Wednesday, December 31, 2003

I had a comment on one of my previous posts asking how to start screenwriting, so I thought that instead of just emailing a one-off reply that would disappear forever into the ether, I ought to just write down everything that I’ve learnt over the last six months and post it up for posterity.

This isn’t a definitive guide to beginning screenwriting. I’m not even sure it’s the most useful guide on the net, but it’s my experience and you can take from it whatever is helpful and ignore the rest.

So, here goes:

First. Scour the internet for information on script writing and films. Download the scripts to films you particularly like and read them. Make notes from them – which bits worked, which didn’t. Read them whilst watching films and make more notes. There are loads of sites about film and script writing around, but here are some good ones to start with:

The Script Factory
So You Wanna Sell A Script?
Drew’s Script-o-Rama
Done Deal

Almost all websites have a links page, so you can follow the link trail around the web to your heart’s content, digging up useful wee nuggets and also, unfortunately, a whole load of tosh.

Second. Read books about script writing and story telling. Lots of them. As many as you can lay your hands on. There are a million and one books on screenwriting out there, but here is my pick:

Story, Robert McKee, ISBN: 0413715507
The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler, ISBN: 0330375911
Writing the Character-centered Screenplay, Andrew Horton, ISBN: 0520084578
Screenwriting, Lew Hunter, ISBN: 0709054440
Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger, ISBN: 0573699216
The Screenwriter's Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting and Selling Your Script, David Trottier, ISBN: 1879505444
The Definitive Guide to Screenwriting, Syd Field, ISBN: 0091890276 (or anything else by Field)

(Note: All of these books have been recommended to me by one person or another, although I haven’t read them all. Some of them are on my Amazon wishlist, in case anyone should fancy rectifying that last point.)

A word of warning, though – don’t get too caught up in slavishly doing everything you’re told to do by the screenwriting gurus. Many people disagree with McKee, Trottier or Field, saying that they’re too formulaic and that to follow their lead too closely results in cliched and predictable films. Well, that’s one point of view, I suppose, but cliched and predictable films are really the fault of a cliched and predictable writer. The gurus do have useful points to make, particularly for a beginner, but always know your own mind.

Third. Learn formatting. The format of your script, i.e. the way it is laid out, is important – don’t think you can get away with using a non-standard format because the format police are out there, and they're going to jump on your head if you do the wrong thing. No, really. They will. They’re very pernickety.

Luckily, format is easy and you can find out the standards from some of the websites and books mentioned above. Or, if you’re lazy like me, you can use script writing software to do it for you. I’d say these are the three main contenders, although there are others.

Final Draft
Movie Magic Screenwriter

Personally, I prefer Sophocles, which just happens to be the cheapest as well.

Or just get a free Word or WordPerfect etc. template.

Scripters World freeware/shareware links list

Fourth. Join Zoetrope. It’s a great place to ask advice, workshop your scripts, to read and review other people’s scripts and to just meet up with like-minded writers.

Hm… I seem to have missed something out here… oh yes, that’s right, writing.

If you’re all enthusiastic, you’ll want to just plunge right on in and start writing your script. That’s what I did. When I started my first screenplay I didn’t have a clue about proper formatting, story structure, character arcs or archetypes. I knew nothing, other than what my instincts told me would work, so I’ve had to figure it all out as I’ve gone along.

In retrospect I’m not sure that’s the best way to start, and I wouldn’t do it again, but it worked ok for me at the time.

Ideally, you want to get yourself a small notebook that you can carry with you at all times. Every thought you have about your story, write down. Don’t assume you’ll remember it later because you probably won’t.

Work out your plot. This is where understanding the basic three act structure will help as it gives you a framework upon which to hang your story. Work out who your characters are, and how they change during the course of the story. Think about your broad themes and your subtext. What are you trying to say with your story? What message will the audience come away with as the closing credit roll?

Outline. Think about which actions your characters will take, what they expect to happen, and what the results really are. There should be a gap between the expectation of the character and the results of their actions. Think about the events that happen to your characters and how they react to it.

