Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Dear Students of Screenwriting: Here's the reality

You're about to start or finish off your degree. You will or have learnt about three acts, inciting incidents, reversal of reversals and subverting expectations. With that piece of paper in hand (or in the mail) you feel ready to conquer the industry with a knock-out game changer. Or maybe, you're outside the system and learning as you go, from books and Youtube videos.

Let me tell you, you haven't even been around the first step to the first hurdle.

I think the reality and demands of any writing career is often undersold and underdiscussed to aspiring newbies. Too much is made of the glitz and glamour, the prestige of an award winning film or best selling book. Often, this false-image presents a too-romanticized, too-innocent version of what the reality is like for writers (mainly focusing, in this instance, on screenwriters, but there's a lot here that's cross-transferable).

The BIG truth is this: everything is SLOW. Everything takes time and everything is about your initiative and proactivity. This is not a career for those who are lazy or just expect, for whatever moronic reason, things to come to them. Worse, things to come RIGHT AWAY. Like, everything get's going in one week and people will sign you overnight to some big honking deal at the BBC or Netflix.

No. No no no no. No. Not how it happens. (WARNING, the word MAY will be used many times in the following paragraphs.)

First, you must BUILD RELATIONSHIPS. If you treat people like stepping stones, show no respect or regard, well, why should they care about you or your scripts? Networking is treated as this grand, impossible, delicate thing, but it's really not. It's basically like any other sort of socializing: just be cool and open. Yes, YOU have to go and meet people. Yes, YOU have to actually talk to people before they can read your script and may, MAY, give you a gig.

Asking to have a five minute meeting with someone in development about career advice, as a graduating/graduate student, or even as a fan of their output, is much less daunting then it sounds. You'd be surprised how generous people can be with their time, as well as how useful being a student is: you're still in school, so you can't sell them anything. You're just a wide-eyed kid with big dreams. They can relate, and if they like you, they may even offer you a read of your script. If they like it, they may give you a referral (an endorsement) which makes a certain 'hunt' that much easier (more on that later).

Research who they are beforehand, so that when you introduce yourself, you can point to something they've made and can say you admire. Nobody can resist a compliment, and thus, that may snowball into a chat, a conversation and, possibly, an exchange of numbers and/or emails. Of course, all this is if they respond: you may have to chase up a few times before they reply. Like I said, slow.

It's also important to be reasonable with your expectations: forget Call the Midwife or Doctor Who or Bodyguard. They are way, WAY out of your league, no matter how good your writing is. Shows like those use writers familiar with the system and who have proven themselves to be able to meet deadlines and turn solid material around in small amounts of time. Guiding a newbie is just not viable. However, that's not the only place to go with your work.

Loads of small theatres and festivals offer opportunities and competitions for material, some may even doing full plays. BBC Writersroom and London Playwrights' Blog are great sources for who has an open slot. That's a credit. Radio and narrative-driven podcasts: The audience is smaller than film or TV, but the advantadge is lower costs, allowing more risks to be taken. Yes, you can just pitch straight to a producer on radio, and may get your work on BBC Radio 4, without any 'unsolicited' guff. That's a credit. Or make a cheap little webseries (superior to shorts, in my view, for writers, and less dicey than a microbudget feature). Credit, credit, credit.

Or on actual TV, preschool's a good place to start grafting: efficient, cheap, fun content and writers who can produce that are always in demand. There'll still be waiting and following up and rejections, but there's far less at stake here for them and you. It's a fraction of what you'd get for a drama, but it's a credit builder with established companies. Remember, you're the newbie, the baby: you can't afford to be snobbish. Kids shows are not beneath you or inferior. They are as dramatically valid and challenging as any 'adult' project.

And even when you get that first play or episode done... WELCOME BACK TO GRAFTING! Oh, there's no magical floodgate where everything will just come to you and you'll never have to network again. People won't come to you. You've still got to find more gigs by your lonesome. And you wil get more rejections. Huzzah!

