I talk to people, when they check out their books. Part of it is Customer Service, that good old “engage with the patrons” philosophy that makes their trip to the library more than just one more chore on the list. But a lot of it is human interaction that I need, and the genuine desire to share my pleasure and excitement about some of the books I see crossing the desk every day.
If you don’t get this, I’m sorry. Go watch “Labyrinth” and then “Game of Thrones”. But don’t get attached to any of the characters. You have been warned.
Right now, of course, there’s a lot of people checking out the various books from “A song of Fire and Ice”, more commonly known as “Game of Thrones“. If someone is picking up the first, I warn them they’re in for a long haul, and that they shouldn’t get too attached to any of the characters. If they’re picking up something later in the series, like book five or six, we exchange some words about the long wait for the next book, and the chances that the tv series will outpace the novels.
I had a plan on the wall, but it also covered the sofa….
Something I say a lot, when talking about GoT, is that I hope George R.R. Martin has a big plan on his wall. I want it to start with the history he hints at – the Targaryan conquest of the Seven Kingdoms by dragon, all the way through the death of the Mad King and Robert’s seizing of the Iron Throne to a decent conclusion. (Don’t worry if this is all meaningless gibberish to you, I have a point coming up…)
The point is the plan, the shape of the whole story. The books are wonderfully compelling, and Westeros is a great place to visit from the safety of your couch or your favourite reading nook, but I really, really want to know that George has an end in mind, that he’s not just moving his pieces round a Risk board and wondering who’s going to come out on top.
For years, I’ve been what’s known in the trade as a “pantser”. I wrote by the seat of my pants, starting with a vague premise, or some lines of dialogue and simply following the trail, only able to see a little way ahead as I wrote. It was fun, and sometimes the result was particularly good. Even as recently as “Love in a Time of Zombies”, a chance line in the early pages turned into a crucial plot point at the climax of the play, something a review called a “classic example of Chekhov’s Gun“.
The flyer for the show
But the satisfaction of pantsing has been tempered by the number of projects that stalled because I didn’t know where to go next. They reached a quiet point, where the characters stop and turn to you and say “Yeah? What now?” Raymond Chandler once said that when things got boring in his books, he would have a guy walk through the door with a gun. It’s nice philosophy, very much in the Panster tradition, but when they were filming “The Big Sleep”, the director suddenly realised he didn’t know who had killed one of the characters, the Chauffeur. Chandler was called and quizzed, but admitted he had no idea either. It just wasn’t that important to the plot he was building. Pantsing can leave plot holes.
So my last two plays and the two e-books that came before them have been planned. I’ve written a short precis, which expanded into a pitch document, which became an outline, which got broken into scenes on a huge sheet of paper on the wall. Now, instead of aiming for word count targets, I’m writing a scene a day, knocking off sections of the project and knowing exactly how many I have to go before the end. I haven’t noticed any dip in creativity, but there has been a drop in the number of abandoned drafts.
Holidays… Don’t you just hate ’em? The sunshine, the calm, the beauty… Ick.
This last week, staying out in Osoyoos with my parents on their third trip to Canada, I discussed a new play with Mrs Dim. From no real idea, to a neat concept in the course of ten minutes by the pool. When August begins, I’ll start my new planning document, and what is only a sentence now will begin to grow.
So what’s YOUR preferred method? Is planning the writing putting a straightjacket on the creative muscles, or is pantsing an amateur mistake?
Posted in Writing
Tagged Customer Service, Game of Thrones, George RR Martin, Pantsing, planning a novel, play scripts, Targaryan, Westeros, writing, writing a novel, writing a play
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.
Have you got time to sit down?
All writing seems to be done against the clock. You won’t hear any writer say “Oh yeah, I have plenty of time to finish this piece.” If you’re not racing to beat a publishing deadline, you’re rushing to get your thousand words a day finished before the kids come home from school and start demanding unreasonable things like food and clean clothes.
The hardliners will tell you that if you don’t MAKE time to write every day, then you’re not really a writer. You have the same number of hours in each day as Earnest Hemingway, William Shakespeare and Julius Caesar. (Granted, Caesar didn’t write novels, but he did find the time to conquer Gaul and still write up his adventures: “What I did during the Summer, by J. Caesar.” Mind you, he also wore a bedsheet and always had leaves in his hair, which I think should rule him out as a good example.)
