Wednesday 23 September 2009

Mea Culpa

I swore I wouldn't do this, and even while I AM quite clearly doing it, I'm going to do it as evenly and politely as I can, but if I don't do it here, RIGHT NOW, I'll direct this spleen to the person in question and that wouldn't be fair.

As a caveat, I should point out that this person isn't part of my facebook network or on my bloglist, so they won't ever get to read this and I will do everything I can not to reference directly any of the things that are galling me to the point of apoplexy.

Because, what do you know, it's about a new 'writer'. This writer is a company director, who was personally advertising for collaboration on their 'nearly finished' script - they put themselves out there. I sent them my rate card, which anyone will tell you is the cheapest in the business - I sent them my CV, which is quite clearly very comprehensive in terms of experience. They replied, very professionally, that an editor wasn't what they were after right now, they needed a collaborator, a writer.

I casually replied that I'd done a fair bit of the old writing thing myself and pointed him again to my CV; (At this point I should mention that in the last few months of putting myself out there as a consultant, I actually enjoy any new stuff coming in from other people - its been a long time and, good or bad, there's always an energy and a buzz in any writing, and with it only being a few months, I'd forgotten the unforgettable - that there's an inverse ratio between arrogance and talent with unsold writers).

They sent me the script, with an attached note that having read my CV they doubted that I'd be suitable to judge it appropriately, but they'd let me have a look anyway. I should have known at that point; the snooty attitude to mainstream drama with a huge audience, the twisted prejudice that a serial dramatist just bangs the stuff out on the day... I've heard it before.

Maybe it was bloody-mindedness on my part, maybe, as I said, I'm still freshly back and loving other people's work, maybe its the months I've spent in my own very dense writing, missing the weekly collaborative meeting and the pints afterwards, but I read it...

And do you know what? It was BLOODY BRILLIANT. Sharply observed characters, an astonishingly original idea, dialogue that damn near set fire to your eyes as you hurtled from one rattling revelatory page to the next, poignant heart-breaking relationships that simultaneously described the nature of the individual AND the human condition as a whole. Breath taking.

But it wasn't, was it? What I did in that last paragraph was the most basic stupid trick in the book and this person couldn't even muster anything even that obvious. It was poorly typed, misspelt nonsense with such bad characterisation that you couldn't even say it was stereotyped. The single dramatic incident happened off screen and was an accident, the relationships between characters were paper thin, laid out in the first five pages and didn't change throughout. The sole nod to drama was the idea that someone in peril and pain was a bad thing, which it is, but its not drama, especially if its an accident. It bore no relation to reality, everyone spoke like puppets and not a single issue was resolved.

Anyway, there is a writing lesson here. which is vent your spleen in a neutral space, throw up all the crap and THEN write the real stuff. Because I will have to reply to this person at some point and if I'd done it in the last half hour, he'd have got this, and I'd have been ashamed of my poor writing.

Sadly, I think that's something this person wouldn't understand

Tuesday 22 September 2009

And lest I forget...

Here's a better place to find daily updates and info....

Hoist By My Own Petard

I hadn't really anticipated quite how quickly the whole Script Doctor thing would take off and it's been eating into my writing time, and even more so my blogging time. For a few days now I've been meaning to write about the importance of the 'field trip', after a specially good day of going about the local environs doing a few chores. You've got to treat these errand days as research - slap on the ipod for that Scorcese soundtracking feeling and keep your eyes peeled, the human stories just come flooding in - the image of a man in a kilt on a bike with bagpipes on his back cycling past a heavy-dreaded rastafarian with a guitar in red, gold and green is surely going to appear somewhere in one of my scripts.

The overheard lines, the silent confrontations laden with volume-speaking body language, the facial tics and postures are all your meat and drink; observe them with a keener eye than any anthropologist. It's all free material. Get out there once in a while, but get out there with your senses honed

Monday 14 September 2009

Slap on the Wrists

How remiss of me; skipped a few blogging days, but thankfully out of a responsibility to prioritise deadlines rather than general lethargy. The good news is it's because I'm getting more work than I expected at this early stage as a script doctor; that and one of those brilliant, half awake swimming upwards from sleep revelations about my novel have caused a dramatic rethink having solved its major plot flaw.