Put actions and events into order, (linearly or not), and once you’re happy with your outline, start writing the script proper.

Once you’ve finished the script, which should be between 90 and 120 correctly formatted pages long, sit on it for a bit and try to achieve some emotional distance from it. You need to be objective when you read it through and it takes time to detach yourself from it.

When you feel that you can now read it dispassionately, take your red pen and get to work editing and polishing.

Then you’re ready to workshop it on Zoetrope and get feedback from other writers. Remember that no reviewer is an all-knowing god, and some suggestions might be utter claptrap. Others might be painfully harsh, but valuable. Read your reviews like you read your script – objectively and dispassionately. You are not your script so don’t take criticism personally.

Rewrite, and repeat until water runs clear… oh, wait, that’s shampoo instructions. Anyway, yes, you get the message.

After that comes the whole marketing and selling thing which is still a mystery to me, so I’m not even going to go there. I think that the above is enough to be getting on with though.

If any of my screenwriting chums want to add their suggestions and advice in the comments, feel free. I’m no guru after all, just a wishful thinker who dreams in type.

Oh, and good luck. You’ll need it.

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2003 – I'm so glad it's over

by Suw on December 31, 2003

End of year reviews are normally all Top Tens and Best Ofs, which I tend to find really quite dull, suffering as they do from the effect of recency – the songs you remember as the best from the year have a tendency to be the ones you heard most recently. Instead, I thought I’d try to write something that has a bit more meat on its bones.

The year started off fairly well, I thought. I had a business, a place to live and a new guitar. Sorted.

January I met up with a whole load of fellow Elliott Smith fans in Manchester. It was Mike’s 40th birthday party, and 32 of us from the Sweet Addy community made the trek for what was to be (for me, anyway) the party of the year. People came from the Netherlands, France, Poland, Scotland, Wales, America, even Australia, although I think Cat was in the UK anyway so didn’t exactly come specially for Mike’s party.

I’d only met a couple of SAers before, but everyone turned out to be lovely. It was an amazing weekend – we sat up late, drank lots, talked lots and played and sang Elliott songs until the small hours turned into the slightly bigger hours.

The Saturday night was Mike’s proper party, with the band he’d put together playing four songs for the accumulated audiences of SAers, friends and family. I helped set up the PA, my past as a music geek coming back to help me, and as no one else seemed to know how to run the mixing desk, I ended up being Front of House for the night too. First time I’ve ever done that, and it was so much fun.

March 1, St Davids Day, fell on a Saturday this year, so Glenys and I went to the Groucho Club in London for the SWS (Social, Welsh and Sexy) party. It was a fun evening, but also a strange one. I met Lembit Öpik MP and Sian Lloyd, the weathergirl, and had quite a surreal conversation with them both. Still, it was a laugh, despite the outrageously priced drinks and the C-list celebs.

Later on in March my friend Andy arranged for me to go and take a look round Townhouse studios, as research for what was then my current novel (now SP2). The people at Townhouse were lovely, happy to show me round the studios and explain anything that I wanted explaining. For a few hours I was in bliss. It was like being a music hack again. Wonderful.

In April, on my birthday, I had a premonition that my life would change dramatically over the coming twelve months: I imagined that my business would become successful, I’d start paying off my debts and I’d relocate myself and my work to another – preferably warmer – country and start living the kind of life I’d always dreamed of. I intended to shake myself up a bit, make some fresh starts, have some adventures.

Well, my premonition turned out to be 100% accurate, but not for the reasons I had thought. I lost my business, I moved back to my parents’ because I could no longer afford my rent and I now have more than twice as much debt as I started the year with.

Much of the middle of the year, from May to August, was a tense time. The business was slipping away from me, I was frightened to answer the phone in case it was a creditor asking for money. I was scared to open my emails, in case someone was complaining that they hadn’t been paid. I knew what was coming, I saw trouble looming in January, yet everything I did to stave it off simply mired me deeper in the quag.

