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).

Monday, 23 July 2018

Screenwriting Books for TV - A Handy Guide

Movies are, by and large, the bread and butter of screenwriting guides. Three act structure, twenty two steps, story circles, hero's journey blah blah you get it. Naturally, this brings us to the question: what about TV? Surely, with the television renaissance of the last decade, someone must also be trying to conjure up paradigms and frameworks for writers to use to make it in the new hotbed of long-form storytelling?

Well, kind of: the market of TV gurus is substantially smaller than its feature counterpart. There's no 'definitive' text like Story, Screenplay or Save The Cat, or a unifying figure with a following like Robert McKee or Syd Field. The good news is that there's far less titles to cover, so your wallet will be grateful for the reduced strain.


Let's go over what we have. For ease of reference, I'm splitting them up between British and American titles. The latter still have loads of valid advice and techniques for sure, but the former are important as domestic is where you will, and should, be calling first.

First, the homegrown literature:
  • The Insider's Guide to Writing Television by Julian Friedmann and Christopher Walker. A practical guide to British television writing, Friedmann splits the book with Walker, who covers storytelling technique while Friedmann focuses on the nitty gritty of getting out there: agents, meeting, where to go etc. It is decidedly more geared towards the business side over the craft, though Walker still offers some sound advice with examples.
  • How To Write For Television by William Smethurst. The late mind who revitalized The Archers and Crossroads gives you the British equivalent of Cook and Douglas (discussed below), covering how to write for TV and radio, the differences between formats and genres, and where to look for your break. Seven editions have come out over the course of over twenty years, so clearly not an uncommon or unpopular work. Also, chalk up Sue Teddern and Nick Warburton's Writing for TV and Radio: A Writers' and Artists' Companion. Warburton was a collaborator of Smethurst's, so it acts as, well, a companion piece.
  • Writing for Television Series, Serials and Soaps by Yvonne Grace. The Holby City and Eastenders veteran gives her contribution to the prolific Creative Essentials series of books. As the title implies, Grace goes over your main go-tos in TV, who you'll be working with and how to comport yourself  properly. Indeed, there's quite an emphasis, arguably more than the others, on what you do when you get inside.
  • Writing Soap: How to Write Continuiung Drama by Chris Thompson. Well, when else am I going to talk about this? Continuiung dramas (Easties, Hollyoaks, Coronation Street, Emmerdale, Holby, Casualty, Doctors) are often some of your earliest shots in the business, as well as some of the consistently popular programming on terrestrial TV. Thompson delivers what he promises: a how-to on writing for one of the toughest gigs on TV, where deadlines are tight and notes many.
And now, for the States. Unless you plan to emigrate, you'll be reading these mainly for story advice:
  • Writing the Pilot by William Rabkin and Crafty Television Writing: Thinking Inside The Box by Alex Epstein are two popular staples. These cover all you need to know about writing effective pilots, crafting shows with long term story potential, and what seperates a film from a TV character. Epstein's book also covers writing a whole series and staffing, while Rabkin covers that in his second book, Writing The Pilot: Creating the Series.
  • Write To TV by Martie Cook. Now in its second edition, the Emerson College academic's tome is the television equivalent of Trottier's Bible: a heaving jack-of-all-trades that covers how to write for different genres, formats and even advice on speccing, staffing and career moves out in the City of Angels.
  • Writing the TV Drama Series by Pamela Douglas. One of the older warhorses and probably the closest to a 'Syd Field' of TV, Douglas' work is similar to Cook's, albeit more specifically focused on writing drama.
  • Former showrunner Neil Landau throws his hat into the ring with TV Writing on Demand: Creating Great Content in the Digital Era and The TV Showrunner's Roadmap. These are some of the more current books on television, trading very heavily on streaming and how binge watching has changed the way we tell stories in this medium. Roadmap also is jampacked with interviews from the men and women behind the television revolution of the last decade and a bit.
  • Sheldon Bull, a compadre of Blake Snyder, and Ellen Sadler both step in to dissect sitcoms with Elephant Bucks: An Insider's Guide to Writing for TV Sitcoms and The TV Writer's Workbook, respectively.  Bull's pachydrym never took off like Snyder's feline, but there's some solid advice on what it takes to write half-hour yukfests with a handy beatsheet of its own. Sadler's, by comparison, is exactly what it says on the spine: a solid step by step workthough on building and stress-testing a script.
Naturally, this list is by no-means exhaustive. I imagine more will come out in the future and that, some day, there will be that one towering voice. If you're more adventurous in book hunting, then the same criteria from feature guides applies here too:
  • Author's credentials: make sure the writer is/was a working screenwriter, producer or development person, and has a decent amount of credits. They may not have worked on Hannibal or snagged a BAFTA, but they've been where you've been, know your struggles and will be living proof of the effectiveness of their methods. People who are solely teachers will have less awareness of the demands of the industry, and may not be as helpful in giving you a realistic outlook or proper tools.
  • Gimmicks and cheats: I'm highly suspicious of any 'quack' miracle cures and formulas in 'secret'-style books, though they are, currently, less common in TV. 'Write a Great Pilot in 10 Days', 'Write An Awesome Series in 30 Days Or Less', 'The Secret Hollywood Formula: How you can write a Netflix hit', you'll know it when you see it in shops and on Amazon. It's snake oil: Good craft takes time and being able to write well, not to mention consistently, has to be learnt and earnt. There are no shortcuts.
  • Date: If it's focused solely on writing craft, then it's not a huge concern. If it also touts the business side, however, then aim for a book released/revised within the last 5-10 years, as the industry changes faster than ever before. Also, CreateSpace allows lazy authors a means to upload ancient books in sleek new packages, filled with outdated advice and terminology that won't help you, so beware anything that looks cheap or too new.

