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.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Looking Back

Given this blog has been around for a year now (Happy Birthday blog!), I thought it was time to look back and see if I’d learnt anything.

Looking back over my previous posts I can see that:

  • I’m more interested in questions than answers. The posts I find most interesting are the ones that explore inner conflicts, live issues, and conflicting positions, rather than the posts that try to provide the definitive answer to a problem.
  • I suffer from perfectionism. Just getting stuff done in a systematic and consistent fashion is helping to balance that out.
  • Writing is getting easier for me. It no longer tends to put me in a bad mood. In fact, I’m more conscious of the ways it puts me in a good mood.
  • Some of my projects have been put to bed (either permanently or temporarily). I’m now solely working on The Gap, and hope to work on The Kingdoms once that is done. I have no further plans, because I can sense how much time and effort I am going to put into The Gap. At the same time, I believe I will finish The Gap and get it made.
  • I drink ginger beer now rather than Coke.

Monday, June 1, 2009

How I Write: In the Flow (2)

Today I've had one of the best days of writing I've ever had. Writing today was easy - a state of 'flow'.

What I particularly liked about today's flow state was it felt like a natural space for me to be in. I woke up this morning and I knew that I wanted to write. And that's what I've done, calmly and methodically for the majority of the day. I'd take breaks and then I'd come back to the writing again - not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I didn't feel driven. I felt right.

I've avoided the idea of writing as a full-time occupation for a number of years now, partly because I felt that I wouldn't be able to get the most out of my days, as I regularly find writing so hard that I couldn't spend most of the day doing it.

If I was able to write like today on an ongoing basis - even an occasional ongoing basis - then that reason no longer stacks up.

Because my flow state today was easy. It was effective. It was lasting. And it feels like it will be back.

Here's hoping.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Why I Write: To Grow Myself

I’ve been realising recently that I really love growing myself, or helping others to grow.

What do I mean by ‘growing myself’? I think it’s about deepening my understanding so I change the way I relate to others, my environment, and even myself.

I love this process of progressively understanding something at a deeper level. For instance, I’m really enjoying working on The Gap, the script I’m writing. As my understanding of the script develops, the way I relate to it changes. I become more and more capable of writing it!

(Plus The Gap is all about people who are growing themselves. So in the process of writing The Gap, I am growing myself by writing about people growing themselves...)

This is also something I find hugely rewarding about my day job. I am encouraged to grow in my job and develop my thinking, and I’m also asked to coach other people to help develop themselves.

I will not be tomorrow who I am today – though mostly it’s hard to tell any difference! I have trouble remembering how I’ve changed. Writing this blog is one way for me to remember who I used to be...

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Albion - Don Quixote

Warning: Contains spoilers from a 400 year-old book.

I’ve recently finished reading Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes. It’s amazing how a novel so old can seem so fresh. I guess that’s why they call it a classic.

Anyway, the purpose of this post is to explore the similarities and differences between Don Quixote and my (as yet unwritten) Albion project.

One of my concerns going into Don Quixote was that I’d find all the ground I wanted to cover in Albion had already been done. Luckily I’ve found these two are not covering the same ground at all. In fact, I think they’re from opposite sides of the planet.


Both stories are comedies about mad characters who embrace a chivalric identity – Don Quixote de la Mancha in Don Quixote and King Arthur in Albion. Both characters are so strong in their convictions that they are able to draw others into their madness: Don Quixote has his faithful squire, Sancho Panza; King Arthur has an entire town (and even a country in one iteration).


Don Quixote is a sustained work of satire. The intention is always to lampoon notions of chivalry by exploding them against the real world. Don Quixote holds up our romantic notions and asks: do these hold up when you test them against the way the world really is? Or are we just making fools of ourselves?

By the end of the novel, the romantic ideal of the pastoral life (a common theme at the time Cervantes was writing) is skewered in precisely the same way as the romantic ideal of chivalry. In Don Quixote, illusions mislead us into folly. Those follies are amusing for the reader, but are a warning against taking our illusions literally. Don Quixote is a comic novel with deeply serious intent.

