Wednesday, May 18, 2016

REJECTION IMPACT

I didn't make the LSWF IMPACT 50... I also wasn't one of the ScreenCraft Fellowship Winners... and my wife won't let me buy a 4K 3D HD TV! You're probably thinking I'm close to taking my own life right about now, eh? WRONG!

Yes, I was disappointed - especially about the TV - but I'm not going to dwell on things. It would be too easy to rage against those who were successful and say, "I hate those smug bastards! I'm gonna hunt them down, find out where they live, wait until they go out, break in their home and do a poop in their cornflakes!" That's one way to deal with things I suppose, but it really is wrong to hate people who achieve what we all work towards. Why?

You have to remember they were us on Monday, fingers crossed in fervent hope, praying the writing gods would be kind, so we shouldn't deny them their success and happiness. After all, they have worked hard, struggled over several years, written and rewritten to get to where they are today... just like us. It was their turn. Think of them as a beacon, proof it is possible, a bloody great big flashing light of hope for all of us. If they can do it, why can't we?

Remember your rejection isn't personal, even if it does feel like it now. They didn't reject you, they just didn't pick your work, and that could have been for any number of practical reasons... it doesn't mean your work is shit. The question you have to ask yourself is, "Was I happy enough with my screenplay to submit it?" If the answer is yes then why are you now questioning its quality?

You might be entering the 'analyzing' stage at this point, asking yourself, "What the hell did I do wrong! What the fuck didn't they like?" Don't go there. The worst thing you can do as a writer is to go through your screenplay and ask yourself what the judges didn't like; what aspect of your screenplay lost you your place? If you start questioning what people don't like about your work, why they rejected it, you can start to loose your creativity. Yes, you need feedback, but blindly trying to guess why you didn't win a competition is only going to screw you up into a tiny little ball of frustration. I've been there. It's not good for you. Or those around you.

Shrug your shoulders, say 'oh well' and move on. There are other competitions, other characters to be created, other screenplays to sweat over. Your life is not over just because you didn't make it this time! There will be other opportunities.

When I learned of my two rejections yesterday I reminded myself I have a new feature commission to get on with. I am not doomed! My writing isn't drivel! I have faced rejection and stared it down. I've pinched the nose of despair, tweaked the nipples of destiny and grabbed my career by the balls. I am 'WRITER', hear me roar! Huzzah!

So if you were disappointed yesterday, shrug it off, dust yourself down and get on with something new. Be fucking awesome!

Oh, and as for that TV... my finger might accidently slip while browsing the Currys website. Just saying..!

Happy writing!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

THE CHARACTER JIGSAW

One of the obvious writing mistakes I made when starting out was trying to cram as much of my main character's back story into the first act as I could. Schoolboy error.

Like the vast majority of new writers I wanted to get everything in early, to set it all up as quickly as possible so I could get on with my plot. Consequently my first acts were nearly as long as my second acts.

Over the years I've read many books on how to write screenplays, how to structure, plot and where to put what, but the most fascinating books for me were always the ones that concentrated on character. Here are a few things I learnt reading about and developing my own characters.
  • Your main character doesn't need to be good, just interesting.
  • Everyone is flawed no matter how perfect they might seem. Even Jesus had a temper.
  • Everyone has their own wants and desires that drive them. How far is your character willing to go to achieve them and who are they willing to climb over in the process?
  • Look at your plot from every character's point of view. How do they see it? 
  • Not every character learns and grows, some will stay the same.
  • Occasionally your characters will do something completely out of character, something that will add depth to who they are.
But the most important thing I've learnt is that even though you need to know everything you can about your character before you start writing, you don't have to reveal all of that information to make them work, or do them justice. Take the character of Anton in No Country For Old Men. What do we know about him? Not very much. We don't know why he's a killer, or what childhood trauma drove him to become one. His mysteriousness is part of who he is. Ultimately he's a far more interesting character because we don't know.

Character, unlike plot, doesn't need to be tied up or resolved at the end. Characters don't need to be laid bare, their motivations explained, who they are examined under a microscope. The richest characters for me are the ones who are not fully explained, the ones that have an air of mystery.

