With luck, this joke will no longer be true of my writing life…
Last month I ran a trial. I was going to take an old project, one that had been through many incarnations, and start over one more time. This time, however, I would be using a new method, gleaned from Rachel Aaron’s book, “2000 – 10000”.
On the wall is the plot overview, beneath it are the two scene breakdowns, then the individual sheets are for each scene.
The method itself isn’t very revolutionary – at least, not in the way I applied it. I would simply start by outlining the whole plot, then do a more detailed outline, and then break that detailed outline into scenes. Finally I would take each scene and write another detailed outline, and then I would write the script, a scene at a time, from the outlines.
Some of you are probably wondering what the hell I did before now, if this is my “revolutionary” system. Well, like I said in my original post, I wrote by the seat of my pants, hoping that the storyline would work out along the way and end up somewhere satisfactory.
Being the lazy toerag I am, I took the first three weeks of February writing outlines. I left myself the last week to actually write the play itself. I reckoned it broke down into about eight scenes, four in each half, with a prologue setup. The first day of writing was very encouraging, with two scenes completed in an hour and a half, with a word count of two thousand words or more. This was actually working!
I only got to spend four days that week writing, and didn’t get my two scenes a day, though I was well on the way by the time Friday rolled around. I was confident that I would have this play done and dusted by the end of the first week of March.
Well, this is the Tuesday of that week. I wrote “Curtain” on the final scene of Act Two this morning, in a sort of daze. All in all, I’ve spent around eight to ten hours actually writing. Maybe two work days for real people*. I’ve produced, in that time, over 11000 words, and a complete full-length play, my first in more than a year. I’ve also done the preliminary planning for a one-act play that I intend to have finished by Friday. And I don’t think that’s unreasonable.
I’m not going to say this is the only system, or even the best system. What I’ve found in the past is that any system will have its champions and its detractors. What works for me may be living hell for someone else. But I know I have done more and better work in the last fortnight than I have in the two years preceding. My next aim is to have three short plays adding up to a decent one-act written and ready for publication by the end of this month – one a week. If I can achieve that, and I think I can, I will have proved this new system to my satisfaction.
What’s YOUR system? Doesn’t have to be a writing system – for a while we had the infamous “Tidy Friday” plan, where everyone in the household cleaned the whole place between four and six on a Friday night, so we had a clean home for the weekend. Tell me the secrets you’ve discovered that lead to an organised life! Best suggestion wins a personalised Certificate of Organisationalism!
*i.e. not writers. Writers aren’t real people.
Writer Bob likes to party. Alcohol fuels his sensitive creative spirit. Or something.
January is a terrible temptation for writers. It just screams “Fresh start! Here’s a brand new year in which YOU CAN FINALLY FINISH THAT PROJECT!”
But at 2am on New Year’s Day, when Mrs Dim was collecting resolutions from the family, I was careful not to include any specifics. Yes, I want to write another full length play this year. I have an outline for a musical that Steve at TLC is determined will see a final draft. But after ten years as a writer, I am all too aware of the “sprint start” phenomenon of the New Year.
Full of the potential of a New Year, Writer Bob makes his resolutions: “Write my Novel. Find an agent. Go to the gym.” He’s excited, it’s all going to happen this year.
A fortnight in, Writer Bob is struggling. The novel isn’t going well, because there have been loads of people off over Christmas, so work is demanding a lot of his time. Until he finishes the novel, there’s no point in looking for an agent. He doesn’t have time for the gym either. Besides, they’re probably full of idiots trying to lose the weight they gained over Christmas…
As February closes, Writer Bob realises he’s lost his grip on writing. He reapplies himself, drawing up a new timetable. A more realistic timetable. More…flexible. But he’ll definitely be finished by the end of the year. As long as he takes his laptop on that two week holiday. And writes every day when he’s there. THEN he’ll get an agent. Bugger, he forgot to go to the gym again. Perhaps he can join online, then he can just drop in on the way home….Shame he can’t work out online. Isn’t there an app for that yet?