Albion is more forgiving of illusion – in fact, foolishness is more likely to arise from being unwilling to embrace illusion. Albion is dealing with a world in need of romanticism. The spreading madness of the King goes to the heart of that – chivalry in Albion is an idea whose time has come. Romanticism may not be enough, but it’s a needed step.

And Albion isn't a satire. A comedy, but not a satire.

So ultimately I feel Don Quixote and Albion are quite opposite in intent and approach. Which makes me feel better - I’m glad I’m not in competition with Cervantes!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

What are my goals as a writer?

I came up with this question for discussion at our most recent NZWG Wellington Writer’s Group. Having set it, I then had to try and answer it!

I came up with these answers:

In one year

I want to have finished a first and second draft of The Gap (the script I’m working on), and started to assemble a project team that can actually get it made.

In five years

I want to have a slate of projects with some level of funding attached, so I can reduce the level of non-writing work I have to do.

In ten years

I want to be able to make a good living out of writing things that I want to write!

Now that I’ve defined my goals, I want to think further about how to achieve those goals, and what the obstacles are.

How about you? What are your goals? And do you find goal-setting useful?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Watchmen, The Room, and the Shared Experience

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing two films recently that I enjoyed very much, for wildly different reasons. What I want to focus on in this post is the audience response to these films: in one case, unusually divergent, in the other case, eerily similar.

Watchmen has led to a lot of debate amongst people I know and fellow bloggers. Opinion is definitely polarised – and in my opinion, more so than most films. People are responding to the same film in very different ways. I liked the sex scene set to 'Hallelujah' – for others, it’s the height of ludicrousness.

Which brings me to the other extreme.

On Monday, I had the pleasure of seeing The Room for the first time. If you enjoy 'bad movies', you have to see this film. Put simply, it’s the greatest 'bad movie' I have ever seen. The Room is so funny and particular that watching it was a sublime experience, and one I'm looking forward to repeating.

And something I found particularly fascinating was that The Room manages to create a very similar shared experience across viewers.

The four of us who saw it found it hilarious. We laughed at the same points – we made a number of ‘original’ wisecracks. Following up on the film the next day, we realised that most of our off-the-cuff observations were echoed across the Internet – sometimes down to nearly exactly the same line. What we found funny about the film was precisely the same stuff that the legion of Internet/LA fans find funny.

As a result of this, The Room has actually built up a ritualistic set of audience responses in the same way as the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Self-styled super-fans enjoy the shared experience of shouting lines (and spoons!) at the screen. It sounds like they get pretty much the same experience time and time again.

It got me thinking about authorial intention in cinema.

Is The Room a success for delivering such a consistent response, and Watchmen a failure because the audience responds so differently?

Is the aim of screenwriting to get the audience to feel a certain way about your work? And do you fail as a screenwriter if the audience doesn't respond as you expected?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Why I Write: For the Money (2)

It’s hard to argue with the idea that screenwriters should be properly recompensed for their hard work, and that they should insist on decent writing rates and conditions.

But equally it’s hard to argue with the screenwriter that is willing to work for free in order to ‘break into the industry’ or simply get their vision up on screen.

I can see the virtue in both sides of this argument. So this is a debate where polarity management comes in useful; polarity management being the idea that apparently opposite sides of an argument can each have a good case to make, and the aim is to acknowledge and manage the debate rather than claim one side as the winner.

Helen and I were talking about this yesterday, and we came up with a principle that I feel incorporates the two sides of the argument for me. It’s this:

If someone is going to make a profit out of your work, then you as the screenwriter should be making a profit as well.

As screenwriters we don’t want to get ripped off. So it’s up to us to protect the investment that we’ve put into our work. And therefore to insist on decent writing rates and conditions.

But the ‘if’ in the principle above is a big one. A lot of films aren’t really making money, so where is this profit we’re meant to be earning as a screenwriter going to come from? So even though we should protect ourselves, we should be realistic about the expected return.

And sometimes that return won't be money - there are different kinds of 'profit'. As a screenwriter, you want to make sure that your input into the finished film is properly recognised, and therefore you're rewarded in that way.

