Friday, 25 December 2009
Saturday, 12 September 2009
Pangs and Olson
Read it? Good. Okay - it's a lovely story, as you'd expect from a professional storyteller, and obviously there's a lot of truth there. But I felt the odd pang while reading it. For one thing, I can't help but think that there are plenty of anecdotes, books, and articles out there - a lot of them by professionals like Olson - that give diametrically opposite advice to his, i.e. hustle, network, use any relationships you can to get your work to a wider audience, nothing ventured nothing gained, etc.
Screenwriters can find mentors who are more established, and to do so is a good thing. And to do so will almost inevitably involve at some point asking someone a question that might get a reply along the lines of "I will not read your fucking script". But, it might just as easily get the response "Fuck yeah, I will read your script". Sometimes, it might be worth the risk to ask; but, how to ask the right way, and how to choose the right time to ask? Only experience can teach you those things.
The best advice I ever got was to treat the whole thing like you would asking someone out (and this goes for trying to get any writing gig, not just for trying to get a mentor): tread soft, be aware of non-verbal signals from the other person, choose the right time, don't push too hard, and don't look too desperate. I can't fault this advice. Trouble is, I have hardly ever asked anyone out in my entire life. I'm far too shy, and would end up waiting forever for that right time. It can be like that trying to get a writing gig too. The last thing you want to be as a screenwriter is shy; but, if you're of that disposition, I could see how you could read Olson's article and be scared off. That brings me to my second pang.
Olson says, quite rightly, that you can't dissuade a writer (or else they're not a writer). I agree with this. You need to have that slight mental defect that, no matter what, makes you feel guilty when you don't write. You need that. But you also need other things. You need to be able to forget your shyness sometimes and hustle, network, use any relationships you can to get your work to a wider audience, nothing ventured nothing gained, etc. You might not be able to dissuade a true writer from writing, but you might just be able to persuade him or her to never show anything they write to anyone ever again. I could get all macho here and say that this would be a good thing, as it would cut down on the competition, but I'm a soppy sod and I'd like anyone with the talent and something to say to get their work out there and recognised. And that brings me to my final pang.
How do any of us know we're talented, or that we've got to say is worth saying? It's all very well having self-belief, but deluded idiots have self-belief too. And writers are all - at least in my experience - riddled with doubts about everything. So how can we know? Only by asking someone qualified to answer. And the most qualified person is going to be a professional. So, I don't blame Olson's acquaintance for asking. It wasn't a 'dick move'. (Though it is bewildering to a screenwriter based in the UK to imagine a wannabe who has all their hopes pinned on one movie project - it's like the US have a film industry ferchrissakes; only wannabe novelists can behave like that in my country.)
Olson should have kept to his line and turned him down politely. And, of course, by the end of his tale, he realises this. But the acquaintance was at fault when he rejected the advice that had so carefully and thoughtfully been given. There's no excuse for that.
So, anyway, who wants to read my latest script then? Any takers? Don't all shout at once!
Friday, 4 September 2009
Two competitions (each with entry fees) came courtesy of Lucy, one of which she is reading for: Prequel to Cannes and Vibe TV.For the sketch-writers out there, Recorded For Training Purposes Series 4 is accepting unsolicited contributions. The full details are on the BBC Writers' Room website here. And thanks to Christine and Robin for drawing my attention to that one.
Finally, there's a Lighthouse competition for 30-second videos for an exhibition, 30 seconds of Fortune. I'm working on something for this one for two reasons: first, I haven't shot anything for quite a while and so I can warm up my film-making muscles before starting on a (slightly longer) short of my own that I aim to make next year. Second, I like the challenge of doing a narrative in 30 seconds (though entries don't have to be narrative).
If you enter any of them, good luck to you.
Wednesday, 2 September 2009
Quite a lot that I know about writing, TV and film-making I have learnt from listening to commentaries on DVDs. I presume other people do this as well: an enormous wealth of useful information is available on the secondary audio track.
Alas, there is a lot of dross as well: I remember one, on a Fawlty Towers disc I believe, that consists of pretty much nothing but the director saying "This is a mid shot..." then "...and this is a long shot..." then "...and we're back to a mid shot now" for six times thirty minutes! And this is why I'm very excited about the forthcoming Fawlty re-release where John Cleese is commenting on every single episode. My wife does not understand this: she just thinks I'm buying stuff again that I already own, for the sake of hearing someone waffle over the action. Which is not even slightly true, obviously. Obviously.
In order that some of the dross be avoided, and that perhaps people can better explain purchases to their wives, husbands or partners (or at any rate just blame me), here are a couple of recommendations. One of the first and best I ever heard was Robert Rodriguez's talk track on El Mariachi, which is a veritable masterclass on getting the most out of a 'low-to-no' budget.Another good pick is the first and second series sets of Father Ted, on each episode of which Graham Linehan details the writing process, explains why some things work and some things don't, picks holes, mercilessly slags off his own work in the Christmas special. At one point, he even starts explaining how he's going to make the commentaries on future episodes work better. He is incapable of opening his mouth without being informative and entertaining, and it's worth the weight of any comedy-writing workshop, trust me.
My latest commentary hero is Stephen Gallagher. As long-term readers and friends will know, I am a true Who geek. I buy all the Doctor Who DVDs as they come out, and watch and listen to all the extras. Whatever you think of the stories, Peter Davison's tend to have the best commentaries. Peter is always prepared, and always informative, but usually quite tongue in cheek too. It's a good mix. But on recent release Terminus (currently only available in a box set called the 'Black Guardian Trilogy') Stephen G bests him in both trivia and jokes. I would almost go as far as to recommend it even if you don't like Doctor Who (your wives, husbands or partners would love that, I'm sure). He really is that brilliant, and keeps a nifty blog too - check out Hauling Like a Brooligan, if you haven't already (and why would you not have, hmm?!).
And if anyone has any other recommendations of informative and/or entertaining DVD commentaries (film or TV), they'll be gratefully received at the usual address. Cheers.
Monday, 31 August 2009
What I did on my holidays...
So, what have I been up to these last two months? Here's what: no writing. None. No scripts, no treatments, no outlines, no blog entries, barely any tweets, nary even a note for the milkman. It will probably shock a few people that I'm able to admit this. Thou shalt write every day is the first commandment of writers, after all. Oh well. After a sustained period of about five years solidly working on projects both paid for and speculative, I needed a break. Not a lot was happening on collaborations, or with my optioned stuff, and I had some 'real life' stuff to attend to (more on that later).
