Wednesday, June 29, 2016

AM I TOO OLD?

When I hit middle age I got a tattoo, started working out, took up karate, lost a stone and a half and worried far too much about my future and how little of it there was left. My biggest concern was career progression... would I drop dead before I managed to break into TV?
Oscar winner Julian Fellowes -
Photo copyright of AP

My first thought - Was I too old to have a writing career in TV? My second thought - TV producers are mainly looking for young writers eager to learn and easy to mould, right? My third thought - Why do I have hairs growing out of my ears?

Then I read this quote on one of Bangers's (Lucy Hay - Bang2Write) many informative pages:

It’s never too late!

"Bang2writers tell me all the time they fear they’re “running out of time”. But Julian (Fellowes) has a brilliant SECOND career as a screenwriter and only started in his middle age. As he says of GOSFORD PARK, “I was this fat, bald actor nearly fifty, suddenly writing a Hollywood film!” This could be any one of us, IF we keep going and keep ourselves open. 
Lucy Hay, 2016
He'll be sixty-eight this year and he's still writing. Blimey! Suddenly I didn't feel so old. There was hope for my creaking bones and failing memory. Maybe, just maybe my life experience, maturity (ha!) and wisdom were a valuable commodity in the world of TV production.

Then from the depths of my dodgy memory, I recalled a moment last year when a writer came to me asking me to give him feedback on his TV pilot. He had a couple of TV people interested in reading it and wanted to polish it before he sent it off. He showed a great enthusiasm for his work, a willingness to listen to alternative ideas and was open to constructive criticism... and he was seventy-three years old.

So I guess the lesson I learnt here is not to categorise myself. It doesn't matter who you are. It only matters what you write and how you approach your work. Age, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc, are labels. Great writing is great writing and eagerly sought by producers, directors, script editors and development executives alike.

Here's another great link from Bangers... enjoy! - Why It's Never Too Late To Start Writing Your Masterpiece.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

PLANNING YOUR STORY

I've always found story planning a pain, something akin to swimming up river wearing a suit made of concrete. That tricky second act is a bugger and often comes back to haunt me like last night's curry.

The way I approach structuring my writing has changed many times over the years and at the moment I'm using a combination of Blake Snyder's Save The Cat beat sheet and blank index cards.

I would always encourage new writers to follow beats and screenplay templates when they first start out, but once you've used them a few times and learned the rules of formatting and structure, it's then possible to be more flexible in your approach. You have to know the rules in order to mess around with them, to break them and create a unique way of telling your story. Even then templates are still helpful.

A few weeks ago I was approached by a new story planning website and asked if I would promote it. Those of you that know me know I don't just pimp any old thing. I don't have ads on my blog or my website for that very reason, so if I do decide to promote a service, site or book it's because I've checked them out thoroughly and I'm satisfied I would happily use them myself.

So it was with pleasure and a great deal of excitement that I dove right into the wonderful (www.storyplanner.com) and gave it a damn good testing. This new site not only gives you access to structure templates like Save the Cat, Syd Field, The Hero's Journey, the Moral Premise and more, but it also gives you more free form ‘Index Card’ style planning tools so you CAN break those rules. There are even templates for those novelists of you out there. How very handy! In fact, there are more tools to help improve your writing than you can shake a stick at, all on one handy website. Even better than that it's a free resource. Here's the official press release below. 
Story Planner offers the largest collection of writing plans online 
Story Planner aims to be the home for story planning online. The new website offers online tools for every aspect of screenplay preparation, from recording new ideas to crafting story structure, developing character outlines, creating log lines and synopsis, or planning scenes. Story Planner gives writers the opportunity to save their notes in project files, and prepare the groundwork for writing a novel, short story or screenplay.
Writers can choose from a range of popular planning methods including Save the Cat, The Hero's Journey, the Moral Premise, Syd Field’s Paradigm and many more. The site also offers a forum, with a facility to share a writing plan for feedback from other writers. Regular free to enter competitions give writers the chance to practise their story structure skills.
 
Joanne Bartley who founded Story Planner said, “I trained as a screenwriter and went from being a writer who wrote entirely instinctively to someone who loved the structure of a writing plan. I think structure plans can guide any writer’s creativity.” 
“I created Story Planner because so many writers use plans from books, character worksheets, or download or create spreadsheet templates, but there was nowhere that offered all of these in one place. So I made the Story Planner site to offer all my favourite plans and give writers the ability to save and edit the plans online.” 
Story Planner has collaborated with many authors and screenwriters to offer their plans online, including Karen Weisner, Graeme Shimmin, Stanley D. Williams (the Moral Premise), Libbie Hawker (Outline your books, for faster, better writing ), Randy Ingermanson (the Snowflake Method), and Save the Cat. 
Joanne said, “I wanted the site to offer a wide range of plans because I know writing methods are personal, so we designed the site so writers can ‘favourite’ their preferred plans ready to use for every project. I intend the site to grow over time, and welcome writers getting in touch with suggestions of new plans to add.”  
Story Planner is free to use, with premium membership offering additional features. 
For full details visit StoryPlanner.com 
Having said that, nothing quite beats the satisfaction of good old fashioned pen and paper.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

TURNING REJECTION INTO OPPORTUNITY

The first rough scene.
Last week I wrote about being rejected and how to shrug it off.

WONDERLAND was written a few years ago. The pilot episode has got me through quite a few doors and given me the possibility to pitch face to face with TV development execs. It's still my favourite TV script. So when the BBC Writersroom opened for drama submissions last year, there was only one screenplay I wanted to enter.

It was fantastic to get into the top 3% and equally disappointing to learn I hadn't made it further. I didn't let the rejection get me down. I could have done, but as someone who makes a living from their writing, I couldn't afford to. Besides, the BBC's feedback was heartening as they clearly liked it. It just wasn't for them. Maybe the next one will be. But it was the following line of their email that really caught my eye, "there are moments where the story feels like it could be a surreal graphic novel."


Mad Frank Hattman.
I've always fancied writing a comic or graphic novel and the more I thought about it the more I liked the idea. WONDERLAND would make the perfect graphic novel.

And that's where rejection turned into opportunity. I just happen to know a very talent artist. I sent him the screenplay. He loved it! He drew up some rough samples. He sent them to me. I loved them! And a new project was born.

Obviously, there's a long way to go. We're both very busy so this project will have to be worked on in our spare time. The pilot screenplay will have to be rewritten for a new medium. That means I'll have to research how it's done first. Then the other seven episodes will also have to be written. At the moment they're just brief one paragraph outlines. A webpage will have to be created, set up and promoted the hell out of. This is all long before the glorious day the first ten pages are actually released online.

The point is I could have easily deleted the email and forgotten about it. I could have moved on and continued work on my other projects. I didn't! That's how successful writers survive and thrive, they turn disappointment into something positive.

Happy writing!

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!