsters" in fond terms.

Or he'll think Doctor Who is rubbish 'cos his Dad likes it, and he'll want to play football instead.  Well, it'll be fun finding out...

* If it wasn't clear, this is not an attack on James, but a very obscure Doctor Who reference.  If you know to what it refers, you are as sad as me.  Well done.

Next: The Singing Detective

Monday, 15 September 2008

Inspirations 2: Square-Eyed Boy

Today's Inspiration: The Ladykillers

Continuing my attempt to catalogue some of the key films or shows that have collided with me autobiographically, and inspired me to do such a crazy thing as write. Raymond Carver called these his 'Fires' although in the same essay he claimed that his only real 'fires' were his children - he had to keep writing to feed and clothe them. I sensed a hint of bitterness, reading between his lines, and anyone who's ever read his short story "Elephant" - and if not, why not? Go! Go read it now! - will know, he could certainly access that feeling in his subconscious and use it as a motivation for one of his protagonists.

I am lucky enough (in some ways) to only write for love (for the most part) and not to feed my son. There's always a silver lining, and the day job's is that I am freed from the curse of the freelancer; not, mind, that I wouldn't like the opportunity to give it a try sometime soon-ish. I wonder what my son, once he's old enough to appreciate it, will make of a Dad who has this burning desire to write.

My own Dad, rest his soul, did try to reach out to his square-eyed boy, but as Dad's main viewing habits involved football and athletics, there wasn't much common ground. One wonderful gift that he gave me, though, was The Ladykillers (the original, obviously). It was on BBC2 one Saturday, and he said 'Sit down and watch this, it's great' and he was right. It was. It is.

Should I do the same for my son when the time comes? Yeah. One day, I'll stick the DVD on (there's no chance, I guess, of BBC2 showing it any more) and see what he thinks. If he hates it, at least that will save him from the curse: my Dad was responsible for instilling the preconception in me that all British films I saw from that day on would be five-star works of fabtastic genius. Obviously, a lifetime of slight disappointment ensued.


Next: Doctor Who

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Inspirations 1: Before German n'er-do-wells, or famous Gallifreyans

I've just spotted that Private Schultz is out on DVD. When this was first on, I remember watching it - I was quite young, maybe younger than 10 - and feeling something odd and wonderful. I now know that I was responding to great writing, but at the time it just felt like I had learned a secret. No kids of my acquaintance were watching Private Schultz (it was written by the same person that adapted the 70s version of I Claudius, I now find out!). If it had been nowadays, I suppose I could have just gone online to find a TV and film forum to talk to people about it (and they'd all be snooty to me 'cos I'd be younger than 10) but back then I had many years keeping those secrets.

So, over the next few days I'm going to post five more inspirations, with annotations on their autobiographical significance (forgive me the indulgence, I need something to post about and "wrote a lot today because of imminent deadline" is going to get boring very quickly).

Today's inspiration: Minder

Before I discovered the TV adventures of German n'er-do-wells, or famous Gallifreyans, my favourite programme was Minder. Minder was great.

I remember when I was about seven at infants school we had a lesson where the teacher took a survey of when was everyone's bedtime (dunno what this was supposed to teach us). I lied and said I was tucked up in bed by 7pm. But I was always awake till past 10 every night watching programmes like Minder and The Sweeney. My parents were wonderful. Or lax. I haven't worked out which yet.

Only one child put their hand up to a post 10pm bedtime. He was a rough but cool kid: I really should have got to know him better - we might have been watching all the same programmes.

[An aside: you know how people say they didn't realise TV shows had writers or directors when they were young (and it must be true, for so many different people keep saying it). I don't remember thinking that exactly, but I do remember a feeling that everything on TV wasn't real, like a photo-realistic animation, and all the people on TV were controlled avatars of some kind. Except Frank Muir.

I thought Frank must be real because he was on both Call My Bluff and a Cadbury's Fruit and Nut commercial ('Everyone's a fruit and nut case'). So, for a period of some months (maybe even years) I believed the only people that existed were those I'd met and Frank Muir. Needless to say, I was something of a strange kid. For some reason, though, Dennis Waterman was immune to this despite also being in two shows. I'm still not sure Dennis Waterman exists.]

To keep the spirit of my youth alive I still go to bed after 10, and I regularly lie in surveys.

Next: The Ladykillers

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Heads Up

Very late notice, I know, but this is a little forewarning that a film what I wrote "Lent" is going to be screened at 5.30pm, at The Odeon, Aylesbury on Monday 15th September, as part of a programme of Screen South offerings playing at the Short Cuts Film Festival in Buckinghamshire. Details here: http://www.cliffproductions.co.uk/shortcuts08.htm

Alas, I didn't get sufficient notice of this to attend myself, I will instead be at the Writers' Guild event which the venerable Mister Paul Campbell advertises here.  But it's jolly exciting all the same...

Monday, 8 September 2008

Notes on Notes

 have just finished reviewing two other writers Red Planet scripts, as part of this script swap feedback challenge that a group of us are trying out. It's all timeboxed, as it should be: the scripts had to be completed and submitted by August 31st, and the feedback returned by midnight last night. The second deadline was much harder than the first, and I finally finished the feedback by about 11pm last night, exhausted.

