Writing without, you know, "writing"

I used to catch ideas (which are so like butterflies, it almost seems cruel) by leaving myself answerphone messages on the home landline. The light would flicker at me when I got back in the warm at the end of the day: “hello,” glowed the message from a past me of oo, hours ago; “remember me? That light? Here I am. Take off your coat, grab a pen and stroke me.”

The idea hatchery. Not for stroking. That’s a cat metaphor that gets mixed up in this paragraph, the way cats do with vulnerable things like butterflies.

Work is different these days and so’s my tech. Now I use my mobile’s Voice Memos like a dictaphone when I’m on the move. It’s brilliant. I caught a whole HUMUNGOUS beast of a story in the Highlands this summer this way, and she and I (she’s a she, this one, and no butterfly, believe me) are turning her story into a play – SKIN – of which more in other times and places.

Another way I write is through my “morning pages” (check out The Artist’s Way, mentioned on this site and elsewhere). There, first thing in the morning, I go “into the zone”, picking a moment from the story to explore. This stuff tends to come out in the present tense and from the point of view of one character – and FAST. It’s got more in common with a cartoon, comic, a graphic novel – there are greater “reveals” as I move (am moved!) from frame to frame, moment to moment.

Why share these? ‘Cos you might like to try a technique or two you haven’t tried before. Because this way of writing – straight from the back of my brain, perhaps – always brings up surprises. It feels much more like the way I used to write when I was a child. And now I’m enough of a grown-up-enough writer who can use her craft (and pervy love of structure), I don’t worry too much that it’ll veer way OTT – and if you’re interested in getting that balance, do check out Linda Aronson’s new book, The C21 Screenplay (thanks, Santa – and everyone else, that’s an affiliate link and I might make a few pence if you click it and buy).

I’ve just been writing up the morning pages scribbles and the audio notes. Their energy is completely different to what comes up when I’m at a computer or a blank page.

It’s not a substitute – it’s a part of the process (just like turning the first draft into a graphic novel – with colour and everything – is a great way to find what BORES me.) It’s energy-full, almost unconscious writing – and a lot of fun if you have the discipline to turn it into something afterwards. Treat those writings with respect and let them fly!

Hope this was useful to someone. Let me know if so! Comments, below:

Go on. Drop me a line…

The Pitlochry Play #1: the sound of water

I’m here in Pitlochry, land of Pitlochry Festival Theatre and much, much more. Today’s day 3 of my playwrighting residency at the theatre and I’m rolling around like a pig in poo at the luxury of all this writing space and thinking time.

I’m not here to share anything about my “process” with you, but I can’t keep all this to myself, so I thought you would like a local waterfall.

It’s great to watch in real life (not so amazing in my rushed wee film from my August holiday here), but it’s stunning to listen to. Sound and water are featuring heavily in the project so far; trees and mountains are too, but let’s save that for another day.

Let me introduce you to the fantastic, the inimitable, the one and only: Black Spout:

Black Spout waterfall, Pitlochry, Aug. ’19

Glittered Knickers…

I love it when a plan you never knew you had comes together.

An old friend up at Bath Uni decided we needed an International Women’s Day entertainment night in Widcombe. It’s over 20 years since I did one of these, back at the students’ union, so when she said,

“Want to do something for International Women’s Day?”

something in me shouted back – all the way from 1995, and surprisingly quickly,

“Heck, yeah!”

And by 8 March, that “HECK, YEAH” became this:


Oh, look. There’s me, at the start of the adventures of Glitter Knickers, the eponymous anti-heroine of my main stage show in 2016 (which meant to tour and then – far too true to character for my own liking – skidded on a banana skin).

The audience was very decent in every important sense: size and manners. They hushed, listened, laughed and even gasped. There were those lovely moments of 1- 2- 3 – “oh, no!” realisations (thank the gods) and plenty warm words after. (Thank you, Widcombe Social Club). But the funny thing was, next morning. I woke up and thought,

“Weird. I’ve never performed my own (grown-up) work before.”

And wondered why I’d never noticed.

In The Artists’ Way, Julia Cameron talks (with lemon-on-paper-cut insight) about how we often protect our creative selves through distancing. We might become teachers of art (of all kinds); encouragers of others; arts administrators; avid readers or theatre buffs –

ANYTHING BUT BE AN ACTUAL (SCARY) ARTIST – WHO MIGHT VERY WELL

FAIL.

