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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How To Write Great Characters

It's oft-said that it's *all* about characters, so one thing Bang2writers ask me about over and over again is "how" to write a "great character".

Sorry, but there is no actual *way*. Lots of people advocate various techniques... But most are a variation on that fabled notion of "getting inside a character's head". Character questionnaires, talking to/visiting the very people you want to write about and what Dom Carver calls "method writing" are a good start in terms of representing one's characters... but that's all they are: a START. I don't think "getting in the character's head" is even HALF of the game, but more of that in a sec.

In the meantime, here are some recommendations I make to Bang2writers struggling with their characters:

No such thing. One of the reasons there is no specific "way" to write a great character, is because there is no such thing as a universally "great" one. Though some are more popular than others, ask a room of people who their favourite is and there is a strong chance every one of them will be different. That's obvious stuff. Yet what is not so obvious is how to create *a* character that "resonates" with someone, anyone - because writers are so busy chasing after that mythical notion of THE GREAT CHARACTER EVERYONE LOVES. Let this restrictive element go and suddenly you have the freedom to explore things you may not have conceived before.

If someone does not like your character, that is not a failure. Of course we want everyone to love our characters. They're our BABIES. But if someone HATES your character? STILL A SCORE. Any emotion is better than none. That's why, to me, even T2's version of Sarah Connor is a big SUCCESS - I might not like her, but what's that got to do with anything? I've NOTICED HER. Kudos to Jimmy C.

Contradictory feedback on characters happens. Deal with it. Because everyone's idea of what makes a "good" character is different, be prepared for contradictory feedback. Here's some I got recently:

[The character] is a strong enough personality to participate in the narrative, but not so strong the audience cannot imagine THEMSELVES in her place, allowing them to identify with her... Subtle and clever.

Whilst [the character] has an interesting arc, I didn't feel suitably "close" enough to her to be able to identify with her properly.


Who's right? Both of them, neither of them... I have to ask MYSELF what I was trying to achieve with that character and base my decision on THAT, not rely on what *someone else* says... That way madness lies.

Great characters need great stories. Whilst many people say it's "all" about the characters, I don't actually believe this. Story and character are a symbiotic relationship; you can't have one without the other. And I'm not sure a GREAT character (whatever that is) can be borne out of an underdeveloped story. So if a Bang2writer is struggling with their characters (for whatever reason), I often recommend they look to their story FIRST - is it "wanting" in some way? Is that *why* this character will not fall into line? It's surprising how many writers go round the houses trying to fix characters when it's the story those characters are within that needs fixing... You wouldn't simply put buckets down to catch the water from a leaky roof and forget about it; you'd fix the roof, wouldn't you?

So:

Going back to that notion then of "getting in the character's head" and it not being the full story... Working with writers over the years, I've noticed a reluctance from many to really pin down WHY they want to conceive the stories and characters they want to write about. In fact, they'll often do anything BUT that, whether it's obsess over dialogue and format or what a character has had for breakfast.

Yet knowing WHY you write the stories and characters you do is often KEY to breaking open those very characters those same writers want to "get in the heads of". The reason for this is very simple: your characters are essentially YOU. They cannot exist without you. They are the ultimate parasites. They are based on your own thoughts and experiences - how can they not? - and you REPRESENT those characters according to the agenda (or "point") your STORY has, which will also be based on your own thoughts and experiences. Alan writes a great post here about it, in fact.

In essence then, the "head" you need to get into is not the characters' so much, but YOUR OWN - and without understanding exactly why you've chosen *this* character and *this* story, I would venture you could be severely limiting your ability to "get into the character's head" anyway. All the character questionnaires and whatnot in the world is unlikely to help when a producer asks you *that* question they ask so often:

"Why this story?"

I've seen so many writers falter with that question or a variation of it. As a result meetings go awry and writers lose opportunities they may otherwise have been able to grab with both hands. It's a mega shame too, since these meetings often take place months or even YEARS after those writers started the script.

Stories are generally about journeys. Journeys can take absolutely ANY road. As a result, I would venture we as writers need to understand where we've come from, where are we are now and where we're going as it has a knock-on effect on our writing. If we haven't a clue WHY we have chosen a particular story and the characters within it, then it's like guiding our characters in the dark with a blind fold on... We're lost before we start.

So next time, when you're tempted to really try and get in your character's head, think of your own first. Do YOU know why you've chosen this story? Do you know what its purpose is, how your character represents that, who it would appeal to and WHY it deserves to exist *more* than others like it in the pile? Because if you don't, no one else will. Once you've nailed all that down, you can fill in as many character questionnaires as you like.... Go!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

EveryWoman: Where Is She?

