Monday, 9 July 2018

Writing for the Market - Screenwriters, Please Don't

Trend chasers are nothing new in any artistic business. After all, if something made money, why not just make more of the same? When The Matrix was a hit, cue all the big effects-heavy sci-fi duds in the early 00s that tried to mimic its success. Lethal Weapon? Hello Nothing To Lose and all those buddy cop movies that populated the 90s. Disney hit it big with Little Mermaid? Let's see Warner Bros. humiliate themselves with Quest For Camelot and The King & I in a vain effort to catch up.

At the level of the studio and big pro-cos, this is understandable. It's on the newbie screenwriting level, however, where it's a surefire way to mess up first impressions. Anyone who has worked as a reader (myself very much included) knows exactly what I'm talking about: oh joy, ANOTHER Tarantino wannabe with more 'Melon Farming' than you can shake a Royale with Cheese at; ANOTHER pilot about a secret government agency that fights supernatural phenomena; ANOTHER romantic comedy about a dweeby loser who gets a girl well out of his league, despite being a moron?

It's easy enough to see how this happens: we're all fans and have particular movies we love and would like to make ourselves. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all. You love stories about the gangster with the heart of gold who protects his kid? Write your own! With so many being made and smashing the box office or the ratings, and a common bit of advice being to pitch to companies who make that content, surely this is foolproof, right?

And yes, I know of Scott Kirkpatrick, his book and interviews on Film Courage. There's some interesting stuff in there, but it's important to bear in mind what industry level he's aiming at. Namely, TV movies and VOD content in the American market, where low cost, fast turnaround and a flashy title are the norm.

What companies and producers are looking for, with small variations depending on who's in charge, boils down to a marriage of concept and talent. 'Same but different' is something you've heard thrown around and it's true: familiar enough to be marketable to an audience, but also different enough to justify its own existence. What's special about YOUR giant robots script, YOUR girls-night-out-goes-wrong script, YOUR vampire script, and how is it different to the one they just made?

Budget also plays a role: if it's a drama or comedy with few locations and a small cast, or a horror set in the woods, you're better off just raising some cash and shooting it yourself, rather than speccing it. Projects like that were tailor-made for indie and don't really make sense to try and pitch to guys with bigger resources. With crewing resources like Facebook film groups, ShootingPeople or Stage32, as well as Indiegogo and Kickstarter for cash generation, these are now more doable then ever.

Furthermore, what's special about how YOU tell it? How good of a read is your script? Does it move at a good pace? Are the characters all distinct? Does it have strong conflict that a reader can get invested in? Does it have a compelling theme or worldview? In short: why THIS, why NOW? When I went about, pitching my kids superhero pilot, those were questions I had to answer. By doing so, I landed myself a few notable contacts, who saw I was serious, and got talking on some pretty cool stuff.

But if you can't answer that question, don't bother continuing (and for the love of all things, don't just say 'well it's fun'. It might be to you, but A) everyone's idea of fun is relative and B) it doesn't really give a meaningful justification for the time that will be spent on it). Remember, you're asking these people to commit several thousand to several million pounds to make your script a reality: don't you have the courtesy to at least send something good, if not great?

However, it must be stressed copying the market is not the same as knowing it: A smart writer is aware of it and keeps an eye on things: mainly, to know where gaps exist for you to pitch your own ideas. More importantly, it helps with what NOT to pitch if it died in the ratings or at the box office recently. 2011's Outcasts, written by Ben Richards and produced by Kudos, was a noted sci-fi flop that stalled homegrown, non-Doctor Who sci-fi TV for several years until Humans came along in 2015, with the help of AMC, to restart the engine. It was a total dead zone.

But wait Abel, you say, what about TV Specs, like in the States? Those about as 'for the market' as you can get, as they're potential episodes of a produced TV series.  Well, I already did a whole piece on the value of American-style specs and fellowships before here, so read that if you want to know more.  In short, different country, different system and it's for a very specific reason: selling your writing ability, not getting it made.

How can you stay up with the market? Read the trades: Deadline, Hollywood Reporter, Screen International (for film) and Broadcast (for TV), all releasing regularly with the latest developments, partnerships and deals. Occassionally browsing on IMDB is not good enough: you have to have a steady flow of reliable, well sourced information, if you want to stand any chance in this line.

And if after all that, you're still not convinced that market copying is folly, look up the story of the now defunct Amazon Studios. It was a nice dream, opening the floodgates for writers around the world to pitch to a juggernaut and see their scripts become movies and TV. However, the tidal wave of copycats, knock-offs and remakes-in-all-but-name destroyed that beautiful dream and now, wannbe screenwriters have one less powerful ally. Please don't be that.

Monday, 25 June 2018

''I want to write just one Movie'' - A Dream or A Waste?

