Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Writing Process #2: Running with Aristotle

I have given my new work-in-progress the working title "Running", I always like to have a snappy title I can use to refer to things.

Although "Running" is intended to be a collaborative work I'm really liking the way it's shaping up and it'll be fine even if the company don't like the idea. (I'm all fired up and can't hang around for their response, the muse has grabbed me by the short and curlies and shoved me in front of the computer ... well, notepad in this case.)

Because of the way this story came about I'm working my way through Jeff Kitchen's writing tools from his "Writing a Great Movie" book. Yesterday I attacked with the 36 Dramatic Situations which began to give me a handle on character and relationships.

This evening I started reading through his introduction and came across his reference to Aristotle's "Unity of Action". This comes up in other guises when people talk about scenes, characters, dialogue, sequences and so on being irrelevant. The idea is that the work you create must have a "Unity of Action" every part of it must be part of the whole such that if you were to remove it it would damage the whole.

If something can be removed without affecting the whole then it's redundant and should be cut. (In "Une Nuit a Paris" I have a redundant character who's for the chop next draft.) But you can apply this rule right from the start, Jeff Kitchen expresses it as: "A Single Action; A Single Character; A Single Result".

But my conception of "Running" has two lead characters, I could break the rule but I've learned that my expertise is not yet sufficient. So I decide the protagonist will be Rebecca while her brother, John, can serve to express the next bit of plot construction.

Writing gurus often talk about things like "turning points" particularly in reference to the switch from Act 1 into Act 2. Aristotle doesn't. He has "Dilemma", the two lemmas. The best way to express it is the "damned if you do damned if you don't" situation.

Lots of screenwriting books use "Back to the Future" as a superb example of screenwriting craftsmanship. Jeff Kitchen doesn't, so I will to illustrate. If you take "turning point" as your move from Act 1 to Act 2 then most people would suggest that when Marty McFly goes back to 1955 that's the turning point, his world is upset. As Speilberg puts it his life's equilibrium is all messed up.

Of course he thinks that the Doc has been shot and he needs to get back to save him, but time is not an issue at this point, he has all the time in the world.

But that's not a dilemma. All he has to do is find the Doc and let him get the car running to send him back. Not easy, but not a huge challenge. But what happens shortly after? He screws up his own past such that though he must get back to the future, he can't until he fixes the relationship between his mother and father to be. Dilemma. Complicated by the fact that his mother wants (in the biblical sense) him.

A dilemma is also measured by its stakes: and in BttF the stakes couldn't be higher: If he fails then he ceases to exist.

So, I read through the use of Dilemma as a tool (which can be applied to an existing script as well as used when creating a new one) and applied it to Running. It's another brainstorming exercise identifying the dilemma and then working out all its ramifications.

As a result I've got a really good idea about the main character, Rebecca, and her dilemma (John will dramatise one side while she can express the other). And more plot ideas have been falling out into my lap. This is good stuff.

What's on the turntable? "Incantations Part Two" by Mike Oldfield from "Incantations". Part Two (and Part Four) feature Maddy Prior, the singer from the folk-rock band Steeleye Span (who also recently reformed - along with Pentangle - for their 40th anniversary tour).

I may have mentioned my fondness for 70s Prog Rock. This isn't really Prog Rock, it's something else. Mike Oldfield wanted to create "classical music" in a rock mode (a bit like the 70s/80s band Renaissance, only less "pop"). It's not "easy" music; he loves strange rhythmic patterns, and so do I.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Writing Process

Every writer is different, of course, though there are always features in common - like prevaricating (an important part of the process).

I've been toying with a feature idea after I failed to meet someone at SWF - we'd arranged to meet up but never quite managed it. He has a production company and is looking for scripts based around specific concepts. It's a collaborative thing = no upfront money. But that's okay, after all I haven't exactly proved myself in the writing arena as yet.

So, I've been toying. And prevaricating. But the prevaricating time is now over because the idea was finally beginning to take shape and had got to the point where active participation on my part had become necessary.

Off and on I mention Jeff Kitchen and his "Writing a Great Movie" book which is one of only two screenwriting books I'd personally recommend (the other being "How not to write a screenplay" by Denny Martin Flinn). I recommend them because I have found them very useful.

Jeff Kitchen's book contains tools for screenwriting. It's practical. Like hammers and screwdrivers.

Some people don't like screenwriting books because they feel they are too prescriptive (you must do this only) and/or proscriptive (you mustn't do that ever). Perhaps some are. This one isn't.

Merely owning a tool doesn't dictate what you make with it.

One of the tools in Jeff Kitchen's book is the "36 Dramatic Situations", this is not a proscriptive list of the only dramatic situations you're allowed to have; it's just a list of 36 Dramatic Situations (plus a lot of sub-categories). It originated in the 1700s and was expanded and expounded on by Georges Polti in his 1916 book.

(None of the tools in the book have been devised by Jeff Kitchen, he has collected useful ones together for you to use from excellent sources like Aristotle, Carlo Gozzi and others.)

On this occasion I had some characters and a basic idea for a plot but no real meat. So I pulled out the 36 Dramatic Situations and brainstormed using them, seeing how they might be used in my story. In doing so my characters became fleshed out because I had situations they could get into like "An Enemy Loved".

It's a tool for creating new ideas and new possibilities in your script. You don't have to use any of them, or you might use all of them. And how you actually get the ideas into the script is entirely up to you ... well, me, in this case. The process gave me ideas I hadn't previously entertained that would wring every last piece of emotion out of the story.

It's just a tool and, as with any tool, its effectiveness depends on the wielder's skill.

What's on the turntable? "Three Part Thing" by Pentangle from their "Light Flight" double CD compilation.

