Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Lock-in Day

I have to admit that I approached the lock-in day with trepidation. A whole day at the Arts Centre locked into a room with my fellow writers and also a 1-1 tutorial with Sarah Woods and Sian Summers to be grilled on the final idea pitch. Also a lock-in that doesn't involve alcohol. Also aren't there health and safety guidelines about locking a group of writers in a room together?

We'd been asked expand on our two page pitch to a fuller document to send in advance and then answer questions on it. I didn't manage to get mine as completed as I would have liked. I got most of the story down though and two of the characters break downs done and then by the Saturday session I'd got all the characters apart from two down. The antogonist eludes me slightly and in fact he still does. He's a bit foggy still but I'm getting closer to him I think. Also until the morning of the lock-in my TV journalist had eluded me, though on the morning of the lock in I watched a BBC news report on divorce stats and suddenly Pauline became clear though her name is now completely wrong.

My tutorial session was great, lots of queries that forced me to clarify things, it was suggested I should explore farce - and funnily enough I've just started to read One Man, Two Guvnors. In a happy trip through of coincidences that seem serendipitous I spotted this discussion

I have no idea what the farce formula will entail, how it will strengthen or indeed box-in my play. But I look forward to exploring farce over Xmas. As I've got my parents with me for Xmas there is already a huge potential for farce especially as my living room has two entrances and my dad is partially deaf!

I came away from the tutorial feeling confident - but that I had a mountain of trailing strings to tie together.

After the morning tutorial I spent the day focusing on plotting and moving the story as well as trying to find the undercurrents. Basically I played with post-it notes for about an hour. Post-it note work is not to be taken lightly or mocked, a hell of a lot can be achieved with precise placing, maneouvering and colour coding schemes. By the end of the day I had a pretty good idea of the whole play and worked out what the play is about which is a pretty useful thing to do ahead of starting to write.

Now all that's left to do is write the whole thing by 6th February.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Spread The Word 5

In preperation for the final session we were asked to prepare a pitch to share with everyone.

Pitch Questions
List the characters and say a little about them.
An outline of the story and plot
Themes of the play?
What is the play about?
Why do you want to write it?
Why is it important to write this play now?
What do you want your audience to take from it?

In the session though we paired up and pitched our ideas to our partner, we were then asked to query the pitch by exploring;
whether character or plot led the idea,
was there a lesser developed area of the idea,
ask 3 questions to clarify the idea,

Then we had to explain each other's idea which is an interesting process because it ends up drawing the idea into sharper focus. Listening back to my idea being explained by someone else provides a filter that seemed to define my idea and sharpen it back to me so that I could see flaws and also highlights. It goes without saying that we should explain our ideas to people to test them but also worth thinking about explaining your idea to one person then asking them to explain it to someone else. It's all well and good listening to someone say what they liked and didn't liked but in repeating the pitch back you will hear what excites them about the idea and what they leave out because it didn't catch their imagination. In fact I think my friends are likely to find that it becomes a new after dinner game at my house.

Spread The Word 4

We started the session with a Noel Grieg exercise on creating instant stories.

Three words – daffodil, cat, kitchen. Tell a story starting with the words, yesterday, using each of the words in the order given.

A few more variations;

Banana, football and telephone starting with I don’t understand why.

Computer, crocodile and toast starting with the phrase, today I would like.

Television, chicken and bed starting with, the world would be a better place.

Then we looked again at structures, talking about 3 act structures, classic five act structures which are still around but not seen very often. We talked about the conventional and obvious reason for breaking up a play into acts like change of location, or time – or the need for an interval. Also there are non-linear and disrupted structures. Within the acts are the scenes, where breaks need to be there for a reason not just because.

We then looked at action within the play and we were asked to think about our idea and describe it focusing on the action. Within that description we had to think about the conflict so something is happening but something is stopping it. Maybe it’s the main action of the protagonist but the antagonist is causing the conflict.

After a while of playing with sentences I came up with;

Hedydd is trying to get her therapy clients to talk dirty but a man with a gun wants them to come clean and admit the truth. I’ve tried to sum up the play lots of times but it was definitely easier to simply focus on the action of the play and the conflicts, and definitely good to find the “but” of the idea.

If we think about the action as how it plays into the structure then we have to think how to keep the action pushing the energy through the acts.

Moving swiftly on we started an exercise on finding the axis of the play. This is about finding the two opposing principles in the play that cause the conflict. eg justice/injustice. This is harder than you might think because though it might be easy to find two opposing words what you’re trying to do is to find two word that not only express the conflict of your play but express it in a way that is unique and also expresses why your idea is distinctive.

Then finally as we approached the end of the end of our sessions we talked about beginnings and endings. The beginning – get in there, explain what’s happening without exposition, set it all up then interrupt it all with an inciting incident.

