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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas [or equivalent], Everyone

If you can't do without me during the festive season, you'll no doubt be able to find me on Twitter or Facebook.

Have a good one... See you in 2010!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Year In Review 09: Going Forwards

As writers we often look to others who have *the success we want* and think, "If I could do what s/he's doing, I would be happy with my writing career." I bet you've done it, 'cos I totally have.

Yet knowing lots of what I call "grown up" writers now (ie. writers who consistently get commissioned in TV, on feature rewrites, etc and GET PAID FOR IT), I'm always struck by how they STILL feel the same, it's just their goals have changed slightly: "If I could get to Hollywood... If I could do a feature instead of all this soap opera... If I could get my novel published... If I could get into TV instead of movies... If I could direct a short..." The list goes on and on.

A conversation with a new writer pulled me up short this week when they said, "I'd love to do what you've been doing." My first thought was, "EH?" After all, "all I've done" this year is a bunch pitches and meetings, some script editing on a couple of movies, some training, development/collaboration with a couple of prodcos, a trial script for a TV show, some magazine articles, a couple of DIY films. I've earnt either a pittance to nothing at all. What the hell was this guy talking about?!

But I'm on my way, whilst he's just beginning - and we all remember what that's like: it's exciting, but incredibly daunting. Which is why it's important sometimes to think about how far we've come, rather than how much time has passed or how much we have not advanced at what we want:

Five years ago I had no portfolio. Now I have four polished features, a children's TV series, a half hour comedy and approximately thirty pitch documents and three or four other scripts in various states of development. That's got to be progress.

Four years ago I had no real understanding of the difference between a feature and television script. That's right - whilst I knew about structure for features, how it changes according to the various shows I was completely blind on: I didn't know about "story of the week" vs the "serial element" and nor did I twig soap operas had three or four strands in each episode. When I decided just two and a half years ago to get a trial script *somewhere* however, I had one within six months. It came to nothing, but started me on a journey I still haven't finished: I will get a soap commission, by hook or by crook. What's more it fed nicely into my script reading, because suddenly there was a BURST of TV specs doing the rounds, when before it was all features and shorts.

Three years ago I had never really done any pitching. I'd done some of course at university, but all the work I had done so far was for people I had been "hired" for on the basis either of samples, my corporate work or because of someone else I knew. I'd never really done any *real* pitching to prodcos or people I might be able to work with. And the first ten or so meetings "about me and my work" I had with producers or companies I completely cocked up. But I decided nerves weren't going to get me and I decided to hone my ability and really work at it.

And it worked, because people did start to respond to my ideas. My favourite pitch so far was one about two years ago on a Friday night when a director emailed last thing saying, "Do you know anyone with a script about _______?" I'd had a few beers and I cheekily typed back: "Yeah, me." (I didn't). He says, "Okay what's the logline?" So I gave him a logline I'd totally made up, expecting him to say "Okay, I'll get back to you." Instead he says, "Great, got a short treatment, say four pages?" I say, "Yeah, sure..." THEN he emails back and says, "Great, send it to me." ARGH. Luckily for me the Gods of Scriptwriting smiled on me, 'cos I get another email that says: "Forgot - I'm on holiday Monday. Can you send it to me when I get back?" HALLELUJAH!!! I ended up writing three versions of the treatment in the time he was away with the help of Scott the Reader. The director got back, read it and phoned me: he loved it. It's been in development ever since and a revised version has just gone in for iFeatures. We're both really committed to the project and I have no doubt it will get made eventually.

Two years ago I had never script edited an actual movie, rather than just a script As a reader or editor most of them I read, even for companies, sank without trace before getting into the can - and those that did make it were not really anything to do with me; I was a glorified reader/proofer, rather than a dedicated script editor. But this all changed with Act of Grace which went on to get me other work doing the same. AoG is still in the can, without a distribution deal, but I have faith it will make it - sometimes it just takes aeons. It's a great story with a massive heart and some fab actors. Watch this space.