I was at The Underwire Festival this weekend just past, celebrating women in film, behind AND in front of the camera, though my session was called "A Room of Her Own: Writing Leading Ladies". Here I am, with Underwire host Gemma Mitchell, fellow writer and director Ben Blaine & StarNow casting agent and actress, Jessica Manins... Hope to see you there next year!

I had thought I had heard every possible argument FOR including more female POVs in terms of characterisation, but an interesting insight came up during the session which even I had not considered in-depth before:

"Why is there only "room" for "extraordinary" women?"

This came from one of Underwire's founders, the fabulous (not to mention extraordinary) Gabriella Apicella, whom you can follow on Twitter here.

Let's rewind a minute, before I address Gabriella's query. If we look to leading men in film, the stamp "hero" is very much in evidence. These guys are fighters in a both literal AND metaphorical way, going for truth, justice or survival and dragging us all with them in their wake. They can be ACTIVE, INTERESTING and most of all VARIED... It doesn't matter what your "version" of a hero is, whether that's a guy, walking away from an explosion in a tattered vest or an understated, quiet lawyer or something in-between: film's got you covered, baby.

What's more, male protagonists even cover the ANTI-HERO - that guy who's not even remotely like the TRADITIONAL HERO type, someone who may even be a VILE HUMAN BEING, yet still an audience may get on board with him *for some reason* and NOT always for the "classic" reasons... ie. "vile human being learns to become decent human being".

In other words, male leads in film can be pretty much ANYTHING. And why not?

Yet despite this, female leads in film are not permitted the same scope to be as VARIED - instead they kick ass, are cold bitches or are victims. So when there IS an interesting, flawed woman, all the females in the audience are so busy saying "Oh! Thank God for that, for once I haven't had my brain sucked out by this representation of a woman" they forget to ask ANOTHER burning question:

"Why only one?"

Think about it. A male lead in a film might be his own man, but so are his buddies, henchmen and nemesis too. There is a veritable SEA of men in your average feature film.

Yet if we have an interesting, flawed FEMALE LEAD? Typically - it's JUST HER, either literally or metaphorically as she FORCES her head above the crowd.

The knee jerk reaction to Gabriella's query is obvious, then: ALL characters, regardless of gender, race or whatever should be extraordinary. Shouldn't they...?

Yes. And no. And the reason is just as obvious:

The EveryMan character.

Just like film has got the male HERO and ANTI-HERO character sewn up, The EveryMan Character is just as valid as a character arc. The Everyman is conceived as an ordinary character with whom the audience is supposed to be able to identify easily because it COULD BE THEM, only in extraordinary circumstances - immediately making a mockery of the notion that ALL characters MUST be extraordinary. Because they don't!

Think of David Mann in Spielberg's debut feature, DUEL. For me, David is the epitome of the EveryMan character - check out his surname!! He's a normal bloke, wanting to get home. We know relatively little about him other than that. It's been a while since I've seen the movie, but I recall a brief reference to the fact he has a family and he works in an office. End of the day, the movie is about how he, as a "normal bloke" deals with that seriously ABNORMAL trucker and the attempts made on his life.

On this basis then, where is EveryWoman?

DUEL is a great example of a strong genre movie that still delivers, despite not having an "extraordinary" character in the lead. Yet even in drama, it's not often we see EveryWoman, even if the female characterisation is GOOD. Instead, those women are LARGER THAN LIFE, no matter what.

It shouldn't be hard to conceive of an "ordinary" woman and put her in "extraordinary" circumstances, yet we see her with disturbingly far less frequency than EveryMan. Instead, if we ever see female leads (and they're not falling into stereotypical territory), then they are nearly always EXTRAORDINARY in some way, with "special skills" of some kind that set her apart. Though this *can* be a good start, is she automatically needed? Maybe an EveryWoman character in her place could give your script the edge in terms of getting an audience on board.

Perhaps Execs fear they are "talking down" to the female section of the audience by suggesting there is such a thing as an "EveryWoman"? Yet I am one. I tick various boxes on the "normal woman" scale: Married - check. Kids - check. Working - check. I do the school run, the shopping and the washing. I see nothing to be ashamed of, just because I am not kicking ass with my martial arts skillz, seducing superheroes or leading bank heists on a regular basis.

So next time you sit down to dream up a female protagonist, don't ignore the existence of EveryWoman. She could be just what your script and story needs, to make your audience relate to your journey.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

USP, PT 2: You, The Writer

So three or four times a year I have a conversation with a writer that goes like this:

WRITER: I've got this great script and I'm working with some great people, we're going to take it all the way and get it made.

ME: Brilliant, good for you.

WRITER: Are you interested in collaborations?

ME: Always.

