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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Are We There Yet?

So you're not a new writer. You're what I call a "seasoned writer". You've cracked the writing side of this whole malarkey - you've got the portfolio, you've got good feedback; maybe you have a couple of options, contest placings, an agent, various meetings and perhaps some related work under your belt.

Yet still you don't feel *there* yet.

99% of what we do, as writers, will come to nothing in the long run. However hard you work, however many options, meetings, commissions and people you pick up along the way - agents, producers, TV Execs, directors, money men, sales agents - there is certain element of luck involved too. Sometimes you will have great luck and everything will just come together; other times you will have terrible luck and nothing will ever seem to go right for you.

Because of this, it's not wise to focus on the END of the journey - just because you haven't got what you want yet (whether that's a TV drama commission, a feature on DVD, a short at all the major film fests or whatever) doesn't mean you're not "doing it right". Seems to me, that once you've got the writing side cracked, it's the next part of the journey and for a lot of it, it's a waiting game. You need the right conditions to come up and you need to be there, primed and ready. Sometimes this will happen swiftly and all your ducks will line up in a row; you're one of the lucky ones. For most of us, it's a long, hard and sometimes dull, slog.

But that's just it - it's a slog. If it's a journey, it can't ALL be about luck; you can try and make sure SOME of those ducks are in the right place at the right time. You can do this by thinking:

WHO am I? A profile - whether it's online or not [prefereably both], as long as it's in the industry - helps. How can *they* find you if they don't know who you are?

WHAT do I do? [And for what rates]. Lots of writers cock up meetings by not knowing what their rates are for certain work (look at the WGGB website!) and not even knowing whether they would (or wouldn't) do it in the first place. I've turned down several rewrite jobs for example where I've felt women are being represented as vessels for men to screw/over. One offered me a substantial amount, but I still had to walk away because I felt my principles were more important than my credit card bill. What are your principles? Do you know? Of course, sometimes it isn't about principles, but stuff like genre. If you're a Horror writer, should you take the Rom-Com job?! You might be able to give it a go, but if you balls it up royally, who knows how that might backfire on you in an industry where you *can* get the next job based on the last one and whether someone recommends you.

WHERE am I? Knowing where you are on the ladder helps give you a sense of perspective and can ease frustration. If you feel you're not getting anywhere on a particular project, look at the REST of your career. Do you have an agent? Who do you know in terms of other writers, directors, producers? What other projects are you working on? What have they said about your work? Chances are, if they think you're good (and you haven't had to twist their arm), it is. Even though you've had bad news on one project, this doesn't mean the rest of your stuff is crap. Don't worry about what OTHER people say - you don't know them. And certainly don't worry about the people who tell you you've done *nothing*: if they actually say that, then they don't know how the industry works.

WHEN will I break through? Forget about this question. It happens it when it happens. Whenever this surfaces, look back at WHERE you are instead.

WHY am I good? Identify what is good about your writing and about you as the OPPORTUNITY MAKER. There's only one person who's going to really make this happen and that's you (though it always helps to gather allies as you go). As I've said before, you have to be your own biggest fan. Sure, sometimes you'll get bad feedback, but end of the day we all know we'll get more rejections than acceptances and sometimes even rejections are complimentary! In fact, a lot of my biggest opportunities have come from people/places who rejected me the FIRST time I submitted.

So, seasoned writers: you are not going "nowhere". You're just not making as much progress as you'd like. So figure out which part you're neglecting of the above (or paying too much attention too, in the case of WHEN) and... you guessed it:

Get on with it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

You Are Not Wasting Your Time

Working with lots of writers over the years, I've noticed more than once there is a resistance in new writers to going back to Page 1. It seems there is a feeling that, should a writer chuck out the way they've executed the story and reimagine it, said writer has somehow wasted their time in writing those previous drafts.

But this is patently not true. For one thing, first drafts - whoever they are written by - are always pants. In even a GOOD first draft, there are plot opportunities missed; cliches or stereotypes; characters whose motivations are not clear; dialogue that leads nowhere or sounds wooden; structure that meanders, sags in the middle, simply doesn't make sense...

... Etc etc etc. You get my drift.

The very first script you write is always going to cause you grief: you'll be tied up in KNOTS by it, it will consume every waking hour as you puzzle WHY THE HELL IT WON'T WORK when *everyone else* seems to get their words on paper with no trouble (again, patently untrue). What's more, you may come across unhelpful feedback-givers or even readers who say ridiculous things like "this doesn't read like you've been developing it" (niiiice!) or "this still reads like a first draft" (well, durr). This may also happen with different scripts you write too. You will begin to wonder if really you have any talent and whether those naysayers actually have a point and that you CAN'T DO IT.

