Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A.S.L.

August can be a drag, can’t it? It’s the one time of the year when you’re made painfully aware that everyone is on holidays but you. Everything goes quiet. An email barely troubles your inbox. Your phone refuses to chirp or vibrate and you get an almighty fright when it does (and then it’s just a pre-recorded “You’ve won a holiday!”). And so, it becomes obvious that August (or any kind of open schedule) is the ideal time to write a brand new script. Something, anything, to keep you busy and make the most of the current down time.

This year’s Red Planet Prize deadline is the end of September, a whole month extra than last year. When we relaunched the competition at the start of July some people doubted that they could come up with a brand new script in time for the deadline. I’m sorry but if this is a genuine concern for you then perhaps you should be considering a different career. In truth, you should be able to create a one hour script within two weeks (if it was a TV deadline), and even one week at a push (quite common). And a half hour script should be achievable within a few days or up to one week.

If you’re working from scratch, the hard part is coming up with a solid premise, interesting characters and a good setting. To make everything work and, y’know, interesting. THIS is what can take forever, not the actual writing (although that can be slow but when pushed to deadline, you just have to get it done). However, the purpose of this post is about getting a script done, not fiddling about worrying about a character bio or whether your idea should be set in 1999 or the present day.

Wing it. Improvise. Write a script from scratch. It doesn’t even matter if you haven’t got an idea. Start with any scene or image that comes to mind, and let your storytelling instincts guide you to the next scene until you reach 30 or 60 (or hell, even 90) pages. Don’t waste your time asking people if you should outline or not. That’s just talk. Just write. See where it takes you. Have fun. You might not have a great script when you finish but you’ll have a script. And as we all know, the real writing begins when you rewrite. Think of it as the August Script Liberation (A.S.L. to you), where you just write what you want, when you want, and see what happens.

Two years ago, I started this habit. I was fiddling around, worrying about work, waiting for a commission to magically appear. A title popped into my head. A catchy title, instantly comedic and appealing. But that’s all I had. So I just went with the flow. I wanted to have fun, to play around with style, bend the rules a bit. Within a week, I had a 30 min first draft, which I quite liked. I sent it to m’agent for feedback (she does this, bless her). She was not hugely impressed. My wife read it. She hated it (when she likes something, I know I’m on to a good thing). But I liked it. Or, more accurately, I liked the title, the premise and the playful style. So I rewrote the story, and made it better. M’agent was now willing to send it out (always a good sign), and two other people whose opinion I trust also enjoyed it (but recommended I make it as a short film.). About a month later, I had a few meetings with interested parties, all very exciting, and then it was optioned by a production company who wanted to develop it as a comedy/drama series. Nice! All because of the August down time.

This time last year, I was feeling particularly low, and my writing confidence had taken a knock. The August down time set in so I hunkered down to write a script to get me out of my gloom. I had no idea what I was going to do except that I wanted it to be an hour long family adventure. In just over a week, I had a first draft. It was rough but had a lot of promise, I thought.

I gave it to two of my trusty readers. They both came back with ‘starts off great, really intriguing, then goes a bit too sci-fi for its own good’. They were spot on. But I’ve struggled with this one ever since. I’m not sure which way to develop the script, and I need to readdress the whole ‘world of the story’ to help me nail the changes I need to make. But I still am quite drawn by it, and think it has great potential. This year’s August’s Script Liberation will be spent rewriting last year’s attempt, and getting it into shape. So, not doing anything this week or got some spare time between now and the end of the month? Then what are you waiting for? Get writing! As Mr Arnopp would say, Hooray for the First Draft!

19 comments:

James Moran said...

I second your second paragraph there in particular. 3 months to write a 60 page TV script? I weep at the thought of such luxury. Danny's right, you get 2 weeks for a draft if you're lucky, sometimes 1. Sometimes you'll have to turn around notes in a day or two. TV usually gets 4 or 5 drafts. With a week for an outline, 3 months gives you a chance to do 4 drafts of the outline in the first month, then 4 drafts of the script in the final two months. And that's going at a slow, steady pace. If 3 months isn't enough, then like the man says, maybe this game isn't for you.

Michelle Goode said...

"Wing it. Improvise. Write a script from scratch."

That's what I do all the time :)

As I said on Jason's blog, I find that writing a first episode of a serial I've conceived in as quick a manner as possible - churning it all out in one afternoon, say - helps me "meet" my characters and "get to know them".

It's what I did with the first episode of a teen drama serial I was writing. I came out of it feeling like I knew the cast better than I ever could have done when "planning". Personalities, personal problems, relationships to the other characters and characters' histories came to me as I wrote.

Now I feel so much more in control of the whole concept and all the elements within it. It's how I went so confidently into writing a second draft. Granted, it's being totally re-worked. But now I have ideas to last a whole series.

It's a great method!

P.S Sorry to have to ask this on here, but I have a query about the Red Planet Prize competition (I emailed via the website but haven't had a reply)... Is there any possibility that I can enter by email? I'm currently traveling in Australia, so sending paperwork is tricky. I could scan in my entry form with my signature etc. If not, then no worries, and I'll be sure to enter next year :)

Danny Stack said...