Cinema has a unique glimmer in popular culture that no amount of Uwe Bolls and Michael Bays can tarnish. Everyone, at some point, has pondered some variant of 'what if I made a movie?' It could be something straightforward, like a comedy about college dropouts or a teen romance; other times, more elaborate projects like the many Fan Films of recent times. Everybody wants to entertain; humans have done it since we were cavemen, telling of the great hunt.

Why do I bring this up? Well, just the other day on the Screenwriting section of Reddit, this little nugget popped up:

Now, as you've seen in the responses, this type of question is not met with open arms. Some tried to tackle it with humour, others went into soapboxing. Out came the familiar cries of 'taking up space and 'the poor artists, struggling to make a real career', castigating the unmitigated gall of such a query. I'd be lying if I didn't see where that was coming from: aside from not being very well written, the questioner's emphasis on a spec, animated at that, screamed, 'amateur with no clue about the industry'.

The sad truth is this guy aimed way too high and didn't do his homework: unless you want to end up with a product like Video Brinquedo, a decent animated film'll still run up a bill of a few million. Without a rep or a portfolio, you're asking a company to take an awfully big risk on you for what may be short term benefit: they may make money on the movie, sure, but they're not forming a long term partnership that could expand further and make even more money, assuming you're good. Plus, speaking from hard-earned experience, animated projects are sold way more on premise and concept art than on any type of script.

So okay then, this one's a dreamer, but what about those making live-action stuff? Is it so dim for them? Well again, a company is less inclined to work with someone who's announced a project as a one-off, but there's less strings attached than animated. In this scenario, you're better off making it yourself. Raise the funds and shoot it. You're doing this once, might as well get the whole experience.

But how? Well, let's knock those questions out one by one.
  • Where will I get funding? The old-school way is prepping a damn good pitch and going to investors (i.e. non-media companies & old guys with money to spare), or taking that pitch to a site like Indiegogo or Kickstarter, where you can ask the general public to contribute. Another way? Schemes like Film London's Microwave will give you money if you meet certain criteria. Fair warning, it's not much but it can make a difference at the critical hour.
  • Where will I get a director? Producer? Crew? Well, have you got a Facebook account? The site has tons of filmmaking groups, filled with a never-ending supply of fellow filmmakers who are happy to help, talk and even read your stuff (if you ask nicely and properly pitch it). It's really as easy as typing in film and BOOM: off you go. Stage32 and ShootingPeople are other staples of finding people to work on your film. Added plus: it's networking without leaving the house.
  • Speaking of pluses, what are some good books to help you learn about some of these other roles? Well, Producer to Producer by Maureen A. Ryan is a classic in getting everything set up and running. Robert Rodriguez' Rebel Without A Crew and Lloyd Kaufman's Make Your Own Damn Movie are also handy, in terms of an on-the-ground filmmaking perspective.
  • Where will I get actors? I don't know Benedict Cumberbatch! CastingCallPro and StarNow are two staples for finding performers. Also, go check out your local theatres: they often have troupes, companies and regulars, all too happy to beef up their credits.
  • How will I advertise? I can't afford billboards! You have the internet at your fingertips. Social media and hashtags, love 'em or hate 'em, have changed the game completely. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram offer you a  great, low-cost way to build a following and advertise your production and finished film. 
If you want some further advice, check out this episode from UK Scriptwriters Podcast, where Danny Stack and Tim Clague talk about making their indie kids feature, Who Killed Nelson Nutmeg. Lots of good stuff in there and you should just be listening to the podcast period, even if you don't want to have a career in film. It's really entertaining. Also good to look at: Cinemassacre. You might know James Rolfe for the Angry Video Game Nerd, but he's passionate about filmmaking and reguarly shares his own experiences on Youtube.

So, you now have the how, let's step back to the why. If you really believe in a script, you'll go the long haul with it. That's at the core of every artistic project out there: you have to get it out of your system or you'll go crazy. Cuckoo. Bananas. LOCO!

You have to want it so badly and be willing to put up with all the nonsense, false starts, stupid dramas and sudden reversals that come with making a film. A missed payment there, a forgotten call sheet here, it takes small things to screw up the bigger machine. Those who go for it, in spite of that and even through it, don't merely have a dream: you have to have a passion, a desire, a deep hunger, even if it's for just one time.

Have that drive underpinning what you do and your film will never, ever, be a waste. Yes, even a movie about zombie waterfoul.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Superman Lives & The Last Crusade - Lessons in drafting and redrafting

A lot changes in rewrites. Characters, dialogue, whole chunks of plot and even the order of events can shift or vanish. Long before there's a frame of film shot with which to create deleted scenes, writers must undertake their own 'editing' known as the rewrite. Key component of a rewrite: the draft, a version of your story that has been altered in some way. Usually, a script takes several before it's 'ready' for any type of submission.

If you're reading this, chances are you're a writer of some description or just interested in the craft. If so, you've probably heard all the sermons on the value of rewrites a million times now, but is there something more tangible? Where can you see how scripts change between drafts and chart the evolution of a piece?

