Wednesday, September 06, 2017

WRITING DIVERSE CHARACTERS FOR FICTION TV OR FILM - LUCY V HAY

Writing Diverse Characters for Fiction, TV or Film is a thought provoking, informed and well-presented book and Lucy's most assured to date, one you cannot do without. And I don't say that lightly.

Writing & Selling Drama Screenplays was a great debut and very informative, but as a writer, I got more from her follow-up Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays. Diverse Characters eclipses both of these and is where Lucy really comes into her element. But why is it so good?

It's good because Lucy knows her stuff and does her research. Did you see our 'debate' on Facebook recently about the Doctor being female? She really pushed me hard, countering all of my arguments with cool logic and well thought out points (even though I still maintain I won the debate). It's not easy debating with Bangers and certainly not for the faint hearted. It's precisely because of the amount of research she does that makes her so knowledgeable and there's an absolute ton of it in those pages, all of it used to great effect.

A quick question. If the spec pile is full of white male protagonists saving the world and your screenplay is diverse, which script do you think is going to stand out? That's exactly why this book is a godsend as it explores why so many screenplays are overlooked, even if the writing is great and how you can make yours stand out. And who doesn't need that kind of help?

The book is split into five sections so you can jump in where you want to and come back at a later date to refamiliarise yourself with whatever you want or need. Those sections are - WHAT IS DIVERSITY? - HEROES, SHEROES AND VILE VILLAINS: THE PROTAGONIST AND ANTAGONIST - SECONDARIES, SIDEKICKS AND SUBORDINATES - PERIPHERAL POINTERS - LAST WORDS.

Instead of waffling on like some books on characterisation I've read, Lucy is kind enough to keep sections short and sum up after each insight with a handy 'IN A NUTSHELL' or 'THE SHORT VERSION' paragraph. It's a great way to recap what you've just read and reinforces the information and her arguments. I find reading large paragraphs of information difficult as I get distracted quite easily. If I have to put a book down for some reason I have to go back and reread some of it to pick up the thread again. So it was refreshing to find Lucy has written this book in little bite-size chunks I could quickly read, leave and come back to when I liked, without losing any of its impact.

I also love the 'HOW TO FLIP IT' paragraphs that look at ways to avoid stereotypes and tropes, to help us writers find the 'same but different' producers are crying out for. These sections are especially thought provoking.

Lucy covers every angle as she explores her subject, even taking a look at the origins of story telling to understand why so many spec piles are full of screenplays with tired, overused stories and populated with the usual overused characters. She also explores what diversity isn't as well as what it is. And she doesn't just argue for more diverse stories and characters but also warns against positive diversity, as she advocates normalisation and banishing stereotypes and familiar plots. Writing Diverse Characters is much more than just talking about introducing characters of a different race, colour, gender, sexual orientation or disability into your work.

After finishing the book I had to go back over my old spec scripts that either haven't done so well or which weren't liked as much as others. With some simple changes, I can now see how I can easily improve those screenplays and make them fresh and appealing. It's also helped me look at the stuff I'm currently working on differently, providing me with new angles to try and helping to increase the chances of my specs being picked up. Most of all Lucy has shown me the importance of researching the types of characters and stories I want to tell, to identify those that have been overused, so I can avoid them.

I have to say, I enjoyed Lucy's book so much I've immediately started reading it again.

Diverse Characters isn't about telling the writer how and what to do, it's about making the writer think about how they approach their screenplay, the story they want to tell, the characters they choose, the reasons why they choose them and why some screenplays are successful and why others fail. Lucy often asks, 'Is there another way?' or 'Is there a better way?' There always is and Lucy guides the reader to find their own solutions to the questions she poses. In short, Writing Diverse Characters for Fiction, TV or Film isn't preachy but incredibly informative. Do you and your writing a favour and buy the book.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

FOCUS

You might have heard of the saying, 'don't look back, look to the future'? I've certainly always been told never to reflect on the past... but sometimes looking back is exactly what you should do.

Listening to the UKSCRIPTWRITERS PODCAST LIVE on Monday evening I was reminded of how important it is to remember where I have come from.

DANNY STACK and TIM CLAGUE were chatting about feeling down about lack of career progress or being unhappy at the slow progress of certain projects and how as a writer you shouldn't focus on negative things like this. Instead, they advocated looking back at previous achievements to see how far you had come and using that as a measure of your success.

A few weeks ago I had a minor setback and to be honest it hurt. I moped about it for a few hours and questioned why that particular project wasn't going forward as I thought it deserved. But after listening to Danny and Tim I took a retrospective view of the last twelve months and realised that despite the occasional setback it's been a fantastic journey full of marvellous opportunities. I've made the last ten of two competitions, placed in the quarter finals and semi-finals of several others, was interviewed for the BBC Doctors shadow scheme, been recommended to two big productions companies and championed by two wonderful writers. One minor setback pales in comparison. It's all a matter of focus.

Sometimes we spend too much time looking forward at our targets, dreams and goals and forget how far we have actually come. Remember the BUZZ JAR? Making note of my achievements is exactly why I keep a Buzz Jar on my desk so I can dip into it when I'm feeling a bit down about my writing and motivate myself to crack on. I looked for it Tuesday morning and found it hiding behind my wi-fi router. I grabbed it and put it dead centre in front of my computer screen so I can see it all the time. I'm determined to not let it slip out of sight again.