And then endings – think of the ending as another beginning, the new status quo. Is
it a comedy or a tragedy? Does it need to end well or end in punishment.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Spread the Word 3

In the session we began to explore structure.

Branwen Davies the Associate Tutor began with a small exercise on sketching out what happens in a scene.

The idea in this exercise is to focus on drawing out plot and character without thinking too much about the actual dialogue.

We were asked to create 2 characters, to think about the relationship between the two characters, think about the setting or location of the characters. We had to think of a conflict so that they want something from each other. We were told that all dialogue had to use no more than 3 words.

I used my two main characters from the play that I’m developing for the Spread The Word project effectively for the opening scene in the play.

Richard has just found out that she is using personal details of their life in her stand up comedy routine, Hedydd needs him to leave as she is about to start a group therapy session with clients due to arrive any minute.

We were given ten minutes to write the scene and I came up with the following,

R: Feel so betrayed
H: Stop whingeing.
R: How could you?
H: Get out.
R: How could you?
H: What’s the problem?
R: The problem!
H: It’s just jokes.
R: My life.
H: Our life.
R: It’s private.
H: It’s your fault.
R: It’s wrong.
H: They’ll be here.
R: I’m not leaving.
H: Get out now
R: Never again.
H: If I want/
R: /it’s over/
H: it’s been over
R: I love you
H: I hate you.
R: I hate you
H: I hate myself.

It’s easy to see how you can quickly create an outline for a scene moving things forward using this technique.

We then looked at scenes that everyone had written based on the overheard dialogues. It was great to see the individual voices emerging, the differences in approach and the things that had attracted each writer to the different pieces of dialogue.

We then began to look at the idea of Time and Space in a play; open and closed time, open and closed space. We talked about the difference that these impose on plays, such as the energy created by closed time but complications that come with closing time or the expositional demands caused by choosing open. Not forgetting disrupted time - two different timescales and disconnected time - different storylines happening in same space.

I have a tendency to head for disrupted and disconnected but at the moment I'm trying to force myself into one space and time so I'm closing them both off and seeing what happens.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Spread The Word 2

For the second session Sarah Woods had asked us to bring along a couple of pages of overheard dialogue to share. This is a brilliant exercise and something that every writer should try to do regularly. It shouldn’t really be a surprise that if you want a lesson in writing real conversation then listen to real conversation.

Listen to the pattern and rhythms in the way people speak, listen to how accents inflect the sentences, listen for the words that are specific to an accent, listen to how real conversation undercuts, repeats, erupts and explodes.

The world around us is full of incredible characters with magical stories and all we had to do was listen. Well listen and frantically scribble into a notebook.

Studying real conversation the depth of a character leaps out within a few words . Sarah Woods told us, and I love this expression, -Characters are like a cat that’s been dragged through a hedge, it comes through with bits of history and situation attached to it. It’s what we all should be aiming to do, drag characters through a hedge.

We looked closely at how often real speech is littered with repetitions. Repetition can be used for humour and for fear. The rule for repetition is repeating something 3times builds an idea but if we repeat something 5 times it’s a sign of madness.
Real conversation though can be confusing, creating dialogue is about finding the balance between creating real dialogue that immediately brings a character to life and clarifying the situation.

It was also clear to see that people don’t just speak, in real conversation we are motivated to speak for a reason. We should find the reason for a character to speak and not just force them, in the same way we shouldn’t force words into their mouth for the sake of exposition. How often do you think, that character wouldn’t say that?

We played a character creation game. We created a character by answering the following
What age are they?
What sex?
What ethnicity?
What is their name?
What distinguishing feature do they have?
What are they wearing?
What secret do they have?
What is their favourite food?
What memory do they have?
What is their dream?
What is their worse nightmare?
Where are they at this moment?
What are they saying?

Sarah then introduced us to the above chart, a way to explore characters in further depth.

If we look at the character objectives. What is the overall objective? What are the smaller objectives that drive a character at an individual level. I like this chart, it feels like a great way to get more energy and depth into a play.

If we develop from this into our story and plot, the characters will have motivations in the background that drive the actions and build the energy of the play. We can develop moments like a secret revealed in anger and build of that impacts on the audience. Paying attention to this depth behind it all creates multi-layered characters. If we take all these elements we can draw it into a timeline which would have eruptions stemming from the revelations.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Spread The Word 1.2

So carrying on in my attempt to properly answer those questions.

What do you feel is the role of the audience?
The audience is everything. The fact that an audience are there, experiencing the writing live, in the space with the play should never be forgotten. I get very angry about plays that ignore that element and I also get annoyed with plays or performances that push the line too far. As an audience I want to be comfortably unsettled. I think theatre will always have the ability to effect people. The audience are part of the play, they are the final piece in the jigsaw puzzle.

