Wednesday, September 09, 2020

MOTIVATION & WRITERS BLOCK

Writers' Block isn't real! There, I've said it. I know, madness, right? But no, it's true, writers' block doesn't exist and here's why.

Writers' block is a myth perpetuated by writers who have run out of things to say, whose idea doesn't have legs or who haven't prepared their screenplay/novel outline properly. "Oh no, I've hit a wall on page 30!" That's because you didn't plan your beat outline, sometimes called a scene by scene, well enough, not because you've hit an actual wall. You should really only run into problems if your planning is lacking and your idea is poorly thought out.

There are also times when your motivation will be low and you find yourself struggling to put words on the page even with a beat outline, but there will never be a point in your career when you simply go blank and can't write anything. There is ALWAYS something you can be getting on with even if that means going back and reworking your beat outline.

Here are a few tips to help avoid the brick wall and keep those words flowing even during moments of low motivation.

  • PREPARE IN ADVANCE - Whether you're writing a TV episode or a feature write a paragraph for each beat of your story before you start - usually twenty beats for TV and forty for a feature. Make sure you hit all the necessary points - the catalyst, the break into act two, the midpoint and the break into act three. Work and rework your beat outline until you're happy it works perfectly. Once it's well-worked and polished it then becomes your guide for writing the screenplay.
  • JUMP TO ANOTHER BEAT - Even if you do work everything out sometimes you'll come to write a scene and won't know exactly how that scene is going to play out. That's fine, there's no pressure. If this happens just jump to another scene in your outline and write that instead. You'll usually find that when you come back to the original scene you were stuck on it has miraculously sorted itself out in your head while you were writing other scenes.
  • FEED YOUR TEA/COFFEE ADDICTION - Can't quite get the core of your scene then go make yourself a drink. Even a few moments away to make yourself a drink can be enough to reignite the ideas and give you inspiration. Drink enough coffee and you'll actually have trouble stopping those words being typed. I find I'm usually at my most productive on two to three cups of coffee. Your acceptable caffeine level may be different.
  • WALK THE DOG - Going for a walk for an hour gives you the headspace to restart the brain so that when you get back to your desk those words should flow easily once more. If you can go for a walk where there are trees and grass then even better. Don't think about your work just enjoy the walk and the exercise.
  • WRITE BOLLOCKS - Just write. Don't tie yourself up in knots about getting the perfect words down on the page, just write anything. It's easier to rewrite a page of crap than it is to rewrite a blank page. So many writers I know get so hung up on the first sentences of their scenes that they spend an entire day just writing once scene. Just put words on the page and then worry if they're crap or not later. Quantity is for the first draft, quality is for later drafts.
  • ANOTHER PAIR OF EYES - If you're really stuck then let someone else read your work and give you feedback. Sometimes you can be so close to your idea you can't see the faults, so a fresh pair of eyes can help move you along.
  • MIND MAP - If you've run out of ideas or think you have, try using a mind map to work through your existing ideas and see if they inspire some new ones. I never settle for the first idea that jumps into my head as they are usually clenched and overused. It's when I get to my third, fourth or even tenth idea that I get really excited as I find they're usually the best ones. I find it helps to write down anything to do with my idea before I embark on a beat outline so that I've explored every corner of every branch of every idea to the fullest extent that I can. The more ideas you put down, even the silly ones, the more you have to work from.
  • ALCOHOL - Have an alcoholic beverage. Don't get pissed, just have one or two, just enough to distract your brain so you stop thinking so much and start writing lots. This one is usually a last resort if all the others have failed to do their job and is not recommended if you're in the last few hours of a deadline.
As I've said above, if you run into a brick wall it's usually because your planning, that extensive beat outline, isn't as well planned as you originally thought. There's no shame in admitting it and it might even help to stop writing and go back to your beat outline and rework it some more.

