What Next?

I’m just coming to the end of a new feature project, so it’s time to consider the question that every writer must face… What next?
Writers are rarely short of ideas. Usually we’re waist deep in half-formed thoughts, seductive characters and fascinating fictional worlds. If we’ve been stacking projects – rewriting one project while writing a first draft of another and planning a third  – many of those projects will be temptingly close to ‘ready to write’.  (And if you want to know more about the merits of project stacking, Scott Myers has an excellent article on it here: http://gointothestory.blcklst.com/2010/12/business-of-screenwriting-art-of.html )

But that just makes the question more confusing. Which of these glorious masterpieces should you write next? Well, you have a few options.

The one that will sell. Not just for the money, but because a project in development is better for your career than something no one has ever heard of. What’s selling at the moment? What do your contacts say they’re looking for? Are female protagonists in or out? Does the industry love sci-fi this month, or hate it? Look through your ideas, and pick the one most likely to go into development in the next few months.

The one that will make a statement. Do you want to prove you can write in a new genre? Are you looking to attract attention to yourself as a new writer? Have you just overcome a weakness in your writing style and want to show off your new skills? Then pick the project that will make a statement about you.

The one that consolidates who you are as a writer. Perhaps you’re not looking to change genre or style, but to establish yourself as a safe pair of hands in a particular field. Or you need another piece in the same genre so you can present a coherent body of work to an agent or manager. So pick the project that tones with your existing scripts.

The one you love. In the end, the idea you love most is the one that will attract the most attention, because a writer’s love for their world and characters shines through. So if none of the other considerations apply, ask yourself which idea you just have to write…

Always Mind Your Surroundings

So, as you’ve probably heard already, comic-book-movie screenwriter David Goyer has got himself into some hot water in front of a live audience while recording the Scriptnotes podcast (which is usually excellent, by the way). You can check out the details for yourself, but, with a little help from Craig Mazin, in the midst of a debate on how certain superheroes should be adapted into movies, he managed to suggest anyone in the audience who’d heard of Martian Manhunter was too geeky to have had sex, and call She-Hulk a ‘porn star’ created for Hulk to have sex with. (Eeeww, dude, they’re cousins!)

Does this matter? Is this just some guys getting carried away in the midst of banter and saying something dumb?

We’re all human, and we all take the piss and say off-colour stuff we don’t really mean under certain circumstances. The atmosphere in a writers room can get pretty silly at times, and we live in a culture that values laddish behaviour and sarcastic humour. Writers are far from being the worst offenders – I’ve done a lot of jobs over the years, and writing has by far the most inclusive, affirming and tolerant atmosphere that I’ve ever worked in – but still.

But in the end, it is part of a writer’s job to value what they do, and the people who respond to it.

None of us want to gush about how ‘important’ what we do is – but you know what? It is bloody important. Books, films and TV programmes have changed the attitudes of individuals and societies. They’ve contributed to improvements in civil rights for racial, sexual and social minorities. They’ve forced government action on social issues, led to the setting up of charities and pressure groups, and given individuals the inspiration and courage to change their lives. Art matters.

So the way we talk about our own work, and the people who enjoy it, matters too. If we imply people are dumb for liking this or that, we’re undermining all art, including our own. If we imply characters of one gender, race or sexuality are less important than others, we’re making a statement that has an effect on the society we live in.

And some criticism is more powerful than others. If you call Superman a porn star, you’re dissing a white, heterosexual American male, a group that has enough power and enough representation in art to handle some trash-talk. But when you start attacking a female hero on the grounds of appearance, you’re adding your voice to a tidal wave of cultural pressures and expectations that already warp the young minds exposed to them. There’s no heroism, and precious little humour, in an easy target.

Like it or not, as a content creator, it is a part of your job to learn to understand, tolerate and live alongside all humanity. That’s what’s going to make you a great writer – knowing and caring about people. It’s a part of your job not to be a douchebag. So, y’know. Get on that.

And if you can’t, at least remember Ducard’s advice from Batman Begins (which Goyer co-wrote) and don’t do it in public. “Always mind your surroundings.”

