Tuesday, September 11, 2018

THE BEGINNING OF A JOURNEY

Wednesday, March 13th 2013. That was the day I first wrote about a new project called COWBOYS CAN FLY, an adaptation of Ken Smith's novel of the same name. Five years down the line, and despite the love from everyone who's read it, it has never gone into production. That's why producer Sean Langton and I are now looking to make the film ourselves.
You never really know where a project will go when you start it and each journey is different, but I absolutely love the optimism a great idea can ignite. Here's what I had to say about the novel five years ago. 

YOU NEVER KNOW

A few weeks ago a friend phoned me up and asked me to read a short novel he had bought the rights to, with the aim of me writing the screenplay later in the year.

I was told it was an erotic gay novel about a 14-year-old boy and his first love and I knew it wasn't something that really appealed to me. Don't get me wrong, I'm not homophobic, far from it in fact, it's just not a subject matter I have an interest in writing. I've never even attempted a rom-com for goodness sake. Anyone who is familiar with my writing knows I like to write dark character-based drama, the dark side of human nature and what we do to others because of our own selfish needs and desires. A romantic story of love and friendship couldn't be further from my comfort zone. But as I'm as good as my word I read the novel so I could at least give my friend my thoughts on it.

The book surprised me! In fact, it knocked me for six. So when I'd read about halfway I phoned my friend up and told him I was writing the screenplay. That was all it took, just half the novel, to get me hooked.

What appealed to me was the growth of the relationship and how both boys learnt from each other and grew into men. It wasn't pornographic, it wasn't overly erotic, it was just a wonderful love story of two friends. It reminded me a lot of growing up in the Leicestershire countryside, staying out all day during the summer, exploring, adventuring and climbing trees, days that my parents didn't have to worry about where I was or what I was up to. Those were the days of true freedom modern children, in our overprotective society, will never know. And reading that novel took me back to a time I long thought I had lost.

I finished the novel yesterday and I still know I've made the right choice to write the screenplay. You might be offered something that isn't your cup of tea at some point in your career. Don't turn it down. Explore the story and see if there is something in it that surprises you, something that grabs your attention and resonates with you so strongly you have no choice but to follow it through. You just never know.

If you are wondering what the book was that grabbed my imagination so, then you should hunt it down and read it. The book is called Cowboys Can Fly by Ken Smith.

Happy writing!


Tuesday, September 04, 2018

FADE IN:

Judging by the number of phone calls, emails and messages of support I received, last week's blog seemed to resonate with a lot of writers. It made me realise that thinking of quitting writing is more common than I first thought. It's something most writers tussle with at some point in their career. It also made me think about how much pressure us writers (new and professional alike) put on ourselves to earn a living from our words.

Taking a step backwards felt like a failure, the last resort only to be taken when the desperation to succeed becomes unmanageable and all your options are finally exhausted. I was convinced that all the work I had put in over the years had been for nothing, that my dream job was over and I'd never work again. That's why I was determined to walk away for good, to end the torment once and for all, because I didn't think I could go through such a huge disappointment like that again. I now know this was an extreme reaction to what was nothing more than a stumble in the rollercoaster ride that is being a professional writer. I needed to take a step back, reassess where I was, where I wanted to be and how I was going to get there. Most of all I knew I had to take the pressure off myself to give myself breathing space and find my mojo again. A full-time job is going to do that.

Deep down I knew I could never really give up, that in one form or other I would continue writing. But what I discovered from those that reached out to me, is that even the most successful writers have had to take a step back at least once in their career. There's no shame in it, it's just a blip, an experience that will help you move forward again when you're ready. A lot of writers have second jobs, whether they're related to what they want to do or not, so they can continue to do what they love unpressured. Working a job that isn't in the industry has an advantage as it gives you a break from the intensity of writing and thinking about writing, allowing you to relax and your creativity the freedom it needs to flourish.