This was because script reading is hard. I salute you, script readers all over the world - I could not do this for a living. The major problem is being careful not to give notes for the sake of it just to look like one is giving good value. Also, there is the constant paranoia that one's own style and preconceptions are colouring the impression of material (and, of course, they are). Anyway, I am safe in the knowledge that the writers I was critiquing are big enough and good enough to ignore my notes if they don't suit.

Now, I have the still pretty difficult task of taking the responses to my script, searching for the sticking points which were mentioned by most or every respondent, and formulating ways of fixing those without getting rid of too much I like. Another run through the 60 page script, and a few more passes on the first 10 and the outline by the end of September in time for the Red Planet deadline. Easy.

Of course, I have a family holiday starting on the 20th, and I promised The Wife that there would be absolutely no writing interfering with my duties as husband and father on that holiday. So, I've actually only got twelve days! Oh shit. Better get back to work then.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Grumpy Old Man Syndrome

I'd like to expound for a moment upon a session at this year's Screenwriting Festival in Cheltenham. Maybe I'm getting to be a Grumpy Old Man, or maybe it's a quality of writers that we like to be contrary sometimes, but I very much enjoyed the opening keynote speech by Barbara Machin. Because I disagreed with it.

Well, not every single thing, obviously: Barbara was lovely, and gave her time freely and enthusiastically in multiple sessions across the three days, so good on her. I've also enjoyed what I've seen of her work (her Bafta winning 'multiple perspective' episode of Casualty was sheer class); and, the general message that writers should strive to keep audiences interested is self-evidently true. But Barbara's speech, and the article she wrote for Broadcast on the week of the festival which covered the same ground, seemed to limit the notion of innovation to a dangerous degree.

There is a write up of the speech here which also links to other bloggers' coverage (I wish I could keep as good notes as Jason - I guess I'm too busy sitting in the audience being contrary) but if you missed it, the thrust was thus: audience's are bored by drama, reality and entertainment formats are kicking our butts in the ratings, the US are putting us to shame, and commissioners, script editors, and writers shouldn't be scared of doing non-conventional narratives.

There was also a point where Barbara stated "There never was a golden age of TV" before listing many old shows in a wistful tone that made me think she didn't quite believe herself. But she's right, there never was - it just seems like it because people didn't seem to really know what they were doing, and (maybe) there were less gatekeepers.

Every aspiring 21st Century comedy writer must have gritted their teeth on hearing the old story of the early Monty Python meeting in the late sixties, where some Beeb Suit asked the boys lots of questions about what their new show was going to be like, the answer to each was a shrug and a 'dunno'. 'Okay,' the Suit replied finally, peeved, 'But you can only have thirteen episodes.'

Maybe things were freer then, but I'm not convinced: that Python anecdote has the shape of one that's been finely honed over the subsequent decades, and anyway the Beeb Suit had just bagged six seasoned TV writers, including John Cleese - who was already a star - so they knew they weren't exactly backing a three-legged pony. But, even if true, was the amount of quality programming really that different in those days? No. The good programmes have only endured because people liked them, we've forgotten all the forgettable ones.

Same for the States: we get a lot of great stuff imported from HBO, and a few inspired shows from the networks too, but there's a load of old toss produced across the pond that we never see. And a lot of them never get seen by our American cousins either, as the shows tend to get shit-canned after three episodes.

And are entertainment format ratings out-flanking drama's significantly more than they always have? Again, I don't think so. More people were watching New Faces than Dennis Potter's plays, weren't they?! It's no different.

But it's a constant fight, and we shouldn't be complacent. We do need to innovate to survive. So, what is innovation? What is non-conventional narrative? The examples given were flash forwards to start an episode (an example was given from the West Wing), multi-character perspectives, and... Oh, I'm yawning already. Because these techniques are hoary old clich├ęs. Yes, the approach worked on Casualty, and I loved it, but that was - what? - two years ago now. It's been done. And as anyone who's watched more than four episodes of Battlestar Galactica in one sitting (and why not?) can tell you, flash forwards get old very quickly.

I'm being unfair of course. It isn't easy to list examples of innovations, because if you've got an example of it already being done: it ain't really an innovation anymore.

So, what's to do? Well, it's not so gloomy. There's a recent drama that holds it's own against the reality shows, is always top non-soap drama of the week and a top ten show. It often beats the soaps and has reached number 1 in the ratings on several occasions. That show is New Tricks. Yes. The one with Dennis Waterman and Co: a cold case detective show, i.e. a format as old as the sun; its only twist is that the detectives are old, just like the cases. Which is, of course, in its own way, both innovative and brilliant. The show has found a loyal audience, and this seems well deserved to me, even though it's not my cup of tea.

The Wire *is* my cup of tea, and is loved and talked about by many (though perhaps not tuned into by so many - it's more of a DVD phenomenon). And The Wire deliberately eschewed any formal tricksiness and embraced as total a realism as it could. Which is, of course, in its own way, both innovative and brilliant.

