Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Official Facebook page thingy

I've been on Facebook for a while, but it's a personal account for family and friends only. I've tried to make it clear that I won't accept requests from people I don't know, but I still get several requests per day from complete strangers. I'm sure they're lovely strangers, but I don't want all my personal stuff on display to people I don't know. That's just common sense, for everyone. I'm sure you understand my feelings on this, and if you don't, then we're probably not going to get on very well anyway, so never mind.

Anyway, to keep my public stuff and private stuff separate, there's now a public Facebook page, which you can visit here. If you're vaguely interested in my work, etc etc, you can go there and click "Like", and will be part of my official, public space on the Book of Faces. There's no restrictions, anyone can "like" it and post stuff, and I'll try to keep it updated with news and stuff that's too short for blog posts, maybe even stuff that won't be on here or the Twitter. It'll also automagically update whenever I post a blog entry here. Including this one, announcing the page itself, in a weird, recursive loop that may well destroy the very fabric of reality if we're not careful.

I feel like a terrible, self promoting shill mentioning it here, but it has to be done, and it makes sense to keep the two separate. I just wish instead of a "Like" button, there was a "I'm vaguely interested in the work of this person" button, so it doesn't look like some weird plea to be loved. Now go and validate me, or I'll sulk.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Summary of every screenwriting "how-to" book

I've talked about screenwriting "how-to" books here before. Short version: I'm not a fan. If you've never written a script or thought about how a story works, or if you're still new to all this and need guidance, then sure, most of them have common sense stuff that can make things clearer. But you don't *need* to read any of them.

Of course, people are still curious. They wonder if maybe the books have some secret, magic formula, a short cut to telling brilliant stories. So, to save you some time and money, here is a bullet-point summary of every screenwriting "how-to" book ever:

--1: Have a Beginning, Middle, and an End. In the Beginning, kick off the story in an interesting, exciting way, introduce all the characters (making sure they're interesting, flawed, with voices distinct from each other, snappy dialogue that sounds real, and their own specific goals and conflicts, especially the baddies), and show us what the main character wants, and the obstacles in their way. In the Middle, throw all the obstacles at them and see how they cope, while avoiding visible exposition ("As you know, my father, Dr Robert McFuckleberry, the eminent parapsychologist, went missing last year under mysterious circumstances"), working it into the dialogue and actions subtly, showing us what's going on instead of telling us. Similarly, don't tell us stuff in the action description that can't be seen on screen (Jack is a black belt in AssKickFu, and loves his mum), show it happening (Jack uses martial arts to kick a guy's ass for insulting his mum), because every scene should move the story on, or reveal character, preferably both. Halfway through the Middle, throw in a surprising twist that moves the story in another direction. In the final bit of the Middle, have everything go wrong, and make it look grim for the main character. In the End, show the main character summoning up their strength for one final battle, where they overcome all the obstacles, save the day (in a surprising yet inevitable way that was hinted at from the very beginning), and walk off into the sunset having learned something and grown as a person - that, or they tragically fail/die, but with a glimmer of hope for the future. Keep it all between 90 and 120 pages (a page is roughly equal to a minute of screen time), and make sure it's in the proper screenplay format (use Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter if you have some spare cash, or the free CeltX or BBC ScriptSmart Word template).

--2: Er, that's it.

There, now you can just get on with telling good stories, and haven't contributed to the weird industry of "expert" script advice from people who've never written a script in their life. That'll be ten quid, please. Cash or cheque is fine. Cheers.

(Note: I'm aware all books are different, and may have good tips, etc etc, but you don't need any of them to write a good story. You can get solid, practical tips and techniques from working writers like John August and Bill Martell (who posts a great script tip every day, and also has a series of brilliant Blue Books that are incredibly useful), things they've used in their long careers. And re-read this if you want my recommendations on books about writing and the industry. If you really must read one of the how-to books, and need a more in-depth analysis of how stories work, try "Save the Cat", or "Crafty Screenwriting" - they're both short, reasonably priced, have some useful thoughts, and the authors actually wrote real movies and TV shows. None of the other ones have any extra insight. Although I'm totally with McKee on the need to stop all the shaky camera shit.)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Amazon Studios

Several people have asked me what I reckon about the Amazon Studios thing. I didn't want to comment until I'd read all the terms and conditions, but now that I've ploughed through all the details, I'm not keen at all. Obviously, I'm not a lawyer, this is all my opinion, blah blah blah.

