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Monday, September 29, 2008

Red Planet Reflections

Well, Red Planet closes tomorrow, so suffice it to say most of you will have got your entries in the post by now. I sent mine last week, but am now telling myself I forgot to include the one page pitch doc and will now be disqualified (this is despite checking it three billion times, plus getting my husband to check it and my son - after all, it might have turned invisible INSIDE THE ENVELOPE and somehow got out on the way to the postbox).

Of course, I was in the privileged position of having a squizz at my competition, being a reader - I read even more Red Planet entries than last year; at my last count it was approximately sixty different versions, either through Bang2write or Po3. I thought it would be of interest to share a few of my reflections on the whole process.

Many writers came back to me several times, so I was able to see the evolution of their ideas; one chap came back no less than five times between July and last week and actually ended up submitting something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT to what he had in the first place. Fellas it seemed were either completely organised or completely last minute, with most of the laydeez plodding steadily on, though it was interesting to see many men willing to go back to page 1 without a second's thought. Also, many of the women writers had a complete downer on themselves I noticed: they kept saying there was no way they would finish in time, that they couldn't get a grip on the whole drama series idea, that their ideas were shit or convoluted. Oi Ladies no!

Alot of the series dealt with the supernatural - at least in part. Some dealt with disaster, genocide, teachnology, Hell, but ALL had a dystopian view of the future or the near-present. Interestingly, not one had vampires or werewolves in, though plenty dealt with witches and ghosts. If the series weren't supernatural, then they were period, ranging from approximately from the year 1200 to WW2. Great figures from history (particularly kings and queens but also politicians and literary greats), often figured prominently within these period dramas, either as protagonist or antagonist. A couple were both supernatural AND period. I saw just one cop show and even that was period. There were no medical shows at all - mine is a medical show (set in present day!) and I had feared that Red Planet would be swamped with this genre. If they are, it won't be from Bang2writers!

Almost without exception scribes struggled with the pitch doc. Troubles ranged from syntax and grammar obfuscating the story right through to the story being incoherent or missing altogether. It seems to me that many scribes have no problem identifying characters, but have issues making their journey (and thus the plot) obvious. As I said to several, we're selling a STORY: characters are of course part of that, but a character without a premise and a journey is just that - a character, floating in space.

But then of course, I can talk: I had my own problems with my pitch doc; not so much with the story but the fact my protagonist at one point apparently sounded "like a whiny, do-gooding bitch" according to one Po3er, LOL. I ended up doing no less than eleven versions of my pitch doc - which ranged from "dull" to "confused" to "meh" according to feedbackers. It was the sixth attempt I actually managed to interest people and ninth before it was even half-ready. On my eleventh draft of the pitch doc, I sent that and my ten pages to a particularly harsh reading friend of mine who came back with:

"Fabulous pitch. Pity about the pages."

OUCH!

I actually rewrote the first three pages of my ten pages the most - there were four different openings. Confusingly, everyone had something positive to say about each version, apart from the third that went haywire. It was only when my harsh reading friend half-liked one of the versions that I realised I might be onto something. Not because his judgement is the only one I listen to, but because he made the good point that an opener needs to reflect the tone of the show. It was then I realised that as an opener for a comedy drama, I needed some comedy. Sounds obvious, but sometimes you need someone to smack you in the face with it. The first attempt I made at comedy then raised a few laughs, but it was too long. The second (which was my terrible third attempt) wasn't funny. The third - that was what I was going for. Unfortunately, my last (unconnected) reader said he would have done something else entirely, but then sometimes you also have to realise that you're not another person, you're you - and you can't change that, so you can't change the script.

So what have I learned? Well, first off - you have to follow your heart. Cheesy I know, but cheese and truth often go hand in hand. Secondly, make sure you put story above all else in pitch docs, 'cos that's what you're selling: it doesn't matter how great or intriguing your character is, if the reader doesn't know what that character is doing, all it becomes is a mad mix of words and images and that's NEVER as enticing as a good story. Thirdly, start as early as possible. I began my drafts in July and thank God for that, else I'm sure I'd still be writing now and missing that all-important deadline. Plus the drafts that have had many rewrites are always, always better - and that's even if you write good first drafts. I had several professionals come through for this contest and of course their first drafts were very accomplished: but you can still tell a first draft, even from them.

What about you, what have you learned?

34 comments:

terraling said...

11 drafts for the pitch?! What luxury. I wrote mine last Wednesday and posted it Thursday! Changed a few words in the morning before I went to the post office.

I was humming and hawing about using my African drama serial as an entry, but they're looking for series not serials, why handicap myself unnecessarily?, I thought - when I can start a new project in the last week of August and submit that instead.

I'm hoping that after choosing someone who had crafted their script over six years last time out the judges will be big on spontaneity this year.

Lucy said...

Ah you see Terraling - what did I say?! You fellas were super organised or super last minute!

Spontaneity is good - but I'm of the belief the best ideas come through rewriting. However, no one knows what they're doing as ol' Goldy says, so will be interesting to see how many get to the second stage of the last minuters, if they tell us of course.

