Click the Pic N' Mix - past blog posts from Bang2write (click & scroll down for articles)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Save Kids' TV Update: Government Response

Some of you will remember my efforts to get you all to sign an e-petition back in April to save Kids' TV in Britain. It's not that I don't like or respect the quality of American, Australian or other imported television; I just think it's important British children should watch British television, because they're (wait for it), BRITISH. The fact that just 1% of Kids' TV in Britain is produced in the UK is nothing short of scandalous in my view, meaning a whole generation of British children could become victims of Media Imperialism. This is not good for a nation's sense of identity, let alone its culture, citizens or worldview. At all.

Well, because the Government likes to take long holidays over the summer, they've finally got round to reviewing the e-petition everyone signed: you can view their response here. As you'll see, no big decision is being made yet, but hopefully Ofcom will kick some ass and ensure we get more British-made programmes for our kids. Remember - even if you don't care about Media Imperialism or national identity, more Brit-made programmes means more work for Brit TV writers! That can't be a bad thing, even if you're apathetic about philosophy or our kids' viewing habits.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Approaching Rewrites

For the lovely H who asked last week for my thoughts on rewrites. If you have a query for the blog, leave a comment or send me an email and I'll get to it as soon as I can.
The thing to remember with your spec scripts is: it's a work in progress. It's never finished. You may do three billion drafts of a spec before it gets an option, but chances are you'll end up doing a billion more AFTER the option. I have never heard of a writer optioning a script and a producer or director making it the way it is (if it isn't a collaboration, that is).

Even if your spec ends up languishing on your desktop, chances are you will go back to it at some point in your lifetime. I had a spec I thought completely, hopelessly dead; I hadn't so much as thought about it in years (except in "Aaah, that was so crap, how sweet" kind of way) until someone phoned me up and said "I need a pitch for something to do with space pirates." I said (somewhat foolishly I might add), "Oh, I have one of those." Then freaked out when I remembered how crap my original draft was. Luckily they only wanted a one page pitch, not an actual draft, so I was able to think about how I might approach the crap execution I did all those years ago now I'm a little more experienced. So I redid the premise. And lo and behold, it works. As a pitch, anyway!

But how do you approach a redraft once you've got that all-important, actual first-first, words-on-paper draft?

Well, as in all things scriptwriting-related, it's entirely personal. I know writers who write a first draft and then workshop it with actors before attempting a second draft. Others print out said first-first draft, put in a drawer, then come back and hack at it with a red pen. Some stare at their drafts on a PC screen like madmen and ring people up to complain about how shit their work is and how they're going to give up screenwriting. I know writers who send their first-first drafts to readers and friends in the first instance; some only allow their agents to look at their stuff when it's in a bit of a state (as all first-first drafts are). Others do a combo of all of this.

If I was giving general advice on approaching a redraft, the first thing I would look at in a second draft is structure and plot. I've said before that dialogue is the last thing I look at, but even character comes after structure and plot for me. Why? Because characters can always be re-aligned around plot in my eyes, but a good plot can't be drawn OUT of a character. I read too many scripts that have interesting characters that don't do anything much to think plotting is subordinate.

It's easy to get sidetracked by the likes of character and dialogue when you really should be looking at how your story works as a whole; otherwise it's like you're moving around the tiles in one of those annoying puzzles where you have to make a picture, yet one tile is always out of sync. By investing in plot and structure in the second draft, you can really work on your characters' arcs and make us care about them in the third. However a plotless or badly structured script can mean messing around with the incidental scenes and moments, hitting your head against a brick wall in my experience.

Way I see it, the first-first draft is a throwaway draft. You might feel a sense of achievement for getting the thing finished, but don't let that euphoria fool you and make you believe for one second this draft is anywhere near finished. It isn't. Yes there will be some good stuff in there - stuff that might even make it into the final version of the first draft you send out. But nine times out of ten, you can do better. Scrub that: you MUST do better. There will be incoherent chunks, woolly characterisation, on-the-nose dialogue. There will plot opportunities wasted; there will be moments that can be realigned, leaner, cooler.

In short: even if your first-first draft is good, it's not as good as it CAN be. And writers that come through Bang2write generally get this. What they don't appear to always get is that drafts AFTER the first-first draft won't be perfect either. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard something along the lines of:

"Thanks for your notes, I agree with your points... It's a shame I still haven't written a shootable draft".

A shootable draft?? There's no such thing. Even when your drafts ARE shot, there's a good chance you will see things you *should have* written, even if people tell you they love your work. What's more, with filmmaking being a collaborative effort, you may not agree with a director's choices or a producer's demands in a rewrite - yet you will have to do it. It's the way that is, hence the back-handed compliment I've heard writers sometimes give each other: "Hey, congratulations on getting a prodco to fuck up your script!"

So if you're striving for perfection in your rewrite second time around (or even four, five, six times around and more!), you're setting yourself up for disappointment. You won't get perfection. Your reader won't come back to you and say, "Hey, this is fine now, send it out", they'll hopefully say something along the lines of: "You've worked out [these issues], now you need to concentrate on [these issues]." This is a GOOD thing, it's a sign you're making progress, not a failure - because your second first draft will be what it is: a slightly better first-first draft.

But there is one other thing when considering rewrites: don't be afraid of returning to page one. It's not a sign of failure or even weakness and you can still use your original draft(s) as a foundation for the new script. When I wrote Thy Will Be Done, I wrote nine drafts of my first draft and three of them (a third!) went back to page one. Each time it was needed and each time it got stronger as a result. Now I have a script in my portfolio that I am confident with and that I know is good - even when people have told me they didn't like it. I know it's story preference, rather than craft. And that counts for so much.

How do you approach rewriting?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Write This Moment

Thought I'd post this before I forget: some random surfing online tonight turned up this site - Write This Moment. It's a subscription site, but it seems good value at £24 considering it boasts new postings for writing-related job opportunities every week in the UK and US. If you'd like to try before you buy, there's a free monthly newsletter too. Sign up here.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Welcome To Rom Com Hell

I've BLOWN MY MIND reading a phenomenal amount of screenplays over the last three weeks, so I'm gonna have a few days off to recover. In the meantime, here's another post from the old blog. See you Wednesday. At the earliest. (Worry not if you're booked in for the end of the week, I will return in time to read your script). Adios.
Romantic Comedy was always one of those genres I avoided through my teens and early twenties. Being a Goth, I was way too cool for boy-meets-girl and besides which, by 18 I was a total cynic: I had after all been the girl who'd met the boy, then got knocked up and ripped off by him! I'd been left with a broken heart, a wailing baby and a man-hating attitude problem for approximately five years, plus the suspicion post-FOUR WEDDINGS in the late 90's/early noughties that all Rom-Coms had Hugh Grant in.

Then something strange happened. Rom Coms started to get good and I actually started to fancy Hugh Grant. My mother (who's always fancied Hugh Grant to my memory) tells me this is nothing to do with the actual Rom Coms, but the fact I am now OVER TWENTY FIVE. Those of us OVER TWENTY FIVE (which apparently should always be in caps) have a number of afflictions apparently; these include the Hugh Grant fixation, but also reminiscing DR WHO was better when its antagonists were made of cardboard instead of CGI, knowing all the words to R Whites' "I'm a secret lemonade drinker" and thinking RIDE OF THE VALYKRIES is actually the theme tune to "Kill The Rabbit".

But I digress.

Rom Com has always been one of those genres that has never gone away. Horror might have been big for the last couple of years, but already I've seen postings on various sites from producers saying "we are NOT looking for slashers or werewolves or vampires" etc etc. Thrillers can be seen as very expensive and not everyone likes depressing dramas Ken Loach-style.

In contrast then, Rom Com is one of those genres that not only for the most part can attract a large audience, it can be made to fit a low budget too - after all, there are relatively few explosions or vampires in your average Rom Com (though Just Friends does admittedly have a great pyrotechnic moment when Ryan Reynolds' weirdo Rock Star Companion drives away with the Xmas lights attached to the back of her car).

