Monday, 29 March 2010

PUNKY, the new animated series

Started work on what is to be the template script for the series last week. It's a challenge. When conceived, pitched and sold, PUNKY was for 4-7 year-olds and there were going to be 13 x 11 minute episodes. Now it's for age 3-6 and there will be twenty episodes of 7 minutes.

This means I actually only have 6 minutes and 20 seconds, after credits and opening sequence, in which to tell my stories. Locations have been reduced from school and home to home and surrounds. Stories have to be far simpler and told at a more gentle pace. Everything is in the air, most of the stories I developed no longer work - too complicated - and I have to find a way to achieve what I set out to do on an entirely different canvas.

The wisdom now is that kids over six don't watch cartoons, hence the age change although we will not dumb it down and are aiming at the top end ie the 6 year-olds. Despite the fact that my child, nearly 11, adores them, as do a large portion of her friends. As do I. I suspect this opinion has come from America, from the policy and money-making machines that are the big corporations. In the UK there are 21 children's channels available now, mostly American.

But the first script is done now and I'm awaiting feedback. I suspect that while fun, it is still too busy for the new age group. Once it works, we should know what we want the show to look and sound like now. Trouble is that every book I can find on writing for animation talk about the longer versions of scripts and older age ranges. So, apart from watching too many cartoons in the early morning as research, it's guesswork and instinct. Wish me luck!!

Monday, 22 March 2010

Go Ahead, Dream

"Writing, like all creative expression, for all its struggle, represents in the end a kind of structured, organised, orchestrated dreaming. The writer’s most basic task – before tale, before character and dialogue – is to learn how to let himself dream in a free yet orderly fashion." - Richard Walter, screenwriter, prof screenwriting, UCLA.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Pinter on Writing

"When I cannot write, I feel alienated from myself".

Isn't it true? When you want to write, you need to write and yet you can't because you know the task is too big or the day is too sunny or there isn't enough time to get really into it.

Sometimes remembering this quote is enough to remind you that it will be worth it, that you will feel better, even if it feels like pulling teeth. And even if the words don't work this time, at least you will have written and you may have cleared out the rubbish to let the gems wriggle through the next time.

Mind you, he also said, when asked what was his work 'about', "The weasel under the drinking cabinet". Mainly because he was tired of being asked. And then had the joy/ frustration of seeing other writers and journalists and students trying to analyse exactly what he meant. He said, of making this comment, that it "... was a great mistake. It has now seemingly acquired a profound significance, and is seen to be a highly relevant and meaningful observation about my own work. But for me the remark meant precisely nothing."

Monday, 8 March 2010

The Writer’s (Secret) Dilemma

One of the aspects of being a writer that I used to find very disconcerting was the way I could detach just enough of myself to write about experiences I was having, even while suffering.

One instance is particularly vivid and I felt guilty about it for years. It was after my sister had died and I was in my house, alone and utterly distraught. She was the person with whom I had grown up and her death had been sudden and unexpected. Yet I found myself writing down what it felt like to be inside my grief, inside my body and my head, at that moment; it was such an overwhelming emotion and I couldn’t handle it and yet I tried to describe it on paper. I thought I must be the coldest fish in the sea, and yet the suffering was utterly, gut wrenchingly real.

But I’ve come to realise that this is what writers do. We capture and try to translate every experience, not always at the time or even near to the time they happen – sometimes it’s not possible for many reasons - but at some point we will write about it, if only for ourselves. It’s our way of understanding the world and of fulfilling our role as writers and living up to the demands of that gift. We didn’t ask for it. It’s part of who we are.

Today I found this quote that explains this all better than I can.

"Powers of observation beyond the normal imply extraordinary disinvolvement: or rather the double process, excessive preoccupation and identification with the lives of others, and at the same time a monstrous detachment... The tensions between standing apart and being fully involved: that is what makes a writer." – Nadine Gordimer, Introduction, Selected Stories.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Cold Chicken etc, The Farquhar Play part two

We read through the second act of Cold Chicken and a Fresh Gale this afternoon. Lovely experience, far more fun, the momentum really beginning to build up under the script as we moved towards finishing what is the first full read through of the script.

It felt pretty emotional, because the character, George Farquhar, does live and breathe and suffer and laugh and it feels like I've always known this man, even though he died in 1707. I can see it coming together and dancing about the stage. I can feel that hunger to bring it alive, as does Stephen who talks of 'when' we stage it, rather than 'if'.

I've started to be more hands on in suggesting how I imagine sections or speeches or scenes might run and really enjoying it. It's more than 20 years since I directed a play and there's a little itch in the palm of my hands to start moving and blocking this out, to play with various ways of using the audience and the character and the props...