Now, to round this off, what's a word often associated with writers that has not shown up yet? AGENTS.  Here's the honest truth:

You don't need an agent to walk up to a producer or development person and pitch your idea.

You don't need an agent to get you work.

A good logline and better manners will do that fine. Your first priority as a writer, aside from learning and pushing your craft, is build yourself a portfolio, not agent hunt. Show you can do the work, show people want to work with you and show that you have the determination and proactivity to be worth entering a business arrangement with. Credits, specs, stuff in development, awards, all of this stuff counts for a lot and can help you stand out in the pile, bolstered further by the referal from an industry producer.

I suppose the takeaway here is that it's hard. Really hard. Really, really hard. And slow. And tedious. And often times annoying. But I also know I'd rather do this than a soul-draining office job (and I have), and I know this is what I find joy and passion in. Pablo, Cull, my past short films and all the stuff yet to come or still cooking: I've fought battles, felt crushing worry and despair, but I held on. It will happen to you, and it's not easy and it's scary. But if you believe in your material, in yourself, if you keep fighting and taking risks, you will get there.

If you're curious for me to expand on the above, I did an entire series about helping students which you can find here.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Read how-to-books or screenplays? Hey Genius, DO BOTH!

Blake Snyder is a hack who destroyed movies! No, Save The Cat is unparralleled storytelling genius. No you're stupid! No you're STUPID! FUDGE YOU! NO, FLECK YOU, BAR STEWARD! - the polite TV-broadcast version of what goes on in many screenwriting threads on forums.

In the eternal quest of the new screenwriter in tackling their first script, one of the first questions that arises is: what should I read? Screenplays or screenplay manuals? Should I just jump in and read PDFs like no tomorrow, or, should I study paradigms, beat sheets and arcs? Well, I've got an ingenious solution to your problem, and one which has never, ever, EVER, been broached before in the whole history of anything: do both.

I'll never understand the screenwriting community's bizarre fixation on one or the other. It's not like you're in one of Jigsaw's traps and forced to make a choice between losing your hand or your head. You, as student of the form and a consumer, have full freedom to choose what to go for. It's not binary black-and-white and to say it is is, at best, just standard elitism and worst, destructive to an artist's growth.

Brass tacks here: most new spec screenwriters (who are not muli-taskers, like writer-directors) are, by and large, not students of English Lit or have a strong literary background, period. Many are simply enthusiasts of various movie and TV franchises or persons in said mediums, and would like to write for them some day. Cue dropping to their first port of call: the internet. They do some rudimentary searching, maybe learn about Save The Cat or 'three act structure' and then after that, find a multitude of people grousing about STC and saying the only way to is to read screenplays and nothing else.

Let's start with books: blind adherence to formula is, of course, not a good thing, nor being married to a set of arbitrary rules. Absorbing all McKee or Hauge or Field has to offer may lead to a very proficient, polished screenplay, but it can also lead to an overly mechanical one without a sense of voice or imagination. While writing is hard, structure and pace can be learned fairly quickly: creating snappy, to-the-point scenes, as encouraged by these books, is very doable in a small amount of time. With a copy of Final Draft to boot, it's easy to create what LOOKS like a quality screenplay.

But looks can be deceiving: the common element with a lot of books is they can't teach you to have a voice, a unique style and POV that only you can tell. Nor can they provide you with distinct and different subject matter, so sadly, a lot of 'technically' proficient screenplays fall back on the same stories about cops with demons, star-crossed lovebirds and disenfranchised youth. X happens by page Y, at point B this twist happens and the hero gets C. All well and good, but kind of bland.

Here's the thing, to take the alternate view: if you can't explain or understand why something works in a story, reading screenplays alone is a total waste of time because you're not really learning. The books aren't perfect, but at least they can give you a framework and a means to explain what or why something is or isn't working. Without a basic grasp of dramaturgical terms or theory (in particular, oft-misunderstood terms such as 'characterisation', 'pacing' and 'subplots') you won't be able to really grasp and hone that vague ethereal spark that is your story idea.

