Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Breaking News: Ideas are important

In a shocking turn of events it seems that in writing, the ideas themselves are quite important. I suspect many (if not all) of you reading this will already be aware of that fact. And while that seemingly obvious statement is something I’m sure I already knew, somehow I only feel like I truly learned it this year. I now realise exactly how important the skill of being an idea generator actually is. 

Again this may seem obvious on the surface, but multiple and frequent ideas aren’t exactly a requirement for a wannabe writer who works at his or her own pace while building a portfolio. A writer without deadlines who only has to work when they are excited about the creative prospects of a concept they already have has a lot less reason to sit and stare at the blank screen. Because when the idea isn’t there that deadline-less writer can afford to not write until it is. And when the idea finally bubbles to the surface the writer gets to scratch that glorious writing itch.

Although it is a bit of a chicken/egg scenario; do ideas occurring make the writer want to write, or does the writers desire to write force their subconscious to invent concepts? Which came first, the desire to write or the idea itself? Sorry, got a little more philosophical than I originally intended there. Try to forget this paragraph.

So it all came as quite a shock to me this year when I suddenly found myself with multiple writing projects of my own being combined with several freelance jobs that had either short deadlines for or required multiple scripts. With so much to do I had no choice but to sit and bang my head against the keyboard until ideas came; the luxury of simply leaving it until I had something being long behind me.

At one point this genuinely resulted in the rather cliché image of me slumped over my desk with several balled up pieces of paper surrounding me and my bin. None actually made it into the bin of course; I’m not the most coordinated person. At one point I honestly started to think that I might have simply run dry of new ideas that genuinely excite me. But of course this wasn’t that case, I had just never really had to exercise the massively important skill of being an idea generator.

The best example of where it was a problem was when I was hired to do a writing project for a London based acting studio. They had asked me to develop several short scripts to be shot using their students, the intention being to use them in their showreels once they finish the course. Over a couple of months my mandate was to write around twenty three 3 page long scripts for them, each being set in one of two locations and using two of the actors; it sounds simple enough until you realise you need twenty three entirely separate and original premises. A daunting task to say the least.

My biggest fear was that I wouldn’t have enough time to let good ideas come to me and develop in the natural way they usually do, forcing me to use ideas that weren’t fully developed or that I wasn’t happy with. But in the end I feel I did manage to entirely avoid this potential pitfall and I was ultimately very pleased with the results.

It seems that my usual method for idea generation takes a long time because I'm doing a large part of the processing in the background on the odd occasions when my mind drifts from whatever it is I'm actually doing. As a result the shower and that moment just before I fall asleep seem to be when a lot of my best ideas occur.

What I found effective in the end for encouraging this process when I was on a tight deadline was actually setting aside time specifically to focus on it, and not beating myself up for not producing large quantities of text during these sessions. I simply made notes of all the thoughts that occurred and then went back to them a day or two later to see if I could improve them.

So there you have it. The solution is to simply make generating ideas one of the stages of writing instead of letting it happen by accident. I'm basically an idiot for not seeing it sooner.

But as simple and as obvious as the solution is, as someone who was never required to do it before this year, it was an odd sort of revelation. People always say you never stop learning as a writer, and while I never doubted the validity of that statement; I honestly didn’t expect to learn such a large and important lesson this far in. And it’s made me really excited to find out what I might learn next.

Thanks for reading.
-- Dan

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The Long Way Round

Welcome to yet more of my drivel on the subject of how the script for our new web series 'Writing Space' came to be. This is the second part of a post that was simply far too long to put up as one, if you missed the first part and would rather, quite sensibly, prefer to read them in order; click here. To find out what 'Writing Space' is, click here. If after reading those you're not entirely bored with reading things I've written on this subject then feel free to continue...

Christmas 2012 was, at least for me, spent mostly in a perpetual state of feeling guilty about the fact I wasn't writing. It's an all too familiar feeling to me, but on this occasion it was exasperated by the knowledge Chris was beavering away on his first draft of the other project we were developing at the time... or so I thought. Turns out I needn't have worried because when I picked up the phone in early January for a catch up, it seems we had both achieved little more than watching Doctor Who and eating an unhealthy amount of turkey and chocolate over the Christmas break. We did not eat these things together I might add, we're not monsters.