My take? Anyone can do anything they put their mind to, as long as they're holding all (or at least, most of) the cards. And in spec writing, YOU ARE. It's very easy to fall into the trap of banging your head against a brick wall, trying to impress readers or feedback-givers, but end of the day it's not up to them - it's UP TO YOU.

So rather than try and meet issues head-on in your script, moving index cards around until the cows come home and writing emails to people like me saying EVERYTHING IS GOING WRONG (and I get about 5 of those emails, FB msgs or tweets a week - REALLY!), why not try this:

Go back to page 1.

Sometimes the first idea of *how* to execute our stories we have is the best, but 9/10 it isn't. So try something new. Think about the story you want to tell and reimagine new ways of doing it. Yes, you may have to get rid of a character you love, or pages of good dialogue, or a fight scene that rocks. Maybe you'll need to get rid of LITERALLY EVERYTHING. But you know what? Nothing in writing is wasted - just keep it in the backroom of your brain and bring it out later.

So don't worry about wasting your time; you're not. You're INVESTING it.

So get on with it.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Princess And The Frog

NO REAL SPOILERS Fitting in with the last post about unsung movie heroines (albeit only accidentally), I saw The Princess And The Frog last week with Wee Girl, being half term. A reimagining of the old tale about the princess who kisses a frog who then turns into a prince (and they live happily ever after), in this version the "princess" isn't a princess at all, but a waitress living in Jazz-Age New Orleans. And she turns into a frog as well. And oh: she's black.

There's been some talk about whether The Princess And The Frog is racist. Whilst many are quick to point out "it's just a cartoon" or that it's good to see not only a female protagonist (even if she's drawn), but a black one too, I think it's important not to dismiss the worry it *could be* racist as hysteria. After all, not only do movies (even animated ones aimed at children... Or especially animated ones animated ones aimed at children?) present a view of the time they're written/made, but set up whether we will see any more *like them* for right or wrong in the future.

And I did see stereotyping in The Frog And The Princess. But funnily enough, whilst I was daring the script to say "slave" with all its talk of New Orleans' signature dish Gumbo, to its credit it never did once - and it was not any of the black characters I felt were drawn too broadly. In fact, of all the characters (and there was some very shallow characterisation, particularly of the men, not least the playboy Prince and the Big Daddy character played by John Goodman), it seemed as if the white yokels who go frog trapping were the most obvious and underdrawn to me. I wasn't offended per se; I just thought that sequence was dumb and let the rest of the movie down.

For the record, I don't really understand why Voodoo can be quoted as being racist in conjunction to this storyline: witches are oft part of Disney storylines from Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella right through to its modern day fare like this. Is that offensive to women, who are most likely to be those antagonists? Of all the issues I have with the representation of women in cinema (let me count the ways!!!), generally-speaking witchcraft has never been one of them.

Looking at the film as a whole, I can report it starts as it means to go on: fast, with bags of sentiment and a fuzzy glow. As anyone who accompanies children to the movies on a regular basis knows, there are often those moments in family films which drag and have you looking at your watch every thirty seconds for what feels like an hour (but it is actually only about fifteen minutes). I was pleased to find this not only wasn't the case with The Princess And The Frog, I actually enjoyed it once I had allowed myself to get swept along with it [which was about four minutes in!]. The afternoon rushed by and I can tell you the Shadow Man's evil demons were officially scarier than the creatures in Drag Me to Hell!

And looking at Tiana in isolation, I think she's quite a triumph. She's hard working, strong, knows her own mind; she has ambition, is loyal to her family and genuinely cares about other people. Unlike many female protagonists I see in specs, she isn't thoughtless or vain; in fact, her arc and the realisation she must make across the course of the narrative is much more subtle, even if it is spelt out in glorious technicolour with some fabulous musical numbers, courtesy of an alligator with a trumpet and a frog with a makeshift ukelele (and of course the awesome Randy Newman).

VERDICT: Definitely worth a watch, if only to see what all the fuss is about so you can make up your own mind.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Unsung Movie Heroines

MEGA SPOILERS FOR DRAG ME TO HELL; MINOR SPOILERS FOR ALL OTHER FILMS LISTED.Because Hub & I don't really *do* Rom-Coms and all that jazz, our Valentine weekend DVD was Drag Me To Hell. I'd heard consistently good things about it, not least praise for its "strong female protagonist" (always welcome in my house, whatever the genre), so it's fair to say I was looking forward to it.

