Agents, And When You Need One

So, there’s a guy going around Twitter approaching anyone and everyone with any connection to screenwriting, nagging them for help finding an agent. He hit me up last night, and he’s since moved on to many others, with variable results – and from what I can see, the more helpful people have tried to be, the ruder and more demanding he’s been…

But actually, I don’t want to talk about Twitter etiquette. What I want to talk about here is the idea that what a newbie writer needs most of all is an agent.

So many writers think  “If I only had an agent, then I’d be okay. Then I’d be lunching with Spielberg and hanging out with JJ. Everything would be perfect if I only had an agent.”  Hell, I used to think this myself. But you know what? It’s not true. And that’s actually pretty liberating, isn’t it?

Let’s pretend you’re selling your house. You redecorate and throw out all the crap, you call the estate agent (realtor, for our American friends) to design a newspaper ad, the property goes on the market, and eventually you get an offer. Then you get a lawyer in to do the paperwork, and the SOLD sign goes up.

So if the “house” is a script, which role is played by the agent? Estate agent (realtor), right? It’s obvious. They go out and sell the product of your beautiful mind, and you sit back and wait.

Wrong. The fact is, you are the estate agent as well as the homeowner. Which role does the agent play? They’re the lawyer. They only come in when you have a sale.

It is your job to sell your work, whether you have an agent or not. I don’t mean to denigrate the fantastic work agents and managers do, but I think they’d agree with me: they can’t sell a client if the client can’t sell themselves.

As a newbie writer, you don’t need an agent – now more than ever, in fact. Post your script on The Black List (okay, it costs a little money each month, but it works). Enter the few genuine, respectable screenwriting contents that are out there. Self-publish a novel on Kindle. Write a web comic. Make a short for $100 and put it on YouTube. Hell, people have got TV deals off the back of a comedy Twitter feed!

Create your brand, get your work out there, and when you need an agent, one will magically appear like the shopkeeper in Mr. Benn.

And one more thing to draw from the house-selling metaphor… Ask any estate agent, and you’ll hear stories of the people who put their houses on the market with junk stuffed in every room, peeling wallpaper, and dog dirt on the carpets. Don’t let your script be that house. Get notes – real notes from real writers. Be brutal wth your work. The harsher a note sounds, the more notice you should take of it. Rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. You only get one chance to show people round your house for sale, so it needs to be perfect…

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Things I Learned From… Divergent

Another month, another adaptation of a young adult novel! With The Hunger Games and the now exhausted Twilight franchise having established a market for female-led action-adventure for the teen audience, it now seems like everyone’s at it.

Divergent has all the usual boxes ticked: female protagonist who discovers she’s some kind of chosen one, future dystopia with strict rules that don’t quite make sense (“We’re going to stop conflict between political and social factions by… dividing everyone into factions. Yeah, that’ll work.”) Add a cute boy, a female villain and some big themes and we’re done!

Well, not quite.

The lesson I think we can learn as writers is – a central character who’s different isn’t enough.

Tris is Divergent, talented in every one of the five virtues this society uses to divide its population into thinkers, doers, the compassionate, guards against a threat that doesn’t actually seem to exist, and… ah, no one remembers the fifth one, right? So far, so good – but what does this mean for her?

As far as I can tell, nothing much. Being Divergent is something she simply is, not something she has to achieve, and that makes her a passive heroine.

In a well-intentioned attempt to cover this, the writers have filled the story with smaller goals. She has to hide her abilities – but since another Divergent turns out to have clues to theirs tattooed all over their back, clearly there isn’t that much danger of discovery. She chooses a largely unsuitable faction to join – but anyone can do that, it turns out, so this plotline has no bearing on her Divergent status. She trains endlessly to join this faction, despite having to be nursed along by her training officer and showing no great aptitude for it, and her divergency is of no discernable help.

Oh, and she has to prepare for a test that might expose her divergency, but that entire plotline derails when it turns out her training officer’s reactions to the test, not mention his backstory, are far more interesting and complex than hers…

In other words, she spends three-quarters of the movie running after goals that don’t relate to the supposed core concept of the movie, and which even make her look like a failure to the audience, as she’s rescued again and again by the male lead.

We have no measure of what it means, to her or to others, to be Divergent. We get no sense of how she thinks, how she feels, or how it’s terrible and/or wonderful to be different. Divergency remains just a label that makes her hunted, a shallow attempt to appeal to the teenage sense of alienation.

It’s only when the bad guys’ ultimate plan – which has nothing to do with Tris, and which she ends up fighting against almost accidentally – is revealed that Tris finds a real motivation to act, and by then it’s too late to engage the audience, especially in a 139 minute epic.

So let’s learn the lesson: action is not enough. Keeping your heroine busy is not enough. She has to want something – and being something and wanting something are not the same…

Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the New Hollywood Paradigm

From unpromising beginnings – “He’s a WW2 soldier who fights Nazis and literally dresses in the US flag?”  – the Captain America movies are proving to be the most intelligent, dependable and daring features of the Marvel Studios multiverse. The Winter Soldier is a smart, right-wing-baiting conspiracy thriller that starts off as a terrific action romp, and suddenly develops a raw emotional heart that’s delighted fans and played surprisingly well to those with no knowledge of the backstory (which includes me, to be honest).