Do you have recurring themes or a specific style?
I always used to find this question very difficult largely because I would think, what should I say, what should my themes be, what should my style be? It’s all part of recognising and knowing your voice as a writer, if you know your voice then you know what themes will recur and also what style you voice requires. Your voice will be distinctive and in being distinctive it will have a style. The themes that haunt you, should haunt your writing and if they don’t then it’s quite likely that your writing is lifeless and lacking passion.

So what are my recurring themes? I am constantly drawn to “unusual” lifestyles and “traditional” lifestyles and I “” those words because it’s all in the eye of the beholder or the pen of the Daily Mail journalist really. But what interests me is the clash of extremes and what is supposedly normal!

I also find myself with a recurring theme of isolation, that feeling of not fitting in, of trying, of failing, of finding a way to “fit in”.

Also women, women just has to be a recurring theme for me. I love to write about women, and the things that effect women on a daily, trivial level. Women that don't conform, women that break taboos, women that don't do what they're supposed to do.

I spent a long time feeling there was something lacking in my writing because I wasn’t interested in the BIG themes but then realising that it’s simply part of my voice, themes and style that I am interested in the minutia and that I don’t need to apologise for it.

And what is my style? Heightened realism is definitely the style which is at the forefront of most of my work but also I like the clash of expressionism and the poetic into the realism. I find myself drawn to finding the fragments of poetic word and moment which conflict with the stark reality in which they are housed. I want to find magic, supernatural and the extraordinary on a bed of realism, nature and the mundane.

Do you have areas that you’re strong in?
Dialogue and characterisation is the writing element that comes most naturally and if the characterisation isn’t working and the dialogue isn’t flowing then the character is in the wrong story or I’ve been lazy or tried to cut corners and just not worked enough on it.

What do you think you can do better?
I think as a writer we should always be striving to do everything better. I think it is our job to be seeking ways to improve every aspect of our writing and also to always strive to find the way to tell the particular story as well as we can possibly tell it. So honestly I think I can do everything better.

What do you hope to gain from the course?
A commission from the Sherman Cymru would be nice. But certainly I want to get to get through to the final stage and have the experience of working a play through with a cast and director. I want to gain new ideas and approaches to writing theatre. I want to make myself a better writer.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Spread the Word 1.1 Why do I write plays?

As part of the Spread The Word programme we were asked a set of questions, over the next few blogs I want to address those questions more fully.

Why do I write plays? I think in the session I said something about liking to tell stories and I always have written plays then I felt the question bothering me afterwards because I kept thinking about things I wanted to say, well shout in fact.

I write plays because I don’t just like telling stories I need to. Stories fascinate me, people fascinate me. I love those moments when something ordinary collides with something extraordinary and it leaps up at you and shouts - write me I’m a great story.

But why do I write plays. I’ve always written but I’ve not always written plays. I always wanted to be a novelist. In fact back in Fallen Angel days I wrote two adaptations (one that toured the UK), because someone needed to do it and I knew I could but I had no interest in being a playwright. I wanted to see my novel on a bookstore shelf and that was my driving ambition. But then back in 2003 I did a creative writing MA at Liverpool John Moores and as part of the course we had to do one module assessment in a different medium to our chosen medium for the final assessment. I wrote a TV play to get it out of the way. In the process of getting it out of the way I fell in love with scriptwriting. I realised that my novels were littered in dialogue. That I was obsessed with characters voices. As others struggled with dialogue it was the part that came the most naturally for me. From that point I wrote more assessments and material in script – a radio play, a film, a theatre play. All of them bad, well some were okay and some were appalling. But I got on with it, writing scripts, reading about writing, going on courses - learning as much as I could about scriptwriting.

I got feedback from various sources and I never managed to get it right. I never managed to get all the elements working at the same time – characters, structure, story, idea. One thing would always let the piece down. It became frustrating, repetitive. I made it on to a few longlists. I abandoned theatre writing completely after what I perceived to be very bad feedback. I re-read it recently and it was actually largely positive but my inexperience led me to make the new writers mistake of focusing on the negative.

The scripts spanned a vast range of styles and ideas which I always thought was indicative of my being eclectic in my tastes. I like lots of different movies, books, plays, TV, radio so it made sense that my writing would also reflect that but then I realised, quite recently, that I was trying too hard. I was trying too hard to get a script accepted somewhere, anywhere. Somewhere along the way I lost my voice. The last 2 years have been a journey in rediscovering my voice and it’s happened through two elements; theatre writing – returning to the world that I know best and revisiting my writing about Golborne – returning to the world of my roots.