The Blog Tour!

My blog today is part of the blog tour, where writers answer the same four questions about their work and career. Sally Abbott has passed the baton to me – or rather, passed on the four vital questions…

 

What am I working on?

Right now, I’m in the gap between finishing one series of Wolfblood and (hopefully!) starting to write a new one in the autumn – but I’m certainly not short of work! I’m writing an episode of a certain detective series (more will be revealed in due course.) I’m expecting to go pitch again to another existing series in a few weeks time, so I’m preparing story ideas to present to them – always a fun challenge, figuring out which of the many stories you could tell with the characters appeals most to you, and why…

Then there are new projects to be written! I’m starting to pitch ideas in the US now as well as the UK, so I’m working on a new feature script, an espionage thriller, for the US market, as well as ideas for the UK. Combining the two really is the best of both worlds for a writer – different markets, different kinds of stories, different ways of working…

How does my work compare to others of its genre?

I write a lot of different genres – science fiction, supernatural, action, adventure and thrillers – across TV and film, so that’s quite a complicated question. I’m undoubtedly a populist writer, someone who writes for the Saturday night blockbuster audience rather than the arthouse audience, but I still want my work to have depth and resonance. Some of the most profound and human fictional stories in the world are unabashed ‘genre’ pieces, that entertain as well as saying something about human nature, and that’s what I aspire to.

Why do I write what I do?

On a purely practical level, because my mother made the totally uncharacteristic decision to take me to see Star Wars when I was very young. And yes, she’s been regretting it ever since!

But really, I’ve always written to find out what it’s like to be someone else. I already know what ‘everyday’ life is like – now I want to know what it’s like to go into space, to be a soldier or a spy, to have superpowers, to deal with moral dilemmas no human has faced before. And by writing that story, I can live that story for a while.

How does my writing process work?

The more I write, the more convinced I am that careful preparation is the key. Though my process changes slightly from project to project, I usually start with a file box, and throw in everything I find that might relate to the project – photos, newspaper articles, scribbled scraps of dialogue or ideas for a scene. Then I’ll progress to index cards, each with a scene noted on it, and rearrange the order until I have some kind of structure and have filled in the gaps.

Then it’s time for the scene-by-scene outline – an outline so detailed it’s basically a script with no dialogue. This is a technique I’ve learned from writing for television, and now use on all my projects, because it encourages you to tell the story visually, and to iron out story problems before starting the script. Then, maybe after a few polishes of the outline, it’s time to begin the first draft…

Change It Up

So, one of the things I decided to do to my new script was to change the genders of the main characters –  protagonist and mentor-antagonist – to female. Because more decent roles for women are good, because anything that makes a genre script stand out from the pile is good, and because who doesn’t want Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Lawrence (for example) in their movie?

What I hadn’t anticipated was how thoroughly it would refresh and reinvigorate the other characters. Every character in this script has become more interesting and more nuanced, because they’re now working with a team leader who’s not the usual jaded middle-aged male. And that’s without even resorting to the cliched “woman in a man’s world” stuff. The way the protagonist relates to her new workmates and friends is subtly different. The fractious relationship of authority, friendship and betrayal between the two characters feels much more fresh and original too.

And this is why people keep asking for more female characters, more people of colour, more gay and lesbian characters, more of anyone who isn’t a straight white middle-class male. It’s because audiences crave new experiences – and changing up your characters also changes up your story, delivering novelty, interest and surprises on all levels.

So if your idea feels a little cliched, a little samey – change your characters!

The Scene By Scene Outline

The scene-by-scene outline, or step outline, is a major part of the television development process. Every script moves from an initial, less detailed outline to a scene-by-scene before reaching script stage. This allows the writer and the script editor to examine the structure of the episode before adding the additional complication of dialogue, and to ensure that the number of scenes is workable for the shooting schedule.