Equally, as you're trying to forge a career it's easy to think you haven't made it while you're still working a full-time day job. The truth is that if you're working you're earning, which in turn will allow you to write without the pressure of where your next mortgage payment is coming from. Believe me, you don't know what a relief that is.

At the end of the day, you have to do what you need to do to keep writing and also bring the money in to pay the bills. If that means going back to a full-time job temporarily to find your feet again, then that's what you have to do. It's what I'm going to do.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

FADE OUT...

Being a screenwriter is difficult, lonely and sometimes soul destroying work. You are often sat isolated at a desk for days/weeks/months on end, continuously delivering blood, sweat and tears on the page in the hope someone likes your work enough to pay you for it. Even when that glorious day arrives it's not the end of your toil and pain. It's an infinite search for the next job, delivering the impossible on a daily basis and shrugging off the continual rejection and disappointment. When things are going well writing is hands down the best job in the world. When they aren't every single word you type is an unspeakable torture. This is what it is to be a writer.

The last two years have been extremely difficult. Even though I have had regular meetings with producers, development executives and production companies I haven't had a single commission in nearly 18 months. Money is impossibly tight and yet I still have to find enough to pay the mortgage and feed and clothe the kids. I've lost my motivation and enthusiasm for what I do. I've started to over analyse everything I write agonising over every single word and I'm beginning to resent the fact my love for writing is consuming so much of my life. It's difficult out there. Bloody difficult. Pretty much all of the current writing initiatives I've been putting myself forward for state they are searching for 'diverse voices' and I'm guessing that a 49-year-old white Englishman isn't going to be at the top of their search criteria.

But I enter anyway. I sit at my desk and force myself to type a few words most days, trying to fight the temptation of YouTube and Facebook or to go back and rework the last ten pages of my screenplay, which have been reworked a thousand times already that week. And I still press send on emails electronically posting my latest work off to producers with a faint feeling of equal amounts hope and terror, with the thought that maybe, just maybe I don't actually suck at this. I've even tried diversifying, recently taking a script editing course and applying for script editing and lecturing jobs in an attempt to restart my career.

As I've said before, writing isn't for the faint-hearted. I've always been an advocate of pushing on even in the face of adversity, never giving up and giving everything you have to your writing and your career. However, I've finally decided that I'm coming to the end of my twenty-year journey. I've set a date. A few months from now. If nothing significant happens with my career between now and then, I'll walk away and find something else to do with my life. This will give me just enough time to finish those projects close to completion and tie up loose ends.

My wife suggested I get a full-time job and continue to write in my spare time. The trouble with that is writing isn't a hobby and that's what it would become if I was to do it only when I had a few minutes here and there. You have to give your all to writing, your life, your friends and family and even your immortal soul. There are no half measures being a screenwriter.

I think what I'm trying to say here is that you instinctively know when you need to put in a little extra work to get where you want to be and when it's actually time to walk away. My time is close. I'm sad but also surprisingly calm about it.

Happy writing!

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

PAYING YOUR WAY

The London Screenwriters Festival. Screenwriting books. One-off writing courses. Script consultancy services. They all cost money and for a new writer not making any, those costs can quickly add up. So how do you balance the need to learn and progress as a writer against the cost of doing so and paying the rent?

The simple answer is to only pay for what you can afford. But how do you decide what is worth spending your precious money on?

THE LONDON SCREENWRITERS FESTIVAL - For new writers, LSWF is a must! Everything you need is there, all packaged up in one convenient weekend with access to fellow writers, directors, producers, the many inspirational speakers and more industry knowledge than you can shake a stick at. However, it can top several hundred pounds when you also take into account travel, accommodation and food. Like last year, I have decided not to return this September as my career has developed enough that the cost of the festival now outways the benefit I get from it. But for new writers, there's nowhere better to submerge yourself in information on all aspects of a writing career.