Summer is here, and Bob can tell because the rain is nice and warm. His novel is nagging at him, calling to him while he struggles through his day job, but the weird thing is, as soon as he sits in front of his computer, every brilliant line that occurred to him vanishes. The characters clam up, the plotline fizzles out and he finds himself writing dull, pointless details of events that don’t move the story along. He found the details for an agent that represents an author he admires, but now he’s too scared to call. What’s he going to say to them? “I’ve written part of a story where the hero takes three pages to negotiate the purchase of a second hand car…” . No. The novel needs an overhaul before he calls. To be completely honest, the novel needs a plot and another eighty thousand words. He still hasn’t been to the gym, but last week he did ten sit ups. Well, eight. Alright, five proper ones and a couple that were almost there.
Writer Bob is excited again. He may be kicking his way through the leaves of autumn, but he’s just read THE GREATEST BOOK OF HIS LIFE! It’s all about how to write a novel in just forty three days! Everything is laid out in simple steps! Just follow the steps and you can’t fail! He read the book in a frenzied night, too excited by what he saw to do the mini-tasks at the end of each chapter and the Maxi-Tasks at the end of each section. I mean, obviously, he’s GOING to do them, how could he not? Forty three days, that’s just…well, okay, it’s just this side of Christmas, so he’d better get a move on. Tonight, he’ll sit down tonight and…no, wait, damn, there’s that thing he has to do. Tomorrow. Definitely. The weekend at the latest. Why, in only forty three days he’ll be chatting to an agent about his new novel! He can’t wait! Bob kicks leaves happily as he strolls past the gym. He stops on the way home to buy more beer.
It’s the work Christmas Party. Sorry, the company Winterval Socialisation Event. Bob is almost completely socialised. He’s been leaning against the wall by the bar for the last hour, telling people how this book he read by…you know…er…someone…wrote that book…got made into the film with that actress….you know….yes, just a small one, thank you. Anyway, it’s a great book, given me a real kick up the…I said a small one!No, don’t take it back now, good health! Yeah, I’m really gonna finish that novel now. How long? Well, I’ve been, you know, dipping in and out. We can’t all be full time writers, can we? Need to get out in the fresh air from time to time, get some exercise. What’s that? Yeah, I’ve been meaning to join a gym, why do you ask?
Happy New Year, Writer Bob.
Never got the hang of juggling ON a unicycle, but I'm one of very few people who juggled WITH a unicycle.
I was surprised and shocked yesterday morning: picking a t-shirt out of my drawer, I noticed it was from a juggling convention I once attended. In 1991. I was shocked because I realized that’s twenty years ago. You may find it shocking that I have a twenty year old t-shirt, but what got to me was the thought of how long ago that section of my life was.
I got into juggling as the result of some unlikely coincidences. I was watching a TV show (The Paul Daniels Magic Show, I think) and there was a guest star on it, who was dressed in a green felt suit and juggling Snooker balls. He’d catch these balls in special pockets he had sewn to his shoulders and hips. I was impressed, and determined to learn to juggle. (I was around thirteen or fourteen, still at an age where these impulsive decisions can be made. Now I would sit back, shake my head and imagine how many times the juggler had injured himself to perfect his act.) One of the unlikely coincidences I mentioned was us having a snooker table in the room where I was watching television. Another was that I picked up some of the snooker balls and figured out the basics of three ball juggling in an evening WITHOUT BREAKING ANY HOUSEHOLD ORNAMENTS.
I had to wait a couple of years for the next coincidence. My college were putting on a big show for the end of the term, and they needed everyone in it to juggle for a big street scene. To achieve this, they asked an ex-student who was now a street performer to come and give lessons. When he discovered I could already juggle three balls, he leant me a set of juggling clubs, and, worse, the catalogue of a juggling supplies shop. By the end of that year I was running a juggling course at the college, and by the end of the next I was running an Adult Education course in juggling.
