Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Here are two important cliches about writing:

  1. It’s worse than coal mining
  2. Writers are lions led by donkeys

Obviously, these are only cliches among writers.  Equally obviously, they’re not necessarily true.  But there’s something in each of them.

As to “worse than coal mining” (that may be a bit of an old reference these days, now that there are only about 3 people in the whole country involved in deep-cast mining), well who doesn’t think there’s something uniquely testing about their job, even if the testing thing is only boredom.  In the case of writing, the testing thing is frequent self-doubt, the worries as to whether what one is writing is good or awful (this isn’t just me, as you’ll know if you read Wednesday’s entry).

As to writers being “lions led by donkeys”, well sometimes it really does feel like that.  There are essentially three sorts of executive (be they producer/exec/department head or whomsoever): type 1 is efficient, returns emails swiftly, has their schedule well worked out, but thinks in spreadsheet (“Act 1 needs to end 2 pages earlier and there need to be 2.5 foreshadowings of the mid-act turning point by page 27”); type 2 is less efficient, has a desk that sometimes resembles a minor explosion in a paper factory but always has time for writers and can be persuaded to spitball ideas down the pub towards the end of the day; type 3 loves talking about ideas, loves the 27 shows they’re working on, loves your work in particular … but can’t answer a single email, keep an appointment or even remember your existence the moment you’ve left the building.

This week I’ve had to deal with a type-2 with type 1-leanings and with a type-3.  Or, at least, I was supposed to be dealing with my type-3 but … after the hour-and-a-half long trip into central London to meet them, it turned out they’d completely forgotten the appointment (despite the confirming email I sent on Monday) and had decided to work from home.  To make things even more annoying, this same person has been sitting on my commissioned script since October and I still don’t even know if they’ve read it.  Dealing with this kind of producer can leave you feeling that the lions and donkeys comparison is really rather unfair on the donkeys.

On the other hand, my type-2 with type-1 leanings producer was great – lots of clear, no-bullshit feedback on the ideas I’d come up with and a plan of forward movement.  Even better, I actually got told that I could be much darker and more daring with one of the projects I was pitching.  You NEVER get that kind of feedback, except in your wildest dreams … and then you also have to put up with Famke Janssen demanding that you get back to bed and don’t forget the whipped cream.

So, the lesson is simple: type-3 producers should be taken out and shot.  What is weird though, is that when you talk to other executives, it’s almost always the type-3 producers that they’ll direct you towards – “Oh, he’s very creative”, “She’s definitely going to do well”, “Such wonderful ideas”.   As William Goldman once said, “Nobody knows anything”.

Actually, that’s not quite right: for a very wise post on the need for writers to plough on in the face of adversity, why not look here?


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Do you enjoy writing?

It’s funny this.  I always assumed that other writers enjoyed writing as much as I do but at the weekend I was chatting to someone who – despite having graced radio and TV with some fantastic sketches and sitcom episodes – admitted that he often hates the job: the gnawing doubts, the worries over deadlines, the constant interference from assorted TV/radio hierarchs, many of whom seem to know less than nothing about the actual business of putting a good and successful show on the air.  Again, read something like Russell T Davies’s The Writer’s Tale, covering a year of writing Dr Who, and you’ll see much the same complaints and more (although it quickly becomes apparent that, not-so-deep-down-inside, he loves the job with a real passion).

The fact that I’m really enjoying what I’m writing at the moment now begins to worry me.  Admittedly, the film script is an uncommissioned project and thus free from any deadline or interference outside my control, but am I really doing it right if I’m not wracked with guilt/grief/anger about it?

Still, I can at least belatedly point to one unalloyed piece of good news: the Golden Globe award for Sally Hawkins.  As she had a major role in a piece I adapted for radio a few years ago I’m happy to claim her success is all down to me (even in the face of the fact that it clearly isn’t and I’ve probably exchanged no more than 20 words with her).

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Well, not of Jeanie with the light brown hair, or even of genie.  What I dream of, or at least I did this morning, is discussions about the literary merit of the Koran.  It’s nice to know that my subconscious mind is really, really pretentious.  I suspect I could have guessed that in advance.

Why am I mentioning this?  Well, because in between having incredibly pretentious dreams about subjects of which I know absolutely nothing, I slipped into that weird state, so useful to writers, where the mind begins to free-associate and ideas begin to lock into place.

Among the many and various projects I’m currently preparing to send into the no-man’s land of the commissioning process, is a project for an MR James-y horror story.  All it took was being awakened by a door banging open due to the wind (ah the joys of living in a crumbling Edwardian terrace!) and, after 15 minutes of slowly drifting back to sleep, suddenly I had the perfect ending for the idea.  Now all I need is the beginning and middle and I’m away.

