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Monday, January 31, 2011

Using Social Media: Making Connections, Self Promotion, Building Relationships

The Guardian had this article this week, saying experts fear social networking is actually isolating us from real life. Of course, if you're ignoring your friends, spouse, children and job just so you can go on Twitter or Facebook solely to say you're making a cup of tea or to play bouncing balls, then they're probably right.

But like anything, this issue depends on context: HOW you use it and WHAT FOR. It's hard to argue the fact that people working from home - like writers, but indeed *anyone* - are actually MORE connected by social media. For one thing, it has become our "water cooler": we can gain moral support and communication with others that just was not possible a few short years ago, thus the we are LESS isolated on a personal/professional level.

Similarly, social media has opened up so many other avenues to our potential audiences and readers. It's no longer a question of *just* (!) writing your script or novel and sending it off to an agent, prodco or contest and crossing your fingers, or doing real-life networking (which is not always possible for all). The DIY route in all things writing and filmmaking related has EXPLODED, especially in the last two or three years, as I outlined in this post just last week.

First things first: no one is an absolute authority on social media and how it works, least of all me. This stuff has been around for only a few short years, which means we're all feeling our way on this. However, I think there are simple things we can think about in order to build our online personas and bring as many people "in" on our journeys as possible:

Branding is important. I was unemployed for few weeks after university, so when I first started thinking about creating my own work via the script reading, I Googled my own name. I discovered, despite the fact I had written several corporate gigs and contributed to a bunch of magazines (not to mention participated in various teacher training web initiatives), I was on the SEVENTH page. The majority of pages were dedicated to a long dead Countess of Carlisle and her family tree, also called Lucy Hay. I also discovered the poetry of another Lucy Hay who appeared to think she was Wordsworth way ahead of me in the rankings, too. This was a big problem. How could I "bump up" my ranking? The answer seemed obvious at first: I should change my name! So I went through my baby name books, trying to find the most interesting, Google-able name I could. No good. So back to the drawing board... and then it struck me. It was the BUSINESS that needed a name, then people could search for THAT, instead of "script reading" that turned up literally millions of results. I must have gone through half a dozen crappy pun-based names before settling on Bang2write, which I remain the only one. That's what's important - not whether it's the most witty, the best, the most original. Search "Bang2write" and you get ME and ALL my various sites. End of.

Blogs need a specific focus. I told a colleague roughly five or six years ago I was thinking of starting a blog. There weren't that many blogs around at that time (in comparison to now, anyway) and yet his response was still, "How many diaries of frustrated writers do we need?" This struck a real chord with me and made me think very carefully of how I wanted to present my blog to www.land (as I called it in those days, for those who've been "with" me since the beginning!). I decided I would make the blog *about* my business Bang2write, not least because I didn't actually want to end up writing the same *sort* of things in writers' script notes, over and over again. Instead, I felt it better to refer writers to posts ABOUT the issue they were having in their scripts, so I could "free up space" to really concentrate on the specifics of the issue, knowing clients had the "back up" of the background info on the blog. This seems to work really well and had the added side effect of getting me more and more readers far and wide, when I had assumed at first waaay back my real audience would be just those using Bang2write.

Blogs & sites should have an interactive element. Long before I started engaging with Bang2writers on the likes of Twitter and Facebook, I knew there had to be some kind of chat from me, rather than appear as the "mysterious admin from afar". As a result, I attempted to reply to most - if not all - blog comments and in its early years blog posts had many, many, comments and there were some interesting, vibrant and sometimes heated discussions. In addition, I was always happy to answer commenters' questions as actual posts, though typically I would wait for two or three people to ask the same thing OR observe if it's come up in script notes recently several times (I still do this). As the internet world changed, comments disappeared over to the likes of Twitter and Facebook and the blog now depends on these users for suggestions and questions to bring content back over here, which I'm happy to still oblige on. I'm also very happy to print Bang2writers' own posts on this blog or ask for others going to various courses, seminars, etc to provide notes for us all if I can't make it. View all the guest posts so far here. Similarly, Bang2writers often send me links which I'm happy to post on Twitter and Facebook.

Interacting is important, full stop. Talking to your contacts, friends, followers and fans is a must. Simply trying to sell them your product 24/7 just does not cut it. However, if they like YOU, then they're more likely to buy/buy into what you have to sell or promote - they go from being "people on your page" to ALLIES, who will in turn help you promote your product or yourself. In the best case scenarios, they become collaborators, colleagues and even real life friends. What's not to like there?

Cross promotion is great. We're all trying to do the same here - GET NOTICED. So why not bandy together with others? I'm not saying get together with *just anyone* - find people with a similar ethos, goals or whose work you admire. On this basis then, read the formidable and unstoppable Chris Jones' article about the social networking site Linked In today!

Decide what you comment on. We hear a lot of warnings about procrastination and losing whole days of productivity to social media. I would recommend, when using Twitter or Facebook, someone needs to decide *what* they're willing to comment on and what they will tend to stay out of IN ADVANCE, especially those things not screenwriting-related. For instance, I will comment on feminism and education freely because they form part of my belief system and whilst I'm interested in what others have to say (and would never gag anyone), I'm fairly unshakable about what I think on these two issues. In comparison then, I *tend* to stay away from religion, news and politics in general or trend topics (beyond tag games like making up fake movie names). The reason for this is no great shakes, just very simple: I don't have a lot of time, I don't want to get sucked into - even very interesting! - conversations about religion, news and politics that *could* take over my day. Better I leave conversations then about religion, politics and news to "real life", then.

Decide what part/s of your life is okay for others to discuss with you. Levels of propriety are important in social media. I decided early on when I only had the blog, it was okay to talk about my family. This meant it was a natural leap from there to Twitter and Facebook to talk about them there, too. I tend not to use their real names (though I'm more relaxed with real life friends, even on social media), but I'm proud of them and want to be able to chat about them, it felt like self censorship not to. However I completely understand that others don't want their families mentioned EVER, for whatever reason. Similarly, others don't like their day job mentioned; the fact they're Christians or Muslims or atheists or indeed other things they don't want people privy to. For the record, I always kill specific talk of spec scripts dead - ie. someone asks me what I thought of X's script, because they heard I had read it too? I always respond that Bang2write treats all scripts with confidence - not just for that client, but also for me too as some (especially through prodcos) have NDAs attached. Similarly, if you EVER see me on a social networking site saying a particular script is doing my head in, know that it is a BLIND READ (ie. via an initiative or prodco), it is NOT a Bang2writer's.

Multiple posting is not only okay, it's DESIRABLE. Sometimes I get chastised for multiple posting. "I saw that link on Twitter, Bang2writers and The LSF page" someone might say. And my response is, "So?" I make no apologies for multiple posts - and nor do I apologise for tagging like-minded groups and pages in my own FB posts or adding the #scriptchat label. The whole point of social media is to DISSEMINATE your message - whatever it is - to as wide an audience as possible. Being afraid others MIGHT have seen it already is self-defeating, especially when there's a very strong chance people MIGHT NOT have seen it, when Twitter and FB streams update so quickly in particular. Those who get annoyed about multiple posts will unfollow you ANYWAY for another reason. I've been invited to many, many pages and groups that "promise NOT to bombard me with updates"! The response from me then, is: what is the POINT of this FB page or group?

Make it known what your online persona is. For me, it's all about the ALTERNATIVE VIEW. You're generally not going to get me extolling the virtues of those most celebrated AREADY, such as James Cameron or Christopher Nolan or whoever. I have NOTHING against anyone who likes these guys (though I might get a sneaky tongue-in-cheek jibe in, just. can't. stop. myself! Hey - it's part of my online persona!). As far as I'm concerned though, "variety is the spice of life". I just wish there was MORE variety and I will argue to the cows come home about WHY there should and WHERE there has been inequality, especially when it comes to female roles on the silver screen. I am also keen to point out HOW there have been good ones, as I'm only too aware of only ever talking about the BAD things, there have of course been GOOD things too.

Disagreeing is fine - and desirable.The above is what Bang2writers on Facebook is mostly about. And why shouldn't it be? It's my page. But crucially, if you want to join and disagree with me or other Bang2writers, then please do. However, complaining because you find yourself in the minority over something - wherever you are - is poor show. As writers, we should know it's all about INTERPRETATIONS anyway, there are no ABSOLUTES; these are stories and ways of looking at the world we're dealing with, NOT facts. We all have things we think that others disagree with: I don't know if I've found a single other person IN THE WORLD who agrees absolutely with my own interpretation regarding Ripley in Aliens, for example... She seems universally loved by everyone - except me! But so what? I have no more right to insist my view is *the one*, any more than someone can say to me, "Well everybody else thinks this, so you must be wrong." There's room for everyone.

