Sunday, 30 May 2010

Playing Devil's Advocate

"The novelist, afraid his ideas may be foolish, slyly puts them in the mouth of some other fool and reserves the right to disavow them." - Diane Johnson, NY Times Book Review, 1979.

I realised many years ago, when someone suggested that writers 'play God' with their characters, that's it's actually nothing like that. As screenwriters, certainly, we play Devil's Advocate, which is far more mischievous.

We think of the worst things we can do to a character and then we turn the screw and watch them wriggle free, in as interesting and entertaining a way as possible all through Act Two. Thus, through adversity, overcoming obstacles and poor choices, and chained to a bad mistake from way back (or a poor decision/ character flaw/ fear about which they are in denial etc), they develop their characters and we get catharsis when they finally succeed.

It reminds me of a friend's friend who went into a church in New York, flung his arms in the air and shouted, "I've grown enough". He was tired of being told that every bad experience was a chance to 'grow.' Battered and bruised by life, he had decided he was certainly tall enough for some good things to start happening in his life. Now, his life, in the hands of a kind screenwriter, deserved a happy ending.

And that's why people love happy endings in films, or endings where everything is resolved. It's completion, one of the four psychological reasons people go to films. We never get to 'complete' our lives; we're dead by then, but in films we can enjoy the illusion.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Getting work done: the nine-day technique

Writers are always being asked how many hours they work, if they sit at the desk from nine to five or allow themselves to skive off from time to time. (We do, it's what keeps us slightly sane. Sometimes.)

Every writer has to find the technique that works for him or her. One writer I've heard of straps himself to his seat. That way, if tempted to move, the belt restrains him and he decides to do a little bit more work first.

The playwright Bernard Farrell once told me he wrote for the same 9-5 hours he'd got used to when he worked for a ferry company. But he added that yes, he was still working when he walked the dog for hours on the beach or gazed out the window.

Creativity is an unpredictable master and sometimes it is a matter of making yourself write, even if you don't like the material you write because it's a craft and you learn by doing.

Which brings me to my technique for getting work done. I don't work 9-5, I don't have any set routine; I often works nights, weekends, sneak into the office when everyone's quiet or occupied; I frequently burn food because I've snatched a few minutes... but the main thing that has helped me get work done in the last year is my nine day writing cycle.

I was always told that a little knowledge was a dangerous thing... it's not true. it is a very useful thing, even if not useful in the way the knowledge itself was intended, and especially if dipped in dark chocolate and marshmallows and left in the fridge for half an hour. (Or maybe I'm thinking of strawberries?)

I have a friend who is studying to be a Shamen but when we shared a house, she introduced me to a smattering of numerology. The one part that stuck is the idea that you can reduce every day to a number between 1-9 - today being the 25th of May, 2010 = 2 + 5 + 5 + 2 + 1, ie a '6'.

Now 6 days are great for family, for meetings, for interaction of any kind. But that's all I remember about 6. I'm sure there are whole websites devoted to '6'. I've a huge number of them in my date of birth and my mobile number so I feel a certain affection for '6', regardless of the Devil trying to hog them all.

And here's the gist that I remember about the value of the days. 1 - good for starting things/ ideas/ adventures/ travel etc; 2 - good for finding the person/ partner/ mentor/ producer/ director that can help you achieve your idea; 3 - communication and creativity; 4 - hard work and graft, not always easy but if you knuckle down, you get a huge amount done on a '4' day.

5 - conflict and confrontation; a bit like the second act of a feature script. Doesn't mean you will fight with someone or fall out over a contract but it means you could, so be on guard, be calm, be prepared. 6, you know. 7 is for wisdom, learning, gaining knowledge; 8 for chasing what's owed to you/ business stuff; and 9 for completion.

And that's the important bit. I give myself cycles of nine days, always ending whatever work I've set myself on that '9' days. It's better than giving yourself a week because you can still, mostly, take weekends off.

And it's a realistic span of days, given commitments and urgent work that leaps onto your lap making mewling sounds. It's not too long and it's not too short.

And, of course, it's a deadline, even if it's self imposed. Especially if the cash incentive isn't there. When it's done, you can tackles something else, or a different part of the same project so you're not tying yourself down to an endless avenue of work on any particular project/ phase of a project, so you keep your mind fresh and motivated.

And sometimes, when a month turns into the next, you get a really long 'nine' days because the last days of one month can go all the way from 1 to 8 and the first date of the new month, because the month has changed, may be 1. So you get to continue that cycle until you hit a 9.

I've found it works anyway.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Dealing with Meetings

I was given great advice years ago. Always write down your notes after a meeting with producers and directors saying what was agreed and email it back to them so they can verify that this is what they want or tell you it isn't.