Does this mean I'm not a professional? Well, I've talked on the blog before about how my 9-5 day job is both a curse and a blessing, as it allows me wriggle-room when choosing what I work on, as my family won't be starving if I choose not to do particular jobs. Of course, this brings with it the risk that a golden opportunity or valuable learning experience might be passed up. Oh well, again. From talking to other professional writers, it seems that the credit crunch is biting, and opportunities are thin on the ground at the moment anyway.
And I wouldn't have had much attention to give them even if they had arisen. In summary: over the last eight weeks, I have escaped a heavy bout of redundancies at the day job, but will be waving good bye to a few old mates soon, as they weren't so lucky. Then, I had the responsibility of giving my sister - who lives about two and a half hours away from me - away at her wedding, and I was expecting the birth of my second son. Both these things are joyful occasions. But some of the joy rubs off when they are both due to happen on the same day.
Yes, as well as all the work preparing the home and family for the onslaught of a newborn, and working double hard at the day job to prepare for paternity leave, a lot of the weeks and days approaching the 15th August were very stressful, as this was not only the date of the wedding, but also the best guess due date of the baby too.
I only have one sibling, and my Dad is sadly no longer with us. I am the only close male relative of my sister - I have to be up at her place, get her to the church, walk her up the aisle, and later do a speech. Have to. I also have to be close to my wife, as I will be needed as her birth partner, to help her give birth to my child, then look after her once he's born. Have to do that too. So, it was up to luck and mother nature as to whether I'd get to do both these things. It was looking very dicey at some points. But it all worked out, my very tired wife, my son and I attended the wedding, came home the following day (without having a baby on the M25) and the day after that my wife went into labour. It's all about timing.
So personal circumstances have got in the way of my writing, but I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing. Personal circumstances are what feed into our writing, and make it better. Thou shalt live every day should be the first commandment of writers... and then write it all down, of course. Besides - as any of the Doctor Who fans reading this will know - there is a celebrated anecdote from the late Seventies of a normally dependable writer finding himself unable to complete a script because of personal circumstances. A crew was assigned and shooting was getting very close, so the producer and script editor had to step in, rework the scripts such as they were over the course of a weekend (hosed down with whisky and black coffee, so the legend goes). That story - a combination of the work of all three men - turned out to be City of Death, a fan favourite and still the highest-rated episode in the show's history. Score one for personal circumstances.
And I was lying anyway about doing absolutely no writing. Of course, I had to write a speech for the wedding. I mention this, because I was dreading it. I put it off for ages. Maybe this was writer's block, but I don't really believe in writer's block. I did the usual thing of staring at a piece of blank paper almost until my forehead started bleeding. But I couldn't think of anything. Do you know what I did in the end? I wrote it. Just put finger to keypad and got it out of my system; it took less than an hour. And on the day, it went down a storm and people were congratulating me for the rest of the evening. I felt like a writer again.
So, I feel good for my break, as if I'm getting some perspective. I stood atop the tower and looked down, I walked along the rim of the volcano and did my dance. Now, I return home with the elixir, etc, etc. Time to do some writing again. It seems apposite to be publishing this on the 31st August; September traditionally marks the start of a new school term. I'm on the cusp of phase 2 of my (so-called) career. It's going to be fun...
Sunday, 21 June 2009
Forthcoming Event: William Akers
Danny Stack has a competition to win a ticket at his blog; but I think the closing date that Danny's advertising (at the time of writing) should read 23rd June rather than July. Good luck if you're entering.
William's website is yourscreenplaysucks.com, and his blog is yourscreenplaysucks.wordpress.com.
Friday, 5 June 2009
Isn't it about time for another blog post, Stuart?
But mostly, all those things are taking a back seat to my writing a 30-minute pilot script for a CBBC series. It was something of a surprise to see the scheme advertised, as I don't remember the Beeb ever running something like this before; but, it's an obvious fit when you consider how many great writers started out in children's TV (including some of my personal TV writer faves: Russell T Davies, Steven Moffat, Matthew Graham, etc, etc.).
The turn-around time was also shorter than usual for schemes advertised on the Writers' Room website: only about a month between it being advertised and the deadline to get (postal only) entries in. No time to think too much about whether to do it, or how to do it, or what exactly to do. Good. Last year, I hadn't written any TV scripts at all; before starting this latest venture, I had never written anything for a children's audience. Best not to have time to think too much about the challenge.
It's invigorating, like any creative restriction. And at the end of this I'll have another type of script for my portfolio. So everyone's a winner. But, it's hard too - how on Earth to be sure your work will appeal to the target audience, if you don't have an 8-12 year old handy to ask. For now I'm writing it for me and my inner child. Time will tell if my inner child and I know anything about anything.
I can't make it to the Q&A event next Monday, but there may still be places available. And there's a good FAQ available here. Good luck if you're entering.
Friday, 8 May 2009
The 'Stuff To Do' pile
'Santa Baby', the Christmas TV project I'm working on with Colin Stevens of Deep End Films, is at the treatment stage; Colin is preparing some notes right now, after which there will no doubt be a new draft.
'Life Support' has just been reworked (it was the example script I sent with my Academy application). There were still a couple of flashback sequences sticking to the previous draft like barnacles, but I've scraped them off, and now it's pretty much the straight narrative I set out to write initially (though it took me a very circular route to get there).
Following the lead of the mighty Stack, I am seriously considering a self-produced short film. I have a short screenplay called 'The Last Intake' that, once it's had a polish, needs to be made and seen. This will definitely be something for the Autumn, but I shall be considering the logistics and doing that polish sooner than that. I'll also be thoroughly digesting the recent filming diaries of both Danny and Dan Turner to get some tips.
Plus, as most of the stuff I've been working on lately has been straight drama, I'm doing the first draft of a genre feature script, working title 'The Late Shift': no fuss, no over-thinking, just adding to it whenever I get a spare moment on a commuter train: getting it written rather than getting it right. And having fun. I outlined it a long time ago, and have been looking for a chance to get it drafted ever since. I've so far done 5 pages, and reading them back is definitely making me laugh. Shame about that, really, as it's a horror script. (I'm pulling your leg, it's actually a comedy horror and is supposed to make you laugh. Tee hee.)
