Category Archives: the movie business

Snow day!

Mr S and I have been writers-in-residence at a rather lovely school in Kent this week. There was a blizzard on Wednesday night and we woke to Narnia. And, last lesson was cancelled – after leaving school I never thought that I would once again experience the joy of a snow day.

We’ve been running workshops on writing fiction and screenplays. Lots of the the girls had questions about how to get started on your first screenplay and Mr S wrote them a how-to list. I think it’s really useful so am posting it here.

There are far too many screenwriting manuals out there. Anyone who has ever brushed up against the film business seems to think it qualifies him to tell the rest of us how to write for the movies.

So, first, a warning. Reading too many How-To books will almost certainly paralyse your writing aspirations. Unless you want to be deluged by off-putting jargon and prescriptive advice, I suggest that before you pick up a single manual you start at the source and read a bunch of screenplays.

You can get hold of many of your favourite films here:

All of these sites are run by fans so there’s one thing you should watch out for. Make sure that you read the actual screenplay (i.e. the draft written by the screenwriter(s)) and not a transcript that a fan has put together after watching the film three hundred and eighty-seven times. The sites usually tell you which is which.

Nothing will teach you more about how to write a screenplay than reading one.

And if, after that, you still want to write one, I suggest this book. It sounds cheesy (it is) but I used it at the start of my career and, hey, look at me now.

‘How To Write a Movie in 21 Days’ by Viki King

It’s strangely compelling and inspiring and utterly practical. You feel as if she’s holding your hand throughout the process, and who doesn’t like to have their hand gripped by a complete stranger? But don’t expect to turn out a great screenplay. This is about practice.

If you prefer something a bit more serious to get you started, then Syd Field’s ‘The Foundation of Screenwriting’ might be your thing.

Many people will suggest that you pick up Robert McKee’s comprehensive tome, ‘Story’. It is fascinating, it is dense, it is a cohesive philosophy, it makes many, many insightful points. And it will probably kill you. Stay away from it for a few years, that is my advice. Early in my career I glimpsed thirty seconds of a McKee lecture on a DVD, and was unable to write for the next six months. Seriously.

I suspect that the book which inspired me won’t have the same effect on you. Mostly, because the films he references are ones you probably won’t have seen. The book is ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’ by William Goldman. He is one of the true greats. ‘All The President’s Men,’ ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,’ ‘Marathon Man,’ ‘Princess Bride’ (I’m going to guess that you do know this last one). He writes about the process of writing and making several of his movies, with excoriating anecdotes about the business mixed in with practical advice, especially on what to expect when your screenplay is turned into a movie.

So now you’ve read a couple of books and many more screenplays. You know how to format your work, you’ve got a sense of story and structure. My advice would be to stop reading and start writing.

And remember…

In the film business, you will be met by unceasing hordes of people telling you what works, what doesn’t work, how to do it, how not to do it, but, as the great William Goldman so succinctly put it, the truth is that Nobody Knows Anything.

Good luck!

snow day in Kent



Filed under books I love, the movie business, writer pontification

fine china or paper plates

Mr S and I were talking yesterday to our friend, composer Jeff Rona. Jeff is a remarkable musician – he’s written music for everyone from Ridley Scott to Brian De Palma. One of our greatest nights ever was listening to Jeff conduct the Hollywood Bowl orchestra with Lisa Gerrard and ‘Dead Can Dance’.

Yesterday, Jeff recalled when he was a young flibbertigibbet of a composer, and thought about his music as ‘important’. He knew he was creating pieces of art, and this thought often made writing music difficult. Nothing was good enough – what would posterity think? Sometimes it wasn’t even fun. Then, one day he was in the studio trying some stuff out when he ran into a well known RnB artist. This guy was recording and having a great time, and he and Jeff got chatting. ‘The problem is,’ said RnB guy to Jeff, ‘You think of your music as fine china while I think of mine as paper plates.’

From that moment, Jeff resolved on only ever making paper plates. He sits in the studio and plays about, experiments, tries stuff out, has fun and doesn’t worry about the significance of his composition. And believe me, his music is amazing (it’s the staple of my playlist for Fred).

While Jeff is talking about composing music, I think the metaphor holds for writing fiction too. I write ‘literary fiction’ (didn’t know that until agent Stan told me…) but I don’t think of my writing as either important or significant. I like to have fun when I write. It’s not always enjoyable – some days it’s just hard and I feel that everything I do is nonsense. But, when I don’t worry and try stuff out, play with words and see what works and what doesn’t, good things happen. I can always cut the mistakes. Throw stuff away. After all, I only write on paper plates.

You can listen to Jeff Rona on itunes or here:

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Filed under from summerhouse to summer read, the movie business, writer pontification

Goodbye Venice

We’re getting ready to go home – packing bags, searching for passports, and saying goodbye to our friends. It’s perfectly sunny today, the ocean is sparkling, the surfers are out and kites are flying high in the blue sky. Yet, Mr S and I are looking forward to being back in Dorset. My mother has been round to our cottage and reports that the roses are in full bloom around the front door and the woodpecker is still busy in the garden. I will miss all of our Californian friends so much, but I can’t wait to be back in my summerhouse, writing away at the bottom of the garden.

kites flying over Venice beach

kites flying over Venice beach

sail boats on the Pacific

sail boats on the Pacific

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Filed under dorset life, the movie business

the pig and the chicken

Mr S and I went to Topanga Canyon to visit our friend Scott Garen, indie film-maker, Zen-Jew and animal collector. I love Topanga – it’s only a twenty minutes or so (or several hours, in the wrong traffic/ mudslides/ fire season) from the centre of L.A and yet it’s a different world. In the summer it’s desert hot, cacti flourish and coyotes stalk the backyards. The only sound is the wind in the scrub. Time is slower there and it is a welcome breath from the sometimes hectic pace of L.A.