If you've had a rejection or things aren't going quite as you planned, have a look back at the last twelve months and how far you have come, how much writing you managed to do, how many competitions you have entered and how many connections you have made. I guarantee you things will look a whole lot brighter.

To hear exactly what the lads said about looking back HERE.
you can listen to Danny and Tim's live podcast

Happy writing!

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

INTERVIEW - DANNY BROCKLEHURST

In September 2016, thanks to the London Screenwriters' Festival's TV Drama Writersroom, I was lucky enough to spend a whole day with legendary TV writer Danny Brocklehurst. You can read my blog report about it HERE! Danny was just brilliant, very patient with us and very giving with his knowledge and advice. It seems only fitting then to fire off a few questions for Danny, which he was more than happy to answer.

How did you get your first screenwriting job?

I'd been writing plays and scripts for years without success. I was working as a journalist for City Life magazine in Manchester and went to interview Paul Abbott for a feature. We ended up getting pissed together and I bravely told him I was a wannabe writer and would he read a script - he did and thankfully passed it onto Nicola Shindler at Red productions. She loved the writing and asked me to pitch for Clocking Off 2. I spent a week working up three stories and they bought two of them. I was staggered. But I have cut short here the many years of knocking on doors and being rejected.  It wasn't a quick process and took an enormous amount of will power to not give up.

Have you ever been fired from a job and what was the lesson you learned from it?

I'm pleased to say I haven't ever been fired. But people do and when they do they need to reflect on what went wrong and whether they were to blame. Sometimes it's just a bad fit, not everyone can write every kind of show. Doesn't mean they are crap.

Was there a specific rejection during your career that still hurts today?

Rejection hurts every time. Even now.  If you put your heart into a project and someone turns it down, it hurts. But I endlessly got rejected by channels for a Black Mirror type idea BEFORE Black Mirror, so that one is still painful.

What is a typical writing day and week for Danny Brocklehurst?

There is no typical.  But I write EVERY week day. I usually start out with coffee, perhaps in a cafe and then go home to work in my office.  Sometimes I'm just storylining and go for long walks and think out problems, other times it is nose to grind writing the script. But I always allow a little time for my mind to wander and reflect on the work - so that might be a swim or a walk or a beer!!!

What was it like working with legends Paul Abbott on Shameless and Jimmy McGovern on The Street and who were you the most intimidated by?

They were both amazing.  I worked with Paul for years - on four different shows (Exile, Shameless, Clocking Off and Linda Green) so I stopped being intimidated and just enjoyed the chaos.  Jimmy was a real hero of mine so that was more intimidating but he's a genuinely lovely man - and very collaborative so I enjoyed my time on The Street and Accused.  Even if he did cut out my jokes.  It has been a dream to work with them both.

What’s your favourite genre to write?

Social realism.  BUT I do also love high concept stuff.  I just don't write much of it.

Have you ever been tempted by Hollywood?

Yes. In fact, I'm currently working with Amblin. On a sci-fi show.

Of all the screenplays you’ve written which is your favourite and why - produced and unproduced?

Exile - such a hard show to get right. It's a thriller and a family drama and a show about Alzheimer's.  People wrote to me afterwards to say it moved them very deeply.

The last few shows you’ve written have been solo efforts, do you find it easier or prefer working on your own, or is that just the way it happened?

I like collaboration because I like talking out ideas BUT sometimes you need a singular vision.  It depends on the show.  It's good to jump between the two.

If you were to give new writers one piece of advice what would it be?

Keep going.  Keep writing.  Find your voice.  Read scripts.  That's four pieces of advice.

What's next that we should be keeping our eyes peeled for?

Come Home next year on BBC1 and Safe on Netflix with Michael C Hall.

Thanks, Danny.

Episode 1 of IN THE DARK is available on iPlayer until 22:00 10th August 2017. Catch it while you can.

Happy writing.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

YOUR NEXT SPEC

"How do you choose your next spec wisely, knowing how much of an investment of time it is?"@KoshaEngler on Twitter.
Great question! It's especially pertinent for me having been lucky enough to be commissioned for six features in a row. For a long time I didn't have much free time to work on my own ideas and when I did I had to make sure the screenplay I chose was the right one. So how do I choose the right idea?

Don't write what is current. Once you've written it, polished it and sent it out, the subject matter or genre will be yesterday's news and everyone else would have moved on to the next big thing.

Write what interests you. This is especially important if you have very little time. You're more likely to drag your heels if you're not 100% committed to what you're writing. There's nothing worse than finding yourself working on a new screenplay and you're not enjoying it. It doesn't motivate you and you're more likely to end up with something that isn't your best work. If it's a subject, genre or story that interests you, you will automatically work harder at it and it will show on the page.

Give it everything you've got. Don't write the screenplay with an eye to selling it. This sounds daft, right? Actually, it isn't. I know that if I deliberately try to write something commercial it tends to be watered down and the screenplay ends up being not as strong as it could be. Be bold with your writing. Forget budget restraints. Don't hold back. Give this screenplay everything you have. Why? That's simple.

I wrote my spec feature FAITH while I was going through a really tough time in my personal life. I poured all of my feelings, my angst, my anger, my dispair and my disillusionment with the world and people in general into the words I put on the page. FAITH won an award and it's still the screenplay that gets me all of my commissioned work. It's my calling card script and it does a fantastic job as an advert for what I can do. What I'm saying is, the screenplay might never sell, but if it's a shining example of your work people are going to read it and sit up and take notice of you. It'll get you work. It will lead to other opportunities. It will be that career boost you need.

Happy writing.

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!