Anyway, what I have been meaning to write for a few days is how much the writing of comics and the writing of television have proved mutually beneficial, specifically how comics-writing has helped my television. I can't remember where I stole this from but I once read somewhere, 'the comic writer's job is not to get in the way of the pictures'. Much as I love Neil Gaiman's prose, movies and general imagination, I do find that sometimes with his comic work, he provides the narrative in his words and doesn't leave the artist enough to do in terms of story-telling. And I've been just as guilty of it; fans of Vinyl Underground (both of you) know that I peppered the action with huge chunks of historical background (and believe me you should have seen it before it was edited. By and large though, both narrative captions and fat speech balloons get in the way of the images and this has been a valuable lesson in telling onscreen drama. Can I tell that story in a picture instead of expository dialogue?

The other great lesson you learn from comics is scenic structure - the very nature of the left hand/right hand page means timing your reveals to the left hand splash, it means placing an image or a phrase in the bottom right hand panel of the right hand page that makes you want to turn over to see that splash.

It makes you structure a location inside the confines of page count rather than natural duration, thereby condensing and compacting the information to the optimum method of story-telling, a lesson every TV writer should take note of, not just for a cleaner purer script, but also because of the production demands - if you've ever actually had to plan a shooting schedule script for a script, you'll know that all too often the writer is often either spending too long in one room or haphardly moving from one location to another for no other purpose than visual effect.

You also have to write 'non-consecutive dialogue'. The confines of the panel structure mean that sometimes 45 seconds has clearly passed between one panel and the next and you have to make the character's response seem natural despite this gap; this means cutting out extraneous conversational normalities to get to the salient point. While I'm not saying this works on the screen, the discipline involved is a good way of shedding extraneous fat from your dialogue.

This panel structure also helps you choose exactly which killer camera angle, still image you want the audience to respond to, something TV and movie script writers often ignore.

So in short, I'd recommend this as a small experiment. Take a vital scene from your script and try blocking it out in three comic pages, starting on a left hand, five to six panels for the first two pages and a splash page for the third. See just how little dialogue you can get away with, think of the most dramatic images you can to convey your ten to twelve snapshots of the script, and the best 'turn the page reveal'. I think you'll be surprised.

Tuesday 8 September 2009


And as was clear last night, I missed the perfect equilibrium. As a result I woke at five, head filled with nonsensical and shameful scary nightmares, all plot related before dozing again for an hour and finding the shimmering pieces of the bad dreams falling like kaleidoscope diamonds into place for the key to the plot I'd been wrestling with for weeks.

In other words, the recycle bin of my brain had been fighting with the smart stuff, and eventually the smart stuff won through. As a result, my creative side is tired exactly when it should be, about nine o'clock, unlike last night where it kept me awake and kept awaking me. The balance is preserved and perfect and I feel sated with expelling words, like the opposite of a good dinner.


Monday 7 September 2009

St Vincents here we come

There's a mythology about writers being great drinkers, either as bon viveurs or dark tortured lonely souls with a bottle; as a man who believes he hovers and vacillates on the lowest points of the graph between the two states, but does write every day, here's my take on the theory.

There's an optimum number of words you can spill in a day; if you don't cough enough out in a given timespan they sit like bloated otters in your gut and weigh you down in indolence. Heave up just the right amount and both brain and body hit a synchronicity of exhaustion that drops you into a happy void of contentment.

But push it just that step too far and over-write and its all The Red Shoes and crazy and the fingers are too fast for the mind which then overtakes the fingers and so on , into a vicious arms race of inspiration and industry... and thats the point where you need to reach for the bottle to stem the flood of opinions and objections and musings and mullings or you'll quite simply just Roald Dahl pop...

and its in those moments (and I speak from experience of trying many other soporifics) that you find yourself reaching for the liquid anaesthesia to quell the barmy ceaseless flow of verbiage...

so lord today, too many pages done and a leap of editing to do tomorrow, please let blessed liquor lethe do her work and club me into blissful wordless oblivion.

Friday 4 September 2009

Tale of the Expected

Friday - failed to subvert expectation. New deadline tomorrow.