The most important thing to remember is not to put pressure on yourself. Put the words on the page and then rework them later so they make sense. Keep the words flowing even if you have to come at your project from a different angle to make it work.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

CREATING CREDIBLE CHARACTERS

I read a lot of screenplays from writers of all abilities and the one thing I often find these screenplays lack are credible character arcs.

Story seems to be the main obsession for most writers. More often than not they focus entirely on their fantastically imaginative stories but populate them with cliched or uninteresting characters we've seen a million times before. It's no wonder then that writers are puzzled and frustrated as to why their screenplays don't get the attention they expect. So how can you ensure your characters match the ambition of your story ideas?

By asking yourself the following questions about your character. If you can't answer all of these questions about your character then you really don't know who they are. And if you don't know who your characters are how do you expect your audience to know?

Character Flaws: What is your character's major flaw? What is it about him/her/it that makes them absolutely the very worst person to be going on this journey?

In LIAR LIAR, Fletcher lies to everyone, his clients, his colleagues, judges and even his son. It's not only his job to lie, but it's also the core of who he is. He's a born liar. So when his son wishes that his dad can't lie for one whole day, Fletcher has to find another way to win the case he's presenting in court. If the same wish was cast upon a priest, for example, the outcome wouldn't have such a huge impact as it would on someone who lies for a living, as the priest would be used to telling the truth. However, if that priest didn't believe in God and always broke the ten commandments then his life would be thrown into as much chaos as Fletcher's.

It is also often the case that the character's major flaw is what saves him/her/it. In Fletcher's case, because he's been an expert liar all his life he's able to spot another lie and this eventually helps him win his case in court.

Character Journeys: When your story begins what is it your character wants? What is their goal? How do they go about getting what they want and reaching that goal?

This is where conflict and the obstacles you put in the way of your main character come in. This is where you put your character through increasingly worsening situations and obstacles on their way to their goal. Fletcher's goal is to win his case. But he can't lie for twenty-four hours and so attempts to delay the court hearing in increasingly more desperate ways so he can win it the next day in the only way he knows how by lying. Of course, he fails and this brings me on to the next part of your character's journey...

What does your character actually need? And how is your character going to realise what he needs? Fletcher needs to stop lying and be more honest with people, especially his son. He only comes to realise this when he wins his case by telling the truth and his son is about to be taken from him. He learns the value of truth and gets his family back. Huzzah! The character may not always be blind to what they need but might have chosen instead to ignore it. This too is an option.

So those questions again are:

1 - What is your character's major flaw?

2 - What does your character want or what is their goal?

3 - How are they going to go about getting what they want or reaching their goal?

4 - What does your character actually need to grow as a person?

5 - How does your character come to realise what they need?

Now you've asked and answered those questions about the main character you have to do exactly the same for all your other main characters. Even your secondary or background characters will have their own wants and goals and you will have to think about how they're going to go about getting what they want or achieving their goals. Your secondary or background characters won't necessarily require a need like your main characters but they will require a want or goal for them to work towards.

Remember, try to think of several answers for each of the questions above for each of your characters. Try a few different combinations and try to steer yourself clear of cliche. The more original, interesting and unusual your characters are, the more memorable they will be.

Now your characters are a little clearer in your mind you'll find your fantastically imaginative story has just got a whole lot better. Now you've explored your imagination new ideas for your story will present themselves elevating your already quite decent idea to something special.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

DEADLINES

After blogging last week about how to write a screenplay in six weeks, I received a few expressions of concern from new writers via social media, who were worried that I was putting undue pressure on them and weakening the quality of their work by setting unrealistic time delivery expectations.

Let me be very frank with you, writing screenplays is a very competitive industry, one where a writer is asked to deliver quality work to tight deadlines. This is not said to be mean or to put anyone off, it is a fact that has and always will be the case. A writer who can deliver when asked is always sought after by producers even if the quality might sometimes suffer slightly. A writer who struggles to deliver will often be dropped from a project and replaced at short notice to ensure the deadline is met. It's not cruel, unrealistic or overly demanding to do this, it's simply a reality of the industry we work in.