But that's the beauty of Rom Com I've come to realise over the years - literally anything can go into it. I avoided The 40 Year Old Virgin because I thought it would be like American Pie (hated that film!): when I eventually did watch it (because of Billy Mernit's site's praise), I thought it was hilarious, salacious and poignant, quite a combination. Equally, Just Friends I thought was amusing and sharp, with some great slapstick and farcical moments.

Rom Com's inevitability is its strength. What I ridiculed before I now admire: after all, we KNOW boy will meet girl, lose girl, have to impress girl and eventually get girl, but how many different ways can it be done? Looking on any video store shelf, the answer is LOTS OF WAYS! Some of them not so good, some of them okay, some of them fantastic. Those in that latter category have one thing in common: they share that inevitability, but present it in such a fashion the audience a) have never seen before and b) are kept guessing as to how that common framework is going to pan out.

Billy Mernit is of the opinion there is that "something extra" that keeps the good Rom Coms going in addition to boy-meets-girl and I agree. Now he's the expert on the good ones as far as I'm concerned, but as a reader I've seen some royally bad Rom Coms over the years. So, in my humble opinion, what makes a bad Rom Com? Since a lot of you are writing 'em, I thought another of my lists was in order, just in case you recognise any of these...

1. THE "MISTAKEN IDENTITY" Rom Com. When the plot hinges on, guess what, a case of mistaken identity. This usually means the story revolves entirely around the protagonist pretending to be a different colour or race and painting themselves (which no one else in the movie notices), only to have a bucket of water splashed over them at the end.

2. "THE WORLD'S A TRAGIC PLACE" Rom Com. This is when cynics (like I was!) try and write Rom Coms. Boy might meet girl but no one gets together at the end, or if they do it's to someone supposedly unexpected or someone who suddenly appears out of nowhere. Ultimately dissatisfying.

3. THE "I'VE FORGOTTEN WHAT GENRE I'M IN" Rom Com. I've read several of these where the action starts off well in terms of Rom Com, but it becomes a melodrama halfway through usually because someone dies - I can only imagine the writers were attempting to mirror Simon Callow's exit in Four Weddings.

4. THE "EVERYONE IS DOING IT" ROM COM. This is the Rom Com where everyone is having sex. All the time. Fun, but plotless for the most part. Rom Coms are not porno, remember!

5. THE "COMING OF AGE/ROM COM HYBRID". Hate, hate, HATE these. This is when the heroine is approximately 18-22 years old, inexperienced and beautiful and catches the eye of a wealthy businessman/doctor/rock star. Also known as THE MILLS AND BOON Rom Com, principally 'cos of its lack of humour and obsession with clothes and how the heroine looks.


7. THE "I'M TRYING TO BREAK THE MOULD" Rom Com. Yes, anything can go into a Rom Com, but you gotta do it in a plausible, less try-hard way. Rom Coms in the future with little frog aliens that live up somebody's nose don't usually float readers' boats. We like that sense of inevitability with humans to relate to.


8. THE ROM COM WHERE NOTHING MUCH HAPPENS. Does boy meet girl? Yes, sort of - usually in an office or lift. What do they do?He phones her, asks her out - she says no. Then what? They go to work and she goes out with somebody else. Why? No idea. Hilarious consequences ensue (not really), then girl changes her mind and goes out with boy. Phew. What a ride.

Have I missed any out, fellow readers? And the rest of you - have any of the above made it through to production in your view? Let me know!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Avoiding Writers' Block

This one's from the old blog too - many thanks to the mysterious Script Ninja and the even more mysterious Wordinator for recommending this one! Remember, the old blog disappears next Friday (Oct 31st), so take a look and see if there's any posts you want saving and tell me which ones!
As writers, we're warned a lot that we can get "blocked" at any time, like there are plugholes inside our brains that can get clogged with the neccessary debris of life like chunks of smelly hair down the drain. People email me and complain there is blank space inside their brain, or that kids and spouses, lack of money, holidays or housework all get in the way; sometimes, they're simply haunted by ideas they "just can't" get on paper.

Some people don't believe in Writer's Block. For the record, I have no real opinion; I don't suffer from it per se, though I am known to claim I have it when I really have a hangover. This definition is quite good: linking Writer's Block to depression and anxiety (cheery), there are all the usual strategies and even a list of dramatic depictions of actors playing writers with writer's block, so one does not feel alone. Thanks.

Doesn't quite cut it for me, though. I don't believe any amount of new experiences, listening to others' or relaxing breathing does a damn thing when panic sets in. 'Cos that's what it is. Writer's block is the stage where pressure begins to build up, either because you personally feel you haven't done enough (either with your life or your script or when it's really bad, BOTH) or because some git's scaring the heebie-jeebies out of you by phoning and yelling "Get that emailed to me next week or ELSE!" whether it's a producer, publisher or friend who thinks they're "encouraging" you.

I often use music when writing and to give myself ideas. Interpretation is key to writing in my book. I believe in the idea of re/presentation, in that you literally re-present your view of the worldand everything in it each time you create fiction. This does not mean I am the sadistic murderers or werewolves I write about though, it goes deeper than that! For example, I'm very concerned about false personas: I hate it when people are nice to my face but talk behind my back. It's no accident then a lot of my protagonists share this same concern, or my antagonists are not who they seem or are wolves in sheep's clothing quite literally.

Knowing what you present to the world can only help your writing. Freud talks a lot about the notion of "repetition compulsion" and I have found on a number of occasions I have written essentially the same scene or character in different screenplays. Not good. Knowing it's possible to do this = very good, since I cut out that scene or character before anyone saw it. Also, by knowing what your concerns are, you know at least one of the potential audience's. Seems obvious, but if it appeals to you, then it's bound to appeal to a couple of hundred thousand others...if you pitch it right. The latter part is of course hard, but you can take confidence in the former and use it to get over your block, since part of it is essentially that little voice in the back of your mind telling you you're crap.

Also, instead of railing against the neccessary debris of life, embrace it and you'll find it can form part of your writing style and even your narrative. Writing is one of the rare jobs where you don't actually have to be writing to still be working. I've had some of my best ideas whilst cleaning the bathroom or ironing. I've figured out some of my most irritating structural problems when changing the baby or making dinner. Sometimes sitting at a PC is not the answer. You think you're working at your script, but you're not. Turn it off. Walk away. Keep thinking, but walk away. I'll bet you you'll be back in a few hours with the solution.

You know that old mantra "write what you know", right? Use this to your advantage. This does not mean writing about your life as an insurance salesman when really you want to write a sci-fi thriller, far from it. Rather,look at those familiar things from another angle. I like to do this with music. Prince is a particular favourite of mine as he has literally written a song for just about every occasion and a lot of them have very clear characters and structure. Raspberry Beret, Little Red Corvette, I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man and Nothing Compares To You might be the most obvious, but those from his own films like the classic Purple Rain, Joy In Repetition (from Graffiti Bridge) and Girls And Boys (from Under The Cherry Moon) can all form the basis of inspiration too. Just thinking creatively can shift your perspective, but you could also write these songs (or indeed any others! It doesn't have to be Prince, use whoever works for you) as short films as an exercise or even plot them on a diagram like Syd Field's Paradigm if you felt you needed an extra "kick start". In addition, you could take favourite lines from said songs above or films and books: write them on a white piece of paper and do a spidergram around them, creating characters, locations, scenarios. Alternatively, use the lines to start off a conversation between two unknown people and see where it takes you. In creative writing classes I've used these with students, all with good results:

"Don't be a fool! He's got a gun. The bastard's psychotic, you only have to look at him." (WITHNAIL AND I)

"She spoke in such a dead, zombie-like manner that Amelia got the shivers." (Anna Smith, NO BONES)

HARRY: It's good to see you, Rollo.
MARTINS: I was at your funeral. (THIRD MAN)

Also, never underestimate the power of connotation. No one in the world views words in exactly the same way you do. It doesn't matter if you use the same song as someone else - chances are, you'll come up with a different film if you chose to write it as one. If you have a writing partner, use the same song or same words on purpose and compare notes. You could produce an entirely different narrative as a result. Just because you start out with something similar to something that already exists, does not mean it will stay that way. With development and redrafting, stories evolve...They can't not, it's is the nature of the beast.