I agree with Barbara Machin: every series should strive to be different, but how it should be different should not be imposed from without, but should develop from within. True innovation will emerge naturally, if talented people do their imaginative best to entertain and surprise their audience; it will emerge from a premise, or a plot, or most importantly from characters that people might love. If we start with just the idea that we should innovate, we will get into trouble. I do worry that, in a speech given to an audience with a large proportion of writers who are starting out, Barbara might have made a dogma out of trotting out flashbacks and voice over and all that boring stuff.


But maybe I'm just a Grumpy Old Man.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

A post a day...

As I am often criticised (in a friendly manner, mind) by my blog-o-peers for the somewhat sporadic nature of my posting, I set myself a challenge recently to do a week straight of daily posts, without skimping too much on content. Hooray! I managed it. Well, you can make up your own mind about the content: without days and weeks to ponder, I do tend to rant on occasion, apologies for that.

The interesting thing about this is that I have done more and more focused writing during the week I was strenuously blogging than I have for a while previously. It might well be coincidence, or something to do with having a birthday, but I seem to have upped my game a little. Does this mean that I can't use being busy as an excuse anymore? Well, no...

As I'm doing a script report on two Red Planet entries, brainstorming some ideas for 'Santa Baby' and continuing my work on 'Life Support' I am going to revert to posting every couple of days. But please feel free to drive by and blog-o-insult me if it all gets too quiet round here again.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Everyone's a Critic 2

Well, the internet has failed to heed my advice to be nicer and more constructive.

"The Wrong Door" was broadcast the other day (only got round to seeing it on the iPlayer yesterday, because I've been busy with things like doing one post here per day - it's killing me, I tells ya!).  Anyway, the scribosphere's own Phill "Phill 'The Barron' Barron" Barron's written some sketches for the series. See his lovely blog here for further nice information: it was received well in most quarters, the ratings were good, they built over the course of the episode.

All wonderful, you may think.  But no! What you have failed to see is that Barron is a sinner. He has been guilty of that most uncommon of vices - he's got work out there, and to a sizeable audience.  And to compound it, it's work that is trying (and succeeding, at least in this house) to make people laugh. What a naughty fellow!

You'd think Phill had strangled the Queen Mother's otter or something to see the reaction in the dustier corners of the web. Some people have taken the time out to go to his blog, and abuse the show and him in the comments section.  Luckily, Phill isn't me (I'd be weeping buckets by now) and has taken this in his stride.  And good on him, because it's a triumph to get paying gigs, let alone get things made, let alone get things watched.

Sad to say, a forum of which I'm a member, and which I used to think was rather civilised and above this sort of thing, has got a thread going titled "The Wrong Door - Good Grief"; and in this thread a poster has linked to Phillip's blog, making some derisory comments, and putting the "blame"squarely at his door.  This is all wrong. It's wrong to put it at his door. Wrong door (this subliminal advertising lark is easy, isn't it? I'll take cash or cheque, Phill).

Serious Point time: How about this? Don't say something in print to someone online that you wouldn't tell them to their face.  That works for me.  (Imagine if the person you were slagging off was sitting next to you, how embarrassed would you feel).

Monday, 1 September 2008

Bits and Bobs

Yesterday: I completed the first 10 pages of the pilot script and one page outline for 'Life Support' according to deadline. The writers' group will now provide feedback on each others work: one person facilitates, by randomly selecting which scripts go to whom. So, I will have one or two sets of feedback to do this week, and will get one or two sets of feedback on my own work in return. I'm looking forward to trying this approach - it might not be as comprehensive as Power of Three, but it is probably more applicable at times where everyone in the scribosphere is maxed out working to the same competition deadline.

Today: Had a meeting with Colin Stevens of Green Steven Films, where we signed the option contract for my screenplay 'Santa Baby'. Lovely! Great discussions were had about possible additions, which I'm going to brainstorm over the next two weeks. This is a short live-action project that has got good responses from everyone who's seen it, and Colin and I think it has great potential to be a seasonal TV offering. Here's hopin'. And do watch this space - I'm looking forward to keeping the blog updated about this one.

Tomorrow: I'm sending off another script to the BBC Writers' Room, which I'm printing tonight. I'm trying to get three or four pieces to them per year, depending on quality and suitability of what I have to submit. This should hopefully keep my name in the frame without constituting a bombardment. 

That's all for the mo'. Hope everyone is having a productive time right now. Hey - when did it get to be September?

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Room Meme

About seventy-four years ago, Sir Jason of Arnopp he done memed me, to post a picture of my work area. Now my computer is all fixed, I can post it. Some points of note:

1) Creative mess = genius.

2) Hint of further large number of DVDs just out of shot gives an inkling of exactly how much money I've wasted over the years.

3) Ergonomic desk and seating desperately required (all donations welcome).

4) Lack of impressive board on the wall adorned with many Post-It note plot points. I was going to prepare one for the photo, but I was too busy writing.

5) That's "Life Support" on that screen there, that is.

