Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Birth of a scribo-bloke

Thanks for the great questions, keep them coming. Posting will be sporadic, as I have tons of stuff to write, but they'll still happen, for I am the king, the king of procrastination.

Potdoll says: how did you learn screenwriting? did you go to film school/classes or were you born like it?

I went a funny sort of roundabout way, really. In a sense, I was born like it, in that I could always write, but the screenwriting came much later. Ever since I was able to hold a pen, I've been writing short stories, but never really thought it would get me anywhere. Tried writing two novels, but abandoned them halfway through when I realised the sheer amount of description that was necessary. When I discovered the script format, I realised I'd found my medium - you only describe what is needed ("a room"), and can get straight to the story and character. Action, dialogue, bish bash bosh. This was in the late 90s - I had no idea that there were screenwriting courses. I'd heard of film school, but assumed that there were only 2 of them, and both were in America. I vaguely heard from a friend that there was one in this country, but apparently it was expensive, and I was broke.

So I started reading published scripts (more on that in a future post). That was a revelation, I realised how sparse they were - they said so little, and yet said so much. Why was that great scene not in the movie? Why was a different scene added? What works on the page, but not in the movie, and vice versa? I went on the internet, looked for more, and tried to find out everything I could about writing them. That's when I found the Wordplay website - a series of columns about the technical process, the nitty gritty of actually knuckling down and writing a script from your idea - not teaching you *how* to write, but giving you tricks of the trade. Later, I won the Sci-Fi Channel shorts competition, and my 10-page script got made into a short film. That gave me the confidence boost to decide to try to get an agent. I wrote a 6-part TV series ("The School", which still gets me meetings today) and a film script ("Mirror", which doesn't). The film script wasn't great, but not bad for a first try. Once my agent pointed out the flaws, it seemed really obvious - not much sense of direction, redundant scenes where characters would give other characters information that the audience already knew, etc. So I learned from that.

The next stage was the writing of Severance, formerly P45, formerly The Craw Lodge, formerly Primeval, formerly Mountain Man. That has been documented on this blog in terrifying detail. Reader's Digest version: I jumped in without an outline, plan, or ending, and wrote a bad first draft. My agent, in a long phonecall (the first of many) explained to me exactly why it was so bad: more redundant scenes, no sense of direction, characters all sound the same, ending doesn't work, tension doesn't build to the ending, logic flaws, plot holes, an entirely redundant character who is just there to help explain things I'm unable to, etc etc. Over the course of the year, I gradually figured out where I'd gone wrong, and figured out my story. I did an outline, figured out the motivations of the victims and the killer, worked out the backstory, got to know the characters, and generally fixed all my mistakes. If I'd done this to start with, it would have been easier - but because I was rewriting instead of starting from scratch, it took quite a while.

During that time, I read lots of screenwriting books, none of which were helpful, unless I wanted to know where the act breaks were in the *finished movie versions* of Chinatown and The Karate Kid. More - MUCH more - on screenwriting books in a later post. Short version: don't. Give me the money instead. You will be similarly unenlightened, but hey, you'll have got me drunk and saved yourself some time.

I also read many more scripts. And saw lots of movies. And listened to lots of DVD commentaries - not just writers, but directors, editors, actors, anyone with some insight into the creation of the movie. They all have different points of view, depending on their job, and it all helps.

But the most helpful thing ever was writing those two bad scripts. And then being forced at gunpoint (okay, agent-point) to rewrite the shit out of one until it worked, until it kicked ass and sold and made me into the fabulous, fierce diva you see before you. You have to make your own mistakes. I highly recommend it. You can be told something until you're blue in the face, but you won't believe it until it happens to you. "Pff! Know the ending first? Bullshit, man, you can't force your RULES on me, I'm an outlaw." Later: "Damn, I wish I'd had even a rough idea about the ending before I started this." (Obviously there are exceptions to everything, etc, what works for me may be illegal in your country, blah blah blah, mum knows best, etc). It's like when you fall for someone who's actually a crazy heartbreaker. Everyone else KNOWS they're crazy and will dump your ass for the nearest drug dealer and then shoot your cat, they try and tell you because they don't want to see you get hurt - but hey, they don't understand, they're just jealous, they don't see them like you do, you know they would NEVER do anything like that... until it happens. And it's so obvious in hindsight, you can't believe you didn't realise, if only you'd listened to your friends...