Well today, I have two such examples: one from one of the finest adventure films ever made and another from one of the most infamous comic book films not made. I'm talking about 1989's Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, with drafts by Jeffrey Boam and Sir Tom Stoppard, and 1998's Superman Lives, written by Kevin Smith, Wesley Strick and Dan Gilroy respectively.

Regarding Last Crusade, filmmaker Mike Fitzgerald already did a great breakdown of what changed between the Boam and Stoppard version. Here's the whole piece on Last Crusade, which in itself includes a link to the drafts and handy graphs mapping out the story & what went where:

Done? Told you it was good stuff. Now, onto the aborted, strange and often headscratching saga of the three Superman Lives scripts, planned to star Nicolas Cage as the Last Son of Krypton and be directed by Tim Burton.

Basic gist of the project if you're not familiar: after the success of Burton's Batman in 1989, Warners got to work, trying to bring Superman back. Drawing from the best-selling Death of Superman comic arc, Warners opted for a story that focused on the death and resurection of Superman, following a battle with alien killing machine Doomsday. However, the budget quickly ballooned, Warners got cold feet and canned it. Luckily, the internet has preserved these original drafts for our perusal.

(Links to the Smith & Strick scripts can be found here: while the Gilroy one is here:

First up to bat, Askewniverse mastermind and comic's beloved FatMan, Kevin Smith (dated to March 1997. There also exists an earlier version dated to January 97, but this is the more common one):

Plot: With designs on a Kryptonian artifact known as the Eradicator, energy consuming cyber-alien Brainiac comes to Earth in his colossal skull ship. There, he finds the last son of Krypton, at the height of popularity and in a healthy relationship with Lois Lane, who is tied to the Eradicator. To this end, he forms an alliance with tycoon Lex Luthor, and unleashes the monster Doomsday on Metropolis.

Summary: Described by Smith himself as 'fanfiction', this behemoth (page count not officially known, with some pdfs coming in at 119, others at 209) does bear the typical hallmarks of such literature: truckloads of cameos and references chucked in left, right and centre (from Deadshot to a speech-centric cameo by the Dark Knight). The formatting is often off with Smith not using basics like correct aligning for dialogue or using proper scene transitions like 'Continuous' or 'FLASHBACK starts/ends'. Likewise, the plotting and structure is not very strong and often feels tedious, with hefty chunks of exposition where the film tells, rather than shows, its big ideas or themes. Such instances include Superman giving big speeches about the impact of love and life, or the Eradicator learning what it means to be human in the midst of what is supposed to be an intense battle.

Yet despite these glaring issues, there is a 'fun' underpinning the whole affair and some of Smith's strengths still shine through: his skills as a dialogue and character man hold true when it comes to Clark and Lois' relationship. Not only does he make them likeable and endearing, but also makes them feel like they've been in a relationship for some time. I even admire Smith's efforts to be introspective, having a Superman who questions his place in the world and the nature of god vs. man (reminding me a bit of what Batman Forever was originally intended to be).

Plus, despite the silly polar bears guards and alien spider, Smith still crafts fairly engaging setpieces befitting a summer movie, ranging from big slugfests and high speed hover chases, to monster fights that echo Harryhausen, be it with Doomsday or the arachnid Snare Beast. For the man who joked about his Green Hornet being fight-lite and then directing the mediocre action of Cop Out, Smith has a decent eye for spectacle here that blends 60s and 90s rather well.

Closing Thoughts: While overlong and not terribly accessible to the mass audience of a summer movie with its fangasiming, I admire the earnestness of Smith's script and with some tailoring and focus, could've made for an enjoyable Superman film, albeit not one that would've exactly reset trends the way Burton's Batman had back in 1989.

Phew, that was a big'un. Let's hop to script #2, brought to us by Cape Fear's Wesley Strick:

Plot: Same jist as before, though there's more of an emphasis on a distant, uncertain Superman who questions his origins and what his purpose is. Also new this time around is, instead of the Eradicator, Brianiac's desire is for an artificial Kryptonian intelligence called 'K', so he forms an alliance with Luthor and unleashes Doomsday on Metropolis to draw it out.

Summary: While leaner than Smith's 'fanfiction', this 117 page Lives doesn't quite compensate with substance or depth. In the place of bloated speeches and fanservice, we get a lot of tedious moping from Clark Kent as he returns to Smallville following some excavations by Lexcorp into alien tech. Whilst I admire the effort to be introspective, having a Superman who questions his place in our human world and the nature of godlike powers, Strick makes him come across as whiny and a little too naive for someone who is meant to be a seasoned reporter, as well as crimefighter. Plus, the inciting incident that leads to Superman's doubts doesn't feel strong enough and I couldn't help but wonder 'Why now, of all the times Luthor has probably meddled with alien tech or tried to tamper with something or somewhere tied to Supes' past does THIS cause him to have a crisis'?

