Wednesday, 10 October 2018

The Value of a Writing Rota for Screenwriters

In the past, I've discussed the dangers of relying on just one script, that one 'magic ticket', to make a career happen. It not only stifles your creativity by not broadening and challenging you, but you can become desenstized to your material's problems with constant, and often tedious, rewrites.


In my own journey, I've found implementing a 'writing rota', a system for when and what I write, has greatly enabled me to not only write what I really want, but to always push myself with new challenges. You might find some inspiration, for example, in working on a horror and then a comedy versus two horrors consecutively. Maybe you can't quite crack that senior drama until you've had a stab at a heist film and mastered suspense? But let's back up: what exactly makes up a 'writing rota'?

Well it's two parts: first, it's about the number of projects. Giving yourself targets can help focus you up for your writing year, but not going overboard in how much you do will ensure they are actually achieveable. I opt for 4-5 spec projects a year (with a 2:3 ratio fo film to TV), allowing me to work on stuff I really want to tackle, as well as allow time for rewrites, additional research and polishes so they are, in theory, ready the following year to be presented. I also think this more humble target allows margin for error and, as they say in law, 'Acts of God'/sudden accidents, so you're not prone to panicking.

The second part is the projects themselves: a good writing rota depends on having strongly contrasting projects. After all, if a production company is not paying you, you have total freedom to tackle whatever you want. This also helps avoid a risk of samyness or burnout by just working on one thing, or rather, one type of story or genre. Yes, I'm aware of Lee Jessup's advice in specializing in a particular genre, and while I certainly see her point, she's also refering primarily to the US market. Britain, being smaller, has less to offer in certain genres, so a jack-of-all-trades is more useful in building a career here.


Allow me to use an A-D scenario (with each representing about a month, give or take) to illustrate a rota, A could be a dark feature thriller, then B a children's sitcom pilot, than C a rewrite of A or a period drama, and then D could be an adult sitcom or cheesy fun B-actioner. Indeed, a very crude impression of this rota could be described as dark, light, dark, light, but genre variety matters much more than tone. In my own recent work, for instance, my 1hr crime thriller pilot gained quite a bit, especially on the subject of character, after I had worked on a 1hr period-fantasy pilot set in Spain.

The rota also means you can factor in specific deadlines, if there are opportunities, schemes and contests you want to enter. Just make sure you do your homework and allow plenty of time to properly polish your script before the opportunity comes around: don't wait till the last month and go nuts.  If you can, try and hold back till the following year so as to maximise your script's chances of being more ready. Again, nobody's paying you so why do it wrong?

The elements above also gives the rota a third trick up its sleeve: allowing for room to slot in commissioned projects. Whether it's your first proper TV or film credit, a short film or web series you've been hired to work on or maybe your first stage play, you can now give it the attention it needs and not panic because it ruins 'the flow'. Simply push a draft or rewrite back and now, you've got a free gap because you didn't overegg on specs. If you're really lucky and you get multiple commissions, no problem: just recalibrate the rota and prioritise what you most urgently need to finish. In this scenario, the commissions take the place of the other projects, again avoiding the risk of the 'magic ticket' mentality.

Monday, 24 September 2018

Great Screenwriting Books that aren't manuals

Both this blog and just about anything that mentions screenwriting has done plenty of pieces on the writing guides and their various paradigms and beat sheets. Some are good, some are bad and some are just there.

But what about careers and the practical side? Theory is all very well and good, but how can you actually make some kind of living at it? And for that matter, is there screenwriting-related literature that isn't another how-to book? Maybe something like a biography that talks about the ups and downs of a writer's life?