It's human nature to seek answers to what we don't know or understand. What caused the teenager with a stable family to sacrifice himself as a suicide bomber? What childhood incident caused a successful businessman to attack a taxi driver when he accidently took him to the wrong address? The media delve into the backgrounds of these people in an attempt to find answers, to justify why these people might do such things, to explain away what would otherwise be just too terrifying to contemplate. If there's an answer, an explanation, it's easier to deal with and accept.

For a writer this can be dangerous. We already know to get into scenes late and get out early, so why do we try and explain every facet of our characters and why they do what they do? Whether you love or hate Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight the Joker Heath Ledger portrayed was exactly the kind of character we all fear. He had no backstory, no motivation for who he was and he was a more terrifying character because of it; "Some men just want to watch the world burn."

So treat your character like a jigsaw. Don't try and complete him/her in the first act. Take your time. Feed the audience a piece here and there. Those little reveals of character throughout the screenplay add new, interesting layers to the characters you create and can add another dimension to the story you are telling.

And remember, with every jigsaw puzzle there's always at least one piece that goes missing, the one that drops down the side of the sofa, gets chewed by the kids or the dog, or the one sucked up in the vacuum cleaner.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

ENCOURAGING CHILDREN TO WRITE

On our last visit to my parents', my mother gave my eldest son Alex a leaflet for a short story competition. The challenge; between 750 and 1000 words on any subject he chose.

My son is very competitive. He loves football, karate and pretty much any sport. He excels at school and is in the top group for everything. However, he isn't very creative and it's a constant battle to tear him away from the games on his tablet. "This will be a challenge," I thought.

So I sat him down and tried to explain about good characterisation, the three act structure, and many other helpful writing tips. Five minutes in he crinkled his nose and looked up at me.

"Daaaaaad!"

"What's up," I said?

"I just want to get on and write it."

So I shut up and let him.

It took him nearly four weeks to write his story, writing and rewriting, asking me what I thought, erasing bits he didn't like and not once did he moan he couldn't do it. His enthusiasm was inspiring. It reminded me of how I feel when I'm in the zone. It was joyous to watch him as he beavered away in the corner of our living room, head down typing away at the laptop, occasionally staring into space while his little grey cells searched for the perfect word to compliment his story. I was so proud.

Alex finally finished his story last night, just before bed. He asked me to read it. I have to admit it was pretty good for an eight-year-old. Of course, now his entry is in I'll probably be asked about forty times a day if he's won it yet, at least until the results are finally published... but that's just Alex.

What's important here is he loved the process, had fun with it and worked hard to get those pesky elusive words down on the page. I hope his story will be the first of many... but that's just me.

Maybe one day he'll be writing his own screenplays.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

DECONSTRUCTING

On rare occasions, despite weeks of preparation, I find a screenplay isn't quite working.

It would be easy to sit there and fiddle with it, changing bits here and there in the hope that it all suddenly came together, but the reality is sometimes you have to take it apart, deconstruct and then rebuild, to discover what's wrong and to move it forward. I have a second draft at the moment which I reread the other day and have since come to the conclusion it would really benefit with being deconstructed. I could have tried to rewrite it like normal, but as it's such a great story I felt the extra effort of deconstructing it is a worthwhile effort.

By deconstruction I don't mean you should completely rewrite a screenplay from scratch, that would be terribly time-consuming and unnecessary. What I suggest is you separate each act, look closely at how it's constructed and rejig it if necessary. Yes, it is a little more work than simply going over and over your screenplay, again and again, rewriting the hell out of it, but it's worth it. So how do you go about it?

As I said above split your screenplay into acts, further splitting Act Two in half. It's far easier looking at a screenplay in smaller sections than it is as a whole.

Start with Act One and take a close look at where the beats occur. Are they in the right place? Are they strong enough? Then look at your characters. Are they appealing? Have you set them up sufficiently? Then look at your scenes. Are you getting in late and getting out early? Is there enough conflict?