Recall how Smith's strengths were dialogue and character, especially when it came to Clark and Lois' relationship? That's been junked in favour of dialogue that veers from robotic to goofy, with a Clark-Lois dynamic that reads more like awkward teenagers. It also resets them to 'Lois not knowing Clark is Superman', which feels more like an excuse to pad out the script and never has the weight Strick clearly wants it to by the time Supes dies.

What's more, the 'earnest fun' underpinning Smith's script is almost entirely gone, with a tonal imbalance that goes from really dour and existential with Superman's quest for answers and his reminisce on the past, to almost Batman & Robin levels of camp with the bickering duo of Luthor and Brainiac. He reads less like a cold computer and more like an alien overlord from an SNL spoof sketch. This only gets worse when the two fuse to form the even more bickery 'Lexiac', when he literally becomes a comedy of two halves. Any attempt at making parallels between Brainiac and Superman as the final survivors of Krypton and how they use that legacy is completely undermined by just how kooky the villains are.

If there are positives here, Strick's Hollywood experience does enable him to craft fairly satisfying action, as well as take more advantage of the Harryhausen-monster angle, be it with Doomsday, the Snare Beast or the new fight at a Lexcorp theme park against a water-phobic chomper monster. The film never wants for whizz-bang, going from alien worlds to street riots to the frozen Arctic. Structurally, it does feel more cohesive than the sprawl of Smith and conceptually, Strick has a lot of the right ideas here for a Superman film that makes us re-evaluate how we perceive the Man of Steel and what it would be like to have his responsibilities. It's just a shame it never amounts to much.

Closing Thoughts: I admire the earnestness of Smith's script despite the fanwank, and it felt like it was written with some passion. The same cannot be said of Strick's colder, more mechanical screenplay. In an attempt to make the film tighter and deeper, he has instead produced something imbalanced and tedious.

And we round off our superhero romp with a rewrite, courtesy of Nightcrawler's Dan Gilroy:

Plot: This time around, Brainiac's desire is vengeance upon Superman for how he was treated by his creator, Jor-El. Forming a much more literal merger with Luthor to become 'Lexiac', he unleashes Doomsday once more during a Lexcorp event.

Summary: Shorter still than Strick's, this 112 page version of Lives plays like a greatest hits of the Smith and Strick version, as well as an exercise in cost cutting. Gone are the monsters (save Doomsday) and a lot of the space elements, gone is the Fortress and instead, the introspection of Superman's identity crisis (as well as a slightly odder 'kill-happy' Supes compared to the other two) takes centre-stage. Thankfully, this is sans a lot of the whining of Strick's version, with a more level-headed Superman questioning his origins and where he belongs. The script also spends time on the Clark and Lois' relationship, which is closer to Smith's bouncier portrayal, making them seem like they have a genuine history together (even if Smith-esque bloated speeches do come back near the end just to hammer the significance home).

However, when the film is not just a mere sharpening of old elements, it's the new that leaves me scratching my head: the 'fun' of Smith is near absent, as is a lot of the surreality of the past two scripts (well, save for Luthor in a thong. Because...?). In its place, we get hacking, nukes, a few brawls and a sequence of Superman juggling three falling elevators that, given how intricate it is, would've ended up costing as much as a monster, so why bother making it more generic? Lois also gets a niece who only really matters towards the end and is more there to be cute, as is a pregnancy angle that predates Superman Returns. If there is something about family here, it's not especially well woven and ends up only being relevant when it serves the plot.

Speaking of which, while this draft handles it the best, Lives conceit of adapting Death of Superman as the first film of a new series suffers from, well, not really allowing enough time for Supes' death to mean anything, nor really explore the ramifications of that. In all three, right after the funeral, the token guardian A.I., be it Eradicator or K, comes in and revives him, so it carries no real weight and just doesn't feel tailored for a two hour film AND a franchise starter.

That's not to say Gilroy's script has no other merits, it's the best formatted of the three, and still delivers setpieces that are smaller but still fairly enjoyable in their own right, even if again, this Superman is a little more callous for no reason. Plus, kudos for taking Strick's ideas and expanding on them to try and recalibrate the film's focus on an outsider Superman as opposed to uneven camp and space theatrics.

Closing Thoughts: In conclusion, Gilroy's script is the most professional and tight, but it just feels like a regular 90s action film with some sci-fi elements. With the oddness gone, Lives just feels very routine, which really defeats the point of it being such a radical departure for the Man of Steel's screen adventures.

Final verdict: In reading and reviewing the changes between the drafts of Superman Lives, I hope you got to see an indentifiable chain of transformation as the script went through different hands. Even if you're the sole writer of your own work, you've still seen how ideas change in response to notes and shifts in focus. Some ideas were refined, some were combined and some were thrown out entirely, as will many of yours. It also, hopefully demonstrated how long some ideas can take to fully take wing or, at least, be more coherent and that little is right on the first try. That's why drafts matter.

Plus, if you're ever hired by DC to write for Supes, you already have an idea what NOT to do.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Screenwriting is Rewriting: Don't Be Precious. Yes, really.