Remember this is remote communication. Sometimes we read a comment or post somewhere and believe we know its meaning 100% and there is no alternative. Other times we imagine we *know* that person's entire life philosophy and experience intimately simply because they've written a lot online. Neither of these things are actually possible, particularly when our own experiences, opinions and thoughts can create semantic noise and affect the communication transaction. It's very easy to call people out for their own opinions or posts (especially from the comforting safety of the "anonymous" tag or the non-blogger's lair from afar via an obscure pseudonym), but this doesn't mean we actually should without due care. Whilst it's always possible one's intentions are not picked up online - this works both ways. Attacking someone on social media with various labels like "racist", "sexist" or whatever without asking them to CLARIFY their meaning in some way is not only childish, it's actually very poor advertising for yourself, directly affecting the potential branding I mentioned earlier. Of course, there's any number of alternatives one can undertake to pursue the "true" meaning of posts: asking people directly what they mean, humour, wit, mock outrage and well-placed anecdotes illustrating the opposite side of a topic can all do the trick and further the conversation without creating undue conflict.

ON THIS BLOG BEFORE ABOUT SOCIAL MEDIA:

A Twit's Guide To Twitter

Character Types on Twitter

Life's What You Make It (Or How Mr C Prevented Me From Deleting This Blog)

Friday, January 28, 2011

Two Things: Media Parents Meets Tiger Aspect & Free Screenwriting E-Book

MEDIA PARENTS EVENT

First off, top gal Amy Walker of Media Parents has been in touch to let Bang2writers know about her new event, Tiger Aspect Meets Media Parents.

Media Parents took part in one of my sessions at London Screenwriters Festival, with media veterans and parents TV writer Marc Pye and director Rebecca Gatward. I think Media Parents is a brilliant initiative and Amy works tirelessly to connect people with the industry. Check it out now.

Tiger Aspect is a GIANT of the industry and I for one think it's really exciting they want to meet and become involved with Media Parent Talent. The event is open to Media Parent subscribers only - the site welcomes all those working in the industry who have children AND those interested in working flexibly (no child required!). Check out the event on The Media Parents Blog.

FREE SCREENWRITING E-BOOK

Secondly, many thanks to ALL who have downloaded and let others know about my free PDF e-book, "Screenplay Tips". I put it up on Send Space just under a week ago and have already had a whopping 214 downloads to date, with 100 of those in the first twenty four hours! Thanks also for the lovely messages and tweets about it too; I'm totally amazed by the response and very glad it's of use to writers.

For those of you who haven't heard about it: "Screenplay Tips" is a PDF of the blog posts I wrote last summer, which you can find online in their original form, here. I reformatted it as an e-book after several Bang2writers suggested the posts might be good to have as a reference when working off-line or using readers etc on the move. It's just a simple 26 page PDF booklet and I've attempted to clean up any typos (though a couple have still snuck through, dammit! But hey, it's free!), wrong names/titles, etc.

The posts have a strong bias towards movies - my screenwriting of choice now - though some articles have a focus on television, particularly returning drama series, but also sitcom and children's TV. In the series I talk about screenwriting devices like reversals, montage and VO, as well as craft issues like making the best of your scene description, characterisation and dialogue. I also talk about the nature of "good" feedback, rewriting, submission and rejection.

Want "Screenplay Tips", too? Then you can download it here.

While I'm here, don't forget these other Bang2write Resources are available too:

1 Page PDF Script Format Reference Guide/Checklist

The Format 1 Stop Shop - a breakdown of all the format issues Bang2write sees on the page regularly

The Required Reading List - an e-library of the best writing-related articles on the web by various authors

The Feedback Exchange - a directory of Bang2writers interested in peer review and swapping work

Film Shorts Club - another directory of Bang2writers, this time all interested in collaborating on short film (ALL welcome)

You can also join Bang2writers on Facebook, for links, chat and opportunities now.

Happy reading/writing/peer reviewing/collaborating!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

It's Not About Luck... And It Totally Is

Sometimes professional writers say that screenwriting success is *not* about luck - and get quite heated when people suggest it is, especially newer writers. As an example, Bang2writer Dominic Carver has written on his blog several times about contests and whether there is an element of luck involved, here is one of the posts - be sure to check out the comments, too. By coincidence, today professional writer Daniel Martin Eckhart has written on his blog about how stamina is key and comes above even talent. Check his post out here.

For the record, I don't know a SINGLE writer who has had their work produced that was *suddenly* plucked out of obscurity, having done NO work! For every single media item out there - whether it's a no budget film on YouTube, a prime time show on TV, or a feature hitting the theatres, DVD or film festivals or just a SCRIPT IN THE SPEC PILE - there has been blood, sweat and tears. Scratch the surface of ANY project and you will find all kinds of heartbreaking stuff for the writers and makers underneath. We're talking major personal sacrifices, both in terms of TIME and FINANCIAL. All for something so many people will barely notice!! It's a HARSH life, no question about it.

The novelist Dean Koontz wrote once, "People in the media work twice as hard for a product worth half as much". I totally agree with this. We WORK OUR COLLECTIVE NADS OFF on all sorts of projects, in the hope of getting someone's attention, most of the time making no or little money - and certainly never a living wage in "real" terms. Can you imagine a doctor, teacher, or even SHOP ASSISTANT for working for as little as we do? There would be an OUTCRY. And then, when we DO get someone's attention and manage to get that project through all kinds of hoops others are NOT privy to, what happens? People call us "lucky". OUCH.

Except... we are lucky! Therein lies the paradox. I think we are both unlucky and lucky in equal measures and I'll explain why:

We do it for love. OK, having no money sucks. There's no denying it. And even if we DO get paid for our specs and collaborations (and even some commissions we can include here), in comparison to the sheer amount of work we've done on them, no amount of money can truly compensate us... If you want to work it out on a hourly basis, one of my Bang2writers reckons he was paid MINUS £4.55 for every hour he spent on his produced feature (not sure exactly how he worked that one out, but makes for a good story to illustrate my point! LOL). But we are ONLY doing this work because we LOVE it - else we wouldn't be doing it, 'cos it's certainly not for financial security! So if we don't LOVE it, we can just STOP. End of. How many other jobs could we say the same as this?

Produced work means the writer in question HAS to have caught a break **somewhere**. We've all heard the phrase, "right time, right place" and this DOES figure in getting produced work out there, as unfashionable as it is to say this. We can write the BEST script in the world and network with all the "right" people, but if the **need** is not there for that particular writer, then their stuff is simply not going to get made. End of. Besides anything, relationships with the "right" people can take YEARS to establish, there is no "quick route". So TRY telling the team it's "all about hard work" who've missed out on film finance for no other reason than that particular pot of money has been cut at the last minute. Or the writer who had a promising budding relationship with an agent - who suddenly left or went on maternity leave. Or the writer whose work was dumped the moment a new producer came in on a TV show, because the decks got cleared. NONE of those things relate to the work of the writers in question, the writers themselves, nor their hard graft. And YES, all of those things have happened to me. But when this happens, we have to remember pt number 1 on this list, as difficult as it can be.

Bad luck always turns to good luck and vice versa So as above, we all know of writers who had runs of EXTRAORDINARY bad luck, sometimes for extended periods. It's not that their work is pants; it's not that they interview badly; it's not they've burned too many bridges. Whilst the answer is to simply keep going, it can be incredibly demoralising. 2008 for me was the worst year EVER! Despite having a whole bunch of irons in the fire and doing a huge stack of work, not one of my projects came to fruition - NOT ONE! During that time I saw several of my peers catch their break: in comparison to my efforts, theirs paid off- yet we were working at that same pace, on the same type of projects, going for the same type of opportunities. It was so GALLING, because what I was not doing, that they were? (Though I should add I did not blame THEM, nor begrudge them their actual success, which was totally deserved). Fast forward the last two years and I've caught a couple of couple of breaks in the form of Deviation and The London Screenwriters' Festival and the tables have turned and my friends report a complete dearth of work on *their* horizons (for which I totally sympathise btw, no laughing and pointing here! Noooo sirrreeeee). But it is proof none of us should despair OR get complacent.