As an example, here’s a snippet from the scene by scene outline for Wolfblood season one, episode five:

EXT. FIELDS – NIGHT – 22:08 

Wolf-Maddy and wolf-Rhydian bound away into the night, playfully enjoying every second of the full moon…

INT. CORRIDOR/ THE K’S ROOM – HOTEL – NIGHT – 22:45

Shannon goes to bed. She peeks in the open door of the K’s room – they’re flapping round and chattering – and Maddy’s bed is still empty. This is deeply suspicious…

EXT. TOM’S ROOM – HOTEL – DAWN – 06:00 DAY TWO

Tom has fallen asleep propped up against the bedroom window, looking for Maddy. And there she is, sneaking back to the hotel – but luckily he doesn’t wake up until she’s gone…

INT. HALLWAY – HOTEL – DAWN – 06:05

Tom tiptoes downstairs – to find Rhydian explaining himself to Mr. Jeffries. “I must have been concussed after all, sir – I don’t remember anything after leaving the quiz, and then half an hour ago I woke up in a field!”

Jeffries is suspicious, but he settles for threatening a trip to hospital the moment they leave the island. Rhydian says he’ll make sure the Vaughans take him for a check-up… Unable to prove Rhydian’s done anything wrong, Jeffries stalks away.

Tom asks Rhydian a few questions of his own, playing matey with him – “You can tell me” – But Rhydian’s defensive. He particularly denies that Maddy was outside with him last night. Suspicious, Tom watches him pad upstairs to shower, bare feet leaving muddy footprints.

 

As you would expect, it’s a basic summary of each scene in order, without dialogue as such. These are fairly short scenes – dialogue-heavy or complex physical scenes like chases or fights would require more detail – but you get the idea.

They’re normally a feature of TV writing, but I’m increasingly convinced of the advantages of a scene-by-scene outline for all kinds of writing, including movies. And here’s why.

It forces you to be specific. It’s fatally easy in an outline to write, say, “Freda searches the house for the stolen money”, and then get to script stage and be unsure how to tackle that. In the scene-by-scene outline, you have to decide which rooms she searches in which order, what she finds and doesn’t find, and how she reacts to it all. No more fudging details.

It encourages you to be visual. When you know you’re not writing any dialogue yet, your creative mind compensates by supplying visual ways to tell the same story. I find I have a far stronger idea of what a scene’s going to look like and feel like if I write a scene-by-scene outline first.

It speeds up the process. The agonising thing about writing a brief outline is that it’s not a ‘real’ story. It’s a sort of extended TV Guide blurb, and it’s nowhere near as fulfilling as writing real scenes. The agonising thing about jumping straight to script stage, though, is that it’s so slow that it’s easy to lose the energy and the dramatic thread of your story. The scene-by-scene outline falls halfway between the two. It’s close enough to a script to feel satisfying and fun to write, but without dialogue or the full detail of description, you can get it down on the page much faster, allowing you to keep up the momentum at this difficult stage.

It forces you to define how the story advances in each scene. Yes, that scene in the Hagia Sophia is going to look wonderful – but what actually happens in it? What is the scene for? What changes during it? If you don’t know what to write in the scene-by-scene outline for this scene, chances are you don’t need the scene.

It gives you a real sense of the shape of your story, without the distractions of beautiful dialogue. The scene-by-scene outline is all about plot, and this is your last chance to get the plot sorted before you layer all that lovely dialogue and get over-attached to the current version of things…

So if you have trouble moving from the ‘good idea’ stage to the ‘first draft’ stage, scene-by-scene outlines might just be the tool for you!

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…

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?

An English Writer In Los Angeles!

Well, my trip is over, and it’s time to share the results of my experiences! What’s it really like to be a British writer on your first trip to LA? Here are a few thoughts…

LA is probably an easier town to live in than to visit. What I mean by that is: if you live here, then unless you suddenly produce the hottest spec in town, you’re probably only taking a couple of meetings a week. But if you’re visiting, you’re trying to pack in as many as possible, and that’s going to give you an inaccurate view of how hard it is to get around and how stressful the general atmosphere of the city is.

So bear in mind that what you’re experiencing isn’t necessarily how things are for everyone else. Don’t try to pack in too much unnecessary stuff like sightseeing – enjoy your trip, sure, but remember there’ll be plenty of time to see the sights when you’re a famous writer living in the Hollywood Hills!