The most common mistake I find in the first act, something I'm guilty of too with every single one of my first drafts, is that by spending so much time setting things up the act overruns by five to ten pages. Are there character bits you can use later in the script? Is there too much dialogue and exposition? Once you've looked at these things, rebuilt and rewritten, your first act will be in a much better place.

Then all you have to do is repeat this for the remaining three sections of your screenplay and you'll be laughing.

Sometimes it's necessary to revisit your original thinking, as your view on things will most likely have changed after you've written a few drafts. Deconstructing you screenplay is the best and most effective way to do this.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

THE ETERNAL PLOD

I've been quite lucky as a writer over the last six years.

The first year I went full-time freelance it was website work that kept me going financially, as it wasn't until the beginning of the second year I landed my first feature commission. From then on for the next four years, I was pretty much writing nonstop, going from one commission to the next until May last year. It was scary not to have another commission lined up for when I finished the project I was working on, but at least I had the time to write two of my own spec scripts and I had plenty of reading work to get on with. Still it was a worrying time and it began to play on my mind.

When would my next commission come? Would I ever work again? Was my career over just as it started? These thoughts and many other whizzed around my head, mocking, teasing, gradually eroding away my confidence in my writing ability and my career. Some of my commissioned projects stalled, others morphed, some transferred to different mediums and one almost went into production. But I kept going through all of it. I didn't have a choice.

I spent so many years chasing the Holy Grail of that first commission, I automatically assumed I had made it when I finally landed it and kept going. I was wrong. There's no such thing as 'making it'. During the quiet period last year I realised as a writer I'm only as good as my last successful project. It's not just a matter of being a good writer. My work has to get made and do well. Even then there's no guarantee I'll be working continuously when that happens.

There will be periods when everyone wants a piece of me, when everyone wants me to come in for a chat, when they offer me TV episodes, when they want to work with me. But like all things in life, there will be quiet times when there's not much going on. It's those times I have to work my hardest, keep plodding away even when some days I want to do anything but.

I think of myself as a shark. I have to keep swimming to survive. I can't stop... ever! If I do I'll die. Even when there's nothing around to feed me I have to keep going and going and going and going and going until there is. I can't sit back and wait for things to come to me. There's only one way to go and that's forward. There is no other direction.

I've slowly learned to make the most of the opportunities I'm given and not worry too much when things are quiet. It's not a matter of 'if' something else comes along, it's only a matter of 'when', but if I'm not working towards that it's never going to come.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

WHY FEEDBACK IS IMPORTANT - BLOG REWIND

This blog was originally posted 13/06/2012 and has been edited.

My agent read my treatment and then emailed me yesterday to say it was nearly ready, but could I add a couple more bits to clarify a relationship. I've spent just over two months working hard on the treatment, going through several drafts. I could have easily said, "I'm done, it's ready, send it out," but my agent's feedback, like any good feedback, is vital. Working on anything for that length of time and that closely, can blind you to its faults. You need a fresh pair of experienced eyes.

Feedback on your script/treatment/one page pitch is important, it helps you identify faults and give you the tools to correct them. It helps you to rewrite and rewriting is the life blood of all writers. Feedback is something every successful writer craves and actively seeks. Without it they die.


It's all very easy as new writer to spend weeks, maybe even months writing a screenplay and then think it's the bee's balls and as soon as you send it out it's going to be snapped up for bag full of money. I've made that mistake and so have many other writers I know. The truth is the first draft of anything is crap, no matter if you think otherwise. What makes us different is that we recognised our naivety and have worked hard since to make everything we write the best we can possibly make it. It's not been an easy journey, I can promise you that.

There are even new writers who actively avoid feedback, because they can't take criticism even when it's constructive. I've had nasty emails sent to me in the past after giving feedback, telling me I don't know what I'm on about and why can't I recognise the writer's obvious genius. All readers at some point get emails like that, it's unavoidable and very counterproductive for the writer. If the reader thinks your work isn't up to standard it's a sure bet a producer is going to think that too and will just send it back, or bin it. To improve at anything in life it's vitally important that you can take criticism, otherwise you won't advance, learn, or better yourself.