Well first, the nitty-gritty:
  • The UK Scriptwriter's Survival Guide: Veteran film and TV scribes Tim Clague and Danny Stack (Eastenders, Doctors, Thunderbirds Are Go) give a practical, no B.S. guide on what you can do to help yourself get a foothold in the industry. It only came out in 2014, but I honestly believe this should be compulsory reading for all new screenwriters, as it will open your eyes to many possibilities, as well as give you useful tips and tricks to navigate the business.
  • The Creative Essentials series of books cover different types of film and television writing, as well as other roles/career opportunities such as script editing, reading and pitching. Contributing authors include Karol Griffith (now set to work on the Chinese version of Humans), Lucy Sher and Charles Harris, among others.
And now, for something more fun, screenwriter autobiographies:
  • Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell? by William Goldman. An easy recommedation for anyone, screenwriter or not. The legendary master scribe of Misery, All the President's Men and Princess Bride, among others, regails us with tales of his life, career and views on cinemas. In addition, they talk about his process, with Screen Trade coming with a little story about adaptating a short story into a screenplay.
  • Writing Movies for Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at The Box Office and You Can Too! by Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon. A ridiculously funny and addictive read that will leave you chuckling yet also be rather pensive and even a little dispirited by the Hollywood machine. Love or hate their films, this duo have been at the epicentre of some of the biggest comedies of the last decade (Herbie, Night at the Museum), so they know their stuff.
  • The Devil's Guide to Hollywood: The Screenwriter as God! by Joe Eszterhas. The infamous firebrand who made a fortune off of Showgirls and a slew of other 80s and 90s films, Eszterhas is an angry old man who has no qualms telling you what he thinks of the craft and the industry. Decidely very, very, very different to Screen Trade.
  • Adventures in La-La Land by Tim John. Want to hear the odyssesy of another Brit who made the jump across the pond? John provides just that, recounting his odysessey in LA and some of the peculiar sights he witnesses.
  • On Directing Film by David Mamet. Despite the name, it's really Mamet offering a broad cross-section of thoughts and stories working in the industry at multiple levels.  If you enjoyed his other dramaturgical works, this should be very easy to slip into.
  • Tales from the Script: 50 Hollywood Screenwriters Share Their Stories by Peter Hanson and Paul Robert Herman. Exactly what it says on the packet: how some of the biggest and best did it. Also related: Tales from Development Hell: The Greatest Movies Never Made? Development is the phase between ptiching and production, and sadly, is where you'll be spending the brunt of your career as a writer. With that, alas, comes stories of projects that get stuck for years and years, or stuff that almost happened, then didn't.
  • On Writing A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Less a screenwriting book and more just a good book to read on writing period, King's book is half memoir, half tips and tricks on his writing methods. It's candid, darkly funny, touching and yet sobering as King interweaves his writing methods with a look back on the strange turns of his career and how it impacted his life, or vice-versa.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Why One Pagers are handy for screenwriters

One of the hardest things about writing is pitching. Let's be frank: most of us are pretty nervous about it, and would rather eat burning coals than have to sell someone our story. How can you tell someone your compelling saga of emotional heartache or exciting adventure within a minute or two?


And what about when you're starting a project? Naturally, give yourself the freedom to experiment: Just plugging in for the formula won't yield interesting results, usually. However, with that always comes the peril of losing focus and forgetting why you ever bothered in the first place. Wouldn't having some kind of mission statement help keep you on track with what your intent is? What is your story about, at its core, when you strip away all the bells and whistles of snappy action or whimsical dialogue?

Enter one pagers: a succinct and tidy summation of the project and what you want. For me, they've proven to be rather handy and helped keep me on the course to story nirvana. No, you don't have to obey them as gospel or refuse to change them: consider them more as roadmaps on the creative journey.

So, how do you actually write one? Well, there's three steps:
  1. Start with your logline, the super basic distilation of your film. Who is it about, what the threat/problem is, and what will happen if they do or don't get it. IMPORTANT: Loglines are not taglines. ''In space, no one can hear you scream'' ain't a logline. Neither is ''why so serious''. Need help? Try this video.
  2. Then, write three or four paragraphs that cover the major beats of your film or pilot. Broad, arch and not usually invoking dialogue, it's your cliffnotes but is also, in a sense, why you want to write this specific story with these specific parts. Also, like in a script, use strong words that evoke clear images in the reader's eye.
  3. This is capped off by a paragraph devoted to explaning why it matters, what's special about it and why it could work. This is where your awareness of the market place, what it has and what it doesn't, will come into play. You have been reading the trades, haven't you? Haven't you?
From this, you can then graft and expand into a treatment or even a step outline. Again, gospel is not what you're writing, merely a friendly reminder. What's more, this can help narrow down your brainstorms and early research, as well assist email pitching, as it's a much easier document to hand over than a whole script. It can, also, very succintly tell someone how good you are, and if the script is right for them. I should know: I've used it to not half-bad effect before and gotten some reads for one of my kids show pilots.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Got my first TV Credit - Pablo

So, BIG BIG news everyone: just got my first legit, signed-on-the-dotted-line television credit. I'm writing an episode of the popular CBeebies animated series Pablo (also broadcasts on RTEjr and CBC).

 
The series, produced by Paper Owl Films and CAKE, is about the misadventures of the titular six-year-old, who has autism. The series focuses on how Pablo interacts with the world and how his atypical mind can make seemingly mundane things like clothes, baths and toys feel like great conundrums.