So, in the knowledge that the deadline for our drafts was the first week of February we both did our fair share of beavering and we managed to complete them in time. At this stage the script was 27 pages long. Now you're probably wondering how I could be so bold as to pronounce this anemic 27 page script as the 'first draft' when the subsequent script we produced is 45 pages. Well, this particular project is not heavy on narrative and while the scenes involve the same characters and scenarios, structurally speaking, it resembles more closely a sketch show than a sitcom. The scenes in themselves have individual premises and while these are interconnected in mild ways through the subject and themes, there isn't a heavy narrative running through the entire piece.

This format allowed me to intentionally leave the script short in order for Chris to add original scenes of his own design. This was more important on this particular script than any other we have worked on because we hadn't actually discussed the content of this script or it's scenes prior to me taking on the task of producing the vomit draft. All we had decided together was who and what it was about and what the tone ought to be. So it felt important to have content entirely generated by Chris to counter balance mine. After I completed my draft it was Chris's turn to go over it before we started working on it together and he did not disappoint; the second draft came in around 48 pages.

In some ways, the development of this script may be one of the simplest and most straight forward processes I've ever experienced. The lack of a deadline allowed us to work at a comfortable pace and due to its sketch like nature, we were granted the luxury of being able to remove any scene at will purely on the basis of quality. We weren't, as we so often are with narrative comedy, at the mercy of scenes that were important to the overall structure and pacing of a plot that were simply not funny. When that happened in this script we simply cut it and wrote something entirely different, although I should mention that as a result the scripts length fluctuated greatly over the coming months.

In March, with Chris's draft complete we felt it was time to start working on the script together. And while some aspects of this scripts development were an easy sail down a calm river, around this stage is where the other aspects started to creep in. You know the ones that involved stormy weather and capsizing. The problem is that Chris and I have full time jobs, other writing/acting commitments, a website and a podcast to work on. So finding time in which to work together on this script was not easy. This was not made easier by the fact we do not live a commutable distance from each other, this meant that in order to avoid wasting a few hours of each writing day on travel, we would write and develop this script over the internet.

It's nothing short of miraculous that the internet permitted us to continue working despite geographical differences, an advantage the writers of yesteryear would not have had. So we would set entire days aside to work on the piece this way, occasionally pulling double duty and recording a podcast in the morning and then writing for the rest of the day. Incidentally I wouldn't recommend this as it never left much time for editing the podcast in question, or indeed living my life. To write over the internet we use Skype to talk to each other (Audio only) and used the 'Screen Share' function in order for one of us to be able to see the script the other had loaded up on their computer. As a writing method this has a drawback of only one of writers being able to alter the document and type.

I'm certain there are more efficient ways to do this, I think final draft has a feature that allows both writers to work on a script at the same time over the net, but it's not really a problem for us. This is because historically, even when Chris and I write in person I usually have the keyboard, because while Chris finds it easy to pitch stuff verbally, I sometimes struggle to explain myself accurately and find demonstrating by typing the idea or joke up there and then helps. Also, I'm a massive raging control freak. So on the whole this writing over Skype thing really works for us, or more accurately, while we live this distance apart it's the best option. Naturally we would rather be sat in the same room, but for practicalities sake this is a sufficient substitute. In fact, in this case, the gift of cutting out travel actually helped us progress faster. I shudder to think how far we'd be along now if we were only writing in person.

But that's not to say writing over the internet made it possible to write everyday, as mentioned already our schedules made that about as far from possible as it is to get. We would go entire months without finding any time to work on it. I suspect if we had written regularly this script would have potentially completed in April or early May at the latest. Instead we were forced to take the long way round, writing once every couple of weeks. slowly but surely improving the existing draft and developing it into the piece we finally landed on in early August. We claimed this was the final draft at the time, the finished article. But true to form even now it's still being tweaked in small ways with the production scheduled to happen in just 7 short weeks.

But despite having to take the slow path, chipping away at the draft we had in March over the course of several months in order to mould it into the sculpture we wanted it to be, I actually think this was the best way to develop this script. Sometimes a gap between writing sessions, and in this case we had many of those, can actually help you clear your thoughts and allow you to approach it with fresh eyes and a perspective you may not have had the first time when you return. So despite those 45 pages taking the better part of 9 months to complete, in my opinion the pace really helped improve the quality of the final piece.

So for me it was worth every second.

Thanks for reading.

-- Dan

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Every Journey...

So based on a small number of tweets it seems a certain percentage of you may be interested in hearing how the script for Writing Space came to exist. If the existence of such a thing is news to you and you are now squinting at your computer screen in confusion trying to understand, I recommend reading this blog post in order to catch up. Or you can move forward under the rather sensible assumption that it's a project I'm working on, for which a script is complete. If you're not one of those interested in the process, then feel free to click that small x in the top corner of the window. I won't mind, honest. I'm barely interested in it myself and I lived it.

First of all it's worth noting that the process I'm about to describe works exceptionally well for me and my writing partner Chris, but by no means by posting it here am I suggesting anyone should approach anything using the same method we use. It may very well be suitable for a certain percentage of you, but writing in a team can be challenging and I think an important part of developing into a team that functions well is developing a writing method that works for both members. I feel it's better to find something that works for you than adopt a system someone else uses.

For Chris and I, we prefer something Judd Apatow describes as the 'Vomit Draft' approach. The idea consists of riffling through the first draft of any script as quickly as possible to ensure you do not second guess anything. The goal is to simply push past the barrier of doubt and get the idea on the page in as pure a form as possible. That way you're working from something more than the daunting blank canvas. This draft is usually about as far from perfect as it gets, but you are left with a slab of marble to shape into the script you envisioned.

The reason I prefer this approach is because I find it incredibly frustrating to spend hours and hours perfecting a scene only to discover that it needs to be cut for structural reasons once I reach the end and realise it was redundant to start with. Also, if I'm honest I like getting to the end of that first draft knowing how much work the piece still needs. I find it oddly comforting to know that I'm not completely at a loss for how to make it better. I'm terrified that one day I'm going to reach the end of a draft fully aware how broken it is but not having a single idea about how to fix it. So being full of idea's and notions about what I need to correct on the next go around is strangely and powerfully encouraging.

The problem we found is that both Chris and I subscribe to this writing method, yet the very notion of writing in a team is diametrically opposed to the 'Vomit Draft' approach, because the entire point is to question one another as you go. This mean's it's practically impossible to write a first draft as a team using that method. So Chris and I have taken to writing the first and second drafts solo. We develop the characters, plots and ideas as a team, but then one of us tackles the first draft while the other writes the second, before we ultimately sit down and start working on the drafts together. This allows us to just get the idea on the page without the other over our shoulder questioning the positioning of a comma. (I'll be honest here, that's usually me.)

Interestingly, or possibly ironically, 'Writing Space' was born out of procrastination. Chris and I had met up to break the story for another project we were writing and during a period in which we had hit a bit of a wall our conversation drifted and gave birth to a very vague but simple idea. An idea that practically oozed with fun, an odd but accurate statement. We noted down several bullet points summing up the concept before we caught ourselves and forced our minds back to the task at hand, although like the petulant school children we are, we did resist for a little while longer first in order to play 20 questions or something equally time wasting. We were clearly fond of the new idea, but I'm not sure we seriously discussed perusing it during that meeting at all.

But it would not die, that same evening the idea would not leave me to sleep in peace, only now it came to me with a new element attached when it swam through my mind. I suddenly understood it needed to be a mockumentary. It's a conclusion Chris and I would have come to eventually regardless of whether it had occurred to me that evening or not. The significance of realising it in that particular moment is that it caused me to become more excited about the project and was immediately inspired to write a couple of sample pages there and then to demonstrate to myself how it would work in that format. One of those sample pages ended up being the first page of the finished script.

As a mockumentary it was suddenly very produceable, which to two writers working on several projects on spec with no sign of progress is a very enticing prospect. Chris had already been assigned the task of writing the first draft of the project we had actually met up to develop that weekend, we did end up breaking the story as we set out to. This left me to write the first draft of Writing Space, which had a different title at this stage. This was in late December of 2012 and we agreed to finish our respective first drafts by the first week of February 2013.

This is actually one of the reasons we didn't record any new episodes of our podcast Nothing But Static in January, as we were both highly focused on finishing our first drafts.

Seems I've rambled enough for now, my next post will pick up where this left off.

Thanks for reading.
-- Dan

Monday, 26 August 2013

Nothing But Static Site Relaunch

Nothing But Static is a podcast.
More specifically Nothing But Static is a podcast I co-host.
More specifically Nothing But Static is a TV podcast I co-host. 
Even more specifically Nothing But Static is a TV podcast I co-host which just relaunched its website. 