You'll get no argument from when if you're of the belief it's TOTALLY about hard work, first and foremost; I think it's important to recognise our own success as a writer will come as a direct result of that. However, I also think it's important to realise it *could* have worked out very differently, despite our best efforts. Whilst *some* writers would rather whinge about luck than actually do the work (and we all know one of those, or have seen them on e-bulletins and message boards), I would venture there's plenty MORE out there who DESERVE to catch a break and haven't yet.

ON THIS BLOG BEFORE ABOUT LUCK:

Submissions, Rejections & Relationships

Are We There Yet? (Making It As A Writer)

Good Luck (A Post On Making Your Own)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Can't Get Read? Yes You Can

I hear all the time from writers who say they can't get read, citing the "no unsolicited material" a lot of prodco and publishing websites carry as the reason. Sometimes they point out some agents will only consider referrals; other times they say independent producers won't read their work either. These writers cite their lives as the epitome of *that* old Catch 22 "no work without experience; no experience without any work."

First things first. Yes, some producers and companies will ignore your queries; some may even be rude to you. Some may even request your script, then never get back to you ever again, even if you follow up politely. It's the nature of scriptwriting; all of this has happened to me and more over the years. It shouldn't happen but it does.

But you CAN get read and it's easier than you think. It's ALL in the strength of your query - I know it sounds glib, but it's 100% true.

Now of course the argument is, "Ah, but you have an "identity", people know about you or Bang2write - AND you have an agent, it's EASIER for you."

Yes, having an "identity" and an agent now helps, I'm not going to lie about that. But I've been lucky enough to get read from the moment I started sending stuff out, yeeeeears ago, before I had even finished uni and was a completely green writer. Long before I had an agent or Bang2write even existed. Long before this blog started. Long before I had anything much of worth to offer, including the actual scripts themselves (and they were pretty terrible, LOL). I have a stack of rejection letters and printed-out emails dating back to the early noughties, in fact. From agents, producers, production companies, some publishers when I first tried a novel back in 2002 - some of them small, but some of them BIG - some of them had even said "no unsolicited material" on their websites, too.

And okay, things are a tad harder now than they were *back then* in terms of getting noticed. Someone starting out now has to contend with a WEALTH of knowledgeable peers thanks to all those screenwriting MAs. Plus the internet means the spec pile at least LOOKS better than it did in terms of format (if nothing else) than ten years ago. There are billions of blogs devoted to screenwriting, so it's harder to "stand out". The list of people with open door policies has shrunk; TV is now the Holy Grail of new screenwriters in particular, when only a short while ago it was all about film and even "art". Loads of things have changed.

But there are some things that NEVER change:

- Talent will out

- People ARE looking for good stories/scripts

- If you can't get in through a door, it's possible get in through a window

So if you *think* you can't get read?

Send Those Queries Anyway. Ashley Scott Myers has some really good advice on his blog this week: query everyone, anyway. What's the worst that can happen? Nothing. What's the best that happen? They might read your script. Sure, you might end up rejected but a read is a read - and the more people who read your work, the more people who know about you... and the more of an "identity" you forge! I think the more you spaghetti you throw at the wall, the more chance it will have of sticking - so always send multiple queries. Just yesterday, I sent out 12 in one morning; I've ended up with four requests for reads, plus two "thanks but no thanks". That's a return of half; I'm satisfied. If you get NO replies or bites, even to a large mail-out, as Ashley says: you need to think carefully about how *strong* your a) query is and/or b) whether the script's story itself is enough to pique others' interest.

Unsolicited Material Welcome! There are ALWAYS places a writer is welcome to send their work, unsolicited and it's just a question of tracking them down. Hayley McKenzie of Script Angel has compiled an entire list only recently, in fact: here it is. Yes, it's not a particularly huge list, but it's a GOOD START, even if it contains *the usual suspects* like Aunty. It's all very well discounting places like the BBC Writersroom, but can you afford to? I've always had excellent feedback from them in the very least and who knows - it could lead somewhere else in the long term. They offer fantastic schemes, too. Why not give it a shot? I've known professional writers send their work to the BBC Writersroom. Similarly, try and MEET as many producers as you can, especially in "real life", but online if you live in the middle of nowhere; don't discount anyone. You'd be surprised by how many producers *are* looking for scripts... if you just stopped going after those who will obviously be showered with them!

Go The DIY Route. If you *just can't* get excited about sending your work off - then don't. Make it yourself. There are loads of people out there, just itching to collaborate - hence the birth of Film Shorts Club on here. Trev Walsh of White Tiger Films has ALREADY produced Bang2writer Henry Fosdike's script, THE DECISION and another, Claire Yeowart's, JUMPERS, is in the pipeline. Not bad considering Film Shorts Club was only launched a few months ago. If shorts aren't your thing, then think about what is - you can do whatever you want. Yes, money is an issue - but when is it not? How can you create these things on a shoestring, like Suki Singh and Emulsion or Chris Jones and his features? Or how can you build web distribution into your business model, like Tim Clague and Mr Vista? At the moment, I'm seeking to adapt an old spec past its sell-by date into a graphic novel with a new company in Portsmouth. Who knows if it'll work out; maybe they won't even like it. But I figure: why not give it a go? Graphic novels are cool; the script could work well as one. Let's give it a try.

Publishing. Publishing is a little more difficult I think, especially without an agent on your side - but then, there's always been a DIY route to this, too - SELF PUBLISHING. The advent of the web means it's never been easier to get your content out there to people via the likes of blogs and websites, for starters - and said blogs and websites are known to lead to publishing deals. If you want to create paper copies of your work to sell, sites like MagCloud then are brilliant. Sarah Dobbs, one of the main organisers of Re/Action, created the magazine as a response to the androcentric, white, straight-orientated focus of mainstream film media. And it's brilliant! BUY IT (and not just 'cos I have an article in the next issue - join the Facebook page here). Similarly, novels and even textbooks can get self publishing deals too, that also lead on to mainstream publishing deals. When I was first an EFL teacher, I worked with a woman who had written a book about English phonemes and pronunciation for Oriental Language speakers and she did a limited print run of 1000 copies, which she sold on Ebay. It was a great book (I bought a copy) and she soon sold out, so ordered a further three runs. This was enough to persuade a European publishing company to publish the book on the continent and it's now made her squillions. All power to her, especially as ordering those initial print runs had meant she had got out a sizeable loan. She took a risk and was rewarded for it. For more on publishing and self publishing, follow the fabulous Bubblecow on Twitter.

So don't feel downhearted or disempowered; no one wants to keep you out. There's just LOADS of scripts and stuff doing the rounds and it's difficult to tell who is in for it the long haul. Instead of targeting all the *usual* routes or people then, sometimes it's wise to "move sideways" and think of alternative routes in. We hear a lot about "breaking in", as if this means having a door opened for you by luck or talent, when really this part - the "SELLING YOURSELF AND YOUR WORK" PART - is about sheer BLOODY-MINDEDNESS and persistence.

ON THIS BLOG BEFORE:

Query Letters

When Is A Rejection A Rejection If I haven't Heard Anything?

Blame It On The Reader?

I've Written A Script. Now What?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Tick-The-Box vs. Perfect Craft

So on Twitter this week came the following question - organically, rather than directly, via discussion - between myself and Dodgyjammer:

What is the difference between tick-the-box screenwriting and "perfect craft"?

Let's look at them both.

Tick-The-Box Screenwriting. I think this is down to one thing and one thing alone: believing a formula alone can CREATE a "successful" piece of writing and/ or filmmaking. And if we're talking about MONEY and a *certain* level of audience satisfaction/participation, those writers/filmmakers are indeed correct. There are many films on the market which follow formula very successfully. I had a boyfriend back in the mists of time OBSESSED with martial arts films. If you have ever watched a large portion of said films, you'll know they're very similar in plot, tone, characters, but WHATEVER! We just want to see our hero kick ass... Which we get, in spades. And I would go so far as to argue that there's nothing wrong in COMMISSIONED, produced movies that follow tick-the-box screenwriting. Writers are working to a specific brief for a producer or company, they're doing their job, paying their bills and doing an honest day's work - knowing full well there are people out there who want whatever it is they're writing, else they wouldn't have been asked to write it. And assuming there is nothing morally abhorrent in said films or the screenwriter feels like a literary ho (and I'm NOT saying they should), then where's the harm? I am, however, 100% AGAINST tick-the-box screenwriting when it comes to SPEC scripts. The spec is a much more "fluid" thing, led by the WRITER; not by a producer, not by a company, not by money. Whilst it's always advisable to think about audience, in my view formula has NO PLACE in the spec pile. But sometimes writers believe craft (and when I say "craft" I usually mean "expected conventions" and/or page counting (ie. my first turning point MUST come on page 22 or BUST!") comes above heart, or story, or characters, or anything else that may help the reader CONNECT with their material and have an emotional response to it.