One year ago I had never produced a short. It was exactly this time last year I rang Schuman Hoque and said, "You know we've been talking about making a short together for about two years? Why don't we just do it? And by the way I want to produce it." Instead of saying, "Are you NUTS? You've never produced anything!" He said, "Cool, let's do it." And in February we shot our no-budget short, Safe, about a young single mother who dies and as a ghost has to ensure her baby is found. It's not perfect, but I'm really proud of it - and it produced a fab response: it seems to have really spoken to people - especially the parents in the audience, some of whom wrote to me about how they had had a similar fear themselves which made me feel the film really hit the spot. Now of course we're in post-prod on our second, Slash, a spoof horror about a couple who go into the woods and die (but how? *Spooky music*) and which was in part funded by the wonderful readers of this blog.

That's not all of it - and of course the bad things happen too, to counter-balance. But next time you're tempted to say you *haven't really done anything* or you'd be happier if you could just do *whatever someone else is doing*, remember: you've done plenty. And you will do more... If you just keep going forwards.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Art of Rejection

As anyone who's ever been rejected by the likes of something like The Writers' Academy or the BBC e-Commissioning system knows, good news tends to come during the week in the middle of the day; bad news comes at approximately 5pm and ALWAYS on a Friday. This has prompted me to label such emails as "FFOFs": "Friday F**k off at five", something many other writers seem to understand and have their own versions of, so conversations can go a bit like this:

WRITER 1: How'd you do with your pitch/ treatment/ proposal /spec / whatever?

WRITER 2: Got the FFOF last week.

WRITER 1: Ah, bad luck.

When you first start writing, every single rejection half-kills you. This is because you're taking your first steps and every time someone says your script isn't right or good enough, even if they're nice about it, you won't realise and it *feels* like a personal attack. As the years go by, you develop a much thicker skin. You begin to realise that just because your pitch or script has been rejected, doesn't automatically mean you are a crap writer and should quit; you should just keep on and find the person or company who IS looking for a script or writer like you.

But even if you are experienced in the art of getting rejected, sometimes a particular rejection still cuts deep. Other times, you are able to shrug and say stuff like, "Oh well, I didn't expect to get through really, it was a cheeky submission" or "I didn't *really* like that idea/company/director/producer/whatever, it's a lucky escape"; but every now and again a rejection still has the potential to really get under your skin and give you the type of rage and hurt you were prone to when you were a newbie. Maybe it's because you worked extremely hard on something, then got moved off it by a philistine producer; other times it's because you've laboured over a spec and poured your heart and soul in, only to be met with "Meh".

Whatever the case, forget the hurt - but use that rage: use it to be better than you were before and make them sorry in retrospect they rejected you. Every successful writer has a veritable bagful of rejection letters, email responses and walls of silences about their work and most say, with gusto, "So and So rejected it/didn't like it/told me I was shit." That is your reward and your revenge - so get there and take it.

David has a brilliant take on dealing with his version of the FFOF, the "Friday F**K You" over at his blog, Vicious Imagery: read it here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Remember To Remember

I've written plenty on here about the huge amounts of mad spam I get, wrong phone calls and even wrong emails, but nearly every single week I get an item of wrong mail. Not because I have a particularly difficult address, either: there is no road name even remotely like mine for approximately 5 miles, but there are plenty of number 19s and it seems some oik at Bournemouth post office can't read because they sort plenty of wrong number 19s into our postman's run... Who is way too lazy to take it back and shoves it through our letterbox regardless.

The most interesting this year was a notice from Poole Court asking us to check in to have our tags reviewed (I'd opened it without looking); I've also had an entire year's subscription of a monthly marketing magazine (never found where *that* was supposed to go, it kept bouncing back every time I reposted it: took to reading the bloody thing after a whole); also copious amounts of tokens for things we could never use - denture cream was top of the list - and then there was a notice from Children's Social Services... No idea what *that* said, it was addressed to someone else, so I shoved back in the postbox asap: BEGONE!

And yet this is not the first house I've been through this sort of rigmorale. It seems to me a huge amount of UK residents are law breakers and loan defectors and if they're not, I seem to have had terrible luck with rented properties from the off: I'll never forget moving into my very first flat aged twenty and opening the door to a BAILIFF just a few days later. Apparently the previous tenant had run off with a telly worth 90 quid from Rumbelows. The total git then tried to convince me - a young girl - the debt was on the FLAT and I was liable for it! Thankfully not only was I wise to his games (I'd started and dropped Law A level), as a single Mum I didn't have two pennies to rub together, never mind ninety quid which might as well have been nine hundred to me.