Now you have the specifics, the purpose of this post is to let you know I'd like to ask you to check it out. If you're interested in that sort of thing that is. We don't expect anyone who doesn't watch TV to listen, if you don't know Son's of Anarchy from Breaking Bad, I expect you'd be utterly baffled. It would sound like Chris and I were speaking in tongues. 

But for those of you as obsessed with TV as Chris and I, (Fuck it, we'd take mildly interested. It's not that exclusive a club.) I'd encourage you to not only check out the podcast itself, but keep your eye on the website as well. Our intention with this relaunch is to keep the site updated with TV related news and Articles that may be of interest also. These may be loftier ambitious than our time will permit, but that's never stopped us before. I'm be posting links to some of the articles on my twitter also, so I'm sure you'll here more about the content as I tweet. 

With the site relaunch came a brand new episode of the podcast. This week we discussed the new shows that most excite us from the upcoming TV Season. As well as the four US shows Channel 4 have picked up and news about Danny Boyle returning to TV. Also, in our previous episode Chris had challenged me to watch a British TV classic I had only ever seen in passing; Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. So this week, having watched the first six episodes I gave some thoughts on it.

If you're interested in our website it can be found at nothingbutstatic.co.uk

If you'd rather just skip to podcast itself, you can listen via the player below, iTunes or right click on the link below and select 'Save As' to download the mp3. 

Direct Download.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Shall we try that again?

So a brand new design and a brand new attempt to reinvigorate this blog. Which, as an endeavour, the realist inside all of us has already probably dismissed as hopeless. Not that I'm giving up at the start line, just acknowledging the fact that I've spoken of bringing this blog back in the past and to put it mildly, I don't have a great track record of success. So there is a chance I may become distracted again and the consistency of postings may falter, but in the meantime I'm going to try and enjoy it while it lasts rather than beat myself up about my inability to post regularly.

Those few among you who follow me on twitter may already be aware, but it's worth repeated for the purpose of this post that my writing partner Chris Billingham and I have completed the final draft of a script for a new web-series. And we are very pleased to announce that production on this particular project is currently scheduled to commence on the first week of November 2013. We are producing this one ourselves on the rather indulgent budget of zero pounds and zero pence. Calling in an obscene number of favours from friends to do so.

The script we currently hold is a massive source of excitement for both of us and will likely change in small ways between now and when we ultimately shoot the project; this won't help me memorise my lines, but will help make it better. With that said the script we currently hold is pretty much what we set out to make all those months ago.
'All those months ago?' you probably aren't thinking, 'this is entirely new information to me the reader'. Well, as I just hinted, this particular script has technically been in development since December.

That of course doesn't mean we've been working on it non-stop for nine months. Which I'm grateful for, because while Chris often displays an abundance of seemingly infinite patience, I think nine straight months of working with this maladjusted and picky perfectionist would have most certainly caused him to snap and stage an 'Accident' involving myself. I suspect something involving stairs, and me 'falling' down them, that seems like Chris's style. Or perhaps a long swim in a shallow grave after one of our famous romantic walks along Bournemouth pier.

Theoretical murder aside, it was actually a fairly quick and smooth experience that suffered from frequent and lengthy periods of interruption due to scheduling conflicts. So there would be months where Chris and I would simply find ourselves too busy with other work and our podcast Nothing But Static to be able to develop this script further. Not that we see ourselves as important jet-setter types who are above the notion of fitting stuff in, we just had enough stuff going on to make it more challenging to schedule than our lazy nature would permit. But it never once left our minds, which is mildly remarkable considering how easily distracted we often are. No matter what, we always found the time to come back to it eventually.

I feel that this script, more than anything else we have ever worked on, truly reflects our writing voices, and that fact is in itself immensely exciting. Although this may have something to do with how close the subject matter is to home. A lot of my satisfaction stems from knowing the execution of the concept is almost exactly what we had originally envisioned those nine long months ago. And now we are facing the daunting and arduous task of taking this forty five page script and organising a production that will turn it into six viable episodes of a web-series.

Despite the obvious challenges that lie ahead as a result of trying to produce a fairly sizeable production with less money than the value of a freddo. But we think we have something really special on our hands and cannot wait to show everyone. More details will be posted on this blog as we go forward regarding the content of the scripts as well as updates on exactly how badly our production has fallen apart.

And then, someday... if we're lucky... I'll be typing the words 'Introducing our new web series... Writing Space'.

Thanks for reading.
-- Dan

Edit: Since this post I have written another two part piece describing the writing process for this project. Part one can be found here and part two can be found here.