Monthly Archives: July 2010

Writing Is Rewriting

I saw Toy Story 3 this evening, but want to think about it a bit before delivering a verdict. Therefore, tonight’s blog entry is about something completely different.

It’s amazing how a writer can look at their work any number of times and still not see the mistakes staring right at them. While nothing is ever rewritten to complete satisfaction, even these humble blog entries from yours truly are looked at a few weeks after the event and are then the recipient of much tutting. A misplaced word here, a bad bit of punctuation there (usually comma overload): it’s embarrassing how I miss them.

You’d think by now that I’d have nailed the first three chapters of the novel I’m trying to sell. Sadly not. While each version is better than the one before, flaws still remain. This weekend I’ve been trying to chisel out a few more of them. Logic and believability issues, mainly. Sadly, even something high concept still has to make sense. The thing about these errors is that they only come to the surface when I leave what I’ve written alone for a few weeks, or get someone else to have a look. The fresh perspective on things this time around comes from an author friend of mine called Daniel Clay. (Buy his book, it’s really fucking good.) The lightbulb moment was about how to make something that never quite rang true… er… ring true, and all that was required to achieve this was to switch three paragraphs around. Ridiculous.

There’s another bit – the climax of the opening chapters, in fact – which requires some new stuff to be written, but even that is supplemented by other material moved there from later on. It’s like rearranging a jigsaw. The pieces are all there, they just need to be lined up correctly.

Of course, the annoying thing about rewriting when the earlier material is ‘out there’ for agents to see, is that you start cursing yourself for sending out such flawed drafts. They can’t possibly like this error-strewn crap, right? Well, maybe not. Or maybe they won’t even notice that line twelve of page ten contains a phrase that could be slightly improved.

The great thing about rewriting is when the solution to something that’s bugged you for ages just pops into your head – a simple fix that makes a massive difference. That’s why you do it. That’s what gives you renewed hope. And in my case, some of the suggested amendments to my opening chapters are making me excited again about how well the thing’s going to hang together.

And then the penny drops: if there’s still important stuff to fix in the opening three chapters, what on Earth is going to be wrong with the other forty nine of them?

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Another Story Of The Toy Variety

Toy Story 2, then. Originally conceived as a direct-to-video monstrosity (a la the Aladdin sequel, Return To Jafar), it was only reconfigured for cinema release – with the consequential extra resources being thrown at it – when it became clear midway through development that Pixar’s work was exemplary and deserved the additional time and effort to fully realise its potential.

The film is widely regarded as one of those few sequels that’s better than the original, but for a number of years I didn’t think that was the case. I’d wager that most people have seen Toy Story 1 a lot more, maybe because it was the first of a new breed of filmmaking, but also because the second incarnation is a more challenging movie all round.

While the original dealt with the issue of rivalry and provided a fresh take on the buddy movie, Toy Story 2 deals with the fear of loss, and at times is a very grown-up movie. Of course, kids like to be treated with respect. Talk down to them, and while they may engage with surface thrills they don’t respond in the same way that they do when a story recognises their intelligence. Toy Story 2 has action and a razor-sharp wit, but it’s not afraid to deal with concepts that youngsters may find difficult to understand. Consequently it’s a very satisfying watch for all ages.

A bravura sequence set to music in the middle of the film, where cowgirl Jessie recounts her experience of her owner Emily growing up and leaving her behind, now seems like the prototype for “that” heartbreaking scene in Up (doubtless one of the most affecting few minutes in movie history. In an animated film. Incredible), and now that I’m a few years older and (maybe) wiser than I was when I last saw Toy Story 2, the penny dropped that what I was seeing was much richer, with more depth than the first film, superb though that was.

Indeed, while watching the film you can see Pixar’s mastery of storytelling growing and taking on a new maturity. The philosophical argument between Woody and Buzz about a toy’s eventual fate, and whether it’s better to be loved for a short time than to live longer without that kind of relationship, is heavy stuff. This development continued throughout the studio’s subsequent output, with Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Wall-E all striking that fine balance between entertainment and a message, while never being heavy-handed with the latter. Believe me, that’s quite a juggling act.