Too often, it seems the people who screed the supremacy of 'read alone' are people who were already aware of the conventions, or working in the industry and thus, could learn direct on the ground. For example, John August (Big Fish and co-host of ScriptNotes) began his career as a script reader so of course he didn't need Syd Field: he was already learning in possibly the best school possible. Nor did Ed Solomon (Bill & Ted): he was already working as a comic and got on staff for Laverne & Shelley while at college. He got the ultimate introduction to the craft by actually writing commissioned work. Others majored in English at a university level (Frank Cotrell-Boyce, The Railway Man) so again, didn't need the guides. But for many, either because of financial or health reasons, this is non-viable.

And, in an interesting dovetail, many of these guys got in decades ago, a criticism that's also been levied at guides for being out of date in their industry advice. Yet, the circumstances under which some of these people rose under is fundamentally different now, why should their word be any more sacrosanct?

Obviously, I'm being a bit hyperbolic, but I hope it serves a point: no one knows anything, so learn from everyone, take what you can and ditch what doesn't help. In the long run, no one cares how you write just as long as you write well. Do that, and things will fall into place.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Review: Writing the Short Film

Short films are, for many a young and new filmmaker, their first step into the business. Make a few, make a good one, you can generate a little buzz about yourself. Give people an idea of what your tastes and strengths are. However, their brief length can pose a challenge for writers, trained or not. So what could help here?

Back in 2004, screenwriting lecturers Cooper and Dancyger decided to add their perspective to the world of screenwriting manuals and bibles, but rather than doing the umpteenth book on features or coming up with another cute name for a three-act reskin, instead tackled the subject of short films. While still framed with Aristotlean principles and act structure, Cooper and Dancyger keep their focus small and tight by analysing and diseecting how the short form tell stories, how to convey information within limited time and what the differences are between feature and short, beyond length.

One of the very few screenwriting tomes exclusively about shorts, and certainly one of the more well known, Cooper and Dancyger deliver a solid enough guide to how all the fundamentals of film narrative (dialogue, characterisation, pacing, want vs need, subtext) can be applied and prepared for the short form, but it is unmistakably the work of academics. As such, the more bold and colourful among ye may be turned off by it. 

Whereas other writing manuals favour a more humourous, conversational style of writing, designed to ease the aspiring writer in and create a sort of bond between guru and pupil, the duo write with a clinical precision and analytical frame of mind. It very much reads like a classroom piece, making the book feel and read more like a collection of university essays than, necessarily, one writer speaking to another in a relatable fashion.

This by no means is a big negative, and Cooper and Dancyger do their best to supply the reader with tools, detailed maps and means to prepare a short screenplay. They frame most of it around a two act principle (though also concede to one act) using some adaptative exercises, tackling the classic Greek myth of Icarus, as well as scenes from shorts they or their students have been involved with, to illustrate their points. It works decently and it never had me confused. Indeed, some of the best parts come from these segments, where they go through revisions and show you how something changed.

Still, it all feels sterile and written without enthusiasm, which can leave it a little dry and ponderous at times. It's more instructive than it is motivational or inspirational, which does align it more with the stereotype of screenwriting books. Do not confuse this with implying the book is sloppy or boring; merely written by observers and analysts of the craft, teaching classes and engaged in an academic discussion of film, versus the more impassioned approach of a guru or working screenwriter of larger projects wanting to share tricks and fun anecdotes. 

On its own merits, Short Film is capably written, well structured and clearly geared at new film students. Indeed, it reads like classroom material: thorough, lengthy but always at an intellectual distance, more a teaching tool than a standalone piece that makes for a good read in its own right.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

More Pablo and Bang2Write - Ringing in 2019

So, belated Happy New Year to everyone. Hope 2018 was good to you, and here's hoping 2019 has more in store. It was quite a whirlwind year for me, with many highs and lows, but I managed to get my first few baby steps into the business, so hooray! 