Rocky was written in three days.
John Hughes wrote Ferris Bueller in four.
Bone Tomahawk had only one draft.

Now, the smart screenwriter looks at these and realizes that these are just cogs in a bigger machine. Films are seldom all there in just the writing. A lot changes through development and then, hopefully, production and release. Rocky, Ferris and Bone all changed as they saw the light of day, having input from dozens of people, ranging from the top brass to people on set to even friendly advice. Ferris had lots of improv, and several key moments and scenes in Rocky were overhauled due to location and budget issues. Bone Tomahawk was also not S. Craig Zahler's first script.

The less-smart screenwriter looks at this as the perfect excuse: See? See? I can create genius in mere days! Screw the rules! Sod the treatment! Frack the rewrite, I'm Captain Goddamn Invincible!

And thus is born years of whining on forums, hawking the same script about gangsters over and over and over again. The sort who always lash out at 'hacks' writing the next TransformJoeManBegins, believing they're the ones entitled to such gigs. Sad, but anyone familiar with the online community has seen this diet Shakesperean tragedy play out over and over and yadda yadda yadda.

Here's the thing: you want to write something good? Get ready to do a whole lot of work, and for a long time. Masters of their crafts sink many years into being the best. Even an 'overnight success' like Evan Daugherty had to do tons of writing before he sold Snow White and The Huntsman and got franchise jobs. He'll tell you so himself here.

A component of this is, of course, rewriting. Like it or nor, you will never get everything right on the first try, or even the second. A good writer gives themselves the breathing room to not only create, but to make mistakes and learn from them. You have to develop a critical eye and know what makes a compelling story tick. How do you find three-dimensional and complex characters? Rewrites. Cracking dialogue? Rewrite. Deep and resonant themes, raised through engaging conflict? Rewrite too. Regardless if you believe in saving cats or twenty two steps, you have to be able to properly assess why something isn't landing, and that takes trial and error.

Some things you can do to help your rewriting be less painful and speedier? How about:
  • Read lots of scripts: an oldie but a goodie of writing advice. The more you read, the quicker you'll be able to sniff out crap. In fact, I'd argue these will help you more than watching the movies, as you will see how their tricks were done. Like a magician, you can't do a trick if you don't know how it was done. Furthermore, don't just read the Oscar winners: read junk! You'd be surprised how much you can gleam from reading the three terrible scripts for Tim Burton's Superman Lives, or two different drafts of Wild Wild West.
  • Read and watch criticism: movie and TV reviews, video essays, media criticism of any type, all can show you how to take a critical approach to your work. This is especially handy if you're not used to being analytical with how you consume and interact with media.
  • Develop a list, and then a plan: A wonderful little tip from Jack Epps Jr. (Top Gun) in his book Screenwriting Is Rewriting. You compile a list of your script's pros and cons, and break them down into a table. What Works, What Needs Work, Big Picture Issues, Character, Structure, Theme etc. This will help you formulate an efficient action plan that clearly lays out what needs doing.
  • Get a read and break it down: whether it's from a writer's group or a service (as always, shop around and get a good deal), get a second pair of eyeballs on your script. They will give you notes, and from there, do the same as the above and develop a breakdown. Indeed, a combo of both a personal and outside breakdown will be a real boon in deducing problems.
  • Back to the Outline: A neat tip from Martie Cook (Full House), in her television bible Write to TV, argues that to solve deeper problems in your story, you have to go back to the outline and examine what your scenes did and didn't do, now with the context of the notes. You'd be surprised how much you missed on the first go around, even after rewriting pre-first draft. No point charging back into the mountain of the script if your roadmap's all wonky.
  • Scene by scene brainstorm: A handy tip from William M. Akers (New Adventures of Superman) in his book Your Screenplay Sucks!: 100 Ways to Make it Great. Take each scene in your outline and give them a whole page, write a basic description of what it does and then the rest of the page is just brainstorming ideas to make it better. Don't worry about spelling or grammar or anything, just splurge everything and anything.
  • Space it out: While less a direct writing tip, keeping an eye on your schedule can be very useful. Don't do too many rewrites on the same project back-to-back and try to shake up the genres. You might find some inspiration in working on a horror and then a comedy versus two horrors consecutively. It'll also stop you from getting into the dangerous 'magic ticket' mindset of working on one script only for ages and ages.
Also, attitude is important: acting bigheaded and defensive when people try to help and offer suggestions will not do you any favours. In fact, it'll arguably be more destructive than any bad screenplay. Humility and patience are vital qualities in any career, especially one as team-based as filmmaking. Being prickly or butting in while someone is explaining something will mess with your ability to take meaningful hints and improve yourself.

Will every note be gold? No, but a smart writer will take it in, give themselves some breathing room and interrogate it. If a note isn't making sense, ask yourself why? Have you botched something in communication, leading to confusion on what you were trying to convey? Does a character say or do something contradictory? Is the subtext nonsensical in the context of your scene? A great tip I had from a film when discussing story and meaning: 'What's it about and what is it REALLY about?' Example? Rocky: About - a good-hearted bum who gets to fight the heavyweight boxing champ. REALLY - A downtrodden underdog learning his self-worth.