So, when it comes to Writer's Block, first off - don't panic. Don't have anyone tell you it doesn't exist: if you're feeling it, it evidently does. However, do not let it be your master and you its bee-atch. Attack it, chip away at it. There is more than blank space in your brain, even if all you can think about is the fact the spare bedroom needs painting. So paint it. Listen to some music. Tell your spouse you're having problems with your protagonist/arena/structure and ask them if they have any ideas. Chances are, their ideas (especially if they're not a writer) will be plagiarised from every TV drama or film going but that's cool, 'cos they're giving you an insight into what has gone before. Write random phrases down if you have absolutely nothing, see where they take you.

And don't panic. Did I mention that??

I told myself aged 13 I would be a published author by the age of 25. Hah. I have 35,000 words of a crap book languishing on my desktop and my latest effort has ground to a halt in the last two weeks! But that doesn't mean I'm a failure, it means I got side-tracked by the neccessary debris of life. Happens to everyone. What doesn't happen to everyone is the idea of letting themselves off the hook. So do that. Suddenly, you can breathe and you can write again.

Any other suggestions on beating lack of confidence or The Dreaded Block?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Adverbially Yours

From the old blog: on the request of the lovely J Stein and for Eleanor who's worried about the adverb "well" in the previous post! the "51 Tips" are still available, I may even sign up again myself - take a look, Script For Sale is a great site.
I signed up for the "51 Tips For Winning Screenplay Contests" at Script For Sale and can't recommend them enough. Every day you receive two free tips via email (a much better idea than scrawling through acres of text in one go), complete with quotes from contest readers and winners to put them in context. Now, some of them are common sense and others I would not have thought of; some of them will be new to beginners, others will confirm what the more experienced already know, but either way they're making an enjoyable read for me each day. Sign Up Here.

If you're still undecided, here's one of the tips:

"Strong Verbs and Nouns.

Robert Mckee, (STORY) says "To write vividly, avoid generic nouns and verbs with adjectives and adverbs attached and seek the name of the thing: Not 'The carpenter uses a big nail,' but 'The carpenter hammers a SPIKE.' Spike pops a vivid image in the reader's mind. . . . Use the most specific, active verbs and concrete nouns possible. . . . Fine film description requires an imagination and a vocabulary."

McKee's rule is simple: Concrete nouns, active verbs, no modifiers like adjectives or adverbs."

Now many of you will know I don't hold with McKee a lot of the time (especially when it comes to voiceover) but all of the above is good stuff... If you know what the hell a verb, concrete noun, adverb or adjective is. It may surprise some people reading this, but often, when I advise people on language use, the client often does not. In my capacity as an EFL and trained English Teacher then, here it is... Lucy's Crash Guide to Screenplay Grammar.

Let's start out with the basics - the noun. A noun is a naming word (think "n" for name I always reccommend). Nouns are words like chair, table, Africa, Lucy, blog, computer, love, hate. So what's a concrete noun, I hear you cry. Good question. Come closer my pretties...

There are four types of noun. Proper, common, concrete and abstract. They go like this:

Proper nouns have capital letters: ie. Lucy, Africa

Common nouns do not have capitals: ie. chair, table, blog, computer

Concrete nouns are names for things that phsyically exist: ie. Lucy, Africa, chair, table, computer

Abstract nouns are names for those things that do not physically exist: ie. love, hate

Now, the adjective. An adjective is a describing word, but they nearly always describe a noun. Let's take a concrete noun like hair. How can you describe hair? Let's think:

Red, blonde, brunette, stringy, curly, long, short, weird, shorn, cropped, bobbed, lank, greasy, dirty...

And so it goes on. Obviously it depends on the context - what picture you have of someone in your head and how you want to describe their hair or indeed anything else that's important.

So, to recap: you want to be using concrete nouns in your scene descriptions - those words that physically exist. You don't want to be using abstract nouns like love too much as it would imply seeing into your characters' heads. You can't rely on this in film - what you see is what you get. Yet why can't you use adjectives? You need to describe those nouns that become pictures in the frame...right?

Right...and wrong. Of course you can use some adjectives - but they MUST be important adjectives. For example, if your protagonist has red hair, it must be for a reason: perhaps she's a witch, perhaps he has Celtic roots and is tracing his family tree. In other words, it must pay off in some way story-wise, otherwise what is the point of your character having red hair? Yes, you may see your character as having red hair in your mind, but does it matter to the story? If not, get rid of it. The Casting Director is there for a reason. Don't do their job for them. Lots of new writers think they must describe every last detail in scenes to give a feel of the piece. They don't. That's what arena is for.

So, next: the verb. Many people remember from school that a verb is a doing word (run, eat, kill, jump, etc), but not what consitutes it being active. The active implies immediacy, like Mckee's "The carpenter hammers a spike". The active often uses the present simple, mentioned in my last article on grammar. An example of a less active use of the same sentence would be this: "The carpenter is hammering a spike." "Is" is the third person singular of the verb "be". Immediately you can see this takes us AWAY from the main action - that sense of immediacy is gone, the reader is taken away from the page and asked effectively to remember the story playing out in front of them is a script and not "right now". More definitions and explanations of the terms active and passive in grammar can be found here; make sure you scroll all the way down for the excellent Wikipedia article at the bottom.

I've already addressed apostrophe misuse and mixed tenses on this blog, but the second biggest problem I encounter as a reader with peoples' scene description is adverbs. An adverb, like an adjective, is a describing word, but instead of describing nouns they describe... you guessed it: verbs (for the most part; there are a couple of exceptions to this rule, but for the moment, let's concentrate on those verbs.)

There are actually two types of adverbs: most are easily recognised by the fact they end in "ly": slowly, quickly, funnily, usually, etc, whereas there are others that are "hidden" because they DON'T use "ly" (like "well"). DON'T worry about the "hidden" adverbs, it's those that end in "ly" that become the biggest problem for the screenwriter. Why? Because, like overusing adjectives and doing the casting director or set dresser's job for them, the screenwriter is effectively directing from the page in a lot of people's eyes, mine included. What do I mean? Take a look at this:

John grabs Kate roughly. He pleads convincingly.

JOHN: We have to go...tonight!

Now look at this:

John grabs Kate, pleads.

JOHN: We have to go...tonight!

What's the difference? It's subtle, but quite a lot. The second allows actor interpretation as well as directorial input. Perhaps the director doesn't want John grabbing Kate roughly? Perhaps he wants John to be desperate, only for Kate to knock him back and say she's staying? Perhaps John already knows this in the actor's mind but this is a last ditch attempt, so he's not "convincing" at all, but rather lack lustre "I know you won't but please re-consider"? If you put multiple adverbs in your scene descriptions, you take away from the action; it's like saying there is only one way to play this scene out. It's all very well saying it's MY film, I made it up, they should play it out MY way, but film involves lots of people, not just the screenwriter. They not only deserve input, they demand it, for without directors, producers, actors and so on, there is no film! If you want to use a mega-amount of adverbs, others may see you as directing from the page, denying them this all-important input and effectively saying you are precious about your work. Is it worth the risk, just for a few hundred words in your descriptions ending in "ly"? It's easy to cut them out and re-order sentences if neccessary and well worth it in my view.

In my experience, grammar *can* count for a lot in screenwriting. Of course the great ideas get through regardless, but does it take longer I wonder? I would imagine so, given the amount of readers I've seen dismiss scripts on the first few pages with poor grammar. The odds are stacked against even the best writers out there; my opinion then has always been - when it's such an easy issue to fix, why swim against the tide?
DON'T FORGET: If you have a request for an old blog post, tell me! Don't forget, the old blog dies this time next week when AOL removes it forever!!!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Parts of Speech

People are always emailing me asking grammar questions - friends, relatives, Bang2writers, colleagues. They must think I do nothing but sit around reading about the damn stuff... Alright, I admit it: sad it is, I'm a grammar junkie. I find it really interesting - especially when people go off on one about a particular point. Virtually nothing in grammar is written in stone, not really: that's why language can change and we're not all talking now like Shakespeare. And thank God for that! Just imagine how long this blog would be if it was written in Shaky's language - much as I love him, he was a bit of a windbag.