WRITER: Well, I've got this Science Fiction TV pilot...

ME: ... Ah. I won't waste your time. I don't do Science Fiction. Or TV.

WRITER: Why not?

ME: Because I haven't seen a Science Fiction spec in about 5 years that's sold me on its USP for the audience.

WRITER: That's because you haven't read mine yet.

ME: I'm afraid I'm just not interested in a collaboration.

WRITER: But TV is ace and full of high concept Science Fiction stuff at the moment.

ME: Soz. I can't help you.

Note that I report on and help develop both science fiction and TV pilots when writers HIRE me - this post relates solely to me being part of a team to get a project MADE... And the above does NOT play out because I want to lord it over the writer in a "I'm more experienced than you" type of way - when it comes to TV, I'm completely inexperienced. Though I've had meetings with /pitched to indie TV prodcos, a few broadcasters and even done a bunch of trial scripts for TV soaps, I've never *done* TV in terms of getting out of development hell and onto the actual screen. Similarly, it's not that I DON'T LIKE Science Fiction as an actual genre; though I find it largely tired and familiar at the moment (even in commissioned shows), that's not to say I wouldn't like an idea just because it's Sci-Fi. I've enjoyed MANY shows and features under the SF banner.

No, it all comes down to this:

Science Fiction is not part of my USP's remit. Nor is traditional TV (outside the notion of "transmedia"). They're just not what I do.

So what DO I do?

The List:

Features

Female protagonists

Thriller

"Issues" - ie. women's rights, teenage pregnancy, drugs, poverty

Parenthood

Novels

Horror

Script Editing

Genre

Non-linearity

Romantic Comedy

Transmedia/Multi-Platform Content Delivery

Social Networking & blogging

... And I bet not ONE on that list surprised you much, right?

That's because I've spent a LONG time cultivating my USP, not only in my own work and type of work/teams I attach to, but in the way I represent myself at events like London Screenwriters Festival and online, via this blog, Facebook and Twitter.

But how can a writer develop his/her own USP, or identify what theirs is? Here's a few thoughts:

USPs don't arrive overnight. I spent a long time refining and adding to my USP. From the list I obviously began as a blogger, script editor and feature writer. I was interested in Genre, specifically Horror. My interest in female protagonists came next, specifically when I noticed how few in the spec pile there were, then how many female characters were subjected to gratuitous rape scenes. A lot of the rest came organically: for example, it was not until I joined Facebook and Twitter I noticed the surge in interest in my parenting tweets, specifically those about "Male Spawn" and "Wee Girl" - I had originally tweeted these as comic relief, nothing more. However other tweeters and Facebookers started to talk to me about their own children and then - oddly - even ask my advice! Before I knew it parenting, though not technically part of my ACTUAL work at that time, had become part of my online persona... Which then became part of real life: at London Screenwriters Festival last year I ran a session with Media Parents on being a freelancer, then I ended up writing a novel about teenage pregnancy and young parenthood, so it all came full circle. It probably will again somehow!

A USP is not a quick fix. A well-developed USP takes years and is always a work in progress. I would argue that as soon as you think you're "there" in terms of your USP, it will take a weird turn... To illustrate my point, if the writer in the example conversation on this post said, "I have a great URBAN sci-fi..." I might not have been so quick to tell him/her "I don't do SF". Why? Because of ATTACK THE BLOCK's success this year, which I also happened to think was pretty ace. Basically, if you work on the basis "anything can happen", you will be receptive to those opportunities that come knocking when you least expect it.

A USP may alienate, as well as attract people. Some writers are desperate to write EVERYTHING in the hope this will mean producers will find them more attractive. I have Bang2writers who have attempted every genre, in every format going. This isn't necessarily a bad strategy, but I do question whether those writers are in danger of becoming Jacks Of All Trades. Far better I think to pick something and do it really well, than try everything and do it OK. The one downer of the former however may be that some people will not consider you because of the perceived notion of *who* you are, which can be particularly problematic if you're a woman or part of a minority not well represented in the media, as it is very easy to become victim of a double standard. ie. opinionated men are apparently "legends", whereas opinionated women are apparently "obnoxious". But if you feel a more obvious USP could work for you, then you also need to be prepared to be rejected for it, as well as accepted for it.