I’ve found the idea of writing every day to be a good one in theory, but harder to follow through, unless you bend your definition of “Writing”. I certainly get to the keyboard pretty much every day, but I don’t produce what I would count as writing. Up until last year, that didn’t matter much, because I had all the time in the world (between 9am and 3pm) to produce my masterpieces. For more information on how masterful they are, go look me up at www.lazybeescripts.co.uk . But with the arrival of our mortgage, I was thrust back out into the wicked world of work, and my writing time (and my Halo time, Facebook time, Twitter time…..) was severely diminished.
At least, it was from one point of view. From another, I still had time to write, I just had to work a little harder to make the most of it. During last year I wrote my full length play “Merely Players”, the first full length play I’ve ever written. I’d love to say I did it by getting up at five in the morning and getting in a good hour’s writing before the day began, but some of you know me quite well by now. I have only recently heard about five in the morning. It sounds intriguing, but I don’t want to go there. No, what I did was write a little here, a little there. Sometimes I wrote in the evenings, sometimes in the afternoons when the weasels were playing. Sometimes I had days at home when I wasn’t in work and the washing was done (or piled up in the basket accusingly.)
All this is not bragging. All this is me worrying, because it looks like I have found myself a new job. Better, in many ways than my last, because the hours will be more regular and there will be no weekend work. but it will be every day, with no wacky midweek breaks. I may get around thirty to forty minutes in each day when I will be home and the weasels will still be at school, but the washing, cleaning, cooking and shopping will still have to be done. If I want to stay a writer, not become someone who used to be a writer, I will have to work at it.
So tell me, how do YOU fit writing into your life? Or do you fit your life into your writing? Do you have weasels to wrangle, or have you got a dedicated weasel wrangler to take care of that? Have you read my amazing book “Writing a play for the Community Theatre”? It could change your life, you know, or at least fill some of the empty hours of it with witty prose and handy advice about writing plays.
Even with a minimal set, the description is important. As is the sofa.
It’s dark. There’s just the rustle of whispered conversation in the auditorium. Then the lights come up and the curtain swishes aside to reveal….What? That’s a pretty big question, and one that’s been very prominent this week.
Reviewing scripts for my publisher has kept me busy for the last three years, at approximately eight scripts a week. At such a volume of material, it’s inevitable that a pattern of errors or common mistakes should emerge, and this week the top offender seems to be a lack of description.
It’s something that’s easy to excuse. The playwright sits at home, imagining their play running on the stage. They concentrate on the characters, on the dialogue, but probably have a vision of the staging too. The thing is, they don’t want to be too proscriptive : if you say “There must be entrances here, here and here, and the heroine must recline on this chaise longue here…” aren’t you restricting the Director’s creativity? Isn’t it better to just say “Curtains open on a living room” and describe the characters coming and going?
Well, no. If you’re hoping to sell your script, you should be aiming for your writing to conjure up an image in the prospective director’s mind. To do that, you need to describe each set at the top of the scene. That way the director knows what the room looks like as the characters move around it. It doesn’t matter that the director is envisioning a blue sofa instead of a paisley one. It doesn’t matter that he/she thinks a drinks cabinet is six feet tall instead of a little cupboard. What’s important is that when he/she reads ‘Charlie crosses to the sofa” it isn’t the first time the sofa has been mentioned. This is important because up until that moment the reader will have a scene in their heads. You mention, perhaps, a study. For me, that means a chair or two and a desk for working at. I’ll also imagine oak panelled walls. Sorry, can’t help myself*. Anyway, my personal view of a study doesn’t include a sofa. So, when I read that Charlie crosses to a sofa, the sofa appears BING! in the middle of my imaginary study. It’s annoying and surprising. You don’t want someone reading your script to be annoyed.
“But what about the stifled creativity?” you cry. Fair point. This is, indeed a tightrope you have to walk. Your first step here is creating a vision in the reader’s head that means they can see what YOU saw when you were writing the play. They don’t have to get every nuance, but they should understand the physical reality of the world you have built. Their challenge is to translate that vision into the performance space they have. So, in writing for the community theatre where facilities are often more limited, you may want to restrict the number of trapdoors you mention in the stage, or flying entrances, or holographic monsters. But don’t skimp on the description – tell the reader what you see, and do it at the top of the scene so they start with the correct picture in their heads.
*In case you’re wondering, my study doesn’t have oak panelled walls. They’re a kind of yucky green colour. There’s no sofa either.
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.