So let's start with the downsides:

-- Amazon automatically take an 18 month option, for free (which means you can't sell your script to anyone else during that time). At the end of that, if they want another 18 month option, they pay you $10,000. You can't turn it down, either, even if you have several actual film companies begging to buy your script - if Amazon want to extend the option, you have no choice. If your script is good, then you're stuck with them for 3 years. Up and coming writers usually get paid if their script is optioned. Even just a token amount. Sometimes it's 50 quid. Sometimes it's several thousand pounds. And it's usually for 6 to 12 months. Update: It's actually even worse than this. After 18 months (or 3 years) even when the rights revert to you, they can STILL sell your script or give it away. Forever. They just don't have the exclusive right to. So you might get your script back, but share the rights with Amazon. *Surely* I've misunderstood this, right? It *can't* be that horrific, right? Someone at Amazon or a legal type, please tell me I've got that wrong. For my own sanity.

-- Anyone can rewrite your script. Your version stays there too, but will soon have several rewrites surrounding it. If someone reads a bad rewrite first, they might not bother to read and vote on the original draft.

-- Suppose you write a script about a giant killer robot mouse. Someone comes along and rewrites it, adding some crap jokes. Someone else comes along, reads their new version, and thinks it's brilliant - but do they read your original version too? Do they like it *because* of the new person's changes, or because of the stuff in there which is yours?

-- Which raises the tricky question of who decides how much you contributed *to your own script* - in the movie world, this is called arbitration, where experts (who are also writers) read every draft, and make careful decisions about who did what and what credits are deserved. They sometimes get this wrong. It's very difficult, even for them. How are Amazon going to cope with a script rewritten by 24 people, if the changes are very small?

-- Suppose your script does really well, and rises up the ranks. Every idiot with no ideas who wants to be attached to something cool will start doing "rewrites" on it, in the hope that they'll be included in the credits and cash payouts. This will dilute the quality, and reduce your credit and payment. Ironically, this part is fairly similar to the normal movie world…

-- The more voices you bring into a script, the more writers, the more interference, the worse it gets. You get hired because of your voice, the way a script *feels* and sounds that is unique to you. As soon as anyone gets their hands on that, it gets lost. Sure, the process might result in a good script at some point, but it's never going to have the originality and quirks of a sole writer's voice. The Amazon system would never result in something like Reservoir Dogs, or Kidulthood - strong, powerful, original voices that only those specific writers could have done at that time. Before you quote The Pixar Exception at me - a small, tight team is responsible for writing the actual script, sometimes just one person. Everyone in the company can give feedback and suggestions, but they don't just let everyone do a rewrite.

-- Dude. Have you *seen* some of the "reviews" on Amazon??

-- It starts from an assumption of failure. You put your script in, and it gets rewritten by anyone and everyone, no matter what. Sure, your original version is still there, but normally you'd get a couple of drafts after being hired, drafts that you'd write yourself. You're immediately giving away your rewrite chances. You could always do another draft yourself, later. But people looking at it will wonder why you didn't wait and hand in *that* new draft instead of the original.

Okay, that's enough negativity. Let's consider the upsides:

-- Monthly cash prizes for top scripts. That's good, if you win. But if your script is good enough to win those, it's good enough to get you an agent and/or sell to a film company.

-- The production and distribution stuff. Sure, if your script makes it all the way, untouched, and gets made, released, etc etc, you *could* make a lot of money. Nowhere *near* as much money as Amazon and WB will make out of it, of course. And if anyone does a rewrite, and gets credit, your payment is reduced. If several people do rewrites, it's reduced even more.

-- If your script is crap, but has a good idea at the core, someone else could do a good rewrite, and you'd both get a share in the final movie. Hey, might happen. But do you want to have a small share in one movie, or become a better writer and get a movie made out of *your* script, and build a career?

-- The biggest upside is this: you could be living in the middle of nowhere, with no experience or connections, with hardly any writing ability, and find yourself with a hit movie in the cinemas that you had a little bit to do with. Maybe. Assuming many, many, many things go your way.

So they're the upsides and downsides, according to me. Taking all that into account, do I think you should go for it or not? Bear in mind first that my opinion here is probably going to upset some of you. If you just want to be told you're brilliant and special and anything can happen in magical movieland, then stop reading now. Still here? Okay, don't say I didn't warn you.

The Amazon Studios site is not aimed at people who want to be writers. It's aimed at people who want some free money from a big movie, without doing much work. There, I said it.