A USP is NOT fake. Critics of writers marketing themselves as well as their work (often you will hear the lament, "the work should speak for itself!") will say writers are "faking it", especially online when it comes to social networking. I can't speak for all writers attempting to market themselves here, but can tell you that, whilst I strive very hard to refine and maintain my online persona in particular, there is not one single element of it that is out-and-out fake. I write so much online I simply would not be able to keep track!!! What you see is what you get with me - just the polished version, meltdowns included. I like to create a sense of drama; I won't apologise for it. It's what writers are meant to do, as far as I'm concerned... And which is why I don't *tend* to tweet about how ill feel; how depressed I am; how busy or stressed I am or what I'm cooking for tea. It's dull. Sure I feel/think/do all of those things, but I've CUT THEM OUT of my online persona, in the way a screenwriter edits out the boring bits of their script, like your protagonist needing to go to the loo!!!

A USP is your "Mission Statement". Don't get hung up on whether your USP is "good" or "bad" or "needed". I got some great advice once, which was "Go for what you feel YOU need and what you feel the INDUSTRY needs *from* you." There's no limit on what your USP can include, though I would argue a few key elements are what makes them fly. As someone said at London Screenwriters Festival only recently, "Can't think of "Lucy V" without thinking "female protagonists"!" And that's the whole point.

So what's your USP, as a writer?

Monday, November 21, 2011

USP, Pt 1: Your Project

DISCLAIMER: If you think screenwriting is all about art or originality, talent or simply "great writing" (whatever that is), then go away. You won't like this post. Don't say you weren't warned.

Still here? Right. Here goes.

... So, you've got a GREAT idea. What's its USP?

USP = Unique. Selling. Point.

*This* is the point of screenwriting. It doesn't matter how arty or original your idea is; it doesn't matter how talented you are; it doesn't matter how fabulously written your script is on the page. You could be all three of these things and if producers or financiers can't pin down your work's USP, they will not take a punt on it.

Think about it... Why should they? If your project hasn't got that "je ne se quois" we have not seen before, if it's not the same but different, if it isn't OBVIOUS as to WHOM this piece is for and WHY, those producers would be literally throwing a load of money in development, production AND marketing down the drain. That's a loooooooot of cash.

And this is what writers persistently seem unable to grasp: it is NOT just about nabbing a producer with your butterfly net: that is only half the story, maybe even a third. The battle STARTS when you have a producer - now you have to find your AUDIENCE.

And audiences are demanding bitches! Think of your place in one... 'Cos we're all in one. For example - I love Crime Drama and this love affair began with CSI. I do not tend to watch Law & Order. Why? 'Cos I like the CSI "versions" (not flashback) and I don't like the somewhat drier tone of Law and Order. Law & Order is actually a great programme, but end of the day, I don't actually care about the justice SYSTEM - when it comes to crime drama, I want to watch hero/ine cops doing cheesy one-liners and walking, slo-mo in arty camera shots. So it stands to reason I love NCIS just as much as all the CSIs. It has the jokey tone of the CSIs, but crucially doesn't try to **BE** CSI; it has its own narrative logic; its own character/group dynamic and it also tends to have much more explosive action or stunts every week, as opposed to being generally reserved to finales or season openers like in the CSIs. Crucially too, NCIS has the cool value of the CSIs' "versions" of the crime, but focuses instead on CHARACTER REACTION to what has happened/will happen next, those fantastic "black and white photo" moments, as opposed to the stories of the week... A subtle but HUGE difference.

That's how NCIS got commissioned when the CSI franchise was already in existence. They wouldn't have just said, "Oh, it's CSI - but in the military!" (though that would have been a great start). They would have focused on not just on the similarities, but on the DIFFERENCES, because otherwise an audience would ask (quite understandably), "Why watch NCIS when I can watch CSI already?"

Now let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, I worked on a script with a producer and director (the director had written the script, I was attached as a script consultant/associate producer). It was set in the future and people were mutating all over the place in weird and wonderful ways, so its most obvious reference point was The X Men, though there was shades of Torchwood as well. The plan was to make it an comic and animated web series.

To say I was excited about this project is an understatement. The script itself was a diamond; the dialogue in particular was something I hadn't seen before - knowing and funny, whilst NOT trying to be Joss Whedon. The storyboards were done by an AMAZING artist and as super-deluxe comic freaks, the producer and director were 100% committed to their story. They had a brilliant plan which included a fantastic social media strategy. They were speaking to a mega-talented animator who believed she could bring the 2D comic panels to life in 5 minute segments, which would be paid for via advertising and ideally distributed via social media networks and shared by users.

In short they had it all nailed down. Except one thing:

The USP.

What was different about this project, in comparison to the many, many X-Men-and Torchwood-like-projects that were doing the rounds about at that time?

Answer: nothing.

Every meeting we went to, every pitch we blew down various financiers with our foresight into *how* we would make this and get this done. But then, as is so often the case, would come that question:

"What is the USP?"

In short, the story was JUST LIKE The X Men... too like it. It was too much the SAME and not enough of DIFFERENT. Just how were we going to hook the audience and MAKE THEM WATCH? What was special about ours, in comparison to not only all the other specs out there, but all the other superhero stuff already in creation?