It's a great honour to be working on Pablo, having been diagonsed on the spectrum as a kid. I wish I had something like this when I was growing up (and I doubt I'm alone in that, given we're on a second series now). Naturally, this (hopefully) won't be the last, as I've continued to pitch ideas, some further along in development then others.

Now, not to get overly schmaltzy, but I have to extend a big thanks to several people: first, to my wonderful script editor Andrew Brenner, who has been very helpful and supportive; to Helen Stroud over at Collingwood&Co., who introduced us and was my 'Yes'; to Dominic Carver and my tutors at Met Film School who helped me create and hone the spec that lead to this.

When further arises, you'll be the first to know.,.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Abel Diaz - Complete Credits

Just a little record I keep of what I've done, on top of my little IMDB page (and will still keep even after that, as its reliability is notoriously unwieldy at the best of times). Stuff both on-screen and off, for your perusal.

Film/TV Credits:
  • 2019: Pablo (TV, 1x11mins, CBeebies/Paper Owl Films). Pre-school, animation. A 6 yr. old boy with autism explores the world in his own unique way.
- Headache Volcano: Pablo has a funny feeling in his head when he plays on a hot afternoon, and it won't go away.
  • 2018: Wrapped Up (short film, 15 mins.) Dark comedy. A lovestruck finds herself in deep when she kills her boyfriend, who was sleeping with her brother.
  • 2017: Creative Access: Bobette’s Story (Promo, 2 mins.) A recruitment video for Creative Access (a service that enables B.A.M.E youth into internships in media industries), centring on one of their success stories, theatre manager Bobette. Link to film.
  • 2015: Spiderfly (short film, 5 mins.) Romantic thriller. Two lawyers, following the closure of a murder case, embark on a ‘killer’ affair of their own. Available at: https://vimeo.com/139926786
Film (Not as writer):
  • 2015: Silver (short film, 10 mins. Dir. Zay Basile. Script consultant, credited under ‘Special Thanks’). A tale of love between two living statues in the heart of London.
Non Film/TV:
  • 2018: Cull (One-Act Play), performed at the Oast Theatre, Tonbridge, as part of New Writing triple-bill. A dystopic drama that looks at overpopulation in the near-future.
  • 2016: Doctor Who: Iron Joe (published short story for charity anthology Time Shadows). The Sixth Doctor and Peri travel aboard the newly inaugurated Transcontinental Railroad, only to come face to face with the ultimate terror of the West: a bandit made of metal known only as ‘Iron Joe’.

Monday, 20 August 2018

Reference Books - The Writer's Secret Weapon

For a lot of writers, it's a pain: ''I don't want to do homework, I just want to write!''

But, as discussed last article, the old addage of 'write what you know' can only help to a point. But where do you start research: any subject can be broad and look rather daunting from the outside. How do you begin to tackle proper police procedure or modern medical practice or the Napoleonic Wars?

Internet, right? Well, not really: while the options are nigh-limitless, it also means you could get easily overwhelmed by all the search results. Within that comes sites of varying credibility, the always debatable Wikipedia and even the differences between countries - police in the States are quite unlike our local bobbies, for example.

What is needed is a guide, a lense that will focus where to start and, from there, expand. Reference books are just such a tool: tomes devoted to specific subjects that will tend to cover a little bit of everything, giving you plenty of places to then dig further on Google or Bing. It's actually kind of incredible they aren't talked about more often by writers, blogs, courses or just in general discourse.