SCREENWRITING BOOKS - These books hold a wealth of information. Read as many as you can. Absorb all that information. There are some people that argue against such books as SAVE THE CAT as being too formulaic, but I would argue that you should read them all and decide for yourself what you take from each book. The great thing is you don't need to buy first-hand books. You can loan screenwriting books from your local library for free and if they don't have something in, you can always ask if they would order it for you. There are also second-hand booksellers and car boot sales. Hunt down your local ones and see what they have.

PROFESSIONAL SCREENPLAYS - There are loads of websites that allow you to download a screenplay for free. Check them out and read as many as you can. You can't get better than free produced screenplays to improve yourself as a writer.

SCRIPT CONSULTANCY - If you want to improve as a writer then like LSWF these are a must. You could save yourself some money and get your friends or family to read your work but will they be able to give you the valuable feedback you need to improve your work? I doubt it. What about peer review? This is another free option but don't forget their feedback is only going to be as good as where they are as a writer. Pick and choose who you send your work to, you'll soon discover who gives the best notes and who doesn't. I would also aim to pay for at least one professional feedback on each of your screenplays. Research consultants first though. Do they have a good reputation? Do they have good reviews? What exactly are they offering you for your money?

ONE-OFF WRITING COURSES - Always fun and informative, but as above make sure you research them beforehand. Some course will be better than others and the best ones will be taught by people who have actually worked in the industry and don't just talk about it. What is their background? Where have they worked? Again, what are they offering?

Do an internet search for courses available over the next year and script consultancy prices, decide which ones you are interested in, add up how much they will cost you over the year and start saving. Put the money into a separate account and don't touch it until you need it. When you do the money will be there and you won't be scrambling around trying to find the money to go. Here's a tip - you can pay for LSWF in handy monthly instalments. How easy is that?

If you're serious about your career you are going to have to spend some money to get it going and maintain it, whether you like it or not. As long as you plan in advance what training you want to do over the year there shouldn't be any surprises.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

SCRIPT EDITING FOR TELEVISION JULY 2018

Yes, I know it's been a while since I last wrote a blog post, I apologise. I've been quite busy with writing script reports for clients, taking meetings in the big smoke and finishing a treatment and a spec drama pilot. And if that wasn't enough, over the last couple of weekends I've also been in London for Yvonne Grace's SCRIPT EDITING FOR TELEVISION course.

And what fantastic weekends they were. I can't speak highly enough of Yvonne, she knows her onions and then some. I'm already having withdrawal symptoms. I and my fellow attendees had such a brilliant, informative and momentous time that we didn't want it to end, so we've asked Yvonne if she would consider carrying on the course one day a month over the next few months just so we can continue to get our fix of script editing goodness. For those of you who don't know who Yvonne is she honed her skills at the sharp end of TV drama working as a script editor for Eastenders and as a producer for Holby City amongst others.

I obviously can't go into great detail about the course content otherwise I'd give away all of Yvonne's secrets, but I can give you a brief summary of our shenanigans and the plentiful information that was shoved into our lugholes over those four days.

Saturday 21st - We learned about the Macro vs the Micro, how narrative works in TV, text and subtext, storylining, the peaks and troughs in stories, the job script editors do, how important they are and how to be a great one. We also learned about the A, B and C storylines and how they're used in TV drama, how to structure treatments, series bibles and writers' reports, series development and we closely examined character arcs over single episodes and the series as a whole... and that was just on the first day. Blimey!

Sunday 22nd - We looked at how each characters' story intertwines with others over the series, how to get into script editing, how to get experience, how to approach producers and execs, what to expect as a script editor, how story conferences work, the skills a script editor needs and what the story producer and script producer do - yes, they are two different people. Then we were visited by Holby City and Casualty exec producer Simon Harper, who gave up a couple of hours of his Sunday to chat to us about the importance of script editors and how script editing works on Holby City and Casualty.