Hi Michelle. Sorry, only printed entries this year! I'm sure you could figure something out in time for the deadline.

Dan said...

This is a much under-discussed aspect of screenwriting. While I could imagine hammering out a workable Torchwood script in a week, I'd have the luxury of readymade characters and a defined world to play with. It's a whole different thing to create your *own* TV spec script, where *everything* need creating from scratch.

Kudos to anyone who can think up a premise that'll work for TV, isn't a copy of something else, can populate it with compelling characters, *and* create a decent storyline with some future plots already outlined. Particularly if you can do it in 2 weeks!

Personally, while I agree that bashing out SOMETHING and rewriting is worth a go, I have a tough time believing the writers behind, say, Life On Mars wrote episode 1 (from conception to final draft) in just a few weeks.

Hence why I thought Red Planet gave everyone 2 and now 3 months. A TV spec seems more achievabe in months -- but, I'd argue, still tough for people holding down full-time jobs and without a "muscle memory" years of writing experience endows you with.

AndrewT said...

Good post Danny and coming at just the right time. It's sunny outside (for once) and the ideas are flowing, but none has that extra oomph, so maybe it is time to just sit and write and see what happens. Now if only I could decide on that starting point...

Delilah Tyler said...

wow, i'm so glad i read this. i had dismissed entering the competition this year as a foolish pipe-dream and now i'm thinking 'why the hell not?' again - thanks danny :)

Jason Arnopp said...

While I've become more and more reliant on treatments or at least some good, hearty outlining, I can definitely see the delights of just diving into your own mind's cool, inviting waters and having a random swim around.

For one thing, it forces you to get right inside the characters' heads, which may trigger ideas you'd never have had while preparing a treatment from more of a removed viewpoint. I guess that treatments vs just-getting-in-there will always be a chicken-and-egg kind of question...

Kevin Lehane said...

Danny's gone hardcore!

Jez Freedman said...

you gotta be in it to win it! Not entering a competition because you don't think you can do something good enough is insanity. There are three biggies in September, Red Planet, Rise and Kaos - and people should be looking to enter at least two of those three!

josie said...

A useful peptalk Danny. And ditto Kevin's comment about you going hardcore. Feral even?

Elinor said...

All good advice! Thanks, Danny.

Danny Stack said...

Eh? What's all this hardcore feral stuff? I don't get it. But if it's in a good way, then yes, of course, grrrr.

James Moran said...

Dan: Yes, it's harder to do one from scratch. But my example gives you a month to do the outline, which will involve some planning, character work, and concept building.

And you can build up that writing muscle memory by writing a lot, all the time, every day. I had a full time job when I started out, typing on a computer all day, then I'd have to get home and sit at another computer to write. It was absolute murder, but I bloody wanted it so badly, I pushed myself through it. I know it's hard, of course it is, but that's how it goes. Nobody's going to write a brilliant spec pilot in 3 months if it's the first thing they've ever put on paper. You have to write as much as you can, to get better and faster. It takes a lot of backbreaking effort to get anywhere in this game.

Kevin Lehane said...

Ah, I'm joking ya. It's the right approach. I read that people said that when I was reading coverage on the screenwriters festival and I scoffed.

Writing IS hard. But deadlines are our friends. I love 'em.

And as William Goldman said, "The easiest thing in the world to do, is not write."

By the way, 'twas a shame I didn't get to meet you as I did with Lucy. Maybe sometime in the future.

Dan said...

James: I totally agree. I just wanted to differentiate between the time expected for a paid full-time writer to be turning in drafts of an established show, and a budding writer creating their own spec pilot (for a competition or otherwise). 3 months is a good timespan, I feel (1 month planning, 1 month writing, 1 rewriting). Very achievable, especially if you already have a tonne of ideas to hand.

And I'd hazard a guess that most wannabe writers are stuck behind desks during their working day --as this post on a Wednesday afternoon kind of proves, in my case!

Jason Arnopp said...

Mr Stack, I'm hugely disappointed. When people described you as "hardcore" and "feral", I thought you'd joined the adult entertainment industry and started biting people.

josie said...

Oops - maybe I shouldn't have gone making misleading remarks in my first comment on here. Hello Danny - I've been reading your blog for quite a while before starting my own and really appreciate your posts.

terraling said...

Good ass-kicking Danny, but August is nearly over already if you haven't started (I'm starting today! 2 weeks brainstorming, 2 weeks writing, 2 weeks rewriting!), and last year's winner spent six years honing her script!

The other people who made it to the shortlist, how long had they spent on them, I wonder?

Matt Cruse said...

I've been able to somewhat dilute my endless block cycle by dispensing with my own advice that I used to give to aspiring writers: always do an outline, always do your character outlines, always write things on cards. I just started by writing one scene in the film, then another scene, and another - then hope that they fit together. Some do, some don't. But it's working so far!