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.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

In Defense of Screenwriting Gurus and Guides

Back in 2013, future Arrival and Your Name remake screenwriter Eric Heisserer put out a little ebook called 150 Screenwriting Challenges. It's what it says on the tin: bunch of helpful tips and tricks. Nothing particularly notable or controversial, but what caught my eye was his little introduction:

And just a year before, the man, myth, legend Frank Darabont said this in an interview with

“The whole industry of ‘we can make you a screenwriter.’ I have ambivalent feelings because, ultimately, even though there is some benefit to be gained by those things — I stress the word ‘some’ benefit, minimal benefit — ultimately you know what it all boils down to? You’re sitting at your desk, all by yourself for years, trying to figure out your craft and applying the effort necessary. And that’s what nobody wants to hear. Everybody wants to hear, ‘I can teach you a three-act structure, I can give you a formula, and you’ll be selling screenplays within six months.’ Bullshit.''

I bring all this up, as anyone with a modicum of familiarity with screenwriting discussion in both academia and the internet will know, to discuss one of the old punching bags within the community: the gurus. Snyder, McKee, Field, Hauge, Vogler and pretty much anyone who has written a book or dabbles in screenwriting education. More than once, they're treated like the racist cousin at your sister's wedding: he's there, he exists, but you don't want to be near him, lest you endure 'three act structure', 'Aristotle' and 'climaxes'.

However, for whatever the opinion of this lowly reader and writer is worth, I'd like to throw my hat in the ring. I feel this animosity has been, somewhat, misguided and how that, arguably, is more harmful than any hackneyed formula or beat sheet could ever be. I don't pretend to change minds, just encourage discussion.

To begin, some criticisms I agree with:
  1. There exists a lot of repetition of reference points and topics. Frankly, how many times can you repackage discussion about Casablanca or Poetics or Shakespeare's mastery of character and tension? This I blame more on the advent of online/self-publishing, allowing really anybody, regardless of merit or skill level, to crank out new manuals or republish old tomes filled with the same old, same old, rather than try to find new spins. As a result, many tomes just blend together into a grey mush.
  2. There's quite an imbalance between books for writing films versus television, webseries or shorts. The difference between mediums, as well as these books usually being geared towards American/Hollywood-friendly projects, often does limit their usefulness if you're not writing some snazzy romcom or high-octance explosion fest. 
  3. I am also not fond of books that very heavily taut their 'unique time-saving formula', or supposed power to generate large amounts of money in no time (like 10-30 days): it's cynical, lazy and treats creativity with wanton disrespect to the craft. These kinds of books perpetuate nonsense like 'Stallone wrote Rocky in three days', ignoring how long the film actually took to get made or what was changed during development, production and post.
So, if I think there's some big problems, why am I defending them? First, while the advice is familiar, it's still very valid: like it or not, film does not have the luxuries of a novel. It's a performed and timed medium, so being efficient yet emotionally resonant is vital. Casablanca and its ilk are wonderfully written films that perfectly illustrate how to do this, and in studying them, one can begin to understand how to do so as well. Plus, it can introduce you to works you'd might never have read or watched otherwise.

Next, I believe these books provide a useful frame of reference: too often, new writers get lost in abstracts of what they're trying to achieve, usually linked back to whatever they can remember from English at school. Alone, words like 'theme' or 'character' or 'story' are not actually that helpful in being able to explain what you're trying to do. They're too broad and vague for a medium where everything has to count. Like it or not, beat sheets and dramatic structures give a writer those frames of reference where, when something isn't working, they can look at their script and quickly realize 'oh, I haven't been raising the stakes enough in Act Two, hence why my Act Three climax feels so flaccid' or 'My screenplay is running short because I haven't got subplots for my supporting cast'.