So we started combing through it in desperation. Female protagonist? Nope, science fiction has that all covered in a tradition that goes back thirty years. A Dystopian vision of the future? Nope, Sci fi has that in the spades. A Utopia? Ditto. Is it for children? Facebook and the like has an age limit, audience is compromised, especially in the under 10s - and kids don't tend to use Twitter. For adults? Nope, we already have sexy SF. We started to freak out and did some mad drafts, including one where we tried to go for the mythical "urban sci fi" and ended up writing a pornographic version of The Terminator meets The Matrix. What. The. Hell...

... We were screwed.

"We have a great script!" The director wailed.

And it's true - we DID.

"We have a great package, we've thought of everything!" The producer cried.

And it's true - we DID.

But it wasn't enough. It wasn't different enough. We couldn't find anyone to give us the cold, hard cash. And we ended up junking it.

So next time you think "originality is overrated" (which is certainly true), be sure to think NEXT:

What's special or different about MY project in comparison to all the others?

What will MAKE my audience watch?

NEXT: Why having a USP as a writer helps your career.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Relationships & Teamwork

We all know by now it's not JUST about the writing. We should all be getting "out there" and creating relationships, too. But what does this really mean, bar the obvious, like not hiding away out of sight?

I am not a religious person and nor is my family, but I went to a church school when I was a little kid. Obviously much was made then of various tales and parables in the scriptures, particularly ones about teamwork, like:

A father takes his son out to a forest and shows him a stick. He gives it to his son and tells him to break it. The son does so, easily. Then the father gives his son a whole bunch of sticks and tells him to break those instead. The son tries and can't. The message? "Strength in numbers".

Or perhaps the slightly creepier:

A man doubts if there's an Afterlife, so an angel comes down and says he will prove it to him. First, the angel takes the man to Hell. Far from being the firepit he imagines, the man is escorted into a large banquet hall. There is a huge table and it is filled with wonderful, sumptuous food. But everyone who is seated at the table is totally miserable. Why? Because they have to use giant chopsticks to eat the food, which they can't get into their own bowls and mouths - they are damned instead for eternity to look at this great stuff and not enjoy themselves. Ouch. Then the angel takes the man to Heaven - and the man is knocked over sideways when he sees EXACTLY THE SAME SCENARIO there. "How can this be?" The man says, "This is supposed to be Heaven!" But the angel smiles knowingly and sure enough, the people in Heaven pick up *their* chopsticks and instead feed the person OPPOSITE with their food, who in turns reciprocates the action for them, unlike down in Hell. The message? "Happiness is working together".

So, this is not a post about the rights and wrongs of the Bible (or indeed religion in general), but about the joys of teamwork.

I spend a lot of time talking to and working with writers and it always surprises me how few are receptive to the notion of teamwork. Instead, they often seem to think it's all about writing *the* great script, then taking it out into the world, then snaring an option, producer and development deal (and eventually production) with some kind of virtual butterfly net.

Of course, for some writers this does happen. But they are not the norm. And the likelihood of it happening? Must be millions to one. For one thing, your great script is probably not as great as you think it is. And even if it is, it has to be the *right* time for it. And there has to be money available (which doesn't suddenly disappear). And then you have to find a producer who doesn't want to make HIS/HER own ideas instead.

Talk about lining up all your ducks in a row!!! But the purpose of this post is not to depress you, so let me continue.

We all know the odds are against us. Some of us carry doggedly on... and good for you, if you're one of these people. After all, anything can happen. I really believe that. And if you apply and enter EVERYTHING in the known universe to do with writing, go to all the events and network your ass off, then by the law of averages something has to happen eventually. How can it not? As long as you can withstand the rejection and that worse feeling of "standing still" that sometimes comes for months or even years on end, it's the way to go.

But if you DO get depressed at throwing spaghetti at the wall like this, then I have a solution for you:

Don't work alone. Become part of a TEAM.

In this team, you're the writer. So get a director, a producer - and anything else you feel you need. What about a script editor? Editor? Cinematographer? Actors if you know them; if they have a "following" or are famous, even better. What about a person with *the knowledge* if you need it, ie. an advisor of some kind if you're writing about something specialist. Hey, have someone on board who's dead good at MORAL SUPPORT, why not? Those people can be worth their weight in gold when everyone else is freaking out and wanting to throw the project out the window.

Basically, get anyone. Anyone you can. But think about it and make sure you're all on the same page. Maybe one person is a combo of various things on the list - even better. Make your decisions wisely, be upfront, know the market, be passionate, let everyone know what you want to do and how you intend to go about it - and see if their ideas match with yours. If they do, you could be on to a winner.

