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.


Less is more

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.

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?

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.

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.

Well, the writing year is off to a good start.  This is thanks in no small part to the resolutions I wrote out here before, in particular the one about making the essential part of the writing day an uninterrupted 9-12 stint.  In the past I’ve tended to slope off mid-way through the morning for a coffee and bun.  Initially this worked quite well – you’d be amazed how many plot problems can be solved while on a decent-length walk (even if one does risk looking completely crazy as one distractedly mouths lines of dialogue to oneself) but this had a disturbing tendency to turn into a coffee, bun, read of the paper, mooch round the odd shop, trip for a haircut &c, which pretty much blew a hole in the main part of the writing day.

It’s certainly not true for everyone – many writers like to write through the night – but I know a lot of people who, like me, need to get as much of their work done as possible before lunch.  Ask me to digest anything more than an almond croissant and an Americano and all writing skill drifts away for hours, leaving me to stare at a screen all afternoon while trying to tweak the odd character name or rejig a couple of lines, instead of producing those exciting new pages that writing is all about.

Not this year, though … oh no.  This will be the year of the extra virgin, double-pressed morning pages.  Honest.


So, other than reviving this blog, what are my writing-related resolutions?

  1. Get back to some serious ashtangaMens sana in corpore sano and all that (insert depressing thought here, I doubt somehow that any of my work will be remembered as long as Juvenal’s).  Doing yoga helps me keep my brain in order.  Not to mention that I’d like to get back to being a bit more buff – I may be ugly but that doesn’t stop me being vain.  So, that’s half an hour first thing every morning and another three-quarter hour session when I can fit it in.
  2. Writing time is 9 -12 each day.  By this I mean “proper” writing time – sitting in front of a screen and working on a script, for me.  This should be a net-surfing/wandering-off-for-coffee-n-buns/computer-gaming/idly-staring-out-of-windows/&c-free period of the day.
  3. Afternoons are for other writing/admin/watching movies/reading/writing this blog/writing the satirical blog.
  4. Video games don’t get to impinge until after 6pm.  I always admire the example of Iain Banks, who ended up physically breaking the CD for Sid Meier’s Civilization (sic) III in order to get back to the business of writing.
  5. I will chase up producers more often.
  6. I will exploit my back catalogue
  7. I will get up in the middle of the night whenever I have a good idea, however attractive the idea of staying in bed seems.
  8. On the same point, I will not try to convince myself that “if I think about the idea really hard before going back to sleep, I’m bound to remember it in the morning”.
  9. I will say “yes” more – writing requires interesting experience and sitting at home is not that interesting.
  10. I will try and get the short stories published.
  11. I will have a film script (first draft) by the end of April.  Actually, even better if I can get it done by mid-March.  I’d like to get it out of the way before I hit forty.
  12. I will get off my arse and look for work.
  13. I will try to track down Russell T Davies so I can give him a manly handshake/huge hug/great big slobbery kiss.  Whether you like what he’s done with Dr Who or not, The Writer’s Tale is a wonderfully true, wonderfully inspiring book about writing and what it is to be a writer.  Thank you RTD.

And that, I reckon, is enough to be getting on with.