6) My valiant attempt at redecorating my study has stalled at the 'strip wallpaper' stage, and proceeded no further. We moved at the end of November 2007.  There's no excuse...

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Reward Based Learning

I am motoring through the script right now, but it's only by the grace of DVD shop clerks not being literal that I'm getting any writing done at all.

Looking for a suitable birthday present for me, my better half ventured into town to buy a boxset without the use of the internet, and found herself in HMV or Zavvi or some such place. Knowing that I have watched all but one of the available seasons of The Wire on DVD, she asked in three separate establishments for "the most recent season of the Wire on DVD". Oh, the vagaries of the English language! For, to a one, each of them said "It's not out until September".

Due to this confusion, my better half decided not to risk it, and got me something else instead. Of course, I haven't seen series 4 yet, and that is ""the most recent season of the Wire on DVD" because - as they so rightly stated - season 5 isn't out until September.  Never mind. As I say, I'd have never got anything done if I was glued to new Wire episodes (it really is that compulsive) so I shall save it as a reward for getting my entry into Red Planet next month. 

And I most defintely won't buy it tomorrow. No siree.  I am strong.

Must... prevent... self... from ordering... The Wire...

Friday, 29 August 2008

Life Support Progress Report, and sad news

I'm surprised at how very energised I'm feeling to be working on a TV project. Maybe this is vindication for my decision to concentrate on non-film work from now on, or maybe it's just the freedom of working just for myself (for now) on spec work; whatever it is, I'm enjoying myself.

Progress so far: my computer is fixed, I've developed lots of background material on characters and world, and I've plotted out my pilot episode.  So, finally, I get to do what I've been putting off, and start producing some pages.  Sitting down and writing a draft can be fun, as Jason and Danny have posted about, most informatively and entertainingly, recently.
And, as part of a writing challenge with a group of other writers, I'm going to complete the first ten pages (and one page series outline) by the end of August, and get feedback from the group, as well as give feedback on other people's scripts.  To be honest, it's probably a bit early for my script, but a challenge is a challenge; and all notes can be useful, one way or other.
ADDITIONAL: I've just read the very sad news that Geoffrey Perkins has died in a car accident at a ridiculously young age.  I'd never met him, but his name was on the credits on pretty much every comedy programme that meant anything to me in my youth. A terrible shock.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Character Options

I'm doing something in the development of 'Life Support' that I've never done before: I'm casting it. I don't mean that I'm organising a table read (although, thinking about it, that's a bloody good idea). No, I'm putting an actor to each of the regular characters in my head. 

I know I'm late to this party, and everyone probably already does this: with feature scripts, I've often been asked 'Who do you see playing this part?' and I've never before been able to answer definitively. But now, if asked, I could tell you my whole cast.

I haven't cheated either: I've refrained from using Hollywood A-listers, or casting myself, or anyone dead or otherwise unavailable. It's a plausible ensemble, with one role written for a non-famous actor friend, and the rest going to TV actors of whom I'm fond. One cameo has been written with a legend in mind. But it's only a day or two's of filming, and a vital and interesting role, so it didn't stretch the bounds of the possible.

Of course, when it gets made (well, why not?) I will probably not be consulted that much, and even if I were, I wouldn't get my dream cast. For this reason, I'll be superstitious and not name names. 

It has certainly proved a very useful exercise in helping me to find a unique voice for each of my characters, and I've tried to avoid the obvious pitfall of limiting any creative choices based on whom I've got in mind. But anything that concentrates on character, to my mind, can't be going too far wrong.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Two year retrospective

It's my birthday today, and I'm now closer to 40 than I am to 30, so forgive me if you find me in contemplative mood. I'm currently in the middle of a course; it's nothing to do with screenwriting, it's for the day job. But it's being held in a training centre in Holborn that I attended another course at, almost exactly two years ago. And it was at that course where I took a call telling me my script had been picked for the Film Council's digital shorts programme.

I don't want to blow the event out of all proportion - before that I'd had lots of encouragement from industry professionals, had done lots of courses, written reams and reams, and made many, many no-budget short films. But that phone call meant proper recognition. And budget. So, I mark that day as a starting point of sorts.

Two years later, and I'm reflecting on what I've achieved in that time. I haven't stopped working - up to and including today, I've always had some contracted screenwriting on the go, as well as a healthy amount of spec work, which is good. Conversely, I haven't stopped working at the day job either - the screenwriting I've done has not paid well enough up front for me to reduce my hours toiling in the big smoke. But that's the UK film industry, and I knew what it was like before I started.

It comes down to a question of why one has chosen to write in the first place. I do it, and I don't think I'm a special case, because I'm arrogant enough to think I have something unique to say that might entertain people. I don't do it for the chance of money. Although that would be nice, because something else has happened in those two years - I've rather wonderfully got a family and a mortgage and commitments. And these commitments do impact on the screenwriting, there's no way they could not.

So, I have decided for now to concentrate on developing broadcast opportunities, which will mean trying radio plays and getting a script on Doctors for starters. I have one ongoing short film commitment, which the director and I hope will turn out to be a TV project of sorts too (very exciting - watch this space!). 