To say I found it disappointing then is an understatement. It didn't appear to know whether it was serious or not; one moment it was *trying* (unsuccessfully) to be frightening - OMFG, SCARY HANDKERCHIEF! The next it was trying to be tongue-in-cheek with said handkerchief going down our protag's throat (WTF) and various other schenanigans so silly it was hard to stay engaged at all. Shadow puppets (yes, shadow puppets) attempted to scare us here, there and everywhere and the old gypsy woman kept appearing to suck on the protagonist's chin like a three month old baby. Oh yeah: did I mention there's a talking goat as well? The film then appeared to nick the ending from Richard Bachmann's Thinner, only to provide a "twist" soooooooooooooo obvious I was kind of embarrassed. Un.Im.Pressed.

What was scary most, for me, is the idea Drag Me To Hell's lead, Christine, could ever be considered "a strong female protagonist". She must admit to herself over the course of the narrative she f*cked over the old gypsy woman to get the job, which is a *sort of* OK arc, but the rest of the time she's killing cats and doing OTHER people over to save her own skin. She's shouting the odds at the Clairvoyant bloke, she's letting others sacrifice themselves for her, she's even lying in the middle of a seance! What exactly is *strong* about any of that? What's more, she's so insipid her personality barely comes through at all - EVEN when she's shoving the button down the dead woman's throat at the end in triumph: "I beat you, bitch!" I barely knew any more about her at the end than I did at the beginning of the movie.

This got me thinking about my choices for strong female protagonists or secondary characters. I've written before about various ones, but here's a complete list of those ones I feel are most unsung.

6) Di in Shaun of the Dead [played by Lucy Davis]. The long suffering Di is not the protagonist of course - Shaun is - but what's refreshing about Di, Dafyd's girlfriend in comparison to Liz (Shaun's), is she is not entirely reactionary. Liz relies almost entirely on Shaun to get her part: she has to be disgusted, annoyed or impressed by him throughout (more or less in that order) to be her *own* woman. Take him away, she is no one. Di then starts off as a "hanger-on" in the group but grows as the Apocalypse does, even egging the others on and helping out by coaching the others to be Zombies. Then of course she has that impressive meltdown in The Winchester where she admits she has known all along Dafs is in love with Liz and "I've come to terms with that - why can't you?" She then follows this up by attempting to "rescue" Dafs from a Zombie attack swinging his OWN SEVERED LEG over her head like a club. Atta girl.

5) Dottie in A League of Their Own [played by Geena Davis]. What I love about this film in general is its focus on WOMEN'S history in WW2; it's so rare. War movies are a genre in their own right - but whilst the men were on the front, the women had to keep everything going back home - and that didn't just mean working in the munitions factories and smuggling rations, but more *out there* stuff like baseball too. Dottie is a great leader as well as as baseball player and when I first watched this, aged just thirteen back in 1992 when it came out, I felt really aspirational for one of the first times in my life. Of course I hated sport and still forged notes from my Mum to get out of PE, but the first sparks that women can do *anything* they put their minds to did set off in my brain.

4) Lindsay in The Abyss [played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio]. Lindsay is a grade A bitch and thinks she's a step above the grunts on the rig, especially her estranged Ex Bud (played by Ed Harris). However as the movie progresses, Lindsay's more vulnerable side is brought to the fore and she even "dies" at one point and is resurrected, which is a nice touch. James Cameron is not noted for writing great female roles, so there are places in which Lindsay is somewhat two-dimensional and there's *that* moment where Bud tries to revive her from drowning and slaps her in the face (niiiice), but in general Lindsay riffs well with the rest of the characters, especially Jammer "Hey, I don't remember putting a wall here!" and as part of a man's world, without actually being manly.

3) Jess in Bend it Like Beckham [played by Parminder Nagra]. Jess' dilemma - she wants to play football, but it's considered too "boyish" by her strict family - is a fantastic metaphor for the trials women face in not only being accepted in a man's world (like Lindsay in The Abyss), but in society as well. Phrases like "bee in your bonnet" or "you're too uptight" are often uttered to women like me who are concerned about female representation in the media; not only by men, but by women too who somehow do not perceive a problem. Just because women are shown on screen, does not mean a fair or equal representation of our gender exists. Bend It Like Beckham painted the struggles of females to be taken seriously, not only by those "big" people, but by those closest to them as well - and took it out of the Asian community and made it universal. Fantastic.

