Sunday, July 29, 2007

Yellow pencils

I miss 'em. Yellow chinagraph pencil in your teeth, offcuts of tape round your neck, and the total certainty that there is a wonderful edit in your hands if only you could find it.

Computers have ruined handicrafts, haven't they?

But may I boast at you about something? I can boast because it's not remotely important but I think it works so sweetly. And it's this: at 4'37" into this week's UK DVD Review podcast there's a clip that segues between two totally unrelated films that, for just a moment, you'll think were made for each other.

And, sorry, that link goes to my website's podcast page rather than directly to the audio because I also want you to see the photograph. It has no connection to anything, but I like it. Central Park, New York City, 2005.

Still got Suzanne Vega thumping away in my head,

Friday, July 27, 2007

Beat it

I need your help: I've either discovered a stunning secret to writing or I'm Joe 90.

Any chance you find this yourself? Do you absorb things, do you for instance write better dialogue immediately after watching The West Wing? Or better gags, better pacing rhythm after a Sports Night? And do you growl at people in lazy Klingon after Star Trek?

I'm almost serious. On the one hand I find it very hard to read fiction when I'm writing my own prose yet on the other I really can come away from something fired up. I've been doing the reading-ten-pages business, the suggestion that in preparation for entering the Red Planet contest you read the first ten pages of scripts you like and it happened that the one I looked at earlier tonight was The Bourne Identity by Tony Gilroy. Couldn't help myself, though, I watched the film again.

Had a long day, had a long week, but was sufficiently fired up by it to come back to the keys now.

'Course, the intent of writing up this scene that's been floating around my noggin' for a week has rather fallen by the wayside because I'm talking with you so I'd best go do that. But if I am an empty vessel that absorbs and moulds itself to the shape of anything I've just watched, I should do myself a showreel tape of the best things I can find. And play it a lot.

Just a thought.

Well, not just a thought, also a prevarication. Did I mention that I bought the Suzanne Vega album? Played it through twice without it making a single dent in my head - until a couple of days later when I realised I was humming half the tracks on it. Have since looped it incessantly on my iPod and am adoring it to the point of hating it.

Sometimes I think it's tiresome, even depressing, that the things I do to relax I can never relax to because I'm too aware of just how hard they were to make. But let's just crank up iTunes as high as it'll go, switch to my "Loud" playlist and get back to writing to the beat. Here come the drums, and all that.


Thursday, July 26, 2007

News is news

May I show you something? This came up in a discussion I was having about newspapers: it's a quote from the book Yes, Prime Minister - The Diaries of the Right Hon. James Hacker by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay. It'd be quick to say this is the novelisation of the TV series but that hides the fact that that books are excellent political satire all by themselves.

But you know the characters from the TV show. So in A Conflict of Interest, Prime Minister Hacker is nervous about how the press will report the latest debacle and Sir Humphrey thinks this is trivial:

"Humphrey knows nothing about newspapers. He's a Civil Servant. I'm a politician, I know all about them. I have to. They can make or break me. I know exactly who reads them. The Times is read by the people who run the country. The Daily Mirror is read by the people who think they run the country. The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country. The Morning Star is read by the people who think the country should be run by another country.

"The Independent is read by people who don't know who runs the country but are sure they're doing it wrong. The Financial Times is read by the people who own the country. The Daily Express is read by the people who think the country ought to be run as it used to be run. The Daily Telegraph is read by people who still think it is their country. And the Sun's readers don't care who runs the country providing she has big tits."


Monday, July 23, 2007

Pitching in

I've had trouble describing this blog to people - and they've had no problem at all describing it back. I suppose I asked for that. But seemingly I crave order in my life so can I explain what this has become so you know what to expect? It was supposed to support my local podcast, UK DVD Review, but that never happens because the show's doing so well without my yapping.

So it has become a mishmash and while I like that I can talk to you about anything, and I say again that you have that kind of face, you just make me open up, I'm firmly setting out my stall now. I do journalism, criticism, photography and radio work for a living; I'm trying to do more of each of these and also very firmly to build on the stage writing success to do more scripting. So this blog is going to be about journalism, criticism, photography, radio, scriptwriting. This doesn't clear much up for you, but I feel I understand me better now.