Pentangle are a folk-rock-jazz-blues combo using mainly acoustic instruments who started life in the late 60s. I was introduced to their music when their "Light Flight" track was used as the theme to the BBC TV series "Take Three Girls" in the 70s (and one of my sisters bought their "Basket of Light" album). They recently reformed and I saw them, totally unexpectedly, on Jools Holland's "Later..." show a short while ago. Fantastic.

Who d'you think you're kidding...?

I think this was in the WGGB blog. The BBC now have a Dad's Army archive...

Fascinating stuff.

What's on the turntable? Nowt, I don't have music at work.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Help (and how to ask for it)

But before that ... so there I was preparing to go to bed around midnight last night when loud talking began to emanate from below my bedroom window. Very loud somewhat drunk talking.

It seems the boy racer in Flat 1 (directly below mine) had decided to sell this lump of excrescence he calls a car (I'm not being a snob, it may have a very noisy and growly engine, but it's a mess).

As a side issue I once dated the sister of a friend of John Baldachino who in the hey day of real custom cars (unique paint jobs, chromed engines, created by mechanics who loved their cars) was the hero of all true custom car freaks. These cars were works of art, and they had names. The stretch-mini called Princess, the standard-looking Triumph Herald with its body entirely replaced by fibreglass, completely black with tinted windows, called Innocence. Wide wheels and metal that glittered.

The rubbish they put about today are not custom cars, merely penile extensions.

ANYWAY. This guy is selling his car to some other bloke really loudly. At midnight. This goes on for some time. I can't get to sleep. Then they try the engine just to show how loud and growly it really is. And it really is very loud and growly. Eventually it all goes quiet. I fall asleep only to be woken at some point later by this moron racing the engine again.

So today at work I am very tired. This is unfortunate because the pressure is on as there's a fairly important demonstration tomorrow, and a really important one next week. Things need to be made to work, we need a joined-up website. So they install a new piece of code I've written and the whole bloody thing falls over.

As one of my team put it: "There are people who run away from problems and people who run towards them." I fall into the latter group. With various people calling, coming over and asking (concernedly) why the main version of the site is no longer working, we set to trying to find the cause of the problem.

I was tired. My first idea was that the code we'd enabled must be the problem. If I'd been more awake I'd have realised almost immediately that this could not be the case. Anyway, two others started analysing log files and eventually located the source of the problem - as it happens it was something I'd written two weeks ago that should have worked (according to the manual) but it turns out the actual database system itself doesn't like it and it was clogging up the system. I hacked together a fix in 5 minutes and the whole thing ran smooth as glass.


By the end of the day we had a joined-up website which they could use for the little demonstration tomorrow.

(At the same time I was helping to get a new member of the team up to speed, assisting the design guys handling problems, being PR-ful with the other teams, writing documentation and promising the earth and delivering. Though this time I was definitely concerned I'd miss the deadline but my copy-book remains unblotted.

Meanwhile back in the real world. Today I made friends with a guy who's going to be working on the Hotel Caledonia website. Web stuff is not his real job, he's a musician and sound recordist, in that order. We've never actually met but were put in touch by HC's director Nick Lean.

Sound recordist? You may recall that I'm having this read-through of Monsters in a couple of weeks, and I'd really like to record it but I have sufficient understanding to know that I don't have the skill, and certainly not the resources. And a sound recordist drops into my lap (metaphorically).

So in my email, after going over HC stuff, I asked for his help. When asking for help it's important not to beat about the bush, just (with a touch of apology or humour) explain the situation, and ask whether the person can help. There is only a tiny percentage of people who are so appalling unpleasant that they react badly to being asked to help. Even if someone can't help directly they'll usually try to think of a way they can help.

(Oh yes, and he is helping, if he can.)

Help is good.

What's on the turntable? "Scipio" by Sky from "Sky 2"

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Reading in Reading

For the phonetically confused that should be pronounced: "reeding (the activity) in redding (the place)".

I used to read a lot, mostly SF and Fantasy though not exclusively, but for whatever reason, a few years ago, I began to read much less. My fiction reading has been limited to the excellent books of my good friend Roger Ellory. (I have to keep reminding myself that I am a friend of a successful novelist - two words that seldom go together).

But my 49th birthday was celebrated with two books of a type I never read: autobiographies. Both by musicians: Eric Clapton and Jools Holland. I brought these books with me to Reading as I thought they might pass some time, and I slowly worked my way through them.

Another feature of my reading has always been the colossal speed I eat books, but I didn't have the time to devote to these so they got only a few pages a night each.

Since God has priority I read EC first. There is an old-fashioned word which describes this book: Worthy. I honestly can't say that I enjoyed it (even without the horror of the death of his son which I dreaded coming to, but knew that I would). It was somewhat interesting but had a dry intensity that lacked any true passion.

I'm quite an emotional person, and a book can reduce me to tears. The tale of his son's death did. But nothing else did either from joy or sadness. It has to be said that EC well and truly screwed up his life with booze - yes he's been off the wagon for over 20 years but if he'd never gone down that road perhaps he would be happier now rather than living in fear of alcohol. (Which is my personal assessment of his state based only on the book.)

But Jools ... short chapters and a lot of fun. His slow rise to the massively respected blues musician he is now, the TV, the tours, the fun he had and the people he met and played with. Jools realised that drugs and alcohol were a really bad idea early on (not to say he doesn't enjoy a tipple) so never went that route.

And Jools has a message for all artists: He worked hard for many years, being a success but with all the worries that a lack of money can bring. Yet there came a day when he truly realised that the music was the important thing not the money and decided that even if he and his family had to live in a caravan the music came first. And that was the turning point, he never had money worries from that point on, because he always had plenty but it was the music that counted.

As for tears? The last 10 pages of the book did it for me. Especially with BB King declaring that Jools had the best lefthand of any living pianist. Now that's praise. (I'm welling up just thinking about it.)