Apologies as always for the pretentions stuff about “voice”, “roots” and “worlds”. If I read this on a blog I’d be tempted to shout get out from your own arse. So if you’re thinking that, I’m with you after all I’m from Lancashire and I’m a plain speaking lass who doesn’t like bullshit.

So why do I write plays? I write plays because I want other people to see, hear, watch my plays because I want people to see what I see, hear what I hear. I believe I can make people see things a little differently and think about the world in a slightly different way. I believe I can make people behave differently. Don’t get me wrong I’m fully away I’m not JFK or Martin Luther King but I can make a small difference. And I believe that in today’s world small differences can make a difference.

So it’s all well and good learning the craft and know all the technical stuff about writing but in a writing world were your script and your voice has to shout above a pile of thousands of other voices, it’s always worthwhile remembering why you write. Writing because you’re good at it is not enough, writing because you like telling stories is not enough, writing because you want fame and/or money is just plain stupid.

Ask yourself why you write plays, whether for film, radio, theatre or TV, and make sure you like the answer because if you don’t then why the hell are you expecting anyone to pay attention to the plays you write.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Spread the Word begins

The first session of the Spread the Word programme took place on Monday. The programme is part of a Wales-wide programme for emerging writers effectively it is the Sherman Cymru new writing team on tour, working with new writers in various regional art centres and theatre. In Aberystwyth it is being run with the Arts Centre. Eight writers were selected for a five week course (one evening session a week) followed by a lock in day at which we will have the opportunity to pitch a play and begin its development. Then, by February, we have to submit a play and four writers will be selected for a rehearsed reading with a professional cast and director.

I was really pleased to get through. It feels part of a building momentum that seems to be happening with my writing career at the moment. Certainly it seems as though things are heading in the right direction as opposed to the static, downward or circling trajectories that my writing career has been on for some time.

Sarah Woods is leading the course with Branwen Davies as Associate tutor. The first session started off at quite a pace which is understandable as we have a lot to get through in five weeks. First of all we did the introductory thing – which I hate. I know I need to get more comfortable about talking about myself as a writer and my writing but no matter how many times I do it I detest the experience. My mind goes blank and I struggle to remember even the basic things about my writing and then I spend the rest of the evening remembering all the things I should have said.

Sarah had a slightly different approach to us introducing ourselves. We split into pairs asked one another a set of questions and then introduced the other writer.

The questions were:-
Why do you write plays?
What do you feel is the role of the audience?
Do you have recurring themes or a specific style?
Do you have areas that you’re strong in?
What do you think you can do better?
What do you hope to gain from the course?
We talked these all through sharing what our partner had said, adding things when we felt we needed to expand. It was interesting to listen to the things that we have in common as writers and the differences.

More on these questions to follow because I think they such useful questions for writers to ask themselves on a regular basis that I wanted to address them in more detail.

We then moved on to talk about the elements of a play. We threw out suggestions and the flipchart was filled with words. Some words in green to indicate that they were key. Others in another colour to show that they were part of the elements that run at a deeper level flowing beneath the key green words. Some elements were contentious – with disagreements sparking about whether they were to be considered or not. Then we explored the links between them drawing lines between linking elements to confirm that everything links to everything else.

We talked about the elements being the building blocks or strata. We talked about things going wrong with the inclusion of the elements so that energy leaks from the play and a loss of drive within the play.

Finally Sarah told us a few playwriting methodologies.
Roy Williams – writes the whole play a story first.
Phyllis Nagy – sits in front of sport on television and just writes the play
David Edgar – 9 months of planning and developing then writes the play in 3 weeks
Alan Ayckbourn – writes the plays in a few weeks. Plucks the ideas from nowhere. Never gives them names only numbers. Over time the process of writing has become less complicated.
I love hearing about other writers processes. And on the whole I find that each of these processes makes perfect sense however Phyllis Nagy came as a bit of a shock. I did try this on Sunday and sat in front of the Grand Prix notebook on knee. But unfortunately sport on the television had the same effect as it usually did - I curled up and slept for an hour. Mind you then I felt quite refreshed and did a few hours of character development so maybe it worked in a roundabout way.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Beginnings - the end, or is it?

I haven’t had time to take a breath for quite some time now. Beginnings the first showcase of the writers group absorbed so much time but was definitely worth it. Not just from the point of view of seeing my own short play come to life but seeing the other eight plays come to life too. Back in May the group had it’s first meeting at which I suggested that we present an evening of short plays – the brochure deadline was close we had to make a decision. Everyone said yes and then last week nine new plays moved around a space and were introduced to an audience.

The evening was an incredible success – the writers most of them completely new to theatre loved seeing their plays performed, listening to their jokes getting laughs, watching their characters connect with an audience, watching their stories enthral an audience. All of them came away wanting to write more, wanting to write bigger plays, better plays.