Latest addition to the Bang2write grammar library is Judy Parkinson's "I Before E". This is a class book with plenty of mnemonics and aide memoires for those of us who have trouble remembering what the hell everything is in our peskily complicated language. Here's one:

"Every name is called a noun,
As in field, fountain, street and town.

In place of noun the pronoun stands,
As he or she can clap their hands.

The adjective describes a thing,
As magic wand and bridal ring.

How things are done, the adverbs tell,
As quickly, slowly, badly, well.

The preposition shows relation,
As in the street, or at the station.

Conjunctions join, in many ways,
Sentences, words, or phrase and phrase.

The interjection cries out "Hark!
I need an exclamation mark!"

Through poetry, we learn how each
Of these makes up Parts of Speech."

From "I Before E (Except After C): Old School Ways to Remember Stuff" By Judy Parkinson. Buy it here.

How Much Is Enough? Part 2 - Jeopardy & Empathy

SPOILERS: Sideways, Bend It Like Beckham, Adaptation, Tremors, Dog Soldiers
When it comes to the notion of jeopardy in film, this does not neccessarily have to mean life or death, though of course this is standard fare for some genres - horror, action-adventures and thrillers the most obvious.

Rather, *something* has to be "at stake": a character has to be in a position where he or she will lose something, whether it's their life and/or skin, identity or "human-ness" (maybe becoming an actual monster), lover or potential lover, respect or moment of clarity.

If taking a movie Like Sideways into account for example, Miles will not die if he does not pursue Maya; he can go back to his life and carry on, as normal. However, once he has made the realisation that he hides from life, he knows there is no going back, as do we, the audience. Had he then walked away from Maya's door, or had she not left the message about his novel on the answer machine, it would have been hollow viewing.

Adaptation has a great moment when Nicholas Cage as Charlie Kaufman asks Script Guru Robert McKee why movies can't be about moments in life where "nothing very much happens". Brian Cox's spluttering and profane reply might echo what more experienced writers think, but I have been asked this myself by a number of students and clients. Life is pretty dull: by anyone's standards then, absolutely anything, even only slightly out of the ordinary, could be a catalyst for a movie. Indeed, sometimes movies on the surface can seem pretty boring when one looks at their subject matter: a boy or girl's struggle to become a sports star for example means little to someone like me who has total zero interest in sport. However, this does not mean I did not enjoy Bend It Like Beckham or Goal! because I did. So, what separates the subject matter and the execution?

Jeopardy and empathy.

Jess' plight in Bend It was not about sport, it was about acceptance. She wanted to be recognised not so much for her sporting prowess, but her right to be who she needed to be. This included her parents' blessing but also her best friend's. A number of hurdles were put in Jess' way throughout the movie, ranging from having to lie to her parents about training and going to Germany, her sister's impending wedding, even her best friend's jealousy at Jess' blossoming relationship with The Coach of the football team. All pretty stern stuff in any girl's life, but not particularly "out of the ordinary".

What separated Jess' plight and made it a film as opposed to a rambling account of one girl's existence was the writing and its structure. That sense of jeopardy never lets up throughout the movie: all the way through the audience see Jess struggle and wonder if she will achieve her goal (pardon the pun). In conjunction with this then, we cannot help but empathise with Jess: she is a well-drawn character and her plight is echoed by thousands, if not millions of teenage girls growing up, albeit in different ways, for different reasons and within different cultures. Jess has to learn that she shouldn't lie in order to achieve what she wants, but equally, those around her have to realise they must allow her to go her own way and find out who she needs to be.

Another movie where I think this comes across particularly well is a childhood favourite of mine, Tremors. I rented it out the other day and was shocked to discover it came out in 1990, a whopping sixteen years ago, yet in comparison to a lot of what I call "turn-of-the-nineties" films (Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead and the original Buffy The Vampire Slayer spring immediately to mind), it has not dated at all in my view. This might have a bit to do with its arena to be fair (there are no ra-ra skirts and flourescent make-up in the middle of a desert town, after all), but more I think with its sense of character, in particular those notions of jeopardy and empathy.

For those of you who don't know or recall the film too well, Val and Earl (played by Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward) are two handymen who live in a middle-of-nowhere Hicksville place called Perfection. Earl wants a better, more satisfying existence and complains bitterly about his lot, though Val is content enough...Until, one day, they are reminded how small a spot they are on the arsehole of the universe and they decide to split for Bixby, the next big town on the map.

They're one day too late.

Each time they try and leave, something happens. They find two bodies (both of whom died in gross and mysterious circumstances), then a suprise landfall blocks the only route out of the valley. Helpfully (and before being attacked by whatever called the landfall), workmen were drilling at the same time and put the phones out. There is no radio signal, as the valley is surrounded by rock. The nearest town, the aforementioned Bixby, is forty-odd miles away up the valley - only a four wheel drive or horses can make it. The intrepid handymen set off on horseback, only to be ambushed by underground giant slug-like monsters on their way, the cause of all the trouble. They of course escape, but the beasts start to pick off the people of Perfection, tracking them by the vibrations they make walking around, talking, etc. Once the beasts know they're hiding on the roofs, they begin to tear down actual buildings too. There is literally no escape.

This is great jeopardy and indeed, a lot of horrors (or genre hybrids, for Tremors is a horror/comedy) make good use of such scenarios, ensuring people are trapped in valleys, underground, in space or on islands, so confrontation is inevitable. Another favourite of mine, Dog Soldiers, has a bunch of military men trapped in a country house at the bottom of a valley in a similar fashion, the irony being they're squatting Goldilocks-style in the werewolves' very own family home. Ouch. Also, as mentioned in the previous article,the FBI profilers in Mindhunters cannot escape the island training ground as the serial killer sets up a variety of booby traps to ensure they cannot, including blowing up the only boat moored there.

However, what does not always go quite so well with such jeopardy is the sense of empathy that should be employed as well. None of The Profilers in Mindhunters were particularly likeable people, so I found myself counting the moments down until one of them died, especially since most of their demises were quite flamboyant. Though I enjoyed the Soldiers' banter in Dog Soldiers and there were some genuinely funny moments, for the most part the crew were expendable and easily missed. In comparison then, what I liked about Tremors was each member of the cast, bar one, had something about them that marked them out and made an audience want them to stay alive and not just the two Handymen. For example, when one, an NRA-Post-Apocalyptic-Gung-Ho Enthusiast manages to kill one of the creatures with a massive arsenal of weapons, he berates their lack of foresight to his wife: "Complete geographic isolation! Air filtration, water filtration, gieger counter...Underground-godamn-monsters!"

It's hard to choose between Val and Earl in terms of who is the protagonist, though I have always been of the opinion it's Kevin Bacon. This is not just because he was (and still is) the bigger star; his character Val has the furthest to go in terms of a journey. Earl if you remember already hates Perfection; Val has to find out it's not the idyll he thinks, especially when there are monsters underneath it. He also discovers love with Rhonda, the college girl investigating the the strange earthquakes in the region. Journeys help empathy. Val's incredulous disbelief that his normal, straightforward world has been invaded by creatures from "outer space or whatever" hooks an audience in. We root for him. We actively want him to beat the nasties and get the girl. When he does, we've got dramatic satisfaction. In comparison then, though I loved the male characters in Dog Soldiers, I actively hated the female character: she made no sense to me, I couldn't empathise with her and therefore her motives were unclear. Though eventually it came out that it was she who had been helping the werewolves, all her talk of wanting to "get out of such a fucked up family" had clouded various issues for me, like why the rest of the family had turned with the full moon and not her?? It seemed as if her part in the film was purely to provide a rather bad PMS-related joke at the end.

What are the best - and worst - examples of jeopardy and empathy in films you've seen?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

How Much Is Enough? Part One

Since I'm mega-chocka, now seems a good time to re-visit a few posts from the old blog - especially since AOL are removing it from October 31st, 08!! I'll publish part 2 of this article tomorrow since it still gets lots of hits via The List of Wonder, but if you think any others deserve saving, go take a look and let me know which ones. Hurry - we only have 9 days before it disappears!
How many characters should your average screenplay have? That's a tough one. Actors' credits can seem deceptively large on produced movies. But that's just it - it's a deceptive list. No movie should have loads of characters, they should have the illusion of loads of characters (if that's the effect the writer or director wants to achieve).

