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  • Archive for February, 2011

    Way of the Warrior Writer

    2011 - 02.23

    As part of my heightened awareness of the necessity for social media for writers, I finally crossed out an ancient, long-ignored point on my To Do List: JOIN TWITTER. I’ve barely used it, mostly because I follow a frightening number of writing-based accounts between which I could literally spend ALL DAY following their fascinating and educational links. I thought Face Book was bad enough; Twitter is so much the worse evil in the fight against (albeit constructive) procrastination.

    But on one of my rare visits to that realm of delightful distraction, I followed a link to Kristen Lamb’s Warrior Writers blog at http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com. She’s so good that she’s probably cost me a couple of thousands of words in writing time, but I’ll totally forgive her that because she’s so good she’s probably also saved me another ten aaaargh-aaaargh-aaaaargh drafts on The Sinless Sword. A morning spend reading her Structure series for free has already given me more to work with than the last 38 days on the Re-write course I’m paying to take part in (cue Finance Minister going into revolt).

    If you’re a writer, get over there now. Like, NOW. As far as I understand, Warrior Writers is nominally a site for teaching writers about social networking but it’s a goldmine for understanding why stories (novels, film, TV, shorts, anything) do and don’t work as well. Her blogs are not only illuminating but well entertaining to boot, and dotted with illustrative images.

    Like this one. Which I considerably appreciate right now.

    So this morning has involved answering the questions raised in Kristen’s Structure series, which has involved some epic face-palm action on the part of yours truly. Her excellent I’LL USE A WHOLE LOT OF CAPS JUST TO MAKE SURE YOU’RE GETTING THE POINT article on the logline – pitching your story in one single bloody sentence and one sentence only no matter how long you can talk in one breath – caused no small about of face-plant-on-table action in the Starbucks basement this morning.

    Insomniac non-writers, I have a cure. Seriously. Go ask someone you know who’s writing something to explain their story to you. It would be my pleasure to put you to sleep any time you like. Call me at 11pm, I can waffle with the best of them until your brain screams and shuts down comatose style. This is partly because I’ve been “writing” (read: planning, dreaming about, jotting notes over and doing pretty much everything except actually writing) The Sinless Sword for years now. And in a gestation time that long, an awful lot changes. And when there’s no solid opening premise, you’re literally making the whole thing up as you go – which is fine and wonderfully creative – but there’s a point where you have to stop flying by the seat of your pants and say ‘sorry, can you run that by me again, in order this time?’

    Then I actually wrote the damn thing last year, and in an intense writing period, it changed again. And again. And again.

    Now I’m rewriting it, and you know what? It still keeps changing. Even if I’d had one line to throw at you last year (which as your guaranteed insomnia-cure, I didn’t) it would be amazingly different to this clumsy, frustrated sentence that bled out from considerable bashing-head-on-table this morning:

    An orphan boy experiencing the incarceration of his guardian through nightmares must face the man who destroyed his family before the dream-connection kills them both.

    So it has WHO (Lien) does WHAT (face his past – bit weak, needs work) AGAINST (the man who destroyed his family – yeah, I hear ya, my head is screaming ‘Harry Potter alert!!’ too but it’s an old story, told many times and told here differently) and WHY (to save his life: Arete’s death will kill Lien too).

    Yeah baby, if you’ve ever read any of this book, I know you’re going ‘What the hell? Where did that come from?’ right now. Me too! WTH?!!

    But now I have a conflict lock to beat the crap out of my draft with. And a really lovely but completely redundant prelude. Speaking of locks, in an article on testing your book’s story, Kristen references James Scott Bell’s LOCK system, which I paraphrase here:

    LEAD with a sympathetic and compelling character whose OBJECTIVE is interesting clear and active but continually crushed by escalating CONFLICT which is resolved with a KNOCKOUT ending. An ending that resonates and rewards the reader’s time investment in your book.

    Ok, ok, I know this stuff! I do! It’s not new!

    …it’s just…

    …it’s just that I can’t remember the birth dates of any of my best friends, ever, so I really don’t remember every single writing rule, however basic. I need reminding.

    So thank you Kristen for a number of excellent reminders.

    (…I just wish I’d got my ass onto Twitter and seen them a whole lot earlier…)

    CoLab: Words, Spoken

    2011 - 02.09

    For a new writer, there’s something unsettling about first hearing your work read: it’s a moment of collision between intent and outcome.  Which makes it frankly surreal to first see your work performed. By actors. People who have (in this case) voluntarily committed their time to take words you have written and birth them into the world. The good folks at newly formed performance group CoLab (Constellation Creatives) are giving new writers the opportunity to experience this terror – and one hopes, consequent thrill – firsthand.