So as I prepare to see Toy Story 3 tomorrow night, excited as I am by the 3D and the jump in animation, I’m more looking forward to seeing how Pixar have advanced their storytelling craft still further in the 11 years since Toy Story 2 came out, and applying it to the characters that I know and love. Once more unto the well, dear friends? That’s not Pixar’s style. I fully expect the film to be phenomenal.

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A Story Of Toys

I’m a tiny bit behind on my cinema viewing, so I’m finally going to see Toy Story 3 on Saturday. Tonight, therefore, seemed like the perfect time to start to catch up with the first two films.

Unsurprisingly, I started with the original. It’s been regarded as a modern classic ever since its release, but a decade and a half later it still seems just as fresh, even though CGI has advanced quite a bit in the meantime.

The reason? Good storytelling. It’s why shallow FX flicks inevitably look rubbish only a couple of years after they come out, whereas compelling character dramas stand the test of time. Toy Story has far from an original plot. Indeed, the big revolution it promoted on release – the fact that it was the first totally CGI film of any note – was just a Trojan horse for the genius contained within.

As someone once said (citation needed), there are no new ideas in the world, only fresh takes on what already exists, and Toy Story took the buddy movie archetype and ran with it. Woody and Buzz hate each other to begin with, are thrown into an unfamilar, dangerous situation, and through it learn to like and respect each other, with the goal of the story (getting back to their owner, Andy) not possible without them working together. It’s an idea as old as the hills, but through some brilliant writing, great performances from Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, and absolutely stunning animation (even now, the expressions are just right), the movie really works. Not as a showcase for new technology, but because it has real heart, real emotion and genuinely funny dialogue.

Watching it now, it’s difficult to fathom that it could possibly have been Pixar’s first movie. The final product turned out to be a landmark in animation, but along the way there were major problems which, for a long while, made it seem like Toy Story would either be a total disaster or might not even be released at all. Indeed, the film only came together relatively late on.

Pixar has an almost unblemished track record in movies, with the philosophy of the studio surviving both its initial partnership with Disney and subsequent merger with the company (it’s notable that John Lasseter and others were tutored by classic Disney animators at college). Unlike so many studios, it prides story above all else, and gives its storytellers the time and support to realise their vision. And what a track record, with the likes of Toy Story, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Wall-E. These are films that appeal to all ages, not because they’re carefully targeted at a particular demographic, but because they’re just great stories, brilliantly told.

I really can’t wait for Saturday night. Toy Story 3 lives up to the legacy, you say? Fantastic.

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Communication Problems

It’s pretty ironic that my iPhone is pretty much welded to my side, when I’m more afraid of using phones in general than I am of anything else (with the possible exception of wasps). It’s not a problem with the actual technology itself, of course – just the act of speaking into one. “Blessed” with a stammer as I am, even the idea of a phone conversation is capable of breaking me out into a cold sweat. It’s my idea of torture.

In a work situation, using the phone usually means imparting certain specific information to someone, and as a stammerer who likes to get around words that he finds difficult to say, that’s often nigh-on impossible. As soon as the phone rings my stress levels automatically rise, and that feeds into the resulting conversation. That bad experience then feeds into my stress levels when the phone next rings, and so on and so forth. It’s a vicious cycle. Much of my working day is spent worrying about when the phone is next going to ring, and if I’m on my own in the office, it’s even worse. I’ve been known to ignore the phone completely when alone.

And that’s just incoming calls. Outgoing calls are a whole other level of hurt. Unless I know the person I’m going to ring very well, and just need to speak to them for a minute or two, I’m even more petrified. Calling a friend on their mobile when I know my number’s going to pop up for them to see, and I know they’re the only ones who are going to answer, is bad enough, but I literally will not call a complete stranger, particularly if it’s a work situation. The level of inevitable embarrassment for me, and perhaps more importantly for them as they have to wait for what I’m trying to say (with them often saying, “Hello? Hello?” as if the line’s gone dead, when actually it’s just me unable to get my words out), makes it not worth it for either party. Plus it’s hardly a great advertisement for the company I work for. So if I get a note on my desk saying, “So-and-so called, please can you call them back?”, my heart sinks. Don’t you know that I don’t make outgoing phone calls, FFS? And why am I inwardly getting angry with you for simply leaving me the message, when I’m the one with the problem?