JR said...

Aghhh!

You're telling me I'm not the only person to come up with a 'supernatural' witch theme. That's most unfair of my competition.

Don't worry, Lucy... I have your one page pitch here and will send it on for you.

Lucy said...

Cripes - if you have it, does this mean YOU'RE a witch, JR?!?

Don't worry about the fact there are a lot of supernatural entries flying about though, I find these things have a "zeitgeist" about them: everyone thinks of the same genre or whatever at the same time it seems, I've seen it as a reader many times and the peeps at RPP will have too I'm sure.

laurence timms said...

Wonder why everyone seems to be going for supernatural stuff. My script is present-day, down to earth, non-genre stuff (in that it's not police or medical). In fact, I'm not sure what it's like.

It was a great learning experience, though. I discovered that I need a lot of thinking time to chew over ideas, characters and stories. Writing dialogue doesn't necessarily help if I don't have all those other ducks in a row first.

I also found that I did a shedload more drafts than I'd ever expected to. Two complete ground-up rewrites, and of the final re-write, thirteen drafts.

The pitch doc was the hardest bit of all, but I came face to face with the deadline and had to trust in what I'd written plus the feedback of a couple of readers.

I was happy with the 'finished' ten pages and happy with the pitch. I'm just not sure that the key aspects of the pitch are reflected in the ten pages.

Brilliant learning experience.

Lucy said...

I think it's to do with the fact that many writers want to be the next Joss Whedon - Buffy made such a colossal impact over here amongst the writing fraternity it seems. Often writers will say in their emails when sending scripts for me to read that this is their goal. Some believe that it's to do with the credit crunch - that bad times inspire escapism - but I disagree because there was a massive recession in the 90s and we saw no supernatural stuff really on TV, it was all kitchen sink drama, whereas the 80s was supernatural city and generally speaking it was Ok economically speaking - unless you were a miner of course.

laurence timms said...

[fx: stands up]
My name is Laurence Timms and I have never watched an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

There. I've said it. My aunt, the novelist Gaie Sebold, loves Buffy slightly more than life itself. Me, I'd rather have a cheese sandwich and watch You've Been Framed.

I'll leave the fiction genre/economic climate analysis to the LSE postgrads. Good writing never goes out of fashion. I just need to learn how to do some of that good writing.

Lucy said...

Gotta admit, I've never been a fan. I have watched episodes though and Whedon and his stable are clearly good writers but it just didn't really appeal to me. Controversial I know, I've probably been ex-communicated from half a dozen blogs now...

Dom Carver said...

What did I learn? £15 was money well spent, but I want a refund if I don't win.

Lucy said...

Your £15 has already been spent on gin my friend

Elinor said...

How to make the one page pitch more exciting. My original effort was so turgid, I could hardly bear to read it. However a bit of PO3 action and some notes from Rach on what Tony Jordan was looking for in the pitch made a hell of a difference.
But you're right, give yourself plenty of time. Then give yourself gin. Ah, you've already done that...

Lucy said...

Yes Rach and I had that same conversation Elinor! Whilst I always think forewarned is forearmed, I also believe that no one *really* knows what they're looking for in a "good" story until they see it - including the ledge Mr TJ - so it can be risky trying to tick boxes. Belief in one's story and WHY it's story are paramount I think. Apparently that's his fave question at pitches I've heard: "WHY a vampire? WHY a ________? etc"

terraling said...

"notes from Rach on what Tony Jordan was looking for in the pitch" ?!?!

Lucy said...

Calm down my friend, they weren't FROM TJ TO Rach - Rach is rather industrious and trawled the interweb and blogs for nuggets of wisdom from The Great One and made herself a checklist.

Caroline said...

I'm just back from the post office. Super, super last minute:o So last minute in fact that I was drafting my one page pitch late last night! And it's all because that Lucy gave me feedback early on that made me rethink my idea from page. It is *much* better as a result of the Lucy wisdom (and due to Po3 feedback) but sadly not very polished as I only left myself time for one rewrite.
So I agree - start earlier to give more time for rewriting. Key lesson for me.

Seems I'm in the saturated market of witch tales. And it's true - I worship at the feet of Joss Whedon.

terraling said...

Phew, for a moment I thought TJ had let it be known that he was in the market for a contemporary medical comedy drama about llamas - and you had the market cornered.

Lucy said...

If only...

evil twinz said...

Seriously, how the hell do you get a llama in a medical drama?

And where can I find a medical drama I can be in? They always seem to have more fun than I do at work. And more sex.

Dazza

laurence timms said...

Llama? Medical drama? So...

Twin brothers Peter and Paul Potter are at the top of their chosen paths in the medical profession. Peter is a rich cardiothoracic surgeon at a private clinic. Paul is vet with green wellies and a heart of gold.

Paul falls in love with Lucy, who runs a llama rescue centre. Evil landlord Sir Billy Thomas is having Lucy thrown off her land so he can turn it into a golf course and health spa.

