Thursday, May 29, 2008

Stress bunny

It's been over a week since my last confession ... oh, no, sorry, I'm not Catholic.

I've been busy both with writing and day job.

How can I describe my day job? Easy, programming, I'm part of a team that's on a Government project that's probably worth a few million pounds (not Defence, I don't think I'd do defence work unless I had no other choice ... and then I'd just starve instead). And on said project there is one part of it which is utterly fundamental to the proper functioning of the entire website.

Guess who's doing the bit that absolutely must work first time? That would be me. Millions of pounds, the jobs of a hundred people or more, the future of every schoolchild in the country (sort of). And me.

Hence a bit of stress. I have been rather under the weather for the last two weeks but I'm feeling better now so I thought I'd bring you up to speed on the writing.

The Blockbuster project is dead. I decide to kill it. I may come back to it if I start making something of this screenwriting career.

The Bohemian project is due on Saturday. I spent some time plotting out, as I partially covered a couple of blogs ago. I'm not doing the Jeff Kitchen follow-up yet because I really need to have his book beside me to get it right.

However I used his technique called "Sequence Proposition Plot" to ensure that my story had a solid spine, and so wrote a treatment for it. Then I used the same technique (which is totally scalable from an entire TV series [or bigger] down to an individual scene) to ensure that the scene that I have to write as a sample is also solid with a good beginning, middle and end.

I'm pretty pleased with both.

Living here in Reading, apart from giving me TV-free evenings in which I can write a lot, gives me half an hour each morning and evening as I walk to and from work, in which I can plot and plan.

Which means that the next thing on the agenda, the BBC's Sharps competition, is at the "thinking about while walking" stage. So far I have nailed the setting which has to be based on "The Nation's Health" in some way (not necessarily a doctor thing -- mine isn't), and I've got some characters but I haven't got a plot.

Sharps is only 30 minutes, and it's not comedy. So we have that weird thing: a half hour drama. I have trouble thinking that short, my ideas tend to be very big. I've got 2 weeks and it has to be sent as hardcopy.

So that's where I stand at the moment. Next time I might tell you about my involvement in the movie Hotel Caledonia, looks like it's finally going to happen. Development hell is aptly named.

What's on the turntable? "All Neon Like" by Bjork from "Homogenic" (a little while ago it was 'Joga' which is an utterly beautiful track, I could play it repeatedly, forever)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

What's the point of a scriptreader?

Now I don't mean a scriptreader who works (employed directly or freelance) for a production company and checks through the masses of scripts they get in to separate the wheat from the chaff. (Not much wheat, loads of chaff.)

I mean what good is a scriptreader to you? Why should you pay out good money for someone to read what you're written.

(This is not an advert, I don't do scriptreading, I have however done book reading and book editing and one day I might write a blog about it, or two.)

Unfortunately the answer came to me the other day when a spec script I've been working on for a long time came back, covered in red ink. Figuratively. Honestly I almost cried, though that may have been the onions.

Once upon a time this script was clear of adverbs and continuous tense, plus odd mistakes with apostrophes. (At least one reader had been amazed at how free of errors it was - but then they didn't know my history.)

But over time, through the rewrites and the edits, they had crept back in and I hadn't noticed.

So on the most basic mechanical level what a reader is for is providing that second set of eyes that sees the things that you miss. No matter how experienced you are and I've had experience writing as a magazine editor for over 15 years. But that experience counts for so little when it's your own work.

Then there were the rubbish scenes, irrelevant scenes. Even I knew they were unnecessary, flabby, pointless ... and I left them in. Why? Too lazy. I had intended to remove them at some point but never got round to it. Super scriptreader strikes again.

And then there's all the things they look at, overall structure for example, when you've written the work it can be very hard to see the wood for the trees. And you need to have that bird's eye view. Dialogue? is it up to scratch?

A good scriptreader will save you time and heartache. They can't turn you into an inspirational writer but with sound mechanics at least your script won't suck.

What's on the turntable? "Cannonball" by Sky from "Sky" (or at least it would be if I hadn't switched it off.)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

How to write a feature

Or, more accurately, how I write a feature. Specifically the Bohemian Project which I now have two weeks to write a treatment. If you're not sure what a treatment is sexy Blogette Lucy has explained over here.

