Saturday, August 30, 2008

Nice Notes from Bizarro

Here's a thing from Jill Golick, good to read but I'll summarise:

What if people only gave nice notes? Only praised where praise were due and left out any neutral or negative notes? I think the logic is good: Writers would recognise that things that went unpraised would need improvement and would want to bring everything up to the point of being praised.

Would it work? Could it work? I love the idea, looking at things sideways is always a good move.

I believe it would work with already skilled writers, I don't think it would work on unskilled ones. I know that when I started I needed to be told what was actually wrong. I didn't have the judgement born of experience to see that an unpraised thing might need improvement.

Though I think it would work with me now - because I've been through the mill.

What do you think?

What's on the turntable? "Incantations, Part One" by Mike Oldfield

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The first cut is the deepest

Been busy this week, partly working on a website (a pet project rather than work) and thinking about the feedback I had on the latest draft of Monsters.

And it's nearly September.

So I had to decide: One Night in Paris, my comedy which I'd planned to send to the Kaos competition hasn't been touched and needs plenty of work before it's ready. Meanwhile there's less than two weeks left. Or Monsters which needs more work and the deadline for the Red Planet competition is the end of September.

Yes it's true I could tighten up the first 10 pages of Monsters and just send those, while spending the next week blasting my way through a rewrite of One Night in Paris. But the plot lines in Monsters are so carefully knitted that the wrong change at the start could mess up scenes later on. It's a kind of all or nothing deal.

So I'm skipping Kaos. No point spending money on a competition with something that definitely won't make it past the first cut. And I'll concentrate on Monsters.

It's pretty weird really. This time last year I was sure Monsters was as good as it could get and I had a really good opening 10 pages. It didn't even make it through the first cut. (Though I was in good company with the other 1900 writers.)

This year I know my opening 10 pages are a 100 times better. And I know I still need to work on them.

Last year I was arrogant enough to think I stood a good chance of making the first cut. This year I'm much less certain.

Last year I laboured under the impression I could write. Yet this year I know I can.

I can be a truly arrogant bar steward sometimes ... but I learn.

What's on the turntable? "Dr Tyrell's Death" by Vangelis from CD2 of the "Bladerunner" 3 CD set. This is totally brilliant music inspired by a totally brilliant film. Ridley Scott's cut is definitely (and definitively) the best. He fixes some problems with the original edit and can you imagine a callback to re-shoot a scene 25 years later? He did it, and it is seamless.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Trouble with Cats and Dogs

I'm prevaricating. I'll write this then I'll stop prevaricating and do some proper writing, after I've washed up and got the clothes out of the washing machine. Ahem.

I've been meaning to write this for ages. It was Lucy's blog (and the need to do some serious writing) that prompted me to actually get it down on ... electrons.

Our pets tend to last a long time. Cats that go for 13 years (mind you, we had a gay tom that died of a broken heart when his mother got hit by a car, seriously), dogs that last 18 years, fish that go on forever. But we had more or less run out of pets recently. Only my daughter's cat, Socks, (and a goldfish) remained.

Then we got snails. African snails, you know, the big ones. When things are quiet you can hear them crunching through cucumber and cuttlefish bones. Spooky.

Then we got a new cat. A friend was moving and couldn't take him with her. So we got Darjeeling. It has to be said that Darjeeling is an incredibly handsome cat, and he knows it. He's a blue* (which is blue in the same way white horses are grey) and clearly has some oriental ancestors. He's also very friendly. Unfortunately Socks seemed to have forgotten she used to live with two dogs and two other cats. Darjeeling only wanted to be friends while Socks was going round like a princess with her nose out of joint.

Quick flashback to when we promised the boy that he could have a dog when he finished Primary school. He didn't forget - he never forgets anything. (Actually he's very reliable when it comes to remembering stuff.)

So we got a puppy. Toby. He is half Labrador and other proportions include Beagle and something else, or maybe a Pointer of some sort.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Suddenly Darjeeling and Socks were best buddies, well mostly. Poor Darjeeling, he's clearly had unfortunate encounters with dogs, he's been terrified. Socks' level of resentment went up several notches. First another cat, now a dog.