A company can't halt or postpone a production because the writer isn't able to deliver what is required of them in the time set. The TV show or feature is bigger than the sum of its parts and at the end of the day, decisions are ruled by money. In an ideal world, a writer would have all the time they require to write and polish their labour of love - indeed a new writer working on a spec does indeed have this luxury - but the reality is that in the professional world, they don't.

I've known writers to be replaced on TV shows because they've struggled to deliver a script on time. I've known writers who have gone in and replaced a writer under these circumstances, it's not ideal but it's a necessity to ensure the project is delivered on time and in budget. Every professional understands this. If, as a new writer you can't accept this, your career won't progress very far. To put it as plainly as I can; if you can't deliver there will always be ten writers waiting behind you who can, so why would a producer spend time on you when they can easily bring in another writer to do what they require?

I've also been in the position where I've been brought in to replace an existing writer because the writer was struggling to produce what was expected of him. It was an awkward experience but I got my head down and delivered what was asked of me to the delight of the producer.

If you're a new writer and are worried about deadlines, set your own. When I started out I would ask working writers how long they took to write different lengths of screenplays. I then took the average for each and forced myself to write to these self-imposed deadlines. I didn't need to, no one would have known any different if I hadn't, but I did it because I wanted to prove I could do it and because I wanted to improve as a writer to make sure that when I was offered my first commission I would be confident of delivering. Why not try it for yourself, what have you got to lose?

Happy writing!

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

THE SIX WEEK FEATURE

I was chatting with a director friend of mine about an idea for a feature project we have been passing back and forth for a while now when he uttered those dreaded words which strike fear into the heart of any writer, "Do you reckon you could write it up as a spec script in six weeks?" Before you start hyperventilating, let me rewind a little...

A few years ago I wrote a cracking thriller for him which unfortunately never managed to get off the ground. Since then it's been kicking around, going back and forth between us, morphing and evolving through various ideas, forms and genres, eventually ending up as a re-envisioned revenge thriller in the form of a one-page feature pitch. The director's first feature is due for release later this year and he has also recently signed with a US management company, so he's very keen to get other projects moving forward at a pace to make the most of this momentum.

He said to me, "I really like the new beginning of this pitch. You know, the part you came up with last time to give it more of a youth-orientated Cape Fear feel. You remember, their backstory..? I think it has legs as a feature in its own right... but can we set in the US? What do you think?" I have to be honest, I could see exactly what he was saying as I had seen the very same potential in those backstory scenes when I wrote them in January.

Usually, when someone asks me to write a feature screenplay for them on spec I laugh in their face and remind them that I too have bills to pay. However, on this occasion, I didn't mind. Firstly we're friends and secondly, I have a new feature adaptation commission I'm reading and prepping for over the next six weeks during which time I was planning to bash out one of my own spec feature scripts which I've already planned out. It doesn't really matter if I write this new idea first rather than my own as either way, I'll have a finished spec to send out if nothing develops with the director.

I can't remember the last time I wrote a feature from a concept a paragraph long to completed screenplay in just six weeks. Not only does the story idea excite me but so does the challenge of writing something so big in such a short space of time. I've had a couple of features with pre-agreed deadlines since I last accomplished this feat but none with such a tight turnaround, in fact, their timeframes were practically pedestrian in comparison to what the director has just suggested.

So how do you write a screenplay in just six weeks?

I usually aim to write five pages of script a day, five days a week, Monday to Friday, rewriting the previous five pages in the morning before going on to write the new pages in the afternoon. That means I can complete a one hundred page screenplay in four weeks, leaving me two weeks to get any research done and plan out the beats to my story.

But why only five pages a day? That's just the average needed to get the thing done. Some days I might write less and others I'll write more. If I write less one day I'll aim to catch up the next day, but if I write more on one day then that's a bonus and will put me ahead of schedule.