Then there was the time I was newly married and Hub answered the door to the cops. They asked for "Suzanne": when Hub said no Suzanne lived at our address, they said they could see a woman at the bedroom window and could I come down, please. So Hub called me downstairs and I came to the door:

ME: Yes?

COP: Suzanne [whatever surname it was]?

ME: No, that's not me.

COP: What's your name.

ME: Lucy Hay... What's this about?

COP: Date of birth?

Okay, this was really weird. I told them and they checked a little notebook.

COP: You've never been married to Steve [Surname]?

ME: No.

COP: Because he's saying a Suzanne [whatever] lives at this address and he needs to see her right now... It's a very sensitive situation so I need your co operation immediately if you are her.

ME: I'm not... We've just moved in here... She must have lived here before us?

We never found out what this Steve had done or was doing - perhaps other cops were trying to charm him off a roof somewhere? I hope not. I never found out either, despite checking the local paper for any hostage situations or attempted suicides for several weeks afterwards.

Anyway, my point is - as we live our normal lives, going to work, going to school, writing our scripts, on blogs! - somewhere, someone is having a life or death situation... And it's not all in war zones like Afghanistan, either (though our soldiers are forgotten too much, no matter whether we agree with the cause). It could be literal, or metaphorical: they're losing their money, their houses, their spouses, their families; they're facing their freedom being taken away; they're peering off the top off a roof and wondering what life is about.

Every day we get through is someone else's tragedy.

As writers we exploit others' misfortune for our own ends at times: we hear the tragedy of others via the news and papers and don't always sympathise, but instead think "There's a story there." When I read the particular story of a father who murdered his family, I did just that and created a script that is doing the rounds now. We take the stories of others and claim the credit as our own, because we've invented the characters and the *rest of it*, but that seed of the story came from someone and/or something real. I don't think we should forget that, especially at this time of year.

Give to charity at Christmas - Find a charity to support here

Monday, December 14, 2009

Script Factor

I'm always confused by the amount of scorn and vitriol poured on shows like The X Factor. If you don't like them, that's fair enough - but to suggest people who do have special needs - as someone accused me on Twitter last night in fact - is not only laughable, non-PC and juvenile, it's plain ridiculous. If you think about it, it's quite obvious why such a show would appeal to me:

As a writer.

Here, painted in glorious technicolor, is a show which epitomises the struggle we go through every day in our bids to get discovered as writers. We're treated, first hand, to the fickleness of the public in choosing which they believe is *best*. Can't we learn from this? Let's take a look.

No matter who has the best voice, it's a popularity contest: who do we LIKE? This year, we loved to hate Jedward. We didn't like Danyl; we loved Olly, but it was Joe as the boy next door who is "the most talented". We saw a return to the bad old days pre-Leona and Alexandra in which women were sidelined as having little talent and/or likability and the likes of Stacey, a girl who could barely string a sentence together, was celebrated. Instead Rachel was one of the first to go - her boyish haircut blamed (WTF?) and Lucie lost out to the machine that was Louis who is so good at marketing, singing ability doesn't even get a look in, even to the chagrin of Dannii who kept whining "This is a singing contest" (Er no, it isn't: it's called X FACTOR).

Joe might have won the contest, but as always it was the runner up who really shone: it's Olly who is the performer, just as Rhydian was to Leon or Ray to Leona. Joe might have a fabulous voice, but he is a musical star and will do well on the West End where the majority of X Factor & Pop Idol stars seem to end up (I'm looking at you Ray, Brenda and Darius). Olly is like Robbie with a voice and the lack of addiction to painkillers and tattoos: if he keeps the fire in his belly - unlike Robbie! - he could have the kind of career in which he matures and changes, like the first of his kind Will Young, who I never liked in Pop Idol yet have found I have liked almost all his singles - grudgingly - over the years so much I bought his Best Of recently.

It's hard sometimes as writers to believe in ourselves: most of us won't win a major contest or get funding. That's just the way it is: there are too many of us and too few places - JUST LIKE SINGERS AND X FACTOR. Imagine all the good singers that were deemed *not right* for X Factor at all. Are they ALL those jokers in costumes or the tone deaf weirdos with odd song choices? Of course not. Thousands and thousands and thousands of people auditioned: SOME of them HAD to be good. But Simon and his posse have a particular vision in mind and those singers had to fit in with it.