Toby just wants to be friends. He got his ear clawed when he tried to be friends with both of the cats at the same time. And, in an effort to demonstrate his friendliness further, he managed to corner Darjeeling alone on Saturday.

Toby enjoyed his trip to the vet on Sunday to see about his eye that had been viciously clawed by a cornered cat. He likes the vet, the vet gives him treats. He still likes the cats, and getting attacked has not quelled his enthusiasm.

Hopefully when he's less puppy he'll calm down and let the cats be friends on their terms. If he lasts that long.

What's on the turntable? "Give a Little Bit" by Supertramp from a Greatest Hits album. Unfortunately this album doesn't have some of the best songs from "Crisis? What Crisis?"

*As I'm prevaricating I thought I'd look up blue cats. Turns out that Darjeeling must have a big percentage of Russian Blue but he's no pedigree. He has socks and his face is flatter than your typical Russian Blue. Personally I think that makes him even better looking.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Another week gone

I haven't blogged all week because I've been extraordinarily busy, mainly with Monsters. I got various bits of feedback from Philip Shelley (on his hols for two weeks) and David Bull (who's doing a special deal on "First 10 Pages" for all Red Planet competition peeps ... well actually anybody, but it might be especially useful to you). (Neither of these guys is cheap, they both have exceptional industry experience and you have to pay for it.) And then there was my read-through.

I'd been having issues with the storylines. I liked them, but my consultants sort of disagreed - not actually disliking them but pointing out certain aspects that were dire need of improvement like the fact that there was nothing to suggest that they would connect at any time in the future.

I dug my heels in. Damned if I was going to use a trick and/or device at the start to make it all work and play nicely together. Trouble is I had come to agree there was a problem, and I spent hours, days even, trying to see how I could fix it without using tricks and/or devices. Look at Heroes, I said to my wife, they don't use a trick and/or device to tie the plot lines together. She gently pointed out that the prescient comics and paintings did exactly that job.

I love my wife. And she was right. Again.

So I resorted to a trick and/or device. And it works beautifully, I really like the result. Damn it.

So last week I re-wrote and re-vamped the story, cut madly, re-wrote sections of dialogue, added more emotion and tension in 7 hours of intense work. Then zoomed the result back because Philip was off on holiday for two weeks and I needed more feedback fast.

Which I got: Fixed! I was told. Excellent. Loved the new dialogue, loads more emotion, felt the structure was (almost) fixed. Then proceeded to point out a whole bunch more stuff that needed doing.

But I've stopped arguing and started actually looking. He's right, of course. He (Philip, in this case) has been editing scripts for very popular TV shows for far longer than I've dreamed I could write screenplays. Not to say that I shouldn't disagree and argue, but actually looking at the script objectively is a skill we all have to learn, I think.

So now I'm looking at the new stuff to fix. I cut scenes mercilessly while on the train today, there's a whole aspect to this society that has grown in significance over time - yet it's not really significant to the plot, it's just an aspect of the society. So I've taken out all references to it, all the scenes that depended on it and I've left it open instead. Plus cut other scenes that weren't contributing to the plot and started rebuilding others to make them work better.

I think I'm finally on the last leg. (Either that or I'm on my last legs.)

Just remember all you Red Planet peeps: Last year's winner had one of the best script consultants in the world, oh yes. Personally I'd like to stand a chance of making at least the first cut this year. What makes you think you can do without one?

Unfortunately it means that "One Night in Paris" ended up on the backburner. I have some holidays of my own coming up and I'm not entirely sure I can knock it into shape in such a short time. Still, I love a good deadline.

What's on the turntable?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Monsters: the Script Reading

So I have this TV pilot "Monsters" which I intend to enter for the Red Planet competition, I entered Draft 2 last year but it's had major surgery with the help of various readers since then. And it's much better now.

It just so happens that my daughter's acting class is run by a friend of mine, Victoria, (actress, director, producer and teacher). She suddenly suggested that I have it read by her adult group. So the day was planned, the Saturday just gone, and this is my report on same plus some hopefully sage advice.