Perfect Craft. In contrast then, I believe perfect craft does what's BEST for the story - and what's best for the story depends wholly on what the story actually *is*: one size does not fit all and formula is a poor substitute for real inspiration, either in the produced/commissioned movie or the spec in the pile. I am a great believer in what I call "intuitive script reading" - I often say to Bang2writers that certain events ***feel*** as if they come too late or too early for example. Sometimes a Bang2writer will then ask "what page" the event should come on instead, to which I always refuse to give a SPECIFIC one... Because it doesn't work like that. Instead, I recommend we look instead to ***how*** the story and plot hang together and what would invite audience participation and create audience satisfaction. Yes, it's vague and potentially annoying as we turn the script inside out and upside down, looking for what *feels* right.

But then, knowing what's best for the story does not come easy.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Screenwriters Are Not Casting Agents

The questions are coming thick and fast at the moment, so here's one from scribe Ashley Wills via Twitter:

Is it necessary within character descriptions to appropriate a character's race?

Saying a character is black (or any other colour) is no more enlightening in terms of that character's personality traits than saying a woman is blonde, a man is fat or a child has freckles. We all know a character is far more than what they look like, the clothes they wear or the colour of their hair - so, by the same logic, a character is far more than their skin colour.

I went to a seminar with the God TJ aka Tony Jordan DONKEY'S years ago above a Waterstone's in London (Peter Bowker was on in the afternoon, it was ace). During that seminar Jordan gave the following fabbo advice:

"Screenwriters are not casting agents."

Jordan revealed he had not only had serious misgivings about the casting of Philip Glenister as Gene Hunt in Life on Mars (can *you* imagine anyone else? REALLY?), he had been against the casting of Adrian Lester as Mickey Briggs in Hustle. Not because either were not good actors, nor great guys, he said - but because they simply were not what he had *seen* in his mind's eye when he'd dreamed up the characters or written them... In comparison to someone like Jessie Wallace, who he'd said was "perfect" as Kat Slater.

But, he said, he made an important realisation: he was not the right person to decide! Philip Glenister and Adrian Lester were PERFECT for their roles, every bit as much as Jessie Wallace was in hers. And of course the rest is history.

So, when it comes to race - or indeed ANY OTHER PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTIC - instead, it's necessary to consider not whether one "should", but whether the STORY NEEDS IT, simply because we are not casting agents. Besides anything, a reader will automatically go to "default" anyway: ie. they will read characters as their *own* colour in their mind's eye and any attempt to describe said characters physically will be seen as semantic noise, especially if the story doesn't DEMAND a specification on race.

But how do you know if your story demands it? Well consider these things:

1) Is your story *about* race? If your story actually places race at the heart of its conflict, then yes - you probably do need to specify individual characters' skin colour. Films like American History X, Dangerous Minds, etc specify characters as particular colours and there are good reasons story-wise for this.

2) Is it an adaptation? There are characters in certain books who *must* be transported from their source material in the colour they started - ie. Blade (the first black comic book hero), Red in The Shawshank Redemption or alternatively, Harry Potter. Audiences *expect* to see them that way and their expectation (particularly of bestsellers) can weigh very heavy. However, that's not to say this must or *should* always be this way; Will Smith has appeared in roles such as Charlton Heston's in the remake of I Am Legend or Spooner in I, Robot. Smith's son Jayden played the Karate Kid recently and it's said Smith is keen to have his daughter Willow cast as the new Annie, too. And why not?

3) Is it just for differentiation's sake? Sometimes it is good to have characters with different skills or life experiences so they can hinder or help the protagonist and different races and cultures can be a handy shortcut of achieving this. Action films in particular do this via martial arts skills or mentor figures of characters with Oriental backgrounds; similarly crime narratives can make use of Mafia types or organised gangs of Eastern European origin. However, even then, the characters' names or the **way** they speak can often give us FAR more clue of their origin and their character traits than simply writing "Chinese Ninja" or "Eastern European Henchman" in the scene description. The test of good writing I always think is that secondary characters - and even peripherals - have memorable lines and/or moments, even if only fleeting; they are not "throwaway".

But otherwise? Unless your story is *about* race or your character has a specific back story or function in the narrative that makes it necessary to specify race, stick to his/her personality, not what s/he looks like.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

How Do I Format A Quote At The Beginning Of A Script?

ANOTHER scriptwriting-related question - it's been quite the week for them - but this time, just a kwikkie on format from Wade Glenn, which I realised is not part of The One Stop Shop yet:

I've seen a lot of films end their opening credits sequences with famous quotations that are thematically relevant to the film. I want to do this but I'm wondering:

How do you format this in a script?

and

If I decide to use it, do I have to mention a credits sequence, or do I just put it somewhere after "FADE IN"?


There's no real "rule" for quotations, though I would not recommend putting them on the title page. Can't say I'm particularly keen on them; a lot of quotes are often rather obscure and/or don't seem to really inform the story, making me wonder why the writer bothers. If the "theme" is not obvious from the telling of the story, will it be obvious from a quote or vice versa? Also seems to me to be more of a director's thing, really. Of the quotes I see, song lyrics win by a country mile, then probably Bible quotes. Both make me groan a bit 'cos they *feel* a bit over-used. Like most things screenwriting-related however, every now and again I see a quote that fit PERFECTLY though and then it really works.

But if you really want to include a quote, there's no reason why you can't. On this basis then I'd recommend putting it on p2, on an otherwise blank page; that's where I see them the most. If using Final Draft, go to Title Page > then scroll down to p2 of the title page, rather than go onto p1 of your *actual* screenplay, if that makes sense.

WHILE I'M HERE: Don't forget, The Format One Stop Shop covers teasers, title pages, copyright symbols, Intercut, VO, flashbacks, scene description and more... Check out this extensive list of the issues I see most frequently on the page and make an informed decision on what (if anything) you want to do about there.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Higher Education: Worth The Money?

So before Christmas I wrote to my MP Connor Burns about the changes to HE funding and what it could mean for my kids going to university in the future, creatives like my Bang2writers on low wages and people from poorer backgrounds, especially those with dependants like I was when I went to university. As mentioned on Twitter yesterday then, he has responded to my email:

Read it here.

For the record, I have no personal beef with Connor Burns and have had my views and questions entertained by him not only here, but "off blog" on a personal concern regarding schooling in Bournemouth; in addition his colleague Tobias Ellwood also answered my queries regarding British Children's television a couple of years' back. So whilst I am no fan of the Coalition, please refrain from Tory-bashing for its own sake in the comments as I would instead like to hear your thoughts on funding, education and how it should be funded in your opinions.

MY THOUGHTS

The scholarship fund looks hopeful. When I was a single mum, private charities and a mature student bursary got me through university. Though I qualified for a dependant's allowance I did not have to pay back as well as the standard student loan, none of this money even vaguely went far enough, especially when what the dependant's allowance SUM was changed each year, as did what I was *allowed* to spend it on! I was by no means unique; I knew many parents who had their hands horribly tied by the system under the previous government and found themselves short by many, many hundreds of pounds, sometimes thousands, often through no fault of their own as various thresholds and guidelines seemed to change constantly. Whilst university was a MISERABLE time for me financially and incredibly stressful, I do count myself as lucky; some never made it out the other side and ended up back on benefits forever. This seems ironic, especially when those at the DSS were often obscure, unhelpful and sometimes rude when I or my peers asked for help in getting through uni, which many of us of were turned down for; if they'd just HELPED us, they'd never see us again!! So *if* the Coalition is going to take the needs of poorer students - particularly those with dependants - really seriously, then this fund could be a good start. But like many things when it comes to the Coalition, we're not told exactly how this fund is going to work and I would like to hear much more on this, especially whether the other fund Burns mentions in the letter is the same one, as I wasn't really sure.

Allowing part time students access to student loans is a good idea. I went to university full time with a dependant not only because I thought it would be the quickest way to getting ahead, but because it was best option in terms of getting access to money to do it; I literally had none otherwise. However this was a very stressful option in terms of childcare, getting work done and the spectre of fees and living costs loomed over my head like a terrible black cloud constantly for three years. Had I been able to go more at my own pace then, I might not have felt so bad and may have done better in my course and my son would have been living in a less stressier environment. Similarly, this *may* allow others to access HE and work at the same time, which could change things considerably in terms of the financial deadweight of fees - psychologically, if nothing else.