Thursday 3 September 2009

Subversion of Expectation

Thursday's rolled around so fast, so time for another bit of practical homework. Subversion of Expectation is one of the absolute golden rules of Western Drama - I don't know why this is or when it began. Certainly in previous eras in Britain, and still today in other cultures, the idea of lying to the audience was/is anathema. You didn't stand up to sing the jolly minstrel ballad, only to reveal that actually the Squire's a decent bloke after all, his wife was just misled and the gypsy lover was a lying scumbag.

These days though, the worst abuse you can heap on a story is 'Well, I saw that coming'. People want the twist, the character turn, the sudden reveal (as long as its earned). This of course makes our life harder and harder, because not only do we have to find those twists and turns and subversions, but as our audiences grow ever more cynical and story-savvy, we have to be able to make them convincing but invisible. It's no longer enough to set up the unpopular, ugly, scruffy character as our perp, only to find it was the golden boy what dunnit after all.

Whatever your opinion of The Bill as a whole (and please don't express it here, cause obviously I'm emotionally attached), watch an episode and see how week upon week they pull this off, usually to great effect. Three ad breaks in an hour, and just before each there's a neat plot twist where it turns out everything we believed in the last fifteen minutes has been turned upside down. It's incredibly difficult to achieve, especially given the self-imposed narrative strictures of the police p.o.v. and the limited guest cast budget.

But that's not the homework; the homework is to observe how startling it can be to totally break the rule of Subversion of Expectation - the film I've chosen to demonstrate it is 'A Room For Romeo Brass', Shane Meadows' second major feature. I'm not going to give any spoilers out here, just recommend you watch it with a writer's eye and enjoy the sheer ballsiness of Meadows' refusal to kowtow to such a fundamental dramatic law and pull it off (Although he does cheat ever so slightly with one character, but I would still argue that their action is 'expected', just not in the manner in which it plays out).

And now I'm going to take a stab at my own small act of subversion by hitting a deadline tomorrow.

Enjoy 'Romeo Brass' and don't have nightmares

Wednesday 2 September 2009

Chipping off the Block

There's a lot of talk about the dreaded 'writer's block' and while I'm not denying there are those days where ideas drag through the mind like gluebound wasps, all buzzy and ineffective, I'm not a great believer in it. I know of a couple of horrendously crippling cases of friends totally losing their mojo for sizeable chunks of months and I can';t imagine anyhthing more horrendous, but by and large I think it's a withdrawal into apathy and (whisper this sooooo quietly) laziness.

The apathy's understandable... 'ten thousand words till my next rejection or a marathon session of Powell and Pressburger?" can often seem like a simple choice, but you have to learn to fight that. The laziness, I can't do anything about, apart from to remind you a) how much you hate your day job, b) How galling it is when you see all those 'talentless hacks' out there ruining great ideas (i.e: the ones who've got the gig instead of you) and c) DO YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER OR NOT, YOU BONE IDLE BUGGER?

But, assuming that your indolence isn't down to laziness, and its either apathy or that occasional and unavoidable blank space in your imagination, that's not an excuse not to be writing.

That piece you're working on and can't seem to get past the next line? Go back to the beginning and read it. It's quite frightening the number of writers I've come across who don't actually read their work more than once - if that - before delivering. If you don't start re-writing by page 3 then you're probably an arrogant son of a bitch who'll never sell a word (or make millions mimicking John Sullivan and praying no-one notices).

Dig out all the old notebooks (You do carry a notebook everywhere you go don't you? Please dear god tell me you do... and no, a dictaphone doesn't count). Marvel at those nonsensical jottings and see if any shapes and structures or characters and coves crop up.

If that doesn't work, how many manuscripts, novels, poems, well constructed shopping lists have you got sitting in the graveyard of your files? Open them up, look through them, edit them or bin them.

