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.