*If* it starts as it means to go on, it could aid consistency. If you went to university in 2000 like me and paid any attention to what came next in the fees farago under Labour, you'll know you had one threshold to pay under and those who came next - depending on the year - apparently had others. For me, I only have to earn approximately £10K to start paying money back, whereas a colleague of mine who went just a few year's later and apparently has a threshold of approximately £15K, as Burns mentions in his letter. The concern for me now then - looking at Connor Burns' letter and the various different thresholds he quotes - is whether this will start as it means to go on or whether this will jump about as Labour apparently re-worked and tweaked theirs.

--------------------------------------
Questions I still have:

- Why is it apparently free for those in Scotland and Wales - and not England?

- How is the scholarship fund going to work?

- How are parental contributions going to be worked out?

- How are those from poorer backgrounds with dependants going to be supported?

- Will the thresholds stay the same for repayment?

- I've found it difficult to find and compile unbiased, useful information on what the fees mean in real terms and how the cuts impact on our universities and the kind of education they can provide, yet I am a trained teacher and creative and VERY interested in this subject. How is the Coalition going to ENSURE that teenagers and their parents have the right information to make an informed choice?

- Equally, if the Coalition is as committed to ensuring poorer students have the same chances as those better off, how are they going to ensure students from poorer backgrounds know what is available to them, ie. the scholarship fund?

- It's said you have to speculate to accumulate, so when we're going into a notoriously low-paid industry such as the media (where so many do not have a minimum wage equivalent and have to diversify on assorted "day jobs"), is it "worth" going to university to study a creative or humanities subject, regardless of whether we end up earning £21K and have to pay back these fees?

- Let's talk VALUE FOR MONEY: put simply, is the average humanities and/or creative course **worth** between £6-9K in fees in terms of resources available and contact time in terms of tutor meetings, seminars and lectures? Are students on other courses - ie. medical, science - getting better value on these things? Can courses actually offer MORE for our money, or is it that the new students will simply have to make do with the same for more money? Is that good business sense?

- Similarly, is it time to ask the tough questions? Are there too many universities, running the same *types* of courses? Is it that market is flooded? Or have universities had their hands tied by government red tape and bureacracy? Is it time for HE institutions to be "accountable" like other businesses or should HE even *be* a business?
----------------------------------------

MY VERDICT: That's still A LOT of questions and I'm still particularly concerned for poorer students, especially those with dependants. I feel frustrated I can't seem to get access to the information needed to be able to make an informed decision about my son's education - and he's not going for years yet! - so heaven knows how the average student going in the next year or two feels. I'm also still massively troubled by the jump in fees, especially when it comes to value for money - which surely Tories in particular must understand. I'm not altogether convinced the educational advantage is necessarily "worth" the financial risk when it comes to certain courses or universities and NOT because I feel some courses are "pointless" either. Whilst it's very easy to write off many courses as (apparently) "useless" like media subjects (and I've certainly seen a lot posted online citing this as the case on forums, message boards and Facebook), this is bullshit when we consider media products are not created by MAGIC, people actually have to learn to produce them. What's more, there are many, many courses - especially in the humanities like English, History and Law - which have also massively suffered under the cuts, which surely any sensible person could never say are automatically "useless". Where are are we going to get the thinkers, historians, writers, actors, teachers and similar of the future? Are they all going to be home-educated??

LINKS

Letter to LV Hay from MP for Bournemouth Connor Burns Re: Higher Education Funding, dated 14th January 2011

Dear Ms Hay,

Thank you for contacting me about Higher Education funding. I am sorry you have not received an earlier reply.

With both Bournemouth & Poole College and Bournemouth University sitting within my constituency, I am only too aware of the importance of supporting higher education and ensuring those from poorer backgrounds are given equal opportunity to go to university.

Universities play a huge role in both our local and national economies, and it is in all of our interest to ensure places of Higher Education and their students flourish. In order to achieve this, we need to make sure sufficient funding is made available.

The last Labour Government recognised that the funding structure needed to be reassessed, and so it established a Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance chaired by Lord Browne. The published report was recently endorsed by the goverment and the government has now released its proposals for Higher Education funding in light of the forthcoming legislation on this issue.

The Browne Review propses an unlimited cap on fees. The Government has decided to cap fees at a lower threshold of £6,000 and an upper threshold of £9,000. Universities will be free to set their own fees and those wishing to charge more than the lower threshold will need to increase their efforts to attract students from lower-income families. Such moves will regulated by the Office for Fair Access. A £150 million National Scholarship Programme has been announced to which upper threshold universities will be expected to contribute funds.

Moreover, student support will be extended by increasing maintenance grants available. For students who cannot commit to full-time study, part-time students will have equal access to student loans. I welcome such moves as I believe that Higher Education opportunities should be made available to all those that seek it.

The proposal to increase the repayment threshold from £15,000 to £21,000 protects graduates on lower incomes. In addition, graduates earning below £21,000 will not have a real rate of interest applied to their loan. For graduates earning between £21,000 and around £41,000, a real rate of interest will start to be charged, reaching a maximum of RPI plus 3 per cent. Above £41,000, graduates will repay at the full rate of RPI plus 3 per cent. Introducing real interest rates, alongside raising the repayment threshold, will ensure graduates on lower incomes will pay less than they would do under current arrangements.

The Government's commitment that there should be no upfront tuition fees for students is fair and I do not believe that families from lower economic backgrounds should be deterred from entering into the Higher Education sector. I also welcome the government's positive steps to attract students from lower-income backgrounds with the proposals it has put forward.

I am in favour of proposals that support lower-income students, widen participation, and increase opportunities for all who chose to pursue Higher Education opportunities. The proposals introduced by the Government empower Higher Education Insitituions to act responsibly and with the interests of the students at the forefront of their actions.

It is also worth noting that under proposals announced by Universities Minister David Willetts, thousands of university students from poorer backgrounds could have their tuition fees paid for up to two years. Up to 18,000 students could get support for their fees from a new fund. I hope that the proposal will calm student concerns about proposals to raise fees to £9,000. Under the plans, universities which charge more than £6,000 a year could be forced to pay poorer students' fees for a second year.

I can assure you that I would not support plans that I thought would be prohibitive to those from poorer backgrounds, but I am also very aware that it is simply not viable for those who benefit from Higher Education not to contribute to its cost.

The proposal made by the NUS and supported by Ed Milliband, the leader of the the Labour Party, is a graduate tax. This would see students lumbered with an eternal debt, never to be paid off. I fail to see how this is at all fair.

I do, of course, recognise that it is hard for people to accept such radical change. However, I can assure you I would not have supported these measures if I was not totally convinced that they are in the interests of Higher Education and the country as a whole.

Yours sincerely,

Connor Burns

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Dual Protagonists - Yay or Nay?

I must be having one of *those* weeks where I've slipped into a parallel dimension and become John August (I wish), 'cos hot on the heels of yesterday's post for Andrew Tibbs, the sublime Hina, aka DodgyJammer writes in to ask me this:

Okay, is two protags really a bad thing? If done well, you wind up with a richer story. There are a few movies with multiple protags, and Mr and Mrs Smith had two. The only argument I see against the two protag approach is 'poor characterisation'. But come on, am I wrong to say IF it's crafted well and the characters are written well, it makes for a richer story and increases likelihood of audience connecting to the film in some way?

First up, let's address the whole "dual protagonist" thing and whether it *can* done - and of course the answer is a resounding "yes". IF done well, Hina's absolutely right; it totally CAN add to a richer story. End of. But...

... Let's look at Hina's example - Mr. And Mrs. Smith. Is Mr & Mrs Smith a dual protagonist story - really? 'Cos looks to me like Mrs Smith is the one who has to *really* learn something - ie. to trust Mr Smith and people in general. But of course this is Hollywood and we can't have even Ms Jolie learn stuff on her own (she *is* just a woman you know), so they chuck in Brad Pitt as well ('cos fellas sell pictures *so much better*, you know). But Mr Smith is willing to go for it and abandon the plan much, much quicker than her - she wants to stick to the plan (ie. kill him) MUCH longer and won't admit she loves him.