Back to basics: you need an antagonist and a protagonist - a goodie and a baddie, in effect. From this, you can make things more complicated: perhaps you want a protagonist who is also an antagonist; perhaps you want to present the idea of a doppelganger, in that your antagonist and protagonist are different people with the same ideals on opposite sides - whether that's the law, morality, religion or anything else.

This all might sound a bit obvious, but many writers are surprised when I write in their coverage that I was unsure who the protagonist or the antagonist were. Remember, what's obvious in a writer's brain is not always obvious to the reader. (I'm not immune in this either. My first four drafts of one of my specs had no obvious protagonist as I'd spent so much time on the antagonist, whom I secretly preferred, since I had spent more time on him).

So that's two.

Many people, of which I am one, say eight is the magic number when it comes to good characterisation. ALIEN is the most obvious example of this: there are seven members of the Nostromo and all have very defined character role functions, from comic relief (Parker and Brett), the gung-ho warrior (Kane), the damsel in distress (Lambert), the villain (Ash), right through to an inflated sense of responsibility (Dallas and Ripley). Of course, we have eight characters when the beast is added to the mix.

There was a Renny Harlin film called MINDHUNTERS that echoed Alien's characterisation in this fashion, almost to a tee. It did not have a theatrical release in the UK as far as I'm aware, as one day it turned up out of the blue in the DVD store with one of the best taglines I've seen in a while:

For seven elite profilers, tracking a serial killer is a process of elimination. Their own.

Not only are we treated to a "siege-like" situation in that all seven were trapped on an FBI training ground on an island (all avenues of escape blocked, just as "In Space No one Can Hear You Scream" - where could the crew of The Nostromo have gone??), each character had a specific function that was not only brought out via the narrative, it actually formed part of it: in other words, the serial killer (one of the seven, naturally), used the characters' quirks and foibles against them in order to kill them. This is by no means a radical idea, however it was a neat and logical device that in my view, delivered a very watchable (if not ground-breaking) movie.

So that's eight (sometimes seven), of which two should be the protagonist and antagonist.

However, let's go back to that notion of the BIG list of actors. This is something I'm not awfully keen on, as I'm probably too lazy to keep track of who is who. However, lots of people want to write movies in which there's a plethora of people - either because it adds to their arena or because they want to kill them (it can be carthartic!), horror and action movies being the most obvious.

With reference to arena and wanting romcoms, thrillers, horrors, action-adventures etc to seem more colourful then, just don't give these extra characters too much space, as they're not real characters. This might sound odd, but think of it in this way - these extra people are peripheral, there to add to the protagonist's journey.

A good example of this would be RED EYE. The screenwriter does not bother to reference any character other than those involved in the main action. All other characters are simply known in the credits list by what they do - how they add to the narrative, in fact. For example, when our heroine stabs our villain in the throat with a pen in order to escape, she steals it from a boy on the plane who is simply known in the credits as BOY WITH PEN. As an audience we hear this boy speak a couple of times and we know he hates his brother, but there is a crucial difference between his characterisation and the heroine's or villain's: his doesn't add to the story, he adds to the situation in that he hates the person sitting next to him just as much as our heroine hates the villain. End of. This is what makes him peripheral; we don't need his entire history, who he is in relation to anyone else, not even his name.

As for having lots of characters and wanting to cull them, the answer is a simple one:

Do it as soon as you can.

Alot of action-adventures or horrors I get begin with a big number of people being threatened. This is a good starting point. However, what differentiates the newer writers from the more experienced is the number of characters still present in the middle of the script and at the end: the former tend to have too many. By this, I mean families and groups of friends who fall victim to slasher killers or monsters down holes are still intact; army squadrons still have the majority of their recruits; more people than not survive natural disasters or massacres in banks, offices, schools or whatever.

Let's have a look at the Alien movies again. ALIENS is vastly different from the first movie in that it has many, many more characters in the first instance - a whole troup of marines, in fact. It's a nice contrast, but it is an illusion. Let's examine the evidence.

Who is important in this movie? Well, Ripley of course. Then there's the evil Burke. Then wimpy Lietutenant Gorman follows in a secondary role. These are outlined from the start as "important". Then we meet the marines. Though there are loads of them, we see Hicks, Hudson and Vasquez in the most prominent positions from the start, as is the Sergeant, Apone and android Bishop. Then they go to the planet and find Newt.

But wait a minute! That's nine. You said eight, right?

Right. Apone is one of the first marines killed in the alien nest. This is a really old trick: setting someone up in a secondary role whom the audience will expect to see on screen for a long time, then killing them. It's a great device because though it is an "oldy but goody", the first time an audience watches there's no way of knowing a) if it'll be employed or b) if it is, on whom. So, the only survivors of those marines who go into the nest are Hudson, Hicks and Vasquez. So what are all the other marines' narrative function? To die. If your characters are supposed to die then, do it ASAP! Aliens did it by the end of the first act. Isolate your main characters, make them realise the chips are down and odds are against them - this increases drama.

But we still have eight human characters - in the other movie, the beast made eight. We still have nine.

Right again. Except this time, one of those characters is a child. All the adult characters, even a synthetic one like Bishop, perform vital functions in their own rights. Hudson is the damsel in distress, Vasquez is the gung-ho warrior, Hicks has an inflated sense of responsibility (as does Ripley, of course). Burke takes Ash's place as the villain, Gorman has a new role as an incompetent in which he must redeem himself, mirroring Bishop's as a saviour (though he's prejudiced against but crucially "forgives" Ripley). The beasts of course are the main threat and antagonists of the piece, just like the lone creature was in the first film.

Well, durr... What is Newt?!

Newt is less of a character and more of a plot device. Ripley fights to survive this time not for herself, but for her lost daughter on Earth as well as the notion of innocence in Newt's name: "My mommy said there were no monsters, no real ones, but there are, aren't there?" Newt is less of a character in her own right than a device that gives Ripley's character new meaning. This means, yet again, we are brought back to eight characters: two in primary roles, the rest in secondary.

What do you think? Any examples of movies with a "million characters" you can think of that work? And what of ensemble casts? Hmmm, intriguing... Over to you!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Wrong Number... Wrong Email?

We all get wrong number phone calls, I even wrote about one the other week in which I was mistaken for the mysterious Cerys Mitchell. It's easy to do, especially in this age of the push-button telephone.

But wrong emails are another matter. I've obviously received lots of spam in my inbox, but never an email conversation from one of my contacts destined for someone else.

Until today. The first one:

J, I told you to get that f****** copy in yesterday and it's still not here!

I write back,

Hi, that message isn't destined for me. See you Friday.

He returns with:

Don't f*** with me, I'm deadly serious: need the copy now!

I write back:

Seriously, it's not J. It's L. You've got us mixed up or something. See you Friday.

And again:

If you don't send me that f****** attachment RIGHT THIS MINUTE I swear I will come down to Luton and get wicked on your arse with a corkscrew. And that's just for starters.

It's just as well I know this emailer and the fact he's a 24 carat wimp (Hi N, gulp), else I might actually be scared right now for somebody in Luton. Especially since I'm pretty sure the offending J lives in Hackney.

"Wicked on your arse" though - using that...

Monday, October 20, 2008

Hello. Are You Insane?

So there's this guy on the SP list this morning who reckons writers should believe in their own talent and forget about using script readers. He also says that script reading doesn't lead on to anything - his mates who were script reading ten years ago are still script reading today.

As we all know, I'm a script reader, so I'm clearly going to think script reading is a good thing. So let me address his first point as a writer.


I believe in my own talent: if I didn't, I wouldn't send my stuff out. Hell, I probably wouldn't even write if I didn't. And like all of us, I think I rock more than my competition - because if I didn't, again I wouldn't send my stuff out. You have to have a certain amount of ego to write: forget about the scripts, you're essentially sending out a notice that says, OI. THIS IS BRILLIANT. EFFING READ IT (or words to that effect, at least).