As I want to stay based in the UK, it makes sense to concentrate my efforts on an area which has the best chance of providing an eventual income for my family. And the day job allows me to not be in any particular hurry too, as TV's obviously a very competitive arena to break into. I won't be saying goodbye to film forever, and I will obviously revise this policy quick-smart if Steven Spielberg turns up at my door with a shedload of cash to replace Steven Moffat on the next Tin Tin movie. But barring that possibility, it's Au Revoir Cinema for a bit.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

This thing I'm writing... what the hell is it, exactly?

I'm glad to end the radio silence of the last week or two; there was a good reason for it - I was hard at work on my series pilot, which I'm planning to enter into the Red Planet competition. In fact, I don't know why I'm being so coy about it: it's called Life Support, it's a 6 x 60 minute contemporary drama TV series and it's one of those thingummy types of one that there isn't a proper term for, or at least not one I know.

I recently met up with a bunch of writers and bloggers for a few drinks in that London. I canvassed opinions then, and no one there could think of a convincing moniker either. This is my personal view on how the categories break down:

Soap (Coronation Street, Eastenders, Emmerdale) - in it's purest form a soap opera has a group of characters, each of whom will take the protagonist role in a running plot line, several of which will be running at one time, overlapping, and they'll never all end at the same time. Programme runs till it gets canned (and if they see it coming far enough in advance there might be closure, like Brookside or Eldorado managed). There are no guest protagonists coming in for one or more episodes. Corrie occasionally doles out guest roles for multiple episodes (e.g. Ian McKellan's stint) but they won't be protagonist of a plot in the same way as the guest(s) of the week in a Casualty episode.

Precinct drama (Holby City, Casualty, The Bill in most of its incarnations) - has running soap plots for its main cast ongoing, but also has guest protagonists coming in for an episode or more. These guest plots might well reflect on or complicate a main character's ongoing soap plot. Can be running all year round, or can run in series with breaks, like Heartbeat for example.

Drama series (Bonekickers, Ashes to Ashes, Doctor Who) - do often tell one loose story over a series, or one story over all their series, but each episode stands on its own merit, more or less. Might have guest protagonists, but will definitely have one or more regular main characters. Obviously it's a broad spectrum - some series' episodes will be more self-contained than others.

Series where one year's run equals a serial (The Wire, 24) - special case of the above, quite popular nowadays. Each episode of a series can't be taken on it's own, but there's closure for some plots every year, and something of a jumping on point at the beginning of any new series. Some UK drama series are experimenting with this form for their latest runs (Torchwood, Spooks).

Anthology Series (Tales of the Unexpected, The Twilight Zone) - Diametrically opposite to a soap, I suppose. No running protagonist, new guest plot every week. Not that fashionable on British television at the moment. Unless I've forgotten a really obvious example, which I might well have done. I'll kick msyelf, I'm telling you...

Drama serials (Criminal Justice, Burn Up). One off multi-episode dramas. Could be multi-protagonist, but is the most likely of any of these to be single protagonist, as they are generally shorter and more focused.

Telenovella (the original Ugly Betty) - a long serial with soap style plots for its protagonists, but it eventually will come to a definite end.

But what I'm writing isn't exactly any of these. It's another type of beast, something like The Street, currently, or historically Boys from The Blackstuff as well as many others. It's a series of linked, sole protagonist episodes, based around a connected group of people, one of whom is centre-stage each week. The leads of other episodes might be in the other stories, substantially, or as walk-ons, or not there at all (in Life Support, I've taken the decision that they will all appear in every episode, the continuation of their individual plots still hinted at in the background.)

So, what I'm writing isn't totally unprecedented (phew! I'd be worried if it were) but what's it called? Is there an industry or academic standard term? The best the London Meet could come up with is Character Anthology, but that doesn't encapsulate the connectedness of the protagonists. And does it really matter? Suggestions to the usual address.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Everyone's a Critic

I'm glad I'm not the only one who likes 'Bonekickers'. I've watched four of the episodes so far (not last night's yet), and read a lot of hostile reviews on the internet and some in the press too. But I love it. I thought I was missing something obvious that was wrong with what seems to me to be a fun adventure series. But I've asked other people (a lot of them writers, but some normal people as well) and they were all positive about it. And it's figures have been pretty solid, too.

The latest copy of the Radio Times (I buy it for the articles) has a piece laying into the series by their TV editor - and presumably no relation to Matthew or Julie - Alison Graham. (Oh, Alison Graham. My mother taught me that if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all, so here's my thoughts about Alison Graham: .) She trots out examples of the show's 'terrible' dialogue, such as "Don't mess with me, I'm an archaeologist". Excuse me? Isn't that line, well, fab?! Maybe it's just me.

This all got me thinking about critical reactions in general. I remember asking Matthew Graham when I met him at the BBC writers' room event whether he was still (or ever?) brave enough to visit any 'Life on Mars' online forums. The worst he'd ever spotted was someone claiming he should "die" for something he'd done in a LoM script. He stopped looking upon finding that. I didn't ask what had prompted this reaction, but this was on a fan site for goodness sake. With fans like that...