Paul teaches Toyah Wilcox some tricky juggling moves in our TV appearance
For around ten years, juggling was a big part of my personal identity. I tried quite hard to make it my profession, forming a troupe called “The Juggling Fiends” and performing at parties, festivals, running workshops. We even had a spot on a tv programme. But it’s hard to make a living from juggling, harder than it is to make a living from writing. The troupe drifted apart as life intervened, and though we all stay in touch, we’ve never had a full Fiends reunion. We all still juggle though, it’s not a habit you have to kick when you grow up. I brought a trunk full of juggling stuff over to Canada with me, and the clubs will come out over the summer. The Weasels like playing with the stuff, but none of them have been bitten by it the same way I was.
But looking at that t-shirt yesterday made me see how our view of ourselves can change over time. For about ten years I was a juggler who had to do other jobs to earn a living. For the last decade I’ve been a writer who sometimes takes a day job while minding the weasels. For a glorious year here, I was just a Playwright, before the falling exchange rate sent me off to The World’s Largest Home Improvement Retailer. Maybe the next ten years will bring another change.
It’s an old cliche that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach. It was one of the reasons I was nervous about handing out advice about writing plays. I knew how I wrote plays, but did that entitle me to tell other people? Fortunately, reading plays for Lazy Bee Scripts was a logical step, since I was just helping out administratively. Then I began to notice that there were some common errors in the scripts being rejected, things that seemed basic and obvious to me. If I could mention these things to the authors, they could make their plays better….
I bring up this ancient history because in this last week, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to take some advice that I hand out regularly. One of the best ways to find out if a play works is to take the draft script along to your local drama club and get it read. Note: A complete draft, folks. Make sure the story has a beginning, middle and end. I know there are playwrights out there, probably some great ones, who closet themselves with a tame theatre group and workshop a storyline, in some cases for years. That’s all well and good, but to my mind the result is a group effort, and if that playwright has any conscience at all, theirs won’t be the only name in the author position on the play cover. No, if this is YOUR idea, YOUR story, then get it written down, THEN take it to the drama club. Their job will be to tell you if the story hangs together, if the characters are real or cardboard, if it’s even interesting at all.
That last point was my greatest fear. My full length play that I began way back in January, has stalled and been re-ignited several times. I threw away the first ten pages and started again with a different central character. The basic idea remained, however, and I made it over the word count that I use to judge length in Script Apppraisals.
SMP Dramatic Society are a local group who welcomed Steve, David and myself to watch their rehearsals of Fawlty Towers back in September. They’ve performed a couple of our pantomimes, and they were eager to meet us. When I asked if they could help with a read-through, they readily accepted and so last Sunday I was welcomed to a member’s house, offered a warming drink and settled in to hear the play read.
It’s an odd feeling, because it’s rare the words are voiced as you heard them in your head, but the reading was very well done, with feeling, enthusiasm and a good deal of laughter. They pronounced the script workable, but had a list of suggestions which were all positive and worthwhile. As I’ve mentioned before, rewriting is a chore I haven’t enjoyed, but this process has made that easier, and I intend to have the new draft completed by New Year’s Day – from concept to complete inside a year!
I’m writing this entry on Christmas Eve morning – our friends in Australia have already begun to Celebrate Christmas Day, our friends in the UK are gearing up for The Night Before Christmas and our weasels are thinking about going skiing before the afternoon Nativity Play in Church. Wherever you are, whenever you’re reading this, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year.
Posted in Writing
Tagged Christmas Eve, Damian Trasler, David Lovesy, Fawlty Towers, full length play, Lazy Bee Scripts, play, Play writing, playwright, rewriting, Script appraisal, Script Reading, SMP Dramatics, Steve Clark, TLC Creative
- Three men, three computers, many, many, many ideas.
There are some things that you do alone – dying is the one that comes to mind. Good start, a nice cheery place to kick off. But writing is a solo occupation, usually at least. No matter how many people contribute to the initial idea, only one of you can sit down at that keyboard and hammer it out.
