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.