Category Archives: writer pontification

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:

http://www.script-o-rama.com/
http://www.screenplays-online.de/
http://www.simplyscripts.com/

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

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

jitterbugs and other novel translations

Mr S and I are back in Dorset after a busy week in London. It was all rather fun – I met my charming Dutch editor, Jacqueline, and saw the cover for the Dutch edition of Mr R. The book is being busily translated at the moment, and editors and translators are starting to send through questions about the text. The biggest challenge seems to be the Dorset dialect. There is a motley collection of local folk in Mr R and they speak in broad Dar-set tones.

This was great fun to write: I scoured old dialect dictionaries, read lots of William Barnes and, of course, Thomas Hardy. The speech is written phonetically with dialect words like ‘jitterbug’ (glow worm) and ‘yow’ (ewe) and ‘noggerhead’ (idiot).  In old West Country speech, nouns are gendered as they are in German or Anglo-Saxon and are nearly always ‘he’. So, a roof in need of repair is: ‘ee’s in a bit o’ a bad way, isn’t ‘ee?’ I chose to elongate the ‘ee’ when transcribing, as I felt ‘e’ as in ‘e’s in a bit o’ a muddle’ sounds too much like cockney.

All well and good – gave the poor copy editor a bit of headache – but I thought it was all finished. Now, the poor translators are going through exactly the same thing. Jacqueline and her translator are trying different rural Dutch dialects and choosing which sounds best. Professor M who is working on Jack in German, is struggling with the eccentric spelling of the dialect. He emailed to ask what an ‘ersey mistake’ is – (it’s an easy mistake to make…)

It’s a very strange feeling to be taking a week or so off writing (agent Stan has Fred) while knowing that other people are busily working on Mr R. I think they are all in need of some of Curtis’s jitterbug cider.

Me still sort of working

I love living in Dorset

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Filed under from summerhouse to summer read, inspirations behind Mr Rosenblum, writer pontification

The space between the words

I have now finished the first draft of Fred. I cried when I reached the end. I took a moment in the summerhouse to be alone and to feel sad that this part was over. Writing can be really hard, it can be frustrating but it also one of the greatest pleasures in life – or in my life anyway.

Writing endings are different to writing beginnings or middles. The story and characters are set up, and the reader has been on a journey for two or three hundred pages and has built up her own vision. By the end, I want to allow my reader to fill in the spaces between the words. I don’t mean leave an ‘open ending’ in terms of story, but allow the reader room to imagine things herself and be able to fill in the blanks. I think it is more emotionally resonant this way.

In case this seems all rather vague, I’m going to turn to my usual guru: Jane Austen, and in this instance the obsequious Mr Collins. In this scene, Mr Collins is taking Elizabeth Bennet round Rosings Park, and describing the scene in front of them:

“Here, leading the way through every walk and cross walk, and scarcely allowing them an interval to utter the praises he asked for, every view was pointed out with a minuteness which left beauty entirely behind. He could number the fields in every direction, and could tell how many trees there were in the most distant clump.”

‘Pride and Prejudice’ chapter 28.

Mr Collins is not allowing any space between the words. He is describing the scene (which they can see anyway as it’s right there in front of them) in such detail that he ruins it. As a writer, I think one of the hardest thing is knowing how and when to evoke places, people and reactions, and when one needs to leave it to the reader’s imagination and trust them to fill the spaces. As Keats (almost) said ‘hear words are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter’.

Me in a stripey hat.

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Filed under Book 2 - Tyneford Project, from summerhouse to summer read, writer pontification

This made me happy.

Beattie’s book blog said lovely things about Mr R: http://beattiesbookblog.blogspot.com/2010/01/mr.html

I’ve been having one of those days… so close to finishing this draft of Fred… and part of me doesn’t want to. Feeling a little melancholy*  so this made me smile.

*(interestingly, a word I used with a creative spelling in a story aged nine and was told off by my teacher for being pretentious – when asked what that meant, I was told ‘if you don’t know ‘pretentious’ you can’t possibly be melancholy’).