LA does have public transport (though people will look shocked if you tell them you’re using it!) It’s even cheap – twenty dollars for a weekly pass on the basic bus network and the Metro (excluding some local or express services). What it will cost you is time. You can get anywhere, including the big studio lots in Burbank and elsewhere, by bus – the question is, will you have enough time between meetings? Basically, if you’re not driving, you’re going to need to use cabs to keep to your schedule, so carry several cab numbers and plenty of cash.

If you are driving, you have the advantage, but even so, time will be against you. Freeway congestion seems to spring up at random, and the speed limit on major routes through town can be as low as 25 mph. Plan meticulously!

The meeting culture is a little different to the UK. Over here, where the TV industry is scattered round the country and writers often live some distance from London, meetings are confirmed at least a week beforehand. In LA, where writers live in and around the city and execs’ schedules are constantly in flux, meetings are only arranged a few days in advance, confirmed the day before, and changes of time on the day are entirely possible. If you’re used to having everything set in stone a week beforehand, that’s disconcerting at first, but you’ll soon settle into it.

Everyone does everything. The traditional barriers between film and television are breaking down, and every company wants to generate all kinds of content. We’re seeing some of that in the UK, but as you’d expect, LA is way ahead of the curve on this. Be prepared to pitch any project at any meeting. And also have a few books, short stories etc that you’d be interested in adapting. Everyone loves pre-existing material!

Prepare for anything. You’ll need sun screen, decent sunglasses, lip balm and a good moisturiser, as well as a plentiful supply of bottled water. But LA is a desert city, and nights are chilly, especially this time of year. If your meeting is in Santa Monica or Venice, remember that ocean breeze and take an extra layer (especially if you don’t have a warm car to get back into).

If by some miracle you get to the vicinity of your meeting early, and decide to get out of the heat, you’re going to have to go further to find a coffee shop than you would in London. It’s not uncommon for several blocks of LA to be offices or housing, with no shops or cafes, especially off the main routes. It’s worth keeping an eye out for somewhere as you approach the building, so you have a place to circle back to. Again, it’s all about the planning!

And lastly – and mostly importantly to a British writer – yes, you really can get a decent cup of tea in LA!

Writing High-Concept Television

Recently I had a question from blog visitor petergosiewski about how to go about writing high-concept television, and I thought it was probably deserving of a complete post. So here we go…

In many ways, writing and selling high-concept television is like writing and selling any kind of television – it’s a combination of novelty, familiarity, clarity and luck! But there are specific difficulties with trying to sell high-concept ideas, and specific strategies that might help.

Be simple. In Inception, Eames says that in order to incept an idea into the subject’s head, you have to implant the simplest form of the idea. And pitching an idea to a producer is very much like performing inception. Until you have the simplest form of the idea, you won’t be able to sell it, and you probably won’t even be able to write it.

Wolfblood has evolved a fairly complex mythology, with wild packs, ancient traditions, ‘fixers’ helping out their fellow Wolfbloods, and all kinds of other rich details. But none of that was there at the beginning. The simplest form of the idea – the thing that sold – was basically  “A teenage girl who’s secretly a werewolf meets a boy with a very different view of their shared secret”.  In order to create the richness, we had to start with a simple foundation and build our way up from there.

As always – if you can’t describe your idea in one sentence, it isn’t ready yet…

Be character-focused. Whatever your concept, it has to be grounded in specific characters in order to be relatable. It’s how the concept affects those characters that will keep people watching, not the concept itself. No one watches a soap opera because they’re interested in (for example) the moral complexities of euthanasia: they watch because they want to see what lovely kindly Joan will do when ailing husband Fred begs her to help him die.