Now look, I get the annoyance: you get a high when you write something you're passionate about and you just want to keep trucking. Keeping pumping out new and exciting works! I'd be lying if I said I didn't get that feeling and relish the high. Unfortunately, like any human being, too much of a good thing never ends well, especially if it messes with your focus and objectivity. Persistance and dedication is what weeds out the amateurs and gold diggers from the real storytellers.

If you really believe in a script, you'll go the long haul with it, even when it looks like a complete train crash. Stories and writing them are like odysesseys, long journeys of discovery filled with pitfalls. However well you think you know your story when you start out, you will always learn things about your characters and their world as you keep digging deeper and deeper in. To counterpoint the first three examples on speed of writing great stories:

Steve Martin took 25 drafts to write Roxanne.
Matthew Graham and Tony Jordan rewrote Life on Mars many times before Kudos picked it up.
Matt Weiner wrote the first draft of Mad Men all the way back in 2000.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

In Defense of Writing Courses (A Response to Julie Myerson and Sharlene Teo)

So a while back, the internet was the internet and a row kicked off: veteran author Julie Myerson wrote a negative review of debut writer Sharlene Teo's first book, Ponti. In it, she admired Teo's ambition, but faulted the book's prose and use of literary devices. So far, nothing out of the ordinary, but it was this quote that seemed to especially irk people: 'If a more vivid, elastic and relaxed Sharlene Teo is hiding somewhere beneath all this knotty verbiage and MA creative writing-speak, then I wish her lots of luck'. 

And then, a quick glance at the comments or Twitter shows where this went...

DISCLOSURE: I do not know either of these people, condone their actions or have read 'Ponti'. Teo could've taken the criticism better, rather than post up inflammatory twitter posts, but Myerson should've taken her own advice for a 'tougher editor'. The review is a little wonky in structure and lacks a good flow, in addition to the out-of-place potshot that doesn't add anything of critical substance.

While my bread and butter is more screenwriting, anyone within the different writing spheres online has come across the debate on 'learning to write' and academic courses. Some say they teach discipline and widen the palette, others say the best school is read, read and read some more. Some, even more extreme, denounce them as mediocrity factories, churning out formulas and tepid, castrated fiction.

Me? Somewhere in the middle: I believe they can be useful and offer great value, but one needs to be selective. In fact, I argued as much in Part Three of my BA Screenwriting series, where I gave advice to BA film students who sought to become screenwriters via a masters degree.

To reiterate and recontextualise my key points from that piece on the benefits:
  • Careers: Other skillsets and career paths can open themselves up to you, that you wouldn't be exposed to by just reading. Not merely writing for your chosen medium (film, television, novels, comics etc.) but also explore more development roles like reader, editor, teaching and consulting. Indeed, the Internet has lead to an explosion of the latter, as people with prestigious qualifications set up shop to aid others.
  • Professional development: on the course, you'll be getting your material developed, reviewed and critiqued by veterans with whom you develop a relationship with and can turn to for help. You can even, if you ask nicely, get them to read and critique non-course work, or run a CV or cover letter passed for a check. This also covers pitching and getting comfortable talking to others.
  • Work ethic: the structure and deadlines of the course will encourage you to start working more professionally and efficiently on your material. Learning how to turn around an idea into a story, in whatever medium, within a handful of weeks is a useful skill (not to mention, close to what is expected in the business), as well as how to generate multiple ideas.
In addition:
  • Palette widening: You'll be exposed to literary and artistic works that you wouldn't normally come by, depending on your tastes and social circle. You may know some of the bigwigs like Dickens, Austen, Hugo, Shakespeare and Woolf, but what about less 'blockbuster' authors like Maugham, Marlowe and Aeschyles? You may know Jane Austen, but do you know Daisy Miller? Are The Sound and The Fury or Absolom, Absolom titles you'd snap up as soon as another Harry Potter book?
  • History: in addition to reading more, you'll also learn more about the history of your craft. How novels evolved from serialized newspaper and magazine entries; how Campbell's views on mythology inspired some of your favourite franchises; or how stage plays change from Ancient Greece, through Elizabethan England and into the mid to late 20th century, when titans like Miller, Pinter and Williams ran amuck.
  • Network: Yes, yes, this is an old chestnut, but it's true. You never who you'll meet, and what they'll become someday. Never pays to be a dick.
So that's all well good. However, if you read the other article, there were some cons to be raised too:
  • Tutors: Just like with screenwriting gurus or any sort of 'guide', their quality can vary considerably. Some are unpredictable and temperamental, others have no interest in growing their students beyond the classroom. Some are too lax and don't teach proper tools, others are deadset on doing things one way and one way only. Make sure the tutors are either practitioners or come with really strong recommendations (industry or successful ex-students) to avoid this.
  • Module content: There is no point in spending thousands on a course that, yes, can make you write well, but does not prepare you for reality or suggest career options to explore while you prepare your material. Some, sadly, operat eon a 'take the money and run' mentality, leaving you adrift with no career guidance and too heavy a focus in one area. Also, how is the course structured? Does it feel like one subject flows into the next, or is it just a random jumble?
  • Reputation: The more presitigious an establishment, the more difficult the entry criteria will be, and just like pricing, this can be a big hurdle. Inversely, the smaller and less well known the school, the higher the chances are that the MA is not very good, especially if it's not a school that primarily specializes heavily in fiction, media or the arts.
Really, it's down to what you're looking for, and where you see yourself in 5-10 years. If you're totally green and can spare the time and money, give it a whirl. Someone more seasoned, they'll just have to decide for themselves.