As you can see: ISSUES. It’s hard to remember exactly when this phobia began. I seem to recall using the phone a lot as a teenager despite the problems. Maybe that was because there was no element of “risk” involved, as all I was doing was calling my friends. The only stress there was in a friend’s mother answering and me then having to explain who I was and who I wanted to talk to. But somewhere along the line – maybe when using the phone became more necessary in a professional capacity as I got older – it became this massive albatross around my neck.

It really is hard to describe what having a stammer is like. Obviously I can describe the physical symptoms, but the feeling of sheer bloody frustration nearly every time I open my mouth is hard to quantify. Imagine knowing exactly what you want to say all the time in any situation, but then being physically incapable of doing so – like there’s a fist down your throat squeezing on your voice box, making it malfunction. But that’s not the real problem, which is simply not knowing when things are going to come out okay and when it’s going to be a disaster. That level of self-doubt and uncertainty inevitably feeds back into my thinking and makes it worse.

And, not trying to over-egg the pudding here, it really does have a huge impact on my life. Want a takeaway? Better find somewhere with a website, then, as I can’t cold-call anywhere and hope to say my address. Problem with my telly/Internet/bank/anything else? Yep, that Indian call centre is looking really great right now, eh? Luckily I have a very understanding wife who does all the phoning in our household, but whenever that support mechanism isn’t there, I’m pretty screwed. It’s very easy for people to say, “Why don’t you just try it?” and “Make people wait for you – if they’re not prepared to, then it’s their loss”, but it really, really isn’t that simple.

It’s had a big impact on what I laughably call my career, too. While my work emailing is pretty much second to none (it’s had to be, I guess), my utter ineptness on the phone isn’t exactly compatible with rising up the greasy pole. “Call here to apply for this wonderful job.” Er… no thanks. And obviously in an interview situation I’m so busy trying to get around the words that my answers are terrible. It’s affected my writing, too. I can’t call editors looking for freelance work. I can’t be someone who goes around interviewing people. I can’t do the phone round to chase up leads, so that career in journalism I reckon I could have walked into otherwise, is simply not viable.

With my novel-writing and screenplay stuff, too, it’s a bit of a disaster in certain situations. I’m not going to call agents’ assistants and establish a relationship. I’m not going to go to a writers’ group or workshop where part of it is pitching my story (much as I can do that in my sleep, in my head). And while it was hugely useful to me in terms of content and what I learnt, the part of the one workshop I did go to last year (about how to write a synopsis) where I had to relay my own story to a partner and then give my version of their story in front of the others, was absolutely horrible. Well worth it for what I got out of the day, but that fifteen minute portion was hell. So if I get a literary agent, how am I going to get really in-depth about my writing with them on the phone or in a meeting with them? If I write a screenplay, how will I pitch it to a room of people? This kind of stuff keeps me up at night. At least it would if I wasn’t a sleeper par excellence.

Everyone has their little foibles, right? Doubtless every single person reading this blog entry wants to change something about themselves. For me, my stammer would be first against the wall. If it vanished tomorrow, I genuinely believe that I would be the happiest person in the world. Liberated. Free to do whatever the fuck I wanted, with nothing to hold me back. Contrary to popular belief amongst those who meet up with me often, I’m not a quiet individual at all. I’m generally known as a good listener, but there’s always so much I want to say that I don’t. You should hear what I’m thinking. It’s just a shame that you probably never will. And I’m sorry about that. My fault.

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Warning: Pilot Under The Influence

I’m really excited about this “Jump!” script. It was one thing back in the day to write half of the pilot episode and talk about the idea at length with a couple of other people, but now it’s a different, re-energised animal. There are a whole load of influences in there, from Back To the Future II to 24, Lost, and Doctor Who. I’ve tried to take what worked in great pilot episodes like that of Alias in terms of building up the world, layering in the story elements and then sucker-punching the audience with the reversals. In terms of tone it bounces around between comedy drama, straight comedy and straight drama, and in that sense I’m trying to emulate the likes of Buffy/Angel/Firefly mastermind Joss Whedon by switching from funny to heartbreaking to terrifying in short order. I’m influenced by what I most enjoy watching myself, basically.