Finally, if I get a moment between all that lot, this competition that Laura has posted about is very tempting too.
Wednesday, 6 May 2009
Music is my music is my music is my life
To link this with screenwriting in some way, as that is the main focus of this blog, a few words about music and screenwriting. On this subject, here's usually two main FAQ / FAQs (does the initialism stand for Frequently Asked Questions or Question singular? Answers on a postcard). The first is: should one listen to background music when one is writing? I say: Yes and No. I do like to have tunes on sometimes, particularly when I'm in full flow and typing away; but the moment I need to go into problem-solving mode, which is often, the iPod gets silenced.
Second, should one specify a particular song in a script if one wants its use as incidental music? Personally, I never do this, my reason being that it might put off the reader if they're not familiar with the song. And anyway, the director or producer will probably overrule my choice. But I know of many a successful and professional writer that does do this in scripts, so don't pay any attention to me.
OK, to the 7. Generally I like warm electronic sounds, jangling guitars, big beats, and combinations thereof. Seven songs in heavy rotation on the iPod of late are as follows:
- 'The Greatest Story Never Told' / Murray Gold and the BBC Wales Orchestra. This is Doctor Who incidental music, a cue from Steven Moffat's Library-based episodes. I was incessantly listening to the album, and this track particularly, when writing the recent Doctor Who spec script, to get me into the spirit of the thing.
- 'More than a Dream' / Pet Shop Boys. My favourite track on their latest album. And I'm very excited to be seeing them at the O2 Arena in June (I don't get out enough!). Anyone else going?
- 'Toe Jam'/ The BPA (feat. Dizzee Rascal & David Byrne). If you haven't heard of it, the Brighton Port Authority is the latest project from Norman 'Fatboy Slim' Cook. This comes with sleeve note pretence that these are recently recovered recordings of an old, forgotten band. But forget the fakery, it's essentially another Fatboy album, but more song-based and with a few celebrity vocal talents thrown into the mix. And it's better than anything he's put out since around about 'Praise You'. This song is bliss encapsulated.
- 'Neon Tiger' / The Killers. I love The Killers, they can do no wrong.
- 'Not Fair' / Lily Allen. The music and production on Ms. Allen's latest album 'It's Not Me, It's You', courtesy of the Bird and the Bee fellah, is impeccible. But she sets her stall as a lyricist, and judged as a lyricist she is infuriatingly variable. On songs, like 'Not Fair' where she's speaking for herself (or more probably a characterisation close to herself) it works. But when she strays from that and starts speaking about society, it all just makes my toes curl. Worst offender on the album is the song that includes the refrain "Society says that her life is already over" about a character who's 29. 29! FF, and if I might be so bold, S! Society doesn't say women's lives are over by 29, Lily: idiots in society say this, Don't be one of them.
- 'Mario's Cafe' / Saint Etienne. From their second album 'So Tough' and also on the 2-disc 'best of' currently living on my Shuffle. I parted company with them after 'So Tough', so mostly the compilation is new stuff to me , and very good too. But a few tracks, including this one, are a pure hit of Nineties nostalgia from back when I had a major crush on Sarah Cracknell. Actually, I still have a major crush on Sarah Cracknell.
- 'I Box Up All The Butterflies' / Boy Least Likely To. I don't ever get time to listen to the radio anymore, so I catch up with new music via The Word magazine, like quite a few discerning Dads out there I suppose. There is a CD sampler of new music given away with the mag every month, and this my most listened to track from the latest one.
That's me done. If anyone has any recommendations, I'd welcome them. I'd create a spotify list of the above songs, but I haven't got around to trying spotify yet, and by the time I do, it probably won't be fashionable any more. Ah well.
Tuesday, 5 May 2009
I finally decided to go for it, and completed and submitted my application yesterday. My research will ramp up from today. It's going to be a busy few weeks coming up.
If you've entered too: best of luck with it, and - obviously - I hope to see you at the interview stage!
Saturday, 2 May 2009
It's now two years and a couple of weeks since I started this venture (it seems like longer - that's what you're thinking, isn't it? Isn't it, hmm?!). That also means it's just been the blogaversary of Jason Arnopp and Helen Smith (we are blog triplets, you know) and they didn't really celebrate either. We all must be busy.
I'm not going to review the goals I set myself back then, as I haven't really achieved any of them (but I've had a hell of a lot of fun not doing any of that stuff).
Here, though, if you're interested, is a link to how I marked the occasion last year: 'One Year On'
And here's the very first post I ever made, two years (and a bit) ago: 'The Church of the Latter-day Bloggers…' Ah, memories.
Memories, like the corners of my... um... thing... wispy water-coloured, erm, how's the rest of that song go?
Wednesday, 29 April 2009
The Continuing Drama
The way it works as I understand it (and these things could well be liable to change, so don't take my word for it) is thus: to enter, one needs to provide evidence of a professional commission, a sample screenplay as an example of one's work, and a completed application form (which includes a few '500 words or less questions' to answer just like any other big corporation's application forms). A long-list of applicants is invited to a second round of workshop-style interviews, then a shortlist is invited back for a more traditional interview, before the final eight are chosen.
No one outside the Academy knows quite which criteria are used to judge. No doubt it's important to perform well on an application form and in an interview. But, like any other big corporation's application process, there may well be people more 'in the frame' than others because of their progress in writing (for any medium) to date. All those submissions have got to be set against one's track record. So: 'write well and get noticed' would seem to be the best advice. Which is useful, as it's the same advice required to get any other screenwriting gig, not just the Academy.
I've been doing my best to write well and get noticed, as ever, but I'm not exactly holding my breath this year. My work is good enough, but I don't feel I've proved myself sufficiently in 'der industry' yet. Having got peer feedback on my TV drama pilot script 'Life Support' recently, I'm now reworking it for possible use as a sample script for the Academy. But I'm still undecided about whether to enter or not, even now with the deadline fast approaching (May 5th is the final date for submissions).