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The thing about audiences, whether they be readers or cinemagoers or even just people slumped in front of the box is that they’re clever.  Obviously, as individuals they’ll range across the whole spectrum of intelligence (unless your book/film/TV script is called something like  “The Ineluctable Modality of Fate” or “Janet and John and Pat the Dog” in which case the range of available IQs is likely to be rather more limited) but, taken together, they will have a vast amount of knowledge (this, by the way, is why it’s always best to save “Ask the Audience” for the really tricky question on Who Wants to be a Millionaire).  Audiences really will pick up any small clues you choose to seed your manuscript with, they don’t need to be prepared for any plot twist with a long explanation in words of one syllable.

Irritatingly, I appear to have forgotten this while wrestling with “the great script”.  I’ve been trying to hint at the twist  coming up in my film script with a few well-chosen bits of scene-dressing earlier on.  Re-reading what I’ve put together so far, I now realise I’ve put something in every other scene.  I may have wanted to send out a few little clouds, presaging the coming storm but instead I’ve knocked up something akin to the tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz.

Ah well, looks like I can start tomorrow with more than a few revisions.

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rose1Shakespeare claimed that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” but, as JBS Haldane pointed out in My Friend Mr Leakey no one would think of the rose in the same way if it were called the Lesser Stinkwort. As Mr Leakey himself said, “Names matter more than you think.”

The point came up on Charlie Brooker’s excellent Screenwipe Special on writers a month or so ago. Graham Linehan (writer of Father Ted, The IT Crowd, Black Books &c) was saying one of the things he missed most about working with Father Ted co-writer Arthur Matthews was his ability instantly to come up with the name for a character. As an illustration he gave the randy, larger-than-life postman featured in the episode Speed 3. His name? “Pat Mustard”. As soon as you hear that name you know what the character is going to deliver. It works absolutely perfectly.

I spent more time than I should today trying to name the heroine in my film. I’d got her down in my outline first as “Louise” and then as “Ellie” but when I came to place her into the script for the first time, neither seemed right. Matters were made more complicated by the fact that my default setting is to give my female characters one of those names posh families give their daughters and then shorten to boys’ names – Harriet/Harry, Charlotte/Charlie &c. Why this default? Well, to me those names always conjure up someone frighteningly clever, funny and independent and, as far as I’m concerned, those three words are the definition of a sexy heroine.

Unfortunately for me, the female lead in my current script needs to be (at least when we first meet her) someone badly damaged by life. Somehow I can’t imagine one of my Harrys (Harries?) or Charlies in that role. In the end I plumped for Kate, one of those iceberg names: seemingly plain but concealing something far more impressive. Don’t believe me? Then I pray in aid Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett and Kathryn “Kate” Hepburn. See?

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There are (at least) two schools of thought on how you should get through a first draft of a script.  One school says you should work your way through from beginning to end, never looking back (possibly for fear of being turned into a pillar of salt/having your wife forever trapped in the underworld).  The other suggests that you work through the script from the beginning each day, revising as you go.

In the past I’ve generally stuck to method one, if only because method one is quicker.  With the film script, however, I’m switching to method two.  It does take a lot longer, with the first half of the writing day taken up by what went before but it is a great opportunity to add in those little tweaks/big changes that only leap into your mind in the middle of the night, as well as helping to give some consistency to the tone.  At least, that’s my excuse for only getting 3 pages of new material written today.

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choices-thumbWriting, like acting, is all about choices (it’s all about lots of other things as well, of course, but “choices” can be found pretty near the top).  Do I use this word or that?  Location A or B?  Is this an anti-hero or an all-out villain?  Would I really like fries with that?

The choice being made can be a tiny one but that doesn’t make it any less importance.  Was it Laurence Olivier who said that when acting he always started with the nose and everything else fell into place from there?   Today, for instance, it came down to who owned a car, a problem that took almost an hour to solve.  The hero of the script I’m working on is divorced (separated?)  and back living with his mum, despite being in his mid-30s.  One of today’s scenes saw him driving off to a job interview (no, he’s not going to get the job).  The question was, is he driving his own car or his mum’s?

Well, let’s see.  If it’s his own car then we can use it to say something about him: does he like flash cars?  What sort of music does he have on the MP3?  What radio station does he default to?  Is his motor filled with junk?  Is there a stash of Mars Bars (or should that be some sort of cereal bar?  Get in that “wants to be fit but can’t resist a snack” attitude? See? – choices everywhere!) in the glove compartment?

Then again, driving his own car means that he’s kept something reasonably substantial for himself in the divorce/post-separation.  Given that he’s failed to move on from the relationship, maybe he would have left the car with his ex.  He thinks he’s just kipping in his childhood bedroom as a stopgap, until his ex takes him back.  This is also the reason why he’s failed to get himself a new job and build a new life – he doesn’t realise (/won’t admit) the old one is over yet.

Now I get to make the hero drive his mum’s car.  This supports his “we’ll soon be back together again” attitude to his ex AND I can still say a lot about him with the car: how does he react to all the choices his mum makes for her car?  I’m pretty sure he’s going to hate what’s on the CD player.  I also get to have a bit of fun with him crashing the gears and being appalled by the contents of the glove compartment.

Of course, tomorrow I may decide that this was completely the wrong choice, but then that’s what tomorrows are for.

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