It’ll astonish you if you know me (that doesn’t even need a footnote) that I performed endless amounts of my own work until I was about 14. At uni, I sang solo stuff a fair bit, but never acted or wrote. It wasn’t til I was 34 that I threw my bank account at the dream and wrote my first full-length play for any kind of sharing.

Now, now, though, there’s a wicked smile on my face. I like doing my own stuff. And I’m very willing to do more and get better at it. (Yes, see what a kindly audience can do?)

I made the, “never performed my own work before” comment on facebook and a friend overseas said,

“Bollocks. I’ve listened to your kids’ audiobook.”

You see, we forget the creative stuff we leave all over the place. We don’t always count or value the art we say is “work”! (My audiobook’s from my weekly after-school mythology club and I’ve only got round to recording one). But it’s just as valid a creative endeavour or risk as the “heart and soul” work. Others experience it as as much an expression of you as they see everything else.

Hmmm. My tone’s felt preachy. I’ve been reading too much on Medium, clearly. There is no lesson. Maybe just a thought, or a question: have you discounted your own creative outputs as “just work” – and would you like to do more?

A Song & Dance for your details…

A much-loved but unproduced theatre script,  A Bit of a Song & Dance, made the BBC Drama Script Room long-list! They had a record number of entries, and a phenomenal amount to read, so I’m especially pleased – and grateful! As all writers out there know, there’s subjectivity in all of this, too, so I’m well aware that there’s a decent degree of good fortune in getting this far.

Writersroom is a phenomenal doorway for writers; a great deal of the talent that reaches your screen passes through this system, and I know many who have been coached and nurtured by it (and by others, of course): it’s a wonderful opportunity. It’s this kind of thing that gives hope, ambition, support and professional education to me and THOUSANDS of would-be broadcast writers.  The recent comedy script room has had 2,629 entries and as you can see below, Drama had almost 4,000.

Screen Shot 2018-04-27 at 09.50.39.pngThis is the best any of my scripts have done with the BBC and it is a script I love (with characters I care about – but then, I always do). As one of the longlist, the BBC will give me a script report, which is invaluable – because without audience feedback, a script is nothing. Its life is in the imaginations of others….

And on that slightly strange final note, I’ve been looking for a wordpress GDPR thing and can’t find one. Some of you have signed up to get blog posts by email. If you are one of them and no longer want to, obviously do unsubscribe! Otherwise, let’s carry on! (As I try to capture your imaginations!)

 

Writing Without Whips

Writers need focus. And kindness. Lots of kindness. I wrote yonks ago here about the myth of artistic poverty – how a lack of money (and, related, time) absolutely stymied my work.

It leads to me chasing my tail, rather than having confidence enough to focus on a single project.  It leads to me running up and down my projects, my contacts, the competition deadlines, watering them all, hoping one – just one – will bear me a fruit.

Of course, this is mad.

If studying the lives – and work – of great writers I admire tells me anything, it is that they sat with their work. One work. They listened. They thought.  They paid attention to the task in hand.

Of course, they had to go to the post office. Of course, they had to shop, meet, talk, hustle, eat, drink, recover etc. But they treated their work with more respect than I have been showing mine. And that’s something I resolve to change.

Seeing as you’re here, you might be like me. You read posts about writing. I stumbled over one the other day that was so fresh, so generous in its tone, that it reminded me of Stephen King’s On Writing, or Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. What was so fresh was that it did not tell me I was doing everything wrong. It did not tell me that I could learn what 10 terrible mistakes I was making with every script. It did not tell me that if I would only be a better something [insert noun that’s simultaneously a carrot and a cat-o-nine-tails: “human”, perhaps], then I would be gobbled up eagerly by agents/producers – and not in a necessarily harrassmenty kind of way.

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This was not the kind of “whip” I was looking for in the image library.

It was this. A post that says, “you can find a champion for your work”. That says, “yes there are hurdles, but you can get over them.” That nudges you gently out of the nest so you can fly, instead of screaming, “Jump, you tosser!” from the ground.  So thank you, Hayley Mackenzie of Script Angel. It’s that kind of thoughtfulness – along with the likes of Philip Shelley‘s thorough confidence – that gives the industry a good name.