So, six weeks to write a feature from scratch. Challenge set! Bring it!

Happy writing!

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

PREWRITE - A REVIEW

When you own a writing blog you get a lot of random people sending you writing based stuff to read or use asking, sometimes begging you to review them in your next blog. I ignore most requests - unless they're of immediate interest - and I've always only reviewed those books/services/resources I have thoroughly tested, enjoyed and found to be informative and helpful so that my readers know if I recommend something then it's worth getting/using.

A couple of months ago I received an email asking me to review an online resource - PREWRITE.COM - for outlining and plotting screenplays, utilising online cloud storage for projects at a reasonable monthly payment, all completely downloadable to FINAL DRAFT once your projects are created. I have to admit I was dubious, after all why pay a monthly subscription for something when the good old faithful index cards and a pen will do?

In the past, I admit I've used the SAVE THE CAT software but found it to be restrictive, formulaic and frustrating to use, which is why I eventually dumped it. What writer wants to follow rigid rules when they're trying to be creative? Not me! I want to be able to write what I want, where I want and when I want and freely explore my ideas without any confinement or restriction. It was for that reason I casually dismissed PREWRITE.

Three weeks later I remembered the email and as I was about to start plotting a new feature film I thought I might as well give it a go. I'm very glad I did. PREWRITE has all of the functionality of SAVE THE CAT and much more besides, with none of the restrictions and frustrating little niggles that plagued the SAVE THE CAT software. PREWRITE is actually better than having index cards and a pen, giving you the unrestricted freedom to be creative while providing valuable extras that actually enhance your creativity rather than stifle it. PREWRITE gives you unlimited freedom of choice.

PROJECT CREATION

No faffing about here - choose a picture that represents your story, give your project a title, jot down your logline, choose your genre and theme and add your name as the author... it's that simple and quick to get started.

CHARACTER CREATION

I had a lot of fun with this section. You can create your characters with complete freedom, exploring their wants and needs in the story and how they're going to find/get to them. You can even search the movie database to find a picture of the perfect actor to play any of your characters and if they won't do you are also given the freedom to upload your own pictures. The only limit here, as with the rest of this online software, is your imagination.

PLOTTING

Again you have the freedom to choose how to view your story as you create it. Timeline, cards or page view... yes, please! Add cards to your Act One, Act Two and Act Three, move them around and delete them if you need to. Add a heading, write out your scene action in the action box, add notes below, add characters to each scene so you can see at a quick glance who appears in each scene, tag how your theme is explored, rate the emotional value of your scene, keep track of plot threads over several scenes and even add an image to sum up each scene... it's so glorious and helpful it made running away with your idea and getting it down on the page fun and as easy as breathing.

STORY STATS

If the above isn't enough for you then you can explore every aspect of your characters and your plot in the story stats section, analysing the heck out of it.

LIBRARY and HELP

There are even examples of well know films to explore and a help menu that will walk you through getting the most out of using this software.

PRICING

Premium membership is a reasonable $9.99 a month and offers you 20% off if you pay annually, so it's very affordable and won't put a dent in your pocket.

ISSUES

I only have two and they're minor. The first is that this is an online resource only at the moment. I would love to see a software version you can download to a computer or tablet. The second issue is that your projects are stored online and like most writers who are obsessive with backing up their work every few minutes will know, there's a worry that as it's stored online you could lose all your hard work in the blink of an eye. If PREWRITE could find a solution to both of these issues then the program would be perfect.

PREWRITE is so usable you can go into as little or as much detail as you need to match your creativity. It is a blindingly brilliant bit of kit that not only helps you be creative but actively encourages you to be so and I heartily recommend all writers give it a go and see for themselves.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

WORKING FROM HOME - COVID-19 EDITION

Originally posted Wednesday, August 03, 2016 - updated today, Wednesday, March 25, 2020


WORKING AROUND THE KIDS/PARTNERS AND SCHOOL HOLIDAYS COVID-19

At a recent writers' event (back in 2016), I was chatting with the then lead writer on a continuing drama who was telling me he and his wife had just had a baby. "How the hell do you get any writing done when you have kids?" he asked as he yawned so hard his jaw nearly dislocated.