Saturday 28th - We script edited a Pete Lawson episode of Eastenders, breaking down the A, B and C storylines, assessing what scenes worked or didn't and pointing out what bits of the script that halted the flow. Then we got to live script edit the man himself when Pete Lawson kindly dropped in for two hours and allowed us to talk over with him where we thought his script could have been improved. It was a brilliant opportunity to learn how to structure a positive meeting with a writer and get direct feedback from our notes. Thankfully we didn't reduce him to tears and he even came out for a drink with us afterwards. Thanks, Pete!

Sunday 29th - Sunday was Holby City day. We script edited an episode, all contributing to where we thought it succeeded or failed and then watched the transmitted episode, noting the changes that were made between the draft we had read and filming. It was great to see that we picked up on all the changes. Then in the afternoon, we were visited by freelance development script editor Lucy Hackney, who has worked for such companies as Red Planet. It was a wonderfully informative chat and she too came to the pub with us afterwards.

I had an absolute blast, learned so much that I'm still dizzy from all the information that was crammed into my head over the course of those four days. I can't recommend Yvonne's course highly enough, you should all make sure you book yourself on her next and buy a copy of her book too.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

DON'T BE A DICK PART 2

We're barely into the second half of the year, and yet again I find myself writing about other writers' behaviour for the second time this year. Why do some people never learn? It's like they actively want their careers to crash and burn. Sigh!

Let me make this clear... if you want a long and successful writing career, don't treat people like they're something stinky you picked up on your shoe. It's that simple. The media industry is small and very well connected. Everyone talks. Everyone knows someone. And if that someone only has a bad word to say about you, then you can be sure others will hear about it. Maybe even high profile others in influential positions. It's incredibly easy to get a bad reputation and very difficult to maintain a great one.

Let me try and explain it another way. There have been plenty of times when I've approached producers at events, where they've asked me who my agent is, I've told them, and they've gone, "Oh Christina, we love her. She's brilliant!" Where they might have been initially frosty to my approach as soon as they knew Christina is my agent, they were more than happy to chat to me and agree to read my work. Christina's reputation is an instant icebreaker. Now imagine that's you. If you're open, friendly, approachable and helpful, people are only going to say lovely things about you. That's the majority of your networking already done for you right there.

How many times have you avoided watching a movie or TV show because someone you know told you it was rubbish? How many times have you told others to avoid a film you've watched and hated? It's frightening how quickly and easily a lousy reputation can spread.

One of the TV shows I want to write for is CASUALTY. So I've been chatting with a couple of legends who work on the show, and their advice has been a massive help. I've been careful not to bombard them with emails and questions, I haven't been pushy, and I've been respectful and polite in all my communications with them. I asked Jeff Povey what advice he would give to someone who wanted to write for the show and he replied the same day with a page of fantastic insights. I met Jon Sen a few years ago and have kept in touch with him, occasionally emailing him and asking what he's up to. Last month I wanted to ask him about CASUALTY and a few other things, and he kindly arranged a Skype session with me to answer my questions. Now I know they're both extremely busy (especially Jeff who must have easily written more than ten episodes of drama this year already), and they didn't have to answer my questions, but they did because I didn't make a nuisance of myself and that's the kind of people they are. They are both shining examples of how every writer should act.

Making sure you follow up on emails is a big deal for me. There's nothing worse than emailing someone and not receiving a reply. I don't care how busy you are; if you don't reply to a polite email, even in the briefest of terms, it's just rude. I can't speak for everyone, but when I don't get replies to my emails it automatically clouds my perception of those people from then on. That's why I'll always try and email people back and answer their queries, even if it's with a short and polite, "No thank you."

Remember, don't be a dick.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

BLOG REWIND: REWRITES

I'm neck deep in a rewrite at the moment, so this post, first published on the 21st May 2008, is very appropriate. I've tweaked and updated it a little. Enjoy!

Rewriting is a pain but also a necessity. It's when the majority of the work is done and where your screenplay is made or broken. There is always a danger of doing too much, losing your focus and turning your script into a mindless pile of wank, if it wasn't one already. What is needed is a little structure to those rewrites. Split them down, concentrating on different aspects of the script one at a time. By doing this, you won't get bogged down and confused as to what you're trying to do. Focusing on smaller tasks makes the entire job a lot easier. Here's how to break it down.