2) Linda in Premonition [played by Sandra Bullock]. What's so refreshing about Premonition is the LACK of males in it. Linda, her two daughters, her mother and Linda's best friend are the main players in this supernatural thriller, though the focus of the drama is the death (or not) of Linda's husband, Jim. A seeming mad mix of Twelve Monkeys and Groundhog Day, Linda finds herself trapped within a single week that could ensure she saves the life of her husband who will die in an RTA if she doesn't come up with a way of stopping it. A highly original, dramatic and well-crafted screenplay, Premonition is unfortunately one of those movies screenwriters LOVE, yet laypeople seem to hate (especially judging from its reviews). If you want to explore non-linearity and a strong female character however, you can't go wrong here.

1) Phoebe/Ursula in Kindergarten Cop [played by Pamela Reed]. As regular readers know, I'm a sucker for Arnie - but it's his "sidekick" that outshines him in EVERY WAY in this fun, family flick. Phoebe is an actress' dream: sassy, bold, capable and smart-talking like lots of female cops in movies, Phoebe doesn't just end there. She has many other qualities, including a rampant love of food; a chef for a boyfriend (because of the love of food, natch); she's good with children (having been a kindergarten teacher); she's nurturing - not only of the children, but Arnie himself; gthe list is endless. Even better: it's her, not Arnie, who SAVES THE DAY - and not through extreme violence, but quick thinking. What more could you want.

Your choices, please...

LINKS

A Short Piece About Female Protagonists in British Cinema by the BFI

Girls On Film: A Desire for Varied Female Protagonists is not a Political Agenda [From Cinematical]

Is the Female Protagonist Box Office Poison? A Look At Amelia by The Washington Post

Character Journeys We Can Learn From (including female characters - from Notes On A Scandal, Badlands, The Brave One, Lantana, etc)

A Breakdown of Sarah's character from Jurassic Park: The Lost World

Thursday, February 11, 2010

THREE THINGS: Academy Pictures, Bluecat & Circalit

Just passing through - busybusybusy - but here's three new things you may be interested in. Enjoy!
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UPDATE

Did you go to Bournemouth University? I did - and alumni like us have the chance to pitch for £100K to make a feature with the university's new initiative, Academy Pictures!! The deadline is Monday March 8th and they're looking for the usual: 4 page treatment, writing sample, showreels, etc. [Please note: I've read the guidelines and it seems the whole team MUST have gone to Bournemouth, though you can live anywhere now. But please feel free to check yourself, link below].

So: I am looking for a potential PRODUCER and/or DIRECTOR partner - I have a couple of treatments ready to go and we can decide on which ones. I'm sorry but I'm NOT looking for a co-writer at this time. If you're interested, please get in touch ASAP on Bang2writeATaolDOTcom or via Facebook.

Academy Pictures - all the details
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Lucee,

On behalf of BlueCat Screenwriting’s goal to bring more exposure to UK screenwriters, I’m writing to cordially invite writers in your community to consider submitting a feature length screenplay to the 2010 BlueCat Screenplay Competition.

This year, we have created two new awards for international screenwriters.

The Cordelia Award – Best screenplay from the UK will be awarded $2,500.

The Joplin Award – Best screenplay from outside the US, UK, and Canada will be awarded $2500.

In addition, the scripts will still be eligible for our other prizes.

Grand prize is $10,000 with four Finalist prizes of $1,500 each.

**EVERY SCREENPLAY RECEIVES WRITTEN SCRIPT ANALYSIS**

Our official deadline is March 1, 2010, with an entry fee of $50, and our late deadline is April 1, 2010, with an entry fee of $60.

ABOUT BLUECAT:
Since 1998, the first year of the BlueCat Screenplay Competition, we have built a large community of writers passionately committed to writing original, unforgettable work. This starts with our exchange of feedback to each writer who enters BlueCat, as EVERY screenplay submitted to BlueCat receives written analysis.

Additionally, through our newsletter, we provide articles, videos and interviews to help and inspire every level of screenwriting.

SCREENWRITING ADVICE ARTICLES

SCREENWRITING TIPS VIDEOS

JOIN OUR COMMUNITY NEWSLETTER

The Bluecat Team
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Dear Lucy,

I am a keen subscriber of your blog and I believe that you would be very interested in a project that I am currently involved in. I am the Head of Marketing at a website called Circalit, which allows writers to upload their screenplays in a safe and secure manner and to build up support for their screenplay within the industry. Simply put, Circalit is the first dedicated social networking site for screenwriters. Unlike other sites which only allow users to read and discuss their screenplays, Circalit is the first to incorporate the next generation of social networking features, a comprehensive review and ratings system, and the ability to selectively control who you share your screenplay with. I think if you visit the site you'll immediately see that we're quite different from any of the other sites that are already out there.