A long time ago, I heard that some of the American TV shows used writing rooms, whole rooms full of teams of writers, to create their stories. I couldn’t see how that worked. Now, of course, we’ve seen TV shows based on people writing TV shows (like “30 Rock” and the excellent but sadly missed “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”
) and we know that the Writer’s Room is a place the stories begin.
But is it a good way to work? Well, I’m not going to do a big analysis of how other people have made it work, or the famous screenwriting partnerships, because other people have already done it and I’m fundamentally lazy. Let me tell you how we at TLC
manage to write as a trio.
Stage one is research, and Steve handled that, reading through dozens of variations on the Sinbad story and presenting a choice of storylines for us to consider. David and I made some choices and put forward any elements we felt should be included. Steve then came up with the definitive storyline that we would work from, and divided it up into scenes. There’s a standard we use for producing panto scripts that Steve and David have developed from years of experience on both the stage and script side of panto. We have a certain number of scenes for each half, a longer first act than second, each main stage scene is followed by a front of curtain scene to allow for set changes and so on. There should be certain character types included, certain scenes that are must-haves. Each of these scenes should still, in some way serve the overall story. If the Princess has been kidnapped, the characters have to snap into action to save her, not simply go into the palace kitchens and bake a cake just so the panto can have the slop scene.
With the scene outline completed, we each take two or three scenes and write them. That’s the bit where the collaboration is suspended and we’re writing alone again.
That’s the bit Mrs Dim had real trouble with. Although we were all writing different parts of the panto, it’s still handy to have the others nearby. Stuck for a gag? Ask David. Need a song suggestion? Ask Steve. Written something that makes you laugh? Tell one of the others and see if it makes THEM laugh. That’s an important test. So Mrs Dim, who works in a real office with real work to do, wandered occasionally through the living room to see three middle-aged men sitting with separate laptops, sniggering at juvenile jokes, surfing the web, or listening to music. It didn’t look like work. But we were doing what we needed to do – juvenile jokes are the bread and butter of panto, the web supplies both corny jokes and useful information, and if you’re rewriting the lyrics to a song, it’s a very good idea to have the real song playing so you can match the rhyme scheme and scansion.
Ultimately, we end up with enough scenes to build an entire pantomime. That’s when the other important part of collaboration comes into play. We sit and read through the whole thing, taking different parts to perform. Reading it out loud is a useful check – does that gag work as well out loud as it does on the page? Is the name funny when you can’t see it written down? Do those stage directions make sense to other people? Those read throughs are my abiding memory of our TLC writing meetings. We laugh unashamedly at our own jokes, and at those of the others, we fight to keep our own worst jokes in and kick out others when the script is running long, we suggest the worst songs to annoy David (Ask him to include “Endless Love” in one of his scripts and you’ll see what I mean) and we tease Steve about his typos.
The theory says that this method of co-writing would work with anything, but on other projects we work individually and put the final pieces up for peer review in the partnership. We produced a sketch a day for the period of time David and Steve were here in Canada, but each sketch was written by one person and reviewed by the others on completion, only a few changes being made after the sketch had been read. We’re starting a new chapter in collaboration with a planned radio sitcom idea, and I think that different format will test our collaborative powers somewhat.
A solo occupation? Yes, ultimately, you always write alone, but what you do with that writing, who you show it to and what you do as a result of sharing it is where the joy of collaborative work lies.
Posted in Uncategorized, Writing
Tagged Aladdin, Cinderella, co-writing, collaborative writing, corny jokes, David Lovesy, Dick Whittington, Endless Love, gags, Jack and the Beanstalk, Knight Fever, Mrs Dim, pantomime, play, Play writing, Puss in boots, Sinbad, Steve Clark, TLC, Watch this Space, writing
My favourite new icon - so handy and unobtrusive!