I believe we actually see dual protagonists A LOT less than we think. I'd argue often what *appears* to be dual protags on the surface, is instead a protagonist and a very good, very necessary secondary bringing up the rear, which often works best in partnerships, especially those with a comedic element. One such partnership that immediately springs to my mind on this same basis as Mr. And Mrs. Smith is the brothers Val and Earl in the horror/comedy Tremors. I would also argue the "buddy picture", a staple of comedy is similar on this front - whilst Buzz Lightyear must face the fact he's not a space ranger in Toy Story, it's Woody who drives all the action - from shoving Buzz out the window, to rescuing him, to getting the mutant toys' revenge on Sid AND ensuring they get back to Andy... All in ADDITION to Woody making his own realisation over his jealousy and how he must share Andy.

Far better and more obvious an example of traditional dual protagonists then is the oft-maligned Independence Day - Will Smith (the "brawns") and Jeff Goldblum (the "brains"), but not seen together in the same room until after the midpoint. They share the same goal ("get to their loved ones") before they meet; after their loved ones are deemed safe, they switch their shared goal to "save the world" - and of course, they do. More on this in my Script Tips Series: Advanced Characterisation.

Dual protags could work in ANY story, no one's denying that. But potentially "poor characterisation" on a craft level is unfortunately not the *only* argument AGAINST using dual protagonists in your spec screenplay. This device is a calculated risk for the spec writer - readers (especially inexperienced ones) may call you out for it as a "mistake" and it could hold your script back, even IF the script is written well. It's no accident the established writer has far more "irons in the fire" in terms of exploring various devices, be those devices dual protagonists, ensemble casts or even stuff like voiceover, flashback and dream sequence. Sad but true. However, just as I'm always saying to Bang2writers, just because something *could* very well happen, doesn't mean you should NOT do it either.

With all this is mind then, it's time to make an informed decision about Dual Protagonists (or indeed any other scriptwriting device deemed "risky"):

- is it *truly* best for the story you're trying to tell?
- If it is, are you willing to take the risk *for* that story?
- or are there other, just as effective, less risky ways of telling that story?

It's your script; only you can know. So decide!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Don't Let Your Secondary Characters Take Over

I've written on this blog before about back story and how it shouldn't take over from "present events": too often a spec script puts too much thought into back story, so the story we're *supposed* to be watching lacks "forward thrust" (oooer).

Bang2writers often believe they must put MORE back story in, at the expense of "present day" plotting, especially when it comes to secondary characters in feature-length scripts - and let's face it, we've all done it and probably will again. But it's important we realise this means we will be set off at wild tangents as we struggle to justify our secondary characters' own motivations and/or fall back on cliche in order to do it. This can't be a good thing in terms of "good" characterisation or indeed plotting.

The lovely Andrew Tibbs has contacted me via my Twitter, asking the following question:

"The main character has a perfect life until his father dies and he ends up with his estranged mother. At first I wanted to portray her as someone who has had a hard past herself (ie. drugs or abuse) but then, all women end up portrayed like that... But because of the overall story, I don’t really want her to become a bigger part in terms of the main storyline."

Character motivation is a toughie because give secondaries too much and they have a tendency to take over. Bad script readers never seem to realise this and always say, "give the secondary more back story" -- um, no. The story is generally about the protagonist; if secondaries were *more* important, this would either take away from their journey or you'd have to restructure and make it an ensemble cast (and even then, that wouldn't necessarily work; end of the day, there is a limit to how many "in-depth" characters an audience can "take" in 90-120 minutes).

If we look at all the great secondary characters, they actually have quite "light" back stories - usually one or two *things* about them. For instance, Nick's wife in Lantana (a drama and an ensemble funnily enough, if you haven't seen it - do) was a great secondary character because of her neverending belief in his innocence, based on her trust and love for him. We know this because when the police ask her why she thinks Nick is innocent, her reply is totally to the point: "Because Nick told me." Because of the way she was played before this moment, we know her belief is true and honest and not that she is a doormat/idiot either. We know very little about her otherwise, but she pulls her weight brilliantly and does not threaten to overtake the story in any way.

My advice for Andrew's story would be this, then: have one or two elements about the mother that tell us what we need to know. Just because someone is a mother, doesn't mean she ever wanted to be or hasn't become resentful of children over the years. *Some* women, like *some* men, are absentee parents through their own choice, because they simply cannot be bothered raising their kids. This seems quite shocking, because we *traditionally* associate women with nurturing roles. (Note that when I say "absentee", this could mean either literally or figuratively; a parent can be "absent" living in the same house as their child).

Yet I'm always surprised by how little I see the absentee mother in scripts. Instead too often female characters who are BAD mothers are drug addicts and/or have been abused themselves, somehow automatically "accounting" for their bad behaviour towards their children. But what if they simply don't like or are disinterested in, children or their welfare? I've had friends and acquaintances who've had this unfortunate experience, yet say they hardly ever see this experience reflected in movies and TV shows.

Any more thoughts for Andrew? Over to you...

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Music As Inspiration, Pt 1

OK, you may want to sit down for this one (that includes my most hardcore, long term Bang2writers):

I love country music.

I know, I know; it's hard to believe an English Rose (ahem) like me, whose otherwise most mainstream music choice is Prince and Soundgarden, could love country music. I've never been to America. I have no particular inclination to go right now, either (though if I do, I'm wearing a cowgirl hat and boots for the whole trip, with a hand canon in the glove box and a shotgun on the back seat of my 1987 Black Buick. Oooooooooh yeeeeaaaaah. And I'll probably rob a couple of gas stations on the way, Thelma & Louise style - hey America, I GAVE YOU FAIR WARNING!).

In all seriousness though, what do I like about country music? Well, I guess it appeals to the writer in me, 'cos so often it's the storytelling in the lyrics that comes out on top (and probably why I don't tend to like the often repetitive lyrics of dance music).

I've written on here before about using music as inspiration for our work, so here are three fave country songs of mine with three stories I feel *could* inspire/inform my work one day:

COPPERHEAD ROAD - Steve Earle

WHAT'S IT ABOUT? The story of John Lee, a smalltown boy whose father and grandfather made "moonshine" - and whose legacy he continued and expanded with drugs, upon after returning from the Vietnam War.

KEY LYRICS: I volunteered for the Army on my birthday; they draft the white trash first (round here anyway).. I did two tours of duty in Vietnam; I came home with a brand new plan.

Read all the lyrics

Hear the track

TANIN BED SONG - Shawn Mullins

WHAT'S IT ABOUT? The story of Maria, a girl from Miami who ends up married to a waster in Texas, living in a "double-wide" (two mobile homes, welded together apparently). This is the story of her leaving him and her old life, taking the kids and starting a new one.

KEY LYRICS: There's a twister coming... And you haven't got a clue! I'm not gonna sit around in this double-wide and wait around for you... 'Cos I'm taking the microwave oven; and I'm taking the colour TV... I'm packing up the Chevy with the kids... and what's left of me.

Read all the lyrics

Hear the track

THE WRECK OF THE EDMUND FITZGERALD - Gordon Lightfoot

WHAT'S IT ABOUT? The true story of a ship - The Edmund Fitzgerald - and how it sank, killing its crew, on November 10th, 1975.

KEY LYRICS: Does anyone know where the grace of God goes, when the waves turn the minutes to hours? The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay, if they'd put fifteen more miles behind her. They might've split up; or they might've capsized; may have broke deep and took water. And all that remains is the faces and names of the wives, the sons and the daughters.

Read all the lyrics

Hear the track

What are you fave songs with whole stories attached? Over to you...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Writing & Kids, Pt 2: Working From Home

The title of this post is a little misleading, as I feel it can be applied to anyone who works from home whilst looking after children - not just writers. And there are a lot of us: I am of course not just a writer, but a script reader and self employed teacher (ie. "outside" the state school system) as well. I know parents who make jewellery and other crafts whilst looking after children (my own parents did this for a time as I was growing up, in fact); accountants; copy editors; web designers - the list of jobs you can do in this way is endless.

The internet has called us Mumpreneurs, though of course it's not just women working in this way, but men too. Creating your own work and becoming a sole trader or starting up your own limited company is hard work and sometimes means unsocial hours, but it also has many benefits. For me, my working hours means I am nearly always available to pick up my daughter from school or have the kids at home with me if they're (really) ill; in addition, I've never missed a nativity, school play or sports day.

