The Awful Art of Unwriting

The Awful Art of Unwriting

[stories] squareI’m not entirely sure why but er, um, I haven’t written a speculative  screenplay (plays, I have done) for err, um, five years. There you go. I have no more secrets.

What the merry heave-ho have I been doing? ‘Cos I’m pretty sure I call myself a writer a lot of the time.

There’s been some very masterly prevarication going on*; so good, I didn’t really see it. I mean, I’ve been busy doing writerly things, including theatre script-writing. The wise counsel of script consultant Philip Shelley last week made me blush: “Before all else, get yourself a new calling card script.” That’s what I’m working on at the mo (this is my break after a 5h stint, I promise!)

But I’m here ‘cos I wanted to show you how EASY it is not to write your new spec script, day after day…for a very long time indeed, without even noticing.

Here’s Gill’s Blush-Making Guide to Not Being an Unwriter:

  1. A great theatre show might get your work some attention from screen professionals, BUT it isn’t a screenplay
  2. Doing courses and reading experts’ blogs are not writing your screenplay
  3. Treatments are not your screenplay
  4. Teaching writing isn’t
  5. Housework CERTAINLY isn’t (tho’ parenting, love, loss and life all do help)

These are all things you rightly want (scripts onstage, networking, learning craft, working with writers, a clean home & a balanced life). They are ALL GOOD. But I did them AND I AIN’T GOT NO SCREENPLAY. And I do very much want to write – er – screenplays.

So, don’t let those other things eat up your screenplay-writing time. Just throw them some nuggets if you must…

JKR housework

* Here’s the answer to how my five years got eaten. I’ve writ a very big play about “quantum mechanics ‘n’ life ‘n’ shit”, crowdfunded £2,000 R&D for it (thank you, again!); worked in Whitehall for a year (and various other clients the rest of the time); writ & run GLITTER KNICKERS (see earlier posts if you managed somehow to miss that one); escaped a Helen Archer-style scenario (you either get that or you don’t) & raised a 2,3,4 and 5 year old (the same human, in ever-changing form). I’ve done well in competitions, written 3 film treatments, run a writers’ group, had a few smaller shows on of existing work, written & pitched several treatments and done lots of reading about writing. And bought a house. So that’s the to-do list done. Now it’s time for the er…what did I come in here for?

Never quiet; always learning

Never quiet; always learning

Gosh – the sediment from Glitter Knickers has just about settled on the bottom of the jar.  The feedback just flowed in – thank you very much indeed, everyone – and in the next couple of weeks, it’s my job to package that up, with a whole load of metrics for The Next Stage. Watch this space.

Meanwhile, paid communications jobs have come in (yippee!) and I’ve just writ my first short film script. It’s an excellent discipline – I’m very much still wearing armbands. If you’ve met me, you’ll appreciate that verbal economy is not always my forte. I’m now a big fan of image boards, drawing out comic strips (as I did for Glitter Knickers) and running away from spoken words.

Y Grace bookI’ve also polished off a couple of TV treatments and had some very handy feedback on them. To make them/ others they best they can be, I’ve also  bought myself a new book (yes, that’s it in the pic). It’s stuff from the brain of Yvonne Grace, a TV guru of great experience who can be found here and if you’re also on facebook, here.

Last, my Jan – April season leading the Rondo Writers’ Group has just ended, with scripts from four of the writers heading into a professionally performed & produced show at Bath’s Rondo Theatre. If you’re local and have the wit to enjoy new writing (and believe me, the scripts, cast & director are great) you can catch this on 4-7 May, here! If you make it, let me know!

 

Unravelling security blankets you didn’t know you had

Unravelling security blankets you didn’t know you had

I had a horrible realisation the other day.

comfort zone and creativityI haven’t had a show on stage for a year (the superb tidy carnage took ‘Passion’ to Aberdeen Dance Live! last October) and I’ve had no new work on-stage since a personal train crash in Jan ’13. Sure, there’s been treatments, development courses, drafts and workshopping, but no output. Nothing new for an audience. And if what we do as writers is to have any meaning whatsoever, it’s got to have an audience.

So – avanti! I’ve taken a story I love that’s in feature film treatment form and I’m doing ten pages a day. I’m writing the script. No dosh, no competition deadline (save my own 10pp rule), but the vital incentive of having a new script, and a spec feature script at that.