I've discovered to my cost that when you forget to do this, there's no-one to blame when misinterpretations, misunderstandings and frustration ensue.

But even worse than this is when you're the last to know there's a problem. When you, the writer, believe everything is going smoothly. When you believe a project is progressing well only to be told, unexpectedly, that it isn't. It can destroy your confidence, hamper your ability to do the job and leave you reeling for days. Nobody likes to get it wrong.

Yet another issue, that perhaps the first par's advice would fix, is working with people who 'sort of' know what they want but will only recognise it when it's in front of them.

It makes rewriting tortuous as the writer attempts over and over to interpret what is needed and satisfy everyone. Sometimes it's just not possible and you have to pull your tail between your legs and run for the hills, blaspheming or weeping loudly.

Why are we writers again?

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Why creativity should be nurtured

From the TED lectures - they can be really fascinating and moving and stirring sometimes! Sir Ken Robinson makes an entertaining and profoundly moving case for creating an education system that nurtures (rather than undermines) creativity.

Monday, 17 May 2010


Roger Moore is returning to the screen in a film called Connemara Days to be made in the west of Ireland this Autumn. It’s a love story running parallel with the making of The Quiet Man, apparently his favourite film of all time. It's being produced by Causeway Pictures.

All being well, I’m lined up to script edit it. The added bonus is that when the producers receive cash to make Connemara Days, they can then pay me to write another feature for them which will be made up North next year.

So far, for the latter project, there’s an exciting director tied in and I believe Hubbard have signed up to do the casting. As a result, there were some interesting names mentioned for the cast when we were developing it last year.

No role yet mentioned for Pettigrew the snail, despite her extensive list of hits such as Honey, I Found a Kid in the Long Grass and Snailspray the Musical.

Connemara Days is the first project to be funded by the the Luxembourg-managed / UK-administered Red Carpet Film Fund, which Sir Roger Moore has joined as Chairman. The Board also includes visual effects maestro Ilyas Kaduji (Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia), producer Richard Holmes (Waking Ned, Shooting Fish), production executive Terry Bamber (Quantum of Solace, Gullivers Travels), and respected film lawyer Richard Moxon.

Principle photography is due to begin - ash cloud willing - in late August, followed by studio work in Belfast, with the support of Failte Ireland, Section 481 and Irish equity. Kevin Connor will direct and the cast includes Sarah Bolger, Stacy Keach, Geraldine Chaplin, Judy Cornwell and Roger Moore himself.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

A Fresh Gale and Cold Chicken: on cuts and motivational deadlines

Met with Patrick Sutton of Smock Alley Theatre today and we’ve settled, provisionally, on the week of June 21st to hold the rehearsed reading of my play on Farquhar in The Boy’s School, Smock Alley. It’s a fantastic and unusual venue; a version of theatre in the round where the viewing area is a ramp that ascends around the space several times. It almost feels as if you’re observing a play from the terraces of a tenement building in the 17th century.

Smock Alley is where Farquhar performed before he went on to become the most popular Restoration playwright based in London. It’s also where he nearly stabbed a fellow actor to death on stage but more of that on the night!

Since arranging last week to meet Patrick, I’ve re-written the first act, based on our at-home reading in March. It’s fantastic to be back under its 17th century skin, to be bawdy and bold as well as poignant and witty! Oh and keep the narrative and all the threads flowing freely.

Of course, when I type it all into the computer, some of it will work and some of it will be far less exciting than it appeared when I was scribbling in the margins, but it’s good to have something tangible to put in. Deadlines are fantastic, if occasionally vicious, motivators.

I have agreed to cut the play down from a full length one-man show (we were aiming to follow Simon Callow’s footsteps with his Dickens show) to one hour 15 max. A tall order, but then haven’t I spent the last month crafting seven minutes scripts?!

In some ways, it feels really refreshing. I have been given the freedom to cut everything that isn’t essential, gripping and entertaining... But then I haven’t sat down to try and do this yet, so the pain threshold hasn’t yet been breached.

Since I have a gut feeling the script currently runs close to 100 mins... this means cutting at least 25%. I put the expected pain on a par with the extraction of one, possibly two wisdom teeth and the squashing of seven particularly healthy and shiny cockroaches with my bare feet on a tiled floor in the dark.

It may be a case of keeping two drafts so I don’t feel I’m abandoning favourite sections or speeches. I’m just putting them aside.

But I can’t wait to start. I’ve had a chat with Pettigrew, the Creature of Small Stature, Minimal Dialogue and Varicoloured Shell. She has agreed to assist. The idea is I place her on the script and she’ll mark what needs to go with a gentle slime trail.

Friday, 7 May 2010

PUNKY, Pettigrew the snail and the challenge of writing for pre-schoolers

The snail Pettigrew, is behaving herself. She now has a nice shimmer of purple (nail varnish) and sunset kiss (lip gloss) on her shell and seems to be adapting well to life in a flowerpot.