I'm lucky/unlucky enough to have a day job that pays well; all things being okay, there will be a new member of the Perry family arriving just before the Academy starts in September; and, there's a worldwide recession. It may not be the best time to be taking up a trainee position which then leads to work by commission (and that's what it is: a job, a fantastic job, but a job nonetheless and it should be considered as such). Yes, I am suffering the usual permie person's anxiety/wish fulfillment fantasy about going freelance. I probably wouldn't get it, but I don't want to get it and then have to turn it down.
Now, most people are probably wondering why I'm worrying about this stuff now. And they are probably thinking 'Nothing ventured...' and 'It doesn't cost anything to enter'. But this is not true, alas. It costs you time. To be prepared for the Academy, a person needs to be watching all those shows. Now, that's 375 minutes per week as as starter, and it's not passive viewing, it's study: working out the format, the structure, the character arcs, what's happening, what's not happening, and why. Getting hold of scripts and series bibles would also be useful, if you can.
On top of that, there's anything else you might be wanting to watch on TV that helps put the Continuing Drama shows into context (it's probably good to have a wide and current experience of other BBC drama productions, and continuing dramas on other channels minimum). Then, there's reading the trades to keep up with industry goings-on, and doing your own writing to hone your talents and get towards that magic 10,000 hours. Then there's the day job, if you have one, and the family commitments you might have. And – you know – eating and sleep, and all those other things that fill up the day. It is a killing schedule. I know – I've done it twice now in 2007 and 2008, and neither time did I feel I'd done it justice.
So, it's not exactly free to enter. But all that research will undoubtedly make you a better writer, so it's never wasted. But maybe there are better ways to use this knowledge, rather than going for the Academy. The training is of a very high standard, and you're paid to do it. But there are many other routes that other people have taken to get their work on TV. Of course, they're still open to you if you apply and don't get in. And there's no guarantee the academy will run indefinitely. This could be the last one, for all I know. As you can tell, I've gone back and forth about this one. I remain undecided for now.
For different takes on this subject, check out some of the screenwriters on my blog roll, who have gone through the selection process to different stages, and have written about it: Paul Campbell, Danny Stack, Michelle Lipton, Piers Beckley to name but four.
And - good luck!
Tuesday, 21 April 2009
The Eighty:Twenty Rule
That 20 percent might not be possible at all, or it will be prohibitively difficult, or too costly in either time or cash to achieve; or, most likely, it might become clear as you proceed that it was never worth doing in the first place. Wisdom is the ability to identify which 20 it is before you start, and then deliver the remaining 80 without getting distracted by what might have been.
I have not yet achieved wisdom, obviously, but I keep trying. I'd never thought about the rule with regard to writing, but then I read Andrew Harrison's interview with publicist Mark Borkowski in this month's issue of Word magazine, and Mark expressed the rule in a slightly different way. (He also sets the cleaving point at 75:25, so I'm obviously more optimistic than him; but, he is in publicity...)
If I might have a little fair use quotation for truth, Mark says this: “You can never make a hundred percent of people interested in an idea. The most you can aim for is 75 per cent, and you have to keep telling your client not to bother about that other 25 per cent, because actually they don't matter. Just don't let anyone leak from the 75 into the 25. But your client will always start obsessing about the 25 per cent. Hubris takes over. 'We have to have them!' You waste your energy on people who will never love you. Not unlike life in general."
This really struck a chord with me when I read it, as I'm currently in the process of getting script notes back on a project. Whenever I do this, as I often do, I hold in my mind the 20% of people out there will never like my script, no matter how much I change it to try to please them. Obviously, if this is a commissioned piece of work and the producer is in the 20% then you've got problems; you're both making a different film. This has happened to me, and it ain't pretty.
With spec work that you're getting peer reviewed during development, you don't really know what unconscious prejudices a particular reader is going to have. So, the wisdom is the ability to identify if they're 80 or 20 based on their notes, right? Nah. I don't believe it can be done. No one's that wise. And the possibility for self delusion ('they just don't get it!') is always a risk. Maybe you could tell if you can see the whites of their eyes, but sometimes not even then. Half the time they don't even know that they will never like your script, so you're going to have trouble telling.
So, what's the solution? First, make the script as good as you can make it for yourself. There's nothing worse than getting notes, negative or positive, on a script you're realised - between sending it out and getting the feedback - that you don't even like. Don't be in your own 20 percent.
After that, get as many and as broad a range of sets of feedback as possible and cross-reference them. This means you can see the trends forming and work out where the 80:20 line is falling. For this reason, I would avoid having only other screenwriters appraise your work - a trap I've fallen into often. Every screenwriter has their own voice, and we prefer it! So, any script not written by us is automatically going to be at a disadvantage. Okay, I'm being a bit flippant here, and anyone - myself included - that has to give script notes will try their hardest to be objective and not try to rewrite your script in their own image. But writers like to write, so they may end up appraising a script that isn't what you want to make, but... something different.
Professional script readers should have more detachment, but they cost money and so must be used sparingly (unless you're rich, and if you're a screenwriter there's a lot less than 20 percent chance of that). Beyond that, it would be useful to find a genuine punter for the type of work you're writing. This is tricky unless you're going to drag someone off the street; friends and family can often pull punches so as not to offend. Luckily, I have friends and family not frightened of offending me, so I have a few trusted readers outside of the screenwriting world and all its arcane ways.
But most of all, your rewrites will take lots of work to get to the best possible script. And that's another version of the 80:20 rule: 20% percent of the work will take 80% of the effort. I think this one applies to screenwriting too. First drafts - getting 120 pages of white and black down that makes some sort of sense - they're the 20; the 80 is all that wonderful rewriting after that. And on that note, I better get back to working on my screenplay. Ta ta.
Friday, 10 April 2009
To the freelancers: try and have a little time off, even if it's only a few minutes. To the permies and day jobbers: I hope you can find some spare time to get a bit of writing done on any of your days off, but don't beat yourselves up if you can't because of family, kids, eggs or films on TV. You'll still reach the magic 10,000 hours, I know it.
Tuesday, 31 March 2009
I'm Sorry. I'm So Sorry...
I wrote it for David Tennant, with no companion, and 45 minutes long. I didn't go mad with Daleks and Cybermen, I didn't do a reboot, I didn't kill off the Brigadier. I just wrote an episode that I thought could nestle into mid-season next to one of Stephen Greenhorn's ones, with no returning characters or fanboy-ness. Well, alright there are a couple of fannish references if you look hard enough, but this again is not something out of whack with the current house style.