So build this project from the bottom up. Or, in other words: create a team, identify a premise for a project based on real market research, get it written and made and sold. It CAN be done.

That's of course what so many writers cannot accept. Very often they are hostile or even antagonistic to the idea. "How do I find a producer? You can't get them *just like that*." They might sneer.

Um, yes you can. It's called The Internet and networking. You just do it BEFORE the script is written, instead of afterwards. If you post on various sites, meet people & go to events you WILL find producers. And if you just stop chasing after THAT BIG PRODUCER WHO DID THAT THING, you will probably find one standing right next to you DESPERATE to do a project with you...

... IF you ask them.

... IF you don't make it all about you - or more accurately, *your* script/idea which you just won't bend on.

... IF you are realistic.

... IF you make a team.

and

... IF you look to the marketplace, identify who your audience is and how you're going to get their interest (and thus sell the film to the distributors or in TV, networks).

But the naysayers start off again, "Oh no," they say, "I'M not working for free while the producer lives in his or her gold house, no chance."

But that producer will be doing all s/he can for the film, same as you, as part of a collaboration... Everybody's equal in this team. That's the point!

But still they argue: "Well if the producer is on the same level as me, I might as well work alone, because I want to step up to the next level."

And how will you do that, without or with few credits? And how do you know the producer you *could* be working with isn't the next BIG PRODUCER WHO DOES THAT THING - and you've been *in* with them from the beginning??

But STILL they continue: "I'm not writing FOR the marketplace. I have more passion/integrity than that."

Ignore the market at your peril. I'm NOT advocating being cynical about it: if Thriller is selling, but you believe 100% in your new science fiction world, OF COURSE you should go for the latter. But you also need to remember who your audience is and that without them, there might as well be no project. Sometimes you will have to junk ideas and scripts - it is not worth continuing, you must be realistic. But it makes the times things join up all the sweeter.

Yet: "There are no guarantees... it's not as easy as that."

Who said it was easy??? Working as a team doesn't mean you won't all have a hard slog on getting your work to screen. But it DOES give you more control over your own destiny. Given the amount of time writers spend complaining about not being taken seriously, I would have thought more writers would JUMP at the chance to make the kind of relationships that WILL get them taken seriously.

But: "I want MY idea, 100% - or nothing.".

Then friend, I cannot help you. Good luck on your solo journey. Hope you get to the destination you want.

But if you think there *could* be something in this idea of teamwork:

Two heads are better than one. Even more are EVEN BETTER. The more people who know you and your ambitions, the more chance you have of getting somewhere with it. This is how the film and TV industry operates. Sometimes the films and TV programmes are great; sometimes they are bloody awful. Sometimes it doesn't even matter how good OR bad they are because despite our best efforts they misfire and no one really watches them anyway. But they EXIST and are SOLD - which is a lot better than being 99.9999999999% of nothing in my view.

So why not start that way, from the beginning?

Make a team. Decide on an idea, based on good knowledge of the marketplace. Now... do it. Write it, get it financed, make it, get it sold to distributors or networks. You probably can't do it alone but choose the right people to work with and you WILL see your words as images.

See you on the other side. Or not. The choice is yours.

N.B. A great post from Film Utopia's Sunday Blog on the same subject, Why We Should Destroy The Spec Script Market

Monday, November 14, 2011

Writer Parents - Do You Know About These Services?

Top scribe and charity volunteer Adrian Mead has been in touch, wanting Bang2writer Parents to know about Parentline, a charity which gives online and telephone support to parents who need it:

"We all know how tough it is to get time, space and inspiration to be creative but add childcare to the mix and franlkly I'm just amazed you get anything done! Recently I've been volunteering for PARENTLINE, a great organisation that supports anyone who cares for, or has concerns about a child. If you are needing somewhere to get info, support or a place to vent your frustrations or concerns I can highly recommend them."

You can get in touch with Scotland's Parentline, here.

As everyone knows, I'm a parent and I've actually used the English version of Parentline, then called Parentline Plus but now called Family Lives in the past several times, especially when my Male Spawn was going through a particularly evil phase about two years ago that seemed to last forever. Like Adrian then I can recommend them totally - I was never judged, told I should pull myself together or "crack down" on the Male Spawn... Instead they worked very hard with me (in my case, via email... I was too upset to use the phone) to establish possible causes for the bad behaviour and come up with lots of potential solutions. It is no word of a lie to say they helped save my sanity, since there were many times I felt I was going around in circles and hitting a brick wall simultaneously, as I'm sure MANY parents feel sometimes!!

