Friday, September 25, 2015

Straight on till morning

Chekov: Course heading, Captain?
Kirk: Second star to the right and straight on till morning.
--Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, screenplay
by Nicholas Meyer and Denny Martin Flinn

Maintaining a writing career takes constant work, and a lot of it doesn’t involve actual writing. One of the most important jobs is something I call my writing stock-take.

At least once a year, I set aside a few days to take stock of my career. This isn’t just deciding what project to do next - sometimes that’s decided for you, if you get a writing job, or the chance to pitch for one. It's more of an appraisal of my recent work, and a plan of action. What sort of things am I doing, what went right, what went wrong, what can I do differently next time.

Then I think about what I want to be doing for the next 6 to 12 months - what projects do I want to get off the ground, do I want to move into a new area, focus on something in particular, where do I want to be in a year’s time, what do I need to achieve that. Sometimes that will require a chat with my agent, to see what’s possible/available, sometimes I’ll need to learn new things or do some research, sometimes I’ll have to take some time to write a new spec. As I’ve said before, you never “break in”, you just keep moving, and have to break in again every time you do something new.

It’s sort of a spring clean, to figure out the next phase. It’s important to take stock like this every year, sometimes twice a year. Like writing a script, you’ve got to know where you’re going, so you know what to aim for - sometimes you end up somewhere different and more interesting, but having a plan means you can take chances. And you should do at least one thing every year that absolutely terrifies you, that you’re convinced you’re not clever enough to do. Sometimes it’ll go wrong, but when it works, it’s incredibly satisfying.

All my project titles are listed in a big text file, with notes next to them saying who they’re with, if they’re available, dormant, active, etc. It helps me keep track of what I’m doing, and what needs actioning. I also keep a text file of pitches, all of my projects in one-paragraph pitch form, for when people ask what I’ve got available. Those are also kept online and on my phone, so I can quickly copy, paste and email any of them. Both of these files are kept updated regularly.

I combine the stock-take with regular training days, where I’ll teach myself a new skill, or continue learning about something - if I'm stuck on a script, I'll turn the day over to training instead. Over the past couple of years I’ve been teaching myself editing. I’ve edited all my FrightFest phone idents, my short films Three MinutesGhosting, and my music video. I also graded them (thank you, YouTube tutorials), did the sound mixes, and the visual effects. Most software packages and skills have tons of online tutorials, most of them are free, so you can learn almost anything you want. I’m now pretty confident with Final Cut Pro 7, and am currently learning the ropes on Final Cut Pro X and Motion.

You don’t have to learn about every aspect of filmmaking to be a writer, but it definitely helps and informs your work. Directing and editing (and even doing the sound effects) has helped my writing a lot, making me more ruthless with trimming the fat before it ever gets filmed. A few years ago, I took an introductory course in acting, for a similar reason. Seeing how actors interpret the script was really helpful, and changed how I approach creating characters - thinking of what an actor can work with, and giving them a reason to take the job.

I’ve been doing the career stock-take this week, and am currently deciding which projects to concentrate on, now that some of them may be on the move, and which ones I need to push forward. I’m determined to direct a feature, to get my own TV show off the ground, and to find some work in the USA. Those have been goals for a while, so now I need to knuckle down and focus. I’ve got a TV episode airing soonish (hopefully there’ll be an announcement imminently) and another one in the pipeline, which will both hopefully help with the next stages of my career.

I’m not 100% sure what I’ll be doing next year, but I have a plan. And that’s half the battle.