The first issue was the number of actors available. I didn't know, but Monsters has something like 28 male parts and 18 female parts and obviously there was no way I'd get that many. So, after it was proposed at Victoria's group we got an estimate of 6 female actors and 4 male.

I went through the script and created a grid of which characters appeared in the same scene as other characters. Then I figured out groupings for 4, 5, and 6 female actors plus 3, 4 and 5 males such that no one had to double up in a given scene. Clever me.

Also it meant that I didn't know how many scripts to print out so I had to guess. Turns out I can get 4 x 60 page scripts from one £7 ink cartridge on my printer, which is about 3p a copy so it's not too bad.

Saturday dawns. I check the website of the studios where we're going to be doing it. It's emblazoned with a big red sign saying "All classes closed". There's a problem. I call the studio, there's no answer. I call Victoria, currently en route with my daughter. She makes phone calls. We can't use the studio, there's a problem.

It's 12:30pm we're supposed to start at 2:00pm. I call the sound recordist. No answer, oh god, I think, is he on his way? I leave a message.

More phone calls, desperate phone calls, can we get another venue, I find one but it's out of town and we don't know what transport people have, if any.

Call from Victoria: She's found a back room of a cafe in central Manchester just round the corner from the studio. Will that do, it's £25? Yes, I say, why not. It's even got tables which the studio didn't.

I call the sound recordist: he's in. I tell him about the change. He can't be there. He has no transport and can't get the equipment there. In a burst of tact, I tell him that's fine as I have an alternative solution. Once off the phone I cannot believe it. At no point during our e-mail exchange did this guy mention that fact he needed transport but didn't have any. When someone offers help it's great, but to offer help that couldn't be provided? My alternative solution was: Don't bother recording it.

By now I'm running late. I leap in the car with my scripts and head off into Manchester. Victoria promises me that there are always parking spaces nearby. I'm dubious but I trust her. She's right. I get into the area, find the original studio, find Victoria and find a parking space. I've brought plenty of change (and paper money too).

The cast are there and we head off to the Mod Cafe, for that is what it is: The vegetarian Mod Cafe on Oldham Street. The back room isn't actually a separate room, it's the bit under the stairs but it's not on the main run through the cafe and we might get an audience but that's what it's all about.

We re-arrange the furniture, I get introduced and there's 6 women and 2 men not counting me. Victoria suggests that she can play a set of male parts, sounds good to me. No one has read the script before except my daughter so I'm not quite sure what I'm expecting but hey, it's fun.

Having seen the various "Dr Who Confidential" shows they do on BBC3 I know that TV read-throughs have someone reading the "action", so I suggest that I'll do that. And we're set.

Thing is, this is Draft 4 and I already know that it's getting detailed changes in Draft 5. But that's okay, this will help me see what the script readers said was wrong with 4. I hope.

We settle down, I do a brief bit of setting (this is SF, set in 2063, there's been two plagues...) because that stuff will be coming up first in D5, but aren't in D4. And we start.

It's going well, considering that they've never seen it before they do a good job of reading. (Which I do have to take some credit for - everyone says I write good dialogue.) After about 20 pages I'm hating reading the action. One of the actresses, Tia (?), offers to read it. And she does an excellent job. Now I can just listen, it's much better that way, and I can make annotations on my script scratching out bits of unnecessary dialogue.

They laugh at the funny bits and, towards the end, Tia speeds up because the action is driving it. (Philip Shelley said the last 17 pages were really good, that matches his experience.)

And we get to the end in about an hour, which is right. Interesting.

Afterwards they all said they liked it, which was nice. But when one said "I want to know what happens next!" That was best. But I'm a realist, the compliments are lovely but there's still plenty of work to do.

We had some drinks (which I paid for, as my thank you to them); after a while everybody drifted away and I paid the man, Martin, nice guy. And a hero for us.