I have, as is the rules, exchanged the screenplay with the other members of the Script Challenge group. The mighty Stevyn Colgan has also written a Doctor Who script which I'm looking forward enormously to reading. Another writer has had a crack at a Primeval, and so I'm going to have to watch at least one episode of Primeval before I read that one, so I know who all the characters are! Well, it had to happen sooner or later. We'll all give feedback on each others work, as is the form, and then on to the next challenge. And after that, somehow, the script will end up being passed to Steven Moffat's inbox. He will read it, realise I'm a genius, get me to write four episodes for Series Six, I will be showered with riches and all the gold I can eat, people will dance in the street as I walk by, and...
...sorry, lost myself there. No, none of that will happen, alas. But I might publish the script online, if the feedback comes back reasonable. I can't usually do that as scripts are either intended to be sold, or under confidentiality agreements, but for this one: it doesn't matter.
Monday, 30 March 2009
INT. STUART'S MESSY OFFICE - DAY.
What about you? Do you hate these things too? Or am I over-reacting? Are they useful in some way I haven't considered? Or have you dropped them from your scripts altogether? Has anyone noticed? I'd love to know.
Saturday, 28 March 2009
The Unimportance of Being Memed
1) Put the link of the person who tagged you on your blog (see above).
2) Write the rules (see, well, here).
3) Mention 6 things or habits of no real importance about you (see below).
4) Tag 6 persons adding their links directly (see even further below).
5) Alert the persons that you tagged them (see the same bit even further below that I referred to above).
6) There is NO rule Six (see Monthy Python's Bruces sketch).
Six unimportant things about my life (if, like me, you believe in a holistic universe where nothing can be said to be unimportant, you'll have to check that philosophy at the door, as I have):
1) Everybody thinks I live in Brighton, but I live a number of miles to the west of it, along the Sussex coast. When I'm at the day job in old London town, I spend 4 hours a day commuting. Ouch.
2) I have only ever been in a fan club twice: once for Doctor Who, once for the Pet Shop Boys. I still stand by those choices. (In fact, the Doctor Who one is called an Appreciation Society, not a fan club: oh, the pretentiousness!)
3) I am allergic to Chinese tea. It's never been properly diagnosed, but after a number of occasions in restaurants when my face has gone red and puffy, I've avoided the stuff.
4) I wear my watch on the wrong hand. It's traditional to wear a watch on one's non-writing hand (so as not to weigh your writing hand down, I suppose). But when I first tried a watch on, I didn't know this, and put it on my right hand. If I try and wear a watch on my left now, it just feels wrong.
5) I came very close to dying on December 31st 1985. I've had asthma since I was seven (had my first attack after being hit in the chest with a loft pole playing light sabres with a friend of the family). A few years after that, I stopped breathing during a bad attack on that New Year's Eve, was rushed off in an ambulance, and spent a week in hospital. At the time it didn't faze me, but looking back? Shit! I would never have got to see Trial of a Time Lord (that's just a little reference for all the old members of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society; hi, guys).
6) I never pass on memes. Nor chain letters. Nor humorous emails. No agenda - it's just laziness on my part, really.
Hmm. There's something Book of Revelation / Omen Trilogy about all these sixes: I'm going to stop now. Ta ta.
Monday, 16 March 2009
How Many Shopping Days Until Christmas?
I've posted about it before, but thought I'd do a proper update on the Christmas TV project that I'm currently working on. It's been bubbling under other projects that either I or the director have been working for over a year - check any old posts tagged 'Santa Baby' - but now all systems are go, and it's shaping up to be very exciting.
The piece started work as a writing exercise with a writers' group I used to run long ago: a ten minute comedy short film set at Christmas. It came very close to being selected for development money from Screen South, but then they plumped for my other script (which became my first short film 'Lent'). Then, I pitched it on the weekly Wednesday Shooting People bulletin, where it caught the eye of Colin Stevens. Colin has made a number of short films (some samples of which are on the net - check 'em out) and we started out with a regard to making it as a short.
As we were developing it, and I was doing a few rewrites, Colin and I both came to the conclusion that the premise had potential in it to fill a half-hour TV broadcast slot. Colin has a few key production contacts who were interested in the premise. And the story fits into the family feel-good Christmas tale tradition, so it certainly would feel at home in that medium. So, we put our thinking caps on about to how to change and restructure the tale to fit thirty minutes, without stretching the material too thin, and without putting a dent in the central magic of the idea.
This effort culminated in a meeting last week, where we agreed the final changes and amendments over lunch in Canary Wharf. It was a very good meeting, with both us pretty much in accord about the shape of the thing, and both very enthusiastic about getting started. I'm now ironing out the storyline and turning it into a detailed synopsis document. Soon, we'll be going out selling this to other people, pretty hopeful that we can find some collaborators who are as enthusiastic as ourselves.
All being well, Colin will be launching a web presence for the project soon; I'll report on this when it happens. I'll also be blogging and tweeting about any developments as they happen. Watch this space, and wish us luck!
Monday, 9 March 2009
Wire news and Perry news
I hope I'm not recycling old info, but I haven't seen anyone mention this: The Wire is coming to BBC2, linky. So, if you haven't seen it yet, and you're still interested (and haven't been put off by the huge wave of hype) then you can see it for free. Great news, which comes just at the moment I pressed ' Submit' on an online order for the final (series 5) box set. I regret nothing.
I recommend the series, highly, as ever. Ignore everything about it being complex, and all in hard-to-understand lingo. It's not a forbidding artwork, it's a very entertaining TV show with lots of great characters, and great plotting, which has gone to great effort to achieve realism. And succeeded as far as I'm aware, although I've never been a cop or a drug dealer in Baltimore obviously.
Additional: as a personal rule, I don't like to use the blog for personal info, except where it concerns or affects my screenwriting, but this is a special case. My wife is expecting a baby, due at the end of August. We're very happy, and everything's looking good so far: mum is healthy and beginning to show.
This is the 'production' that is preventing my going to the Screenwriters' Festival later this year. It's a bit too soon when the little 'un will be less than two months old to be going off for a four-day festival, however useful it will undoubtedly be. Have a great time if you're going, but - you know - I wouldn't change it for the world. I'm a happy pappy.
