Friday, 16 November 2012

Watching sunrise over Hackney Marshes


Since the end of September I've done a workshop or conference or training event every weekend except one; Dirty Protest workshop with Tim Price on structure, Ty Newydd Mentoring project with Kaite O'Reilly, Radio Writing masterclass with Alan Harris, London Screenwriters Festival and Radio Writing masterclass with Dan Rebellato. In the midst of this I've launched a production company Scriptography Productions, organised the first scratch night and been dense in production preperation for the first Scriptography Productions project a new full length play by Catrin Fflur Huws called To Kill a Machine. With all this going on there hasn't been time to even write a blog let alone creatively write. Every single one of the events has been brilliant.

Tim Price, writer of Radicalisation of Bradley Manning for National Theatre Wales amongst others and also writer of Switch on ITV2 at the moment (if you haven't watched Switch then do, immediately), talked about inciting incidents, mid-points and obligatory scenes that really made it click for me in terms of using it in theatre structure. I realised that a play I've been struggling to end was a struggle because it either has the wrong beginning or I need to write a different play.

Kaite O'Reilly, well she's Kaite O'Reilly, and as a seasoned attendee of many of her courses at Ty Newydd I knew what to expect and as always she delivered beyond my expectations - she was as always a goddess of writing tutoring, the weekend was the usual rollercoaster of exuberance, genius and straight-talking. I would not be the writer I am without her, her mentorship and her friendship is immeasurable and she's just so bloody lovely, and amazing and inspiring so yes that was an incredible weekend.

Alan Harris, writer of A Good Night out in the Valleys for National Theatre Wales and also many other plays and also writer of one of my favourite radio plays Gold Farmer came very highly recommended. Everyone I know who has been tutored by him sings his praises and always he's described as being really lovely. Yes, he was both a great tutor and really lovely. So I was very happy to have given up my Sunday afternoon for him and also to have stayed sober on a Saturday night so as not to be hungover. That's high praise indeed. He shared several of his radio plays with us and made us analyse the beginnings, think about why they were commissioned because of how the idea was pitched - he didn't actually tell us they were his plays though - sneakily entertaining.

London Screenwriters Festival was a jam packed weekend of whizzing about from room to room. Simply too many highlights to delve into in any detail but favourite talks were Eran Creevy, Frank Spotnitz, Katie Himms, Kate Leys and all of the writers at the writing for soap session who really made me want to write for serial drama.

Dan Rebellato, writer of My Life is a Series of People saying goodbye who shared some real insights into the process that went behind writing several of his plays for radio and also made radio writing seem even vaster than I already thought it was.

So there you have a crash course in my crash courses. Not a one of them I would of missed but I got to the end of it and thought fantastic - some time to write, finally. I decided that I needed to stop going on courses not because I know it all, because the things I really know about writing you can write on the back of a postage stamp, and because I think we can always learn more from writers talking about their writing no matter how experienced we are. But all this training is bloody pointless if I don't have time to write, so I've banned myself from courses because the only way I will ever learn anything from these courses is if I use them as ways in to learn from my own writing. I need to remember that I am, after all, the expert tutor of my writing.

The other thing I came away from all those courses thinking is that my favourite thing about being on writing courses and events is that I really love talking to writers about writing. Take the London Screenwriters Festival, the thing I really loved was spending more time with people I'd only briefly met before like Rhys and Anne-Marie from Wales Screenwriting Posse and Janine who I briefly met at the Dirty Protest workshop and being able to spend even more time with the Aberystwyth posse, Julie, Sean, Debbie and Rachel. But I also need to stop talking about writing and get writing because though I dearly loved the chance to spend more time with friends, talk to old friends or meet new ones unless I'm actually writing new plays I won't have anything to talk about.

Then one final thing, learned from the last few months, came from the thing I did whilst at the London Screenwriters Festival - I met up with a very good friend of mine who I've not seen for about three years. I stayed with her on a house boat in London and loved it so much on the Friday that on the Saturday I stayed there again. It was an amazing experience that made me see London in a whole new light, literally a new light on the Sunday morning as I watched the sunrise above Hackney marshes. Whilst on the boat I had at least two if not more ideas for plays which made me think, (I challenge anyone to go through Islington tunnel at almost midnight on a houseboat and not come away with some ideas), that yes as writers we need to be writing but we also need to be living. And yes it is possible to sit at your desk day in and day out imagining worlds but surely we need to occasionally lift our heads from the laptop and watch the sunrise over Hackney Marshes?

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Fairly random thoughts on scripts that are a pile of shiny shit and 50th birthday parties

So I jumped and now I’ve been writing full-time for two months.

