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:

Thursday, 10 May 2018

My first performed Stage Play - Cull

Well, now I'm a performed playwright! This past Sunday, May 6, my One Act dystopia play Cull premiered at a special members-only New Writing 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: