Saturday, 28 November 2009

Seeing further

I have it on good authority that, in addition to reading the best of the books about screenwriting, the next activity we should engage in is actually watching stuff. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? What may seem to others (friends, colleagues, members of the family) to be lounging around on the sofa is really serious research (and please note that I do not use adverbs lightly!).

In the past, we were always... (how can I put this?) reasonably careful about what we watched. I think this was largely because we didn’t want to waste our time and liked to think of ourselves as being... sort of discerning.

Well, do you know what? We have discovered that we have been missing some good programmes and films that, before doing this screenwriting degree, we wouldn’t have considered watching, either because of who was in them or the poor poster designs or the titles...

But now we realise we have been missing out. So by broadening our boundaries – by just a little, mind, because there’s still some dodgy material out there – we have enjoyed some amazing stories.

“A person can grow only as much as his horizon allows.”
John Powell, (date unknown)

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Not beyond recognition

A number of years ago – I think it was the year I interviewed the actress, Shirley Eaton, but couldn’t swear to it – my current wife bought me a copy of The Complete Book of Scriptwriting by J. Michael Straczynski. Although aimed at the US market, this book provided a wealth of information on the dos and don’ts of script formatting, structuring, how to work in the Hollywood industry – and there was even a section on writing scripts for the stage. To me, at that time, it was the scriptwriting bible; indeed, it was my only source of reference. Since then, thanks to the pointers made by my tutors at UCF, now I have a pile of nine similar books on the subject and I couldn’t do without any one of them.

Anyway, I digress. Mr Straczynski’s book includes, purely as an example of correct script formatting, the opening sequence of a film that had been “optioned repeatedly by studios and independent producers” (p.165) but had yet to be accepted. The script was called, The Strange Case of Christine Collins. When I read it all those years ago, I wanted to know what came next, it was so gripping and drenched with atmosphere (that’s a good thing).

Fast-forward to 2009 and we are watching the film trailers at the beginning of a DVD (we usually skip these, but for some reason we didn’t, on this occasion) when there was just a morsel of recognition that I picked out. You’ve guessed it – the film has now been made. It is now Changeling and its protagonist is called Christine Collins.

The moral of this story is that sometimes it can be many years before even established screenwriters get to see the results of their hard work.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Underground writing

‘What choo wearing big boots for?’ Sharon always spoke as if she had just walked on the set of Eastenders.
     I told her I’d been doing research for a screenplay and continued tapping away on the laptop.
     She took off her coat with the usual flourish and, as if by magic, the duster appeared in her hand. I knew what was coming next.
     ‘You know I’m not really a cleaner, don’t you?’
     I sighed. ‘Yes, Sharon. I know you’re not really a cleaner.’ Trying to get the timing just right – for once – I was about to launch into the obligatory resolution, when—
     ‘I’m really an actress.’ Damn! She had beaten me to it yet again. I can never get it right. And to release me from my usual embarrassing apologetic grunt, she went on. ‘Been anywhere nice?’
     ‘Down a mine,’ I said. Surely, that was a conversation-stopper.
     ‘You written anyfing nice?’
     I said no.
      ‘What about vat script of yours on the web?’
     I was impressed. Finally, Sharon had moved into the 21st century. She must have spotted my surprise.
     ‘Little Greville found it, not me.’ Dust, dust, dust. ‘Wouldn’t mind a part in vat.’
     I was about to explain that—
     ‘But I’m too old.’
     She beat me to it. Again.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Selling oneself

Last Tuesday’s online conference with my fellow students and tutor for the Professional Contexts course was, to put it mildly, entertaining. The workload had been turned up and passions and frustrations were running high – especially when someone asked why we Brits should use US spellings.

The answer was that the marketplace is much bigger over there. But why should we rearrange our language just to suit them? Why not the other way around?

There were two students who bitterly resented US spellings (e.g. travelling becomes traveling, centre becomes center and cheque becomes check, which is ludicrous). The other students accepted that we should, well, accept it.

I said, “So it’s down to pride or money.”

If I had dared to make the discussion actually boil instead of simmer, I might have suggested that in bowing to the US market, with its passion for simplistic spellings, we Brits are becoming “literary whores”. It seems to be about selling our national pride.

“No. It’s about selling your book,” my current wife said.

Oh, well, when you put it like that...

Friday, 13 November 2009

Blast from the past

I’m not a huge fan of short stories. I think the reason I wouldn’t go out of my way to read one is because I like to get to know the characters in some depth, which is unlikely when reading – and indeed writing – something so short.

Having said that, earlier this year I came up with one, The Trap, set in a Victorian mine in the early part of the 19th century before the Mines and Colliers Act of 1842 made it illegal, amongst other things, to employ women and children under ten working underground.

This is about a young girl who must work in horrendous conditions. I had “created” her back in 1992 when I first discovered that there had been a warren of such mines up until the early 1900s, not far from where I live. Having “carried” her, now, for more years than she has been alive at the time of the story, I know her rather well – far better than it is possible to show in such a brief window into the past.

I have now converted The Trap into a ten-minute screenplay that can be read here. There’s an enormous amount of back-story concerning this girl and I think I will be working with her again before very long.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Greville and I

Greville shuffled through the door. He never knocks.
      ‘You look knackered,’ he said. I swear he’s becoming more perceptive the older he gets.
      So how old is he? I can’t remember and it’s such a long time since I entered his date of birth on some obscure tax form or other. He was seventeen when we set him on... or was he sixteen? He must be in his twenties by now, although he doesn’t look any older than the day Sharon prompted him to ask me for a job.
      ‘Late night, was it?’ He always made it sound as if I spent eons of time out in the pubs and clubs and generally enjoying myself in a state of nocturnal intoxication. He must have caught the beginnings of an annoyed look and he added, rather hurriedly, ‘Oh, not that Falmouth thing again.’
      ‘Been learning about editing,’ I said. That should have been enough to put him off.
      ‘Oh... full stops and all that?’
      ‘Yes – and apostrophes.’ We’d had many a heated discussion in the past about those ‘uppy comma thingies’ as he used to call them. ‘And grammar.’
      ‘Oh, you mean split infinitives and copulative verbs?’
      There was an uneasy silence.
      I took a deep breath. ‘Look, Greville, what do you want?’
      ‘Just passing.’
      ‘Well, would you mind leaving my laptop and I to get on with—’
      ‘Laptop and me,’ he said.
      ‘That's Laptop and me – object pronoun.’ He winked at me and left.

Friday, 6 November 2009

A severe case of WAS

All writers are guilty of it: it’s natural and it can be a pain in the nether regions. What is it? I call it Writers’ Avoidance Syndrome or WAS for short.

It can manifest itself in many ways, for example, when you get up and the story has been bubbling away in the back of your mind (SAS: Subconscious Advancement of Story), you sit down to begin work then suddenly decide to bake some scones, wash your hair or gather up the autumn leaves.

See what I mean? Such resistance can be lethal when you should be writing but instead feel compelled to do something - anything - else and it can show itself in many forms, some of which I will mention from time to time.

So the leaves are all gone, the plastic storage boxes are crammed with cherry scones and what is left of my hair is spotless.

Any other suggestions, please...?

Monday, 2 November 2009

Leaving the view

The leaves have now fallen from the red oak that, during the summer, helps to shield our view from the lane – not that I’m trying to hide away; it’s just that I find trees are better to look at than the houses.

“But you don’t have to look at those houses,” I hear you say.

That’s right and I have tried closing my eyes, but then I just fall over. It’s a good job that I know how to land.