It wasn't perfect: I'd completely missed one female character. And managed to have someone playing against themself in one scene. Plus Tia was doing the action in the scene she also had a character in. But neither was a big issue.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. I gained the objectivity to see that the first part of the story lacks dramatic drive, unlike those last 17 pages which really cook. I'd recommend the process to any writer. But try to make sure you have enough people to read, do a character grid and make sure you can do it with just a few actors. I also wanted to produce a set of character cards with a brief description to hand out but the time constraints meant that didn't happen.

So now I have to fix everything in D5 because it's the last draft I'll get out before the Red Planet deadline. I also found out a piece of TV inside information (that I absolutely cannot repeat) which means that the 0.00001% probability that a spec script gets made suddenly takes a leap as far as Monsters is concerned - and that means "One Night in Paris" and "Running" are on hold until Monsters is fixed.

It's at times like this i wish I didn't have a day job - until I remember the financial situation I used to be in. Don't give up the day job. Just work harder.

What's on the turntable? "The Great Gig in the Sky" by Pink Floyd from "The Dark Side of the Moon". What can I say? Except "Sheer genius".

Swimming against the tide

My wife and I have always agreed that if we ever came to write an autobiography it should be called "Swimming against the Tide". there are two types of people in this world (well, okay, there are more, but for the purposes of this blog, just two.) Those who do as they're told, and those that don't.

We've always been of the latter variety.

Hence my argument with Thames Water. They have been trying to make me pay for a whole year of water supply in advance. I refused. There has been an exchange of letters. Several exchanges.

In their last letter they expressed a veiled threat about failure to pay. In return I told them not to mistake a refusal to pay with an inability to pay. My position was quite simple: their rates meant that water supply costs £20/month, I refused to pay more than that. I did not object to catching up on what was as yet unpaid, as long as it was at £20/month.

On returning to my flat this evening I found a letter. It was a payment book for water at £20/month. Which meant I won.


What's on the turntable? "This Flight Tonight" by Joni Mitchell from "Blue"

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Head too big for door

I had an "appraisal" at work yesterday. As I've never worked in a huge company before this was a new experience. (The fact that it's not usually done on contractors seems not to bother this company, I'm fine with that.) And it seems I'm exceptional.

Of course I always knew that, but now it's official.

Then I got feedback on my intended BFSC entry "Une Nuit a Paris" which was generally good, needs some work but then it was my first draft. (God, what smart-alec.) To be honest I didn't really know what to do with it which is why I went for the feedback so early. Now I have a better idea. But most important it really is funny. Thank goodness for that. I was terrified that it would fall totally flat.

"Monsters" got feedback too, from two sources, which I then compared and contrasted, popped off a couple of emails to try to clarify some things and got back the clarification I needed. Which is excellent news. Hopefully I can make the changes and get it off to Red Planet.

Yours excellently.

What's on the turntable? "Who Wants to Live Forever" by Queen from "A Kind of Magic". Of course, this is the soundtrack music for "Highlander" a film that I love. Though the sequels have never managed to live up to it. (For various reasons.) The TV "Highlander" series (1990s), however, was superb with excellent characters and some powerfully emotional plots. Nowadays the fight scenes in the Highlander film look tame, but in the TV series Adrian Paul plays the immortal, and being a dancer and martial artist his fights were far better. In another bout of Hollywood insanity there is an effort to re-make it.

Monday, August 04, 2008

A Writing Process #3: Making Drama out of Crisis

Last Friday I was on the train back home. I'd found a "standard" class seat that allowed me to use my computer (I usually have a problem where my portly form doesn't allow enough room) however, as it turned out I didn't use it. I was still at notebook level.

I'm working my way through some of the tools provided in Jeff Kitchen's screenwriting book "Writing a Great Movie", illustrating as I go. My new work-in-progress has the working title of "Running" and it may be set in Canada but the city is not too important at this stage.

In the last blog on this subject I looked at Aristotle's first principle of Dilemma. After that he observed that the situation becomes steadily worse until you reach Crisis where the Dilemma reaches breaking point, at roughly 2/3 to 3/4 of the way through - the Second Turning Point of some gurus.