It makes me wonder whether EC's autobiography was actually ghost-written, or whether the booze has shut-off his passion because, though I adore EC's playing, in the written word it was Jools who truly communicated the joy of music.

What's on the turntable? "Parallels" by Yes from "Going for the One". Apart from my love affairs with female singer-songwriters, I'm a total prog-rock nut.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Parisian Nights

So, I've just finished my first set of corrections on Draft 1 of "Une Nuit a Paris". I spent the train journey up north on Friday reading through a hard copy, editing and making notes.

And the funny bits made me laugh, which is a good start. The big question is: will it make anyone else laugh. I hope so. I was quite impressed with it considering it only had the bare bones of planning and was written on the very tight schedule of ScriptFrenzy when I had fallen well behind. (Well, there's no one else to be impressed at the moment, writers should be impressed by their own work.)

Then I spent the journey back down south on Sunday and some time this evening making the corrections. It's not a finished draft as there are some facts about a gun that need to be brought out much earlier so they can be forgotten which will make the climax meatier.

I was a little concerned about the clash of genres, it's a rom-com/thriller. The only thing I could think of to compare it to was the Audrey Hepburn/Cary Grant classic "Charade" which also takes place in Paris. Not that I'm suggesting it's as good as that. I wish!

But in Charade the thriller sections are very definitely not funny - while the funny bits definitely are funny. And that's what I hope I've achieved.

The read-through of Monsters will be going ahead in two weeks (ohmigod) I have to sort out how to share out the parts (about 42 speaking parts in total) between 12 people except I don't even know what the male/female split is yet. But I think Celtx's production facilities might be able to help. Then I have to spend a fortune getting at least 6 copies (more would be better) printed up by this Saturday.

What's on the turntable? "Joanni" by Kate Bush from the "A Sea of Honey" CD from the Aerial collection. Just to be awkward Kate called her comeback double CD by the name "Aerial" and then named each of the CDs as well. Kate Bush is my age and I have always adored her music ever since I was blown away by "Wuthering Heights". She stopped making records to have a normal life and be a mother while her son Bertie grew up. Anyone who also likes Rolf Harris will find him on this album, painting.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Plot vs Character? Bill talks Aristotle

And I meant to mention that Bill Martell's script tip today discusses the perennial argument as to whether script or plot comes first - and he quotes Aristotle and discusses The Bank Job as his case in point.

Bill Martell is definitely worth reading, he knows his stuff.

What's on the turntable? "Oxygene (Part IV)" by Jean-Michel Jarre from "Oxygene"

Writer without a cause

I have been so unproductive in the last few weeks (before and since the SWF) that I've been feeling like I've lost my spark.

I have no cause or, in my case, I have no deadline.

I did ScriptFrenzy, I wrote a couple of treatments one for a real deadline and one for a self-imposed one. The Red Planet competition isn't a deadline because my script is pretty well ready, a bit of fiddling around to do when I get all the coverage and notes back.

So I've fizzled out.

It's not writer's block. I don't get writer's block.

I have no deadline. My job is great, I just got a really tough deadline to get something really important finished as early next week as possible. Lovely. I've never failed to deliver.

But on the writing front. Nada. I wish someone would give me a commission so I could get my teeth into it.

There are competitions, of course, and just today we got the Kaos BFSC any genre but producible for under $2 million. Sounds like a job for "Une Nuit a Paris". The deadline (ahem) is 12 Sept 2008, just ahead of Red Planet. So that's a little squeaky tight - I'm warming to it already.

Eight weeks to go from first draft to something worthwhile? Yup, that's tight enough.

We are the Bunnies of Happiness!

What's on the turntable? "Another One Bites the Dust" by Queen from "Greatest Hits vol. 1"

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Totally monstrous

Yes indeed, two for the price of one.

I have a friend who is an actress/director, Victoria, she teaches an acting class my daughter attends. She's been resting for the last year but suddenly got both an acting job and a directing job.

Now she's offered her adult group to do a reading of my TV script, Monsters. So we're going to organise a Sunday morning in the near future. I'll drag the daughter along to play the lead, since she was the one I was thinking of when I wrote it. (Drag? She's pulling me.)

Turns out that another friend, who I would have scarce believed it, is in her adult drama group.

His name's Pete. He's about 5 ft 6in tall and built like a brick sh*t house. Covered in tattoos. Bald. He's twenty times harder than Vinny Jones and teaches Thai boxing. He also nearly killed himself with drugs several years ago, but fought his way back. The "nearly killed himself" is not an exaggeration, he was a hairsbreadth from death.

He lives on one of the toughest estates in Manchester where he grew up. He could move if he wanted, but he wants to change things instead. Nowadays he tours schools giving drug education talks. And they listen because he's tougher than any of those kids think they are, and he looks it. He doesn't tell them not to take drugs, but he can tell them what it will do to them because he's been there. They can make their own decisions.

He also happens to be one of the nicest guys you could ever meet (twenty times nicer than Vinny Jones actually is). At least he is now, I suspect I wouldn't have wanted to meet him before he nearly killed himself.

I think I might re-style one of the characters to be him. It would work. As he said to me: "Our paths seem to cross mysteriously."

What's on the turntable? "Drowse" by Queen from "A Day at the Races"

Using Celtx

Now that was an interesting weekend.

My son, who will be 11 in August, is changing schools. As part of his end-of-Primary activities he wrote down a "things he wants to do" and the sweetheart put, among other things, "scriptwriter" like his dear old Dad. Perhaps he should have qualified it with "successful screenwriter".

His school did "Alice in Wonderland" as their end of year production, he got to be the 5 of Hearts but that's another story. Their "big writing" for the end of the year had to be something based on "Alice".

The boy decided he would write a movie script. Of course being an 11 year old boy what he likes are guns and action. There's not a lot of that in Wonderland but there's nothing wrong with his imagination and he soon melded an action plot with a classic children's tale, involving the Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter, world domination, monsters and an ex-soldier. Cool.