Still, Matt can take anything in his stride: he had earlier told a very funny anecdote at that same session about having a very famous producer feign a heart attack during a recent pitch he'd done(his reaction - to persevere to the very end of the pitch, as the guy might think it got better, you never know).

I don't know if I'd be able to resist taking a peek if it were me, though. And I'd probably be paralysed with fear an unable to write for weeks upon seeing the first page of bile. God bless the internet. Luckily I've worked mostly in UK film, so my work is generally unmade and/or unseen. God bless the British Film Industry. So double kudos to Piers for putting up his recent short film Fatal online, for all to see and form an opinion upon. Go see it, and comment if you like, but try to be polite and constructive. Spewing forth rabid reviews online or in the pages of the RT does not necessarily equate to having discerning taste.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Delete As Applicable

After having been working, then having my son's second birthday party, then being ill, then going to a screenwriting festival, being ill again, sleeping for an entire weekend to recover from said festival, then working again... this weekend just gone was my first chance to get a power unit for my PC. But I didn't.

This means I can't yet load up photos to do Jason's meme (I'm not sure of the verb here, does one 'do' a meme?) but I will in due time.

The reason for not fixing the computer, aside from sheer laziness, is that it's forcing me to fill lots of notebooks with longhand about my Red Planet entry TV series idea - character biogs, back-story, episode ideas, and so on. Despite a strong urge to do so, I can't fire up Final Draft and start typing a script. And because I don't trust my sense of discipline, I am holding off from fixing the computer for a bit to keep it that way.

This, if you don't recognise it, is part of Robert McKee's method. Predictably, McKee took a few verbal beatings in different sessions at the Screenwriters' Festival, but I like his book 'Story' - it has some useful practical advice, and it's clear and well-argued with good examples. I also loved the lampooning of some of his excesses in 'Adaptation' too. As, I'm pretty sure, did McKee himself.

I don't agree with anyone who says 'Don't read any of the screenwriting manuals'. Read them all: Vogler, Field, Parker, etc., etc. All of them. And ignore them all if you want, or ignore bits of them, and use other bits.

None of them holds a secret or formula, but I think a lot of (probably old school and self-taught) writers worry that youngsters are going to be unduly influenced by these texts, and write too predictably. But let me tell you this: if you read anything and take it all at face value and never question it - you will never be a good writer anyway. That's our job, isn't it? To question everything, to pull at the seams of the visible and obvious and discover what's hidden. Why should it be any different just because we're reading a book about screenwriting?

And anyone who thinks McKee offers easy options has not read his book. It proposes research, thorough, thorough research on all aspects of the world of your story, trying out various options and discarding them to insure you are not slipping into cliches. For a feature, I think he advises a minimum of four months amassing material before typing so much as a 'FADE IN'.

Whether this is a good idea or not is entirely up to you. But I always find my work is better the more prep I do, and the more notebooks I fill up beforehand. Of course, I'm planning out an 8 x 60 minute series and I only have two months. But that's deadlines for you.

It is possible to do too much research as well, I suppose: a whole room filled with books about Napoleon - that's just crazy/genius.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Thanks to Tony Jordan

I am currently working on a TV drama series outline for the first time. I've done pretty much every other kind of spec work - sketches, shorts, features, radio plays, sit coms, 2 x 90-minute part TV serials - but I haven't before sat down and planned out characters and story for 6 or more hours of popular drama.

I've been putting it off, I suppose - I've got a folder full of ideas, but it never seemed worth doing before. Until Tony Jordan told me to.

No one, I calculated, was going to commission a series from me until I'd done more sketches, shorts, features, radio plays, sit coms, etc. So, I felt my time was probably better invested elsewhere. But Tony Jordan just might. I saw that gleam in his eye during Cheltenham - he is just about crazy wonderful enough to produce a drama series by a newcomer.

So, it's worth doing now. But it always was, I think. As an exercise, it is very challenging - I am planning enough material for 4 or 5 movies, and I can literally feel myself becoming a better writer as I work to craft it all into a satisfying whole. So: thank you Tony, for the inspiration.

At the launch (read all about it in Lord Arnopp's jolly good write up here), Mister Jordan said something along the lines of 'Not many people will have a spec TV series ready in a drawer'. Whereupon I saw a number of people in the audience, most of whom I knew, visibly suppressing the urge to thrust up their hand and say 'Me sir, me sir! I've got loads'. And as I've said, even I have a stack of ideas. So, the question was: what to pick?

In a quiet moment at the festival (yes - there were a few quiet moments, believe it or not!) I took out pad and pen and wrote down every one of my series ideas. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, the sore throat, or the alcohol poisoning, but they were all shit. I couldn't see the legs in any of 'em. So, I have gone with something completely new that occurred to me, bit by bit, in the days following the festival and that I've been developing since. A gamble? Yeah, but it's all a gamble anyway. And I think Tony would approve.

