Wednesday, July 19, 2017

BLOG REWIND - WORKING AROUND THE KIDS AND SCHOOL HOLIDAYS

The summer holidays are almost upon us. For those of us who work from home having our children off for six weeks can be frustrating, especially if we have work deadlines. So how do we survive the summer, ensure our kids have the best time ever and still manage to get enough writing in, all without losing our sanity?

Here's an updated blog post from Wednesday 3rd August 2016 which will hopefully help everyone stay calm and enjoy their summer.

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 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 taking them out somewhere special as a treat or enjoying a quick kick about in the back garden. My usual pattern is if they let me get on with my writing undisturbed during the morning, the afternoon is theirs and when we go out and have fun as a family. 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 12, 2017

PRODUCERS V AGENTS

No, this isn't the title of my latest spec feature, although I'm sure it would make a brilliant movie. It is, in fact, a question suggested by Craig Howells in response to my request for topics people would like covered on this blog.

The easy answer is 'producers'. But why?

Agents are in the business to make money. If they can't see a reasonable chance of an immediate return for their time and effort, they are unlikely to take a writer on as a client if they don't have a track record. Very rarely will an agent take on a client who only has one screenplay to their name and hasn't yet made any money. They will only do so if they see exceptional promise in either the writer or their work. To attract a good agent, a writer will need to prove they can go out and source their own work. Too many new writers chase agents when they're clearly not ready.

The easier way in is by forming relationships with producers. So where can writers find producers?

Forget about the big names. They have layers of protection writers can only dream of. And everyone wants to work with them. Try and get in touch with the smaller names, or producers who state they actively support new writers on their website. Hunt down producers of your favourite indie films and TV series.

Join LinkedIn. They have a keyword search facility to make it easier to look for producers, script editors and directors. Go to a local library every week and read Broadcast and other media publications for free. Make a note of producers who have left other production companies to start their own production company. Get in there first. Contact them and form a relationship. Also keep an eye out for Development Execs, as they will quite often become producers and decide to branch out on their own and at some point form their own production company. And remember, when contacting producers always remember to be polite, don't bombard them with stuff and be prepared to play the long game.

Speaking of the long game, there are places a writer can go to get unrestricted access to up and coming producers. I once attended a 'How To Make A Low Budget Film' workshop with Richard Holmes, organised by Industrial Scripts. I was the only writer there, shut in a room all day with directors and future producers. I still keep in touch with as many of them as I can. I never know when a contact will eventually pay off. The London Screenwriters Festival is also a great to place to meet producers, but remember to do your research on who's attending before you go.

Writers shouldn't just stick to writers groups. They should join producer and filmmaking forums or groups on Facebook and other social media. The more they do, the more likely they will make connections that will pay off five, ten, fifteen years down the line. Showing an interest in what producers do can only help progress a writer's career.

I don't think there are any quick solutions for meeting producers unless the writer knows someone who can introduce them. A writer will always have to work as hard at making connections as they do their writing

, forming relationships and keeping themselves in that producer's mind for when s/he is looking for a new writer for their latest TV series.

Hard work pays off... always!

Happy writing!

Friday, July 07, 2017

DIVERSITY

It got a little heated on Facebook yesterday because I dared to suggest I would stop watching Doctor Who if the next regeneration was female and there wasn't a valid reason for it other than the BBC wanting to tick a diversity box. But was I really so wrong to question the reasons for a female Doctor?

This is what I said...
"The new Doctor - "Looks like it's Phoebe Waller Bridge!" 
I have nothing against a female Doctor, but it should only happen if there's a solid story/character based reason for there being so. If the producers can't come up with a very good reason for this then it'll just be because the BBC want to tick the diversity box. 
If that's the case I'm afraid I'll stop watching it. 
*ducks for cover*"
And here's the link to the responses to MY ORIGINAL FACEBOOK POST if you want to have a look for yourself.

I was called a sexist, emotional and anti-diversity amongst other things. It was mostly a good-natured debate though. I was even told that insisting there was a reason for the change had nothing to do with me being a writer. Wrong! It is exactly because I'm a writer that I'm concerned about box ticking.

To be ultra clear...

****I WANT A FEMALE DOCTOR****

****THERE SHOULD BE MORE DIVERSITY IN TV AND FILM****

There I've said it, so why am I complaining about the possibility of the Doctor becoming a woman? It's simple. As a writer, I take time and great care to create my characters, to shape them, to make them believable so the audience will want to invest their time in watching them.

If a producer then turned around and asked me to make a male character female because they thought there should be more female characters on TV, I would simply say no. However, if they gave me valid story or character reasons why the character should be female, I would think on it. If I agreed with their reasons I would be happy to make the change. If I didn't, I would give my reasons for why I thought it was a bad idea and ask them to reconsider. After all, I made the character male in the first place because I felt he was the best choice to tell that particular story and changing his sex for diversity's sake would lessen the impact I intended.