So don't suffer in silence... You don't need to!! Being a parent is so rewarding, but it's also HARD and it only gets HARDER as they get older. Get in touch with Parentline or Family Lives and take the first steps to dealing with any problems, issues or concerns you have with your family.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Copyright & Adaptation

Scriptpunk asked this on the Bang2writers page on Facebook:

A Q for You! Do you have any idea when book copyright goes into the public domain? ie. Jane Austin, Charles Dickens, Bronte Novels - would you need to get permission from the estate to adapt or are they in the public domain therefore open to reintepretation al a Autin's Emma as 1990s Classic Clueless?

UK copyright lasts the author's lifetime plus 70 years. So, the works of Shakespeare, Chaucer, The Bronte Sisters, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and all their mates are up for grabs. You don't need to ask anyone to adapt their stuff; you can just do it. It's pretty easy to see why Victorian Literature (and older) is so popular then when it comes to adaptation.

Dead authors don't necessarily mean you're home-free either then - for example, Roald Dahl may have been dead since 1990, but his work is still in copyright. Make sure you check how long your chosen author has been dead for!

By contrast, you MUST buy the film/TV rights of any living/recently deceased author before you can adapt their work. It is generally unwise to adapt something without the author's permission and try and seek the rights later - for all you know, the rights may already have been bought, then in which case you've just totally wasted your time if you actually want to take that script to the marketplace.

In addition, it's worth remembering film and TV rights are sometimes sold even BEFORE the book has published! Other times, the novelist wants to adapt their OWN work. That's not to say spec adaptations are blown out the water - sometimes novelists will enter into collaborations with screenwriters in a bid to take their work to film and TV, but you really need to do your research and like everything in screenwriting, create those relationships to get projects like that off the ground.

Another thing worth remembering - all this copyright stuff can depend not only WHEN it was written, but where you live, too! Here is a list of countries and their copyright laws that's worth looking at.

Good luck!

Monday, November 07, 2011

Don't Second Guess: Find Your Audience

Writer thinks, "I'll write a script. It's gonna be great." S/he completes the script. Sends it off.

Reader gets it at some initiative/contest/literary agent's/whatever. Reader thinks, "What a mess. This writer hasn't a clue what he or she is doing. PASS." Reader sends it back.

Writer decides s/he is going to ADVANCE next time - whatever it takes. S/he does a ton of research. Sees where s/he went wrong in the first instance when it comes to format. Thinks, "This must be it now". Sends it off.

Reader gets said script and says, "Craft is OK, but story/structure/character/dialogue/delete as appropriate is off. They don't know their Robert McKee/Syd Field/Linda Seger/insert Guru here (oooer)" S/he writes PASS again. Sends it back.

Writer CAN'T BELIEVE IT and is very upset. S/he reads McKee, Field, Seger et al. Decides to never use voiceover and to always hit their turning point on page 22 and to write ABOUT IDENTITY. Sends it off.

Reader receives the Guru-fied script and says, "Oh you know what? This script is predictable, it's like it believes in formulas. There's no heart here." Another PASS. Sends it back.

Writer gets CRAZY ANGRY. Goes back to his/her research. Notices there's a trend for vampires/angels/cowboys/period drama/etc. Decides to write THE NEXT BIG THING in that field. Sends it off.

Reader gets said NEXT BIG THING and says, "Oh this is very dated. Whilst vampires/angels/cowboys/period drama etc is the thing NOW, those movies/TV dramas have been in development for years. This has missed the boat." Yet another PASS. Sends it back.

Writer breaks down. Can't believe it. "Now what????? I'VE TRIED TO DO WHAT YOU WANT!!!"

MORAL OF THE STORY --

Don't try and second guess; there is no magic formula.

And that goes for readers as well as writers.

It's all about the writing. It really as simple - and as complicated - as that. Good writing: you REALLY DO know it when you see it. Frustrating. Harsh.

But guess what - if you're true to yourself and don't try and second guess, you're far more likely to find yourself getting those CONSIDERS and even RECOMMENDS.

And as a reader, if you let go of the notion of the "what SHOULD be done", you're far more likely to see the really good scripts, rather than letting them slip through your fingers.

There is only story. And understanding who it is for and why... The Audience.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

UK TV Spec Scripts

Vexentrix asked about TV Spec Scripts of existing shows this week on Twitter and it's something I've talked about with British writers many times in the past, so I figured it was time to write an official post about it.

In the US, it's common for a writer wanting to break into TV to write a spec of episode of that actual show and send it in, in the hope of grabbing the producer's attention and getting a commissioned episode. Here is a list of 2011 specced US Comedies and another list of 2011 specced US Dramas.