But the thing is, no one can write the perfect script without some outside input. Why? Because if you want your script to be sent out, your script is not destined just for YOU, it's destined for the OUTSIDE WORLD. You will be asking people other than yourself to understand it - and because of this, you need to know what other people think of your ideas, way of writing it. There will have been opportunities missed in that first draft; there will be ambiguous turns of the narrative that are clear in YOUR head but not to a person who hasn't written it. This is why even commissioned and produced writers get assigned script editors. They don't just get given a storyline or a deal and go away and write: they EXPLORE alternative ways to tell the same story. It's a necessary part of the whole thing.

What's more, script reading DOES lead on to something - better writing. I've done A LOT of courses in scriptwriting, but I've learnt more script reading than anywhere. Script reading has been my training in what NOT to do three quarters of the time and what to aspire to a quarter of the time.

Of course you have to stick to your guns every now and again: just this weekend I wrote a pitch where a reader insisted I should try another angle, when in my heart I wanted to do the one I came up with. His angle was actually an interesting one, even a good one, but I just didn't want to do it that way, it *felt* wrong for the story I had conceived. And it's my story, not his. But he also came up with a truck load of other suggestions that IMPROVED my pitch. I'll send it off later today knowing that it's the best it can possibly be at this time thanks to him.

And that's the thing: you can tweak and polish all you want, but if you don't show it to anyone before you send it off, how can you possibly guess at how it might be received? You can't. This biz is difficult as it is, don't handicap yourself and prevent yourself from growing as a writer by denying yourself feedback - no matter who it comes from, I'd wager 9/10 your work will be improved.

But then you know that, right?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Nothing To See Here

Up to my veritable eyeballs, here: it's hard to see out of my kitchen window due to the stack of paper in there. Seriously. Even better, the cat's sitting on top of said paper mountain and making it wobble perilously AND more scripts are arriving later tonight by COURIER, but then I may die of a severe overload of work and a severe lack of sanity before the end of the day. William Hill are offering odds of 3/1. Whatever that means.

But if you want something sensible from me, check out Twelve Point where you will see one of my lovely shiny articles waiting for you. It's on how to promote yourself and your work. Yes, I am good to you, I know: stop crying, it's embarrassing, just go and read it. Cheers. And have a good weekend, I'll let you know if I'm still alive on Monday. Or maybe I'll just fake my death Reginald Perrins-style and leg it. Jury's out on that one at the moment.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Return of The Hoff

...No not *that* Hoff: Gordy Hoffman. He must have fallen in love with England, because he's back again for the third time in three months - and this time he'll be working through your all-important First Act with you. You'll even get written feedback after the workshop from Gordy too. Oh and of course being a Bang2writer you can get a discount. Nice one. What are you waiting for? Oh, you need a review? Here's one and here's another. Now go register.

I wanted everyone to know I will be coming back to lead a workshop on the First Act on Saturday, November 8th. This workshop will be limited to 12 writers and will run from 8:30-18:00.

Each writer will submit their First Act in advance of the workshop to allow all participants ample time to read.

I will be providing brief written feedback alongside the workshop itself to all 12 scripts.

Price is £95, but you can use the discount code CAMILLE to register for £80.

Complete info, including location of the class, can be found here.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Computers, Chopsticks and Cats Are Evil

Everything's gone a little bit whack lately over at Bang2write Towers (even by our usual whack standards), so it's no surprise a week in which I have gone to London two separate days already (and it's only Wednesday) means I now have an even more melting brain than I did on Monday.

Get this, for instance: eldest kid is sitting in front of the laptop when I get home from the train last night. "Hi son," I say, "What are you doing?"

"Well," he muses, "I'm going for a promotion at work and I have a big presentation tomorrow, but I don't think I'll get it."

Though I've never played a computer game in my life, I'm cool enough to know he's playing some kind of game in which he runs his own virtual house, family, career and pets, so I say knowingly: "Ah, but you can do anything you put your virtual mind to."

"Except my virtual mind's not on the job," My son confesses, "You see, my wife just turned into a lesbian and left me, plus our kid's been taken into care."


Yesterday I went to Camden and had lunch with the marvellous Julian Friedmann. We went to a Japanese restaurant where he proved himself charming company and I proved to be the biggest klutz in the history of the world with a pair of chopsticks. How I didn't take his eye out I don't know. Julian very nicely pretended not to notice this, yet I still felt the desperate urge to sabotage myself further so found myself telling him about Facebook, Lolcats and the Oxford Comma. I can see him going back to Twelve Point HQ and circulating my picture amongst all the staff there, telling them to avoid me - he only just got out alive!!!

Finally, BeeBee the most senior cat of the household, has led me a merry dance the last few days. She buggered off before breakfast on Monday and wasn't seen until approximately twenty minutes ago. Lilirose and I have been combing the streets by our house - and finally discovered BeeBee stuck in a cupboard in the fridge-rebuilding place round the corner. The Polish owner doesn't speak much English, so I was communicating with him with my EFL-inspired hand signals ("Cat? Miaow? In your house??") and he goes "Ahhh, noise - here! Yours, yes?" and opens one of the workshop cupboards - and out trots BeeBee as if she's in there every day. I did try asking the chap if it was normal to keep cats in cupboards where he comes from, but he just smiled and said "Excellent day, yes? Good luck."

What have you been up to?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Stop Press: VERY Important News

There is a new version of The Bible - and it's in Lolcat.

Blatantly link-whored from Piers who blatantly link-whored from Stevyn. Thus link-whore from me my friends and spread the good word of our feline friends.

K Thx bye!

Head Exploding. Back... Later.

I feel at the moment as if my head is beset with stories.

On the one hand, I have my RPP entry. It's going pretty well: I have a full draft, I've had lots of feedback and yesterday I had a read-through with some lovely actors. They offered me lots of great suggestions, thoughts and points of view for improving the script, though they did suggest I might need to re-align the beginning. I actually agree with them, but of course I've already sent my ten pages off. However I couldn't have had this epiphany BEFORE this point and it's a good beginning, but it needs - well, realignment considering the further changes I also want to make. Bugger. Still, live and learn. IF I get through to the next round I can worry about it then.

On the other hand, I have my novel. I've started dreaming about my characters now and their situation, it's invading my thoughts at every opportunity. This is quite strange for me, since I can normally keep quite a tight rein on my ideas; one has never run away with me before. I find myself chewing it over like some kind of weird dream chewing gum. A bit like this on saturday:

HUSBAND: Can you take the vaccuum upstairs and vaccuum the bedroom?

ME: There was this boy and girl in my college when I was a kid who had a baby.

HUSBAND: That's lovely. Can you do the vaccuuming?

ME: The thing is, do you think readers would accept that in a story, or do you think they would be too weirded out?

HUSBAND: I'm weirded out. Can you do the vaccuuming?

ME: I don't think I'll put that in after all. What if there was a lost baby of some kind?

So it's kind of getting in the way. Plus the script reading too: having to earn money is such a bitch. Is there some sort of antidote for all this? Maybe I should just write the bastard novel until it's done. Thing is, I've got loads of other things to do. Currently co-writing something with someone, collaborating with someone else and writing a treatment for someone else. Which is great, loving all of that, but dead and lost babies and general weirdness is kinda messing with my spiritual equilibrium.

Know what I mean?

Friday, October 10, 2008

Novel Update # 1: Profanity, Character Creation & Baked Beans

In a week where I found myself writing the term "spunk vampire" in a Bang2writer's development notes (hi Allen), I have discovered my novel so far is full of profanity as well.

That won't come as a surprise to those who know me in real life. As my own mother points out, I have "a gob like a sewer". She had hoped I was one of those teens who would grow out of it in time, but sadly she's had to give up: f*** this s***!

What did surprise me was the word that has popped up most consistently - and please avert your eyes, my less profane readers - is COCK. I had no idea I had such a preoccupation with such a word; I cannot think of a single time I've even SAID it. But there it is, no less than FOURTEEN TIMES, in just thirteen thousand words. Hmmm.

I've adopted the Adrian Mead no-rewriting "emetic draft" approach to my novel though, so I won't be changing it any time soon: I have one hundred and seven thousand words to THROW UP before I can return to fixing such things. I have the ending in mind, I know what I'm doing - kind of - but I'm seeing what turns up. I'm making all kinds of connections between events as I go along, which is weird. Normally I have all my set ups, pay offs etc all planned out in advance - yet now I'm finding them knitting themselves together of their own accord. It seems to be working, but of course I could just be kidding myself.