Besides, the Red Planet prize, as fun and important as it is, is only one target. Realistically, I have to be prepared that only the first ten pages will get read. But I will have a pilot and series breakdown to continue working on and refining. So everyone's a winner. Hooray and - if I might be so bold - marvellous!

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Cheltenham Screenwriting Festival: Dont's and Don'ts

Number 1: Don't lose your voice halfway through the proceedings. It makes networking more challenging.

Number 2: Don't neglect the unobvious activities available. Like playing croquet. I met just as many lovely people while playing croquet at the festival than I did at the specific networking events. Some would stop and look at the group of us with our mallets and say "Goodness, you're playing croquet", and friendship and career success would then swiftly ensue for all involved.

Number 3: Don't expect to be able to get a decent Martini within walking distance of the Golden Valley Roundabout in Cheltenham.

But that's enough negatives...

Hello there. It's taken me days to recover, but it was wonderful! Cheltenham 2008 is being covered on many many blogs, but I'll add my two-penneth here in overview, and then some anecdotes and notes over the next few posts. Some of the highlights for me were as follows:

* The Scribomeet Social on the first night. Thanks and kudos to Piers and Jason.

* The psychiatrist who interviewed Ronald Harwood and started one question with the statement (I paraphrase a little): "Screenwriters can be divided into those with mild Aspergers and those with dangerous Aspergers", which became a sort of catchphrase when I reported it back paraphrased (a lot) to various people who weren't at the session as "I'd like to ask the Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood: why are you so mental?". Said shrink also told us that his wife had told him off for always watching (and I don't paraphrase at all) "those Nazi films".

* Stephen Woolley and Kevin Loader's informative session on producer/screenwriter working relations.

* Finding out that I fancy Kate Harwood, Head of Drama Series and Serials at the BBC, to a degree that makes me feel just a little bit ashamed. I don't know quite why.

* Witnessing Dan Turner lose his KFC virginity.

* Being sat behind Mike Leigh in one session, and realising he's soooo tiny, you could fit him in your pocket.

* Tony Jordan's wonderful stories - including a lot about playing solitaire when you're supposed to be writing, snot in computer keyboards, and being bored enough in his hotel room to watch "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang". And why not.

* Piers and I stealing the leftover biscuits from the Screen Agencies abandoned room, dispensing some (rather good) advice about screen agencies to someone who popped their head around the door, and finally escaping through the window.

* Jane Tranter bringing a tear to my eye by showing a BBC drama showreel that was so good it was emotional.

* Laura Mackie doing the same with judicious clips from shows like Cracker.

* Meeting TV's James Moran and then witnessing him, The Turner and The Arnopp create Horror sequel "The Exorcist - The Fifth". Coming to a cinema near you... well, one day. Maybe.

* Meeting so many wonderful people, some for the first time, and some for the first time since last year.

* The live pitching event, Croquet, Terry Pratchet, Nigel Planer, Marks and Gran (who were turning up for a day just as screenwriters wandering around, not even to be part of any particular session), The Birth of The Dark Arrow...

...I could go on and on. But I've leave it for another day. See you soon.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Job Done

Well, I've completed work on the latest and last draft of the feature I was working on, and now it will go off to live a new life, maybe hitting a screen near you sometime in the future.

So I find myself back to hustling for a gig again. There's still a short project on the go, and a huge number of spec scripts, some completed, some works in progress, some just glints in my eye. It's a wonderfully liberating feeling to be able to work on whatever you like (albeit only with pencil and paper at the moment - Gah!) and I'm looking forward to networking my socks off at the Screenwriters' Festival Cheltenham, which is where I will be for the next few days. I'm hoping they have some PCs available there, so I can update the blog with a few up-to-the-minute entries, but - if not - I'll see you in just under a week.

Oh, and thanks to all who contacted me with hints and advice about fixing my PC - it was much appreciated.

Monday, 23 June 2008

The Machine Stops

Gah! My home PC is dead. As a stone. Choir invisible. Lovely plumage the Norwegian Blue. Etc. Etc.

This leaves me in a horrible state of techno-angst. No Final Draft. No iPlayer. No podcasts. And all the screenwriting work I've ever done, I can't get at. I may have to revise my "backups are for wimps" policy. It now seems a bit macho to have been playing chicken with entropy.

It's probably just the power-unit going on the blink, but I am a hardware dunce and am not sure I want to risk someone as inept as me fitting a new one. And then it might not be the power unit. What if the hard drive is wiped? Gah!

I can update the blog from work, so expect more entries here until I get things fixed. This is my only portal left to the screenwriting world.

Actually, this gives me an idea for a story about over-reliance on technology, and the brave struggle of an inept character to live without the internet. But I'm going to have to write it in a pad. Like last century. Gah!

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Yeah... No posts for ages... Again... I know... Sorry.

The Screenwriters' Festival is fast approaching. I can't believe it's been a year since those dizzy, drizzly days of Cheltenham 2007. Jason Arnopp's post here has a photo from back then, which shows me talking to Piers Beckley with my wrist glued to my chin. Great times.