Draft One: The 'get it done' draft, AKA the 'vomit draft'.

You've done your outline, your treatment, polished your characters, so now it's time to write. So write. Resist the temptation to go back and edit as you go. If you need to make notes, then make them, but what is more important at this stage is getting that screenplay on the page. It doesn't have to be brilliant; it just needs to be done. When you've finished the first draft, put the screenplay in a drawer and leave it for a couple of weeks. Don't be tempted to go back to it sooner.

Draft Two: Structure.

When you come back to your rough first draft and reread what you've written, it's going to look pretty bad. Don't worry, draft two is designed to iron out any inconsistencies, any gaping holes in the plot, and to make sure that all your setups and payoffs are all there. Don't be tempted to work on anything else at this stage that'll come later.

Draft Three: Characters.

Do you know your characters? Are they believable? Do they have flaws the audience can identify with? Do they act true to their nature, or do they do things just because the plot requires them to do so? Characters need to be believable and to engage the audience. If they don't then you need to take a closer, more analytical look at them. Don't forget, even the most celebrated hero has motivations driven by his selfish desires. No one is all good, nor all bad. People are a mixture, with their individual likes, hates, fears, and desires.

Draft Four: Dialogue.

Could you identify your characters by their speech alone? Everyone speaks differently. Go to a public place and listen to people having conversations, what they say, how they interact with others. This exercise will help you individualise each characters' speech. Avoid writing regional accents phonetically, it makes them hard to read and will put readers off. And don't forget people are not always kind to each other, including friends and family.

Draft Five: Imagery.

Look for repeated words in your action description and find new ones to replace them. Look at your action description. Could it be shorter, more direct? Is it flat and dull? Could it be punchier? This is the draft that could make a lot of difference to your script, so take your time with this one, even if you have to spend several days searching for just the right word to describe something. Remember screenwriting is all about imagery; TV and film are a visual medium. Make your scenes stand out in the mind of the reader.

Draft Six: Restructure.

Would your script benefit from telling it in a different way or order? Take Memento for instance, an excellent film told backwards. The film could work both forwards and backwards but it adds an extra level of poignancy to it by being shown in reverse. Look at your script and decide if a liner plot is the best for your story. To be honest, I'm always sure about the way I want to write a script when I start, but it never hurts to take a second look.

Draft Seven: Conflict.

Conflict is the essential part of a story. If you have no conflict, then all you have is a script to go to sleep by. Look at each scene, is there conflict, even if it's between friends. Don't forget there are different levels of conflict, you don't need two people beating the crap out of each other in every scene. Conflict comes from different goals, from different points of view clashing. You should already know what each of your characters wants in each scene; this is the moment to make the most of it.

Draft Eight: The Opening Pages.

The first five to ten pages are critical. These are the pages a reader will look at and decide if it's worth investing further in. If they don't like what they see they won't read any further. So make sure your opening pages contain a great hook and are the best they can be. It's worth spending a bit of time on these pages to get them right.

Draft Nine: Back To Your Characters.

Yep, more character work. Make sure each of your characters' arcs are believable and satisfying to the reader. They can have either an upbeat, or a downbeat arc, or a bittersweet one. Remember, they have to be satisfying to the reader.

Draft Ten: Proof Read.

As I always say to my wife, "I'm a writer, I never professed to be able to spell. That's why they invented spell checkers." I'm a crap speller, so I give all my work to my wife to check over. If you're spelling and grammar is as awful as mine hand your work over to someone you trust and give them a big red pen. Red is such a lovely colour.

That's it... or is it? Well no, now's the time to send your screenplay out to others for their opinions. Once you've got that feedback you can start the rewrite process again. Remember, writing is all about rewriting.

Happy writing!