One really odd thing that happened was the creation of a character I hadn't planned. I'd always envisaged this novel as a two-hander, with two characters in the lead roles: one male, one female. But very swiftly I got bored - about two thousand words in - and another character, Robbie, was born. He does not play his part *with* my two other main characters in this narrative: he's actually miles away from them, dealing with his own problems surrounding the situation they've all found themselves in. This now means the narrative has more of an ensemble cast, something I had never thought of doing. When did that happpen? How? If you sit down at your keyboard to do something, how do you end up doing something else that you hadn't thought of? I suppose I must have done, somewhere deep in my psyche, but it's like, well-weird, man.

Finally, skimming through the start of my novel last night, I discovered that there's one other motif that crops up again and again: baked beans. Cans of baked beans, eating baked beans, throwing a can of beans through a window. I had no idea I liked the damn things so much. What a voyage of discovery.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

When Is A Rejection A Rejection If I Don't Hear Anything?

Hello to the mysterious Red Baron, who emailed me with this yesterday:

I'm new to the scriptwriting business and I was wondering whether you could give me some advice. Last April I sent a script to a production company. They replied back positively in May, asking for a series treatment, character biographies etc. Since June, I haven't heard anything back from them.

From your experience, how long does it take for production companies to reply back and do you think I should ask them for an update, or by asking them would I be jeopardising my chances?

First off, I'm happy to offer my experiences - but they're obviously just mine. Others will have different outlooks and opinions, even of the same prodcos and people I've dealt with.

Secondly, I think only stalking producers, sending them a dozen dead roses and killing their pets, friends and family jeopardises a writer's chances: asking for updates (as long as it's not a barrage, but a politely worded email or phone call) should never cause a decent prodco to chuck you in the rejection pile. If it does, you're probably better off without them!

Obviously, it can depend on the prodco and what they actually make. I've found TV companies to take longer than film companies for example. Interestingly, new media producers (internet drama people in particular) take virtually no time at all. I sent an query email to New Me TV and was emailed back within ten minutes! Another couple I've queried have responded in a similar speedy manner.

If it's a VERY big prodco, *usually* they respond after rather a long time - anything between 4 and 6 months. The BBC have taken anything up to 8 months with me, as have ITV and Granada. With one company, I waited a whole year only to be told in no uncertain terms to get lost: damn! Sometimes though they respond immediately (by that I mean the same week, rather than the same day), usually because they really like you or your project: they'll then usually ask a scribe to send more stuff and either get back to them very quickly again (usually for a meeting), or they never talk to you again! This has also happened to me.

Other times, middle-sized companies have not responded at all to me, though once, a company asked me to write some pitches, responded favourably, talked to me on the phone for a WHOLE HOUR, asked me to call back on the Friday - then dodged my call and never spoke to me again. That was really annoying.

Small companies I've found either respond IMMEDIATELY (literally within days) or never speak to you. Or worse, confirm receipt of stuff, say they WILL get back to you, then you never hear from them again.

Other times, the person I've been dealing with has moved on or been fired - that can also be annoying, 'cos the replacement does not always want to follow up what their predeccessor was doing; some even make a point of starting with a completely new list of potential projects. When that happens, a politely worded query will tell you what you want to know: I find usually they will reply in a very polite manner wishing you "all the best for your future" - in other words, get lost. Again.

Sometimes, unexpected things happen. I had a great meeting with a producer once, followed it up with several emails, he was still really enthusiastic: then there was complete radio silence. I was miffed but moved on... Only to be contacted about a month after that to say he had been REALLY ILL, but was okay now, could we pick up where we left off? Also, very early in my career I was talking to an agent who seemed to love my work, then disappeared off the face of the planet. It was only a couple of years ago I discovered the poor man had actually DIED very suddenly of a heart attack.

Summing up then, don't worry about following up the progress of your submissions - I find phone calls work better than emails; write a phone script if you feel nervous. Chances are someone's assistant will just take a message anyway (remember to leave your email address or phone number so they can get back to you).If no one gets bacj to you, there's your answer.

I wouldn't phone more than twice and I wouldn't email more than about twice either. I usually phone once and email once and then let it go. Having said that, some of my best opportunities have come from NOT letting it go for one reason or another - but just don't bombard them with demands! Leave plenty of time between communications, else you run the risk of said person opening their inbox and going, "Them AGAIN!" Not good.

It is worth remembering too that just because you've been rejected once, doesn't mean you can't approach that person again. Some of my best contacts now have come from my repeated approaches. I'll usually say something like "Hi, you may remember my script [blah] last year/ six months ago/etc, it was about [blah]. You passed, but you said [blah] about it. I was wondering if you'd like to read another script of mine?" I find they will often say yes. That doesn't mean they'll take the next send of course, but you're building up a profile in their head - and that IS good, because eventually you and this person may end up working together. You have to play the long game, nothing happens "just like that". I'm working with someone right now I met when I was 24 - it's been nearly five years, but after reading three billion of my specs, he's finally found the right project we BOTH want to make... And because we now know each other very well, it's going to be 150% better than it could have been five years ago.

So don't let rejection get you down. Feel free to follow up on your submissions (as long as it's in a sensible manner) and chalk up the radio silences to experience. If you get any feedback, ALWAYS say thank you. If you can add that producer or company to your Facebook or similar - do so, though don't bombard them with weird Superwall crap or chuck sheep at them. If you happen to be in their area, ask if your contact wants to go for a coffee, you're buying: sometimes they say yes.

Be brave - it can pay dividends. What's the worst they can do? Ignore you. 'Nuff sed.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Feltham Made Me

Long term Bang2writer Paolo Sedazzari has launched his own drama series, Feltham Made Me. I've read for Paolo loads, right from when I started Bang2write officially back in 2005: he's a great guy with a fab imagination and wicked sense of humour, so I'm looking forward to watching this myself. Click any of the titles, Feltham Made Me, to watch. Enjoy!
Covering a thirty year time span, Feltham Made Me is the tale of three lads growing up together in the suburbs of London, put together from transcripts of hours upon hours of interviews.

Most of the material has come directly from the three men – ermott, Jerry and Peter. But also included are interviews with their teachers, parents, friends, enemies, work-mates and chance acquaintances.

Feltham Made Me takes you on a frenetic journey through Britain’s cultural landscape from the seventies right through to present day. But the cultural reference points like the Planet of the Apes, Subbuteo, Man About the House, Punk, John Peel, The Jam, 2-Tone, The Young Ones, The Smiths and Acid House are merely shifting scenery to the real story: a story about male friendship and the strains put upon it over the years.

The transition from boyhood to manhood is never easy. In Feltham Made Me we chart every painful and significant step along the way – from screaming kids in a playground right through to bickering men in a boozer.
Good luck Paolo!

Monday, October 06, 2008

Looking For Paul Molloy

It had to happen sometime, I'm surprised it's taken this long - but I cannot deliver some feedback to a Bang2writer!

Are you Paul Molloy?? If so, I have DONE your feedback on your treatment. Unfortunately the email I'm sending to, despite being fine LAST week and the week before, now appears not to work! I've tried from several different email accounts too, thinking AOL didn't like your service provider, to no avail. Unfortunately on all the scripts you've sent me in the past you've never put your contact details on the front, so I have no telephone number to alert you. Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh...

You're not expecting your notes until close of biz tonight, so I'm guessing I won't get any response til tomorrow. But PLEASE - email my hotmail account with another email address or leave an email address in the comments here. Then I can send you your notes! Thanks!

My Way Or The Highway

I'm a very lucky script reader: I'd venture that about 80% of my clients come back to me having taken the plunge of being read. I guess that must mean I don't deliver completely devastating notes, prompting people to never speak to me again. Judging by the changes in the drafts I see too, I guess my advice must be alright - the specs I see nearly always get better, if only in part; they rarely get worse. How a script reader is judged as "good" or "bad" is always something to be debated however - one reader may be right for one person and not for another. This could be down to the priorities one has for one's writing ("Will you SHUT UP about structure! I'm concerned about CHARACTERS," one of my Po3ers said only the other day, in fact - I love you really, MWAH: even if you're hideously wrong, hah!) or just down to the most basic of personality clashes.