This means you want to find the characters who are most affected by the concept, and who are put through the greatest physical and emotional stresses by it. In the earliest version of Wolfblood, there was no Shannon – but we quickly realized we needed a character who would be profoundly affected by the secret Maddy had been keeping, someone whose whole life had been shaped by their secret, even though she didn’t know it yet…

Be sure that your concept will sustain a series. This is partly about the ‘story engine’ of your series: is there a murder each week, a secret to protect, a new enemy to fight, a life to save? Producers sometimes ask something like  “What’s the plot of episode two of season three?” – in other words, will we still be able to generate stories out of this universe at that stage?

But it’s also about finding a concept that has enough richness and flexibility to grow across series after series, and for each character to react to it in unique and interesting ways. This will sometimes require a radical shift in your story universe: Battlestar Galactica discovered new stories and new sides to its characters when it stranded most of the human survivors on a planet under Cylon rule for several episodes, for example.

Avoid the traps of destiny. Beware the ‘chosen one’ as a concept: you’re then completely at the mercy of your lead actor. If he or she decides to quit, your show’s over. Destiny and fate are probably also best avoided in any form –  audiences warm to heroes who forge their own path, not simply do what destiny has already predicted that they will…

Make sure your idea can be achieved on a budget. In Wolfblood, we can’t afford to show the characters in wolf-form every episode. What we can do is show them using their ‘wolf powers’ – sight, hearing, sense of smell – to overcome problems and save the day. That’s basically what makes the series achievable on our budget. So where are the low-budget elements of your idea that you can achieve every episode?

Appeal outside your genre. I know every nice girl loves a vampire these days, but there was a time when teen girls wouldn’t watch supernatural drama. But they watched Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Why? Because it had a competent, witty heroine who was kickass in the face of danger, yet struggled as much as they did with family, friends, school, and love life.

So how can you use casting, humour or subplots to expand your audience beyond the usual fans of your genre? The wider your appeal, the longer you stay on the air.

If anyone has any other thoughts on high-concept television, feel free to chip in…

I’m A Success, Get Me Out Of Here!

As much as it offends my English sense of modesty to admit it, I seem to be a bit of a success now. Certainly I’m not paying the bills by working in a supermarket any more, and that’s pretty much the definition of being a successful writer, right?
Now, I’m not complaining… Well, all right, I’m a writer, we do nothing but complain! However, I love my job and wouldn’t change it for the world. But what’s interested me over the last year or so is how much actually getting to do what you want changes how you do what you want. And I’ve been noticing a few things.
Something always has to be ’your day job’. Once, I was working the tills at a certain supermarket, and going home to work on Wolfblood evenings and weekends. So writing Wolfblood was the thing I really wanted to be doing. Now I am doing it… And suddenly the other projects I’m trusting to get off the ground seem a lot more exciting and attractive than doing yet another draft of episode five!
Part of that is the attraction of the new, of course. The only script that’s ever perfect is the one you’re just about to start writing, so that’s the one that seems the most fun. But also, to an extent, Wolfblood is my day job now. I love every second of it, but it’s somehow not quite the same experience.
There’s more to writing a TV series than just writing a TV series. There are public appearances, invitations to speak to students or at festivals, meetings, visits to the set, possibilities of spin-offs and merchandise to be dealt with, and of course, endless questions on the blog and on Twitter. Writing the show only takes about six months of the year, but non-writing stuff devours a surprising amount of the rest…
It’s harder to impose your own deadlines once you’ve got used to having them imposed for you. On Wolfblood, of course, when outlines and drafts are handed in is dictated by the production schedule – and there’s always a script editor eagerly awaiting the episode you know you should be working on. But it’s fatally easy to get used to that, and to think of any day when you don’t have an externally-imposed deadline as a potential day off!
Writing anything that isn’t Wolfblood is… odd. Working on a TV series, you’re constantly handing in versions of your work and getting feedback. Reactions are immediate and honest. Ideas are shaped collaboratively. And then you return to something you’re writing on spec, and there’s just you. No feedback, no one to share ideas with, no one to remind you not to blow the budget. It feels a bit weird – and frankly, rather scary…
In other words, however much of a “success” you become, you always go back to square one for the next project. That new idea doesn’t come pre-approved, there’s no one to force you to work on it, and there’s no one rooting for it but you.
And surely that’s a good thing?