Something that further confuses the situation in the film industry is that it can often be hard to tell who’s making money and who isn’t. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Hix has linked to a very good post about Monkey Points. The key idea: make sure you sure you’re in line for a percentage of the gross profit rather than net profit. You’ll probably never see another cent if you wait for the net profit to come through.

Oh, and here’s a link to my earlier post on writing for the money as well.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Why I Write: To Share

I’ve realised that one reason I write is to share.

As a concept, sharing goes a long way towards explaining why I write. (I’m not sure I need to explain why I write, but long-term readers of this blog will know that’s one of my interests!)

Sharing to me suggests that my script/film is an act of approaching the audience and saying:

“Take a look at this. I think it’s interesting. If you think it’s interesting too, let’s explore it together.”

Sharing implies a mutual process. As a writer, I need to be able to show why I am interested in my script. And I'm asking, not telling, an audience member to engage with the work.

Sharing starts with the writer and an act of offering something up. But it’s not a solitary act.

I’ve often heard writers say they write to communicate. I’ve said this myself, but never been entirely happy with the concept. ‘Writing to communicate’ strikes a chord with me, but the chord doesn’t sound quite right – like there’s one note out of place.

The thing is - writing to communicate sounds a little one way to me. Like I’m the only one with something to say, and everyone needs to shut up and listen to me.

I’m naturally uncomfortable holding the floor like that. I don't want to hold a megaphone and force the audience to listen to me. I don’t want that responsibility for starters!

I prefer the idea of sharing. Offer something to the audience. See if they’re as interested as you are. And if they are, let them do some of the work as well…

Thursday, March 12, 2009

How I Write: In The Flow

On Sunday, I found my writing flow. I thought I'd write down how I found it and what it is, partly as a reminder for myself for when I don't have it!

First thing Sunday, I was working on The Gap but finding the process hard going. I wanted to be doing anything else, and found myself continually procrastinating.

More than that - I realised I was stressed.

I was stressed in exactly the same way I would be if I was at a dinner party where I wasn't enjoying myself, but was making an effort to look like I was having a great time.

That realisation woke me up. Instead of being in touch with the writing, I was at a distance. And I was finding working like that was a draining experience. It was tiring me out!

So I did something totally different. I wrote a dialogue between my two main characters.

I let them talk about their issues, but in a very unreal way - something I'd never use in the finished script. I let them be my mouthpieces and just let them talk about what they were concerned about. Or rather, what I was interested in.

What I was looking for was not to get to the heart of them, but to get to the heart of my interest in the script. The nugget, to throw back to an old idea.

And I got into the flow. The writing wasn't hard anymore. It was rejuvenating actually. I wrote the first scenes for The Gap that I thought were actually good.

I haven't been able to totally hold on to Sunday's flow experience. It hasn't taken permanently. However I have been able to get back to feelings similar to it. And I'm continuing to write stuff which I think is better. So I think Sunday has made a lasting impact on me.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

How I Write: Maturing My Scripter Self

I've realised that I have at least two writing 'selves'.

The first, which I'll call the Planner, is my more familiar self.

In my Planner self, I'm figuring the script out from a distance - I don't want to get too close. I'm considering the questions of theme, of structure, of the purpose of a script. I come up with plot, characters, and situations, and can write a million and one notes (for the current script, 'The Gap', Hix and I have put together a Foolscap File Box full of notes...) I can stay in this Planner self long enough to kill a script - to have written it to death in my head without actually having written it at all.

The second self, which I've been experiencing again as I start to write 'The Gap', is my Scripter self. In this self, I'm actually writing, but in many ways I'm running scared. I'm usually just trying to blat it out. Thinking? Consideration? Who needs it? I just want to get the scene written as fast as possible and get it done.

The Scripter self picks up directly from the point I left him, which happens to have been the moment I finished working on my previous script 'Run' last year. I use the same style, the same tone, the same voice for the characters... And I can sense my Planner frustration (what's happened to all that good work we were doing!!) with the results the Scripter self is firing out.

I'm not suggesting that this differentiation of writing 'selves' is utterly unique to me - in fact I hope that other writers reading this post may be able to relate. But I am very conscious that in my case, I've spent a lot of time in my Planning self for the last ten years, and far less time in my Scripter self.