That’s the theory, of course. That’s what “Jump!” is in my head. In practice the script could well turn out to be a confusing, inconsistent, incoherent mess. I’m deliberately trying to keep it within the realms of a relatively cheap show, budget-wise, although if by some unfathomable miracle I won the Red Planet Prize, it’s very, very unlikely that the script would ever see the light of day, given that “Jump!” is designed as a returning show and not a one-off. This exercise is therefore more of a “hey, I can write original episodic television!” calling card. New writers never get their own returning shows, for the same reason that you wouldn’t put a toddler who’s only ever driven a plastic truck behind the wheel of a Mercedes.

But that’s the dream, I suppose. You write spec scripts in the hope that as well as attracting attention for your writing skills (which will maybe give you one shot at a make-or-break assignment for the likes of Doctors or Casualty – seemingly the standard route “in” to the industry these days), one of them might eventually get made. Your one-off screenplays have slightly more chance of making it to the screen (another way in is to write a cheapie feature script that a young producer or director gets excited by), while the pilot episode for your multi-series epic needs to be left in the cupboard for the mythical day when you might have the clout to look at it again. Or when there’s a competition to be entered, of course.

Anyway, ten polished pages down, twenty five already written from before but in need of serious touching up and tearing apart, and twenty five more on top of that to start. I can’t wait to get stuck in.

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Team Orders

Formula One tends to be a big rolling hotbed of controversy, and yesterday’s German Grand Prix was no exception. When Felipe Massa’s race engineer Rob Smedley said on his pit radio, “OK, so Fernando is faster. Than. You. (Pause) Can you confirm you understood that message?” shortly before the Brazilian let his teammate Fernando Alonso past to win the race, the issue of team orders (supposedly not allowed in F1) was once again thrown into the spotlight.

Questions about the integrity of Formula One inevitably followed, with some even going as far to say that when a team chooses the result rather than the drivers fighting it out, it ceases to be a sport. I don’t personally subscribe to that argument, much as I disagree with team orders. What really annoyed me about yesterday’s events – far more so than the principle – was Ferrari’s reaction after the race, which was to deny that the order that every single person listening to the radio transmissions knew had happened, actually existed at all. According to Ferrari, Massa had either chosen himself to let Alonso past or made a mistake. Utter bollocks.

It’s one thing to break the rules (and Ferrari would have had a point if they’d said that they’re not the only team that favours one driver over another – take all the problems that Mark Webber has been having this season when it comes to his status at Red Bull), it’s quite another to take the watching public for fools. Their current position is an outright lie. They know it. We know it. The FIA knows it. Ferrari’s treatment of their fans and audience is scandalous, and my respect for the team has nosedived as a result. Fernando Alonso, too, comes out of this with no credit at all. He claims not to have complained about Massa’s position earlier in the race – clearly this is why he screamed, “This is ridiculous!” on the radio when he was faster than his teammate but unable to find a way to overtake.

The paltry $100,000 fine handed out by the FIA (with no appeal from Ferrari, even though they claim they did nothing wrong – hmmm) barely covers the cost of a set of Formula One tyres, and the time taken to refer the incident indicates that it was only done so because of the massive fan reaction.

Further sanctions could follow, however, and I hope that the fallout from yesterday’s race will finally bring about a clearly defined set of rules regarding team orders, and also see Ferrari heavily punished for their awful conduct in repeatedly failing to tell the truth about an incident that everyone watching on television could both see and hear.

Any other result would simply be wrong. Team orders shouldn’t be allowed, but blatantly lying about them is insulting and pathetic.

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Submitted

Today I submitted my Red Planet entry, a full five days before the deadline. Amazing scenes. Now the wait begins, and it’s going to be an awful one, because – and this is a real kicker – only the entries that actually get through to the next round will receive any feedback at all. So if I don’t get an email before the end of August then that’s it. No notification of failure. Only success. I have no idea what percentage of entries will get through to the second round, either.

So everything’s a bit up in the air for now. The only thing that is certain comes from me – I liked what I submitted, and structurally it all held together. I even managed, through judicious editing, to end the first ten pages on a good joke. Regardless of the result of the competition – and it’ll be an absolute miracle if I get anywhere, since it’s the first one of its type that I’ve ever entered – I’m definitely going to finish the rest of the script. I have to have it ready for submission if I advance anyway, but I think I’ll be pretty proud of it regardless when all is said and done.

It may sound rather obvious having written the thing, but the reason I’m happy is that if “Jump!” was randomly on telly and written by someone else, I’d watch it. Can’t say fairer than that.

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