I had prepared a huge rambling monologue about the joys of collaborative writing, thanks to the last two weeks spent working with my writing partners (who came all the way to Canada for a writing work out – thanks, Steve and David!). But it occurred to me that short and sweet is better for blogs and David introduced a minor, FREE, piece of software that made our entire fortnight a lot easier to manage, writing wise.
DROPBOX is a downloadable piece of software that sits on your desktop. You can save files to it, or drag and drop them as usual, and they’re there, in the folder. But they’re also in a 2Gig folder out there in Internet Land, so if you’re out and about and drop into an Internet cafe, you can open up a file you’re working on, change it, save it and Dropbox will update that same file the next time you go online at home. No more dragging around a file on pen drive, worrying about which version you’re saving, or where you last worked on it. Listen, I don’t know about you guys, but I have a desktop, a laptop, and now a netbook. I have four pen drives and two portable hard drives. I have trouble keeping track of where the records database is most recent, or which unfinished play file is the most up to date. Now I keep all those files in Dropbox and they’re all the same file on every computer!
If this sounds like a gushing advert for Dropbox, then I make no apologies. We all installed Dropbox on our various machines during our writing fortnight, and added a shared folder, meaning if one of us completed a sketch or scene, we didn’t have to e-mail it around, we just dumped it in the shared folder and the other guys’ folders updated automatically. As long as we were careful to work on files one at a time, there was no instance of multiple versions appearing and having to be collated. We wrote a complete panto (60 pages of material), nearly a dozen sketches, two lots of corporate work and outlines of many, many other ideas, and they all got speeded along using Dropbox. It’s still inplace and working though David and Steve are back in the UK.
So, if you’re using multiple machines, or working cooperatively with another writer, try Dropbox. They’re not paying me to tell you this, so it’s a genuine tip from one writer to others – this thing can actually make your writing life easier and less frustrating!
TLC go wild in Canada! Steve, David and me (L-R)
Posted in Writing
Tagged Canada, collaborative, computer, David Lovesy, dropbox, file storage, laptop, netbook, panto, Play writing, playwright, Steve Clark, TLC, working together, writer, writing
Today, as a marketing ploy and because I don’t want to write another blog piece that starts “I’ve been thinking…”, I’m handing out a free sample from my book (Title above). I’ve chosen the start of the chapter about the most common mistakes made by folks writing for the Community Theatre Stage. Hope you enjoy it.
After a few years of being published, I took on the job of Script Reader for my publisher, Lazy Bee Scripts. The company was being inundated with scripts, and they needed someone to help with the initial sorting of the new arrivals. This gave me a chance to review and report on hundreds of scripts from a huge variety of writers. Scripts are sent to Lazy Bee from all around the world, by people who have been writing for years, people just starting out, and people trying stage writing after success in some other form. Before long it became obvious that the same mistakes were being made over and over again.
The Biggest Mistake
Writing a screenplay for the stage. I’m never sure if this mistake is made because the authors have never visited the theatre, or because they wrote the idea as a screenplay first then attempted to convert it to the stage. Since the primary market I am reading for is concerned with the amateur stage, where resources and stage space tend to be limited, there is little point in saying “but I’ve seen some pretty spectacular things on the West End stage”. Yes, I know you can see ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ fly out over the audience in some theatres, but you’re not likely to see that done in your local village hall or school production. Time after time I read plays that open in a living room, described in perfect detail. Five minutes later the action moves to a second, equally detailed location for just a few lines of dialogue, and then another change. If the play is to be performed on a regular small stage, the only options are to have a subdivided stage with many sets permanently erected and the action moving between them, or to have a minimalist stage with movable furniture to signify the various locations. I used a combination of these devices in ‘A Time for Farewells’, with one half of the stage permanently set as a bedroom, and the other half different arrangements of three stage blocks that became a bar, a hospital room, a lounge.
