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:
- 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.
- Don't get seduced by a new direction if it takes you too far from that core idea.
- Try not to get feedback until you're finished.
- 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.
- Consider all notes carefully. Don't rush in to a rewrite: the most obvious way to solve something isn't always the best.