So I proceeded to do a script consultation with my son. Script consultancy = "Help the writer find the story."

Naturally his initial ideas were way too big for 10 pages. There was a rather fraught period as he got upset with having to cut back his ideas. So I told him to be a professional and just do it. (I can be so mean.) And he did.

He came back with a compromise that simplified the plot, drew together certain bits that, in his original version, had been separate. And, of course, it was much improved. And he was once again happy. I had him outline the main scenes - just a note about what each of them was, a few words to describe them. Then I had him go through each one and find the conflict. He already understood that conflict could be emotional as well as physical - he explained it to me.

I have to say he's seems like a natural. Point him in the right direction, say go ... and he went.

Then I introduced him to Celtx. Both my wife and I are highly experienced techies, we have computers the way other people have TVs. If nothing else our children are highly computer literate. Still I wasn't entirely sure if he could handle it.

I gave him a quick demonstration, explained about sluglines, characters and dialogue (I told him to ignore parentheticals), how they were used and how Celtx automatically moved from one to another.

Then I left him to it. No problem, he had the first scene sorted within half an hour.

What really got me was that he was asking me all the right questions. I loved it when he said "Is a helicopter INT or EXT?" Brilliant. On dialogue he called me over to ask "How do I make this less corny?" Fantastic. I'd already covered the concept of starting a scene as late as possible and getting out as quick as possible. He'd absorbed that as well.

So, after about 5 hours he had his script. Poor kid. His parents are both editors. And he got the red pen treatment, but he's used to it. We always explain it's not personal and how everyone needs an editor.

Was it a good script? Well, for an 11 year old who'd never written a film script in his life before it was amazing. I am biased, but not that biased. (Another thing our poor kids have to put up with, parents without rose-tinted glasses.) But frankly I was proud, he did quite a job - and the dialogue was funny in places, deliberate humour.

Of course, now I'm concerned. My 17 year old daughter got her fiction work published in real books (when she was 14) before I did (I haven't yet). I now face the horrible prospect that my son might get scripts produced before me.

In fact he was so impressed by the full feature set of Celtx (all the production tools) it wouldn't surprise me if he made them himself. Maybe I'll have to ask him for a writing gig.

Oh yes, and about the parentheticals I told him to ignore. I did tell him when to use them, and he did! Just the once. Little rat.

What's on the turntable? "Teo Torriatte" by Queen from "A Day at the Races"

Monday, July 07, 2008

The No. 1 Writer's Guru and screenwriting books

I promised I'd write something about Jeff Kitchen and his book which I found to be the most useful of all the screenwriting books. There was a session at SWF about screenwriting books too.

But this isn't that blog.

This is about a different screenwriting guru. It was the Monty Python philosopher's drinking song that suggested that Aristotle was very quick with the bottle. And he may well have been. But he was also a genius.

The concept of a scientist being a specialist is very new, barely 150 years if that. Before that specialism was not even considered, if you studied life you studied everything.

And so it was with Aristotle, if something piqued his curiosity then he studied it -- more than that: he studied the hell out of it until he understood it.

It just so happened that in Aristotle's home town they had a playwriting competition every year, the organisers would specify the subject (a standard Greek myth or story) and then judge the results. Aristotle noticed that some plays were enjoyable and some weren't. Obviously. But he's a scientist so there's one thing that occurs to him: Why?

He wanted to know why some plays worked and some didn't. And the fact that he had the perfect scientific situation where the variable of subject matter was removed so he could concentrate on what made a good play good.

And he did. Frankly he nailed it. What screenwriting gurus tell you today, he wrote 2500 years ago. He was the first screenwriting guru, even down to the fact that (as far as we know) he never wrote a play in his life.

And you can read Aristotle's "The Poetics" online here. I should warn you that it's not the easiest of things to read. At the start there's a lot of background information which sets the scene for his analysis but it's not entirely necessary to read and it's mainly applicable to the style of play.

On the other hand you could read Jeff Kitchen's book "Writing a Great Movie" which encapsulates and uses Aristotle's main points, as well as some others.

As I mentioned there was a session about screenwriting books at SWF. I didn't go to it. Some people object to them, some people are vehemently opposed to them. That is a viewpoint I find slightly ludicrous after all, nobody forces you to read them.

Books are good for a few things: format, industry insights ("How Not to Write a Screenplay" is invaluable), a description of "principles" which you can actually use to make sure that your work is of a reasonable standard (by which I mean things like "Enter late, exit early" for scenes).

I think those who vehemently object to screenwriting books have this odd idea that they somehow interfere with creativity. I am of the opinion that the only person that would be so affected is one that had limited creativity in the first place.

Every art form has principles which, if followed, ensure a certain level of technical ability from which creativity can blossom. Once someone understands those principles, they can then break them. Picasso was a superb artist who's early landscapes and portraits were "standard". He was a master of the principles before he struck out on his own.

The contents of some books are less useful than others, but that depends on your own personal level of skill and experience. What I find useful may not be useful to the next person, it could be too simplistic, or too advanced.

But the first is Aristotle, he analysed structure and what he said applies as much today as it did 2500 years ago. He's the man. Give him a go, and see what you can learn.

Of course, there are the modern writers who aren't "gurus" but as experienced professionals their words are worth listening to. And for that I can only recommend Script Secrets by Bill Martell with his blog and daily script tips. These are absolute gems.

As an example, just this evening, I finished adding extra material to my Monsters pilot, under the guidance of script consultant Philip Shelley . Then I read today's script tip from Bill and realised that I needed to make my protagonist more sympathetic in the opening, then the audience will empathise with her, and her later actions will be more believable.


What's on the turntable? "Sensual World" by Kate Bush from "Sensual World". I have this thing about female singer-songwriters...

