Monday, June 6, 2011

What have you learned about screenwriting lately?

So, tomorrow night is the Wellington Writers Group meeting. I've passed on the role of co-ordinator of the group, but I have set the discussion topic for tomorrow night, which is:

“What have you learned about screenwriting lately?"

Short answer: a lot (I think).

I recently submitted an hour-long pilot episode into a NZWG screenwriting contest. For me, the simple act of completing this script in a straightforward manner within the set deadline was an accomplishment and a joy.

What I learnt about screenwriting from completing this:

I went into the writing process with three principles in descending order of importance. These three principles worked very well for me.

Principle #1: Deal with my emotions about writing as I go.

I have issues. Man, do I have issues. And I’ve found that feeling those issues while I’m writing doesn’t really help me write. It’s more likely to make me want to go hide in a dark cupboard.

However, if I face up to my emotions throughout the writing process, I’ve found that I can explore and address the negative feelings as I go. Then, once they’ve died down a bit, I can get on with the actual process of writing.

Principle #2: Feel positive about the direction I’m heading in.

What should I do when I realise I’m not happy with the script I’m working on?

People tell me: you should just keep writing a script to the end – you’ll learn things through the writing. Hmm, well maybe. But should I really spend weeks of my life writing something I don’t believe in when I know I need to rewrite it? Particularly if I have a deadline?

My way through this is to check in with myself about the script as I’m writing it. Outlines and other ‘higher-level’ documents can be great for this. The question is: am I feeling happy with where this is going? If not, what can I adjust about the script from here on in? I can come in and mop up the old stuff later.

Note I do not ask myself: is this script perfect? Because it won’t be. And that question can be a terrible trap of procrastination for us perfectionists.

Principle #3: Keep working solidly within the timeframes I’ve laid out

I stuck to my deadlines on this project. I worked solidly and didn’t procrastinate too much. That way I had time to deal with the problems that inevitably emerged.

Outside of these principles, I also learned how important it is for me to have an outside voice to provide feedback on a project: a reflector. I need someone to provide an independent mirror to my project, to give me that perspective that I just can’t see. I had two reflectors on this project, hix and Lyse. Thanks to them both.

Giving myself a fair bit of time is good. I do work well under pressure; but I work even better under pressure with enough time to turn out something good. And allowing some time to reflect between different iterations of a project; that’s important too.

How about you? What have you learnt about writing recently?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Lots of things a good writer needs

Picking up from my last post, I asked my writing group to come up with the things a good writer needs. Thanks to Jackie, Malcolm, Warren, Steven, Jade, Steve, Ben, and Matt for the suggestions below (hope I haven't forgotten anyone!)

In no particular order, a good writer needs:

A desire for continuous improvement
An audience
Something to write on
The ability to adapt
Joy in Writing
Basic composition skills
Obsession/Inner necessity
Honest and reliable feedback
An ability to listen to feedback
A comfortable emotional state for their writing
Lots of ideas
Access to the industry
Social skills
The ability to know when to quit.

Anything we missed out?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Three things a good writer needs

It's writers group time again. The topic for tomorrow night's meeting is:

"What are three things you think a good screenwriter needs?"

A deliberately broad topic that allows people to take it as seriously or as lightly as they like. What I'm hoping is to get a wide spectrum of ideas by asking people not to repeat the previous ideas if possible. So if we get 10 people along to the meeting, we might even get 30 ideas.

I'll start it off with these three things that I think a good screenwriter needs:

1) Joy in what they're doing.

The first point I thought of was 'perseverance' (which was funnily enough the first response from someone else attending tomorrow's meeting).

Thinking about it further though, I revised this point to a writer's joy in the act of writing. I totally think a writer needs perseverance in order to stick out writing long enough to become a good writer. But I think enjoying what you're doing will help you stick with it and give you resilience for the bad times. And hey, if you're not enjoying something, you've got to really ask why you're doing it in the first place...

2) An audience

The audience doesn't need to be big, but I think every writer needs someone. Someone needs to read and appreciate your work. Sometimes I'm my only audience for a project, but even then, I'm acting the role of the audience!

3) A life

After all, what else is there to write about?

I've got quite a few other points, but I want to keep it to three for now. I'll be interested to hear what people bring up at the meeting, and I'll aim to post a list of them here on the blog.

How about you? What are your three points? No repeating!

Monday, May 31, 2010

Who do I base my characters on?

So, writers group tomorrow night. The topic for this meeting (suggested by my lovely wife - thanks hon!) is:

"Who do you base your characters on?"

A deliberately provocative question I know, because maybe you don't base your characters on anyone. Well that's fine, but I sure do.

I've figured out four different approaches that I take to creating characters.

1. I base them on other people

I find other people to be an interesting and ready source of character traits and motivations. They're everywhere! The plus side of this approach is that I'll never run out of characters.

The down sides are that I tend to feel guilty about 'stealing' from real people; or otherwise I feel afraid of offending friends/acquaintances/enemies when they realise that a character is based on them. The latter issue is not something I should worry about too much... I know that Hix based characters in Hopeless on some mutual friends, but I co-wrote the script with him and even I didn't realise that. And those people who did see themselves in the characters in Hopeless tended to be wrong. People are complex, so really as a writer you're unlikely to nail anyone so neatly and completely as to cause a blow.

2. I base them on me

In some ways, I know myself better than I know anyone else. And taking my own concerns and injecting them into characters is a good way to ensure that I'll be interested in them, even if no one else is. It gives the characters and the script a bit more dynamism if they're working out my issues. So the plus side of this approach is that it's personal. The down side is that it's personal.