I’m probably going to have things to say about the Winter Soldier himself, if you know what I mean, but I’ll give you a little longer to catch up before venturing into spoiler territory. For now, let’s take a quick look at the movie and how it illuminates Marvel Studios’ wider aims.

It’s a hugely enjoyable and hugely emotional movie, but in some weird ways, it’s strangely un-movie-like. (Yes, I know that’s not a word. It’s Sunday afternoon, cut me some slack…)

For a start, The Winter Soldier is unashamedly open-ended. While other story lines begin, develop and resolve as normal, the arc involving the two title characters reaches an emotional peak, but not a conclusion. (In traditional screenwriting parlance, that particular story is only at the end of act two – the ‘dark point’ or ‘all is lost’ – as the film concludes, and one of the credit scenes would play well as the beginning of act three, the moment where new information triggers change…)

The movie also splits its screen time between multiple characters without losing focus or audience interest. In other words, it’s a team movie in all but name. It namechecks and references a wider universe, even featuring characters who’ve been bit players in previous movies as major players. It ends by turning the dramatic universe upside-down, and then sets its characters going in new directions. They are not satisfied and changed, as movie characters are supposed to be: instead they’re in transition, going on to new challenges.

All of these are elements that you find in television drama – many commenters have called Marvel Studios supremo Kevin Feige the most powerful TV showrunner on the planet – but there’ s somewhere they’re even more common…

In the individual storylines and limited runs that make up comic book continuity. In a very real sense, Marvel Studios is not creating movies – it’s creating a new comic book universe, one that just happens to be made of actors and film rather than paper and pen.

Of course, comic books have been turned into movies before: some successfully, some… not so much. But until now, the basics of the story have been taken out and shaped into movie form. It feels to me that Marvel Studios are increasingly abandoning that approach, and instead shaping our perception of movies into something more like what we experience from long-term comic book reading.

Can this approach succeed? Possibly. There are dangers. Lack of closure is traditionally considered fatal to a movie. The Winter Soldier has a hugely powerful emotional hook, which helps, and it also plays to our perception that “the second in a trilogy is always open-ended”, as established by The Empire Strikes Back. But will other, similar movies succeed without those advantages?

There’s also the “you have to collect them all” effect, where audiences  feel that if they miss a movie in this wider universe, they’ll no longer understand what’s going on, and they lose interest. And they may even resent being manoeuvred into paying out for two or three 3D movies every year to keep up with the story world.

But the biggest danger is one that’s haunted comics for years – lack of consequences. If character X turns up as a guest in character Y’s comic and then seems to be in danger of dying, is she going to die? Of course no. She has her own title, and she’s a guest star in character Z’s title next month. She ain’t going nowhere.

Franchises already suffer from lack of consequences; it’s hard to imagine Mission: Impossible killing off Ethan Hunt, say. An expended movie universe, where every creative decision has an affect on the profit margins of five upcoming blockbusters, may finally leave us floundering in a story world where no one ever dies, and therefore, nothing ever matters.

And yet this expanded movie-comic universe has a lot going for it, too. Rich characters, intertwined stories, a depth of worldbuilding that’s rare in movies. I’m very interested to see how all this turns out…

5 Ways To Reinvigorate Your Writing

Been a bit quiet on the blog while I’ve been finishing up Wolfblood season three, and now I’m entering that post-season slump that all writers slip into once a big project is finished. You know, the one where you look at all the other things you need to get started on and groan quietly to yourself. It’s not that you don’t want to write them – you may even be excited about them – but suddenly, getting started on a new project seems like really hard work!

So what can you do about this? Here are some things that I find helpful:

Change your technique. If you usually type an outline, hand-write it, or put it on index cards. You can even dictate it to a speech-to-text app and alarm  the cat with your graphically murderous imagination…

Change your surroundings. Work at the kitchen table instead of your desk. Work in a cafe, or even rent an office space for a few weeks. If you have no choice about the space you work in, try rotating your desk ninety degrees. (But don’t allow this to turn into that classic procrastination technique, “tidying your workspace”…)

Take your characters for a walk. Before starting work on each episode/ act of a film, go for a brisk walk, pretending your characters are with you. What do they notice that you normally wouldn’t? What do they make of the rich woman hailing a taxi, or the homeless guy at the bus stop? Which cafe or pub would they like to stop at, instead of your usual one? Once you have a clearer idea of the characters, the story will flow.

Seek out new experiences. Writers are novelty-seekers – we write partly to create novelty in our ordinary lives. Go experience an art form or an evening class you wouldn’t normally consider. Or go to a new place – even somewhere as simple as going into a shop that sells things you couldn’t usually buy. Novelty primes the brain to create.

Be sure you’re taking care of basic needs. If you’ve just finished a big project, sleep well, eat well, get plenty of gentle exercise. When this new project is a huge hit, you’re going to need to be at your best…

Anyone else have any good tips?