But sometimes we WILL fit in with someone's vision.

And sometimes we will be runners up.

And sometimes we will be better than the winner and outlast them.

But you can't do that if you quit.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Sales Agents: Just The Way It Is

Lots of Bang2writers believe the biggest *thing* to aim for is an option on their spec script. It's not: not only does your piece have to survive the development process with the optioning producer/company (for the script you option will NOT be the one that is filmed), the finished film then needs to be sold by Sales Agents to various territories - Europe and USA being the two biggies. Once these projects are sold this then means stuff like the film getting a theatrical release, DVD, etc, what is commonly termed as "distribution".

Distribution is not automatic, just because the film's been made. That's right - even when the film of your script is literally in the can, this does not mean you are home free. Hundreds of completed feature films end up shelved every year, simply because Sales Agents won't touch them with a barge pole. This can be for many different reasons, but I think it does help us as writers to familiarise ourselves with the QUESTIONS a Sales Agent might ask of a finished film (or one that is being packaged with a cast, etc with a view to shooting).

According to several producers I've spoken to or heard speak, there are three common questions Sales Agents ask when considering buying your feature for distribution:

- Who's in it?

- Who's directing?

- What's it about?

Er, hang on - shouldn't there be ANOTHER question there:

- Who's WRITING it??

Apparently not. Similarly it's hard to believe the CAST and DIRECTOR come above the STORY when apparently "Story is King". It might be with us screenwriters, but when it comes to the cold, hard marketplace it's third on the list.

We can get THE RAGE about this or we can't accept what we can't change. And really, if we think about it, it makes a kind of sense: how many films do you watch on the basis of STORY over WHO IS IN IT? As screenwriters, we probably choose the former over the latter more often, but I am guilty of watching films purely 'cos I lust after the star, like the deliciously hairy Hugh Jackman, I've even sat through ALL the X Men films when I'm well known for hating super heroes! In addition, I can't count the times my husband has said to me in the DVD store **something like**:

"Oh this is by the guy/gal who directed [THIS FILM]... You'll probably like it/hate it."

or

"[THIS ACTOR] is in this... S/he usually does good/bad films."

And don't we all have opinions on this? Morgan Freeman might be a great actor for example, but it seems to me he'll do absolutely anything - as will Samuel L. Jackson: them being in a film gives NO clue as to its quality story-wise. Other actors seemingly have a bit more discernment about the roles they choose: I've never seen Julianne Moore in a film I haven't liked at least a bit story or character-wise, for example; same more or less with Kevin Bacon.

So if we as screenwriters can be shallow, what do you think non-screenwriters do? Would they seek out for example "neo noir thrillers about the cold war" or they do look for stuff with RYAN REYNOLDS or SCARLETT JOHANNSEN in?

Knowing this can depress us: after all, "who is in it?" and even "who's directing?" will often be out of our hands anyway as screenwriters, even if we get an option.

Or we can work on the basis that WHAT IT'S ABOUT is all down to us at the spec stage and we can ensure we get the BEST CAST and the BEST DIRECTOR by writing the best damn STORY we can to attract them in the first place.

It's up to you.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Script Chat: Focus On Feedback

Writers, are you on Twitter? If you're not, you can't take part in Script Chat. Script Chat takes place on Twitter every sunday, at 8pm for us GMTers and 2pm for whatever the US peeps are (real stuff like time has never been my forte). All you need do is sign into your Twitter account and add the hashtag #scriptchat to dive straight in. Later the US moderator JeanneVB posts up a transcript of the chat up on the official blog. You really can't afford to miss out... even if you HATE the idea of Twitter, get yourself an account just for this each week. IT'S WORTH IT.

This week, the #scriptchat was about feedback on one's work. I won't reiterate what the others said - you can check out the transcript for that - but I thought I would expand on a couple of points I made myself in the chat. These were:

1) 2:03pm Bang2write: Too many readers & feedback-givers believe their PERSONAL PREFERENCES for the story are what's right for the story #scriptchat

2) 2:07 pm Bang2write: Too many readers "tick the boxes": why haven't we got a turning pt on THIS PAGE? Why isn't this character "likable"? #scriptchat

3) 2:25 pm Bang2write: Opinion is worthless in feedback - everyone has a different one, they cannot ALL be amalgamated into the screenplay #scriptchat AND 2:26 pm Bang2write: If, however they have a RESPONSE within the CONTEXT of the script - wld s/he do *this* 'cos of *that*? - that's different #scriptchat

So here goes...