Sunday, 1 March 2009
Also, with the help of Miss Read, I have plumbed things in so that Twitter is updated whenever I post here. So, this is a bit of a test...
Saturday, 28 February 2009
The comedy is a TV project I've been working on with Colin Stevens for a while now, and he and I will be launching a web presence for it very soon: I shall keep you posted on this here blog. The drama? Well, it's very rare to have some screenwriting to do that's 100% for the enjoyment of doing it, with no hope to sell or make the piece afterward. And it's quite refreshing. Here's how it came about:
As many readers of this blog, and others in the scribosphere, will know, I regularly meet up with a group of writers in London for drinking, gossiping and the setting of script challenges. These are usually standard things: write a radio play, write a script report, finish something you've started, and all have the same timeline: one calendar month elapsed to complete, doesn't have to be good, but it does have to be finished, else you face a round of mockery from your your peers at the next drinking session. I've gone in for many of these in the past, but I don't normally post about a challenge as I'm superstitious, and worry that if I shine a little light on it, I'm bound to fail to deliver.
The latest challenge, to be completed in the month of March (and not a single word of which is to be consigned to hard copy before midnight tonight), is to write a spec episode of a current UK TV series. Unlike the US, in Britain this is a bit of a silly idea, as - according to every 'how to' writing guide you'll ever read - no one wants to see a spec episode of anything, and they'd rather see something all-original (although one occasionally hears of an exception to this).
Boring old best behaviour would be for me to do a spec episode of Doctors, as it's the nearest you can get to entry level TV, and I'm currently watching the episodes and studying the format, and I want to get to pitch ideas for the show; but, sod that: I'll do that in April (I don't want to rush it with an arbitrary imposed timeline). I'm going to write a Doctor Who.
This is the closest I'm going to get to a commission to write for the good Doctor any time soon. And it multiplies the silliness: it can't really be shown to anyone as an example of my work, it's for a show that one gets into by invite only and where a showrunner would give you a plotline rather than have you pitch one, and best of all... it doesn't have a publicly available house style at the moment. All the episodes of David Tennant's tenure have been written and are currently being shot, and no one bar Steven Moffat and Piers Wenger knows what the Matt Smith era is going to be like, or even who the companion's going to be played by. There is no other reason to write it than the fun of it...well, maybe there's the humble pie reason too.
An infamous Doctor Who novel author and online critic, who I'm not going to name, keeps a blog where his opinion of other people's TV Doctor Who scripts is never less than forthcoming, and is usually quite critical. When challenged, this person wrote and posted up an example of how they would write a script for Who; I read that script, and disliked it very much. I was quite free with my negative opinion of it at that last writers' meet. Now, it has occurred to me that this is no way to behave about a fellow writer, even one I disagree with. So, the challenge is to do what he did, and create my own script: it will be for a David Tennant-like Doctor, with no regular companion, in a style which would roughly fit within the Russell T Davies years.
I have so many ideas for this - the first Doctor Who script I will have written since the one I co-wrote with a boy called Graham when I was twelve years old which had a Cyber-Dalek hybrid in it - whirling around my head: roll on midnight.
Tuesday, 17 February 2009
Talking of RP, I assume the word will be out soon as to who's got the glittering prize; good luck to those still in with a chance! I'm glad I did it - definitely a worthwhile exercise, and now I have a hard-earned pilot script for an hour-long drama series. Everybody wins. Interestingly – alright, semi-interestingly – a 60-minute script is harder than anything else I've tried to write, much harder than 10, 30, 45, 90 or 120. I don't see why this would necessarily be, but I've heard it from other writers too (so it must be true!). Now I know why Holby City has a musical montage at the beginning and the end of every episode!
Since completion of the script, I have done another half draft tidying things up, and the script is at exactly 60 pages, which is probably a little too long for a broadcast slot, so I'll review with a mind to cut two or three minutes of dead wood. Then, it will be ready for a good duffing up's worth of peer feedback before I rewrite it again. Hooray! Onwards and upwards...
Monday, 9 February 2009
For example: Dot Cotton used to be a hell of a causal racist. She's not anymore. We all know why this is, and we know it isn't a deliberate change of character on behalf of any one writer, but it's nice to take it at face value and imagine that maybe life has mellowed Dot in that one particular way. Extremely long-running soap characters like Ken Barlow and Ian Beale are rare, but fascinatingly rich: we've seen them young, and we've seen them grow older, and we may even see their (fictional) death one day. The totality of the character's fiction is bigger than any single imagination, and – like life – it can't really be appreciated as a whole, it can only really be glimpsed in little half-hour shaped pieces.
Some types of shows can throw up quirks when their characters are measured against real life. For example, Ken and Ian at least age. Doctor Who fans have to face up to the inevitability that a Doctor's going to come along that's younger than they are. It'll happen to me (and loads of other people - he's so young!) when Matt Smith takes over at the end of this year (David Tennant is about four months older than me, so I've avoided this until now). The writing is clearly on the wall: the show is bigger than any one of its fans (or writers, or producers, or stars). The fictions will go on, when we're all dust. We didn't know how lucky we were when Who was off air, not to have this ever-present ticking clock to measure out our mortality.
Then, you have to feel for the poor people who work on animations, where nothing and no one ages: I remember hearing one of The Simpsons' show-runners (maybe Al Jean) bemoaning the day that he overtook Homer in the age stakes. Homer may be old, bald and fat, but he'll never get older, balder or fatter (except in the episode King Size Homer, before anyone mentions it: I am aware of King Size Homer). We aren't quite so lucky.
All this is as it should be - if a little maudlin for me, but I seem to be in a bit of a 'Oh Shit, I'm getting old' mood at the moment (must be the weather). But what about when this supra-character development makes a well-loved character less interesting and less rich. What if this process causes character un-development? What the hell – if I might be so bold – happened to Postman Pat?
If you're reading this, you probably haven't seen Postman Pat recently. Even if you have because – like me – you have a young child in the house, you might only have seen the most up-to-date version. But, through the beneficence of his older relatives, and charity shops, my boy has accumulated a collection of these things called videos (remember them?!) from every era of Postman Pat. The show has been going so long, it's like a history of children's television over the last twenty-five years. And therein lies the tragedy.
