Archive for the Notes from the Coalface Category

An Imperfect Science

The narration over the wonderfully absurd opening* of Sunset Boulevard, where we learn that the man talking to us is the dead guy floating in the pool – includes every screenwriter’s favourite observation: that no regular moviegoer knows or cares what screenwriters do because ‘they think the actors make it up as they go along.’

If a screenwriter does their job right, all the artifice – setting up the story and introducing the characters and moving the narrative forward – disappears.  The viewers suspend their disbelief, ignore the contrivances and the coincidences that hold the story together, and let themselves imagine they are watching something real. The impression of spontaneity – that the ‘actors make it up as they go along’ is pretty much the effect every writer is trying to achieve. At the same time we’re also trying to make viewers forget they are watching actors at all, and convince them that that bloke who resembles Tom Hanks might just die horribly before the end of the movie.

Of course these days critics and audiences are much more sophisticated.  They understand that in movies today it’s the director who makes the story up as he or she goes along.  (Joke! LOLZ, etc.)

A lot of other screenwriters have made this point much better than I ever could – notably William Goldman in Which Lie Did I Tell? where he slams his head repeatedly into the great stone edifice that is ‘The Auteur Alfred Hitchcock’ to no avail whatsoever.

But to this day we still get critics who will analyse everything about a movie in terms of what the director was trying to achieve, or how this work fits into that director’s oeuvre, ignoring the fact that much of the time it’s the writer who has shaped the story. Sometimes the director is only driven to ‘explore’ this subject matter because he has two mistresses, a coke habit and a condo in Malibu to support.

Some producers are under this impression as well – that only the stars and the directors matter, and that writers are disposable and interchangeable; if one writer doesn’t fit or gets awkward, hire another.  Two writers must be twice as good as one, and six must be… hold on, the maths is too hard. And if the script these six writers produce, by some amazing misfortune, lacks all coherence, and the star complains, hire yet another writer to hold the star’s hand.  That writer can always wedge a few lines in somewhere to make it look like the star’s opinions are being listened to.

Of course, we writers don’t help matters by going along with this idiocy. All writers need high levels of self-belief to produce anything, which naturally leads to the conclusion that you are at least as talented, if not infinitely more talented, than any of those hack losers your respected colleagues.  You are therefore doing them a favour by dropping in like a merciful angel and rescuing your bastard scumbag rivals friends from their own lack of talent the impossible situation the producers have put them in.  Screenwriters are especially liable to believe this if they need the money – and the vast majority of screenwriters, at any given moment, desperately need the money.

At this point I was going to neatly conclude that a good script by a good writer whose work is treated with respect will always result in a good movie that audiences will enjoy, and that the ‘hire more cooks’ approach creates inane sprawling patchwork movies that waste vast percentages of their budget by shooting material that makes no sense and cannot ever be used.  But I can’t, because film making is an art, not a science.  In science, results can be replicated by following a formula; in moviemaking, it’s never that simple. As Goldman said in his other brilliant book Adventures in the Screen Trade, no-one knows anything.

One of my favourite blockbuster movies ever was the original Pirates of the Caribbean. The script, the cast, the direction, the effects – everything about it was superb. For the sequels they dispensed with the original pair of writers and brought in a new, less distinguished team who, among other things, frequently changed the proposed plot to suit the whims of the stars.  The result, in my opinion, was an utterly incoherent mess – compared to the first movie, a debâcle.  Yet the second movie made more money than the first, and the same team went on to make a third and fourth movies that made even less sense and even more money.

The truth is that many witty polished beautifully crafted movies with great scripts sometimes sink like rocks, while some overblown incoherent buckets of drivel that deserve to die a miserable lonely death fill the multiplexes for weeks.

I’m going to stop writing this blog to go and drink Beer.

*There is of course nothing intrinsically absurd about a dead man narrating the story, since the whole idea of narration is a contrivance anyway…



Social Notworking

Recently I was invited to a presentation for authors (Authors he says! Get him!) by a lovely woman from Facebook who explained how we could use their site to promote ourselves and our work. Relentlessly cheerful and upbeat – even when challenged by a surly and cynical Ulsterman (cough) – she concluded by announcing that Facebook had recently expanded the maximum size of an update to something like fifteen thousand words. Making it possible, she explained brightly, to publish an entire novel on their website with only a few postings!

Total silence. I’m pretty sure I speak for everyone in that audience when I say that my first thought was ‘I’ve put my blood, sweat, time and tears into this novel– and you think I’m going to publish it for nothing so you can flog more ads for singles-dating websites?’ To give her credit, the speaker knew as soon as she’d spoken that this was not exactly the target audience for that particular feature. But for me it sums up why writers should beware the lure of Facebook (and Twitter, my own drug of choice.)