The actors and directors without exception all told me they loved it so much they wanted to be involved in the next one. Interestingly a few of the actors spoke to me about how incredibly and unusually nervous they were because the writers were involved and they felt a deep need to perform the words and the play as the writers wanted. I was surprised by it but deeply moved that the actors involved felt so deferential to the writers. Maybe this is common, maybe I was just very lucky with my actors.

I set about wanting to create a project that put the writers at the forefront. Yes, theatre is a collaborative process and yes I was blessed that that such amazing performers and directors willingly gave their time to bring the plays to life. But yes, the writers were in the forefront, literally sitting in chairs at the front of the audience so that it could not be doubted that it was the writers ideas, the writers characters, the writers words that were the Beginning of what the audience was watching.

And now on to the next project. The Town with No Traffic Wardens, a showcase of separate plays whilst also trying to build the piece as a collaborative play that will work as a whole. I keep being told that collaborative plays are at best problematic, at worse impossible. But I know the process will be a valuable learning experience for everyone involved and gives us great material for writing exercises so I think we’ll give it a go anyway. I have every confidence that Aberystwyth will offer forth it’s stories and give us great material, after all this is a town where you can find a shark illegally parked on double yellow lines.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Multi-tasking Metaphors

I have a tendency to multi task. In fact I’m a bit of an obsessive multi tasker to the extent that I multi task myself into confusion. I can quite often be found staring blankly into space with several random objects in my hand; a duster, a plant, a notebook, tomato plant leaves.

This will be because in the process of cleaning the shower, I decide to give the bathroom a thorough clean, whilst cleaning the window-sill, I realise that the plants need watering, watering the plants I decide to dust the aspidestera leaves, dusting the leaves I decide the plant needs repotting, repotting the plant I notice that the tomato plant shoots need cutting off, cutting off the tomato plant shoots, I have a thought about a writing project, walking up the stairs to the study I decide the stairs need hovering. Then my brain stops and I’ll stand there with hoover at my feet, duster, plant, notebook, tomato plant leaves around me. I’ll be lost in a world of wondering what was I doing then I look about and it will come back to me and I'll retrace my steps and go back to each thing and focus on finishing, trying really hard not to start anything new.

This very much describes my writing process. Over the past few years I've tried to make myself focus, not let myself get distracted by new ideas, competitions, submission calls. I've also tried to make myself focus on one medium at a time, radio or tv or theatre or film. But I just can't do it, it's part of who I am as a writer and a person.

So instead I'm embracing that need for multiple projects and mediums. In fact I've recently embraced my biggest project yet. This project stems from me dithering for the last year or so about whether to do a PhD in Scriptwriting. Not because I think it will improve my scriptwriting but because I'm shallow. Several of my friends are doing PhD's and basically I want to join the Dr gang. Now in order to be a Dr of Scriptwriting I needed to find a large enough subject for about 5 years of research and writing and one thought I'd played with was using the same source material written for television, film, theatre and radio whilst exploring the differences that each medium demanded on the source material. In order to do this the source material had to be pretty vast to stand up to be being repeatedly mined to fuel the telling of the story in each of those mediums.

And then it struck me that most of the writing that I did in my formative years had one subject at its core - life in a mining community. A multitude of (sub)subjects had branched from that one but that was the essence. I've not explored the subject for a while because I and my life had moved on but in the corner of my study is several crates full of notes, research, several short stories, a play, a novel. All of it is rough, naive and very inexperienced writing but there's lots of great little ideas, characters, moments.

So I've started to draw on this archive of the life of a northern mining town and map out how I would tell the story as radio, theatre, film and television. It's a bloody huge project whilst also; completing the second draft of my mentoring project play, finishing the first draft of my writers group showcase play and also trying to get something completed for two competitions (one radio, one short film) but I'm in multi-tasking writers heaven. I also keep getting those great little epiphany moments when all the little threads just weave together and you find yourself with themes, metaphors and multiple layers. There is every possibly that I will implode (i was thinking of using cave in there but that would be stetching the mining imagery a little far) but it'll be fun while it lasts.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Being your own Fairy Writing-mother

It’s been a while. For once my inactivity here is not due to inactivity in writing. It’s been a very active few months. Not as much writing as I’d like, and it’s pretty skew of the plan for 2011 that sits on the wall facing me BUT to focus on the positive - things are acceptable.

Focusing on the positive;
I’ve written the first draft of the 30 minute play for the mentoring project,
I’m up to 20 minutes on the first draft of the TV pilot,
I’m at 9 minutes on my redraft of a short film,
a HUGE project that is developing in my head and on the walls of the study.