And so can, hopefully usefully, immediately give you directions to somewhere else. Have a look at this New York Times article, published today, about Fade In magazine's pitching session. Pay your money and you get to pitch to the great and the good, or at least the assistants of the great and the good. NYT paints it as hell on Earth, for both sides, but there's enough positive about it and also the practical sense that you may pitch badly today but this will help you pitch better tomorrow.

It's possible that you may have to register with New York Times to read the piece.


Friday, July 20, 2007

Rock follies

ITV1's forthcoming drama, Rock Rivals, will feature an ending chosen by public vote: it's Strictly Come Drama Idol Academy by Shed Productions, maker of Footballers' Wives and more. There's more about it on BBC News Online where, incidentally, you will see that NOL's picture budget isn't what it was: they have a shot of star Michelle Collins, but it's a library one of her with a Dalek.

Anyway, I'd like now to do the Critic's Trick.

It goes thisaway. I haven't seen a single frame, I haven't read the script, I don't know the story, and still I'm going to say to you that both endings will be poor. Or, put it another way, neither will work.

You can call this harsh and I wouldn't disagree. But don't think it's anything against Shed. As it happens, I don't believe there's been a Shed show that grabbed me but I think that's just chance: I like the firm's chutzpah and the lick it has to its writing. I hope Rock Rivals works. You always want a new drama to work. I just don't think this one will.

And this is why. The two endings.

This is always presented as an exciting new idea, every time it loops around, but it's predicated on the assumption that you can have two endings. That the ending is a module you buy in later. Instead, I'm pretty sure you'll agree, the ending is part of the whole: a story, even the most formulaic and predictable, is an organic piece that is building to its ending. Just look at that word: predictable. Even though you might not want a piece to be predictable, part of the reason that it becomes so is that every inch of the tale is pointing in one way.

When a story has enormous shocks along the way, they are usually very effective but they only stay with you, they only truly work when in retrospect they're no surprise at all. I think of this like rubbing your hand over a piece of wood: go one way, against the grain, and you're getting shards of wood cutting in to you, drawing blood, and yet rub your hand back the other way and it's perfectly smooth. Just blood-stained.

So if you build a piece in order to drop in one of a number of endings, either the story doesn't naturally point to that ending or it does point to the moment before the change. It's common to see the penultimate episode of a series being the very best one, just because endings are so tough, but abdicating the ending feels like giving up before you start.

Or how about an example? There was a recent episode of Lewis where I happen to know the ending was changed very late in they day; ITV wanted another twist before the last commercial break or something. I'm not sure what, really, but I know it was changed and when you watch it I swear you can tell the point when it switches tracks.

Two weeks ago I'd have harrumphed now and gone back to work with a so-there. But while I feel as strongly as I ever did about this insert-ending-here approach, I do now have an example that at least suggests I'm wrong. So I'd best tell you, hadn't I?

What if a show could legitimately build to two endings, simultaneously? Whichever was aired, we'd feel the absence of one of them but at least the one that was shown would work. I'm not convinced it's at all possible, but hold that thought. Now, what if a show's ending changed not only what you thought of its beginning but really changed the beginning? If a late decision coloured the start of a story in a way you didn't expect and the makers didn't intend?

It's happened with Doctor Who. Forgive me if you haven't seen the end of the latest series, and if you need to look away now just promise me you'll agree I've made a great point. Toward the end of the final episode, we learn that Captain Jack Harkness is the Face of Boe.

I found that inexpressibly sad. I don't know why: I liked Boe, I like Jack, I was just deeply saddened. And by chance, I caught an earlier episode on UKTV Gold the other day, the episode in which we first see Boe. He's just a figure in the background, he's really almost a joke: he enters with a parade of other startling aliens.

And all I could think of throughout the episode was how the Face of Boe must feel, seeing the Doctor and Rose.

It really made the episode better, but I know the Boe/Jack idea wasn't in place until a little later.

So maybe you can twist a beginning by changing the end. But I'll still bet money that Rock Rivals won't work.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

What is point?

Outlining. What is point?

Okay, one line in and I'm already torn: do you recognise the Down the Line reference or don't you? I'm going to with yes, you do, because otherwise you're now thinking my grammar is shot to pieces and this would be a bad thought to give you when I'm about to talking Writing, with a capital W.