If you write for a living, and try to ensure that your words have meaning and value (monetary or otherwise) the last thing you want to do is devalue your work by giving those words away for nothing. (Unless you’re talking about ‘free samples’. I’m all for encouraging readers to find out more. And if they buy the book but don’t like it they can’t say they weren’t warned. )

Apart from debasing your product, and leaking away piecemeal all the insights you could put into a screenplay or novel, every minute you spend tweeting, posting status updates or blogging is a minute you are not being productive. Publicity is lovely, but the priority is to have something worth publicising. I recently received a circular from another social-networking website aimed at writers which talked approvingly of a would-be author who hadn’t written a word of her planned self-improvement manual but had spent two years ‘building her brand’. Any writer of experience will recognise the whiff of bullshit coming off that statement. To be generous, perhaps the woman in question was merely putting off work and deluding herself that her displacement activity was a valid use of her time. Or maybe, to be utterly ungenerous, she was one step up from a snake-oil marketeer, busily selling a message when she had no message to sell.

Hence that disclaimer on my home page about updating when I am supposed to be working. I even feel guilty about writing this–but if you can’t update your website ten days before your first novel comes out, there’s no point in having a website at all. And of course publishers themselves encourage authors to join in the hyping party, because they want to sell books. Just ensure you never mistake PR for actual work.

For the sake of transparency I’ll admit I’m as guilty as every other author of leaving my desk unattended to hawk my ass on the high street. In a recent piece for The Guardian newspaper I attempted in vain to puff Crusher while trying not to talk too much about a certain erotic-romance author of my close acquaintance. For readers who are feeling flush there is also a more objective version behind the paywall of the London Times. If I was the vain, preening type I would say the Times photographs are much sexier, but thankfully I’m not.

So, in this spirit of dedication to the Muse I am keeping this blog update short in order to focus on work. Just as soon as I’ve found the right outfit for my five minute slot on breakfast TV later this week.

Notes on the Bleeding Obvious

Those of you who subscribe to this site might have been surprised to receive an email claiming this was a new posting.  Clearly it isn’t – that was a technical glitch to do with the date. but hey, welcome back!  In fact this posting has particular relevance in the light of recent events – more details in the News & Announcements section… when I get round to announcing them. 

This year I took part in NaNoWriMo, a worldwide event where participants spend the month of November writing a short novel (50,000 words, the same length asBrave New World ) in thirty days, at 1,667 words a day.  I’m pleased to say I stayed the course.  In fact as a professional writer I thought I should aim for a total of 60,000 words, and ended up writing 70,000. I don’t know if the finished product is any good or not – it’s too early to say – but the point was not to be brilliant, the point was to have written a novel.

My friends and family will attest that I have been loudly promising a novel for a very long time.  But something would always come up – a TV episode to write, or a series bible to develop – or I’d decide the novel’s idea wasn’t quite focused in my mind, or there were too many narrative problems that needed to be solved before I could begin.

What amazed and appalled me when I started writing was that none of these problems actually existed.  I mean, yes, all stories have problems and holes in the plot that need to be addressed, and it’s good – though apparently not essential – to have a clear idea of where you are going.  But having to knock out 2,000 words a day forced me to confront the narrative problems and solve them by whatever means came to hand, and it was through the graft of writing the story that I worked out what the central idea was.

I’ve been writing screenplays for a long time, and I found it intensely annoying to learn something I should have known years ago – that there is no point in putting off the challenge.  That wonderful idea you have is not going to get better rattling around in your head.  Either someone else is going to have the same idea, write it up and sell it, or they won’t, and the idea will simply grow old and stale and end up as an anecdote you tell in a pub.  That might get you a pint if you’re lucky, but it won’t win you an Oscar or an Emmy, or even a TV Quick People’s Choice Award nomination.*

If you have an idea, sit down and write it.  Don’t procrastinate in the hope the story will somehow find its way to the page with no effort on your part.  Get stuck in and tell it, and resign yourself to the fact it will always look rougher on the page than it did in your head.  Sure, there are rules to screenwriting – keep the story moving, avoid holes, don’t resolve conflict with coincidence – but if you can’t see a way round them, ignore them or break them.  Just get the story written and worry about that shit later.

And finish it. Work your way through the middle and get to the end.  Even a pathetic ending where everyone dies from food poisoning is better than no ending at all.  A rubbish script with an ending is a script, but a cracking script with no ending is still merely an idea. A bad first draft can be revised and reworked and polished into something better; a brilliant idea is worth less than the paper it isn’t written down on.

I know, I know, I’m stating the bleeding obvious.  But I’m not the only writer who puts projects off in the hope that… what? Our wonderful stories will somehow tell themselves?

National Novel Writing Month is finished for this year, but in April 2012 the equivalent event for screenwriters will take place: 100 pages of screenplay in 30 days.

See you at Script Frenzy.

*Wire In The Blood 2007.  We didn’t win, but I got a decent dinner out of it.