    [NB in case you made the unfortunate decision to read my recent double face-palm blog about the Constellations workshop, CoLab has absolutely nothing to do with writers play-acting and attempting psychiatric assessments of, well, me. Same name, totally different group. Just for the record.]

    SYNOPSIS: When his violent, thick Conan rip-off character and a half-imagined monster blunder into the real world, a pulp comics writer must overcome his writers’ block to give depth to his character and shape to the monster, before the two of them can wreck vengeance on their ‘creator’.

    You see, until the point of performance, your work consists of worlds, characters and dialogue that exist only in your head – your own private cinema where every scene is every kind of awesome. And then you email your world to a group of strangers who haven’t had the privilege of taking a seat in your cinema. Using only what’s on the page and in their own heads, they interpret your characters and speak your lines and you, the writer, have no idea how this is going to work out.

    First you might wonder: will they understand? Will they grasp the awesomeness of this concept? Will they feel a connection to and for my characters?

    Then you might wonder: what if they don’t get it? What if I have to pull out the old Picard facepalm – or less conspicuously, watch with a look of distant disdain, removing any possible association with the unfolding disaster?

    And that’s a dangerous place to get to – and remember, I’m still talking speculatively here, because it’s a writer’s job to imagine every worst possible outcome before an event – because it leads in one of two directions. You can dismissively decide that the acting stinks… or you realise, with stomach-turning terror, that the upcoming performance might just demonstrate to a live audience that your writing stinks. And when you have a group of experienced actors like CoLab offers taking the stage, the latter is much more likely to be the case.

    Now I can’t talk for all writers here, but my relationship with writing swings schizophrenically between honestly believing that what I’m working on will one day be completely brilliant… and honestly suspecting (or, memorably, being told) that it’s absolute rubbish. The fact that the creative process involves continual revision doesn’t help. For any finished book you read or film you see, there were earlier drafts the writer was sincerely proud of, only to later realise weren’t so hot after all. I exist exhaustingly juxtaposed between confidence and despair.

    It will always be like that, for me. A lot of the best times I have with my writing involve just me and my laptop and a small bucket of gingerbread latte. The despair almost always arrives with the intrusion of the real world on the imagined world. But then I found CoLab – or rather, Artistic Director Orion Lee found me, pitching a TV series at BAFTA – and I’ve now had two immensely positive experiences with my work being birthed into the world through the mouths of others.

    The first was a read workshopping of a pilot for Violent Cases, which mostly involved me grinning like an idiot because of course the actors didn’t stink – quite the opposite, they were fantastic and generous and enthusiastic – and although bits of the writing did stink, bits of it came out even better than I’d written them. My world and the real world met, no-one died, and I came out with more ideas and excitement than I’d gone in with.

    The second was last Tuesday, where just five minutes of a much older hobby project had a staging for the second CoLab Performance Evening at the Hospital Club, Covent Garden, London. Now few if any TV scripts have scenes of five minutes in length that can be coherently ‘performed’ live, so I riskily took three scenes and sewed them together – which resulted in at least two glaring logic holes that I picked – pressed SEND and hoped for the best. The script is farce. The characters spend a lot of 60 minutes being fairly 2D and that’s part of the transformational process of the story. The actors weren’t seeing a whole script: they were seeing five aggregated minutes. Would they get it? Would it translate? Would it be funny-ha-ha or a car crash?

    I had a drink of wine on the night, I was that nervous.

    In the end, I didn’t need to be.

    Three quality actors (Rob Heaps, Kosha Engler and Orion Lee), with minimal rehearsal and no input from me and my personal cinema, birthed my characters and words into the world. I love them so much for giving themselves in the way they did.

    No-one died. People even laughed, and said very nice things afterwards. I have been tentatively approached to write a short film for the 2011 London Film Festival, been emailed by a producer and am looking at a future collaboration with some of the actors. I have ammunition and confidence with which to re-write the script to submit to the slush pile for the BBC Radio 4 Afternoon Play 2012. Face-palming was not required.

    And actually… I’m kind of addicted to this whole performance thing. Actors rock my world. Actually, they take my world and rock it out for other people. Any time you give writing to someone else to read, whether for pleasure or performance, they make it their own. And strange as that can sometimes be for a writer, writing is ultimately about sharing. It’s not just about sitting in Starbucks with a stupid smile on my face typing away – it’s about hoping that writing will bring a smile, or grimace, or intended facepalm – or hell, tears – to someone else’s face. I write because I need to write, but what I want is to share.

    Writers wanting to submit stage/TV scenes of up to 7 minutes length or request a dedicated workshopping of their script by CoLab – or actors/directors/producers wanting to stand on the soapbox to pitch for collaboration at the next performance night – can contact Artist Director Orion Lee at orion_lee@hotmail.com.

    Do it.