Personal Preferences. I'm always amazed by how picky some readers are. In front of them, they have a script that MAKES SENSE ALL THE WAY THROUGH (as I've stressed numerous times, I can't tell you how unusual this is: so many scripts, even those that start well, go loopy or fall flat and begin to meander as the writer appears to lose their way in the story. It's just the way it goes). So I always delight the story in front of me is crafted well enough for me to understand everything. It's rare. Thumbs up to the writer, end of.

Yet some readers have such a sense of entitlement, they don't just want the story to make sense, they want it to be written THE WAY THEY WOULD HAVE WRITTEN IT/ EXPECTED IT TO BE. In short, they impose their vision on the screenplay: this character? Don't like her, she's not like me/my wife/aunt/sister. This event? That would never happen - I've done *something similar* and it didn't work out *like this*. This arena? Yes it's visual but I don't like it *because I don't*. This genre? Would be better as *this other genre*. Oh - and my real favourite: after a set of notes like this frequently comes - "but what do I know anyway?" or "I'm not really into [this type of story]."

Personal preference should not play a part in feedback. If you impose your own vision on a script, of course it can never be "good enough" - it will nearly always be found wanting, because the writer cannot predict - in advance - what the reader would want (or indeed who that reader will be sometimes!). Similarly, even on the off-chance that reader LIKES your work, how can it be useful if they have simply imposed their own vision? They might have forgiven you all kinds of logic problems in the story, simply because they like your character/ arena/ premise/ whatever.

A good reader understands a well-crafted script has its own internal logic: events happen because of the story the WRITER wants to tell, not the reader. If you make suggestions on where the story should go, it should be based on what is best for the story, not best for you. It's a subtle difference, but one a lot of readers don't realise. Imposing what YOU want then on the script when giving feedback is self-defeating at best (the writer will simply roll their eyes and discard your notes and probably never ask you again) or crushing at worst to the newer writer who has not yet understood that some readers do this.

Ticking the boxes. Ever got notes that say things like: "You SHOULDN'T use dream sequence/ non linearity/ voice-over/ montage?" Do they give you THE RAGE? You're not alone: they do me too. It took me seven days and nights to come off the ceiling when I got this note about three years ago:

"You use flashback with voiceover in the first ten pages. As a script reader yourself, you should know better than this."

WTF??? Oh, but let's not forget this one:

"In Act 1, your turning point doesn't come to page 25; as a result this pushes back your midpoint - approximately p 56 - and as a result this means your structure is lopsided."

No other notes about structure. Just that. My structure is LOPSIDED? What the hell does that mean?? I'll tell you what it means - that reader has spent too long counting pages and not enough time actually looking at MY story and how it works out in terms of the events in it and the characters' motivation. Listing page numbers is no substitute for actually considering the story, what goes into it and how it works.

End of the day, you can do whatever you want in a script. WHATEVER YOU WANT. The only caveat to that? As long as it's the best thing for the story. If a reader has a problem with your voiceover or whatever, it should be because your story DOESN'T NEED IT, not because they hate it. One of the most frequent notes I give is this:

Do you need non-linearity in this story?

The reason for this: lots of writers tie themselves up in a non-linear structure when their story would be SO MUCH BETTER told forwards: going backwards a lot of the time means we can't always invest in the protagonist's journey, the story ends up feeling "backwards looking" and forward momentum is compromised. On top of that, many writers are not clear about what makes up a non linear structure, so the story ends up feeling disjointed and confusing, when if they just told it forwards everything would "come clear". In short, they may be thinking more about STYLE than STORY. But whilst that MIGHT be one of the most frequent note I give, that doesn't mean my word is gospel - hence my note being a QUESTION and not an ASSERTION.

Opinion/Response. This point links into my first about preference, though this principally deals with character rather than story structure. Characters often promote an emotional response in a way structure doesn't - and readers too often let their feelings about characters and their journey influence their feelings about the script as a whole. For example, I got some feedback recently that told me they "really cared" about my protagonist, yet "didn't care" about the rest of my characters because none of them "were flawed enough". Yes, that's right: apparently my secondary characters were TOO NICE.