In the Facebook post, I kept asking, 'show me WHY the Doctor should be female?' I was continually countered with, 'WHY NOT?' But that's not a valid reason, that's just laziness. The characters we remember are the ones that are well thought out, the ones who fit their environment and drive the story and conflict because of who they are. Change that without a valid reason and you weaken your story and risk losing your audience.

Some change can be for the better. For example, I joked in the post that if I were to write an action movie with the lead as a female Muslim, the first question I would probably be asked by a producer is 'WHY?'. Lisa Holdsworth said I should totally write that movie as she would watch it. The thing is I am. But I didn't make the lead character a female Muslim because I wanted to tick a box (or two), it's because she is the best character for this particular story.

The original idea was to have a male character in his late thirties. But I asked myself, 'WHY?' and I soon realised he was the wrong character. So I examined the story I wanted to tell, the situation, the location and time it was set and asked myself, 'who is the best person to deal with this?'. Diversity didn't come into it.

I'm not questioning the drastic character change just because the new regeneration might be female, but because it is eaxctly that - a drastic 180-degree change. I would question the reasons for any character that changed that drastically, regardless of sex, race or religion.

There has to be a reason why the Doctor is female, not just because people want more diversity. Diversity is great, but if the Doctor is female simply because of 'why not', then not only does it not do justice to the character, but also to the actress who plays her. It just becomes a novelty that will quickly wear off, rather than a strong female character we can believe in, who empowers diversity rather than diminishes it. More importantly, box ticking also insults the audience. We (the audience) aren't thick; we can recognise change for change's sake. We want to be drawn to a character for the right reasons, not put off them for all the wrong ones.

If, as a writer, you put a diverse character in your screenplay for diversity's sake, don't be surprised it the screenplay doesn't work.

The post was not about objecting to there being a female Doctor, it was about being true to the character of the Doctor.

It'll be interesting to see what Chris Chibnall decides. Whatever the decision though, I'm sure we'll be debating it for a long time to come.

Happy writing!


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

AND THERE IT IS

After last week's blog rewind post THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY I was delighted to receive a brilliantly inspirational comment from GILL KIRK.

It made me think!

It made me shout, "HELL YEAH!", out loud!

It put a great big smile on my face!

And it made me happy that at least one person got a boost from my post. That one person's day was made a little better. That one person turned a negative into a positive.

That... exactly that!  Boom!

Gill's comment says far more than the blog post I had planned for today,  so I'm just going to leave it here... enjoy!

What perfect timing. Thank you, thank you, thank you (and for pointing me to Lisa H's post). You made it much easier to explain my grumpy mood to a 6-y old in his bath just now (this afternoon brought two emails with, "it's great, but not for us right now").  
And in telling him, I added this to what you & Lisa gave me. Hope it makes other readers smile:
"In lots of jobs, when you get them, you're through. And maybe once a year, you'll have a big test. 
"But artists are always making up entries for tests that might not even exist, and quite often, the judges don't even really know what will pass and what won't. 
"And THAT is how brilliant art gets made. Because someone has to be brave enough to take the risks. And that - ma boy - is us." 
;)
Happy writing!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

BLOG REWIND - THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

As it's National Writing Day today, here's a blog post from 4th February 2015 about rejection, handling it and why writing is so flipping awesome.

There have been times in my career when I've seriously considered packing it all in and walking away for good. Where the promise of a regular income and a steady job seemed a whole lot better than the continuing struggle to get anyone to like my work, surviving on nothing but a few pennies a week.

Yesterday (03/02/2015) I read Lisa Holdsworth's excellent blog on rejection - read it HERE - where she nailed what it's like to be a writer and how we deal or fail to deal with rejection. Every one of her points hit home and at the end of the blog post I was actually sniffing back tears.

She actually got me, got what it means and feels like to have my work rejected, and for once I felt I wasn't alone. That's the hardest part I think, the feeling of being alone and isolated with your 'shame' and 'anger', knowing that your family and friends, even though they mean well, don't really understand the crippling effect of being told 'NO'.

All writers face rejection, it's an occupational hazard. Every writer will at one time or another have to face it. But whether it's a project you've been working on for months that gets rejected or you're dumped from a project in favour of someone else, the mark of a great writer is that they learn to deal with it and move on. Yes, the bad times can hurt as much as a kick in the fluffy bits - I've even had to sell my book collections and DVDs just to be able to eat on a couple of occasions when money was so tight - but I've learnt that nothing is forever.