On Friday Mr S and I had a meeting at Sony. It was actually really fun – my first time of driving onto the lot and seeing the fake movie streets. The producer we met was charming and the lot was decked out for the launch of ‘Pelham 123’ later in the afternoon. Yet, Topanga is so far away from all this bustle and business.

Scott’s home is really run by his animals. There are the two miniature donkeys, Shrek and Patootie, horse Quincy, wire-haired fox hound Tink, a large ginger cat, the chicken, and last, but definitely not least, Rosie the pig.

Now, pig and chicken have formed an unlikely partnership. Scott explained that his wife and daughter returned home one day with the chicken, who was living on a farm where she was getting pecked on by the other chickens (I think they were jealous of her rather splendid white feathered socks). He agreed that chicken could stay, but only until she’d regained her confidence. Then back to the farm.

But then Rosie fell in love with the chicken. They are now inseparable. Chicken snaffles bugs from Rosie’s wiry bristles, and pig sends chicken as her emissary to peck on the backdoor when she’s is feeling snack-ish. Rosie snuffled and oinked round her yard, while chicken hopped along beside her, clucking in conversation, as they enjoyed the sunshine and shared a light lunch.

I have pasted a pic below taken on my phone as Rosie nudged me with her snout, so it’s rather blurry. I’m hoping to upload a better one including chicken in a couple of days. rosie

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Sunset in Venice

After weeks of iffy weather, finally, California turned it around and we had our first proper sunset.

proper California at sunset

proper California at sunset

Mr S is currently reading a short story I’ve written about Curtis, one of the characters in Mr Rosenblum’s List. I pretended that I wrote for the BBC short story competition, or to put up on a website for Mr R later on. Really, I wrote Curtis Butterworth Loves Molly May because I wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye to the characters in Mr R. We’ve spent a long time together and, whilst it’s time to move on to book 2, I needed one last adventure under Bulbarrow Hill.

Good night from Venice, I’ll be dreaming of Backhollow, Curtis, Molly May and Felix Bean.

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Munchkin Hotel

Mr S and I went to see the fabulous film UP in Culver city, which is also the birth place of our great friend Jeff. (Jeff is a film composer, I’ve blogged about him before and you can listen to his music at ).

He pointed out to us this quirky, angular hotel, which is where the Munchkins were put up during the filming of The Wizard of Oz. The story is that at first the little people playing the Munchkins were promised all kinds of riches and bonuses, but when this didn’t happen, they started to live it up in the hotel. There was all kind of Munchkin drunkenness and debauchery.

Culver Hotel aka Munchkin Hotel

Culver Hotel aka Munchkin Hotel

We’ve been having a really L.A. Sunday. Went to the Polo lounge for brunch. Rather fabulous but no celebs. Then, I wasn’t wearing my glasses. The gold taps in the loo were rather amazing and exactly what you’d hope for in a bright pink Beverely Hills hotel.

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Hollywood Forever

I am sitting on our roof deck in Venice looking at the Pacific. This is actually the first proper sunshine we’ve had for a few days – L.A. has been under the ‘June Gloom’, or as we would call it the usual English Summer. You know: warmish, dampish and grey. Now the sky is blue again and filled with the most peculiar looking clouds, from here they look like shoals of squid with wispy tendrils.

palm trees on Venice beach

palm trees on Venice beach

That is the only dodgy metaphor for today. Mr S and I spent a long time yesterday going back through the m/s of Mr R, doing final checks. Mr S always pushes me to make my work better, even if it is midnight and all I want is bed, and failing that gin. (Be warned, this is what you get if you marry another writer.) The old adage is true: ‘a novel is never finished, only abandoned’. It is hard to let go, especially when Mr S is saying ‘are you sure, you can’t improve that? Is that sentence as elegant as possible?’  Yesterday we were still making changes that improved the m/s and Jocasta warned me that once the m/s has gone to the typesetter, I can really only make tiny spelling corrections. Once I pressed ‘send’ on the e-mail, I did want to crawl down the wires and collect the m/s for one last read.

me at work

me at work

On Sunday, we took a few hours out from the edit to go to the movies. In a cemetery. ‘Hollywood Forever’ is a cemetery in the heart of old Hollywood. Think broad avenues of tall palms, vast marble tombs inset with strange stone photographs of the dearly departed, set against the hills of Griffith park and the Observatory, and in the distance the ‘Hollywood’ sign itself. We sat on blankets having a picnic with around a thousands others, while Woody Allen’s ‘Sleeper’ was projected onto Rudolph Valentino’s massive marble mausoleum. A real L.A. experience.

movie projected onto Rudolph Valentino's tomb

movie projected onto Rudolph Valentino's tomb

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Filed under from summerhouse to summer read, the movie business