One thing I do hear A LOT however is this:

"I redrafted based on your notes... I took most of what you said on board, but not all of it as I felt it would change the script too much."

Or words to that effect, at least. And it's funny: the above is almost like an apology, as if I would myself be gutted they didn't take everything on board. My question then has to be:

Why would you?

We're not dealing with the development of a commissioned script here, where the writer is the producer or network's bitch. This is YOUR idea, your baby, your script. As experienced as a reader may be, they cannot possibly share the love you have for that script, because they did not conceive of it. They are looking at it from the OUTSIDE, tweaking it here and there, sometimes according to craft; sometimes according to opinion, preference or even prejudice. Readers are human beings: they all have those things, even if we say we haven't. I find it hard to like scripts with gratuitous rape scenes in as everyone knows, but I also find it difficult to like scripts with torture (particularly the 17th style torture of women as witches); scripts in which children are murdered or abused; scripts which have funky, self-aware Joss Whedon-style dialogue; rom-coms generally where the woman HAS TO REALISE she's very selfish or the man HAS TO REALISE he's an arse. That's not to say it can't happen. I have liked scripts with all of these things in (bar the gratuitous rape, I hasten to add).

If it's your story and you love it - and we all have to love our specs, else we wouldn't write them - then you have to do what you think is best for that spec. If that means looking at some notes and thinking, "Well, the idea's sound, but it's not what I was going for" then please, be my guest.

However, there are not just two options here. I'm always surprised by how many scribes think that you either a) do what the reader says or b) leave the script the way it is.

That's not how feedback works - at least, not from me.

If a professional reader flags something up, then it's usually for a good reason; I can't imagine many readers write notes just for the fun of it, they have a job to do and the vast majority I've used myself do it well. Usually they will make a point because it "sticks out" or just doesn't go down as well as the rest of the script. In short, that element usually needs some attention. But what if you don't like the reader's suggestion for that element or feel it takes too much away from the story you're trying to tell?

Change it.

Change it HOW you see it. I've lost count of the number of times I've had notes saying, "Wouldn't it be cool if..." and a suggestion for my draft follows and I've thought, "Yeah, that would be cool, but I want something of my own." I've gone away, brainstormed, thought about it - changed it. The element that needed attention has had it and yes, it's gone down better than what it was previously. Everyone's happy.

So it's not your way or the highway - there is another way. Just find out what that other way is.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Warp Films: Want To Be In A Feature?

Following my post back in August about indie film funding via asking members of the public, it would seem this tactic is now making it on to the likes of Facebook too. What interested me about this one was the relatively low figure asked for (£25) and the big talent involved, though there is much detail on what your £25 gets you - though presumably if you email they will tell you. If you're interested in funding the next potentially big indie film then, check out this initiative by Sheffield-based Warp Films:

£25 to fund and appear in Chris Morris' Jihadi Comedy

Following rumours in the press and online, Warpfilms can confirm that Chris Morris' comedy about British Jihadis is being made by Warpfilms as an independently funded cinema feature. The script has been written by Chris in collaboration with Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain and is now ready to shoot. Production will begin as soon as we are fully funded. To that end we are running a number of investment schemes including donations which give you the chance to be in the film.

If interested, please email fundingmentalism"at"warpfilms"dot"com or join the Facebook group here and pass the news on to ten people in your contacts list.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Life's What You Make It...

... Don't you just love cliches? Cliches may be easily disregarded - but I've always been of the opinion cliches become cliches because they're actually true. Just like your mother offers advice you inevitably scoff at, there's a part deep inside you where it resonates... Or it is at least filed away, for future ref: something will happen and then it clicks, "So THAT'S what she meant!"

You only need half an eye on the blogs to notice that 2008 has been a difficult year for many of us, including myself. My issues have not just been career-orientated, though it's funny how rejections, disagreements, disappointments and general hassle to do with screenwriting seems to sometimes compound other life stuff: all the bad things seem to come at once, don't they? And it's easy to think the world is against you and *everyone else* should die or at least get some painful disease that involves suppurating sores and other oozing discomforts.

And it's not over yet - because we're not finished yet. Though I might have given up screenwriting no less than four times this year, not one of those times I quit lasted more than three days. Why? Because the tide turns so quickly.

I remember back at the beginning of the year being absolutely HYSTERICAL about one *thing*, I was so, so, so mad: I was literally breathing FIRE. I was going to kill everyone in this production company, never mind just the person who had been dealing with me and had pissed me off royally. My husband got home from work and I told him I was taking a job at a SCHOOL up the road; I was going to take a permanent position I had been offered. Sod this screenwriting lark! What the hell was I doing, anyway? I was writing for - what? No money, no respect, no security, NOTHING. I was going to quit scriptwriting, script reading; I was even going to pull the plug on this very blog as a symbol of how very serious I was. It's thanks to Him Indoors that it's still here! I really did have my finger on the mouse, the cursor hovering: he was urging me to STEP AWAY FROM THE DELETE BUTTON. As upset as I was at that very second, he advised, I would be even MORE upset in the long run if I went through with it.

And so I slept on it and he was right, of course. It even seems quite funny now that particular episode inspired SUCH an extreme reaction: as rude and obnoxious as the person was to me, I've actually had worse. I guess it was the straw that broke the camel's back at the time. It's why I married my Hub anyway: his inexplicable calm offsets what our Jase kindly called my "preposterous melodrama" only yesterday!

So, all in all a pants eight months or so has actually inspired a new way of thinking in me. Whilst I've always appreciated you have to change things if you don't like the way something's going, I guess I was always within the realm of "okay" enough to not want to really take the BIG RISKS. Swerving right into the realm of all-or-nothing and being hit with a truck-sized amount of obstacles was actually the best thing that could have happened, in retrospect. Yes, I was reeling for a bit but now I'm back on my feet. I've made my decision: if it's a choice between all or nothing, I'm taking it all. And I know I have to do it myself. And I will.

What about you?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Ready... Set .... Go!

Okay, so after many, many months of supposed research, general panic, swearing, avoiding phone calls from my agent about it, internet surfing and talking about starting I have, finally, started my novel. And when I say started, I mean I started yesterday. But I have actually written five thousand actual words. And they're actually good. Alright, semi-good. I'm pretty certain I've ripped off my beginning by accident (don't you just hate it when that happens?) and that my character is named after someone in a bloody band (I must figure out which one), but otherwise I think it might actually go somewhere.

Of course, that all depends on whether my agent will read it, because the novel I actually pitched to him wasn't actually the one I started yesterday. I wrote nearly ten thousand words of the other one, but with the risk of sounding like a luvvy or some kind of porn-addict, I JUST WASN'T FEELING IT, MAN. Every time I called up my document I got this kind of heart sinking feeling. I mean, this book was for CHILDREN. I don't do children - I like disutrbing stories of maiming and general despair combined with twisted Clive Barker dystopian visions. Even I'm not freaky enough to subject that on children, even though my boy seems to have some disturbing reading habits himself already - check out this freaky cover on a book he brought home from the library. I'm scared just to open it, never mind read it.

So now I've leapt from a children's novel in which twin boys live in a castle, to one in which an ensemble of very different characters attempt to get through a Strange Apocalyptic Event (it's a secret in case you hadn't guessed, hah). Luckily for me, my agent has read this as a pitch doc as I originally conceived it as a feature, before I realised it would need to be approximately 12 hours long to fit in everything I wanted to squish in there. So it won't be a complete surprise to him, though last time he saw it his exact words were "I worry about you."

So why am I telling you? Well, it's just to make sure I get the bastard finished to be honest. I figure if that I write 2000 words a day AT LEAST, every day, I should get this finished(-ish) by the end of the year. Of course, we all know that's not going to happen, but the shame should at least ensure I've broken the back of it and at least mean I have a first draft ready for some serious editing around the end of January. Or February.

So, first of October, we have 5000 words. Just another 115,000 to go.

Wish me luck - and keep poking me on how far I've got!