I don’t believe that making people feel bad, or in competition with their peers, works. Scriptwriting professionals like Hayley and Philip (they’re not the only ones, of course) remind me that I choose who I listen to. This is utterly personal of course, but the gentle encouragement of guys like this, and so many other writers, is one of the things that keeps me in the game.

It’s a privileged place to be, with words in your mind, in your hand, on a screen or page. The last thing you need is a beating. Just find some focus, do some listening and get those words out.

[skips off, distributing sunflowers, into a nuclear horizon…]

😉

 

The Stuff I Do (yippee)

Wonderful week last week, with lots of goodies coming at once.

On Tuesday, I reviewed Michael Boyd (former RSC Artistic Director)’s new show, The Open House, for Bristol 24/7. You can read the review here.

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The Open House, Theatre Royal Bath – photo by Simon Annand

Then I popped on a train, feeling all intercontinentally high-flyin’, wrote my review on the tracks & when I woke up (some sleep happened somewhere), I was in King’s Cross on  my way to the C21/Script Angel WritersRoom, which ran as part of the International Drama Summit at Content London 2017.

Very merrily, my latest TV pilot spec script – written in a 10-day deadline frenzy in September – was highly placed in the C21/Script Angel Drama Series Script Competition. And this is how I won a place on this full and excellent day.  In three groups, we developed a new show from concept to pitch. Each worked closely with an experienced show-runner: Versailles’ David Wolstencraft; Follow The Money’s Jeppe Gjervig Gram; False Flag’s Maria Feldman and Shades of Blue’s Adi Hasak.

The 9-6 day seemed like it was eaten whole in one big bite: Have we finished? Where did it all go?! 

That’s in no small measure due to a cracking task-led structure, but also a bally marvellous working group. So often,  writers work in holy isolation but here we had to listen, respond, respect and hit a deadline with a goodie. (What do you mean, “did we?” Of course we did!).

Anyway, it was yet another of those weeks where I stand, grin and kalloo-kallay my lucky stars to be able to do the stuff I do. I saw and reviewed great & thought-provoking theatre (heading to London in the new year, I believe) and worked with a great international group of merry writers and producers. And we all learnt from our group’s ace showrunners, Jeppe Gjervig Gram & Adi Hasak, with the sharp and steady Hayley MacKenzie of Script Angel’s hand on the tiller.

What a cracking week.

 

No new stories? Then you’re never alone!

Way, way back, many moons ago, I spent a disproportionate amount of my degree studying fairy tale, folk lore, myth and language. A very lucky soul, I was.

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Morgan Le Fay, Frederick Sandys, 1863/4, Birmingham Museums & Gallery

I ended up examining  the evolution of one character in particular – Morgan le Fay, King Arthur’s half-sister. A powerful woman in every version of the tale, she morphed from pre-Christian tri-partite fertility goddess (Celtic Morrigan), to an evil, conniving force of darkness. Over the centuries, society’s attitudes to women changed, as Christianity spread, and as things like the Marian Cult of the Virgin Mary took hold in scriptoriums (remember, back in the day, the monks were the publishing houses!).

And so, as Christian men took over, the earth-mother became a demoness. The other significant woman in Arthurian legend, Guinevere, herself changes during the story from sweet virgin to unfaithful wife.

As my own tale morphs and grows, and I constantly learn about the importance of story-making and -telling, I’m reminded again and again how, fundamentally, stories are universal.  No matter the surface differences between Peppa Pig, Greta Expectations and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, a closer look will find the parallels: regardless of age or culture, we all want and need our story medicine – we just take it from different bottles.

So if there’s nothing new under the sun, that should remind us: our tribe is always out there.

  • As a writer, that might goad you to keep writing. You’re not doing it for you – it’s for the people who need that story.
  • As a reader/viewer, remember to try some new stuff, regularly and not just on the screen. Just as your own tale keeps growing, so others are sharing theirs for you to enjoy.

And as the changing depiction of Morgan showed how “society” (the story writers and publishers, reflecting an increasingly male-led world) viewed women who had power, so our stories reflect the way we want our world to be, and how it is. Which means, ultimately, that if we don’t say it, publish it, produce it, watch or read it, it canot be heard. 

For those who like delving deeper in such things, both TV Tropes and the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Fable Index can lose you several hours down the rabbit holes of linking themes, motifs, lessons and characters….Just remember to come back!