To write a script you start with an idea. The idea might your own, or it might be something you're told to write about (as in the Bohemian project). Either way, it's the spark, the starting point.

What then? Plot or Character? Which is most important? What do you work out first?

That depends mostly on what your idea is. Ideas are usually ideas for a character or ideas for a plot. For "Une Nuit a Paris" I had a setting and concepts suggested by a song. So I thought about a plot, and characters that would fit that plot: What if a man is on his stag night in Paris and falls in love with a prostitute? Which led me to the character of the man, and the prostitute, thence the wife, the brother, the brothel madam, her son, the other prositutes and the antagonist.

For the Bohemian Project I had to use certain fictional characters, and the request was for a "character piece" not CGI action, something that will achieve critical acclaim. Plus it had to be written for specific actors.

But these characters require a certain type of plot. I researched, got some ideas, and started building a plot that would create the necessary interactions to make this a character piece while still representing the fictional characters.

But there's only just so far that this can take you, somewhere you have to start getting into the nitty gritty of the plot structure, scenes and so on. At this point you would have a good idea of the characters you're using, not necessarily all the details but a decent concept. You'll also have a pretty good idea of how the plot's going to work.

So when I reached this point with the Bohemian Project (this afternoon) I used a trick that paid dividends on the Blockbuster Project (although I didn't use it for Une Nuit a Paris) and it looks like this:

Name of character:
External conflict:
Internal conflict:
Fatal flaw:
Key scenes: (a) (b) (c)

You don't need any kind of fancy form, you can just write them down on a sheet of paper, 7 lines for each character. I'm not sure where I got all this from, certainly not one source, it works for me.

Drama is based around conflict, no conflict = no drama. The "External conflict" is the obvious thing that a character is trying to achieve which is being prevented by something/someone else. The "Internal conflict"and "Fatal flaw" go together, for example a character might have a fatal flaw of being unwilling to work with anyone else, but must work with someone else to solve their problem so, to overcome their internal conflict, they must overcome their fatal flaw. Ideally the fatal flaw/internal conflict should also relate to the external conflict. Bring them together.

A secret agent who always works alone, who cannot work with another because of their fear of bringing harm and because they've been betrayed in the past, is in a situation where they must depend on someone else in order to succeed and save world.

So what about key scenes? Think of three key scenes which exemplify the start condition, the point where things change internally, and where the character has reached their final emotional destination.

You do this for the protagonist, the protagonist's friends, the antagonist and the antagonist's cohorts. Of course possibly either the protagonist or the antagonist might not reach their end point because of the plot, just fill in what you can.

How many main characters have you got? For the Bohemian project I have four. Three key scenes each (oh yes, I make sure there is no overlap of key scenes, that's cheating) = 12 scenes, each of which is, say, 4 minutes long = 48 minutes. I've already written half the movie. (It might be suggested that 4 minutes is too long for a scene nowadays, but these are key scenes, with emotion and action.)

So that's my first step, in the next blog on this I'll go into how I use Jeff Kitchen's "Proposition, Sequence, Plot" to build action.

What's on the turntable? "Under the Ivy" by Kate Bush from "Hounds of Love" (extended CD)

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Moods are for lovers

I really wasn't in the mood for writing this evening. Thursdays are my busy evening anyway, I do the shopping for next week, sort out washing, cook the meal for next week (I do one meal which I eat over four nights - a little boring, but efficient and cheap).

Plus it's been hot, I was tired and ... I really wasn't in the mood.

But that's not very professional. Writing is like any other job. Does a fireman not go to a fire because he's not in the mood or a little bit tired? Okay, maybe not the best comparison but I'm making a point here.

So by 9:00pm I'd done no writing. I had made a couple of phone calls, and listened to a couple of radio programmes on BBC7 Listen Again.

If I didn't do the Blockbuster treatment now, when was I going to do it?

So I sat down and did it now. Finished. (Bar the edit.) Much more about character arcs and progressions, more emotion but still lots of action and I haven't compromised the source material too much.