Self employment is not the easy option by a long shot; for one thing, you're never going to get rich, especially when work often comes in a "famine or feast" kind of way as it does with Bang2write. As a sole trader like me, you're often working alone and this can be very isolating, especially from other parents at school. It's hard to know how to answer that inevitable question at the school gates, "Do you work?" Say "yes" and some stay-at-home Mums think you're trying to lord it over them in a "aha, I have the best of BOTH worlds" kind of way; say "no" and some think you could be lazy and/or have nothing to talk about, isolating you even further.

Though the above is hardly the end of the world, this is not something other working parents have to go through, as their children inevitably end up going to after school clubs and childminders. The worse things, then: job security - where is the next bit of work coming from? No sick pay, or poor information from people should know better - when I was pregnant with my daughter, I was advised by TWO places - my midwife and the local job centre - there was no such thing as Maternity Allowance for self employed women (but there was). This meant I was reading scripts again within two weeks of giving birth! Better still, the first script I read dealt with the rape and murder of a child. I was absolutely inconsolable.

Whilst I have friends working in offices etc who confess feeling guilty or gutted about missing the like of their baby's first words or their childminder ended up taking the child on their first day of school, that need never happen to those parents working from home. But guilt is still very much part of your working life, too - only in a different way to other working parents. Take your pick: you don't earn enough money to take the kids on a foreign holiday like their mates, you end up camping in the rain in Devon, instead. You can't afford a swanky private school like the Smythes down the road and the local comprehensive is shit, but you can't home school your kids either 'cos you need to earn money whilst working from home. There are times the proverbial hits the fan on a project and you're working quite literally day and night, including weekends, not seeing your kids, sometimes for little or even NO money (particularly on collaborations or if there has been a mistake). You see your colleagues and siblings train for their jobs and start on the career ladder and get higher and higher, whilst you stay more or less the same in your own working world - and then you worry you're setting a poor example, especially if your kids **think** all you do is spend all day on Facebook.

All those horror stories and bad points aside however, working from home will always be my choice of employment. I've worked *for* others - "in the system" as it were - and believe the benefits of self employment outweigh the bad ones in the long term. If you're thinking of taking the plunge as a "Mum/Dadpreneur" or as a professional writer then, here are my thoughts on combining working from home with looking after kids:

It's all about routine again. There will be many times you're fielding calls and emails or doing something work-related, whilst trying to keep a small child amused or seeing to an older kid's needs. If you try and do all at once, not only will your brain explode, your kid will lose out. Routine here is key, just as outlined in the previous post about writing specs while looking after kids. You and your kids need to negotiate a deal that works for all of you. In my house now, I start on the admin of the day at about 8am usually, while the kids watch their morning cartoons, so most of my emails and urgent calls etc is done by approximately 10am (which also takes in the school run). When my daughter was not at school and my lad was still at primary, I had a different routine because my daughter liked to jump off sofas etc and start fights with her brother. Work out what needs to be done FIRST, via what your kids need and you can't go far wrong. Then factor in the other stuff - a diary is essential if you don't have a good memory or have many varied tasks that need doing - and structure your day and week accordingly. Breaking up your To Do list into small chunks seems a good strategy, especially when a small child is in the house, "little and often", it all adds up.

Don't Beat Yourself Up. There will be unsocial hours and there will be evenings and weekends taken up by work from time to time; it's just the way of it. When my daughter was first born, I was doing my script reports every night from about 7pm for nearly a year, as I had zero childcare. But though you might miss bathtime or bedtime from time to time, this doesn't make you a bad parent - and kids are very adaptable. Just recently I had to bow out of a family trip to the cinema because a ton of scripts fell on me from a great height from a prodco and I had to get started right away or drown. Both kids barely noticed my absence, especially when my husband bought them popcorn too. It's a shame but a fact of life - and kids do understand.

It's All About Agreements # 1: Timing. I have one long term Bang2writer who is nocturnal and used to call me past 10pm to discuss projects and script edits. At first I put up with this, thinking I *had* to, to keep his business. This changed when I was approximately 36 weeks pregnant and at the end of my tether for other reasons; I simply told him he had to either email me from now on or call me before 8pm because I actually go to bed at 10pm, as I have to be up at 6am for the kids. Not only did he apologise profusely, he then chastised me for not saying so earlier! My current rule is thus, then: the computer generally goes off about 7pm and it stays off; I don't talk to Bang2writers after that time, either - tweets, FB msgs and emails are always welcome, but will be responded to in the morning. HOWEVER, if I am signed into Twitter or Facebook after those times (for instance, during #scriptchat at 8pm on a Sunday), I am fair game... but PLEASE still don't call me on my mobile.

It's All About Agreements # 2: Housework My husband and I have an agreement regarding the housework; if I am working, I have no obligation to clean the house or do the chores, as I am already stretched two ways looking after a child and working at the same time. We can do the housework together in the evening. If I am NOT working however - and there are always "dry" periods to self employment, March always is for script reading I find, perhaps because of the end of the financial year? - then I will do it. Agreements like this are always worth re-negotiating as your needs change, too. For example, I am writing a novel at the moment on spec, which obviously requires a lot of time; I'm making no money from it at this specific time, but it needs doing as it is a specific opportunity that has come through my agent. In the past, I've done the same regarding trial scripts for TV shows, though I did not get those gigs, unfortunately. (I'm happy to say my husband understands and supports the nature of spec work and applies the same rule of thumb to the housework then as paid-for work like script reading or corporate or other paid-for writing work, though I'm aware some partners are not always as giving when money is not directly involved).

It's All About Agreements # 3: What Children Can Do. Your kids must also accept some responsibility in helping you achieve what you need to get done. I'm not saying older children should look after the younger children for extended periods, become your dogsbody or do other non-"child friendly" things; I'm very keen kids stay kids, 'cos childhood lasts such a short time. However there are small things they can do to ensure the working day goes smoothly for everyone and no one ends up biting anyone's heads off. For instance, in my house, my 12 yr old son makes his sister's toast when he makes his own, most days so I can get on with those emails. When they've finished said breakfast, they both need to take their dishes and glasses to the sink. Both children have to make their beds and ensure their rooms are tidy (or as tidy as a four year old can do). If they've made a mess of the living room - my daughter likes to cut things out of magazines, for instance - then they need to clear it up again as best they can. It's all about making the kids realise it's about showing willing and that parents are people too.

It's All About Agreements, # 4: Clients . No list of agreements would be complete without thinking about your client, what they need and how you're going to achieve it. For a short time I broke my back on ridiculously short turnarounds for scripts, thinking it was the *only* way to get and keep Bang2writers. In time, I came to realise people came to me not *just* for my short turnarounds, but for my expertise - which I had and should hold in higher esteem. As a result, I started structuring my script reports much more realistically. I was honest with Bang2writers about my schedule and started telling people that if it wasn't quick enough for them, I could always recommend another reader. If anything, people seemed to respect this more than the previous script reading martyr I had been, taking on way too much at once.

Another note on being honest. All the people I work with regularly know the constraints on my time. As a result, I'm rarely asked to go **beyond** what I can humanly do. This works well and it's only been ONCE I have been dropped from a project for "not being quick enough". Once upon a time I would have been hurt deeply by this, but now I think, "Good." Because if that producer's interest dissipated *that* quickly - it was literally a matter of four days! - then she can't have been a very safe bet to work with, anyway.

There Will Be Emergency Jobs That Require Bribery or Help. Sometimes something will land on your head from a great height and the ONLY way to deal with the situation is RIGHT NOW. This could mean your routine goes out the window and there is the occasional day of the kid watching Cbeebies and DVDs, whilst eating crisps. As long as it's not every day, the kid will be okay, HONEST; you're not scarring them for life or holding back their development. If your situation lasts more than a day, it's wise to draft in help wherever you can. This doesn't just mean begging neighbours to take your kid for a "change of scenery" to the park either; think outside the box. When I had an issue fitting a particular project in last year that really needed doing, I called the university and asked for students who wanted to be interns and help me with it. It worked brilliantly and now I work with my "intern" Sal all the time, she's a great help to me - and she benefits from my experience. It's win-win. There must be other opportunities for working parents - in whatever jobs - to do this and have students help them lighten the load.

It's Not The End Of The World If Some Days Your Kids Eat Too Many Biscuits. It wasn't long before both of my children very cannily worked out that when Mum's on the computer, NOW is a good time to ask her stuff as there's a strong chance she will say "yes" absent-mindedly. Both of mine have a very sweet tooth, so these requests usually revolve around the biscuit barrel and "You said I could!" when I object later. Obviously you don't want this to happen all the time 'cos it's not good for them, but the occasional day here and there if they get away with it is not going to kill them and you're NOT a bad parent because of it, either.

