I’m writing a pilot for a period drama and I’m wrestling with the problem of whether I as a writer should be visible, or invisible. By which I mean – should I write in such a way that the audience is made more aware of the writing itself, or should I slip into the background and disappear, and the drama transcends the script. As an example …
A scene with a swordsman, plunging a sword into a pig carcass, smash cut to a dainty supper scene with a woman carving a side of ham. Ah ha … the two are linked, not just in storyline but in what they’re doing at that moment with the ex pig: sword and knife, stab and slice, anger and calm. It hints at a deeper connection, it’s a dash of humour, it shows I’ve thought about the script but also … it shows me. The writing has taken the forefront. I have asked for recognition.
…and what writer doesn’t what a whole pile of that …
But, after much thought and considerable pacing, I think it’s probably not going to work in this particular piece. It’s all fine and dandy in other scripts but here I want the reader to be transported – lost – in a different world. And if I play too ‘clever’ then I’m at risk of taking them out of that world, if only for a moment. So I’ll disappear, drop the smart script points.
I recently set out to write a gritty, contemporary domestic drama … here are a selection of words I have looked up in order to write it:
Yup, the gritty, contemporary drama didn’t make it. But – and this is a good point about writing a spec script– it is entirely, brilliantly fun to write. I am loving living in this new world I have created, spending time with these troubled, fictitious individuals. Real life keeps getting in the way but as soon as I can I’m back into 1799 and deciding what terrible things can happen to my characters.
If that spec script isn’t something I’m passionate about, and care about, then why would I write it in the first place? And why on earth would anyone want to read it?
Al Pacino made an interesting comment about auditioning for parts (which is sort of like spec script writing) in that you just have to embrace it for what it is: the chance for your work, albeit briefly, to have an audience. Don’t focus on success or failure to get the part (commission), revel in the chance to rehearse, learn, improve. Enjoy it.
I gave up Girl Guiding for Basil Rathbone. I had no option: the 1930s Sherlock Holmes series was broadcast at the same time as Guides. My parents weren’t happy and the Guide Leader was not impressed when I had to explain why I was leaving*.
Never mind, because I loved those programmes – and still do. The flickery lighting, dramatic music, fabulously dressed women. But most of all I loved Basil Rathbone. Full stop. A hero of the big screen filling the small screen. So now, as I find myself encouraging my children to stay in Scouts, I’m realising that hey, maybe it’s fine to flop in front of the TV instead. Because it could lead, one day, to bigger and better things.
*I did stay long enough to get a hostess badge though, so not a complete waste of time.
Just finished reading Arnold Bennett’s How to live on 24 hours a day. Top tips from the last century for the struggling scriptmonger, yet to make a living from writing.
The gist of what Arnold’s saying is … set aside at least a few minutes every day … they add up. And he advocates getting up early in the morning. I’ve been rising at 5am every morning, writing for two and a half hours until breakfast and then on to the BBC for work that covers the (ridiculously large) mortgage. My first film script has been optioned, and I’m hoping the second script that I’ve just completed, will go the same way. And then those 5am starts will pay off.
You can read the book for free, here’s the link
Gutenberg free book
I particularly like this little nugget:
“Rise an hour, an hour and a half, or even two hours earlier; and—if you must—retire earlier when you can. In the matter of exceeding programmes, you will accomplish as much in one morning hour as in two evening hours. “But,” you say, “I couldn’t begin without some food, and servants.” Surely, my dear sir, in an age when an excellent spirit-lamp (including a saucepan) can be bought for less than a shilling, you are not going to allow your highest welfare to depend upon the precarious immediate co-operation of a fellow creature! Instruct the fellow creature, whoever she may be, at night. Tell her to put a tray in a suitable position over night. On that tray two biscuits, a cup and saucer, a box of matches and a spirit-lamp; on the lamp, the saucepan; on the saucepan, the lid—but turned the wrong way up; on the reversed lid, the small teapot, containing a minute quantity of tea leaves. You will then have to strike a match—that is all. In three minutes the water boils, and you pour it into the teapot (which is already warm). In three more minutes the tea is infused. You can begin your day while drinking it. These details may seem trivial to the foolish, but to the thoughtful they will not seem trivial. The proper, wise balancing of one’s whole life may depend upon the feasibility of a cup of tea at an unusual hour.”