    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 The Last Boyscout 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 are 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: https://www.reddit.com/r/Screenwriting/comments/8n44fn/question_i_dont_want_to_be_a_career_writer_i_just/?st=jhtmq9tw&sh=4ae5150d

    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: https://creativescreenwriting.com/indiana-jones-and-the-last-crusade-learning-from-stoppard/

    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: http://www.supermanhomepage.com/movies.php while the Gilroy one is here: http://www.simplyscripts.com/s.html)

    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, operate on 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: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2013/01/10/a-short-rant-on-the-you-cant-teach-writing-meme/

    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: https://www.oasttheatre.com/)

    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, https://www.tv-calling.com 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: a 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 Gointothestory.com:

    “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 guru ring. I contend this animosity has been, somewhat, misguided and how that, arguably, is more harmful than any hackneyed formula or beat sheet could ever be to green scribes. I don't pretend to change minds, just encourage discussion.

    To begin, some criticisms og gurus/books I DO 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 undercooked new manuals or republish old tomes filled with the same old, same old, rather than try to find new spins on the topic. As a result, many tomes just blend together into a grey mush with the exact tricks.
    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 bigger American/Hollywood-friendly projects, often does limit their usefulness if you're not writing some snazzy romcom or high-octance explosion fest. Not helped further by the intense skewing towards the States, homegrown books get overshadowed or pushed off of shelves and recommendations and thus not painting an accurate picture of content creation here in the UK.
    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. It's harmful and disencourages writers from experimenting.
    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 boring English classes 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. 'Character' is not 'ooh, look how quippy and quirky they are!' and theme is not 'big info-dump speech at the end that spells out everything', to demonstrate.

    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.

    And before I hear the old chestnut of, 'Actually, most of 'top screenwriters' advise against reading the How-To screenplay books so don't buy them', citing x podcast or y interview, well, yes: you can certainly write a great script without them. However, as a counterpoint, let me pull up  a list of successful writers who DO endorse them, either a specific guru or the form as a whole:

    William Goldman, Lawrence Kasdan, John Cleese, Tony Jordan, Larry Karazewski, Jimmy McGovern, Shane Black, Julian Fellowes, Jim Kouf, Larry Wilson, Sam Hamm, Chris Chibnall, Bruce Joel Rubin, Ted Tally, Frank Pierson, James L. Brooks, C. Robert Cargill, Stephen Sommers, Emma Frost, Jeffrey Boam, Peter Bowker, Marc Norman, Debbie Moon, Tom Schulman, William Kelley, Travis Beacham, Anna Hamilton Phelan, Robert Mark Kamen, Christopher Murphey, Jim Uhls, Brad Siberling, Jeff Arch, Darren Aronofosky (yes, that one.)

    Oh, and the makers of How To Train Your Dragon credit Blake Snyder with helping them to turn the books into a movie. The first film's even dedicated to him. But hey, what do THEY know?

    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:
    http://verystrangethingsanimated.blogspot.co.uk/

    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.