We don't do this in the UK. If you write a spec episode of Spooks, Corrie, Eastenders, Doc Martin or anything else, it simply will not get read. There's loads of reasons why, including the fact it can be a big fat legal headache in terms of copyright, but the short version: it's just not the way it's done over here.

In the UK, you send your ORIGINAL script in - ideally, it will be a script in the same *kind* of vein as the show you want to write for, but retaining your own voice. (Though that said, I've known people get into shows with scripts wildly different in tone, such as one lady who got onto a well-known soap with a slasher horror script which demonstrated how fabulous she was with character and dialogue, so you never know).

If the producer of said UK show reads your script and likes what s/he sees, one of two things might happen afterwards:

1) They ask you to write a trial script. THIS is when you have to write a spec script of the show, basically and is most-oft used in continuing drama. The show will send you a selection of storylines, you pick one and write *your version* of that episode (which frequently has been broadcast already). If they like that, that's when you get asked in for a meeting or story conference - and from there, you may get your commission (yes, it's still not in the bag!!! Argh!)

2) They ask you in for a story conference. This is usually for hour-long drama and it's the more experienced TV writers who've perhaps had quite a few half hours aired already that will jump straight to this bit, though not always. Story conferences are often the producers and all the writers - and storyliners, if applicable - all meeting up to thrash out the long running storylines of the year (if a soap) or the slow-burn serial elements of a longer one hour drama.

There are of course other ways of getting commissioned on a TV show - a simple meeting with a producer (especially for a completely new show, or a children's series) - but the above seems to be the most common route.

BTW, Lots of writers appear to think you can only work in British TV if you have an agent. This is not true. Whilst it is markedly easier to gain access to various shows *with* an agent, plenty of Bang2writers have worked their way into various schemes and shows without one. The question is, are you going to take no for an answer? Damon Rochefort told us a fab story at London Screenwriters Festival about how he decided he would work for Corrie and SIMPLY WOULD NOT ACCEPT the various rejections he got (which was a lot). Eight years later, the rest is history.

ALSO:

If as a British writer you're feeling hard done by that UK TV doesn't recruit its writers the US way, you may be interested in the following conversation I had last weekend at LSF with Finding Nemo writer David Reynolds, who started his career writing for The Conan O' Brien Show:

DAVID: You might want to spec for a TV show...

ME: ... We don't do that here.

DAVID: How do they pick writers, then?

ME: You send in an original script.

DAVID: They read your ORIGINAL work?? That's brilliant!!!!

I agree with David; I think it is brilliant - so if you want to write for TV, get writing... And take your lead from Damon: DON'T TAKE NO FOR ANSWER. There will undoubtedly be a lot of them, but if you keep going, logic dictates you've got to get there eventually. Good luck!!

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

#LondonSWF 2011

... Whoa. How good was that???

London Screenwriters Festival 2011 was a.maz.ing! It's been a tough year - as Chris said in the keynote speech, most businesses fail in their second year of trading - but we not only hung on and pushed forward, we did EVEN BETTER than last year!

So much so in fact, I think I raced through the festival in a blur! If you saw me and I rushed straight past you or stopped for about five seconds - my apologies. I was hoping to catch up/meet more people than I did, but in helping arrange the LSF Advanced Mentor Programme for a lucky 18 writers; listening to speed pitches in my capacity as a script editor; running three panels AND interviewing TV ledge showrunner Ashley Pharoah, I somehow raced through the whole three days at the speed of light. Suddenly it was Monday - and I felt like I'd been hit over the head with a sledgehammer!

Super kudos to the team for making it such a great event - the volunteers were characteristically fantastic and the speakers were so generous with their time. I think Finding Nemo writer David Reynolds tried to meet every single delegate at the fest! He was brilliant, hanging out in the bar (though he didn't appear to like the Tiger beer I bought him! Hint for you there if you're in a position to buy him one yourself). Ashley Pharoah too was brilliantly generous and really seemed to care about inspiring us all: after our "In Conversation" session, he went up to the scriptchat for ages. Similarly my panelists offered up fabulous insights, whether it was Damon Rochefort on his obvious love of what he does at Corrie; TV Exec Kathleen Hutchinson on how Holby and ER used to swap body parts; Sophie Meyer from Ealing Studios & Ed Clarke on how good writing is obvious from the first page; or Athos Kyrus and Sarah Olley on how readers ARE committed to reading your script, but the writer has to fulfill their end of the bargain too - ie. don't be boring & don't go for formulas or quick fixes.

Many thanks to everyone who made the LSF possible this year and I look forward to doing it all again next year - in the meantime, I'll leave you with a photo of Ashley Pharoah & I looking rather shocked for some reason, let's hear your captions in the comments section... GO!


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