“Instruct the fellow creature” … WTF Arnold??
Dr Seuss got it right: there’s an awful lot of waiting around. An unhealthy amount, in fact. For production companies to get back to you, competition outcomes, feedback, networking emails, events …
But I’ve found a great way to cope with it. It’s GO FOR IT … get more and more things to wait for. Because, really, the more you have “out there” the less value each individual script/ email/ entry represents. Back in the old days I would write one script, send it to one person/ competition/ company … and wait. And everything, all my focus, would be on that one script. And of course, when the rejection came, it was total and absolute.
But now, in my multi-layered many-script world I have lots of chances. Some are working, some aren’t … but now my focus is on the journey forward, and not on the individual steps. Something’s rejected and HEY that’s OK because there is so much good stuff out there, something else is bound to work.
That’s not to say I’ve sacrificed quality over quantity. Not at all. But I’m working hard, spreading my bets … embracing waiting.
Striking fear into my writer’s heart
Tell me Claire, what's on your slate?
CLAIRE grips the table. She takes a deep breath...she crumples.
I’ve been really lucky. Since the BAFTA win I’ve had lunch with a Hollywood producer, skyped a New York based director, had coffee with a film agent and taken part in speed- pitching with Pinewood and BBC Films. So far so good. But oh my word the art of pitching doesn’t come easy. In fact, I’d go so far as to say, it’s been shit*.
Because it’s SO DIFFICULT. To say enough but not too much. To get everything in the right order, and not have to go back and explain something. To entertain, inform, sell … all in one go.
Maybe it’s because the stakes are so high: this is your one shot. Success … or utter, all consuming failure.
The good news is, it’s definitely getting better with practice. And with each passing pitch I feel a lot less pressure. The world isn’t quite so new and bewildering.
There’s a lot of help out there, try this out, and maybe you can avoid the awful “what’s on your slate” wobble.
*FACT: The Hollywood producer actually used this word to describe my effort.
Ashamed to say my main focus at this point was in fact the biscuits…
Apart from the opportunity to see your work on the stage, get introductions to top peeps in the industry and, heck, know that you have a BAFTA supported award, you get mentoring as part of the package.
So I and a dozen or so other BAFTA illumini (and they were ALL men) had a day of mentoring from top industry professionals including Matthew Bates – agent from Sayle Screen. And here are my top five takeouts of the day…
- “Everyone feels the party is going on elsewhere.” Important to remember when we work in isolation. Even top writers feel outcasts, less successful, insecure. You are not alone.
- You can choose where YOUR story starts and ends. You don’t have to dwell on past jobs, dead ends etc… This applies to your cv as much as your own peace of mind.
- Enjoy the journey. This sucks but basically the gist is don’t get hung up on being successful straight away. Take pride in trying. Enjoy submitting to competitions. Winning / commissions come later.
- Agents are looking for… talent (!), commitment, relationships. (Be good, be a workaholic, be really nice).
- Use spec scripts to alter how people think of you (producers, agents etc). Always known for gritty TV? Write a film romcom. You know what I mean…
How I juggle being a full time mum, full time employee at the BBC, and writer.
It’s about priorities… I used to write in the evenings, after working all day then turning round two tired children – booting up the laptop at around 9.30pm.
It wasn’t good.
So instead I prioritise writing. I get up at 5am and by 7am I have finished two hours of writing and two coffees. And my secret? It’s tattoo cover up cream (as pictured). It hides the stupendous bags under my eyes as I try to juggle it all. Full strength, no shit industrial strength makeup.
Bring it on.
It’s reassuring to see that successful writers don’t just stick to one genre. OK so M Night Shyamalan’s doing pretty well occupying the twisty thriller genre but the man’s got form elsewhere. In 1999 he wrote two films: Sixth Sense and Stuart Little. Did that little mouse see dead people? No he did not. He drove small cars and annoyed cats.
So, perhaps, more writers should think themselves out of one box and into many.
Even my ten year old daughter has a firm grasp of feature film fundamentals. It’s not Beauty and the Beast it’s Beauty and the Beast with Emma Watson.