Remember that writing is just as much about deleting as it is about filling the page with verbage. Knocking ten pages off a script can be ten times as productive as adding ten words to it. Some people imagine that writing is racking your brain to find the next word or sentence. Sometimes its about racking your brain to eliminate all the possibilites bar the perfect phrase. There's no shame in finishing an eight hour day, looking at your work and thinking 'brilliant - I just deleted 5000 words'

Alternatively of course, you could just write your blog :-)

Tuesday 1 September 2009

Just Another Manic Tuesday

Yeah I know, I know, but Sunday was my birthday and Monday was a bank holiday, and while in the world of 'kick bollock scramble' draft-after-draft serial drama, bank holidays mean nothing, my birthday and my birthday boxing day was sacrosanct now I've given all that up.

So today, I'm back to the keyboard - I don't say 'coalface', I don't say 'grindstone' cos lets face it... at its best, writing is typing things out that you love, at its worst, its yelling like a primadonna because you can't think of a more interesting word for 'yellow'. There's no grind, there's no digging of coal, at no point do you fear that the million tons of earth above your head will kill you, let alone look at the antique shearing tool in your hand and worry that the safety guard may be loose.

Of course, I trivialise... at its very best writing is like soaring above the planet in a chocolate-and-meat eagle, punching the air as you go, while Marilyn Monroe, the Countess Bathory, Lorelei Gilmore and Trevor McDonald* all perform unspeakable sex acts on you. At its very worst its like taking a bath in Windsor Davies wee while the Chuckle Brothers, Peter Andre, Ricky Gervaise and Dan Brown mock and point at you for being stupid as you bang your head to bloodpoint on the cold white enamel.

Anyway, today's point is quite brief, but it's important. In my many years of working in comics/graphic novels, I've realised that artists, by and large, spend enormous amounts of time indoors. looking at photo-reference, working thru the night, driving themselves slowly insane as they try and get a particular pencil line right. Writers on the other hand, while used to the long weird hours of hearing half a dozen voices in their head, always find the time to get out and about and get 'the craic'.

And that's because 'the craic' (or I, as a non-Irishman, prefer to call it - 'basic enjoyable human interaction') is what fuels our fires. I need the several hours of solitude at home to get the pages filled and do the slog, but both the honing and the thinking for the next day comes when I'm out and about. Six to eight hours at the desk on my own is all I can take, because after that the voices all start to sound like me... get out to the pub with the laptop and I start to hear other timbres and nuances, I hear new stories and fresh speech patterns, observe human behaviour in every giant gesture and writ-small nuance.

And that's why this is slightly off-kilter and a tad unfocussed.

I'm in the pub. And I'm working. And that's important.


*Yes I know its 'Sir'... but I make him feel common.

Saturday 29 August 2009

Friday's Always on my Mind

Eagle eyes and pedants will notice that this, a Friday post, is dated Saturday. When I first took that terrifying step off the gangplank of full employment into the glorious sharkpit of freelancing, I made a promise to myself that every glorious Friday afternoon, I'd take time out to spend in the uber-cool, seventies retro surroundings of the pool hall next door.

I loved that pool hall because it was there I had a glorious revelation - as I glanced around the lava lamp and louvre wood wall decor they started to play Headhunters by Herbie Hancock, an album I first heard when I was ten, at about the time when TV drama was filled with American slick-cop heroes in bars done out just like the one I was in. I had a blinding revelation that at 36 I was exactly where I'd dreamed I would be when I when a ten year old boy, right down to the soundtrack and the decor - I'm guessing not many people can say that.

Needless to say I only ever spent one Friday afternoon in that pool hall and that was with a script editor discussing my episode on a lunch break from a home briefing. Because of course, it turns out that Friday is the day all the editors or producers want their scripts delivered so they can 'read them over the weekend'. It's a curious fact that they never ring you up on Monday morning with notes having pored over them all Saturday, and that often its the NEXT Friday when you actually hear back from them, but I'm not going to be churlish. Unless you're Neil Gaiman, Ian Rankin or Russell T Davies, the odds are your editor works much longer hours than you do, so give them their weekend.

If you really want that free Friday afternoon, you could always put in a few extra hours and ... sorry, excuse me, I can barely type for laughing.... deliver your script a day early.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying... I may not be posting much on Friday's. Instead what I'm aiming to do is persuade a few producers, agents, editors, commissioning editors, writers, directors, publishers etc, to share some insight with everyone about what they look for in a writer, especially a new writer. Watch this space.