Sure, I’ve got questions about my work since “the train crash” – but not doubts. I’m learning new stuff and I’m not sticking to an old formula that seemed to get stuff on stage. This is good. And the quantum script reached the final of the Soho’s Verity Bargate (but not the shortlist of the top 2%). So something’s going right with the scripts, it’s just taking me so bloody long to write them (the first draft of my first successful play took me two weeks to write; the quantum script of ’13-14 took about a year, end to end.)

And then I realised: I got scared! I got scared in life and I got scared in writing. Never under-estimate the impact of a writer’s daily life on their work. When I’ve been happy, I’ve got work out. It just flowed. But the last three years (train crash, escape, slow recovery) mean the work has been pained, tortuous and – frankly – constipated!

I’ve clung to the comfort blanket of treatments, development, rewrites, proposals and stopped myself from making new stuff. Be gone, creative-hoovers. I’m going to take ideas, turn them into treatments, those into scripts and THOSE are going to get themselves in front of makers who might, if I’m lucky, help me get them to audiences.  No more getting stuck on the stepping stone in the middle of the river – onwards!

Good, better, best

Good, better, best

V chuffed to report that “Hard Men’, my pilot show script, developed through last year’s Channel 4’s 4Screenwriting programme, has got through the quarter-finals of the Screenwriting Goldmine Awards 2013.

It made for a lovely afternoon, with writers galore getting in touch to check that I knew! Just goes to show what a community we are.

I’ve also been reading for Theatre Royal Bath’s Nova playwriting summer school, supported by their Engage programme for artists in the community. This has been a great experience, following not too far on the heels of reading for Butterfly Psyche / Rondo Theatre’s “Making Trouble” competition.

Reading other people’s scripts is a great learning experience. I recognise my own habits, particularly in writers who are just starting out. It’s like an experienced seamstress spotting the tell-tale stitching of someone starting out (and knowing her own stitching habits are glaringly obvious to her own teachers).

This isn’t always the case; and it doesn’t mean that we all have the same “beginner traits” by any means. Just that it made me smile to read/hear echoes of things I now realise I used to do. Things that are so subtle they might not even have a name; things that, if carelessly addressed in the reader’s report, could really put someone off moving to the next draft.

I remembered and tried to emulate the most helpful feedback my scripts had been given, stuffed with lines like, “the X raises intriguing questions that the writer could have more fun in answering…”, or , “the writer doesn’t do themselves justice by rushing the last few scenes – it would be worth really exploring their dramatic potential without worrying at this stage about running times.” IE, although these are made up, you feel the gentle support and encouragement of someone who wants your script to succeed and can see some ways in which it might.

Needless to say, I’ve had my share of feedback that is less helpful than this: “I only kept reading as a favour,” being one of my favourites. Thankfully, a few years into this writing lark, I’ve realised that every reader is different and that their judgement and taste is wholly subjective. The script that was only completed “as a favour” reached the top of one national theatre’s reject pile – perhaps that’s a B+, as opposed to the FAIL of the earlier critic. And that’s fine.

Drama is about horses for courses; it is subjective by its very nature. The best we can do is to do our personal best and hope that it chimes with someone, somewhere.

To return to my own competition entry, I know where ‘Hard Men’ falls down. I’m just hoping my stitching is better than I think it is…

Image

Gnash, gobble, splat: the sounds of a new script hitting the genre wall

Gnash, gobble, splat: the sounds of a new script hitting the genre wall

It is a fine thing to get the teeth into a new script. Delicious, clean pages. Fresh bodies waiting to spurt, the splatter marks on the walls giving us the story to decipher, like CSIs of dramatic fiction. Does that make the writer a bitey vampire or besplattered detective?

Either way – and I suspect it’s a bit of both – it feels very good to be back at the clean page after several months of personal busy-ness, rewrites and pitches.

I’ve just completed draft 1 of a short monologue which might prove the basis of a character with much more to give, and in the back room of Cranium Kirk, I’m fermenting what I hope will become a feisty wee brew if I can only work out what kind of bottle, keg or test tube to store it in.

This slightly tortured vessel metaphor is my way of handling my current genre musings. I have An Idea and how best to present it is giving me pause for thought.