Sometimes as writers I think we set up ourselves for most of our falls, happily telling everyone that will listen about a possible new project that physically and emotionally excites us, only later for it not to go ahead. It's hard not to share our excitement over possible projects with others. We see people so rarely that when we're asked what we're up to the temptation to blurt out every little detail is overwhelming.

Some writers are better at keeping things to themselves than others. Personally, I'm crap at it and I'm sure it makes the rejection harder to deal with when you're asked..."What happened to your Vampire vs Robots project you told me ITV were interested in?" and you have to inform them ITV decided not to go ahead with the idea.

But it's not all bad. Us writers wouldn't do this for a living if it was.

There are days when you feel like nothing can dent your armour, that you're invincible and everyone loves you and what you do, when you just want to sing from the rooftops and tell everyone how well things are going. Those precious moments when a development exec says, "we really love your writing and we'd love to work with you," are the highlights that have us punching the air, strutting down the road as if we own the world. And for those few treasured moments, we do.

We are giants! We are superheroes! Our words are platinum! Our ideas genius! And the world is a beautiful place once again..!

Happy writing!

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS

As I've said many times before, it's advisable to read as many screenplays and screenwriting books as you can to improve your writing. Learning and constantly topping up your skill set helps keep you one step ahead of most new writers. However, sometimes you just have to trust your instincts.

Thanks to the hard work I've put into my blog over the years, I'm lucky enough to have publishers send me screenwriting books to review. There's a pile of about eight sitting on my bedside table at the moment, waiting for me to find the time to wade through them. Some have been sent to me and others I've bought because they interested me. Since January I've read four books. But I've just decided not to read another one for a month or two because I'm finding they are becoming a bit of a distraction.

Over the last week, I've been plotting a new feature. But it's been slow going, not because the idea doesn't work, but because I've found myself trying to implement various techniques I've read about in those four recent books. I've spent more time thinking about hitting turning points, growing character arcs and some other less conventional writing methods than actually just writing down the plot and seeing what I have.

I'm lucky in that structure and character arcs usually come quite naturally to me, more so than dialogue does, that's for certain. Sometimes I forget to trust that natural instinct of mine, to just get on with the writing and not over think things. Just seeing what I come up with, without dissecting every little detail, is very liberating and helps me to get on at a much quicker rate.

So I've stepped away from the books for a while to let my instincts take over again. I'm not saying these how-to

books are a bad thing, they're not. They're essential for keeping your writing on the right track. I'm just saying that sometimes too much of anything is a bad thing and the occasional rest does you the world of good.

Learn to trust your instincts, they may not be as bad as you think.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

FIRST DRAFT - FINISHED DRAFT

As stated in my previous two blogs, my aim this year is to write one script a month for a year. Fellow writer Sally Abbott questioned whether this was a good idea. She pointed out that if I wanted my screenplays to sing then I should invest more time in them. So who's right?

The answer is both of us.

My aim is to write twelve first drafts, not twelve finished screenplays. The rewriting of those twelve first drafts will come later. For now, I just want to get twelve new ideas down on paper and see what works and what doesn't. After all, it's easier to rewrite a pile of poop, than it is to sit and stare at a blank page waiting for the perfect words to come along. If you have sixty pages of poop, you still have something to work with. If you have sixty blank pages and only an outline in your head, you have nothing. Getting it written is the most important thing.

Lucy Hay suggested I write treatments instead, as it would save me some work. But if I'm being truthful, I hate treatments. I only write them when I'm asked to. For me, getting that first draft down on paper helps me to work through my ideas and puts me in a better position when I come to write the second draft, much more so than if I write a treatment first. The first draft gives me a better picture of what I have and what I need to do to get where I want to be. This is why my first drafts are the equivalent of most other people's third or fourth. However, Lucy is also right. Treatments work very well for some people. But everyone writes differently. It's important to find out what works for you.

Going back to Sally's point, the majority of the work is done in the planning stage. For me, this usually equates to about 60%. 10% is then spent on the first draft and the remaining 30% is rewriting it until, as Sally says, it sings out and shines. But the thing is you can spend 90% of your time preparing and still find your idea doesn't work when you come to write it. Sometimes things just don't work on the first attempt.

My latest script took a bit longer than I wanted. It was partially down to some of it not working, partially because I realised I was giving out too many clues too early and partially because I took several breaks to reassess how I wanted the first episode to work. In truth, I probably spent five to six weeks actually writing the draft, rather than the twelve it appeared to take, or the four I actually wanted to complete it in. And thanks to this I have something that is now more advanced than a typical first draft. I also know the next draft will be bloody awesome.

Sometimes you have to go backwards to go forwards. You shouldn't be afraid of this, you should embrace it.

Happy writing!