Thursday 27 August 2009

Silence is Golden (and a bit of homework)

It's all too easy to get hooked on honing your dialogue. In long years of experience, I've learned that sadly, there's about ten percent of the population that can't write dialogue and never will. It's like being tone deaf, if you can't carry a tune, it's unlikely that you'll ever learn. Like music, capturing dialogue requires an ear for tone and rhythm. Even more disturbing is the realisation that of the ten percent of those that can't make a speech sound human, ten percent of them are being paid to write movies and TV shows. But let's assume and hope that you're in the ninety percent, what are the tricky bits?

Two of the toughest areas of dialogue to write are backstory and emotional conflict. How often will you be watching a period drama when a real historical figure is introduced by another character with what sounds like a chunk lifted straight from Wikipedia? And when it comes to emotional conflict, whether it's Hollywood weepie, gritty Britsoap or HBO emmy-laden uber-melodrama, how often do you hear people openly discussing the dynamics of their relationship in scenes that in real life would be no more than a series of grunts and shifty looks, or a heavily subtext-laden argument about grouting the bathroom tiles?

So, I thought I'd give a couple of practical examples for people to go and take a look at. Coincidentally they both fall into a SF/fantasy genre, but the lessons are just as valid for any form of drama.

For great backstory - watch the opening 40 seconds of M Night Shyalaman's 'Signs'. It's not exactly a work of genius, but the opening sequence is bliss. Using nothing more than props and set design and without any dialogue we learn that Mel Gibson used to be a clergyman until his wife died young, leaving him with two kids, anxiety attacks and as a result, he's renounced his faith. I actually applauded spontaneously in the cinema at this point which got a few strange looks... watch for the photo, the dog collar, the double bed, and best of all the missing crucifix. (incidentally, two minutes in you get a wonderfully leaked fragment of backstory after Gibson discovers his crops have been vandalised. Just the lines 'I don't even care if it was him - you can just have a word with him and that would be enough for me')

For emotional resolution (and for a rattling good scare and action fest with a bucket full of yoks) watch the whole of Josh Whedon's award-winning 'Hush' from season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Leaving aside Whedon's astonishing chutzpah in choosing the centrepoint of all his major story-arcs to experiment with form, this is a marvel of silent story-telling. For those that don't know the piece, every one of the major players has a secret that they just can't quite bring enough to tell the one person it would most effect. Most writers would be setting themselves up for a car-crash of epic melodramatic dialogue having so many plot points collide at once, but Whedon grasps the nettle and casts a spell over the entire town that renders them mute. Thus, robbed of the power of speech, all their secrets become revealed through action. And the pay off line is magnificent.

There you go then, a bit of very enjoyable homework that means you can pass off some quality sofa time as an educational neccessity. And if anyone believes recommending Buffy as an example of quality writing is puerile or silly, they should give up writing forever.

Wednesday 26 August 2009

Musical Madeleines

Whether you're a budding creative bursting with a flood of ideas, or a seasoned pro' juggling a couple of paying gigs with that great screenplay/novel/operetta, there are often times when you've got two, three or twenty-five projects all on the go at once, often at various stages from pitch to final draft. If you're working in serial drama, you might even find yourself working on two episodes of the same show that are actually due to air several weeks apart. I vividly remember a dark winter freezing morning, three hours from a 9 AM deadline and suddenly and frantically deleting three scenes because I'd realised that even though I'd written several great scenes for a character on the previous day in one script, he hadn't actually joined the cast at the time of the one that I was writing.

So how do you make that mental switch from that quirky kids' comedy ghost story that's had you chuckling all morning and that you've happily just finished, to that key scene where the rape victim is about to enter the abortion clinic, still unsure if her unborn child is her husband's or her attackers, and whether indeed if the two are one and the same?

Well, a long walk somewhere that will change your mood is an option, as is a good soak in the bath to shift your focus (and since my dishwasher croaked, I've rediscovered the joys of the wonderful blanking effects of staring out of the window while doing the dishes). Changing the lighting in your workspace might help, and as an ugly burly northern git, I'm slightly embarassed to admit I've experimented with different aromatherapy oils*.