In Robert McKee’s inspirational how-to bible, ‘Story’, he says you should always write in the genre you love: “every time you read your script, it should excite you.” Fine advice. Thing is, I love many genres.

So how to work out which genre is most true to your story idea? Should it be deadly serious? Wryly funny? Bitter-sweet rom-com? Thriller or action?

Script doctor John Truby gives some good advice:

“When you look at your premise, you can usually imagine a basic action that the hero would take throughout the story. For example, is the hero essentially a fighter (Action), a lover (Love), an enforcer or criminal (Crime), an endangered investigator (Thriller) or a victim (Horror)? […]

“Each [genre] asks a different central question or force the hero to make a crucial decision. The key question in thrillers: Is your suspicion justified? In comedy: do you lie or show your true self? In action: do you choose freedom or life? In fantasy: how do you live with style and freedom? In detective stories: who is guilty and who is innocent?”

In the case of my own early-days idea, I know these are the questions I have to examine, that I have to mine down to discover the story’s true kernel. As Truby points out on the Raindance site, “The secret to choosing the right genres is buried in the story idea itself.”

And when you’ve done that, mastered the beats of the genre, hit each one – just make sure you’ve transcended your chosen genre (or genre combo) to produce something completely original.

I’m looking forward to this….

 

Thanks

Thanks

Image2012. Not what I thought at all, interestingly. I’m clearing up the office, prepping for an exciting year ahead, and putting old posters, reviews and script notes in their proper place (this only happens once a year).

I don’t like the weekend papers at this time of year – that “reviewing” thing, even dressed up as Hogmanay quizzes, just makes me a bit impatient. Hmm; I’ll figure that one out another time!

But – and did you know this? – people who regularly give thanks tend to be happier and live longer.  So in the spirit of enlightened self-interest, here’s some thanks on the writing front.

A huge thank you to Philip Shelley and Channel 4 for this year’s 4Screenwriting. Inspirational, eye-opening, craft-stretching. Name-check to my script ed, BBC Drama’s highly talented Paul Gilbert. It was like playing chess with a kindly grandfather (except he’s younger than me).  And through these patient and generous people, further big-ups to BBC Writers’ Room‘s Rachelle Constant for her encouragement, and my agent at Berlin Associates, Julia Wyatt, for whose enthusiasm and just “getting me” I can’t be grateful enough!

For a great commission for Theatre Royal Bath’s Shakespeare Unplugged Festival, Jill Bennett at TRB’s Engage programme, the 25-strong youth & community cast and director Shane Morgan, for ‘Away With The Fairies’, Eleanor Fogg and the Broohas: Meg Whelan, Kirsty Cox and Jasmine Darke, as well as the Alma Tavern Theatre. For Passion (mark 1b), Annabelle Wigoder at Bee Stung, The Old Red Lion, and of course Allie Butler and all at tidy carnage, who also get a big credit for the weirdly great Black Barn in June.

Lastly, a solid, heart-felt thanks for support, kickings, encouragement, nudges and winks to a spectacular cadre of groups and individuals for advice, wisdom and reading! That means Tanuja Amarasuriya at Theatre Bristol, Sarah Dickenson & the reading team at the Soho, Alison Farina, friends at the Writers’ Forum at the Tobacco Factory, and Improbably for this year’s marathon Devoted & Disgruntled – an invaluable Thing.

Thank you, have a great 2013 and see you there!  

In a dark, dark house…

In a dark, dark house…

Did you do this rhyme at primary school? “In a dark, dark house, there’s a dark, dark, door. Through the dark, dark door, there’s a dark dark room. In the dark dark room, there’s a MONSTER!”

I’ve loved the creepy and the uncanny since I could read. And – in a relationship that keeps banging into odd, odd coincidences – I had a very exciting conversation with the smart, thoughtful director Alice Butler, from Tidy Carnage, about the dark and uncanny places in our latest project.

We have a creepy script that I developed at High Tide’s winter retreat in Suffolk, about a man, a barn, a machine and a girl. We have – gorgeous to discover – very similar imagination wallpaper: if what we can see of each others’ minds were pinterest walls, they’d be pretty alike (but with excellent new discoveries for each).

And it’s all growing into the LOST theatre space and showing 15-17 June. It’s going to be a very exciting month…