But what does this actually mean? Looking at the script in question, I see difficult relationships between ALL the male characters - yes that's right, all my secondaries were MALE. All the top "places" were occupied by FEMALES. One has to wonder how much this influences the reader's decision to ignore a fist fight; a feud and an attempted murder (doesn't seem that nice to me!) between all those male characters. But even if it doesn't play a part in that reader's decision, saying characters are essentially "too nice" is just that reader's OPINION.

The difference between opinion and response is again subtle, but important. I can think of half a dozen scripts over the years I have loved, despite their flaws in structure, story, character, dialogue, etc. That is my OPINION - the scripts appealed to me for *some reason* because they did. Maybe it was the premise, maybe it was the protagonist or antagonist, maybe it was one single moment that I felt was genius.Yet similarly there are dozens of scripts I've read where I've thought they're good, okay or even horrible - yet fantastic examples of craft.

Instead of thinking, "I hate this protagonist" (which always seems to be the main issue) based on opinion alone, as readers and feedback-givers we need to consider:

"Regardless of my hatred of him/her (because of what they are/do in the script), does this protagonist MAKE SENSE? Does his/her actions have LOGIC in this STORY?"

If the answer is "no", then you need to draw up exactly WHY those actions don't "fit" in the actual story. Don't start confusing these justifications with "truth" either - that's taking it back to you again, as what constitutes "truth" is different for everyone. I've lost count of the notes I've received that have said something like "I doubted the truth of this story because of HOW the character reacted to this PERSON OR MOMENT", only to have written something that is 100% true TO ME. If you want/need to talk about "truth" in feedback, you must have REALLY GOOD REASON AND JUSTIFICATION for doing so - ie. you are a woman and you feel women are being misrepresented in the script (with examples from the script and detailed reasons for your response).

If the answer is "yes"? Then hating the protagonist makes no difference to your feedback. It's perfectly possible to dislike a character, an arena, a premise, even the entire THING and give good (read "useful", "non judgemental") notes.

It's just difficult.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Last Call: Slash Fund

Just a short note today - and a begging one at that, soz!

We're off this weekend to film *those* pick ups for the daylight scenes we missed out on when filming Slash on Halloween. Thanks to everyone who donated to the original shoot and towards these pick ups, it really IS appreciated. You guys totally rock.

If you haven't donated and want to or have a spare fiver or tenner - tall order I know with Xmas on our doorstep - please consider clicking on the "Donate" button on the right hand side of this blog or going to your paypal account and sending it Bang2write"at"aol"dot"com. I can offer the script and a booklet on script readers in return. DON'T DONATE IF YOU HAVE ALREADY THOUGH! : )

Thanks!

x

Friday, December 04, 2009

Guest Post: Mastering Hollywood Seminar, Notes by James

James went to Doug Chamberlin's seminar, Mastering Hollywood last weekend and has very kindly written up some notes for all of us who couldn't go (sob). Enjoy...
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So I was lucky enough (read: my wallet hates me) to attend 'Mastering Hollywood for Writers' by Doug Chamberlin on 27th and 28th November. I thought I would share my thoughts with y'all. Whether you like it or not.

Firstly, I should address something here, as I feel it's something to consider: when one looks at Doug's imdb page, perhaps the only credit you'll recognise on there is a co-writing credit for Toy Story 2, ten years ago. That could be enough to put a lot of people off. 'How can a man who proclaims to know how Hollywood works have done so little?' you may be asking.

Well, Doug points out a harsh truth: one can spend all your life working in Hollywood and never have anything to 'show' for it. But that doesn't mean one is not a writer. Doug himself has pitched over 100 ideas, worked with Spielberg, Michael Jackson, Bruce Willis, Barry Sonnenfeld, Robert De Niro and others, as well as working at all seven major studios (not at the same time). It is air to say he has a good idea how Tinseltown works.

Now, let me mention that if you are looking for a good 'how to write' course, this is NOT that kind of seminar. This course is geared towards what to do AFTER you have that killer script, and the secrets you need to know if/when you wish to take it to Hollywood. And he lays no false pretense down: it's not easy. Even after winning his first writing competition, he did not work again for four years. Even those 'overnight success' stories we hear about don't really happen overnight. But it CAN be done.