However my biggest achievement in the past few months is setting up and running a monthly writing for performance group. I’ve been talking about it for, well..... years is not an exaggeration and finally I got off my backside and did it. Not only that but I’ve booked the Writing Group in for a showcase evening of small plays at Aberystwyth Arts Centre in October. So a rehearsed reading of a short play of mine, will be shown to the public, in October. Along with my play will also be plays by the other 9 members of the group and I’ll be producing the whole event, finding performers, directors, marketing the event – everything. It feels good to think that 10 new plays will come to life in October. And it’s because I got off my backside and made it happen.

There’s been a lot of inspiring stories about in the magical world of web and social media that helped me to think – stop waiting for this magical hand of the writing fairy to reach out and whisk you to a world of full-time writing and get off your backside and be your own fairy writing-mother.

Just a few of the stories of writers making their own dreams come true are listed here
Danny Stack – wrote, produced, directed, edited, promoted his own web series Liquid Lunch.
The story of the making of the comedy web series is here along with many, many mountains worth of writing advice

Danny Lacey, the epitome of getting off your backside and doing it yourself really. Follow his blog or his web show. He isn’t waiting around for someone else to lead him along the pathway from obscurity to success he is literally hacking down those trees and making his own road.

Kristi Barnett
And her trans-media project @KarenBarley
In Danny Stack and Tim Clagues's UK Scriptwriting podcast she talks about the motivation behind getting off her backside and doing it herself. I especially like this project because she is using multiple platforms and attempting to create a unique way to tell a story.

Not that my little showcase is anywhere near the scale of these projects but I’m heading in the right direction and I’m doing something about getting my writing out there.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

What do you regret most in your life?

At the moment I’m developing characters for two projects, both for theatre.

The way I develop characters varies slightly from project to project, sometimes the characters emerge fully formed, walking, talking, farting but sometimes the idea has emerged from maybe an image or a situation and so I need to hunt to find my characters.

Always though I’m looking for a distinct character voice and always I’m looking for the character to surprise me because they do or say something I don’t expect.

Character developing is sometimes called hot seating which is a good way of thinking about it. Simply put your character in a seat and ask them questions. From the straightforward - What's your name? Where do you live? What's your home like? - to the ones that dig a little deeper - What is your strongest childhood memory? What is the most embarassing moment in your life?

I like to think of it as a journalist interview. I’m the journalist and I want to get my facts right but also I want to befriend my subject and get them to reveal unusual things about themselves. Because each project is different then my focus will be slightly different and I will want to really test my characters about certain aspects of their behaviour. The play I’m working on at the moment has “regret” at its core so I’ve added to my usual list of questions, what do you regret? I like this question so I'm going to keep it in the repertoire.

Because my characters main arc through the story is to admit that she does regret something, at first she says, I don’t regret anything. So I have to press her more about what she regrets. I also have to think about what can be said to this character or done to her to make her admit that she regrets something. So in this one question not only am I developing the character but I’m creating ideas for scenes.

Not all writers do detailed character development, some writers like to learn these things about their characters as they write, they want to let their character react to situations as they write and see what they do. For them the process of character development and first draft is intertwined.

Also some writers do far more detailed character development processes asking a thousand questions and knowing every aspect of their lives in minute detail.

For me I like to find a balance of taking the character through these exercises until the character is vivid and alive in my mind. Until the voice is strong and clear. Basically for me there is a point when the character and the story start to interact out of my control and I know that it is time to start writing the play.

The thing to ask is, are you happy with your characters? Are they two dimensional? Are they vague figures moving a plot around? If they are then your character development process needs freshening up.

The list of questions I ask comes from a combination of many exercises that I’ve done or read over the years as well as trying to add my own style of process to it. But more than that it comes from the questions I would ask a stranger in real life. Surely that’s the point. I want to get to know this person. So I ask, what is your name? Then I ask, do you like your name? This is something I do a lot in "real life" because I'm fascinated by names and what they mean to us. I hate my name. Sandra is very mundane and it's also a Viz character. Sharing a name with a Fat Slag is never going to be good. My surname Bendelow resulted in me being called Bendylegs thoughout childhood. So there you go, a question as simple as - What is your name? - has revealed quite a lot about me.

There is a great on-line tutorial from Cheryl Martin at the Bruntwood Competition site with advice about characters, including a great selection of character questions

If you want a really detailed character questionnaire, then try this one at the Script Lab

But don't forget to make the questions right for you and your process. Also make the questions right for each project. Asking what a characters home is like is great but if your character is a teenager then asking about their bedroom is like is so much better. Then go further, what posters do they have on their wall? What is the most important item in that room to your teenager?