We're already on day 3 of lockdown and I'm surviving... it can be done. Working from home with the kids on holiday is bad enough - with them getting under your feet, asking for snacks every five minutes, begging you to take them up the park, screaming at the top of their eardrum-shattering little voices a millimetre from your face demanding attention, moaning that they're bored and constantly trying to kill or maim each other - without taking into account these exceptional circumstances we now find ourselves in.

You're not allowed to tie your children up and stick them in a dark cupboard until school starts again, sell them to gipsies or even use chloroform to keep them quiet... I know, I've checked... apparently, the police and social services get a little cross with you if you try. So with those options restricted I've had to adapt my writing style over the years to ensure I can get my work done, keep the kids occupied and happy, and retain my sanity. Here's how I do it.

Goals! What, sticking one in the back of the net for your team? No... just as your characters have goals in your screenplays, you have to have goals in order to survive these testing times without running the risk of a mental breakdown or murdering your entire family. That's goals for you as well as for your spawn. And there's only one rule... we'll come to that in a second.

First things first. As a responsible parent, I will constantly monitor my children, check what they're up to and that they're safe. Dumping them in front of the TV with a bag of sugar is not good parenting. They might have school work to get on with but that doesn't mean they don't still have to be monitored. The kids are meant to be having fun learning. And yes, that means you are going to have o figure out the intricacies of quantum physics to help them with their work. They're not really interested if you have a deadline. They are not an inconvenience. They are a privilege. They are your responsibility and you have to ensure they are safe, entertained and educated at all times. So... to the rule!

The Rule: My boys know if I'm in my office working, or I'm on my laptop, I am not to be disturbed... under any circumstances... unless it's an emergency, or they've accidentally set fire to the dog. Of course, the one rule is not really a rule as it's going to be broken a billion times a day anyway, but as long as the children KNOW and UNDERSTAND the rule, they are aware they run the risk of encountering SHOUTY Daddy if they interrupt me. You also have to be aware and accept that even with this rule you are going to be disturbed, but hopefully, it will only be for important things and less often. The rule is there to help make things a little easier.

Goals For You:

  • Set yourself writing targets, smaller ones than you would normally, so they are easier to achieve. When my boys were younger I aimed to write in five-minute sprints when they suddenly went quiet. Now they're older I can write for longer periods.
  • Set times for lunch and dinner and stick to them. Routine is a great help.
  • Aim to spend quality time with them for at least two hours a day, either helping them with their school work or enjoying a quick kickabout in the back garden. Whatever you decide to do, make it an adventure... kids love adventure.
  • Stay off your phone - there's only bad news on it anyway - and actively enjoy this time with your kids. They'll enjoy it too and then they'll be more likely to leave you alone while you writing.
  • Prepare to be flexible and try and change your routine. Work in your office one day, in the back garden on your laptop the next.
  • Get your kids to help you prepare lunch, engage them and then sit down and eat with them. Talk to them while you do. Ask them what they would like to do in the afternoon, or the next day and what they enjoyed doing that morning.
  • Take 10 minutes for yourself after lunch. Find a quiet corner - if you can - and sit in peace and quiet. It will make a difference.

Goals For Them:

  • Set up a points system. Give them a point for good behaviour and take away a point for bad behaviour. I start every day by giving them ten points each and then taking off points for bad behaviour during the day. At the end of the day if they've had more positive days than negative ones they get to spend an hour on the Xbox.
  • Give them tasks to do during the lockdown. At the moment I'm giving my boys one task a day they have to complete before they go to bed. It will keep them occupided, show them the responsibility that goes into running a house and will help you get everything done.
  • Ration their TV and games devices to two hours a day. I find one hour in the afternoon and one hour in the evening sufficient. If they know how long they have it avoids arguments. Make a big issue of how you're such a great parent when you give them an extra half an hour because they've been really good that day.