It's also important to state that many of the big names have never, ever, said their model is the only way to write a film: even McKee, contrary to his iconic and shouty portrayal in Adaptation, never says you can't write any other way, or use flashbacks or voice over or any other talking points. Re-read the intro to Story, Save The Cat, or any other of the big books: these guys never said theirs was the only way. Like any teacher, they're just showing you their way, and letting you decide if it's right for you or not. If one model doesn't work, try someone elses.

So, if I don't think gurus are the problem, then what is it that I feel people like Darabont and Heisserer are talking about? (DISCLAIMER: I do not claim these are the actual thoughts of Darabont or Heisserer. This is merely speculation for the sake of discussion)

Simple: I think the frustration stems from personal insecurity and the dark side of 'new writers'.

Writers, like all artists, want to feel special. They want to be seen as masters of their craft, doing something few can do, and do as well as they can, at that. The idea that what they value and have striven hard to learn and master, can be so easily mass produced and replicated would likely be a bitter pill to swallow. How could anyone take my story, my blood, sweat and tears, and then mimic it with some stupid metaphor about a feline. Sounds degrading, no?

The other point refers to a problem of expectation and conduct: sadly, anyone who's been involved in either the industry or just the online community is all too aware of the arrogance and entitlement that come with newbies. The enthusiasm can be wonderful, but screenwriting comes with dizzying highs and crushing lows, and attracts individuals not always the most suited to the arts: People who are only interested in moneymaking, or worse, people with baggage. These are individuals who look for validation and approval from movies and series. If the likes of STC can make it seem so easy, then why not use film as basically 'revenge' on those who thought you were worthless? They work their dead-end jobs while you're ruling Hollywood.

This toxic combination of unrealistic expectation and lack of discipline leads to the stereotype of the frustrated writer, who is difficult, mouths off anyone in the business, and keeps hawking the same script for years, rewriting to the point of oblivion. Why would you want people like this in the industry, clogging up space and distracting producers and execs from your work? So, who do you blame for this behaviour? The easy answer is Snyder and his ilk for 'lowering the bar' with mass-produced literature, rather than on individual writers for being incompetent and selfish.

If for nothing else, I hope this piece will remind new writers that you need to find your own path, and don't be ashamed to use what you have to to get better. Darabont and Heisserer have their methods, you need to find yours. This isn't about fun and games, dark nights of the soul, three acts or twenty two steps: this about your finding your voice and not being too cocksure for your own good.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

New Short film - Wrapped Up (01/04/18)

So, last week, a rough cut of the dark comedy I wrote, Wrapped Up, had its first screening at the VUE Westfield. It was part of a big MA Grad showcase from MetFilm, where students from all the courses showed off their final projects (this included directors, producers and editors).

Basic gist of the short: a young woman accidentally kills her boyfriend, who was trying to put the moves on her brother. Unfortunately, this happened on the day that their old man was coming to pick them up for a party, so... WHOOPS! What will they do now?

This one has an interesting development history: originally, me and Andy were going to do a vigilante-revenge thriller, ala Punisher, about a medical student whose brother is molested by a student union rep. Taking cues from vigilante movies of the 80s like Death Wish and the likes of Frank Miller, we worked on a dark yet also slightly comic script. However, tutor and peer feedback found the piece lacking in substance, and Andy decided to change it up and lean into the comedy. Instead, it was required into a substantially less violent piece, with only one location (the girl's flat) and about four-five cast members.

The screening went down quite well. Bettter than I expected, actually: partially because of the usual nerves that comes with showing someone your work. However, I also admit that me and Andy didn't not have our odds tiffs and arguments over the script. It happens in any type of collaboration: artists feel strongly about their material, and don't always agree. However, I fully hand it to him: he brought it home and everyone in the theatre was laughing. (Also, there is no version available for public viewing. Sorry.)

So, what next? Andy intends to go back and finish the cut. After that, film festivals. Hopefully, I should have news of where and when in the future, so stay tuned.