Or at least Outlining, with an O.

Previously on this subject: I don't outline. I know where I'm going with a story or I don't. Usually I'm aiming at a point, very often I end up somewhere else. But it works and the worst thing that has happened so far is that I've had to decide to delete 40,000 words. But they were also rubbish words, so I'm no martyr to my cause.

One reason for doing things this way is that my outlines rob the story of any interest for me. And one excuse for not doing outlines is that I am fast enough that even under pressure I've got time to revise things.

But, truth be told, the primary reason is that I know many, many people who first do an outline and then draw up a chart: scenes 7, 12 and 55 are easy ones, I'll do those today; 19, 1 and 13 are toughies. Then they tick off each one as done. Sure as anything, each of those scenes will be fine but they'll also be discrete and separate. I've never known any outline-kind of person to suddenly find the exit moment of a scene and allow themselves to go off early or bring in an entirely new scene. Or allow the characters to do anything except what they'd slavishly worked out before.

Consequently, each scene is complete in and of itself, it has a beginning, middle and end. Only, that means every scene starts, middles along a bit and ends. Put down one scene and pick up the next. Start. Stop. No flow, no energy carrying from scene to scene so no, in my opinion, compulsion. I see this in a lot of UK TV drama: stories are just a sequence of events, none especially more important than the other, at least not to the viewer, and time just passes along nicely enough.

I don't think stories should be full of crashes and incident, bangs and wallops, but you've only got people for a short time so there needs to be a driving force through it. It can be soft seduction, it can be peril, but it has to be alive. And as much as I believe writing is both a craft and an art, I think a too-mechanical approach to it does rob you of impetus and it can kill the story.

So I've been doing this outline, right?

It's for my Folly. I swear I may even name the script Folly. I mean it in the building sense; the way you have rich geezers paying people to build elaborate and pointless towers on their land. I pass one on the drive to London: totally worthless, but nicely made. That seems to be what I'm doing here. But I'm trying to do it quickly so I can get this story out of my head, like a writing exorcise, and get on to the now famous ten page debacle.

So I thought I'd outline.

But there's also the fact that one thing I am actually good at is building sequences. It comes from my radio training, I think, the ability to fashion a small sequence of scenes or clips that play against each other, that bounce you through, that together tell you more than the individual pieces do. And that just keep your interest. And the thing that is so annoying about this Folly idea, the thing that means I've got to get it out, is that I've seen it all as one gigantic sequence. I knew instantly what the entire shape of the tale was and there were myriad (okay, 30) scenes I immediately knew I'd have to do. It's one of those ideas, you'd think of the same 30 moments too.

So I thought I'd outline. Get them all down before I forget any.

I've now done this. I took advice from outliner types, I wrote it all down.

And here's the thing. The notes I made originally of these 30 scene ideas: no matter how I play with this outline or re-imagine the entire story, each one goes straight into precisely the same spot I first thought of them.

My outline is nothing but a nice list of the same points with a few tabs in.

Have I wasted my time outlining? Will I end up with the same kind of dead flat story I fear - and do so without gaining anything at all?

You'll never know: I'll never show you the final piece. I mean, it's a Folly.

But I'll confess if I think the end result works or not.


Friday, July 13, 2007

Off the grid

I went off the grid this afternoon: I delivered all the copy I had to and then snuck off to see Die Hard 4. There's something about nipping into a cinema in the daytime; although you can have your phone and you could walk out at any time, you don't and you don't. You agree to stay there for two hours and in more ways than just your phone, you switch off.

I love thrillers. I also love character and I know that if your dialogue isn't there, you don't have any characters. I might relish the plots of someone like Steven Moffat but even his intricacies and cleverness don't work if the characters aren't right or if what they're saying is just telling me the plot.

There's a bit of that in Die Hard 4. There's an awful lot of it in most thrillers and it's why I doubt I could name you five great ones. At least not without handing over two of the places to the Bourne flms. Similarly, how many great detective stories are there? I can think of 122 of them but they're all episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street.

But I go to thrillers and I go to detective films really wanting them to work. Er, that sounds like I go to comedies hoping they'll flop. I mean, I really want thrillers to work. There is something exultant about characters and a story that burn up the screen and that seem to really move, to scoop you up and carry you into mayhem. That seem to do what writers have trademarked as going on a journey.