Sure, people who want to be writers might genuinely be interested in it, but they're not the target audience. I get that it might seem like an attractive deal for someone who has been working on a script for ages with no results. If you're not getting anywhere, been rejected by every agent and film company in the world, and this is your last possible option, I couldn't blame you for giving it a try. Although you'd have to ask yourself why you'd been rejected by every agent and film company in the world.

But if you really, really, really want to be a writer, I'd recommend staying far away from the website. It won't make you a better writer. Work on your scripts, your original voice, your career. A good script will get read, and found, and passed on to people who can buy it or help you start your career. Put that same good script into this thing, and you've pretty much just given it away. Even if it gets made and survives the tortuous process, you might not see any money or credit. And most people will not get the second option fee of $10,000, will not win the monthly prizes, will not get their film sold and made. The Red Planet competition is also free to enter, but your script remains your property unless they buy it, and the prizes are much better for your career and growth as a writer - there's no downside to entering that. This seems to be mostly downsides.

If you want feedback on your work, go read this. If you want to be a writer, go read a lot, write a lot, work on your scripts. If you're good, you'll get noticed and break in. If you're not, then you won't, until you get good. That's it, really. If you want a career in writing, you already knew I was going to say that, because you've done your research, asked questions, read all my FAQs, read all of the other helpful blog posts out there, and they all pretty much say the same thing.

If you're still looking for a short cut or an easy answer, then you don't want to be a writer. You just want to be rich and famous. Which is fine, but I can't help you with that.

Update: For proper, clever, detailed analysis, go read what Piers Beckley, Michelle Lipton, and John August have to say about it.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I confuse myself sometimes

Occasionally, and I'm not proud of it - although, let's be honest, I actually *am* geekily proud of it - I'll put overly obscure jokes or references into scripts. But one time, I wrote a joke so obscure, that when the producer asked me what it meant, I HAD NO IDEA. I still don't. I remember laughing when I wrote it, so it clearly meant something at the time, but I haven't got a clue what that might be.

So here is the snippet of script featuring that joke:

There you go. The bit that confuses me is Lisa's first line, "Only if it's not in black and white." Why is that funny? Why is it clever? What does she mean? I get the bit about photographers doing rude things with lenses and tripods, but what's the "not in black and white bit" referring to? How does that make it filthy? Arg!

There's a valuable lesson here about not being too clever and tricksy in scripts, but I probably won't listen to myself, as usual. The "joke" has been gone since that early draft, as I still don't understand it. If you know what it means, answers on a postcard to the usual place. Please use correct postage, and only one side of the postcard. If you haven't got a postcard, use a stuck-down envelope. If you haven't got a stuck-down envelope, use a stuck-down elephant.

Is it obvious that I'm avoiding working on an outline?? No?? Good.

Update: Several people - enough so that I'm starting to feel a bit silly - have sent me the same possible answer: black and white nudie images = art, colour nudie images = porn. That sounds likely, and may have been what I was going for. I'm not entirely sure though, as I still can't remember. But I reckon that was it. Hooray!

Monday, November 08, 2010

Gallifrey One 2011

I mentioned this a while ago, but realised it's not actually on here yet, so... I'll be a guest at the next Gallifrey One convention, February 18th-20th, 2011.

It's a huge Doctor Who convention held every year in Los Angeles, and it's brilliant. If you're in the area, or near the area, or a drive/flight/horse ride away from the area, and you want to say hello, then come along and join in the fun. I'm really looking forward to it, as I skipped this year's event, and have great memories of the 2009 and 2008 ones.

But don't just come along for boring old me - other guests I've just copied straight from the website are: Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton, Tracie Simpson, Peter Bennett, Matthew Waterhouse, John Leeson, Kai Owen, Tom Price, Sheridan Smith, Ian McNeice, Neill Gorton, Jane Espenson, Doris Egan, Phil Ford, Ashley Way, Gareth Roberts, Gary Russell, Jason Haigh-Ellery, Clayton Hickman, Larry Niven, Barbara Hambly, Tony Lee, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, David Gerrold, Rick Sternbach, and loads more, including the marvellous Javier Grillo-Marxuach. Phew. That's a pretty amazing lineup. Hopefully I'll see you there, it's bucketloads of fun and should be the biggest year so far.

Important: If you're going, the hotel is filling up *fast*, and the nearby ones will be too, so check out the website for your options. Book now to avoid being stuck in the Miles From Anywhere Hotel.