I won't be the director when it heads onto stage but for this reading, it's just Stephen and myself so I can bring whatever I can to the table. Some of it will work and some won't but at this stage, he is still a character I have created. I must know him better than anyone else!

But what is great about working like this with Stephen is that he brings a huge amount of emotion and understanding of the character to the lines I've written. And if there are parts I comment upon, by the time I have clarified or elaborated on some part of it, and sometimes as much for myself as for the interpretation of the script, I can see what's missing on the page. It might be as simple as a bit of clarification, a single stage direction, the addition of a 'beat' that adds weight to what come next or what came before or some way to bring out what lies buried under the words.

I think it was Scott Fitzgerald who said 90% of writing is swimming underwater.

But isn't it fantastic when you come up for air and discover how far you've gone - and see how interesting the scenery has become!

But what also becomes clear, from reading it like this, scene by scene, is whether the momentum and the pace work; if the character progresses in the way I want him to for maximum emotional and dramatic effect. Sometimes characters run before they should be walking or forget how to walk when I want them to be able to run in two scenes time.

Now I have the opportunity to digest the lessons of the read through and, having tested the script, to take the play apart in safety, experiment, brainstorm, love it a little more, try not to throw out stuff that will work with the stuff that just isn't good enough, and then put the limbs back in place.

So I'm putting the script aside to let it all germinate. Just for a little bit. Like I'm giving George a chance to drink a few flagons of wine and slumber. He worked hard this afternoon!

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Tough Love for writers

Not sure who passed this gem on but it’s like a shock treatment in quote form to warn us writers to avoid dallying with thinking about writing, writing lists of writing tasks and research for writing projects, and - my latest sin - reading books about writing!

The American novelist Harry Sinclair Lewis was supposed to deliver an hour-long lecture to a group of college students who planned to be writers. He apparently opened his talk with a question: "How many of you really intend to be writers?"

All hands went up. "In that case," said Lewis, "my advice to you is to go home and write." With that, he left. (Bits & Pieces - March 1997; Economics Press)

80 years ago, Sinclair lewis was the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, "for his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humor, new types of characters." According to Wikepedia, his writing is known for insightful and critical views of American society and capitalist values, as well as their strong characterizations of modern working women.

Friday, 5 March 2010


For those of you who don't know, PUNKY is an animation series I developed in 2007/8 with help from the Irish Film Board. A great idea, with a feisty world of characters and some challenging storylines, it proved a contentious and difficult task to pull it into what the industry would regard as an animation series.

But I got there. Initially, I leant on the assistance of Barbara Slade (ex head writer of Rugrats) but briefly since development funding doesn't allow you to do that for very long if you actually want to live while you create your masterpiece.

That was an interesting process. Coming from a completely different perspective of working on series that were highly successful, highly American and highly saleable, Barbara's approach was a fantastic learning curve. However, I ended up with a treatment for a series that was professional, possibly commercial and for which I no longer felt I could write a single story.

Introduce Aidan Hickey, one of Ireland's longest serving animator and animation writer. Invaluable advice, freely given and full of encouragement and Punky raised her head above the parapet again.

This time Monster Animation were interested and by last October, we had, at the second attempt, received funding from the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (now the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland) and by late last year, the contracts were signed.

Meanwhile, being a spirited creation, Punky went to various animation and kids' tv markets, gathering "curious interest". and has just returned from Kidscreen in NY with what hopes to be more concrete interest in showing the series. Eventually.

So the process is about to begin. Only now the series is for 3-6 year olds because broadcasters don't believe any child over 6 watches cartoons. Which is palpable madness. Hell, I love cartoons; it was the only thing I watched with my father right after the six o'clock news. (Or was it before?) My daughter and her friends watch cartoons on telly and on the computer and they're all around the 11 year mark. Some of them are fantastic and fun and, if you're let, you can do things with a cast of animated characters that is impossible in the real world. That's the fun and delight of it!

But that's how it goes. And since an 11 minute episode (they will probably now have to be 7 minutes) takes a full animation team two weeks to animate, you can't really stand on your high horse of arrogance and say you're wrong. Nor do you want to step away from characters and a world you've poured so much heart, soul, imagination and sheer graft into getting, step by painful and sometimes exhilarating step, closer to becoming a reality.

Because that's the thing with screenwriting.

It's nothing on the page, no matter how good or original or brave. It has to be made.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Oscar nominated scripts

Just got this link from the Irish Playwrights and Screenwriters Guild e-newsletter. You can read scripts for A Serious Man, Up and others... on the Raindance site.