Friday, July 04, 2008

Fiesta! Take-away

As I sit in my room this Friday morning before checking out (checking out? I haven't even made myself beautiful yet). As I sit here I thought I would sum up what I think I've learned from the past three days.
  • William Goldman is right, nobody knows nothing.
  • Be true to your own vision, don't compromise and don't try to second-guess the market.
  • TV commissioners want recurring series, mainly.
  • Professional consultancy is absolutely essential, no point fooling yourself otherwise.
  • Everyone in TV and Film is scared (because of point #1), they need you to be confident.
  • Money is short but TV and Film will go on being made.
  • You don't have to have an agent, you can use a lawyer to check your contract.
And finally: Writers are not links in the production chain, writers are the stake driven into the ground to which all the other links are attached (and flail about wildly). Without writers the others would not even exist.

Now I shall make myself beautiful.

What's on the turntable? "Another one bites the dust" by Queen from "Queen's Greatest Hits"

Fiesta! Bonus Pics #2

You may wonder why I keep posting the pictures a day later.

Then again, you may not. Is it because I need to get the digital pictures developed first? Strangely, no. It's because I can only think about one thing at a time, being male, and when I'm writing my day report I just can't think about incorporating pictures.

Picture #1 is very important. This is a picture of Stuart Perry having lost his voice. Oh yes. He's the chap in the middle, in case you don't know. Note clearly how he is not speaking.

On his left from our viewpoint is James Moran, writer of Severance and of Spooks, Dr Who and Torchwood episodes. While on his right is someone who's name I forget but he was a very nice chap. The table is littered with lunch.

Next up we have an image of the majestic Nigel Planer standing in the food queue with no one talking to him. Apparently something is happening to the left of picture but I don't recall what that was.

Why is no one talking to him? Because they're too embarrassed because he's just so big, and tall as well. It's difficult being famous.

The red-head just right of centre is Joanne Leigh, winner of the Red Planet competition 2007.

I thought I'd throw in this picture of the happy crowds of writers talking and chatting with all the news friends they've made over the last few days.

Most, like me, would not really have known anyone else and came, heart in hand, in the hope of meeting like-minded folks, the chance to learn some things about their trade and perhaps even make contact with a producer interested in their work. At the very least, you will make friends.

This is my final image. It sums up the weekend. A game of croquet being played by Stuart Perry, Piers Beckley and friends. Life is like a game of croquet, on the surface it is a civilised activity involving balls and hoops; in truth it is a cut-throat endeavour with the participant's armed to the teeth with hammers.

What's on the turntable? "White Man" by Queen from "A Day at the Races"

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Fiesta! #3 (It's a wrap)

And then it was over but not before this happened (oh, quick disclaimer on behalf of the kind people who gave their time to talk to us - this is my take on what they said, it may not perfectly reflect their intended meaning):

"Making a few bob from writing" by Mike Gubbins, the editor of Screen International. Rather more useful than the patronising atrocity perpetrated on the first day. Mike is humorous and well-informed, as one should hope.

His first point in the packed room was that he was pleased to see that the writing fraternity were mercenary enough to want to make money, rather than merely suffer for their art. Writing screenplays is a business but right now there is less money around and the market is changing. But this wasn't one of those "web-hugger" talks -- as he said, there is no business model for the web currently.

Instead he described what is actually happening in the market. The big media companies are reducing their output to the "guaranteed" blockbusters and not producing the mid-budget movies that they previously did. Instead they are assisting in the backing of "local" movies, basically national movies with a strong sense of Place. And then working to give these international distribution in order to make the money back. It's already happening and it's already working.

So what do you write about?

Well, if you see a bandwagon then it's already gone. If there is any obvious anniversary, someone is already doing it. Just don't bother with bandwagons and anniversaries.

Being in his position allowed Mike to do some research. He went round to the commissioning execs of major companies and organisations and asked them what they wanted to see:
  • Comedies that are funny
  • Thrillers that thrill
  • Dramas that are dramatic
  • Theatrical adaptations (see note above about bandwagons)
  • British teen drama that teens will watch
  • Horror that scares
Important note, the preceding list must be read recognising the inherent irony. Remember William Goldberg: Nobody knows nothing. Basically they have no idea. A word that kept cropping up is "edgy" it has to be edgy but not gritty. It's not clear whether there is actually any understanding of these terms.

The most significant films to appear this year (internationally) have been by writer-directors, or writer-director-producers, and occasionally writer-director-producer-actors. They are works that have not been compromised in their creative vision.

Don't try to second-guess the market. Don't try to produce "what the public wants". Your market (as a writer) are the people who buy films. And they don't really know what they want (edgy but not gritty). So write what you want, and don't compromise your vision.

Followed by the packed "The Colour of Writing" with the great Terry Pratchett, the wondrous Nigel Planer, with Vadim Jean who adapted both the Hogfather and The Colour of Magic for Sky.

What can I say about this? It was primarily about Vadim's adaptation of the books and his methodology which is to take the original source and dump it into Final Draft and convert the entirety of the book into a script, then start editing.

It was wonderful to see Terry Pratchett, he's a writing hero in more ways than one. Some people don't like what he writes, fine, but for me he is witty, intelligent, satirical, and very human.

Nigel Planer is an acting genius, his humour is so dry that sometimes people miss it. He has read the unabridged version of Terry's works as well as appeared in the Sky productions. During the session he did some readings from the original scripts and the original books which were then compared and contrasted with the way they turned out on screen.

Where I have a problem is that the adaptations were not, in my opinion, as good as they could have been. This is not to say I did not enjoy them, I did. But that was more a love of Pratchett and a desire to see them "real" than the quality of the adaptation itself.

To be honest, from my viewpoint, Vadim's explanation of how he does the adaptations explained perfectly why they are not good. While a respect for Terry Pratchett is all very well, the production of a good result should be more important.