It's important to think about your own interests though because this can be a quicker way to create and connect with a character as you develop them. I did theatre design courses and did a lot of costume design so if I ask a character what their favourite item of clothing is then it very quickly creates a whole character for me. If you love music then picking their favourite music will work for you. If you have a vast knowledge of art then ask them about their favourite artist.

The three workshops I’ve done with Kaite O’Reilly have looked at the importance of the questioning process, of letting the ideas from the answers flow into raw material. Most importantly exercises relating to character development get you writing and words on a page are better than an empty page.

I think it’s really important with these exercises to push beyond the obvious and really try to be true to the character. You might ask a question, something quickly comes to mind but then you need to ask yourself is that really what they would say? Also ask yourself is the character telling the truth, a stranger asks us a question and we say something that seems to reveal something but is it really the whole truth?

In many cases you have to try to imagine what your character would say after they’ve become really comfortable talking to you, or after they’ve drunk too many glasses of wine because that’s when the real truth comes out. Ask me a question sober and I'll tend to say something for the sake of getting a laugh, after a few glasses of wine I'll be revealing deep, dark secrets, but also probably trying to get a laugh.

My main character in this project has built up a lifetimes of walls to stop admitting even to herself that she regrets what she did. I have to get her to admit to herself that she regrets her actions even though that acknowledgement will cause her pain and will cause her to realise that years worth of her life has been built on a lie to herself.

So as I ask the questions, I know she is lying to me, I’m letting her say what comes out first, but I’m trying to prod further, I’m trying to find the thing that could make her crack and reveal the truth to me.

This way the process starts with doing a character interview but it quickly moves into creating raw material for my play. Some of the things that I am writing will be used in the play, but most of it will be discarded as back story. But all of it will make the character "real".

Most importantly though it’s fun. This is one of the best bits. Making the character come to life on the page is why I love writing.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Playing with a play

This weekend has been my most productive weekend in a long time. On Friday I had a one page outline of an idea, the idea was a very floaty one, a vague idea of a situation, a couple of blurry images, a sense of a character but nothing particularly concrete. By Monday I had worked my way half way through a notebook, created five characters, a story, a structure, a style, a theme, oh and a sub-plot too.

Now the most obvious reasoning behind this is to think I laid off booze over the weekend hence avoiding the subsequent morning spent on the sofa half-watching whichever soap omnibus I stumble across first, followed by devouring my body weight in KFC, followed by guilt ridden late dog-walking, followed by guilt ridden OCD style cleaning. Followed by an early night and locking myself in my study on Sunday to desperately try to catch-up the lost hours.

Admittedly for anyone that knows me, it would be a good guess. However this is not the case, in fact my alcohol consumption over the weekend was 2 bottles of wine and four large bottles of Crabbies alcoholic ginger beer. And I specify alcoholic ginger beer because I’m still amazed every time I drink it that it is alcohol. Seriously? It's alcohol? But it tastes so nice, so refreshing! I really like Crabbies.

The very simple reason behind this productive weekend was the fact that I participated in the first instalment of my Writing for Performance Mentoring Project with Kaite O’Reilly. Unfortunately it’s not possible to go to Ty Newydd every weekend so I have to find a way, without the support of Kaite O’Reilly and 8 others writers, to do the same every time I have a new idea.

First of all question the idea, pull it up and hold it to the light, turn it inside out and give it a good shake. Or put it simply, ask - what the f**k?

I had to think why was the idea important to me, why did I care about it, what was I trying to say, what did I want people to think about my idea? What was at the heart of my idea?

Although at first I wasn’t sure about any of the answers I found that the questions stayed with me as I circled the idea in workshops. Some of the workshops were about character development, some were about structure, some about theme.

I thought about the world of my play, the characters, my protagonist, my antagonist, my secondary characters, the characters who will never be in my play but are part of the world of my play.

Looking back through my notes I drew lots of diagrams throughout the weekend, each with a word in the centre, each time the word at the centre was a different word. In fact on Saturday alone my central theme changed 4 times.

It was as though I was building my play with blocks but first of all I had to build the blocks. Some blocks stayed firm and others wobbled but slowly I had more blocks. All of a sudden things slotted into place and then I had answers to my questions. And then I had a play. It felt as though it had just popped up like magic but it hadn’t, I’d worked really hard but it felt as though I’d been playing.

All of the exercises we did though were about playing with ideas, not worrying about what we were writing, or if what we were writing was right but just writing, playing, having fun with words. Exploring our creative worlds, exploring our characters, exploring our themes. Most importantly I knew I had to get on with it, keep throwing words at pages, keep throwing ideas out, cutting things, letting things change.

The project means that in 2 months time I have to submit a first draft of the play to Kaite who will return it with notes then we have approximately another two months to re-work before we return for a weekend in September to work on the final draft of the play.