This is entirely possible, but the important thing is that YOU are the one who should decide that this is the way the play should be performed. There’s no point in writing an epic masterpiece that includes horse races, the sinking of the Titanic and an aerial dogfight and then saying “It’s up to the director to work out how to stage it.” If you’re looking for the best of all possible worlds, you’ll end up with a script that doesn’t depend on a trapdoor in the stage or some other technical device (like flying wires, back projection or giant inflatable gorillas) for a successful production. You can certainly suggest that these elements would make the production better, that they were part of your original vision, but allow for the fact that not every group will have these things at their disposal. When the prospective director reads your script, they should be able to see the play being performed on their stage in their mind’s eye. Which leads into point number two:
Incomplete or Unhelpful Instructions
I reviewed a play once that had a character coming onstage carrying a large box. Halfway through the scene, a second character pops out of the box (which is still being held by character number one) and delivers a speech. I couldn’t see how this would be possible unless one character was incredibly strong, or the bottom of the box was open and character two’s legs were screened by some handy scenery. As it turned out, some unenclosed production notes would have told me which characters were to be played by puppets – that information would have put a different spin on things.
If you’re planning on having a character disappear into a magic cabinet, it would be kind to indicate how you imagine this being done: “The back of the cabinet is screened by the mangle, and Aladdin climbs out the concealed flap in the false back…” You don’t need to include a diagram with numbered and labelled parts, but your director needs to have a clue what you’re thinking about. This is particularly important in British pantomime transformation scenes, like Cinders’ “Rags to Ball Gown” or “Pumpkin to Coach” moments. It’s all very well writing “There is a flash and a bang and the pumpkin is replaced by a shimmering coach…” but that’s leaving it all to the director. A little research will show you there are many ways of accomplishing this effect – bringing lights up behind a gauze, unfolding a special piece of scenery… Again, read a few scripts, see some shows, talk to some experienced dramatists. Then put your own spin on the process.
Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling
I know, I know, it seems really petty to complain about mistakes like this. Who cares about full stops and question marks? It’s the content that’s important, isn’t it? Language is a constantly evolving thing, textspeak is becoming a valid form of grammar, blah, blah, blah! Well yes, language does evolve, but at the moment there are still guidelines and rules about grammar, spelling and punctuation, and you can be pretty sure that nothing much has changed in the way English is written since you were at school. Delivering a script for your publisher, or even simply turning one out for your local theatre group, should still be treated with the care and attention to detail you would give a job application letter.
Grammar exists to make the written language easy to hear in your head. Commas give pauses in the sentence, full stops indicate when one idea stops and the next begins. These things are important for your words to be understood, and if people can’t comfortably read what you’ve written, they’re not going to enjoy the content. They’re not going to understand the content. They’re certainly not going to buy or perform your play. Also, if you’re not careful enough to spot errors that are highlighted for you on the spell checker of the word processor you wrote this on, how can any customer be sure you’ve been careful enough to produce a decent plot? Are there as many errors in your storyline as there are in your typing? Bear in mind that the editor or publisher is likely to be someone fond of the written word – they’ve made a business of it, after all. They are exactly the kind of person who gets annoyed by incorrect spelling, and they are also exposed to it on a daily basis. If your script contains no ghastly spelling or punctuation errors, that will be another factor in your favour.
The only exception to the rule about correct spelling and grammar is when you choose to get it wrong. Not everyone speaks the Queen’s English like an Early Fifties BBC Radio Announcer, so of course it doesn’t make sense to have Bruno the door bouncer throw a drunk into the street and yell after him :
“We’d be much obliged if you would refrain from revisiting this establishment in the foreseeable future and encourage your rehabilitation with regard to your alcohol dependency…”
Bruno would shout “Sling yer ‘ook, drunk!” or something worse, and you won’t need to add in the ‘h’ that he drops. But the apostrophe shows the letter has been dropped on purpose, not as a result of rapid typing, and that Bruno is not making monkey noises. In summary, your characters are allowed to speak ungrammatically, or in dialect, but for your readers to correctly interpret this type of speech, it needs to be clearly punctuated.
A Time For Farewells, as performed at RAF Halton
To get YOUR copy of the ebook rush over to the TLC website Best of luck with your writing.