Miscellaneous. Before she started school, my daughter would dress herself while I juggled work and home; it fostered independence in her. Of course, it meant most days she would wear simply a vest, a pair of woolly tights and swimming goggles, but until we actually had to go anywhere, did it matter? No it did not.

Do you work from home and look after children at the same time? Please leave your comments in the section below for others. Thanks!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Massive Actions Day With Jurgen Wolff - Free Online Event This Saturday (Jan 15, '11)

Just got this from the endlessly enthusiastic and fabulous Janice Day - sign up now!
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It's MAD (Massive Actions Day) this Saturday 15th January 2011, a day when people will support each other in taking action.

And it's free.

We all need to take action and - as everyone knows - it's easier with support.

The great thing about this is that you get to choose what action you will take. It's in aid of you.

Going through my contacts list to set up a mailing group who might be interested in hearing about Jurgen Wolf's MAD (Massive Action Day) this Saturday 15th January, I cannot actually think of anyone who wouldn't be interested, because even though most of the participants will be writers, you might know a writer, or...

...You might decide to join up anyway and get the support you need to clear your clutter. Finally!

You don't have to go anywhere. It's all online. Or on Skype.

Everyone will be taking action at the same time and supporting each other to keep going.

Check out this link and sign up for the free support NOW.

What a brilliant way to kick-start this New Year.

Love to all.

Janice Day

On behalf of Jurgen Wolff - check him out.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Writing & Kids, Pt 1: Getting The Spec Done

This post is for StrawLaneScott, who asked on Twitter for advice on writing when you have kids in the house to look after at the same time.

I was a parent long before I was a writer or script editor; having a child in your teens before you have even gone to university, never mind started your career, means you have to be able to time manage.

Yet there appears to be this feeling one has a baby, then you wait for it to get old enough to go to nursery or school, THEN you get started on whatever it is *you* want to do. And of course this works for some people - and if you WANT to wait until your child is old enough to go to school before starting your writing career (or whatever it is you want to do), then that's absolutely what you should do; there are no value judgements here on what is "best". Combining parenthood and careers is most definitely one of those things completely up to the individuals involved.

However, if like me you would feel frustrated at *having* to wait the three or four years before your child starts school, there isn't a reason in the world you can't get started RIGHT NOW. I have created a a script reading business, a whole portfolio of scripts, got an agent, got meetings and worked on various projects like The London Screenwriters Festival and Deviation, all while looking after children at the same time. And no, I haven't had oodles of childcare either - 2010 was probably one of my busiest years to date, yet my daughter only went to nursery three MORNINGS a week and I had NO RELATIVES helping me out either, as I live far away from them.

I'm not superwoman, nor am I unique: I know loads of other writers and media professionals juggling their work and their children in exactly the same way. It's all down to two things - good time management and strategies.

First, I'm going to look at how it's possible to write a spec - or many specs if you want! - whilst looking after kids. Many Bang2writers have told me over the years they feel guilty writing specs while their children watch Cbeebies. Others say it's difficult staying up late to write when they've been hassled by the children all day, their brains are in the "wrong place"; others say they want to get up early in the mornings to write before the children get up, but find there's always *something* that gets in the way: an ill spouse, a leaking washing machine, a pile of dog sick or that ironing pile that just gets BIGGER AND BIGGER.

But I say you don't **have** to make your children watch acres of television, ignore household chores, stay up late or get up early to write. I don't do any of these things when writing specs - yet have still managed to write plenty of them. Lots of people express disbelief at this and think I must be lying; that secretly I've had the Wee Girl watch 100 hours of television a week and I'm beavering away at 3am every morning whilst ironing at the same time. But I'm really not. So how can it be done?

By breaking your shackles to the keyboard. I've witnessed, countless times, people spending all their available writing time sitting at their PC screen. This is the worst thing you can do when it comes to good time management: for one thing, there's a strong chance you will end up on social networks instead and while away your time very easily. Secondly, even if your docs are open, you may just end up cutting and moving chunks of your script around - or even worse, simply rewrite the sections you've already done (and thus put your finishing date further and further away in the future). Instead, the time savvy writer who has not much time to actually write will SHUT DOWN THEIR COMPUTER. That's right. They will NOT sit at the PC when coming up with new ideas or solutions for the problem they are currently having with the script. Instead they will take the dog for a walk if it needs walking; do the ironing; take their kid to their park - maybe all three. In other words, they will do REAL LIFE STUFF and let those fictional things come to a natural conclusion in their own head (they should always carry a notebook for a Eureka! moments, of course). Remember: this is SPEC - there is no deadline, other than your own rising feeling of panic at the thought of *not* getting the project done. So stop panicking. Do the real life stuff that needs doing, get away from the keyboard. You'd be surprised at how quickly it all comes together - as I always say, "A writer's best writing is done by thinking."

By experiencing real life with your kid. Congratulations, there is a child in your house. You hopefully wanted one in the first place but even if you didn't, children are an absolute GIFT to the writer: their view of life is completely different to an adult's and if you pay close attention, you can share in that view. This can feed into your writing, big time. By knowing life is different for everyone, you won't be writing your own story all the time; you will also hear how children talk and represent them better on the page, which will hopefully have the knock-on effect of differentiating other adult characters too. But beyond all that, by getting OUT THERE in the world with your child, you will see other things that can also help writing in the long term. Lots of people often say to me & my children have a weird way of seeing or finding "weird things" like the snake in the hedge, but in reality, lots of other people probably walked right past that hedge and never saw the snake. Why? Because they were probably so focused on their own lives, their own problems, their own work or where they needed to get to, etc. If you have a child with you, you can usually go at more leisurely pace (provided it's not the school run, of course) and there are more opportunities to see the more random, screwy side of life. Just recently the Wee Girl and I saw a chap in a suit on a skateboard, with a small dog tucked under one arm. True story. Like kids, you have to learn to really LOOK.

By having a writing strategy. Here's mine: write a one page pitch doc and iron out roughly where the story is going; write a longer synopsis or beat sheet. For the actual screenplay, write as many pages as you can every day - but never more than ten; NEVER look back at the previous pages, JUST KEEP GOING. Rinse, repeat until finished. Then, read it all through. It will of course be mostly pants, but there will be some good stuff in there. Do a rewrite on the same basis - as many pages as possible, but never more than ten, etc. Get notes for the third or fourth version, then do the same again... and so on. "BUT BUT...!" You say, "This is where the kid has to watch loads of Cbeebies, right? This is where the ironing doesn't get done or the dog doesn't get walked?!!!" No, actually and all because of this:

ROUTINE.

Small children like routines - and if you stick to them military-style and are consistent, those small children will let you write. It's 100% honest to God true. I know there are children who have learning disabilities who may not be so accommodating (with very good reason), but the average child will be willing to cut you a deal, even if they're not old enough to know what the word "negotiation" means.

An example: when the Male Spawn was at primary school, I would walk him the twenty minutes there, with the Wee Girl in the pushchair; that's a forty minute round trip, which took in town on the way back. On that basis then, I would run any errands for the day first - like going to the post office, picking up milk, buying anything else, etc. So by the time I reached home it was usually approximately half 9 and it was time for Balamory. Wee Girl would then clamber out of her pushchair and watch approximately one hour of Cbeebies. During this time I'd ignore all email and go straight to my script pages and do as much as I could. Wee Girl would burst into the kitchen at approximately half ten and then I'd take her to the park for an hour. We'd be back for approximately midday and Wee Girl would sleep for 1.5 hours. I'd do more pages. She'd wake up in time for lunch and after I'd unloaded the washing machine, etc then we'd play or do some painting or baking, before it would be time to pick up the Male Spawn from school again. After school is when ironing and other chores would get done, usually while both children played with next door's children while their mother was doing the same as me.

It was not easy to implement this routine; Wee Girl is wilful and like most children, wants her own way. However with much tweaking and negotiating, this system worked for us for a very long time - and all days where she wasn't at nursery became like this, more or less. I also introduced more things to do, as I became bored of going to the park - I started taking her to musical class Jo Jingles for instance, to Storytime at the local library or to "Stay and Play" at the local children's centre. The end goal was always the same: tire her out, GET HOME AND WRITE LIKE THE WIND.

NEXT: Working for actual money and/or a specific deadline or end result when there are children in the house to look after, a whole different ball game...