I was exhausted at the end of Die Hard 4 but it didn't seem like John McClane had gone anywhere. He was still the man he was at the top and that was disappointing. It's also a mawkish film at times and it also uses a lot of the apparently hip thriller terms du jour, most prominently this "off the grid" rubbish. It wasn't rubbish when we heard it in The Bourne Identity, but it is is now.

Yet if I don't think Die Hard was 100% great, I seem to be thinking it was 70% good. I am unforgiving, usually, and if there's a moment or eight that reek of the-writer-couldn't-do-any-better or, worse, that the filmmakers think I want a pat the dog scene, I'm gone for good. Last time I nipped out to a cinema on a working day was to see Superman and I strolled out of there about half an hour in.

Die Hard 4 definitely has moments and it had momentum, I did want to see what happened next. I'm arguing three sides here, the two obvious rivals that it hasn't got great characters and it does have big thrills, and then the third side that the thrills don't work.

Some do. Actually, many do. But if I'm to forgive characterisation and wallow in spectacle, I have to believe it. It doesn't have to be believable, I just have to buy it. So a film can end with the most almighty impossibility and I'll be there if the film has carried me to it. The ending of DIe Hard works well - at least, the very end does; there's a hugely convenient leap right before it that disappoints me - and a lot of the start does too. As long as I can believe the hero could get out the way he does, I'll take anything. When Die Hard goes wrong, it's because the escape isn't believable.

This won't spoil the film because it's in the trailer anyway, but at one early point John McClane sends a car flying up into the air and into a helicopter.

I buy the destruction of the helicopter. I buy the car going through it. I just can't buy it taking off into the air.

It supposedly happens because he sends it hurtling into a ticket booth or somesuch and I can't make that connection, I can't make that work. Whereas moments before there is a scene with a fire hydrant and the helicopter which I do buy even though according to the people who write up goofs on IMDb, it's physically impossible.

I think what I'm slowly realising is that believability is skin deep. It's a very delicate line and it must also be personal taste. Like a pain threshold.

Now will I please get to work on my ten pages of script?


Thursday, July 12, 2007


So there are a few people waiting to see the next draft of my play - and some of them even know they're waiting for it. That's obviously fantastic and I'm also feeling pretty good because I've actually written it now. All that hot air about how, oh yes, lots of ideas, absolutely, that's now in fact done. I'm at the stage of refusing to look at the script for a short while because otherwise you know I'll send it out and about one buggersecond later I'll realise something.

And there's thing with Piers Beckley and the BBC Drama Writing Academy: I'm waiting to hear he gets in, partly of course because that would be a good thing, but also because I'm looking forward to raging with vivid green jealousy.

But the truth is that what I should actually be doing now is writing my entry for the Red Planet contest.

And I'm not.

I mean, I've read the opening ten pages of every script I've written, in order to see if one of those will fly. There were a dozen, would you believe that? Twelve whole scripts, not including the dogs. Either I'm prolific or I'm rubbish but this is not the kind of question to ponder when you're entering a competition.

Still, some of the twelve look pretty good. None that I don't want to radically change, but good.

And Danny Stack recommended at the launch of this contest that we should read the opening ten pages of any scripts we really rate, to see what makes their start so good. Can't fault that advice, it's smart, but I just turned to my shelves and there must be over a thousand screenplays there in one form or another. I read a few West Wings. Shawshank. Trainspotting. Some Jack Rosenthal, some Alan Plater, John Hopkins, Troy Kennedy Martin, William Goldman, Paddy Chayefsky. Russell T Davies. Actually, I haven't re-read any of Davies's, I've just had a great time re-reading his introductions. In both the Queer as Folk and Doctor Who script books he does his intros as scripts and they are joyous.

Funny, though: no women in that list. I've just had to hunt to see that I do have Caroline Aherne, Connie Booth and Victoria Wood scripts. Oh! Also Emma Thompson's tremendous Sense & Sensibility. Oh Plus! Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Made me weep, that did.