Circalit is entirely free for all writers and I'm sure your subscribers would be interested in hearing about it. We have had 600 users sign up within the first few weeks of beta testing. We've also already had a great deal of interest from production studios and we've just become partners with The Script Factory. We believe that Circalit has the potential to revolutionize the way that screenplays are marketed and distributed, and we hope that you will support us.

Please go to to have a look at the site. If you appreciate the work that we are doing for screenwriters, then please do post a link on your website so we can let everyone know about the free service we are offering them.

I look forward to seeing you on the Circalit website!

Best Wishes,

Rob

Monday, February 08, 2010

Character Types On Twitter

If you're wondering how Twitter works or even if you're there already, I thought I'd compose a (mostly) tongue in cheek about the types of characters you can find on there:

The Dullard. We all know the one: s/he likes to tell us EXACTLY WHAT THEY'RE DOING at this given moment, all the time - whether it's eating a sandwich, cooking or waiting for someone to pop round. Yawn. UNFOLLOW.

The Oversharer. Whether it's an anecdote about a urine infection, an ingrown toenail or the fact your dog is humping your leg RIGHT THIS MINUTE, we don't want to hear it! Often The Oversharer merges into the Dullard, too.

The Self Promoter. OK, OK, we get it: social networking is a useful tool for any blogger, writer, actor, band, singer or whatever trying to get their wares/abilities to market. But does every single tweet HAVE to be about your site, book, CD, show or DVD??? And thanks for all the Direct Messages too - NOT.

The Promoter of The Self Promoter. Sometimes these people know the offending Self Promoter in real life and take it upon themselves to help their mate out; other times it's fan boyz and girlz who believe - usually wrongly - they'll get in the good books of said Self Promoter. Do your own stuff people!

The "Tell Me, Tell Mes". These Tweeps need to ask Twitter EVERYTHING - whether it's what movie to rent or whether to break up with their boyfriend or girlfriend, they'll want their Tweeps' opinion before they decide ANYTHING.

The Yes/No Brigade. There are some people whose only answers to any tweet appears to be Yes or No. Really. Often after you have forgotten what question it was you asked. WTF?

The Lurkers. These are those strange people who don't tweet themselves, but read your tweets. As a result, they'll probably Facebook and try and talk to you there instead - but you freak out and wonder how the hell they knew all this stuff about you. IGNORE IGNORE.

The Misery. Life sucks and so do you... The occasional tweet about being down is fine - you have our sympathy - but constant ones about how hard life is aren't really the point of Twitter! Often noted for their absence when other Tweeters have good news.

The Luv Its. The Luv Its make constant joyous proclamations to the whole of Twitter, such as how wonderful their spouse is or how much they love university, their job, Mum or dog. Luv Its will often find their @ boxes full of cynicism, usually from The Miseries.

The Serial Linker. This character links to everything in the known universe, all the time. Sometimes it's for a specific subject, so they actually perform an invaluable service, like @UnkScreenwriter or @MMonFilm for us screenwriters (if you don't follow them - WHY NOT?). Other times The Serial Linker is entirely random and not as useful since s/he is just as likely to link to you something unpleasant as interesting, so after a while you just. stop. clicking.

The Serial Retweeter. Yes, everyone on the whole of Twitter is funnier, more interesting and has more to say than you. So why are you here??

The Guru. Uses Twitter to posit impossible questions or supposed philosophical observations; s/he rarely makes sense and is too often a teenager who thinks they're like, well-deep man innit.

The Proud Parent. OK, your kid's the best... But so is mine. Can also include the "Mums and Dads" of various pets, especially dogs. Willing to swap photos and further anecdotes on Facebook and email.

The Hashtag King/Queen. OK, OK, hashtags are useful - especially for stuff like #scriptchat. And it's funny the first time to post useless hashtags like #earwig. But now? Joke's over.

The Baiter. Doesn't matter what it is - they will start an argument over it. [And yes, I know this is *soooooooooo* me]. The upside: they will follow you back just carry on arguments for days via all social networking utilities and email, so if you want to procrastinate at work, this is the person to follow & engage with.

The Would-Be Killer. Could Twitter actually be a vent for would-be homicidal maniacs? Maybe, judging the amount of writers in particular who *would* kill or attack various other Tweeps for a variety of misdemeanors ranging from a difference of opinion through to getting through on various competitions and initiatives they haven't... Now, if those homicidal tweeps *just* knew where the offenders lived in REAL LIFE. (Yes I know this is me too).