The earliest episodes are quite slow, have very basic hand-made animation, and no lip-sync. Just one male voice doing narration, and putting on all character voices. They remind one of the Sixties and Seventies stop-motion shows like Camberwick Green and The Flumps, and were clearly a continuation of that tradition. This is the incarnation that my son likes the best.
A few years later, the colours seem a bit brighter, the animation a but slicker, but it still has the same wonky charm. Pat has got married (from the episodes I've seen from the early days, it's not clear what his marital status is, but it looks very much like he's a single man who spends a bit too much time with his black-and-white cat). And on the production side, the first major innovation: a woman has become the co-narrator, voicing all the female characters. Still no lip sync, though.
As the years roll on, the show enters the caring sharing late nineties/early twenty-first century and the changes get more pronounced: lip sync arrives, with different actors/voices for each character. Pat's postal patch, Greendale, which once was a small white rural community of stereotypes (vicar, posh lady, spiv, farmer, old washer woman), is now a much more cosmopolitan town peopled by multi-ethnic and disabled stereotypes. This, depending on your outlook, is either an admirable stab at diversity or Burger King kid's meal gang tokenism, but ultimately the widening of the supporting ensemble allows a broader range of stories, so it seems to be a worthwhile thing . Also, Pat has acquired a son, and the children in the cast are pushed much more to the foreground of the stories. Fair enough, again, it is children's show after all.
The final regeneration brings us to the present day: the show has got a new name - Postman Pat: Special Delivery Service - and a new theme tune (although they still use a section of the original theme at the beginning, you couldn't mess too much with that). And now Pat has kit. With a small 'k', I mean: he doesn't have a talking car. Although that's pretty much all he doesn't have: the SDS allots Pat a van, a motorbike with a sidecar, and a helicopter. He even has a mobile phone and SatNav. If this was a podcast rather than a blog, this is the bit where I would half cough, and half say the word 'merchandising' under my breath. But again, don't think I'm being Grumpy Old Man here. Merchandising is great, kid's TV is no longer the cottage industry it used to be in my day, and my boy has lots of Pat toys which he loves. I wouldn't want it any other way. Plus, it's still a good and well-made show.
But what of the star of the show in all this? What of Pat? Reader, I'm afraid to say, he's become a buffoon. And that's the bit that I don't like. Somehow, all of the changes detailed above have had the effect, without anyone necessarily wanting it to be so, of diminishing the main character's intelligence to a very low level. At the start, Pat is a good postman, who no matter what obstacles are in his way, will always get the letters delivered. He even rises to the occasion with a healthy dose of heroism and derring-do when necessary. By the end, though, he is reduced to delivering one package at a time, which he has an alarming inability to do without losing or breaking what's inside. However, he usually improvises some compromise solution at the eleventh hour, which heavily relies on the good will of the people of Greendale, and he keeps his job by the skin of his teeth.
A favourite example is the episode where there is a film festival, and Pat has to deliver the film can of the single movie they are showing. Pat is racing to get the print to the cinema before the screening, when he drops it in a muddy field and ruins it. The package that Pat has been given responsibility for delivering has not only been opened but its contents have been completely destroyed. And for this, they give the man control of a helicopter? Luckily, Pat's son has been making a home movie during this chaos, and this is what is shown at the festival instead. (This is not like any film festival I have ever been to: I couldn't help worrying for the members of the audience sitting at the back thinking 'I paid £350 for a delegate pass for this!')
I'd love to think that there is subtext at play here: that this is a comment upon the effect of increased technology to erode common sense, or a political statement about the deterioration of the Royal Mail's service over the last twenty-five years. But it isn't. They've just turned Postman Pat into a blithering idiot, and it shouldn't be allowed. Tell someone!
Wednesday, 4 February 2009
And when it fails to recoup, well maybe...
What's scary is that, aside from the house-husband phase onwards, Lennon had done all of that stuff by the time he was my age. And he only had three and a half years left, poor thing! Now, I'm not John Lennon (though I am working on the hair and the beard), and I'm really not going to start moaning on about quitting again, I promise. I have reconciled myself with the fact that I'll never write for Skins. But the feeling that you've missed the boat is is a natural emotion, and will occur at some time to anyone trying to catch a break in any business as youth-obsessed and hard to get into as the business of show.
Screenwriters as a breed – unlike, say, actors - should worry least about these kind of things; a writer can, after all, keep going until he or she's too frail to hold a pen anymore. And even past that, there's always dictation ( if it worked for Barbara Cartland...). But writers wouldn't be writers if they didn't want to leave their mark on the world. Why else write things down? Success isn't measured in fame or money, but audience. Every writer's got some sort of audience, but every writer would like more of one: every day that that goes by searching for that audience, is a day less getting the word out there, making a mark.
Does any of this matter, though?. If one enjoys the process, indeed if one is compelled to continue with writing no matter what (as is the case with pretty much every writer I ever meet), then would a wider audience make that much difference? Is Emily Dickinson's poetry any less good because hardly anyone saw it during her lifetime? Do good writers sometimes toil away and never find that audience? Is there such a thing as undiscovered talent?
I've always believed that undiscovered talent is a myth, and that true aptitude will very rarely get completely missed by the world, if accompanied by the requisite - and much more important - effort to develop it. I don't know much about Dickinson's life, but from what I do know I believe that it was her own choice not to attempt to publish the huge amount of work she was producing. As proposed in the book I've moved onto, Malcolm Gladwell's erudite and wonderful Outliers, talent is largely mythical anyway. Talent is just a word we have for enthusiasm combined with many hours of hard work combined with the right conjunction of circumstances.
Hmm.. What started off as a moan about getting older but still not having anything on the telly has ended with me dismissing the idea of talent altogether. Can anyone be a writer? Maybe. Anyone - crucially - that wants to, and is willing to put in the hours, has a good shot. As Piers noted last year, the magic number in the research that Outliers references is 10,000 hours. If you haven't done that much, then, in the words of the almighty Moz: you just haven't earned it yet, baby! In the book, Gladwell shoots through the mysticism of 'child prodigies' and 'overnight successes' with some persuasive examples that show that, through luck or through perseverance or both, anyone who's made it big has gained those hours, and anyone pretty impressive is on their way to that total. Lennon and the rest of The Beatles put the hours in playing in the dodgy bars of Hamburg for eight hours a night.