And don't forget your partner, the stress of this situation is getting to them too. Be attentive, help where you can and make sure you give them a hug when you think it's needed... even if it isn't.

These difficult times are survivable and you can get writing done with children and partners around, keep your sanity and bond with your family. Remember, children and partners are for life, not just for Easter.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

DIALOGUE

I was chatting with a fellow writer the other day and she mentioned how difficult she found writing dialogue. It was easy to empathise with her as it was an area I struggled with for years.

Great dialogue comes with practice. There are numerous ways you can learn how to write authentic dialogue and what follows is just one way. I'm not claiming it's the best, just that it worked for me and might help some of you to improve your dialogue and even your characters.


OBSERVATION:

The best way to learn most things is by observing them in progress. Dialogue is no exception. Regularly go to public places - a coffee shop or a pub are the best - get yourself a drink, sit down with a notebook and listen to people talking and make notes. Yes, I am suggesting you eavesdrop on others and record not only how they speak but the language they use and the topics they discuss. The more you can do this the greater diversity of voices you'll learn to recognise.

Listen out and take note of the following...

  1. RHYTHM OF SPEECH - How fast or slow do people speak? Do they speed up or slow down when talking about different subjects? Do they slow down or speed up during a sentence and why?
  2. VOLUME - Do they speak loudly or do they talk in hushed tones? Are there certain words they whisper or shout? What does the volume your character talks at say about them, their background and their job?
  3. PAUSES and SILENCE - Where do the pauses and the silence come and why are they used? Sometimes silences are more powerful than any words.
  4. MISSING/FAVOURITE WORDS - What words do people drop from their sentences? What words do they favour or overuse?
  5. ACCENTS - How do accents affect speech?
  6. REACTIONS - The words that are spoken are important but so are people's reactions to what is being said, how they listen or don't, how they move or don't as they speak.
  7. CONFLICT - Where does the conflict arise in the conversation and how do others react to it? Do their voices get higher or lower? Who wins the conversations or are they drawn?
  8. EMOTION - What emotions are your characters showing through their dialogue?
  9. CROSS-PURPOSES - Not the same as subtext (see below) but where characters think they are talking about the same thing but their perspectives and goals clash so they're actually talking about different things and don't realise it.
  10. SUBTEXT - What are they discussing and what are they REALLY discussing?
EXERCISE ONE:

Here's a great exercise to help you practice what you've learned above.

Take two characters from one of your screenplays and stick them in a lift/elevator together, stuck between floors so they can't escape. Then give them a topic to discuss - for example; the state of the National Health Service - and then have them talk about it for three pages. It helps if you choose characters that have different viewpoints but you don't have to do this. Two people who on paper might agree can disagree in real life. For example, they might agree on the destination but not how to get there.

Who came out on top in your exercise?

Try this with a few different characters and you'll notice you'll get different outcomes, with each new character's perceptions taking the conversation in a different direction.

EXERCISE TWO:

Now start again but remove the top-ten words related to the topic, making sure your characters aren't allowed to use them. For the above example, those words would most likely be; NHS, government, doctors, nurses, medicine, hospitals, health, illness, beds and wards. It's going to be a difficult task but it will help you think more about the words you do use and help you to avoid cliche. Your writing will become richer because of it.

EXERCISE THREE:

This exercise is harder still. Here you'll choose a second subject - let's say divorce - and you'll use the first topic to discuss the new one, without actually mentioning the new topic at all. This will help you practice SUBTEXT, possibly the most difficult skill to master concerning dialogue.

Keep practising all the above, over and over, even when your dialogue improves.

Happy writing!