And finally:

The Egotist. The self-made king or queen of his/her own "Hive Mind", the Egotist will often address the whole of Twitter directly and/or ask it to do impossible things for him/her - like *somehow* bringing coffee, bagels or chocolate appears to be the favourite, though fixing the weather, the internet or their life bring up the rear. Often a celebrity or well-known in their field, they never follow you back and certainly never reply to @ messages or #FFs.

Have I missed any? If so, post in the comments and I'll add it to the list. Follow me on Twitter.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Feedback Exchange

Let's keep this simple and not get bogged down in rules.. yawn. The only 3 things I will specify:

1) Just because you contact someone asking them to read your script doesn't mean they HAVE TO. Similarly, if you don't want to read for someone, be polite - send them an email and tell them, don't ignore them.

2) If they read for you, you have to be prepared to read for them. Remember to say thanks for your feedback too!

3) Never ever be vitriolic, slag someone off or take the mickey out of them, either in the feedback itself or any communication that follows. (If you feel daunted by the prospect of giving measured notes, I recommend sticking to Adrian Mead's idea of ONLY asking questions of the script, as outlined in his "Power of Three" method).

If you find yourself on the receiving end of any of these violations by a reviewer, do let me know.

So:

If you want to use The Feedback Exchange, please leave your details in the comments section of THIS POST. This is just for ease of reference. If you have trouble leaving your details, don't worry: send them to me and I will post them on here. Please don't leave them on my Facebook page or tweet them, as I plan to link this post on the right hand side bar for people to access as and when they need to. (If the comments get very lengthy, I'll make sure there is some kind of "round up"later to make it easier - let's just see what happens, yeah?)

So my recommendations for leaving your details:

REAL NAME - not just your online handle, please. Just put your first name if you prefer

EXPERIENCE - ie. have you ever read any scripts for work placements or internships; are you a member of a site like Zoetrope; any other writing-related stuff of relevance: MAs in screenwriting, competition placings, options, that sort of thing. Don't worry if you have nothing yet, there will be people in the same boat looking for others like you. This doesn't mean less experienced writers *can't* read for more experienced writers and vice versa, however.

INTERESTS - ALL SCRIPTS welcome, including shorts and online drama, etc. However, a couple of things to consider: if you love television and write television scripts, is swapping with people who watch only movies and write feature scripts a good idea? Only you can decide. Similarly, if you have strong preferences on genre and feel unable to deal with scripts of a particular genre you ABSOLUTELY HATE, please be upfront about this. Also, here is a good place to say things you are particularly looking for, ie. crime drama, science fiction, strong female characters, sparkling dialogue, the three acts, the 22 steps, etc.

EMAIL - I suggest using this sort of layout or similar to stop spam bots usernameATemailserviceproviderDOTcom, but please do it any way you like. Links to your own blog or social networking sites are welcome too, but please don't take the mick and advertise your sites, posts etc too much here.

Let's make this a comprehensive list of Bang2writers willing to do peer review! Looking forward to seeing it build up over the coming weeks, months and hopefully - years.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Get what You Give (Or Why Learning To Give Feedback Will Make You A Better Writer)

|t's oft heard that reading scripts makes one's own writing better. Seeing what works on the page can provide an invaluable insight no "how to write" book or course can.

Most writers will agree feedback is key to improving one's work, but like most things there's at least two ways of looking at it. No writer worth their salt is going to disagree GETTING feedback is anything but a help to a work, but not all of them believe learning to GIVE feedback has the same value. They might argue that unlike learning how to structure a work, about character, dialogue, etc not everyone needs to learn how to GIVE feedback; they'll say whilst learning to receive feedback (and what to do with it) is important, giving it AS WELL is not necessary and could well be the straw that breaks the camel's back, especially when so many writers have day jobs, kids, other commitments etc to juggle too.

I find the above an odd POV, primarily because many actual script readers - myself included - cite script reading as the single best way of improving one's writing skills. When I think of all I have learned about writing, I would venture 90% has come from not only reading said scripts, but actually having to find the words to tell someone not only their script might not work, but WHY it might not work, WHAT they might want to do about about it and HOW they might implement this change - without (and this is the most important bit) isolating said writer. (Of course, there will always be writers who get the hump from even the most measured of notes, just as there will always be readers who ride roughshod over people's dreams).