So, okay, this weekend was a well structured and well thought out workshop weekend designed by Kaite O’Reilly who is a brilliant playwright, a great teacher and a lovely women but I hope to be able to repeat the success of the weekend alone in my study. I’ll play with an idea, have fun with it. Though maybe I’ll keep the bottles of Crabbies.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

This is an answer: More Sex, definitely

Currently I am working on a new TV script, which I hope will be my entry for the next Red Planet Prize. After my epiphany late last year about how I’d been treading water for a while as a writer, I wanted to just focus on writing, above all else, for me. Writing about subjects that really interested me, in a way that really interested me. For me that has to be the juxtaposition of the very ordinary on the very extraordinary. I’m happy with how this idea has evolved but I had a problem in that it revolves around 3 couples and the impact that a fairground ride has on their life and love. The problem was finding a way to establish the relationship of the couples quickly. Then I read, the always-brilliant Lucy V Hay writing about wanting more sex – in spec scripts.

It seemed so obvious. Establish each relationship with a sex scene. So damned easy and yet I hadn’t thought about it. But I had thought about it. I’d thought about the couples sex lives and even made notes about it but as I’d played through the establishing scenes in my head I’d not chosen to use them. Strange really.

Thinking about it further I never have sex scenes in my scriptwriting but in my prose writing days I used to always have sex scenes to establish and reveal truths about relationships. So what’s happened? Have I become a prude in my more formative years? Well, no. Ask any of my friends and one of my favourite subjects, for general chit-chat, deep and meaningful conversations or just idle jokes, is sex.

Also sex is a prevalent theme in a lot of the recent scripts I’ve either been developing or writing. Last year I wrote a radio play about sisters discovering their father’s porn collection after his death. This then led me to develop a theatre play, Dirty to Me, which is about a sex therapy group. So I’m writing about sex constantly but not writing the sex it would seem.

So I'm answering Lucy’s call. My script is being re-written to include the sex scenes. In addition to that, an idea that’s been floating in the back of my head for a while about female friendships after the break-up of relationships is going in for an overhaul. Previously the sex lives of the four women were going to be a part of it but now it will be well and truly full-frontal. It’s working title is Rebound Shag Man.

I'm also a great believer in the mantra, the bad things in life make good writing, so it's good to know that on this subject I've already done the research and all those dreadful, funny, wierd and surreal sexual experiences can now be of value, in my writing.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Procrastinating on Process

One of my main forms of procrastination is thinking about writing process. I spend lots of hours thinking about whether my writing process is the right process for me. I also spend lots of hours reading about other people’s writing processes.

As procrastination goes, not writing because I’m thinking about how to write is better than some but it’s still just wasted hours. Towards the end of 2010 I came to the conclusion that I needed to draw the explorations of writing process to an end and come to some conclusions. Let’s face it I’d have enough years of writing so there really isn’t any excuse for not knowing exactly what process suits me best.

I need a writing process that allows my "unique voice" to steer the writing. It’s great to know other writers tips, exercises, shortcuts and methods but they’re not writing my project, I am. Admittedly most of my writing process is taken (COUGH) -stolen- from other writers but I’ve adapted everything ever so slightly to suit my writing process. Most importantly I've stopped using processes simply because a writer I like uses that process. Yes, I might like them as a writer but that doesn't mean that something that works for them works for me. I have to start having more confidence in what I feel is right for me as a writer.

As I've started to work on my new projects this year I'm trying to stick to my process because;

1. I need to have a writing process that works for me. Obvious but needs to be stated,

2. I need to have a writing process that fits with how I write logistically. (i.e., lots of small writing sessions, gaps between writing days,

3. I need to have a writing process that allows who I am to be beneficial to the writing (i.e., I work best with limited time, I work best with a deadline, I like organisation, I work best when I multi-task),

4. I need to have a writing process that takes my flaws as a writer and allows them to be strengths (i.e., I overwrite, I overthink, I make things overly complex),

5. I need to have a writing process that works for all the different formats in which I write; Theatre, TV, Film and Radio. The constraints and strengths of each format might be different but the writing process should still be the same,

6. I need to accept my writing process and stop trying to fight it. I can’t sneak up on it, take shortcuts, fool it or force it to do something it doesn’t want to do,

7. I need to have a writing process that takes me through to final drafts of projects to ensure that I have a portfolio of completed specs,

Now admittedly this blog, and the ones that I plan to write to follow could be classed as procrastinating on process, but at least it was brief.

A few links to further thoughts on writing process

Jonathan Peace on Scriptments and working faster

Lucy Hay on time management

A great interview by Sally Brockway with David Allison (writer of Red Production Co's Bedlam) about Boy meets Girl which includes some great thoughts on his process.