That the selfsame flowerpot got flooded at the weekend while my daughter was at cub camp and despite my being given strict instructions on The Care of Snail Farm While I’m Away this doesn’t seem to have fazed either it or my daughter. She just shook it out, touched up its shell and put it in another pot. Makes me wonder what these poor snails did in a previous life.

Meanwhile, I’m adapting to Punky. Writing for 3-6 year-olds is a challenge. Yes, we are aiming at the top of that age range but I’m not an animator and this, I’m learning, is a big disadvantage when writing for this target group.

For a start, stories have to be simple, which is good. (Forgetting for now the great stories that worked when Punky was a longer form for an older age group. Muffled sob stage left). In addition, this age group tend to listen more than watch, so everything important has to be said as well as shown, in case they miss it. So I’m writing lines that in any other form would be redundant and ‘on the nose’. But they work.

Events have to be perfectly linear. If Punky decides to do something – aloud – then she does it and then we have to see the result in the next scene. There’s no opportunity to let several events build up and bring everything together in a climax. It has to be cause and effect every step of the way or they’ll miss it and it won’t make sense.

Transitions are another one. Time passing, location hops that an older audience would comprehend, just don’t work. For example, if a character is upstairs, they can’t then be downstairs in the next scene. Either we see them leave the room and head down or, if there is a significant change in time, we have a transition. This means, we show time passing.

Only we can’t have anything written because this is for children aged 3-6. So we have the classics of a sun moving across a sky, a clock's hands spinning or, ideally, someone going to bed and waking up but that takes longer.

Oh and scenes are more static, of course. At its simplest, every angle is a different drawing. You can’t turn the camera around and look upstairs so the less of this that is needed, the better.

Scene set-ups need a visual clarity too. You can’t simply have


The alarm goes off, startling Punky. Her hand reaches out to turn it off.

You have to say at the top of the scene that Punky is in bed, not assume they will know. This comes down to not being an animator. If I was, I’d think in terms of the visual set up and what we need to see drawn, and then create the flow of the scene from this. One suggestion has been to make a little set and move the characters around to give myself a sense of what the animators need to see on the page. Everything they need to draw for the scene to work has to be spelt out at the very top of the written scene.

So the word now is that we really only have story room for Punky and her dog; yes, there are other characters but the focus has to be her point of view. Insistently so. Because this is what makes it original. It is also what I always intended for the series. It’s the old adage – let your main character drive the story.

So, at its most basic, I am being driven by Punky back to the root and core of all storytelling and all screenwriting.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

On Feedback; Part 2: Making it work for you

When someone takes the time to read a script, their feedback is a gift and greatly appreciated. That they go to the trouble to try to help you see where, for them, the problems lie, is generous and immensely useful, even when you don’t agree with all the points. That these points have been raised may be a clue to other problematic issues that lie underneath the story.

But it is their perspective and if they are not a professional script reader or consultant – and sometimes even if they are and have become a little jaded – they may not find your type of story compelling and then find it hard to give you constructive feedback. If you're really unlucky they could just be in a bad mood or alternatively see a way of telling the

My mother’s only comment, over 20 years of reading my output, was always along the lines of well, you certainly can write dialogue and you write great characters, but couldn’t you write something cheerful?

I did, eventually. It was a rom-com built out of cream cakes called Tasty Morsels and was produced as an afternoon play by BBC4 in 2001. The research was fun.

But you have put a huge amount of time into your script; you’re so close even the trees look edible and the squirrels have started talking back in Japanese. So you need all the constructive feedback you can get and you really, really want to make it work this time. This is the point when you can blindly accept other people's feedback and end up with a script you neither like nor ever intended to write and that sort of script pleases no-one.

So, before you re-write, type up all the notes your readers have made and let them sit. Ponder the points raised. Ponder what you wanted your story to say, to be about, to feel like for an audience. Think about who your audience is and why the questions were raised.

Only then, when you’ve been away long enough from your script for it to feel fresh again, read it through. Find the time and space to do it without interruption. Don’t rewrite individual scenes at this stage. If compelling lines/ scenes/ fixes come to you during this process, write them down somewhere separately but for this first read-through, you need to try to feel the emotional flow of the entire story.

Then sit back and work out what isn’t working for you.

Make note of when you left the desk to make a cup of tea. Is that where the problem lies? Where you lost interest? Do all the questions come back to a story starting too late or too soon, a character or characters that aren’t fully formed or aren’t fully realised on the page? A plot twist that is pulling you away from your original intention as a storyteller of this tale?

Compare your own notes with your feedback notes and brainstorm what might solve the issues raised.

By the time you return to the script to rewrite, you should know what you want to achieve and how to go about it.