But of course not every writer can become a professional script reader, so the obvious answer here is peer review. Reading your peers' work and giving them constructive feedback is time consuming, hard to do and sometimes even stressful or dull, but it can pay dividends. Here's why I think learning how to GIVE feedback to your peers too has the same value as getting it:

It helps your own writing. Reading those produced scripts might help us realise *why* certain films are a hit or did well on the basis of a specific *element*, but seeing an UNproduced script and the mistakes people make in NOT getting the reader on board is also really important. Writers who have never read a spec might wonder why the ten page test for example is implemented - but see with absolute clarity WHY when they read a script where we don't know who the protagonist is or what situation they've found themselves in by pages 10, 20 or 30. It's ILLUMINATING. What's more, having to describe to said writer WHY we need this information *up front* can really TEST a writer's skill in writing said notes for their peer. Writing merely stuff like "I don't like this sort of story" or "you should try again" is not going to cut it (as I've written about before). You have to face up to them and find a way to communicate - and communication is a huuuuuuuuge part of writing, so how giving feedback is not going to help in this case is beyond me.

It builds contacts. People often reject this idea as untrue: "I've got some IT specialist who's written one spec reading my work, the feedback I get won't be that good". First up, who knows where that IT specialist will be in five years? Everyone has to start somewhere. What's more, the more people you get to know and how they work, the more people you will end up "connected" to. Some of my best opportunities have come from someone passing me or my work on to someone else via peer review.

It builds confidence. The more people who have seen your script, the more confident in its worth you will be: end of. Asking a paid-for script reader to read your work might give you good, mediocre or contradictory results. Sharing said script out amongst as MANY of your peers as possible (and of course reading their scripts and giving them feedback in return) will give you the kind of perspective you just can't buy. This will then feed into your actual writing, because you *know* a script or even your own writing STYLE has legs, you're not wasting your time. What's more, if that work that gets optioned - and you have problems with the director or producer on the basis of something within the script - you KNOW it's not personal (a mindset sooooo easy to fall into), because you've already been over its various elements before and justified them. This can then aid your decision on whether you will push on through with said producer (and concede defeat) or part company with them. Also: let's look at the NON philanthropic view - *knowing* you're the *best* writer [or the most informed or intuitive] of all your peers? It's gotta help ; ) Seriously though, seeing what people are doing WRONG and knowing you're NOT and that you can help them really does help YOU.

It saves money. People are often surprised I advocate peer review so strongly: "You're a script reader, peer review must hurt your business?" they'll say. No: it makes it BETTER. In very new drafts, there will always be *obvious* mistakes and opportunities missed - why pay for me or my colleagues to find those, when we can offer a more in-depth look at things like structure, charcaterisation or plot, based not even on the fact we are supposedly *BETTER*, but on the fact professional script readers do this sort of thing every single day, hundreds (if not thousands of times) every year?

It's part of the journey. Analysing scripts and breaking them down is a skill; but so is giving feedback. Some people are naturally intuitive and just really good at it; others will struggle - like with all elements of scriptwriting. But make no mistake ALL aspects of getting, receiving and GIVING feedback are important AND all of those elements can LEARNT. Yes, your early peer review may well be pants. But guess what, your first ever script was. So what's the difference? it didn't stop you there, why let it stop you here.

It's part of the process. Some writers say they don't have *time* for peer review. I have every sympathy. When I'm not working, looking after my family and that goes with that (especially ironing - GRR), visiting relatives, seeing friends, other miscellaneous life stuff etc, the LAST thing I want to do is some peer review. Talk about a busman's holiday! But guess what, I always do: I HAVE to. There are people within my feedback circle whose work I always read and they always read mine [and not just one or two either, we're talking 5 or 6 dedicated people]; occasionally I will manage to fit an extra person or two in here and there. I will read drafts as favours and I will ask others for the same - it's what's done, it's fair and honest and helps all concerned. Not all of my feedback circle are professional script readers either, by the way - I think two are in fact - so if those *other* writers couldn't GIVE feedback too, they would be at a disadvantage.

It is all part of the same circle. If you want to GET peer review, you need to be able to GIVE it - who is going to want to read for you, if you're not prepared to return the favour? But maybe you don't want to get peer review - that doesn't actually mean you shouldn't do it. Sometimes the things of most worth to us in terms of professional development are those things we want to do the least. It can make you feel VULNERABLE, sending your script out to your peers. Of course you don't want to do it. SO DO IT.

So there we have it: why I think learning how to give feedback to your peers is every bit as important as getting it from whatever source. I'm thinking of setting up a "Feedback Exchange" for peer review via the blog in fact. If you'd be interested in this, let me know in the comments, on Facebook or tweet me.