Over the two days, the class was given no-holds-barred access to crucial insider info: easy ways to obtain VISAs, the right places to live in LA, mastering the art of pitching, how to get an agent, schmoozing the right and wrong way and (perhaps most importantly) creating your own 'myth' or 'heat'. Hollywood is obviously a fickle industry, where image is everything and the superficial rules. This is what Doug was very keen to stress most of all: you need to get people talking and championing for YOU. He likened it to High School: the new kid is trying to get in with the cool crowd; to do that, you need someone in that crowd to recommend you.

I must admit, a lot of it boils down to intuition and common sense– of course, everyone knows that it is a case of who you know and those who want to succeed will. But it is nice to have those point reiterated and given some context. Plus it was encouraging (on my part) to discover that I was already subconsciously putting into practice a number of things Doug suggested.

Doug is great at telling anecdotes, from his time working with Spielberg, to a rather unfortunate meeting with Michael Jackson, to his experience with working with execs and their unsual pitch requests ('what would a flea want?'), as well as how Hollywood has its own 'reality' (Did you know that in a crunch, with looming deadlines, an exec ALWAYS hires the more expensive writer of two equally talented pros?)

There were chances to participate in role-playing exercises, including pitching your own ideas and schmoozing with the other attendees (I met the 1st AD of the Phantom Menace– no jokes please). The other attendees all had interesting stories to tell (some were rising stars, others looking for a career change, a fair few animators, myself included). Everyone was friendly and easy to talk to, and I myself made a few new contacts.

The single most important lesson I took away from the two-day seminar was not the old mantra 'Don't quit' or 'Every no is a step closer to yes', it was rather that 'Hollywood is not as scary as it might appear.' Doug assured us that LA is nothing like 'The Player'– there are very few execs and producers out there looking to belittle or discredit you. They are just as scared of losing their job as you are meeting them. After all, it's their job to find the next big talent, and they're not going to spend their time making you feel small just to make themselves feel better. They genuinely want to know what you have to offer them, and will very rarely tell you you stink. And if they do... well, prove them wrong.

Anyway, I've rambled on long enough. I thoroughly recommend this course for anyone seriously considering attempting the Hollywood scene. The information here was an absolute godsend and is great for those who feel they need to have the business to sell their creative side.

James
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Great notes - thanks James!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Contradictory Characters

One thing I've noticed increasingly over the years is, once you've nailed down your structure, *everybody* wants a piece of your main character and what they get up to. If a reader does not feel they can say much about your actual craft, they'll make all kinds of assertions, both good and bad.

Here is some of my feedback on a particular character and her journey (note these are all about the SAME script):

"[She] is a compelling character - especially because she sabotages herself and is her own worst enemy."

"I couldn't relate to [her], because she makes things difficult for herself so much: I doubted anyone would do that."

"I found myself really caring about whether [she and the love interest] would get together."

"I didn't care whether [she and the love interest] got together or not: she seems a bit of a nutter and he a sap."


So who's right?

As it goes, none of them and all of them - because above are OPINIONS. Sure, some of them got what I was going after with this character; others didn't. But then, if the film were made, some people will like it and others won't. End of.

In this age of Po3, peer feedback, script readers etc we sometimes rely on the feedback of others TOO MUCH. We forget there is another very, very important part of this process:

Ourselves.

I *know* what I'm going for in this script and with this character. She does divide opinion. That doesn't mean she's a crap character - it means she is interesting enough to inspire REACTION. In this age of "don't care" characters - especially the female variety who are too often facilitators for male emotion or hotties who kick ass - this can only be a good thing.

So next time a reader or feedback-giver HATES your character, ask yourself this:

Is it because something is found wanting in the actual characterisation? If so, what?

Or is it because who that character is doesn't *fit* in that reader's worldview?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Structural Signposts

We've all heard of the writer who reckons they *know* about stuff like structure - and some of us might roll our eyes and say stuff like, "In that case, why doesn't your draft make sense?!"