I think it's good enough now so I shall be sending it off for the old critiques next week and making any last changes before I send it to the potential client. Who probably doesn't need it.

Have I explained the Blockbuster project? A well-known Hollywood Director has acquired the rights to adapt a story that I've always wanted to do. Now he'll need a script and before that he'll need a treatment. So I'm doing a treatment. I doubt I'll get paid, I really doubt I'd get the writing gig even if he saw my treatment and liked it. (If I was him I wouldn't risk $150 million on an unknown writer.)

But nothing ventured, nothing gained. And it's good practice.

So, back to the point, even if you're not in the mood: Write.

What's on the turntable? "The Revealing Science of God - Dance of the Dawn" by Yes from "Tales From Topographic Oceans"

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Getting the treatment

It is entirely possible that a movie treatment is the most tedious and boring piece of writing it's possible to do. I'm not going to say I hate doing them, but it's hardly exciting.

A treatment is a reduced version of a script without dialogue. It can be best imagined as what you would say if you were telling someone the story. Let's say you went to see a film, then got home and, in your excitement, you told a friend what happened. That's a treatment.

Some people say that two pages is good for a treatment, well you can do that, you can even do one page. The trouble is that there really is no hard and fast rule. Personally I prefer the "one page = 10 minutes" approach. So for a typical movie you're looking at 9-12 pages.

My fave reader Lucy at Bang2Write has not been overly impressed by my treatments of the Blockbuster project. The trouble is, and apparently this is common, that writers tend to write treatments as a series of visuals. This is hardly surprising from one viewpoint, after all, I imagine (and I hope) that we "see" what we create in our imaginations (I know I do).

But visuals are the director's department. What we really need to do is communicate the character and the emotion, along with the sequence of actions. Clearly, concisely and not boringly.

As usual the real (and only) crime any writer can commit is to bore the reader. You can't afford to do that. Ever. Boredom is no emotion and contains no motion. Almost every other emotion contains movement, they are good, you can have those, just not boredom.

So, I'm writing this treatment after prevaricating for four days (well, okay, I'm prevaricating now but I thought you might wonder where I'd gone, honest) anyway I've written nearly 4 pages this evening -- 40 minutes of the movie.

This kind of schedule and timing allows you to see whether your movie is appropriately structured too: has life become unsettled for the protagonist by the time you've hit a quarter of the way through? And so on.

I suspect the main reason that writer's dislike treatments so much is that they'd rather be writing the actual script. I don't need a treatment to plan, I use other tools, so a treatment feels like a waste of time.

Unfortunately it's necessary.

What's on the turntable? "Oh Wow, it's you" by Steely Dan from "The Roaring of the Lamb"

Saturday, May 03, 2008

More deadlines


The BBC has a new writers' "opportunity", for which read "competition".

It's called Sharps and the deadline is two weeks after the deadline for the Bohemian Project. So that fills up my time nicely. This one is to write a 30-minute drama based on "The Nation's Health" interpreted whatever way you want, so doesn't have to be a hospital drama. Of course 30 minutes isn't a long time, and for me it's a bit too much like writing short stories. I never liked writing short stories - my imagination is too big and I have trouble keeping things small. So I shall have to try to think of a "point" to make, shorts are always about a "point". (Off the top of my head, I might do something on alternative medicine because of a complete [censored] I heard on the radio.)

The prize for Sharps is quite handy, the top 20 get a workshop and the top 8 from that get a week-long residential and mentoring. Luvverly.

I'm also planning to go to the Cheltenham Screenwriters Festival this year, a bit daunting but if I fulfill all these deadlines I'll have scripts and ideas in quantity. I've never had the cash for something like this before but the new job gives me the opportunity to do things I've never been able to do before.

On a personal note it's the Daughter's 17th birthday today with mega sleepover. Half a dozen teenagers running riot. They all want to watch Dr Who, so they're fine in my book. After that and a chinese, they'll be retiring to the lower ground floor (the house is not small) to watch DVDs and generally be teenage girls.

What's on the turntable? "Love is the Drug" by Bryan Ferry & Roxy Music from "Street Life" compilation