Previously about Feedback and Peer Review on this blog:

Focus on Feedback - a breakdown on the pros and cons of feedback

How to do Power of Three: A Feedback Method - Adiran Mead's handout with guidelines on how to do peer review successfully

I've Written A Script - Now What? - a list of places with links to find free feedback (amongst others, scroll down for it)

Monday, February 01, 2010

Plot + Easy = Myth

You don't have to go far on this ol' interweb to find claims that character and dialogue are the most important things in the *good* spec script. In fact, some places/people say, they are SO important a reader can forgive any other transgression including a non existent or problematic plot, because (apparently), stuff like plot can be "fixed later".

But is this actually true, or a myth? Well, if you look at the blog title, then you know what I think already and I'll explain why in glorious technicolour, next. But, like all things in this scriptwriting malarkey, it's hard to say for certain - especially because everyone has different versions of how this thing works.

However, we've all heard of *this*:

[Insert very famous screenwriter here] who says s/he knew nothing about plot, but wrote [this really excellent character/dialogue in their spec] and [somebody, somewhere we'd recognise] read it, believed in the character/dialogue so believed in the [now-famous screenwriter] putting him/her forward for [this show or movie] and HEY PRESTO THE REST IS HISTORY! Woo and indeed, hoo.

So this is all very well and good and if someone is TALENT SPOTTING rather than looking for a specific piece to OPTION or PRODUCE then *maybe* I could buy this idea of the script being pants overall but said writer being *so amazing* at character and dialogue, they got through the door regardless. However it is worth pointing out the above is the type of story mostly television writers seem to spout at seminars and whatnot. Call me cynical, but it always seems to be with a fervent look on their faces as if they're not too sure how they got there in the first place and this is a handy explanation even THEY can believe. Don't get me wrong, it's a nice tale and gives new writers something to believe in, but it just doesn't wash with me. After all, as anyone who has ever done a trial for a soap opera will tell you (whoops, that's continuing drama - sorry!), of COURSE it's about the characters and dialogue, but it's also about the HOUSE STYLE - of which a HUGE amount of that is STRUCTURE and thus PLOTTING. Therefore: if you don't know **anything** about plotting? You're out on your ear. Mate.

There's also the very inconvenient issue of character arc and by this I mean: how GREAT is a "great character" if they don't have an identifiable goal, want or need and meander their way through one event after another? We invest in characters not just because they're THEM but because they DO STUFF for a REASON. What that reason is can depend and of course there's ALWAYS exceptions to the rule, but generally-speaking: if there's no narrative clarity to what said character is doing, this impacts on plot (again) and does affect the reader's ability to invest in that character and their journey. That's just the way it is.

But ah, *they* gotta be right about dialogue - right? Um, no... Not IMHO. There's no doubt some writers are great at dialogue and some suck. It appears to be one of those things that varies wildly from one end of the scale to the other, though some of those that initially suck CAN work at it and get better, draft on draft, through sheer hard work. However, scripts often have pages and pages of dialogue at the expense of anything else as the writer works tirelessly to make their dialogue seem "realistic" or "clever". If great characters are what they DO (and they are), then too much (even good) dialogue actually acts against them: they can't SAY stuff for acres and acres like this and do stuff at the same time, how can they? Dialogue that "leads" scenes gets the plot nowhere and stops us caring - again - about the character's journey.

And without plot, dialogue can feel flat and powerless anyway; the scenes themselves can feel static. It's plot that brings fantastic dialogue alive: I don't really care for many of Tarantino's stories on the basis I find them too full of machismo with a side order of casual violence (particularly levvied against women and children), but there's no denying how good a dialogue writer he is. If we look at something like Natural Born Killers, the plot is *really* a manic rehash of Badlands, but the dialogue is brought alive not JUST because it's clever or good ("You from Texas... You don't have an accent"/"I don't want to talk about those assholes"/"My mother was from Texas!") but because we buy into the WHOLE THING, including the actors' performances in delivering the lines, not just that ONE element on its own, on the page. This is why I'm frequently left feeling dialogue is an over valued resource in the drafting process, preferring instead to really concentrate on it in the "final" first draft [the one that is actually sent out].

So for me, character and dialogue aren't *it*: a script is the sum of ALL its parts and plot pays a bigger part than many will argue.

But hey: if you believe that character and dialogue are the most important things in the spec script and plot can be "ironed out" easily, then please go ahead and be my guest - as Goldie says, no one knows what the hell they're doing anyway in this industry, so that must include the script reader as well.

But if you do think plot's not that big a deal, I have two questions for you:

1) Why are there so many plotless specs in the pile?

and

2) Where IS all this "great" dialogue and those "great" characters, then?