Wednesday, May 04, 2016

ENCOURAGING CHILDREN TO WRITE

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

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

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

"Daaaaaad!"

"What's up," I said?

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

So I shut up and let him.

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

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

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

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

Happy writing!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

DECONSTRUCTING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy writing!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

THE ETERNAL PLOD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy writing!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

WHY FEEDBACK IS IMPORTANT - BLOG REWIND

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

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

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


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

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

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

Why should I use a professional reader?

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

SACRIFICE

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

I read this article on Facebook yesterday - WORK ETHIC

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

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

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

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

Happy writing.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

SOMETHING FOR NOTHING


I came across this advert last week.


"Apply to: XXXXXXXXXXXXX 
Type: Screenwriters/Scripts 
Location: London Duration: 
Starts shooting in September, starts ASAP 
Salary: Expenses Paid: This is a unpaid job 
I would like you to write and edit the 500 page teleplay, treatment and synopsis of the limited feel good young adult friendly ensemble drama series 'In Between the Lines' It's a very special project and it's expected to shoot on location in London. The plot goes like this: A group of eight friends – Charlie, Stuart, Derek, Raymond, Frances, Jane, Amanda and Lesley are trying to navigate through life while maintaining their friendships in their young adult lives. 
Title will appear in the beginning and credits will appear in the end of each episode. The film's overall target budget will be medium. 9.00 pm would be suitable for this programme. You have got 8 weeks to write the 500 page television script, treatment and synopsis and this will be done. 
I still need to secure financing for this programme. I'm a writer of story ideas. I didn't produce anything in the past so I'm not a producer. When the script is done you'll send the script to me so that I can read it. Then I'll send it to the producers once I read the script. I haven't got a plot to follow just stay as it is. 
What do you think? 
The expenses will be covered for screenwriter. This is a unpaid job. The expenses cover credits, travel expenses and food. The shooting will take place on 10th September-20th November 2016 in London in the UK. 
Contact me if you are interested."

When you're a new writer without a credit it's very tempting to snatch up the first writing gig offered to you. I'm not saying you should never work for free when you're starting out as a writer, but there's a difference between progressing your career and being taken advantage of. The above is a very clear example of the type of project you should avoid. The reasons..? The clues are in the ad - the publisher admits he has no experience as a producer, there's a large amount of work required by the writer, the time frame for the work is unrealistic, he hasn't raised a single penny towards the production and there's a distinct lack of any offer of deferred remuneration. In other words... AVOID AT ALL COSTS! Sometimes however, things may not be so black and white.

WHEN TO WORK FOR FREE.

Finding directors willing to make short films is easy, identifying the ones that will actually get them made and to a professional enough standard is a little harder. Here are two examples of times I was asked to work for free.

My first short film AGN was written specifically for a group of young filmmakers, who I knew all worked for their local television station. They had access to the equipment they needed and they also informed me the film would be broadcast on TV once it was made. It was the exposure I was looking for and after the film was aired, I was able to use it as proof of a broadcast credit when I came across competitions, courses or schemes that required one to participate in. The film makers benefited too, ending up with a project professional enough to showcase their talents to their bosses and any future employer.

Another director, a student, approached me via email asking me if I would write him a short film screenplay, which he would pay me for. I wrote the screenplay to the brief he gave and emailed it to him. He was delighted. I then invoiced him for my time only to receive a reply informing me he wasn't going to use my screenplay and therefore wasn't going to pay me. I Googled his name and after five minutes of research I discovered he had placed adverts on several websites in the previous week offering to pay other writers under similar circumstances. It was quite clear he never intended to pay all of the writers that applied, maybe not even the one he whose project he eventually used. He was simply trying to get as many screenplays as possible about the subject he wanted to film, so he could choose the best one for his project. I should have checked him out first and never got involved with. Lesson learnt.

It's a good idea before agreeing to any unpaid work to ask yourself, 'what are they aiming to do with the finished screenplay and what, if anything, will they gain from the finished film?' If it's obvious they are going to gain monetarily from the film, or that's their aim, and they insist you'll get a credit and rave on about how it will be great exposure for you without offering you a penny, then alarm bells should already be ringing.

If you're unsure about whether you should work for free or not, it's always wise to do an Internet search on the person asking (beforehand), or politely email a friendly, more established writer you know on the interwebs, and ask for their opinion on what is being proposed. You will make mistakes, as I have, and you will learn from them, to the point where you will be better at differentiating between the con artists and those who are genuinely offering you an opportunity.

CONTRACTS

Always have a contract... ALWAYS! And if you're not sure about the contract get it checked out. The Writers' Guild of Great Britain offer a contract vetting service

MONEY UP FRONT

Every writer, regardless of experience, should be to be paid for their work. Always ask if there is development money. If there is some available try to get most of it up front when you sign your agreement and the rest when you hand in the finished work. If you're told there isn't any ask them if they would be willing to pay you a small amount up front to cover your cost of living expenses while you're writing the screenplay. This is a reasonable request and one most people won't object to. If they do you have to ask yourself why that is?