Here's the link:

It seems an interesting site, though I haven't had a chance to explore it yet.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Cold Chicken and a Fresh Gale

We had the first read through on Monday afternoon of the first draft of my new play, Cold Chicken and A fresh Gale. It's a one man piece, full-length, and the actor is Stephen Bradley from Derry, whose currently acting in Hamlet in the Helix. The idea is to run a Rehearsed Reading in Smock Alley in late April/ early May.

It's a strange experience hearing a play read aloud for the first time. Sometimes, as the writer, you feel an itch to grab it from the actors and read it yourself. You know the voice, the nuances, the tone. Sometimes the actors just do not sound as you imagined. They don't catch the meaning you intended in certain lines, they read too fast or too slow, they make funny bits sound onerous and fly through the thoughtful bits with a levity they don't deserve.

But you re-tune your expectations, appreciate the knowledge they are bringing to it as performers and the knowledge you gain from hearing it read. Sometimes, when they hear what you intended, a piece that wasn't working suddenly does.

So, if nuances are missed, if the tone or the language is misinterpreted, if parts feel slow and faded, maybe it's the writing that's at fault because, at this point, that's all you are in charge of. And if the actors are not ultimately going to perform the piece, they are doing it so you can hear the words and find the parts that work and the parts that don't. It's a huge honour.

Fortunately, this was one of the good experiences. Stephen hails from Derry, as did my subject, the restoration playwright George Farquhar (The Recruiting Officer). He has always felt a deep affinity for him and therefore brings genuine passion to the script. He wants to inhabit this man's skin and bones, if only for a couple of hours a night.

I sit at the head of the table - oh, such authority! - and read the directions. We stop after every scene and talk it through. To run through one act of the play takes nearly 2 hours. We end up shattered but exhilarated because we feel it works, mostly.

I know things are going well when I sit waiting for the play to continue and forget that I'm meant to be reading the directions; I forget I'm in my kitchen and the heaters have just gone off.

It was fascinating to hear the dialogue read in the accent that Farquhar would have had. I actually have no recollection of writing some of this play - this draft goes back over a year - but whoever wrote it, at certain moments, was a hell of a writer!

But there were parts that lacked energy, scenes that seemed overlong, blocks of dialogue that gave information too easily or simply weren't entertaining enough. The opening scene worked fine in my head, but read now, it feels too slow to start the play with. Some scenes make me want to sing because they sound and feel glorious; others need fine tuning, or to have a bit of fun injected into them although possibly not if we were to use the audience actively.

So there is work to be done.

Some of the parts that didn't work can be put down to the fact that we were sitting at a table and it was the first complete read through. Once you stand a play up and move it around, once you can direct the actor and really work with a script, you can explore the underbelly of each scene, each fragment of speech; you find the nuances and humour and colour that will make the script leap into life.

The great thing is that now I have a voice to work with, and a provisional date by which we need to have it prepared for an audience of our theatrical peers.

So I want it all to leap off the page. No matter who reads it.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The new novel - a difficult and trying birth!

Since nobody ever said this, I wonder how we come by the notion that writing should get easier with practice! Maybe it's a throwback to primary school when we were actually learning to write. Or was it an idea planted by Barbara Cartland, resplendent in pink chiffon lying on her chaise longue dictating to her secretary.

I've three completed books (two fiction, one non-) - unpublished, there's the rub - and yet this new one is mewling and wriggling and kicking its little heels. I'm wondering if this is the difficulty

a) of trying to write another book when you know the others are glaring down from a top shelf; I'd only send one of them out ever again)

b) trying to write an amusing/ witty/ entertaining book or

c) because it is based on some things I cannot hide that actually happened, ie my child. (Who is masquerading a bug and curled up on the sofa writing her own novel. She's only 10; she doesn't 'get' writer's block yet.)

I'm desperately moving it further and further from any resemblance to people I knew and trying to make everything hold together far more than it did in real life. (That was messy. Fun, but messy. The book, instead is simply messy. Which means my house is now supremely tidy and well cleaned and there remain only about 12 of the hundred (very) odd cobwebs that were there before I started rewriting the first draft.)

And given the whole wood/ trees analogy (being too close to the trees, being chased by crazed woodcutters wearing the heads of wolves and playing for days with cute furry little meercats that have set up home at the base of the oldest Oak; yes, it is an unusual forest), I have to plough on to get to another draft.

This means ferreting through all the handwritten edits and scraps of plot and story and dialogue that have come since the first draft was finished and without which, I will never know if the whole thing actually works. On any level.

Next time it will be PURE fiction.

Or impure. All in all, I think that would be far more fun!