But what is it that bothers me about the attitude of Myerson and other pros like her who take such a dim view of creative academia? Well, as discussed before in my Defense of Screenwriting Gurus, I believe part of it is the demystificaiton. Like magicians, writers want to guard their tricks and feel special. If you give someone guidleines, well, doesn't that take some of the illusion away? Does it not reduce art to mere blueprints that can be followed by any old Tom, Dick or Henrietta?

But on top of that, the quote alludes to a bigger issue: the notion that said institutions are straitjacketing authors and not allowing them to 'be themselves'. They are breeding some sort of monoculture in art, where everything is the same and there's no room for variation, innovation or originality. After all, how many more YA fantasies; how many more superheroes; how many more stories about drug addiction, mobsters and young people struggling with their sexuality? How much more do we have to deal with snarky or overly melodramatic prose from an emotional young mind? This 'repetition' is what Myerson seems to be jabbing at.

I sympathise with the frustration and need for an easy punching bag: I'm certainly as sick to death of old and overly rigid 'advice' (your character must be X, or you can only use Y with Z in order to create J) constantly being rehashed to green writers as anyone. However, as I argued in the Gurus article, I consider this a misreading of creative education: courses and teachers are not there to tell students what stories to write, but rather, provide the tools with which they may or may not build them with. The importance of stakes, conflict or theme is no more 'pre-fab storytelling' than functioning equipment and hygiene is an 'option' in cookery.

Art doesn't exist in a vaccum and the most popular works tend to reflect the society and culture they sprang from. Maybe the continued popularity and creation of these specific stories says something about our world? Does the continued popularity fo YA fiction say something about the way we treat the young? Does the continued popularity of superheroes say something about the troubled times we live in, and our desire to have somebody looking out for us? If Teo has a fanbase, maybe that's indicative of Ponti having more meaning than Myerson may be giving credit for.

Should Myerson instead point the finger at lowly readers for propigating these stories by making them so successful? Perhaps at the publishers for creating so much similar content and not diversifying? What of editors being too soft? Maybe Myerson should instead roar at the world around us and ask some harder questions of what these stories and how they're told say about us?

All I know is a tool or aid is what a writer makes of it: classes and teachers will not necessarily make you a master storyteller, but they can be a step towards it. If you want anything bad enough, you'll work hard to get there. But hey, I'm just a lowly script reader and aspriing screenwriter. What do I know? Well, here's novelist Chuck Wendig's thoughts on the subject:

Thursday, 10 May 2018

My first performed Stage Play - Cull

Well, now I'm a proper playwright! This past Sunday, May 6, my One Act dystopia play Cull premiered at a special members-only triple bill at the Oast Theatre in Tonbridge, Kent. It depicts a future where resources are at critical, overpopulation is the dominant and our government must consider a 'terminal option' for the crisis.

Directed by Sandra Barfield (funny thing about this: I had sent this off two years earlier, and they just got back to me in March. Stranger things indeed... but I'm not complaining!), it closed off an afternoon of new plays (following both a ten minute and One Act comedy about infidelity and Brexit respectively).

It was a fun experience: naturally, I was nervous about seeing my work performed live in front of an audience. All the expected concerns came up: is it exciting? Is it clever? Is it unsettling? Did the director get it? Did the actors get it? Was the dialogue right? Was the pacing right? Were the characters will fleshed out? Did their conflict make sense? Was it too long? Was it too short possibly? Was it practical?

However, all went off without a hitch and the response from the audience was very positive. Many were indeed unsettled by the ethical questions posed by the play, and my own observations of the audience confirmed this.

So, what next? All goes well and it recieves the winning decision in October by the Oast's board, there may be full follow-up productions on the fringe festival circuit around England. After that, well, skies the limit, no? I have also been offered to have any 10 minute plays produced by another theatre as a result, so I will keeping an eye on that. If there is a moral to this story, it's expect the unexpected.

(Check out Oast's newest productions here:

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

To Spec or Not To Spec - Should A Brit Write For American TV?

