Tag Archives: Play writing

Writing method trial – the result

There's memes, there's gags, and there's real life. This one is all three.

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.

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.

Yes, really.

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.

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The resolutions will not be televised

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.

STAGE ONE

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.

STAGE TWO

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…

STAGE THREE

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?

STAGE FOUR

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.

STAGE FIVE

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.

STAGE SIX

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.

Who I was twenty years ago.

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.

Taking my own advice

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.

I hear those sleigh bells ringing…

Eldest Weasel makes a Rockin' reindeer in the school production of "North Pole Musical"

For many people here in the Greater Vancouver area, Christmas has been coming since Hallowe’en bowed out on November the first. Folks round this way really seem to enjoy decorating their houses, so barely had the month changed before the giant spiders’ webs and inflatable Frankensteins were being pulled down and replaced with miles and miles of twinkling strings of lights and inflatable snowmen and Santas. Since the World’s Largest Home Improvement Retailer skipped straight over Hallowe’en and started flogging Christmas decos way back in mid-October, I was a little jaded about the whole thing, but recently Mrs Dim and I have taken the odd stroll out along our neighbourhood of an evening, and I have to say I’m charmed. Yes, by UK standards, I suppose the houses look a little gaudy, and there’s an austerity measures voice in my head that mutters about the electricity bill all these people must have to pay in January, but look, it’s PRETTY, ok?

If the lights are going up and the evenings are drawing in, then the weasels must be performing in the school play, right? I fear so, but this being Vancouver, the multi-cultural melting pot of the most laid-back country in the Northern Hemisphere, we won’t risk anything as controversial as tea-towel wearing re-enactments of the Nativity. Nope, last year’s fiesta was a play that stressed the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (a common theme for the school that year) and this year we had the North Pole Musical, where the inhabitants of Santa’s workshops competed to see who would get to perform in the musical. This year the performance was by the elder two age groups in the school, so the singing was more tuneful and there was less “Ahh, doesn’t he look lovely?” from the watching parents.

Middle Weasel had a less demanding role - First Flower in the three-minute Nutcracker

As always, I was torn between enjoying the show and wishing I had written something for them. At the climax of the piece, Santa, Mrs Claus and Crystal Snowflake sing a song about the heart of Christmas, which seems to be about, you know, peace and love, and hope and generally nice but vague concepts. Because, you know, it’s Christmas. A time for presents, and…stuff.

I can appreciate that not everyone at the weasels’ school wants to celebrate Christmas as a Christian festival, but recently we (being TLC Creative) were asked to consider writing a secular piece for a schools Christmas show. I was hesitant, because I dread getting to that moment when one of the characters steps forward to talk about the true meaning of Christmas. I’m sorry, but if you’re atheist, agnostic or of another religion (all of which are fine by me, go right ahead…) then there is no true meaning of Christmas for you. Just as Eid, Ramadan and Diwali mean nothing at all to me. I won’t stop you celebrating them, and if you ask me to come along and hold up a lantern in a Diwali celebration, why I’d love to. Sounds like a neighbourly thing to do. But does it mean anything to me? Nope. So just as I wouldn’t write a secular play on the true meaning of Diwali being what draws a group of street kids to reform their thieving ways and become teachers, I don’t feel comfortable writing about the True Spirit of Christmas being to give out presents and be nice to people you don’t like the rest of the year.

This feeling comes round every year and it makes Mrs Dim cross because she has always worked in a multi-faith, multi-cultural environment, whereas for most of my working life I’ve been in a dark room, staring at the computer screen, so she knows it’s not about the True Meaning of Christmas, it’s about making people take part in Christmas when they don’t want to. People of other beliefs have no option about Christmas, she says patiently every year, the whole place (UK, Canada, wherever) closes over the holiday and some people don’t want to celebrate Christmas. Saying “Happy Holidays” may set your teeth on edge, Mr Grumpy, but it doesn’t offend.

So let me apologise. I know a fair few atheists, agnostics, and folks who just find the whole “Them and Us”ness of religion too much bother. Fair play to you, not going to convert you. You are not a rugby ball, as I point out in one of my plays. But please, let me wish you a Merry Christmas, with no ill intent, no offense meant. I hope it brings a little light into the darkest time of the year, even if it’s only from the strings of lights around your tree.

Writing collaboration – Is co-writing a contradiction?

David's not far away, he's really that small....
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.
Our big project this last fortnight was a pantomime. We’ve cracked the main canon of panto, writing Aladdin, Cinderella, Babes in the Wood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Dick Whittington, Puss in Boots. We’ve also done some more off-the-wall pieces, like the Space Panto “Watch this Space” and the Arthurian epic “Knight Fever“. This time we were turning our attention to Sinbad.
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.

Excellent tool for writers – Dropbox

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)