So, a few announcements. First, I can now confirm I've written a second Pablo episode for the next series. In total, that brings my episode contributions to 2, and very proud I am of them. It's been an entertaining and highly educational experience. Andrew Brenner and Paper Owl Films were really cool to work with and knew exactly what they wanted. If and when there's a Series 3, I'll be all too happy to jump back in!

Next, I have contributed to jack-of-all-trades writing website Bang2Write with their little miniseries, What 22 Industry Pros Don't and Do Want. The articles are what they sound like: readers, producers and development folk in both film and TV as well as in books give their two pence on what they do or don't like when they see a new piece of work come in.



First up, here are the DONT'S.
And now, the DOS.

I'm also in very early stages of a new ten minute play, to be produced by the Oast's Sandra Barfield (who helped bring Cull to life last year) but as said, it's still early days. Beyond that, working as always on new specs, include a very special fantasy one that I intend to shop around soon.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

The Relationship of Writers and Critics - A Response to Sarah Phelps, Niall Johnson and The ABC Murders

Another year, another Christie adaptation that does well but causes a ruckus among devotees of Mystery's First Lady. TV veteran and self-described 'Pervert' Sarah Phelps turned her skills to adapting one of Poirot's adventures, but as with Ordeal of Innocence, rejigged it to surprise audiences. Poirot is now old and faded, a shadow of his former self, and his battle with the elusive 'A.B.C' takes on a seemingly more personal dimension.

Now ostensibly, fans being upset about changes to source material is par for the course and wouldn't be worth talking about, save for in this instance, an additional debate arose. Phelps, as her moniker implies, is very upfront about her views, and as such, tends to joke or shrug off Twitter critique. One such example was from poet Niall Johnson, who wrote a detailed review of his dislike of the adaptation. Phelps blew it off and this then engendered discussion about viewers having the right, or need, to speak directly with creators.

Sure enough, this snowballed into other screenwriters offering their two pence on taking critique from Joe public.

DISCLOSURE: I do not know either of the two main individuals or have read the original 'The ABC Murders'. While Phelps could've, perhaps, taken the criticism better, she is also a veteran screenwriter with a particular sense of humour and it's not my place to lecture her. As for Johnson, while the review is passionate, it's also a little dodgy in structure and overfocuses on fealty to source material and not enough on the merits or negatives of the series itself as a standalone work.

This is an interesting topic for me, having walked on both sides: longtime followers know I used to do film and TV criticism, starting in an amateur capacity on Youtube before transitioning to, however briefly, paid work for websites. There is a tendency, however innaccurate, to assume that critics are some manner of vanguard, a sort of 'quality police', there to tell Hollywood or the industry wherever what's right and wrong. Add in the democratization of opinion, where anyone with an internet connection and a platform can share their views i.e. be a critic, surely it must be a free for all?

Of course, a cursory glance at box office or ratings guide like the BARB show that negatively reviewed material does not always do badly, nor does well reviewed material always do well. Nor should numbers determine what you like: we all have differing opinions/tastes and there's nothing wrong with that. However, that right to express views is not what's being taken umbrage with here. Rather, this is about if said democratization entitles one to address and critique a creator directly on a large platform, regardless of said critic's merit or background.

Partially yes, but mostly no. INSOFAR AS TAGGING CREATORS IN, I must stress.

Yes, the openness of a platform like Twitter makes criticism or differing views impossible to avoid, and so long as terms of Use are not violated, they are fine to do so. However, it's important to remember Phelps, Holdsworth, Jenner and others are not against criticism; they just don't find it tactful for people to bombard them directly with reviews. Boundaries exist and politeness doesn't matter if you're crossing a decorum line. It's the presumption that being a viewer on Twitter entitles you to have a direct audience with a creator i.e. @ your reviews.