But let's try and see it from that writer's point of view for a moment. They might have written several screenplays by this point - perhaps they've been well received *somewhere* or they've got good feedback from *some big name*; they've probably been to a fair few short courses/seminars; read the books; maybe they've gone the whole hog and even done an MA. So they probably do think they have a good grounding in stuff like structure - and in that sense, they wouldn't be wrong.

But guess what - all of that doesn't mean it actually comes through in the draft!

Of course, sometimes readers say stuff like a draft has a structural problem because they can't think what's *actually* wrong with it and it's a handy get-out-of-jail-free card. I'll never forget one who said to me a few years' back, "Have you thought about using The Three Acts?" Me, just think about using the three acts?? Um- JUST A BIT. But then this reader was giving me some informal, five minute over the phone feedback, having read through my script amidst a thousand others and barely having time for a coffee break.

But most of the time readers - especially those you pay for - will give you structural advice not because they can't think of what to say, but because your draft ACTUALLY NEEDS IT. Of all the scripts I read, week on week, month on month, the most feedback I give is on structure and character. That's not because I am lazy; it's because most scripts - especially in early draft form - need troubleshooting on structure and character. That's just the way it is. Get a selection of readers in a room together and ask them to two "big issues" and I absolutely believe every time they will say it's these two things.

No one, new writer or professional, is immune to the structural issue in the script, especially when rewriting. When you change events in a script, sometimes the very act of chopping or moving them makes a particular act or selection of scenes feel "lumpy" or "wrong". For example, I wrote a draft of one of my projects where there was no structural issue apparently according to my reader - but it had a character issue. So I changed the character issue in a new draft and that worked - but guess what!!! The same reader reported I now had a problem in Act 1 with my structure, it was completely top heavy: I had to find a solution that met somewhere in the middle to solve both. Sometimes screenwriting really is like one of those arcade games where you hit the little things that pop up with the foam hammer: hit one and another thing comes up.

Other times writers attempt to adopt an "alternative" to The Three Acts and believe this then gives them their OWN get-out-of-jail-free card: "Oh you didn't understand I was using the 22 steps/the Mini Movie Method method/the 5 acts/whatever." Not so fast, Buster. For one thing, if you want to use an alternative to the Three Acts, it still helps to understand or at least know what the Three Acts are about in terms of turning points, etc. What's more, if you really look into the likes of these alternatives, all they are is a "re-imagining" of The Three Acts anyway - why? Because we all understand stories to have a beginning, middle and end: it's universal. Chris Soth for instance insists his own Mini Movie Method is Aristotleian - and it is: it's taking the theatre-based concept and transferring it to movies.

Secondly, writers will tell me blithely structure is rigid, formulaic, a load of balls: sure it can be - IF YOU LET IT: some of the dullest films ever have ticked the boxes in terms of structure. But these writers go too far the OTHER way; they want to be "free" with their writing - to which I always reply: "Why CAN'T you be free with your writing, but also have some kind of structure?" Structure is something EVERYONE uses to make sense of the stuff in front of them, whether it's a story, a decision, an argument, an opinion, etc. It's what we do as human beings: we understand stuff on the basis of how we are able to order it. If it has NO ORDER, then there's more than a good chance we won't understand what it is. If you write a screenplay with no thought for its order, having your character jump wildly from situation to situation with no internal logic of some kind, then the likelihood of your screenplay communicating its story is very slim. I've lost count of the conversations I've had that go like this:

HUB: What did you read today?

ME: I have no idea.

HUB: But you read the script?

ME: Of course I did.

[If you are reading that and believe that isn't possible and I'm *somehow* sweeping scripts under the floorboards rather than reading them, I suggest you find your nearest slush pile and dig out some spec scripts to read.]

So, rather than thinking of structure as something that is "rigid" or "formulaic" or saying to yourself you "already know" about structure and your reader is CRAZY, what if you thought of this as a set of "signposts" for the story, ie.

Does my audience understand [this important bit of the story] by [this particular point]? If not, why not? And what can I do about this?

That last part is crucial. As writers, it's OUR responsibility to make people understand our stories. Yes, you might get the odd reader who is a nutter, but if feedback is delivered with broken down, justified reasons (rather than off-the-cuff remarks), detailing WHY the reader in question doesn't understand why you've ordered your story in a particular way, what's the most likely:

The reader is wrong/getting at you/too lazy to read the script "properly", etc?

Or you haven't been clear with your intentions?