To make your screenplay the best it can be and of a standard that will make production companies sit up and take notice you have to have feedback and the right kind of feedback is important. Friends and writers at the same level as you are helpful for identifying the obvious faults, but for more in depth analysis of your screenplay you need a professional reader and will have to pay for their services.

Why should I use a professional reader?

Most professional readers have been trained to identify what's wrong with a screenplay and offer suggestions on how to fix it. They are not just going by gut instinct. The better ones will have worked as readers for production companies so are well aware of the common faults in scripts submitted to producers and the reasons 99% of them are rejected.

Why should I pay for feedback when I can get my friends to give me feedback for free?

As above. If your friends are at the same level in their career as you their advice, although helpful, won't be at the level you need to help you take a step up. If you want experience and professional insight then a reader is a must, they are the ones to help you really get to the heart of your screenplay's problems and fix them. Even professional writers with long careers in TV and film use the services of readers, just to get another set of eyes to look at their work. You don't have to keep shelling out pound notes for several sets of notes on just one screenplay. Get your friends and fellow writers to feedback on it first, then when you think it might be ready pay a reader to take a look. That way you won't bankrupt yourself and will get the help you need. The benefits far out weigh any cost.
Happy writing!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

SACRIFICE

To be a writer requires sacrifice... a lot of sacrifice... and I don't mean chickens, virgins or your fellow writers. What I mean is hard work, dedication, going without the little luxuries in life and generally whatever it takes to build and sustain a successful writing career.

I read this article on Facebook yesterday - WORK ETHIC

It is a brilliant response from a writer to a young woman who complained on social media about how little she was paid by her employer, was then consequently sacked because of the post and later went back on to social media to beg people for money so her standard of living wouldn't drop while she looked for a better paid job. The writer went on to explain all the hard, horrible, humiliating jobs she had worked over the years to feed, clothe and house herself so she could achieve her dream of writing as a career and questioned the young woman's work ethic.

Nothing good comes easy. A career needs to be worked at. No one is going to come to you and offer you employment as a writer if you haven't put the hard graft in before hand, or are willing to continue to do so. You don't get anything for free and no one owes you anything. If you're thinking of someone who's an exception and you're about to counter my argument with their example... then you deserve to fail in your career aspirations. Yes there are exceptions, but you honestly would have better odds of winning the National Lottery than walking into a fully fledged writing career on the back of your first completed screenplay. If you become the exception then good luck to you, but if you're waiting around for it to happen then I want to thank you, as there's now one less writer in the world I have to compete with.
It took me ten years to get my writing career off the ground. Ten years working evenings and nights in an awful job, sometimes coming home in the early hours in tears because I hated it so much, so stressed out I barely slept for weeks in a row. Ten years of sacrifice so I could support my wife and children, which meant no holidays abroad and only the one week away a year somewhere in the UK thanks to the kindness of relatives, turning down friends' invitations and staying in at weekends and at one point selling pretty much all of my belongings - my extensive DVD collection, books, games and anything else that would bring in money - so my family could eat and live in a safe, warm home.

Despite the fact my career took off five years ago I still work several part-time jobs during the evenings and weekends to ensure a steady supply of income, as writing for feature films can pay so sporadically, regular income isn't guaranteed. At one point I was writing full-time during the day and working three part-time jobs during evenings and weekends, which obviously took me away from my family and left me feeling exhausted on the rare occasions I was at home. With five features behind me and work on the sixth about to start soon I have been able to drop one of those part-time jobs and spend a little more time with my family, mostly at weekends which I try to keep clear, but my career progression still requires a huge amount of sacrifice and I'm sure this will never change.

That's why writing is so difficult, so daunting and why so many talented people unfortunately give up and pursue other careers. If you understand what is required of you and you are prepared to put the hours in, then writing can be very rewarding, but it takes a great deal of stubbornness and resilience to get there and stay there. If that's you, then...

Happy writing.