Me saying America is the dream for filmmakers is like saying Diet Coke is inferior to regular: everybody knows it. Money's better, there's more platforms and distributors, the audience is bigger and there's simply a greater variety of series to work. Add to that that many TV scribes have gone on to have lucrative feature careers (Abrams, McKenna, Pinkner, Whedon) and well, who wouldn't want a slice of that?

Of course, like everything screenwriting related, reality sets in: no unsolicited submissions, no contacts, agents don't want to know you, L.A. is expensive yadda yadda yadda, what is one to do? Well, several American networks/parent studios offer TV Fellowships: special training programmes, some even paid, where you get taught how to write television with the intent of getting you staffed on a series. And with no submission fee, all you need to take your shot is a semi-decent cover letter, and a finely polished spec script.

(NOTE: Spec is a common word in the screenwriting sphere, so it's important to clarify: 'spec script' , in this context, refers to writing a script for an existing show, and is strictly an American/Canadian thing. The UK does not trade in specs for existing series, only original material (spec pilots) so don't bother writing your dream episode of Doctor Who or EastEnders. No one will read it.)

The top dogs are as follows:
  • CBS Writers Mentoring Program
  • Disney/ABC TV Writing Program
  • FOX Writers Lab (FKA FOX Diversity Writer’s Initiative)
  • NBC/Universal Writers on the Verge
  • Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship
  • WB Writers’ Workshop 

So, for a Brit, what are the pros and cons of doing a spec for these Stateside opportunities? First, the positives:
  • A New Addition to your Skillset: Adapting and working with the material of others is part and parcel of being in the screenwriting trade. Learning how to adapt to the voice and style of another writer and property is a useful skill to have, and can even help you find and hone your own.
  • You Don't Have To Create A World And Characters: It's already there before you. No need to spend hours, agonizing over character bios or extensive world building: the series has done it for you. All you need is a damn good plot, tight structure and ensure everyone sounds like they should, and badda bing badda boom, you got yourself a script! 
  • Opening the door: as said, the American market is superlucrative. Competitve as hell, even more than the UK, but very rewarding if you score. Remember, you make money both off the script and the time in the writer's room (yes, you get paid to drink coffee and eat donuts while mapping out the season). Also better if you want to do genre stuff - horror, sci-fi, fantasy, superheroes. 
  • Good First Impressions: With all possible respect, there's a certain glamour in having, say, The Flash or Jessica Jones as your first TV credit over, say, an episode of Doctors or Igglepiggle.
  • Your Own Canon Fanfic: Okay, a cheap one, but it's true. You get paid to write your dream story for a show you love. Sure, you may not be able to write about saucy bedroom antics, but you'll get to feel like you're in the club. Or you might get to write the bedroom episode.
And now, the flipside:
  • Paperwork: Thought you could skip treatments, outlines and redrafting, just because you're a fan? Nope! You may not have to create characters, but you sure as hell are going to have to create a tightly paced narrative with stakes, conflict and emotion. Otherwise, it's just another bad script on the slush pile.
  • Time Limit: Pilots can always be rejigged and resold, since there's no strict cutoff point. With produced TV series, however, there's always the looming spectre of cancellation or just ending. Once a show's done, that's it: you can't spec it anymore, unless it's a towering behemoth like Breaking Bad or Sons of Anarchy (which some of these workshops do allow, but always check). 
  • Stasis: Because you're writing an episode that can fit anywhere in continuity and serves as an encapsulation of the series, it does mean you can't make major character or narrative development your focus. The actual writing staff are already doing that, and likely don't need you to tell them how to tell their story.
  • You Won't Get On That Show: Specs are read by your series' competitors, to see if you can write a show in that general genre and style. If you're deadset on writing for NCIS, you're better off writing for CSI.
  • Distraction: In rewatching and studying your show of choice, the possibility for getting side tracked very much exists. What starts out as 'research' suddenly turns into binges and then marathons of shows completely unrelated to your spec. We're writers: we procrastinate any chance we get. It's vital you exercise discpline: watch what you absolutely need to, then go.
  • Moving: If you do get on, you will have to relocate to LA in order to attend the classes and workshops. While some do provide accomadation, check and if not, make your plans. An introvert who wants to stay home will not suit these at all: don't think Bryan Fuller would be happy having someone write American Gods all the way in Hull.
If you're still unsure of what to do, is a great little site that helps give you a lens on the American market, as well as a well stocked library of scripts to study. Unlike what you've seen on the BBC, these scripts are almost all broken into acts (this is less some abstract principle, and more to do with commercial breaks), so learn this as it'll help you write correctly.

The fact is, screenwriting is a crapshoot: anything you can get or use, do so. Every little really does help, and there's no one path inward. Worst comes to the worst, you have another script in your arsenal, and that experience is never not useful. However, if I can offer some of my limited advice, don't make it your first: get comfortable writing, get good at telling stories and then try speccing. You only get one shot to impress, after all.

P.S. If you want to be clever and try to bypass this by some good old fashioned networking, then please, PLEASE, don't pull a stunt like this one. Just don't.