Vadim quoted the brilliance of The Lord of the Rings adaptation as being his inspiration for following the Pratchett originals closely. And said he'd read LOTR four times as a youth. Unfortunately that too demonstrated that he was clearly unfamiliar with LOTR (only four times?) because Peter Jackson took some huge liberties with the source material BUT they were liberties that made it work as a movie. Oh well.

I then skipped the next sequence of sessions, though apparently Kay Mellor was very good, and I shouldn't have missed her - as she's the creator of Fat Friends I should have known. (One other session was a "pop-psyche"method of script development, yeuch, I hate pop-psyche. Reminds me of leeches.)

The afternoon started with "Jane Tranter" Controller of BBC Fiction. This was a very honest and very revealing interview by David Pearson.

And after the first five minutes I felt vindicated. Let me explain: You may be aware that the Guardian newspaper recently did an "expose" on how all the power over BBC Drama is invested in Jane Tranter and that it is horrible place to work (anonymous sources) and various other unpleasant things. On Shooting People I was the only person to stand up and say "rubbish" because I know (a) how the media works and (b) how people who think they've been slighted can behave. I knew it was just media b*llocks.

The first point was that although Jane is in "control" of over £250 million in spend on Drama, and yes she has to greenlight stuff the truth is this: She's not the final arbiter (there are others higher than her); and stuff has already been filtered and approved before it gets to her anyway. Plus she's been doing the job for 8 years, why start complaining now? (Just because the BBC has started succeeding, goodness, the media wouldn't try to attack something for being a success would it?)

We were also treated to some interesting facts:
  • The BBC drama output is 550 commissioned hours per year (excludes "bought in")
  • The BBC employs at least 500 writers in a year, (that's the minimum)
They do 26 new singles every year, so there's a huge opportunity for that (like Joanna Leigh's "Sam J" the winner of last year's Red Planet competition).

And they launch a fair number of "returning" series, unfortunately they may be the victim of the success of returning series because if they work, there's less room for new ones next time around. They have to make decisions on when to retire existing ones based essentially on "Are they saying anything new?"

They want a mix of big and small budget returning series. See the Red Planet competition this year.

Jane Tranter is fully in favour of show runners, in the British style, so you can see that there is a concordance between what everyone at the top of the TV tree are saying. What she most seriously objects to is the fact that TV is not seen as a legitimate art form - "it's only TV".

Good stuff and I have say that there was a marked difference between her and Laura Mackie from ITV - Jane Tranter exuded confidence where, I'm afraid, Laura seemed fundamentally uncertain.

My final session for the whole event was Phil Parker presenting "What do script consultants do?" Phil summed it up as "help the writer find the story". Phil has excellent credentials and he is employed by major companies to help fix scripts and he only chooses projects he likes.

But here's an interesting thing. As mentioned Joanne Leigh won the first Red Planet competition last year with a story about Samuel Johnson (Sam J) and the first dictionary (actually an interesting story). But Joanne's script had been developed with Phil Parker as her consultant; she had done Phil's MA course in screenwriting.

Please understand this is not a criticism, and it's not "cheating". Production companies want finished scripts. So, unless you have a natural genius for writing, you could probably do with getting some help too, because you're up against scripts that have been honed to professional standards.

I personally know how valuable a professional script consultant can be to truly bringing out the story in your work, and ensuring you focus correctly. And I will be entering my script-consulted script into Red Planet this year.

All professional writers have script consultants even if they are employed by the production companies. And as Phil Parker said: It [writing] doesn't get easier.

He made an interesting comment at the beginning of his session, he was one of the people that got Robert McKee into the UK. At first McKee's talks were attended by writers but within a few months the audience was replaced 80-90% by execs and commissioners, non-writers who saw McKee as a quick fix.

Phil finished by making some comments about what you should write: Write about human emotion because that is universal; use a light touch (with occasional humour); and be original.

And that's a wrap.

I spent some time saying goodbye to some of the great friends I made at the event and I'm already saving for next year.

I'm not the greatest networker in the world, pretty poor really, but this was an amazing event, it was comfortable and friendly, you get to see people and find out things that you might not otherwise learn.

And it's unique. Definitely worth it.

What's on the turntable? "F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E." by Pulp from "Different Class"

Fiesta! Bonus Pics #1

I thought you'd like to see the location of the Cheltenham Screenwriters Festival... (click to embiggen).

This is the main building, the "Manor on the Lake" it's not that old really, only about 150 years. Nice meeting rooms on the ground floor with lovely panelled walls and ornate ceilings all in excellent condition. The upper floor has offices, very nice.

This is the view down the garden, the tents in the distance are part of the event, including the main theatre pavilion and the cafeteria. Staffed by a film/TV location caterer, of course.

It also has the very nice toilet block that was getting pumped out inconveniently yesterday during the Scriptbites.

This is the view of cafeteria. The two gentlemen entering are regular breakfast partners of mine. this is also the location of the Scriptbite mini-sessions. As you can see the tables really are round so when I say "round-table" I mean it.

Ooops, I was sure there was an option to turn this through 90 degrees. No time to mess about now.

The man in the middle is Tony Jordan himself, gentleman wide-boy and market trader.

And one of the driving forces behind the transformation the UK screenwriting scene.

And there you go. Last day today, and it's not sunny.

What's on the turntable? "Edith and the Kingpin" by Joni Mitchell from "Hissing of Summer Lawns" (I have lots of Joni Mitchell, basically she's a poet.)

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Fiesta! #2

At an event dedicated to screenwriting it is, perhaps, hardly surprising, that things come in themes. Yesterday had themes, for me, of how to write treatments.

Today's theme was quite definitely showrunning.

We opened with the announcement of this year's Red Planet Writing competition, I wasn't going to go to it but I'm glad I did. The rules and requirements have changed since last year and we have a longer lead time: 60 minute pilot for a new TV series. Deadline: 30th September 2008. Send only the first 10 minutes and a 1-page summary, plus the registration form from the website.

