Posts Tagged ‘writing’

So, last week could very easily have turned into one of those weeks.  Those weeks are the weeks in the year where sunny optimism is drained away and replaced by hail-battered gloom, when projects new and old are cut down before, during and after their prime, when the keyboard feels like broken glass and 17 pints in the boozer seem like a really, really good idea.

Come to think, I’m not quite sure how last week didn’t manage to turn into one of those weeks.  I finally managed a meeting with type-3 producer, who was sweet and kind and told me she liked and laughed at my sitcom script (why I couldn’t have been told this by email/over the phone still escapes me) only to discover 10 minutes later that – even before my script was commissioned – a sitcom with a not-altogether-unconnected premise already had a series scheduled.  This makes several months worth of writing, corner-fighting and tactical strop-throwing utterly pointless.

Then the next day I discovered that another producer has decided that the book she had originally agreed was “perfect for adaptation” was actually far less than perfect, again negating a lot of work involved in roughing it out.

So, not a good week.  The question is, why didn’t I end up drowning my sorrows?  And the answer is, because drowning my sorrows wouldn’t have got anything commissioned ( the fact that it’s taken me a decade to realise this suggests that I’m really nowhere near as bright as I like to think myself).  Instead of the pub I found myself back at the keyboard, making a frantic set of emergency changes to the script and treatment for the sitcom and drafting out the best argument I can muster to save the adaptation.  Will they work?  Probably not.  Nonetheless I feel much, much better for having at least made these rescue attempts.  Maybe Robert the Bruce and his spider had the right idea after all.


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So, did anyone see BBC1’s Hunter?  It’s one of those shows that falls effortlessly into the category of “Superior Police Procedural” and boasts some great characters (Hugh Bonneville’s harassed and overworked DSI and Janet McTeer’s rude, semi-alcoholic but efficient and effortlessly charismatic DS) and some great acting – Bonneville seems to have recovered well from the metre-thick wedge of ham and cheese he had to adopt for Bonekickers and Janet McTeer is, as always, just brilliant, transforming relatively few lines into a dominating performance (there was one scene, I swear, where she had nothing to do but sit in the back of a car, listening while the other characters talked and yet you spent all your time just watching her listening).  McTeer is one of those actors you’d give your right arm to cast in something, rather like David Tennant: you just can’t avoid watching them when their on screen/stage.

All of this is very well but why, you may be asking, is this entry entitled “Cheat!”?  Well, that’s simple.  It’s because part 1 of the two-part Hunter featured what I regard as a cardinal sin of screenwriting.  It goes like this (**Spoiler Alert**) : Detective A is having an affair; he is confronted by his, possibly pregnant ex (whom I might as well call X); he tells X that his latest conquest isn’t in the department and is nobody anyone knows; X says “in that case what’s her name?”; cut to a hospital ante-natal unit, Nurse 1 calls to Nurse 2, “Hannah”.  What that sequence tells us is that Detective A’s girlfriend is the ante-natal nurse called Hannah.  It tells us that as clearly as if they had put up a subtitle under Hannah saying, “Hannah, ante-natal nurse, Detective A’s girlfriend”.  That’s the way the grammar of cinema/TV works.  So it was bloody annoying (if increasingly obvious) when Detective A’s girlfriend turned out to be his DI and Hannah turned out to be one of the baddies.

I have no objection to the lies told by Detective A (“She’s not in the department”, “Nobody knows her”) because that’s what characters do, they lie and cheat and do whatever else real people do, but I get bloody annoyed when a script uses  the screen itself to lie to the viewer.  It’s as bad a failing as the deus ex machina ending or Agatha Christie’s habit of concealing vital information from the reader until the moment someone like Hercule Poirot announces, during his final confrontation with the villain that he spotted it weeks ago.

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I’m really happy with my New Year’s resolutions. Really, really happy.  What differentiates this year’s set from all the previous ones is that they’re prescriptive rather than proscriptive, “thou shalts” rather than “thou shalt nots” and, as such, leave one with a feeling of achievement, rather than a fear of failure.

Probably the most successful resolutions are those relating to the timetabling of my day.  For years I’ve been a believer in getting down to work early and carrying on through the day.  That, at least, was the theory.  In fact what I’ve believed in is sitting in front of my computer early, then finding as many ways to distract myself from working as possible (oh Wikipedia!  how you tempt me with your “Random article” link) until it gets to 10.30 and I can slope off to a coffee shop for a shot of caffeine and a bun, before returning to my computer hours later only to realise that (a) calories have left my brain lethargic and (b) actually, my VAT return is probably more important than the next few pages of script.

Having a set beginning and end to the “main project” part of my writing day, with afternoons left aside for all those irritating bits of admin and, er, paying jobs,  has been a massive improvement.  Obviously, kicking the various distractions into the long grass of the afternoon helps productivity during the morning but, more than this, ending the main project at noon and not starting it again until 8.30/9ish the next day gives plenty of time to ponder what those next 3ish hours of writing will involve.  A lot of the time one chooses to distract oneself when writing because one doesn’t really know what’s coming next.  It’s much easier to surf the net/go for a bun/play-17-hours-of-LittleBigPlanet-and-still-get-stuck-on-that-sodding-wheel-of-death than it is to sit down and come up with the answer to “what happens next”.  Under the new regime, I (and my subconscious) get 21 hours to work on that problem, with the result that, when I start in anew on the film script each day, I know pretty much exactly what I want to happen and how I’m going to get there.  It’s hugely liberating.   Now why didn’t I think of it 10 years ago?

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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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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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