Paul and Lucy have 24 hours to rehome their spitting camelids before evil Thomas sends in his henchmen to kidnap the lot and sell them for dogfood.

At the dead of night Paul breaks into the unfinished surgical wing of Peter's clinic and leads the llamas in like a latter-day Noah.

Will the llamas escape? Does Paul know that Peter is Sir Billy Thomas' business partner? Will Peter have to decide whether blood is thicker than water? And does llama spit really have theraputic properties?

Hilarity ensues etc.

Lucy said...

Omigod Laurence, you're so close...

Evil, the doctors on TV might have more fun and more sex than you lot in reality, but do remember they are attacked and die more often -not to mention they have limbs chopped off by helicopters.

Rach said...

I spotted my name mentioned. A direct link to TJ? I wish. No just a crib sheet from all those generous bloggers who did meet him and posted what they heard.

Only problem was I concentrated so hard on the tone and character development bits that I forgot story?!

Lucy put me right on that though and several re-writes, no fingernails and a cartload of panic attacks later it got sent off.

Just got the full episode to write now. And I thought I'd be the only one doing supernatural stuff. Foiled again.

J Johnston Jacob said...

Jesus Christ. I just sent a concept via the last UPS plane that deals with...

...porn. It's a drama about porn. What have I done?

Lucy said...

A drama about porn sounds fun JJ! Why didn't you send it to me, you must surely know I'm the perviest script reader around?! I've actually read several features about porn, but never a series.

Rach - Caroline too did witches. Didn't you do your usual Po3?!

Rach said...

Yep but, well great mind... etc. Didn't know you had a blitz of them. Can't stand out in the crowd now.

Lucy said...

Great writing always stands out though Rach... I must get AT LEAST fifty scripts a year involving vampires for example, yet one of my fave ever specs involves vampires.

Bingethink said...

This has nothing to do with Red planet but...

If you really said there was a big recession it the 90s, but the 80s was free of it, then you need to put the scripts down and read some economic history!:)

In TV terms:

Key 80s drama - Boys From The Blackstuff
Key 90s drama - Cold Feet

Bingethink said...

OK, more on topic, this one:

Interested to hear what you say about character journeys and their importance in the one-page pitch.

What would you say about the character journeys in Doctor Who, Ugly Betty, Lost, New Tricks or Holby City in a one-page pitch.

By which I don't mean that there are no moving / dramatic / artful / engaging character journeys in those shows - just that the way I would describe any of those programmes in a one-page pitch wouldn't focus heavily on any one's character journey.

For me, a TV series is about the concept of the show. The concept should allow for a multitude of stories to be told. The key characters should be designed to best inhabit those kinds of stories. I'm not sure any of that demands a character journey as such - that sounds to me far more relevant to a finite serial or movie screenplay.

Lucy said...

Was there an actual recession in the 80s? I know it was tough with the miners' strike etc but hadn't we got over the worst of the 70s financial crisis etc with the 3 day week by then?

As for character journeys in the one page pitch, it really depends on the show I think. A show like Dr. Who or Ugly Betty has to have a central character that LEADS everything (hence the show being named after them), so perhaps the importance of that journey is more obvious in the pitch. As for other shows that take in many characters like Holby City (and replace them at will, none are more important than the show), then that pitch doc must reflect that. You can't however have Dr. Who without Dr.Who. Interesting tho BT... Think it deserves a whole post of its own, that one. Will get cracking!

terraling said...

You need two consecutive quarters of declining national output for a recession, and at the start of the 80s we had five - thanks to the impact of north sea oil on sterling and Thatcher's dogmatic experiment with monetarism which throttled the life out of the economy. Probably the darkest economic days in the post-war period (which makes it scary if - as per today's Guardian - the current situation is the worst in the post-War period).

Joking aside about you young 'uns etc., it was a hugely influential period -- the whole 'greed is good' philosophy by which we've lived ever since (even if we've been pretending not to since the early 90s recession when the 80s housing bubble burst - as they inevitably do) -- originated then. Were you to write any older characters -- what am I talking about, old people on TV?! -- living through that era would have shaped them enormously.

If it's possible to get your hands on Boys From The Blackstuff you should check it out. For people of your generation (ouch, hurts for me to write that!) Bernard Hill to you is Theoden from Lord of the Rings, but for anyone born before the 70s he will always be Yosser Hughes!

laurence timms said...

Terraling - for me, Bernard Hill manages to be both Yosser and Theoden. At 39 and three quarters, I just about span both those ages.

I remember the 70s powercuts as a kid and the 80s recession when the parents cashed in insurance policies to pay the mortgage; got caught myself in the 90s house price collapse.

terraling said...

Laurence - not sure that I would trade the couple of years you have on me for the fact that I was alive -- albeit in my mother's womb -- when England won the world cup, something that will probably not happen again in our lifetimes...

terraling said...

(Who am I kidding? Of course I would)

laurence timms said...

You're welcome to borrow those two years if you like. You know, just for a loan.

Darren Goldsmith said...

Wait... I thought it was cheese and wine that went together!