It was amusing when Tony Jordan suggested he'd given more time because people are unlikely to have such a thing lurking in their drawer. Well, everyone I spoke to did ... including me.

I sent "Monsters" to the first Red Planet competition last year and got nowhere. But this is two drafts further on so I shall send it again.

The prize is once again worth having: £5000, guaranteed agent representation, and the opportunity to showrun your show, if it's picked up by a broadcaster. Wow.

Better than that: Every entry that's worth turning into a series will be taken up. In other words there might not be just one winner, there could be 2, or 3, or 4 or more. If Tony likes it, he'll back it.

Tony shared the stage with Danny Stack who will be reading most of the entries and he had some words to say about common problems with last year's entries (see the link) and the winner of last year's competition who's show was a single currently in production for BBC 4.

I stayed in the main tent for the following session from Laura Mackie, Head of Drama for ITV, in a talk on how writers can help increase the success rate of drama. It has to be said that ITV has done really badly with total bombs like "The Palace" and "Rock Rivals" - honestly they only had to have asked me before they started. I thought they were stupid concepts guaranteed to fail, but apparently everyone in ITV development thought The Palace was a guaranteed winner.

Anyway, neither were Laura's fault since the lead time is so long she wasn't in the job when they started. Part of Laura's solution is to give writers more time to develop the scripts because often they aren't, and also to instigate a form of showrunning. She cited "Pushing Daisies" which I'm guessing she purchased for ITV (and I love Pushing Daisies), where the creator had three series mapped out and knew how things in series 1 would impact the end of series 3. Even if they never got that far.

Consistent creative vision.

And hints for authors:
  1. Watch the current output and don't duplicate it.
  2. Take into account the identity of the channel. (ITV = optimistic, but not "Sunny Delight")
  3. In a pitch, "Less is more". One line will do. In fact she hates being pitched to, she'd rather just talk.
Surveys show that nowadays you have to grab people in the first 4-5 minutes. She gave us the openings of the pilots of two highly successful shows: "Cracker" and "Cutting It". Just to illustrate how good an opening can be. (And they were good, I hadn't seen either, though I'd watched Cracker and enjoyed it immensely.)

Most important: They want returning series.

See the theme here? Red Planet wants returning series entries, ITV (and BBC) want returning series ... and returning series are best when they have show runners.

I wasn't interested in the next sessions (Notes don't bother me, good or bad, I don't write horror and I'm not the collaborative type.) So went to have lunch and waited for the mini, round-table "scriptbite" session with Ed Clarke from Kudos, which is responsible for some fantastic TV (Life on Mars, and Hustle, for example). The table was crowded and, unfortunately, his arrival coincided with the sewage truck emptying the toilet block nearby. It was very noisy and most people couldn't hear him.

Then the bomb struck: He was from Kudos Film and not Kudos TV. And people drifted away, partly because they couldn't hear and partly because he was film and not TV. Then Tony Jordan turned up for a round-table session and the other tables emptied to hang round him - 10 tables wouldn't have been big enough. But Tony loves a crowd.

The first afternoon session was "Show runners" featuring (ahem) Tony Jordan, Barbara Machin, the writer James Moran (Severance, plus Dr Who & Torchwood scripts) and Philip Shelley, who I now reveal is my script consultant.

I'm not going to go into huge detail on this because not a lot was actually said even though a lot of words were used. In brief: We probably don't want the US model of Show runner (an employed producer who works nightmare hours and is responsible for everything), what is seen as the British show runner is the "Guardian of Creative Vision" with the power of an Exec Producer (which is essentially the title they have) will probably have been the show's creator, first writer and oversees anything to do with maintaining their creative vision in the show: A coherent, unique, writer's voice.

They would be involved in all creative areas (costume, casting, set design, music, writers, directors) but not in the day-to-day management.

All jolly good stuff and well-received.

I had arranged to meet Philip Shelley after this, so I did. Good meeting, not a huge amount of new stuff came out of it - except he commented that the current incarnation of Monsters was probably good enough to snag me an agent (with his recommendation) but it's preferable to make it as good as possible.

And he's concerned that if I'm really good at SF (which apparently I am) he's concerned that I may be rubbish at other stuff, like my rom-com, Une Nuit a Paris. He may be right, he has the experience to back up that kind of assertion. But I need more than one script to prove I'm not a one-hit wonder and my SF blockbuster (which I discovered I am permitted to write yesterday) won't be ready for a bit.

After that I was barely interested in anything else. I'd had a nagging headache all day caused by my walk yesterday and lack of proper sleep. So I came back to my room and slept for an hour. Then return to the fray for another hour and a half. And had a chat, with others, with James Moran, nice chap. He explained how good it was to be slightly famous, being invited to Dr Who conventions and being treated with awe and respect, but able to walk down the street without being stared at.

I could live with that too.

What's on the turntable? "River" by Joni Mitchell from "Blue". Another singer I absolutely adore, I even like her much maligned "Mingus" album.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Special bonus

This is a picture of the Cheltenham Travel Lodge, I was trying to think what it reminded me of, then I remembered. China.

Yes, I have been to China. I was riding a bike for charity. In China.

This building looks like the utilitarian monstrosities that pass for tourist hotels there.

What's on the turntable? Still Oxygene.


I'm knackered but, to be honest, that's my own fault, after all only mad dogs and Englishman go out in the midday sun. Which makes me either a mad dog or an Englishman. Briefly: I ran out of cash, I misunderstood the location of the nearest cash machine. I walked 4 miles in the heat of the day. I got a sunburnt bonce (actually not too serious). In fact I enjoyed the walk but it was a little exhausting. I had plenty of liquids with me. I did get the cash and didn't miss anything because there was rather a long break in the proceedings or, at least, the proceedings I was interested in.