My script for the Red Planet prize made it to the top 25 but unfortunately no further which was good but not good enough. The script, after a thorough re-draft, also made it into the top twelve of the BBC Drama Wales Award but also no further and though it’s great to think my script put me in the top 12 in all writers in Wales (strictly speaking – all writers in Wales who submitted but if you’re a writing in Wales and you didn’t submit to such a huge competition then you’re a bit silly and frankly worth ignoring) it still didn’t put me in the top six which leaves me with two issues which I’m contemplating as I sit at a very large table in a very large house we’ve hired to celebrate my friend’s 50th birthday. So along with contemplating my two issues I’m wondering when I got so old that I have friends who are celebrating their 50th birthday.

It seems only yesterday I was dreading my 21st birthday party arranged by my mum in the hall above the local snooker and pool club hall and wondering if anyone was going to come because I was horrible and everyone hated me. But now look at me I’m 43, I have friends who invite me to spend a week with them celebrating their 50th birthday so I mustn’t be horrible and they mustn’t hate me. Must they?

Parties are on my mind– firstly because I’m at one and secondly because I’m writing a short play for the Sherman Cymru Scriptslam on the theme of After the Party which has to be sent by the end of today. So better get back to the point which is my two points or issues.

Firstly, writing a script which is better so that next time I make it to the final hurdle rather than falling over just before the finish line. I didn’t fall flat on my face at least which is my usual experience of competitions. Flat on my face in a pile of cow shit. The script being the cow shit though at the time I didn’t think it was a cow shit I thought it was a pile of perfect gold.

Secondly, what the hell to do with the script that is good but not good enough because I absolutely love the idea, the characters and the story and if it did so well, it’s clearly not a pile of cow shit though also it’s not a pile of gold.

So firstly making sure the next script is a pile of gold. Let’s start with not forgetting the things that have been learned through the process of writing the script – write scripts which are fun for me. That is certainly the case with the next script as it’s a subject that has been percolating in my head for about 10 years, almost as long if not longer than the last one.

The idea for the next script is well into development, characters, structure, narrative, plot have all been developed. I’ve already written the first twenty pages. I have started to redraft the first ten pages to ensure that the start of the script has that very special attention required to make it shine like gold amongst the spec scripts. After a brief break to complete the draft of a theatre play, I’ll be heading back to write the first draft through to the end. Then I’ll redraft it as many times as is needed to make it what it needs to be, to make it better than the last script to make it the best script it can possibly be. The fundamental part of all this is the fact that I making sure that the script of finished well ahead of the next Red Planet competition. I want to give myself months to think about it, write it, redraft it, think about it some more. Because the main thing I learned from my flirtation with success is that it’s better to give yourself twelve months to write a script than one month. Pretty obvious really I know but the simple fact is that though the script was made into what it needed to be and was better than my last script it wasn’t the best it could possibly be.

This slides me nicely into the second of my issues, almost like I’d planned it. What to do with the script now? It’s getting there but it still isn’t the best it could possibly be and that’s going to take some more work. But it is still a good script, clearly because it made it into the top 25 of the Red Planet competition and the top twelve of the Drama Wales Award. Sorry - but just thought that was worth repeating.

Once it is the best script it can possibly be then I plan to send it as a spec script to a few places that accept submissions, maybe a few agents, maybe a few TV companies, maybe it can open a few more doors.

But what’s more I’m going to think how I can tell the story in other mediums I genuinely believe that the story could work as a radio play, as a novel, as a film – telling the story differently or telling different aspects of the story but it’s possible and a challenge and I like the challenge of trying to write the story for different mediums. And I don’t like stepping in cow shit.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Running through open doors and jumping in without armbands

Recently I’ve had cause to reflect, in far more serious terms, on my writing career. In general the last few months have been a series of - doors opening and doors closing – shall we say. So the doors opening have been all writing related, I’m through to the last 20 of the Red Planet Prize, I was chosen for the Spread the Word Emerging Writers project, I’ve had interest expressed in several projects, the production side of my work with the Writing for Performance Group has been expanding – all great and all positive momentum. The only frustrating thing has been the lack of time to be able to get on with projects and make the most of the open doors.
Don’t get me wrong I do write in all the available time I have, I’m not one of those writers who whinges about having to write when working full-time and then sits watching 6 hours of television of an evening and a bit more at the weekend. I write every evening and at least one if not two days at the weekend (largely dependent on hangover, occasionally gardening). I use all of my holiday time for writing. I have not had a holiday since...you know I really can’t remember the last holiday I took. I take time off to write around deadlines and the only away time I allow myself is Ty Newydd writing courses. So when I say not enough time to write I really mean, not enough time to write.