Even if you don't intend it to be rude, it still is, since you're shoving your work directly under someone's nose when you have no real need to, since there are other ways to express opinion, and presuming you must be listened to. Yes, Twitter is a public platform, but there's a considerable difference between simply writing up your opinion, positive or negative, and sharing among peers or enthusiasts, and then shoving your critique right in the face of a creator. By doing this, you are presuming your view is more worthy of specific attention when there's no qualifiers for it: your own subjective opinion is no more inferior or superior to someone else who shared it via normal channels.

It also, unhelpfully, presumes there's no quality control in the industry (Script editors, development and producers? What's that?!), or that creators never get told no. Oooh boy, where do you even begin with that... 

And that's not getting into the logistical headache of how does a creator read through reams and reams of often contradictory opinions on platforms as big as Twitter or reddit or Youtube? How does he or she decide what gets priority? By platform? By length? By quality of grammar and punctuation? By the fact that the person is a writer? If so, what kind? Is a playwright or novelist's argument as valid as a another screenwriter's?

Even on the professional side, critics don't really view themselves as guides or advisors to the film or TV industry. That's not the relationship. They don't write reviews with the purpose of making an artist change their work: they write because they have a passion for the medium and want to express and discuss their reactions, emotional and intellectual, to a creator's work. They help us see their work in a grander context. Mark Kermode's certainly spoken many times about the difference between critics and practitioners. If critics had enough power to really kill a project or tell off the biz, well, BvS and Venom, among many examples.

So, does all this mean the industry is above reproach and you can't criticize things? NO. You can still write or film reviews, still going on Twitter or reddit and discuss and still be free to watch what you want to. But do it because you want to talk and debate, because you have passion, not because you want to be an armchair director and tell people FAR MORE EXPERIENCED than yourself how to do their jobs. That's not criticism or brutal honesty, that's hubris and both fandom and the industry are filled with enough wannabes as is.

Monday, 17 December 2018

Review: Dan O'Bannon's Guide to Screenplay Structure

One of the oldest criticisms of screenwriting books is that they are not written by working practitoners (the old chesnut of 'those who cannot do, teach'), thus utterly deligitmsing them. Naturally, I think this stance is more than a little hyperbolic and irrational, but if you have that view on the subject, this one's for you.
Dan O'Bannon is the late, great mind behind Alien, Total Recall and Return of the Living Dead. With the aid of friend and collaborator Matt R. Lohr, he delivers a screenwriting book that places emphasis on conflict, as well as creating an exciting three act method called 'Dynamic Structure', derived in part from his background in science. Across linked chapters he breaks down his method, its influences from science like hedonic adaptation, how it applies to several famous films like Psycho and Dumb & Dumber and how you can implement it in your work.

O'Bannon's book is solid enough for your standard discussions on structure, but where it really excels is as a workbook: whereas a lot of tomes will state a bunch of arbitrary rules, O'Bannon regularly encourages you to engage in analysis and ask questions. Whether more literally in the exercises that close each chapter, or more in discussion of what makes effective drama and the place of 'rules' within that. O'Bannon is by no means an adherent: he believes in the uniqueness of your voice and says rules can be bent if they don't aid you. 

His D.S. is less about hitting specific page numbers and more how to consistently excite and wrongfoot an audience. However, he recognises there are fundamentals that stories must adhere to in order to function; chief is conflict, whereby O'Bannon puts focus on giving 'both sides' motivation. Instead of just 'a hero comes up against obstacles', he asks you to also think about the story from the antagonist/obstacle's POV. This, therefore, increases the tension and heightens the stakes as your characters, good or bad, have real, well defined motives that clash and produce richer drama.