What's the moral of this story? It's all about choices. There's at least 16 waking hours per day: some of them will be used for other important things like day jobs, and family, and chores, and travel. Protect whatever writing time you have left, but accept that however few hours you can put in per week you're doing yourself good. You will envy your peers who have lots more free time than you, and seem to be on the fast track, but that's all just choices. If it's going to take longer to get to 10,000 hours, accept the slow path and enjoy the scenery as you go.
It would be nice though, to be able to read a biography of someone who took their time, and made their mark later in life: any suggestions gratefully received, at the usual address!
Tuesday, 3 February 2009
Bah! Ill and then Snow
All this means I have piles and piles of day job work building up, and not enough time (as ever). I had drafted a new blog post, but it was a bit too 'grumpy old man', so I'm rewriting it.
Hope you're all well, and got some writing done/built some nice snowmen yesterday. I might put up the picture of the fine effort that we put together yesterday (he's starting to melt now, and looks a bit too horrific for the young lad to see - a bit like the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark).
Saturday, 24 January 2009
T is for Television
I've just finished it, and it serves as a perfect companion piece to Russell and Ben Cook's weighty compilation of E-Mail trails from last year. Somewhat perversely - but perhaps it was only to be expected - that semi-autobiography is much more searching and critical than this biography; which is not to say it pulls its punches, singling out some Doctor Who episodes, the first season of Torchwood, and a few other works, as not being up to the RTD standard. But also it's a loving tribute to the big, Welsh giant that's revolutionised Saturday night drama, etc. etc.
Russell - in one of many original interviews done for the book - comes over as passionate and contradictory as always. In one breath he is saying he hasn't ever joined the Writers' Guild because he doesn't think of writing as a job; the next, he's bemoaning the artistic temperament of some writer prima-donnas he's known who've forgotten that "it's a job" and should be done professionally. He also might frustrate the aspiring with his contention that it's easier to get into TV writing now than when he started, but he makes a persuasive case.
Obviously, any attempt to cover over forty years of life and over 20 years of career in 240 pages is going to seem a bit sketchy here and there (but that may be because I'm also concurrently reading Philip Norman's monster John Lennon biog which covers Lennon's life - shorter than RTD's, I think - over 800 pages that don't even talk about the music that much); but, there is some light shone into dusty corners of Russell's CV, like his work on Revelations and Springhill, that have not had much in the way of coverage until now.
It's also full of tidbits of advice from the mighty Rusty, as ever: don't just keep an ear out on the bus for living dialogue, check out the TV schedules too, and learn how to identify the really bad dialogue ("I feel hurt, betrayed, alone"); don't dismiss reality TV, or any genre, as somewhere where you can learn more about life, and therefore become a better writer; and, if you've sent off ten dozen scripts and not got anywhere, maybe it's worth quitting and doing something else. And many others.
Anyway, if you come by a copy, I can heartily recommend it; and I'm not even affiliated with its writers, or publisher - I should be getting a commission at least. Oh well.
Thursday, 15 January 2009
SWF 09 Launch
As I stumbled along a dark road near St. James Park tube, squinting at my google-map print-out, who should loom out of the shadows like zombies but Messrs Arnopp, Barron and Clague. It was a mite scary, I can tell you, but also wonderful: it seems no longer possible for me to turn up to any kind of writing do and have to network alone. How good is that?
And as we arrived at the venue, ho - isn't that Mister Beckley, and with him, the Stackster? And Ms Lipton? Oh yes. I hadn't got in there yet, and already I was part of a veritable posse.
Inside, I met up again with Tony Keetch and Elena Fuller, non-bloggers but pitchers extraordinaire. They were both involved in the onstage pitching competition at last year's festival. Indeed most of the ten 2008 pitching finalists made it, including the fellow that later on in the evening won the raffle for a free ticket to SWF '09 (that's two years' running he hasn't had to pay, the lucky thing).
During the pre-talk convivials, I also met David Turner who's pitching this year, and bumped into (and yet again failed, alas, to have a proper conversation with) the wonderful David Lemon and Rachel (next time, I will talk to them, properly and find out Rachel's surname so I don't have to introduce them like a magic act).
Also - as far as I remember, someone correct me if I'm wrong - there was free wine.
After that, were the official talks: Mister Arnopp and David L have both summarised that stuff, so I don't have to strain to remember the details. The message boiled down to this: SWF 09 needs everyone's support to keep going in these difficult economic times, so buy a ticket as soon as you can to help their cash flow, if you want to go ,and if you care about the thing continuing. Fair enough. Sadly, because of a new production I'm involved with - which at the moment is top secret, but I shall post about it when the time comes - it is very unlikely that I'm going to be able to go to Cheltenham this year. There is only one way now open to me that I can see: become swiftly and prominently interesting and important enough to be invited onto a panel. Hey! It could happen...
Anyway, after the talks there were more opportunities for nibbles and a bit of networking and a soupcon of celeb spotting. Most exciting for me was that Michael Wearing was in the house - but I didn't get to talk to him. I'd spotted the tanned, white-haired fellow earlier on and had almost gone up to speak to him. Good thing I didn't, as at that point I thought he was Andrew Davies.
And - I may be mistaken, but I think I'm right on this - there was free wine again.
Wednesday, 7 January 2009
New Year, New Meme
It's been mostly a holiday: I've nibbled at various pieces of script work over the last two weeks, but not chomped down hard on any one thing yet (this is a nice analogy isn't it?! Erk!). So, there hasn't been much to post about really. I've produced a whole five pages to reach 25 out of 60 on the Life Support pilot. So, I'm buckling down (or buckling under - whichever's good) to do a bit more before the big bad day job starts again on Monday (when, no doubt, my screenwriting effort will go up, but then I'm a contrary bugger, clearly).
Anyway, Piers has memed me with the 'what are you good and bad at' question: I'd say, from all the feedback so far that I'm better (I wouldn't claim to be good at anything necessarily) at characters and dialogue. I need to work harder on pitching my work, and on handling notes better in a rewrite. I won't pass the meme on, as I think everyone I know has already been passed it by someone else I know. Hello all of you people I know, by the way; you're looking well - is that top new?
P.S. A nice bit of luck - I was one of fifteen Shooters picked out of the hat for the Screenwriters' Festival launch party next Tuesday. Anyone else attending?