But this is a big surprise to me, big enough that I've just been knocked off the point I was building up to. Mind if I just explore a concern here? I'm honestly stunned that my collection could be so impossibly male-biased. Dare I turn to my right to where the novels are? Jeanette Winterson again, Carrie Fisher, lots and lots of Margery Allingham, some Patricia Cornwall from before I got too scared to read those. One Jane Asher (you should really try hers: she has a great way of building a brooding tension). Patricia Highsmith. Helene Hanff. A bit of Bronte. A bit of Austen. Oooh, another Jane Asher. What happened to alphabetical order? And is Leslie Thomas a man or a woman?

It's not like I buy to a quota, this is just years of what I was drawn to. But I'm surprised because the reason I'm a writer is Lou Grant, the MTM television drama from the late 1970s and part of that show was watching how two writers whose work I admired climbed up the credits. One of them is Michelle Gallery who seemed to vanish a bit after that show but pops up occasionally with movie-of-the-week kind of screenplays. And then there's April Smith who I'm really excited to see has returned to TV. I only looked at her site to get the address for you and there it is, after a strong TV career and then latterly many years of writing novels, she's nipping back onto the telly.

So I'm happy again now, just enough to take my mind off this whole gender-stereotyping thing and back onto the point.

Which is that I'm latching on to any excuse not to write the ten pages I should for the contest. We all have a self-distract button and I am thumping mine repeatedly.

You may have noticed.

I even updated my website, with some new bits and pieces.

Cleaned the house.

Wrote a piece in this week's Radio Times magazine about the locations used in Harry Potter films.

Wrote up the results of a poll RT magazine has run about the best science fiction and fantasy shows. It's in next week's issue. Which reminds me, I had this exchange about the final pages with the art editor yesterday:

ART EDITOR: I don't know if they've been changed since you wrote the copy but it's very funny now.
ME: Definitely changed, then.


Alphabetised my book collection.

It's not that I'm struggling to find an idea, incidentally. I have one. It's just unfortunately absolutely 100% perfect for an existing TV series which will never, absolutely 100% never, look at a spec script. And one of the producers is on the panel for this Red Planet comp. There is no possible way in which I should write this script.

So I'm writing this script, right, and - actually, yes, I am writing it. Pointless, really, but you know what it's like when you're reading something you can't put down? When you've got to turn that page? I'm unable to shake this idea and I want to see what I can do with it. So I'm writing a script I'll never send to anyone.


Had a bath.

Played Scrabble a lot.

Refused to buy Suzanne Vega's new album until I've written the ten pages for the comp.

Decided what I really need to write the ten pages is to buy Suzanne Vega's new album.

And now, you're the only one standing between me and the pages. I'll take any suggestion for how I can prevaricate more, anything.

Hey! It's gone one o'clock! I'm going to break the habit of a working lifetime and have lunch. You're brilliant, thank you.


Thursday, July 05, 2007

On That Day

Just back from the screenwriting festival, wanted to point you in the direction of the Red Planet Pictures' competition, hesitated, figured you'd only go and win the bleedin' thing, considered sending you to the Balamory site instead, decided that was mean and, more importantly, that you'd see through it immediately, so go on then, here you are, here's the Red Planet link.

Never seen a writing prize so good. Or do I mean I've never seen a writing prize more precisely in tune with what I want to do?

But less of what I want to do, more of what I do: there's a mistake in this week's Radio Times where the On This Day entry of mine for July 8 has somehow been repeated on July 10. If I'm still doing this next year, which I very much hope, then I'll reuse the missing one. You'll never guess when. In the meantime, though, in case it's of interest, it's below.



July 10, 1983

...24 Years Ago

“She was everything a woman should be; the perfect heroine and the ideal wife. What, then, is Helen Mirren doing in the part?”

RT saw her as “unarguably one of England’s most exciting actresses” but had some trouble picturing her in the title role of The BBC Television Shakespeare: Cymbeline. The playwright was unavailable for comment so director Elijah Moshinsky talked it through.

“I wanted an actress of great sexual voltage,” he said. “Helen can act enormously complex sexual emotions at war with each other.” William Gallagher

Cover: Helen Mirren, RT 9-15 July 1983
Feature: p4, billing p25

Monday, July 02, 2007

Storms we cannot weather

I just like that line.  See you at the Cheltenham Screenwriters' Festival?

We could talk, I could buy you a drink, you could tell me this photograph was worth the trouble it took to get.