But then we get to the door closing - notification that the non-real-job will be coming to an end and I’m being made redundant. I have to admit I never saw it as a bad thing although I should have done. I spend all my time wishing that I had another job (scriptwriter of course) so it’s never going to be that bad when a job you do to pay the bills, that gets in the way of the job you really want to do, comes to an end. But I have a mortgage to pay and a very expensive vodka habit – by that I mean I drink a lot of cheap vodka not limited amounts of expensive vodka which would just be silly since it’s been scientifically proven that some of the cheapest brands of vodka are actually the purest!

Immediately my decision was to take a few months – or however long my severance package allows – to write. It will only be a few months but a few months that will give me those extra spec scripts I need, the proposals written up, the outlines finished.

For so long now my book of ideas – ideas written down onto pages in a notebook, usually in the form of loglines, occasionally in little flowcharts of ideas for scenes, sometimes notes of images, often a character description – has been overwhelming me. It has felt like an overloaded in-tray and an overloaded brain. I’ve wanted to push them from the overloaded brain/in-tray and into the nicely organised portfolio of ideas ready to be pitched or written.

But now I can do that. There is probably a very valid argument about me looking for a job and keeping the money for a really rainy day, after all I’ve been at this writing lark for a long time, and a few bits of good luck in competitions doesn’t really amount to an indication that you might earn actual money from writing, so maybe I should just keep at it in my spare time....but could those people (mainly my Mum) just be quiet for now.

I basically had a choice of jump in or keep paddling and I’m on the verge of jumping. I am at the end of the diving board but I’ve never liked jumping in out of my depth so I’m holding my nose and checking that there are people watching out for me in case it goes wrong.

So here’s to making a big splash end of July. I’ll drink a vodka to that. But then I’ll drink a vodka to anything!

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Writing in different mediums

I write in different mediums - radio, TV, film and theatre. Each time I write a new play then I fall in love with the medium in which I’m writing and swear of all the others as lesser relatives – until I get an idea in a different medium and then I go through the whole process again.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the differences between each medium and more importantly the differences in process for each one.

I spend a lot of time testing out working processes for one medium and seeing if they transfer.
I believe very strongly that they are each a very unique medium and when writing is at its best they are vastly different creatures which require different processes. I think very few writers are genuinely masters across several mediums. There are a few examples, Abi Morgan is one that leaps out because I’ve recently seen The Hour, watched Lovesong and read Shame.

Also just for the record I want to state the obvious, TV, film, radio and theatre are all different.

I know it’s obvious but I get really frustrated with writers who don’t seem to notice. Yes, it’s all telling stories BUT it’s telling stories in very different ways. And yes you can pull some elements from one medium to another specifically to add something to that script. So yes, write a very filmic script for TV but know that you’re doing it as opposed to writing a film script and calling it TV. I see so many people saying things like, I’ve written a theatre play but someone said it would be good as radio so I’ve changed it a bit and sent it out and they’ve rejected it. Well yes, they would reject it because it isn’t a radio play. Or, I wrote this feature film but now I need to send something to a TV writing competition so I’m redrafting it a bit and sending it in – and guess what, surprise, surprise, it doesn’t win. Well yes it wouldn't win, as it’s a feature film crammed into a TV screen. Laughable I know but more than anything it makes me angry. As someone who loves all the mediums with equal passion I get very angry with people who have so little respect for the medium that they are writing in that they think, ‘changing it a bit’, will make it work.

Each of the mediums requires incredible and particular skills of writing, skills that are unique to that medium. Yes, some of the skills are transferable but some of them are very specific.

Even things that seem transferable are not - writing dialogue maybe? No. Dialogue for theatre, film, radio and TV are all very different.

A story demands to be told as well as it can possibly be told. As well as it can possibly be told in that medium. ‘Changing it a bit’ isn’t going to do that. Delving back into the core of the story is required, searching for the truth of the story, finding how that truth can be brought to life as either radio, theatre, film and TV. Each medium will demand very different things of the story and very different things of the writer. Listen to those demands.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Blog hopping

Kaite O'Reilly asked me to talk about setting up the Writing for Performance Group at Aberyswtyth Arts Centre for her blog. Here are the results of my blog hopping

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Stop thinking - start enjoying

Somewhere around the beginning of the year, I got through to the 2nd Round of the Red Planet Prize and my head has been spinning ever since.

February I think? Yes, I think it was February everything has been a bit of a blur since then.

When the email landed in my in-box I think I went into a state of shock. I definitely lost count of the amount of times that I re-read the email and then questioned it, Really? I got through? Really?