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counting sheep to fall asleep

I feel slightly odd, like I’m actually living in two parallel worlds; or, at the very least, jet-lagged and trying to zoom between two time zones. Only rather than London/ Los Angeles, the zones are 2010 and 1941. I disappear to write and vanish into wartime Tyneford, then return to the kitchen for a cup of tea, a chat with Mr S and to make a phone call or two, and I feel very discombobulated. Time-lagged.

When I approach the end of a draft the story takes over and I start to think incessantly about it. I don’t sleep very well and, when I do, I dream of Dorset long ago. Out walking with Mr S, he complains that I’m quiet, but it’s not quiet in my mind, or at leas they’re not quiet, since they are chattering very loudly in my head. Before you start to panic, and think you need to send Mr S or Jocasta or Agent Stan concerned e-mails, let me assure you that this is a hazard of the job. Many writers talk about hearing snatches of conversation between their characters, and that part of getting into a story is learning to listen to them.

When that first draft is finished and set aside for a few weeks to rest and simmer, it will become peaceful again. My noisy characters will be held inside the manuscript, waiting to be read so that they can talk again. For now, I might go out to the summerhouse and hide, but somehow I expect they’ll be waiting for me there, impatient to get on with the story.

counting sheep

counting sheep to fall asleep... (and it's snowy)

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Filed under Book 2 - Tyneford Project, dorset life, from summerhouse to summer read, writer pontification

The thaw (and the last slice of birthday cake)

I’ve been in London again for a few days. Actually it was my birthday and I decided to celebrate in the big city with my friends. My mum came too and baked me a Baumtorte – a traditional German cake which literally means ‘tree-cake’. Rather than being baked in the oven, it is made by whipping up a vanilla flavoured batter which is then cooked in layers under the grill – like an enormous stash of very thin pancakes placed on top of the other. When it’s sliced, the layers look like the rings of a tree.

The recipe comes from my grandmother, Margot, a champion, if eccentric, baker. Each layer represents a memory or a thought, so it’s very appropriate for a birthday cake. The cake features rather prominantly in Mr R –  Sadie bakes it whenever she needs to remember something or someone. So, I saved a piece for Jocasta (my editor) who had never tried it before. I felt almost guilty at giving her rather stingy slice. Almost.

Today, Mr S and I finished off the last slice and I couldn’t help but feel a little melancholy. The last of this year’s birthday Baumtorte. There’ll be another layer on next year’s. It’s like the thaw. I love snow. It transforms the most stoic grown-up into a sledging six-year-old. We’re all transported back to a childhood in Narnia and a land of hot chocolate and stories before bedtime. But, with the thaw, the magic disappears. As the snow drips from the trees and turns into grey slush oil stained by car-tyres, we all grow up again in an instant. I don’t mind it once the snow has gone, but the act of watching it fade from perfect whiteness into sludge, I can’t bear. I’m tempted to hide in London until it’s gone.

And, yes, I switch off the Narnia movie, the moment that the snow begins to melt.

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Filed under from summerhouse to summer read, inspirations behind Mr Rosenblum, writer pontification

Jack and Paul

The festive season was so much fun, but I am really glad to be snuggled at home writing again. Jocasta is busily preparing the paperback edition of Mr R and has asked me to find some photos of my grandfather, Paul, who was one of the inspirations behind Jack. I sent her the pictures through and she called straightaway to remark on how handsome and elegant Paul is. Jack is many things – determined, obsessive, tender, ‘five foot three and a half inches of sheer tenacity’ – but he is neither handsome nor elegant.I found myself oddly glad that Jocasta had observed the differences between the two men as well as the similarities.

I hope my grandfather would be proud of Mr R – even though he was never really a fan of fiction, never quite understanding why writers felt the need to make things up when the world is already chock-full of fantastic stories. I suspect he would not approve of Jack. He’s too rash and impetuous for his taste. And Paul would consider himself a far superior golfer.

Paul looking dapper in the Dorset countryside

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Filed under dorset life, inspirations behind Mr Rosenblum, writer pontification