Here's how my day went: Woke at 6:30am, made myself beautiful, walked to the event location following signs and looking like I knew what I was doing. Waited with other silly people who were there first thing (8:00am). Signed in, got a bag of heavy magazines. Very annoying. Put unnecessary clutter into backpack. With new friends went to breakfast.

Met two of the people who I'd decided I wanted to meet. Didn't talk business with the one I should have talked business with. It didn't feel "the right time". Must find him again tomorrow.

Ate large breakfast (knowing I was going to need it) and at 9:30am wandered with new friends to the front row of main theatre for opening address from Barbara Machin. Was suitably impressed. She said: write interesting and new stuff. And don't worry, new writers don't have to write for long running TV series (meaning the likes of East Enders and Casualty) to get "in" any more. I was grateful.

The opening had been delayed to get in late registrants, so the opening speech ran almost straight into the next thing "How to make a living as a writer". I'm afraid I wasn't very impressed, but then it's not something I want. I hadn't actually been planning to even watch it because I wasn't interested.

Piers and Jason who were sitting next to me did a runner after 10 minutes.

Honestly I have nothing against good life coaches, and certainly nothing against people who've succeeded in giving up the day job and now make a living through writing of various sorts. As I've mentioned, I like my day job, people pay me to do something I consider relaxation and I have time to write in the evening without distraction. I'm lucky.

But I seriously disagree with suggesting that anyone and everyone who wants to be a writer should give up the day job they don't enjoy and start a new and untested business idea that's supposed to be related to writing. It will not work for most of them. And many have responsibilities that make it a very bad idea indeed. (Like me, for example, even if I didn't like my job.)

The three example people they had were creditable gentlemen who clearly worked very hard at what they do, and I admire them for that ... but they work hard at what they do and have managed to be successful. Regardless of them, how many have failed? I felt the session was irresponsible and basically just an advertisement for the life coach concerned. Not impressed.

That's my opinion, and the opinion of many of the people I spoke to.

Anyway, back to the good stuff.

"Protect Your Writing" this was a talk given by a media lawyer, Guy Sheppard, and covered the various legal things that are dealt with in contracts. It was good stuff, if very dry, filled with jargon which he explained clearly. He gave the analogy of copyright (which is a collection of rights) being like a townhouse where you can, for example, let-out a floor and put any restrictions on it you like: "You can have exclusive use of the basement for the next 6 months".

Being a proper suit (sorry Guy) we had print-outs of his Powerpoint presentation as take-aways.

Guy was also one of the people I wanted to talk to, but I got the chance to ask my question in the Q&A at the end. Unfortunately he wasn't sure what I meant. Oh well, more of that later.

Next would have been lunch but I had no money. This is when I went on the long march.

Arriving back having eaten, drunk, and burnt, I rested for 40 minutes or so until the best session of the day for me:

"How to be Good" this was presented by the comedy duo Krait and Leys: Rob Krait an agent with AP Watts, and Kate Leys, a script editor. They were amusing, thorough and had real advice that was good to take away. The best tidbit for me was based on William Goldberg's "Nobody knows nothing" principle which is this: Nobody believes they know anything, so they are scared, all of them, every exec, everyone involved in monetary decisions, they are scared. So they behave like scared people in meetings: they say silly things; they do silly things; they prevaricate etc etc. So it's up to you, as the writer, to understand this and help to calm them down, help them have faith in what they are doing. Say things like: "What do we need to achieve in this meeting?" or "What do you need from me today?" in order to help them focus.

They said lots of other really good stuff, but hey, I paid for this. Kate with some offhand comment actually answered the question I'd tried to ask Guy, and I had a quick chat with her afterwards. I came away a very happy bunny because it meant I could actually write an adaptation of a book that I've been longing to do. (It's not an out-of-copyright thing, the author is still alive.)

This session was closely followed by "The Right Treatment" by Jenna Milly who's a script editor in the States. I've always had a serious problem with treatments which is why I wanted to do this one. And it really helped, in some ways. Apparently the format of a treatment is more clearly defined in the States than here, she went over the structure required and what it should consist of which was very useful. However tying that in with the excellent previous session, in the UK when someone asks for a "treatment" or an "outline" always ask what they're actually expecting to see, otherwise you could get it seriously wrong.

Finally she gave us a practical test which was to watch the first 5 minutes of Jaws and then write the opening of the treatment for that sequence. I nailed it in about 50 words (though they might not have been a good 50 words) my neighbour was into his third paragraph. There was no checking. She also gave us homework: find two films that had a similar tone to the our Work-In-Progress, watch one of them and then do the same trick with that. And for extra credit, write the treatment for the whole film.

And that's about it for me. I didn't go to see Mike Leigh doing a talk, because I was completely shattered. I had a long and pleasant chat with another of the "Pitch in Time" finalists, John Robertson from Edinburgh.

Apparently the Pitch in Time coaching that all the finalists received today was pretty rugged, and their efforts were torn apart. This follows what happened last year but, unlike last year, they at least have a day to pull their pitch back together before the final tomorrow.

And good luck to them all.

What's on the turntable? "Oxygene (Part II)" by Jean-Michel Jarre from "Oxygene"

Twelve Point Plan...

Scriptwriter magazine transmuted today into a website, as a subscriber I got an e-mail about it with login things.

And, whaddya know, it's been created using Drupal. I know a lot about Drupal. I get paid a lot of money because I know about Drupal (and have 35 years programming experience, and have run businesses with employees). Drupal is free and can be used virtually out of the box though you might need a techie to get it into the box.

I'm not going to critique it as an implementation, that would be unfair.

Just thought I'd mention it.

I'm just about to get everything ready for my day at the Screenwriters Festival. Exciting.

What's on the turntable? Nothing I'm a sad bastard blogging at stupid o'clock.