Wednesday, August 24, 2016

THE ELEVEN FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS

It's always great to receive positive feedback about the blog and it's especially humbling to be asked to read screenwriting books and review them here. And I've read a lot of books. My bookshelf is full of them.
For me, The 11 Fundamental Questions: A Guide to a Better Screenplay eBook would best suit those new to writing, but can also act as a refresher for the more experienced writer. Presented in a handy, easy to read sections, it makes a great reference tool to checklist your idea before you begin writing and to check you've covered everything when you have finished. Anyway, I'll let it's author Aaron Mendelsohn tell you more about it.
My name is Aaron Mendelsohn. I’m a working, produced screenwriter, a professor of screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University, and an elected officer and lifetime member of the Writers Guild of America West. 
I know there are a lot of screenwriting how-to books out there – I’ve read many of them – but I think I bring a unique perspective and angle to the table.  The perspective is that of a produced, employed writer who has worked consistently in all formats and genres for over 20 years. Currently, I have a feature film, a drama series and an MOW – a rare trifecta – in development at major studios and networks around town. 
As for the unique angle, The 11 Fundamental Questions: A Guide to a Better Screenplay is based on a story-breaking method I came up with a decade ago to help me craft and “stress test” my outlines, pitches and scripts. A couple years ago I started teaching my method in classes and seminars around the world, and the response I got – from professional and emerging writers alike – was “you gotta turn this into a book!” 
So I did.  
Hot off the presses is my first eBook, The 11 Fundamental Questions: A Guide to a Better Screenplay.  Breezy, intuitive and grounded in classic storytelling principles, the book lays out my method in eleven simple steps and offers loads of helpful tips and examples (and at 41 illustrated pages it’s a quick read).  Here’s another nice testimonial – 
"Just when I thought I'd learned everything about writing and running a show, Aaron's Fundamentals method super-charged the way I approach a story. Clear, concise, and practical, this is a must for screenwriters everywhere."
– Chris Brancato, Co-creator, writer and executive producer of the Netflix series "Narcos" 
You can find the eBook at www.11questionsbook.com 
Enjoy the read.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

WORKING AROUND THE KIDS AND SCHOOL HOLIDAYS

At a recent writers' event, I was chatting with a 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 two weeks into the school holidays and I'm surviving... it can be done. Working from home with the kids on holiday, 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, can be very frustrating for a working writer.

The ideal solution would be that you're earning enough money you're able to hire a childminder to keep them out of your way while you write your masterpiece. However, if you're like me and you don't quite have the money for that and you don't like palming your little terrors off on other people, then the school holidays can be a very daunting time. You're not allowed to tie your children up and stick them in a dark cupboard until school starts again, sell them to gypsies 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 the holidays without running the risk of a mental breakdown. That's goals for you as well as for your spawn. And there's 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. It's the school holidays. The kids are meant to be having fun. They're meant to be having that fun with you. And yes, you're meant to be enjoying it too. They've worked hard all year and now it's time to spend quality time with their parents, doing the crazy shit kids love to do. 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 and entertained 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 accidently 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 taking them out somewhere special as a treat 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 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/down the park 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.

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 week if they've had more positive days than negative ones they get to spend a day or half a day, depending on how busy I am, with me uninterrupted doing exactly what they want to do.
  • Give them tasks to do during the day. At the moment I'm giving my boys one task a day they have to complete between 9am and 10am, which gives me an hour of solid writing every morning. Yesterday's task was to draw an invention. Alex (8) drew a factory that made rainbows. Today's task was to build a rocket out of lego. Dylan (5) built a sports trophy instead.
  • Ration their TV and games devices to two hours a day. I find one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon 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.

The holidays are survivable and you can get writing done with children around. Remember, children are for life, not just for Easter

and happy children will mean you'll get a surprising amount of work done.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

BBC TV DRAMA WRITERS' FESTIVAL

On Monday I battled train cancellations, hydrated myself against the heat and dodged many over excited Pokemon Go players to make my way to London and the BBC TV Drama Writers' Festival. And what a brilliant day it was.

As it was my first invite to the festival I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but I was delighted to find it was a much more relaxed environment than other festivals I've been to. The speakers weren't hidden away in a green room and were very approachable. It was just a bunch of writer friends getting together to talk about what they love.

I even got to meet and chat with one of my writing heroes Jed Mercurio, without making a complete gibbering tit of myself... I think.

But the best bit, besides meeting Jed and the free food and wine, was the great advice from the speakers. Because everyone there was an established writer with at least one credit, the speakers didn't need to cover the basics and were much more informative. It was exactly what I needed.

As someone who meticulously plans what he writes, I found it very refreshing, and also a little scary to hear Jed Mercurio talk about how he never knows the ending of the series when he begins the writing process. On series three of LINE OF DUTY, Jed even went back and rewrote the first episode to kill off the planned series villain, played by the brilliant Daniel Mays. When I heard that my writer OCDs screamed at me not to listen anymore and run out of the room. I ignored them and I'm actually going to try and write a pilot episode of something new (without planning it... eek!) and just see where it goes... I may, however, end up dribbling in the corner of the room staring blankly at the wall, mumbling over and over to myself, "there must be a plan, there must be a plan, there must be a plan." We'll see how it goes.

Here are some of the other many valuable bits of advice I took from the day.

  • Unheard Voices: Kay Mellor - Drama is writing about people in society who don't have a voice.
  • Authentic plotting is very sought after. Research is key to this.
  • Pitching: Don't over prepare or you'll lose the punch to your pitch and it will be in danger of sounding flat.
  • Pitching: They want to hear what has driven you to write this story. What is it about the project that makes you passionate?
  • Children's TV: Good drama. International. Push everything further.
  • Returning series: Think the unthinkable and see how that changes things. Be bold.
If you have a TV credit, make sure you apply for next year. It's a brilliant and extremely informative day out.

Happy writing.

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!