For me though, the surefire technique is soundtracking your projects. Find an album that will generally chime emotionally with the mood of whatever it is you're working on and whack it on 'repeat play', even if that means listening to it for ten hours at a time.

When you shift to another project choose something radically different that matches the mood of the new piece of work. I've found that even when returning to a project after several months, once I key up the page and the opening bars of the associated soundtrack kick in, I'm back in the zone within minutes.

For personal preference I always use instrumental music - I find lyrics can be distracting, leading to unneccessary high volume karaoke or worse, your characters quoting Frank Zappa in the most inappropriate moments. It could be Beethoven, Sigur Ros, Spiritualised or the swing of Tubby Hayes as long as its something that resonates emotionally with what you want from your script. You'll be amazed how quickly it becomes embedded in your psyche like some pavlovian trigger - it makes sense after all; movie-makers have been doing it to audiences for years, so play the same trick on yourself.

NB: The author of this blog is not responsible for any divorce actions or eviction notices brought by partners, flatmates or neighbours driven insane by the constant repetition of cheap mambo (imagine how Carol's Reed's neighbours would have felt if he'd done this while working on Third Man at home?).

* Geranium oil usually works for me.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

Throw That Stuff Down on me

Writing, the cliche goes, is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. I'll leave aside the insult to people who actually do sweat for a living (let's face it the only time we writers crack a bead is waiting to go into a pitch meeting, checking our bank accounts or lugging two reams of A4 paper back from Rymans) and explain why this is a dangerous concept to embrace.

The 'perspiration' of the adage of course refers to the simple act of filling pages, and while it's evident that you don't get anywhere as a writer by sitting around having ideas, the 1% tage does inspiration a great disservice. The mistake made is that people assume that inspiration is some nebulous thing that strikes like benevolent lightning, once in a blue moon and that's nonsense.

Inspiration, as its etymology suggests, is everywhere and we're breathing it in all the time. Legend has it that Dan O'Bannon got the idea for Alien while casually reading a book on entomology (see, I know the difference) and came across some micro-organism that had exactly the same physiology and life cycle as his magnificent creature. The Sweeney was devised by three writers on a fearsome drunk with no taxi fare who spent the night in a Soho all night cinema watching The French Connection over and over.

These might seem like one off moments of serendipity, but the truth is we're all constantly imbibing inspiration like that. Whether it's in the speech patterns of the guy who sits on the bus talking to anyone who'll listen, who's timbre and rhythms end up as the voice of a minor character in your script, or the documentary you're watching about the history of the A-Z (I got a whole episode with a killer pay-off line, out of that one). It might be the eerie juxtaposition of two incongruous objects like the thigh high, glass stiletto fetish boot mysteriously sitting by a dead crow in my back yard right now, or something as minor as the subtle shift in body language of a barmaid when she actually fancies the thousandth customer to hit on her.

The point I'm making is if you wait for inspiration, you'll be on your arse for a long time. Realise that every second, including sleep, is inspiration, you just have to identify it. Train your senses to take everything in as dramatic or literary forensics , make the actual effort to write down those casual lines and mannerisms you see when you're out and the facts you learn from books and TV when you're in. Build up a massive and encylopedic reference section both in your memory and in your notebooks; the more solid and multi-layered it is, the more realistic your writing will become.

Monday 24 August 2009

First Post

How ironic, given the title I chose for this blog, that it's taken me half an hour to come up with an idea for a first post. To newcomers to this page (which is all of you, I guess, including me), this is not going to be a 'facebook-style' detailing of the minutae of my daily existence as a writer. Hopefully I'll be too busy actually writing to do that.

This blog is simply intended as a companion to my sideline work as a freelance editor and script consultant, in order to share tips, insights into my methods of working and thinking, comments on broadcast writers' work and what you should or shouldn't learn from them, and no doubt after an imbibing of 'writing fuel', the odd very indiscreet insider-anecdote from my long career.

The idea is that visitors who are thinking about employing my services can get a perspective on my tastes, opinions and style before contacting me to help them turn their script into a masterpiece.

I've promised myself a ten minute daily limit on here, so that's all for now. The real stuff starts tomorrow.