It was like those dreams you get when you’re lying in the middle of the road and a big red bus is coming, heading straight for you, and you have to get up, you have to run, to get out of its path, but your legs won’t work, your body won’t respond, it feels like you’re crawling through molasses and the bus is bearing down on you and it’s going to hit you and you wake up with jolt, your heart racing, glad that it was only a dream.

Except, it wasn’t a dream. And I didn’t wake up. When my business collapsed in August, I spent a lot of time thinking that the bus would have been nicer. I had to make the decision, then, to call it all a day, to move back to my parents place in Dorset, and start wrapping up the business as much as I could.

The following months were pretty bleak, but at least I didn’t have to be scared anymore. The worst had happened, and all I needed to do was regain my equilibrium and start getting on with the rest of my life. Amazing how difficult that actually is to do, though. I clung to straws and hoped that would be enough to get me through.

I am eternally grateful to a couple of people for the support I received from them during that time. They were willing to listen to me whine and whinge and cry, and they never once complained. Hopefully I can one day repay that debt in full and with interest.

In October, I left the country for New York, my first holiday abroad in 14 years. It was just superb. I am utterly smitten by Manhattan, it’s just the best place. You can see all the pics and read about the trip in detail in this post.

On 21 October 2003, Elliott Smith died. A beautiful man with the voice of a anxious angel, his music touched many people, myself included. Without Elliott, I would not have met some wonderful people. Without Elliott, I would not have started writing fiction again when I did. Without Elliott, I would not have started to play guitar again. Without Elliott, my life would not have been as enriched with beauty and harmony as it was.

I’m not sure that I’ve properly grieved for Elliott yet. It’s difficult, with little privacy and everyone around you telling you that you shouldn’t need to mourn someone you never met. I fear that one day I will have to shed the tears that I’ve bottled up, but it won’t be today. Instead I just remember how he looked in my dream the other night – happy, bright, cracking jokes and looking beautiful.

If you were inclined to, you could look at the last year as a disaster. Almost everything that could go wrong has gone wrong, and some of it quite spectacularly. But you have to put it into the context of the rest of my life and when you do that it becomes obvious that it’s far too early to say what the repercussions will be or whether this year’s events truly were disastrous. I prefer not to make a judgement call on this one just yet, but to wait and see how things develop.

Maybe it will turn out to be a stroke of luck. Maybe in a few years I’ll look back and say to myself ‘Well, if I hadn’t lost the business, I would haven’t have done suchandsuch and then I wouldn’t have met soandso and aren’t I glad I did!’.

Next year, though, just statistically, has to be better. I think it will. I think it is already – I have a lot to look forward to.

There’s the making of Nothing Travels Faster than Bad News with Vince, which will be a lot of fun. I shall have to learn a lot – how to act for one, how to use a camera and how to direct… and my lines, of course!

All that can only help my script writing which I am intending to develop over the next twelve months. Whether I can sell a script remains to be seen, but I shall give it my best shot and I shall keep on writing until someone pays me to stop. And then I’ll just carry on anyway.

Add to that my journalism course, which I started a few months ago but had to pause whilst I worked on some business related stuff. I shall get my teeth into that again next week, with the intention of restarting my journalistic career. I enjoy writing, and I’m good at it, so hopefully I can once again use it to make a little money. If I can get a reasonable and regular income from writing, I shall be a very happy bunny.

Then there’s the whole home thing. I am hoping to move out of my parents house – 32 really is too old to be living at home! – and relocate up north to either Leeds or Manchester. Obviously I need to have an income before I do that, but it’s something to look forward to. A flat of my own again. Oh, what bliss that will be!

There are other things too that I’m hoping will happen in 2004. Maybe a trip to Canada. Maybe I’ll get my head round Dutch at last. Maybe I’ll crawl my way up the blogosphere ecosystem a bit. Maybe… well, maybe a few other things too.

Whatever happens, it’s worth remembering that Talk Talk were right – life’s what you make it.

So Happy New Year! I hope you have a good 2004, that some of your wishes come true, that you find the willpower to keep your resolutions, and that the occasional happy surprise brings a smile to your face.

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