Consequently I'm feeling that my Scripter self has a lot of maturing to do. I need to be able to loosen up and consider options while I'm actually writing. I want to be able to calmly think about the best ways to express character and the heart of the scene, rather than always going for the easiest course, just because I want to be done with it as fast as possible. If I want to be a professional writer, then I need to be a lot more comfortable in my Scripter self.

I'm hoping that my Planner self can help my Scripter self, so that this maturing process doesn't take years! But it seems to me that getting more comfortable with my Scripter self is the most important thing I can be doing right now as a writer. So if it takes years, it takes years!

Finally, I'm sure there's some things my Planner self can learn from my Scripter self too - like when to let go and just do it!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

How I Write: By Ambush

Yesterday I started writing 'The Gap'.

I wasn't expecting to. Well, I knew I was heading in that general direction, but I knew that I wanted to write a step-by-step outline for the project first, and knowing me that would have taken at least a month...

So I knew I wasn't ready. But then, all of a sudden, I was.

I picked up my pen, grabbed the back of an old script (which is what I use for scrap-paper), and worked my way through my first scene. (Not a good first scene, but it'll get better). And past that first scene I can feel a whole reservoir of words.

So, I've officially started writing 'The Gap'.

Thinking about it today, I've realised that starting to write my last script 'Run' was exactly the same. I don't see the actual writing coming.

I dawdle around the edge of the pool, afraid to dive in. And eventually there's a moment when I realise 'Hey, I could just leap in now'. So I dive in, swim around, and think 'There, that's not so bad'. And then I feel ashamed about the dawdling before taking the dive, and all that thinking work feels like procrastination...

So either I have to sneak up on the script or the script has to sneak up on me.

How about you? Does the writing take you by surprise?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Untruthfully Ugly

I’ve been interested in polarities lately – the key idea being that apparent opposite sides of an argument can each have a good case to make, hence the fact there’s a clash in the first place. I think polarities are rich for storytelling and expect I’ll talk more about my fascination with them in later posts.

For this post, I want to focus on an element of storytelling that isn’t quite this type of polarity but is still based around opposites. My focus is this – that as a storyteller, I can tell a story about the ‘Good life’ through portraying the good, or through the total inverse, portraying the bad.

I’m working on a science fiction movie called The Gap. A key aspect of this project is portraying the ‘Good life’ – as in a better way to live, which I admire – through the struggles of the two main characters. I want both of them to be heroes, by struggling their way through adversity and embodying virtues that I think are admirable.

Pretty standard, right? But not the only way to talk about the ‘Good life’.

Think about ‘Requiem for a Dream’ (spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t seen it). The characters in that story are terribly damaged by the end – perhaps not irrevocably – but still, as a friend of mine put it recently, in a state of suffering. It’s a traumatic movie, but I believe for good purpose. I believe the story is all about showing how bad life can get, and giving me (the viewer) a warning – this what life can be like. Avoid the abyss. Appreciate what I’ve got. In other words, value the Good life.

I’m fascinated that both approaches are effective. How can a writer do two opposite things and yet achieve the same overall effect?

I sense that a key concept at the heart of all this is authenticity. If a story is convincingly told, and rings with the truth, then I am encouraged to consider the relation of that story to my own life through the force of my engagement with it. Basically, if I care about the characters and believe in them, then I’ll compare their life to mine, and make my own moral judgements accordingly.

If, on the other hand, the depiction is shallow or cliched (a Goody-Goody-Two-Shoes character who I neither like or believe in), then that work can turn me away in horror. I’ll recoil from the depiction, but hopefully not from my own moral values.

Thinking about this has helped me articulate a problem I have with censorship. If a storyteller uses their work to challenge something repugnant by its truthful depiction (the rationalisations of Humbert Humbert in Lolita spring to mind), then the work should be celebrated for its moral effect rather than condemned or held up for censorship. Whereas a work that more falsely glamourised the actions of Humbert Humbert (simply by not ‘nailing’ the truth of the character) could be a nasty piece of work.

It’s a risk we run as storytellers. We’d better get it right, or it can get ugly.