3. I base them on other characters

Ideas are often not as fresh as they first seem, and characters can suffer from this problem along with other ideas. I often find that my first iterations of a character are not that original, and that I've probably snatched the idea of the character from some other story. So the plus side of this approach is that it's easy. The down side is it's lazy.

4. A mixture of all of the above.

This is actually what I do in reality, until I can't remember where the character came from. Once you fall in love with them, it doesn't matter anymore. That's when they feel real and as if they didn't come out of you at all!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Why do I write for film?

I co-ordinate a Wellington writers group, and tomorrow night the topic is:

"Why have you decided to be a screenwriter/playwright/whatever you are? What makes that particular medium special to you?"

Why this topic? Well, longer time readers of this blog will know that I am narcissistically fascinated in my own desire to write. This blog began as ‘Why I Write?’ and many of the older posts are explorations of answers to that question.

So getting a bit deeper than that, I think I’m interested in why we choose the mediums that we do. I see our choices as a complex mix of contemporary forces and personal expression. Screenwriting in particular is a modern phenomenon, and in that respect a desire to be a screenwriter strikes me as almost faddish. If we were in the 18th century, none of us would be screenwriters. Screenwriting appears to me to be the young popular medium that has overshadowed all others, at least in the circles I move in (novelists/playwrights/poets/comic book artists/graffiti artists/Hallmark card writers feel free to blow me out of the water...) So I look at my own embrace of screenwriting with a certain degree of distrust; do I do it just because it’s the popular choice, or for more intrinsic reasons?

Well, there’s certainly some things I enjoy about film as a medium (I’ll talk about film, rather than TV, which I have also written for, but I’ll try to keep this post under control by dealing just with film.)

Film is fast – stories tend to be less than two hours long. That encourages brevity, which actually plays to a key strength of mine; I’m too lazy to write long. And I admire brevity – I like condensing material to its essence. I’ve never forgotten Hix telling me about what he did with the earlier drafts of Hopeless before I came on board as a co-writer; he talked about how he combined multiple characters into single characters, giving the single characters the strengths of the multiple ones. I like that kind of work - boiling things down to create a headier brew. Film demands you do that because you don’t have time.

Film is a collaborative medium, and I like others to read my work and get behind it. Film requires that I get a team around me; and if I can get a team around me, that feels validating for the work I’ve created. One of the reasons I started writing screenplays was because others were doing it, and that meant that I could do it with them.

I do love watching films, though I don’t think a great film stands above reading a great novel for me in terms of enjoyment. There are plenty of films that are etched in my brain though; and so I do feel a debt of love for the medium. I want to excel within it because I know how great it can be.

And finally film is something I’ve had some success in, and I know something about how to write screenplays. That doesn’t answer why I started screenwriting, but it does go some way to answer why I continue in it.

There are downsides to screenwriting too: most commercially minded cinema no longer especially interests me so I have trouble picturing a place for myself in the industry; the collaborative nature of film-making has the downside (as well as advantage) of being dependent on others for success; film is expensive and the competition for funding is tough.

Other mediums interest me too: theatre and novel writing are both starting to whisper to me. But I’ll stick with screenwriting in the medium term at least; I know it and love it, and want to consolidate the lessons that I’ve learnt.

Plus I need to finish something – so it might as well be that screenplay I’m in the middle of (Run), and then that other screenplay I’m in the middle of (The Gap)… That should keep me going for a while.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Why I Write: To Surprise

This post is about what I learnt about myself after getting through my Dip yesterday.

But first I want to talk about what I used to do when I was nine*.

When I was nine*, I spent my breaks at school in the classroom constructing a maze, that eventually grew to six full scrapbook pages. My maze was so devious that I spent one entire scrapbook page drawing a dead end. My reasoning was this - no one would believe that they could possibly be in a dead end. Who would believe that I had spent all that time and effort to simply lead them down a false trail? It would be too big a surprise for any of my nine year-old classmates to even fathom.

(And so it proved - they all gave up on my maze. And having lost my audience, I gave up too.)

After getting through my Dip, I realised yesterday that the same devious urge to surprise and mislead my audience still exists today inside me.

I like writing because I like to surprise people. Writing for me is a way of presenting creative surprises, shocks, twists, and turns.

A script for me is a vehicle for delivering those surprises to an audience. I'm willing to go to ridiculous effort, years of my life, in order to present something different, something which surprises and astounds.

One of the reasons I struggle with scripts is because I often forget the surprises that are in them, given the huge amount of time it takes to finish. I have to apply this lesson to The Gap, and remember the surprises that someone should get approaching the story fresh. And I need to keep projects going until they're made so I get to deliver those surprises.

I can see now that this wish to surprise has been a key driver in my creative writing/paid work/humour/this blog/my approach to just about everything. And it's taken a Dip to see it...

* Approximate age only

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Why I Don't Write: The Dip

I got through a Dip today.

I was asking myself whether I should continue writing. Not whether I should quit writing The Gap and write something else, but whether I should quit writing altogether.

At the same time as I was going through the Dip, I knew that the Dip itself wasn't actually a bad thing. If I did decide to stop writing, then that would be the right decision for me. But if I didn't stop writing (which I have to admit in my heart of hearts seemed the far more likely scenario), then I would learn something important about myself.

I didn't quit. I did learn something important about myself.

My next post will be on what that was.