As a bonus, he even examines and contasts his D.S. with other paradigms and works, such as McKee, Field and Aristotle. This ends up not being as much of an ego-stroke as one would assume: he acknowledges their historical significance as well as concedes their good points. However, he's not afraid to take them to task: whether it be the arcane thoughts of Aristotle, the strange wording of Lajos Ergi in defining dramatic concepts, or the archness of Field's famous paradigmn. He's not even afraid to acknowledge the limits of his own structure, when he analyzes Lawrence of Arabia. If you want a nice digest of the history of storytelling and dramatic theory, O'Bannon's got you covered.

Granted, the heavy emphasis on structural analysis and conflict does leave the book feeling a little skewed: pacing, characterization, dialogue and theme are all secondary and merely glanced at. O'Bannon doesn't necesserily regard them as inferior, but his emphasis is on effective structure and conflict. These other elements he primarily views as arising from these (character is action and whatnot), rather than dwelling on them as seperate elements. Also, O'Bannon concedes he can offer little meaningful business advice, so those looking for a more well rounded package should look elsewhere. 

However, what it sets out to do it does so with style and relish, making for an engrossing read. If you love genre movies and fiction, O'Bannon's work or haven't cracked the structure code yet, this book is ideal for you.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Patience: The Hardest Skill a Writer must learn

More than agents, producers, deadlines or writer's block, THIS is the one, the almighty thorn-in-side. No matter if you're a screenwriter, playwright, novelist, comics writer or wordsmith of any field, one thing unites us: we all hate silence. The long, seemingly eternal gap; the uncaring pause that awaits us every time we send something out into the world with the faintest of faint hopes it'll click.

Yep, that sums the feeling up...

A crushing malaise can often set in, regardless if the reason why it's being sent off is positive or even lucrative: sending a thoroughly polished manuscript or script to an interested party creates a rush of endorphins and joy, followed by a strange cycle of worry, self-doubt and even slight anger at not 'being taken seriously enough' for a faster response. This can occur, even in submissions that aren't life or death: even just sending something for a friend or trusted second pair of eyes can feel like a slog.

So, what can you do about it, to try and mitigate this crushing despair?
  • TURNAROUND: Most places will take anywhere from 90 days to three months to read something. Usually, details are provided on the company's website, but if you're submitting to an individual, try and ask (politely and without making it all about you) how long they normally take. That way, you just write it up on calendar and not think about it. Then and only then is when you-
  • FOLLOW UP: I cannot stress this enough, but DO NOT spam check up emails every week. Not only will this annoy your reader, it's also bad for said anxiety. If you can't or don't get an answer to the above question, month and a half is a good check in time.
  • SIZE: The bigger the company, the longer it'll take. Even efficient systems can, unfortunately, still not get through everything. Not even close to 50% on good days.
How else can you take your mind off the submission?

  • WRITE: Don't be that idiot waiting and waiting and choosing to freeze themselves in amber until a person says the magic word. The fastest way to stop worrying about one project is to work on another. Plus, it keeps you off the dark path of the 'magic ticket' that I've railled against before.
  • READ: May sound a little obvious and cheap, but just getting into other stories and subject matter can also help keep your mind off. Non-fiction can prove especially handy, as you can use this waiting time to either do research or simply find new inspiration for a project.
  • LIFE: Friends, family, pets, whatever your current job is. All of these are a quick and easy way to let the worry slide off your brain and into the recesses. Don't live the stereotype of the isolated maverick who solely devotes themselves to art. Go out, get some air, maybe even a nice hamburger!
And when all that's said and done, remember this most of all:
  • THERE IS NO 'BIG BREAK': A worthwhile career in any field is the summation of loads of small steps, not one big gamble. You will get lots of nos and contradictory responses on the same script, and it can be maddening. I had a kids pilot get three yes's and three no's, and it was actually the bigger names that took more of a shine. Remember the deadly perils of the 'magic ticket' I mentioned above? The sooner you take the advice to just write, enjoy it and build a varied portfolio, the faster you will not only produce better work, but also the less you will worry about 'do they like it? Do they like it?'