There are some things you just can't be told, you have to make your own mistakes and learn from them, so that next time you write something you will instinctively avoid the pitfalls that trapped you before - you'll feel it, because you've done it. And that has been the most valuable learning tool of all, Scarecrow. You're not going to be a genius overnight. You can be a damn good writer, but there is always stuff to learn. And (in my not so humble opinion) there's simply no substitute for sitting your ass down, writing and writing and writing, fucking up, going down the wrong paths, making all the same mistakes, learning from those, coming back stronger, continuing to write your guts out, until you get better at it.

Look, I know I've had one single movie made, and I'm not in any way holding myself up as an expert, I wouldn't do that - my opinion about everything isn't suddenly correct just because I've had some success. But this is my experience, and what I've found to be true for myself. Everyone's path is different. Maybe if I'd taken a class, I could have avoided many of the mistakes I made - but I still say there's no substitute for writing a lot, good and bad (although I understand that most of those classes actually make you write lots of stuff, which is good). And yes, I realise I answered the original question several paragraphs ago, but if you can't talk too much on your own blog, what is the world coming to? Hell in a handbasket, that's what.

More questions answered later! Exciting back-and-forth blog action! Also, this is the 296th post. I'd really like to mark the upcoming 300th with some sort of special, funkadelic post. Any suggestions, please to be communicating with me electronic-wise.


Dom Carver said...

Another great post, two in one day. First Danny, then you. It's been a blogging treat today, I can tell you.


Amanda said...

Once again Mr. Moran proves the pen is indeed mightier than the spork.

I still say try eating your chips with a pen though... and anyway, is he sat at his computer hitting the keys with a pen? If not I feel cheated. Cheated!

Wait. All I meant to say was great blog Jimbo. You're quite an inspiration, you know? *thumbs up*

potdoll said...

Thanks Sargent Pants, really really interesting and inspiring. I kind of guessed you were born like it - you can smell it all over your blog.

I saw an email your agent sent round announcing Severance release date and he sounded really into you. Good for you.

James, again thanks loads for answering my question.

Lucy said...

So let me get this straight: you did pretty much EXACTLY what I've done (not outlining, imagining film schools are both in the US, write a drama etc) and you're a squillionaire with bling and a big massive film credit and I read scripts and write CD Roms and porno text message alerts.

There's only one of two things I can do in this situation. A) murder you or b) shake your hand and absorb your screenwriting prowess like Rogue from the X-Men.

Roll on this saturday... ; )

shtove said...

Hey, Severance got a mention on Ken Levine's blog - couldn't figure out how to link it: it's in the comments section of the review of The Fountain.

Anonymous said...

Lucy - how'd you get into writing porno text messages? I always fancied that. Is it lucrative?

James Moran said...

Cheers Potdoll, any excuse to talk about myself really. Ah, bless him (my agent), he really pushes me out there, with his wickedly sharp, curved talons.

Amanda, I am sending this by writing on a piece of paper so that teams of drunken monkeys can copy it and type it on the keyboard. Honest, I am.

Lucy: all correct apart from the squillionaire and the bling. Okay, I do have a new jumper, but that's about it. But you get to send people porno, and get paid for it - when I send people porno, the police are usually called.

Shtove: Ta, I saw that, I'd love it if Ken himself saw the movie one day and even raised a small smile.

Bang2Write said...

byI wish it was lucrative Anonymous - to be quite honest with you, I haven't done any porno texts for about 3 years, it just sounds the most interesting addition to my CV. I usually do things like CD Roms and those magazine partworks where you collect three million mags with flowerpots on at £4.99 each.
I got into it by accident - I went for a job on an actual magazine when I finished university, but when I got there the place was boarded up (I'd gone to the wrong place I found out later). Anyway, a guy in a cab picked me up to take me back to the station - tells me he has this idea for porno text alerts. I laugh and say I'd be well up for that, here's my card, I'm a writer. About a year later he contacts me for his new dot.com venture and takes me on! No kidding. He was a great guy and paid fairly well - about £50 a batch. Sadly probably too well as about 9 mths later the company went under. Wasn't my only venture into texting - worked for another company on a text msg soap opera. That company also went under. Not sure what the msg is there: that text companies don't work or that my presence in them is the kiss of death!!!

And James - you still have recgonition by people like Levine. I'm gonna suck you dry Rogue-style boyo...