The thing is I spend a lot of time talking to people about dealing with rejection. I’m very good at talking people through rejection, making them see how they shouldn’t take it personally, how it’s not a sign of being a failed writer, how it’s best to take it on the chin and move on, and the thing is I’m good at helping people deal with rejection because I’m brilliant at dealing with it myself. I have years of experience at it, I’ve had lots of rejections but thing I realised this year was that I’m not very good at dealing with acceptances, I’m not very good at making it through to the next round because it doesn’t happen very often. So yes, frankly I went into shock. And then I got on with writing the rest of the script. I wasn’t one of the forward thinking ones who’d submitted an already finished script. I looked jealously at various tweets about polishing scripts. Polishing? No I was a long, long way from the polishing stage.

The thing is I can admit that without the Red Planet nod I wouldn’t have ever got on with writing anything beyond the first 10 minutes. The script was always a passion project for me. An idea I’d had and filed under – one day I’ll write this.

It was always there in the back of my head though, the world of the script shaping itself, ideas being added, thoughts on character journeys.

It has a large budget, larger than most things on UK television at the moment. I have no idea what channel would be interested in it, I have no idea what current slot would be suitable.

But as I wrote it - and realistically with my vast experience of rejection and knowledge of the skills of so many writers trying to get through to the next stage – without anything beyond a vague hope that it might get through, I realised how much I was really enjoying writing it. Every day was a joy to sit down and write it. Yes, there were the usual battles and frustrations of trying to achieve what I wanted to achieve with the script but above all else it was just bloody good fun.

Lesson learned for the future for me is definitely to stop thinking about it all too much. Stop thinking what scripts show my voice the best, what scripts make me more marketable, what scripts are more likely to be picked up and just write the scripts that I want to write for no other reason than I think they’ll be fun.

The point is to have scripts that are the best possible scripts that I can write and so surely that can only happen if I’m having as much fun as I can possibly have writing because they’re the scripts I’m really passionate about writing.

So for a while now I’m going to stop thinking about budget, genre, market, trying to second guess a million things to work out which is my best idea and just got on with writing the scripts I really want to write because I think they'll be fun.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Constructive Criticism or honesty; which do you prefer?

Learning to take feedback and reading other plays – is a vital part of improving yourself as a writer. It is said, repeated and repeated some more but so it should be.

I have realised in the last few weeks how incredibly lucky I am to be part of a writing group (actually two writing groups now). One of the things that happens automatically when you’re in a writing group is that you give and receive feedback so inevitably you get more experienced at reading plays and taking feedback.

Over Xmas I had a manic few days reading 3 TV scripts, whilst also trying to get my project done which involved drafting 2 beginnings before making a final decision which to submit for the Red Planet Prize.

Then this week began with an intensive 3 hour session, reading 4 plays and then offering comments for the Spread The Word scheme.

I came back from it exhausted; physically and mentally. But also exhilarated to be part of such great groups. As a writing group we’re all very comfortable with one another, we trust one another, we respect one another. Often feedback can be frustratingly constructive, smothered in positivity for fear of causing offense and inevitably it is pointless feedback.

I want to know what it wrong with my writing, what needs changing, what was confusing? I want to hear strong opinions not wishy-washy ones so that I know what people don't like about my plays. With the Writing for Performance Group, and also the sub group in Screenwriting which has now spawned from it, the feedback is raw, it’s argumentative, it’s feisty. It’s easy to come away from one of the feedback sessions feeling like your work has been torn to pieces and lies in shreds at your feet. But that’s what it’s about. Make notes of all the comments, pick up the shreds of your work and dignity, skulk back to your study and make the script better.

Although I can take credit for setting up the Writing for Performance group, I can’t take credit for the dynamic of the group being so successful. It is more sheer luck that the group is full of excellent and highly opinionated writers who are happy to offer something that is closer to curt criticism, occasionally cutting criticism but above all honest criticism.

And that’s a good thing. Actually, no it’s a great thing. The industry isn’t going to give you constructive criticism and protect you in fluffy cotton wool – it’s going to reject you without a single word of explanation, over and over again and that’s if you’re lucky. More than likely it will tell you your shit, your writings a joke and you have absolutely zero talent. It may even laugh at you – to your face. Even if you reach the top of the industry it doesn’t get better, it gets worse – supposed fans, peers and morons alike will spend hours dedicated to telling you exactly how rubbish your script was and how they could have done a much better job than you. The comments boxes that litter the world means that caustic criticism is the default setting for feedback nowadays. So deal with it or get a different job.

Some other and much wiser words than mine on feedback from Kaite O’Reilly