If you haven't got a ticket yet, I recommend it as a good opportunity to meet professionals and see some good sessions on the craft. It wasn't such a good environment last year for meeting producers or getting work, but all networking is good networking. Besides, it's improving with every year, so things might be different this time.

It's also - and this shouldn't be overlooked - a great jolly. Fantastic fun was had by all; even the runner employed on the first day to stand in front of the venue holding a sign about parking had a smile on her face. I said to her, 'Couldn't a Pole be doing your job' and she kicked me in the nuts thinking I was making a racist joke about globalisation of workforces.*

The best bit of it is, when you arrive, there will be a ready-made group of allies in the form of the Scribosphere Contingent. It even starts before the festival: see Jason's post that I linked to above for details of a meet up on the night before. I will definitely be there.

And if you see me around the festival, do please come and say hello - I'm looking forward to meeting lots of lovely new bloggers.



* Not true, of course. I actually said 'Is it this way to the festival?' It was then that she kicked me in the nuts.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Cyril Connolly... elaborate whistle... to fade

Back again! The hobby that I do five days a week, 9 to 5, in that London is threatening to encroach on my screenwriting career once again.

If you want to know what my day job is like - you'd have to be pretty bored, but still - then read Phillip Barron's description of the perfect day job for a writer here: no computers, no long commute, don't take the work home - all that. Excellent advice. Now imagine the exact opposite of all that. That's what my
day job is like.

Of course, like many other writers now and through history, I need the money. When I used to work at Lloyds Bank years ago, I comforted myself that T S Eliot had done the same. But unlike him, I wasn't going to have Ezra Pound begging patrons to save me from my workaday strife, so my only option was to learn to like it.

And I find that the more I do like my day job, the better and more successful the writing is alongside. When I've been in dead end situations, I've generally reached a dead end with the writing too.

And whoever said "the pram in the hallway is the enemy of art" was wrong in my case too. Actually, it was Cyril Connolly. And I want to tell him, because it seems so obvious: try the garage or the porch if the hallway offends you, dummy.

No, having a child has also done nothing but inspire me to do better work. I recommend it fully: go procreate, it'll make your screenwriting better. See, you wouldn't get advice of that calibre at a Robert Mckee seminar.

Which is probably a good thing.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Work

I'm still alive! Some people were emailing to check I hadn't shuffled off this mortal thingammybob, such is the gap between posts here. Apologies - I've become more busy not writing than I was when I was working on the feature.

This time it's the day job that's been taking all my time up; but I've also found time to apply to the BBC Writers' Academy, have a couple of good meetings about projects I'll post about soon, and seen Mike Leigh interviewed as part of the Brighton festival. More details of all this are imminent, and there'll definitely be a proper post at the weekend. Until then...

Sunday, 20 April 2008

One Year On

Just over a year ago, I went to a Writers' Guild event about blogging, and became a convert. Of the crop of blogs that rose up after that event, I'm only aware of Helen Smith's and mine that have survived - but please feel free to post a comment if you were there, and are still posting, I'd love to hear from you. Helen has written a lovely post about her blog birthday, and also a perceptive article for the Guild, which she links to from that page.

I agree with Helen: the best part of blogging is that it has allowed me to meet so many other writers. Not many producers, but a lot of writers; though, one producer who had got my name from Screen South, but had dismissed me as not mature enough for her project because she thought that 'new screenwriter' equated to 'fourteen years old', did give me an interview after seeing a picture on this blog of grizzled old me, with my baby son. I still didn't get the gig, though.

I'm only aware of that one direct job opportunity, but the indirect benefits are massive: the confidence boost of turning up to do some networking knowing there will be a friendly face or two in the crowd, should not be underestimated. The advanced warning of schemes, comps and events; the useful information of the craft expounded by other bloggers; the crystallising of thoughts on my own approach by posting about my own writing; the availability of a willing group of peer reviewers; all these are wonderful things. Praise be to the Blog! And happy birthday to this one.

It seems a good time to revisit the goals I set myself in April last year, and see how I've got on. Here goes:

1. Get into the imdb. Nope - still not there, but now that the sound issues with 'Lent' are dealt with, and hoping it gets some decent distribution, I should be able to get my name in there soon.

2. Get another of my short film scripts produced. A couple of possibilities are still ongoing.

3. Get an agent. Haven't even tried, to be honest. I'm hoping by building up a portfolio of scripts, and getting more commissioned and produced work, that I'll be in a stronger position to approach some agents later on.

4. Get an afternoon play commissioned for Radio 4.No commissions, but some good scripts written in the last year, and some possible leads with producers.

5. Apply to the BBC Writer’s Academy.Applied. Didn't get in. Applying again this year.

6. Write an episode of Doctors. Nope, though I am writing more one-off thirty minute dramas, to learn, and to use as examples of my work.

So, lots of work still to do. If only I'd added 'Get commissioned to write a feature script', I could have ticked one off. I shall add one to the list:

7. Get more commissions to write feature scripts.

And I'll report back on progress in another year's time*


* I will be posting in between then and now too, of course: I know that should be obvious, but my posting rate recently may have caused some to doubt it!!!