But what do some of them actually offer?
  • The Crime Writer's Guide to Police Practice and Procedure by Michael O'Bryne and The Real CSI : A Foresnics Handbook by Kate Bendelow. These are as good as anything for getting started in writing about crime, providing a nice overview of police hierachy, investigations, crime scenes and the plethora of possible crimes you can use.
  • The Writer's Guide to Weapons: A Practical Reference for Using Firearms and Knives in Fiction by Benjamin Sobieck: want to know how guns, knives are other weapons work and are supposed to be like? This military vet had you covered with easy-to-read yet comprehensive detail on all types of weaponry.Plus, he deubunks common myths and exaggerations. such as the uselessless of pumping and cocking guns to be threatening.
  • The Writer's Guide to Psychology by Carolyn Kaufman. Too often, insanity is used as a lazy crux by writers to write dull, nonsensical villains who exist just to be bad. Or worse, misappropriating conditions such as schizophernia and giving them nonexistant effects like split personalities. Well, Kaufman's here to combat that with a tome that covers all the major mental illnesses and, more handily, also provide coutner-examples to common misuses of the conditions.
  • Oxford Handbooks: this ever-respectable label is most notable for its lengthy series geared towards healthcare, such as Clinical Medicine and Clinical Diagnosis. These are primarily intended for students in these fields but still contain a wealth of useful intel on the how and why of medicine, surgery, hospitals and proper treatment. They're so good they even got namedropped in the BBC miniseries Trust Me.
  • Spycraft: Essentials by Bayard and Holmes and Spycraft Secrets: An Espionage A-Z by Nigel West. Fancy knowing about the real life 007s, what their jobs are really like and the strange lingo? Well, these books'll have you covered, though Bayard and Holmes' book is geared more in favour of the States and organizations like the CIA.
  • The For Dummies series: hey, they have the title for a reason! Well written for novices and very detailed, these books have endured so long for a good reason and are the most common and easiest to find of any on this list. There exists one for just about every topic out there, no matter how random or ridiculous it could be. After all, they did books on sex, beekeeping and Youtube Channels. What's next? A book about Freemasons?
And that was a super-quick skim. Just typing in 'reference' in Amazon will yield loads more results that cover almost every subject you could want to know. You'll also often find tons of them at charity shops and boot sales for ridiculously low prices, since they're seen as just disposable 'general interest' and thus, not percieved as valuable as novels, comics or even their more respected breathren, encyclopedias.

Also handy - autobiographies: what better way to learn than from someone who's been and done it? You can't take it word for word, you'd need to buy the rights for that, but these two can help guide your explorations and even help inspire a few characters.

Monday, 6 August 2018

The Research Conundrum - How much to do for scripts?

''Write what you know'' is quintessential writing advice: Start from your own life, experiences and memories. From there, you can mine for thrills, chills and laughs. But after a point, it stops yielding. If you want to write a procedural and you're not a police officer or detective... what do you do? Or being a super-spy, or a rocket scientist?

RESEARCH! Good old fashioned studying is there to help you with your woes. In our information age, education and knowledge have never been easier to find and access. Or maybe you're the old fashioned sort who likes going to museums and libraries to study: Also a valid method. You fill up notepads, diaries and Word docs with all sorts of tidbits to help you create a world and characters you can draw from.

But then comes the question: how much is too much? 

When does research becoming delaying and excusing not writing? At what point does your story become a documentary or worse, an essay? On the one hand, William Goldman spent several years researching the Old West to write Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid; by contrast, David Henry Hwang, who wrote the acclaimed Broadway hit M. Butterfly, said he only researched what he absolutely needed and then got on with writing.

This is a question that's been, I imagine, especially on the minds of those who wish to write period pieces and stories with a lot of technical jargon, such as medical dramas, spy thrillers and anything involving scientists. Here's the thing: like most writing questions, it's not so much a matter of right or wrong, as everyone's method is different. Rather, it's a question of priority. What is your story really about, and what does it require?


Consider the following trifecta when pondering this question:
  • AUTHENTICITY: How 'real' are you trying to make your story? Are you going for a complete tell-all recreation of events, or just enough to give you a credible platform from which you can tell the story that really interests you? How heightened or fantastical will it be? Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Carribbean are both period pieces with well-realized worlds that are researched, but they're not concerned overtly with historic fidelity or recreation: they just give the story a world to play with.
  • ACCESSIBILITY: At what point does this information become irrelevant for the reader/audience and, worse, could create a roadblock? Is there a simpler way to say or name something so a reader doesn't have to break off and go find an encyclopedia (or Wiki it)? Deadwood is a classic example: its unmistakable roostersucking dialogue was anachronistic, but it was done because actual curses of the time would seem silly to a modern ear and thus, lose a lot of their vulgar impact and harm the drama.
  • NECESSITY: Following from the first two, relating to setting and clarity of information, do you need this specific thing to make your story work? Does your character arc or theme hinge on this detail? Do you need to mention the extact brand of shoe polish Winston Churchill used in order to write about his nature in office? Do you need to name a specific make of Rolls-Royce, if it somehow serves to inform that character, or just put up the date and say it's a Rolls? Remember, the more details you put in, the bulkier your action lines and, by extension, screenplay will be, which will have a knock-on effect on pacing.
Never forget, your plot and character is your first priority. So long as they're good, the audience will forgive anachronisms and, to be frank, most are not versed in random cultural or historical minutiae. Saving Mr. Banks was so touching and funny you forget P.L. Travers actually hated everything that happened, or Tombstone so exciting you'll not recall that the real Wyatt Earp was not the clean-cut good-natured Kurt Russell.

But okay, that's what to do during the research: what about a starting point, since the internet can be a giant ocean to explore? Next time, I'll tell you about your new best friend(s).