Monday, 19 March 2018

'This'll Be The One' or Why Writing Just One Screenplay Is Disastrous

It's a nice thought: that one magical, transcendant screenplay that'll catapult you to the top of Hollywood. A literary work to rival Kane or Butch Cassidy, and place you in the venerated pantheon of Goldman and Towne. A masterwork of drama or comedy that you worked on, nay, slaved over for years and years, perfecting every last detail. Truly, you are the cinematic Messiah...

And you know what? It's complete, utter and total bull.

No one who actually has anything resembling a career has just one good script, or worse, WAITS until they sold that one script to write more. It's like if a baker only makes more cakes after just baking one, or a dentist who only does cavities and nothing else. I, for one, am always frustrated when I see well meaning folk pop up on forums and Facebook writing groups with a script that they say they've spent 'years' on. An A for effort, yeah, but it's also obvious they haven't written anything else in that time. They put all their eggs in one basket.

Being able to generate multiple ideas and then write as many scripts (film, TV, radio, stage, short, webseries) as possible is vital to making it. Each one presents a new challenge for you to grow and improve as a storyteller. Your characters have more dimension, your structure gets tighter, your pacing faster, your dialogue sharper. It's slow, but worth the slog if you really want this bad enough. As Frank Darabont said, ''Everything is self-applied effort in life. You don't get anything easily.''

Alright then, so what can you do?
  • Write down everything. No seriously, this is not some throwaway guff from 'professionals': it's true. On paper, your phone, in a Word document, on a napkin, just write down any idea you have. Doesn't have to be deep or detailed or eve immediately obvious: something as random as ''zombie ducks invade Cardiff'' might have something in it. Always have a little ideas folder or cache handy: it may save you in a moment of the dreaded 'block'.
  • Do one pagers: again, don't worry about perfection. Just write a rough outline in three-four paragraphs, detailing the very broadest strokes of what you'd like to do with the idea. Additionally, do the logline: that super condensed, to the point version of your story can be super helpful in finding the heart of the piece.
  • Exercises: a lot of screenwriting books and websites have these - very quick, usually 5-10 minute challenges you can do to help you come up with something (also good for block-busting). Could be building a character in layers, could be a brainstorm or mind map, maybe even just write a random scene with two characters. Anything can lead to something.
  • Read non-film stuff: A trip to the library or, if you're just feeling mega-lazy, Wikipedia, can yield all sorts of possible inspiration. News, politics, history, art, science, all can plant a seed of something in your mind. Who knows, you might find great drama within the confines of American corn production.
No matter what plan you pick, just follow it through and pump out as many different projects as you can. Start something new every time you finish a draft or two of a project. With a rota, you could have few as say, four, and as many as ten or eleven new scripts/treatments by the end of a year. If you really consider yourself a storyteller, you should be turning out many different tales as often as you can.

Writing is hard. Very hard. No formula or beatsheet will change that, and if you really love it,  you'll push yourself. Getting your first script finished is a wonderful feeling. Knowing people like it: even better. However, staying married to past glories is dangerous: say your script does the round at contests and companies, and no one goes for it. What now? If you just hawk the same thing year after year, you'll look like a one-trick pony who never had anything interesting or unique to say.

I speak from cold, hard experience. Look for yourself:

You know why else this is handy? If you get a pitch meeting, you may well be in a scenario where they like your writing, but the script's just not right for them at that moment (I have). They'll ask, what else?

See how helpful this backup can be? But if you're still not convinced, listen to working screenwriter Mark Sanderson and his experiences.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Pudsey, Paul Rose and Writing A Dud (A Great Piece on Failure)

So, to help break up the recent run of beefy articles on dos and do-not dos, figured I'd signal boost one of my all time favourite musings on screenwriting: childrens TV and games journalism veteran Paul Rose, on the experience of the writing the critically reviled X-Factor tie-in, Pudsey The Dog: The Movie.

Posts like this help illuminate the flip side to screenwriting, when you write a POS. It's a sad reality of the business and something you have to willing to face if you're serious about. Rose isn't excessively bitter or childish about the whole business: he accepts it and discusses it with maturity and even a little humour.