Looking at Back to the Future, the dilemma is that Marty must get back to the future (and now he's on a time limit) but he can't go back until he's fixed his parent's relationship. So where's the crisis? No idea, I'm making this up as I go along. Clearly it's at the "Enchantment under the Sea" dance. He kisses his mother ... that's not it ... Biff pulls her from the car ... his dad gets some backbone and floors Biff ... none of these things are Marty's Crisis. He must make them kiss, if they don't kiss he disappears in a puff of unsmoke. This is the Crisis, he's out of time and out of choices.

After Crisis, says Aristotle, comes Decision & Action. The protagonist has been squeezed by the dilemma and must make a decision and take action to deal with the crisis. Marty makes the band play by taking the place of their injured guitarist. They play and just as Marty is fading out his parents-to-be kiss.

At this point I have to mention a film that Jeff Kitchen mentions in passing on the subject of Crisis, Decision & Action: The Firm. The dilemma is that the protagonist is working for a firm of lawyers who work for the Mob. But the only way out is to betray client/lawyer confidence for which the protagonist would be disbarred (and the Mob would chase him down and kill him). Yet he can't stay. As you expect with a John Grisham story, the Decision and Action are tense and exciting while the final resolution is brilliant.

Finally there is Resolution. The Decision & Action don't completely solve the Crisis, they just handle the situation, the Resolution finishes off the Crisis for good.

So I went through my ideas for "Running" and applied these concepts to my protagonist, Rebecca. I had already analysed the dilemma so, using Jeff Kitchen's suggestions, I followed this through amplifying the dilemma, imagining ways that it could get worse and worse until it reached that Crisis point. Events that make the dilemma worse are the ways you fill up the second act while staying on track.

So I created a Crisis using these ideas, plus the earlier ideas I'd had, and from the Crisis comes Rebecca's Decision & Action and the final resolution of the whole situation.

The end result is that I now have a story, end to end. Some of my ideas have disappeared in the mix, while new ones have arisen. And there's a coherence to all the concepts which means that I won't be wandering off all over the place.

I have to say that I find a lot of this planning very tedious because I really want to get on with the writing, but all my experience tells me, and so does David Mamet, that the time and energy spent in re-writes is more usefully expended in planning. The more you prepare, the less rewriting you have to do.

What's on the turntable? "The Kids are Alright" by The Who from "The Ultimate Collection". It's all the fault of the CSI programmes, 40 Who tracks, lovely.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

A Chimp in Space Oddity

Of all the animated movies I've seen recently I have to say, much to my surprise, Space Chimps had the best script. I didn't expect much of Kung-Fu Panda but it was funnier than I expected and the children thought it was a lot of fun.

Then there was Wall-E. I'd heard it was good, and it was Pixar which was a good sign. It was okay. The animation was superb, of course, and yet structurally the script suffered from fundamental mistakes which made the ending a bit flat.


The protagonist is Wall-E, the bad guy is the Axiom's pilot computer. Yet a plot is as strong as the antagonist who, in this, doesn't appear until at least 1/3rd the way through (maybe 1/2). And then it's not Wall-E who defeats it, but the ship's captain. Flat. Wall-E has no fundamental flow that he needs to overcome, neither does the love-interest. In fact Wall-E goes through the film with only a single purpose and completely unaware that he is changing the lives of those he encounters.


Then there's Space Chimps: it's very funny and, unlike Wall-E, it makes it very clear who the bad guy is right at the start even though protagonist and antagonist don't meet until the showdown. There's plenty of slapstick for the younger kids but a lot of the humour is parent-directed.

But there was this one joke towards the end, where the protagonist, Ham III, is required to pilot the ship back home. But he's just a circus chimp and says he can't do it. The NASA chimp, Titan, says "Are you wearing an aluminium suit?" "Yes." "Are you in outer space?" "Yes." "Are you David Bowie?" "... No." "Then you're an astronaut!"

I smiled at the Bowie joke. The cinema was packed with parents and kids, but only two out-loud laughs exploded at the Bowie joke. My almost-11 year old son and my 17 year-old daughter.

Apparently we were the only ones who got the joke. Clearly they have been brought up properly.

What's on the turntable? Nothing, we're watching TV.