DEFERRED PAYMENT

Deferred payment is an acceptable solution, but only if the project has an excellent chance of being made. It's no good having a deferred payment if the film is never going to go into production. In this case ask the following questions of the project - Is this project commercial? Does the producer/director have the connections to get this made? Are they experienced? Do they have a track record? Do they have a distribution deal in place? Are they planning to enter the finished project into festivals and competitions? If the answer to all of these questions is no it's a good bet the offer of deferred payment is not worth the paper it's printed on. Politely turn them down and get on with your next spec.

SHARE OF PRODUCER'S PROFITS

This one is also dependent on how commercial your project is, the distribution deal and how likely the film is to make money, if any. This share will be in addition to your deferred payment, so be wary of people offering you this as your only form of payment. Remember if the film doesn't recoup its costs you won't see a penny. It's better for a writer to agree a deferred payment, the bigger the better, with a share of the producer's profits as an additional payment, especially if the film's budget is low, as your deferred payment will usually be a percentage of this and therefore won't be very much.

DON'T BE AFRAID TO SAY NO

If you're not sure about an offer you've been made don't be afraid to say no. I know you may think if you turn this opportunity down you may never get another, but I can assure you, if your writing is good and you network enough, you will. Don't take on an unpaid job just because you are desperate to kickstart your career and it's the only opportunity that has been offered to you. Only take the offer if you are 100% sure it's the right one for you.

If in doubt... ask. There are plenty of writers out there on the interwebs making a living from their words, who would be more than happy to give advice born of their experiences. But again if you are going to follow their advice make sure you check their credentials first.

The simplest way to check if it's a good project to work on is to politely email an agent from a smaller agency (not a large one, because if you're not being paid mega bucks they won't be interested)  and ask them if they wouldn't mind checking over the contract with a mind to representing you on a one off basis. If they agree to and turn you down after they have read the contract, it's a good bet the project isn't one worth getting involved with. After all if they think you're not going to earn any money then they aren't either.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

PROCRASTINATION

I have to be active on social media to promote my business and I also have to actually sit down and write on occasion, or I won't have anything to promote. But when does being active on social media start to become procrastination? If I spend too much time on social media I feel guilty I'm not writing enough and if I ignore it I feel like I'm not making enough of my networking chances. Sometimes my head hurts thinking about it all.

I try and work to a schedule and my latest one looks a little bit like this:

Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.
09.00 - 09.30 - social media.
09.30 - 12.00 - writing.
12.00 - 12.30 - lunch and social media.
12.30 - 15.00 - writing.
15.00 - 15.45 - pick the boys up from school.
15.45 - 16.30 - writing.
The rest of the day - social media.

Wednesdays
09.00 - 09.30 - social media.
09.30 - 10.30 - weekly (or fortnightly) blog.
10.30 - 12.00 - writing.
12.00 - 12.30 - lunch and social media.
12.30 - 14.00 - writing.
14.00 - 15.00 - maintaining relationships with contacts.
15.00 - 15.45 - pick the boys up from school.
15.45 - 16.30 - writing.
The rest of the day - social media.

Saturdays and Sundays
Spend time with my family and friends... unless I'm behind on a deadline, then it's get my head down time. Even at the weekend I can sneak in an hour or two here or there, thanks to a very understanding wife.

The thing is it's easy to get distracted. This morning for example, instead of starting the blog at 09.30 I actually watched film trailers until 10.00 - Suicide Squad is looking pretty blinkin' awesome! That's half an hour of my writing day wasted... and normally I would beat myself up about it later. I know it's all down to motivation and discipline and I also know pretty much every other writer procrastinates just as badly, but I still feel guilty if I waste even a second of writing time. I guess I wouldn't be motivated if I didn't.

To help me procrastinate less I finally downloaded FREEDOM for Mac a few days ago, something I've been threatening to do for months - yes Mr Stack, it is finally on my hard drive. It's brilliant as it shuts off the internet for programmable lengths of time - my favourite is one hour stints - so I can get on with my work with no distractions. I've written shed loads this week because of it.

But... there's always a 'but'... the occasional procrastination isn't actually bad for me. As a writer I need time away from my work to let my creative brain relax, chill and work problems out unconsciously rather than being forced to do so. I find some of my better solutions have presented themselves this way.

So my advice is this. Don't be too hard on yourself if you find you procrastinate a little when you feel you should be writing. Set yourself daily goals. If you don't meet them one day, make sure you do more the next. Don't punish yourself and equally don't become too complacent. Like the Force, balance is key.

Happy writing!