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Writing in the Dark

Sometimes writing gets hard. It gets really, really hard. Its isolation can be matched by the drive to do it. Feel glum chum? Read on…

shut up and deal

Five months ago, I started telling friends I felt burnt-out. My output was slowing, it took longer to get it to a place of quality and I was getting tired quicker and quicker.

And then I went to Edinburgh. For a month. With three commission deadlines to meet.

Now in one way, Edinburgh was One Of The Best Things I’ve Ever Done TM. In another it left me a completely self-loathing, miserable shell of a man. In the weeks and months afterwards, I was anxious, my thinking was foggy and I couldn’t seem to properly empathise with or understand people consistently. As a writer you rely on your clarity of thought and strength of observation so that disconnect was all fairly crippling for my work.

But I had a lot of deadlines.

To be clear, the absolute best thing you can do at this point like this is TAKE A TIME…

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I’m not changing a word of this

“When someone reads your script &gives you notes… Act on them, apply them. You are not a genius. You are just a schmuck” via @Glinner blog

Why, That\'s Delightful!

shakey(This was originally posted on my Posterous blog. Re-upping it for @gerstaunton  and anyone else who might be interested.)

People often ask me for for writing advice and I usually respond by pointing them to my DVD commentary for IT Crowd Season 4, which is a complete guide to writing a sitcom from concept to screen. Everything I knew about sitcom writing to that point in time is on that DVD, so when people ask me for advice, that’s literally the most helpful thing I can do for them. The fact that it also gives me an excuse to plug the DVD is completely beside the point, of course.

But there is one piece of advice on which I may not have placed enough emphasis, because it is almost impossible to place enough emphasis on it, and it is as follows: when someone reads your script and gives you…

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Anthony Minghella quotes

Here are some of my favourite Anthony Minghella quotes for writers and filmmakers:

1. “I’ve been writing for over twenty years, all my adult life, and so I suppose that I’ve made peace with myself and my hopeless, undisciplined technique. I’ve stopped unravelling everytime I’m unable to write. I wait. The drawer opens. Waiting is part of writing. When I write the word ‘waiting’ by hand it even looks like ‘writing.’”

2. “You know, you lose a lot of social skills if you’re a writer. You spend too long alone. And it’s forced me to address that.”

3. “The imaginative leap for me of writing for women is no more difficult than the one of writing for men. I’ve always wanted to have women well represented in the work that I’ve done because I’ve always been around them and around the way they look at the world.”

4. “Nobody wants to make any film, ever. I mean, you can assume that every head of every studio would be perfectly happy never to make another film, because making films is dangerous, costs too much money, none of them make sense, there’s absolutely no guarantee that they’re going to work – the best thing is not to make any; you can’t get fired for not making a film – you’re going to get fired for making the wrong film. And so you realise that the first words anybody in the movies wants to say is no, and the job of the director or producer or writer is finding the area of least resistance to get the film made. There’s never been any movie I’ve made that anybody’s wanted to make, ever.”

5. “I feel like such an amateur film-maker, but not an amateur writer. I will always feel like a writer who directs and not the other way round. An American studio don’t understand why I feel the need to write my own work because they don’t respect that the screenplay is everything. The screenplay is the musical notes, and then you play the notes to make the film”.

Anthony Minghella

6. “The writer has to be indifferent to the realities of filming. The well-behaved film writer, the writer who’s writing for his or her director, is of no use. There has to be a kind of antic level to writing, which the director then has to formalise in some way…I try to never censor myself when I’m writing”.

7. “The madman should be writing and the sane person should be trying to work out how to do it. You can’t be sane and insane simultaneously. I think that I’m a very rebellious writer of screenplays and a quite conservative director of them”.

8. “The film community has all these redefinitions of terms, often amusing: net profit means no profit, residuals means no profit, producer equals liar, lawyer equals frustrated agent, agent equals frustrated director, director equals frustrated actor.”

Anthony Minghella, 1954 – 2008

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First draft word vomit…

I recently met with someone who admired my bravery in pursuing writing.

They’ve known me since I was a small child and told me I’d always been writing. (They told me about things I don’t even remember writing.) They told me that they had wanted to be a writer when they were younger and still wish they could. When I asked what stopped them, they said everything they write is rubbish or seems trite.

I got news for you: most of first drafts are awful. It’s word vomit…

Here’s the good news: that’s okay!

You’ve got the ideas on paper or out of your head and in front of you. The more the merrier. That way you can work out what sounds good, what doesn’t sound good, what works and what doesn’t work. Just persevere and get it out.

That’s not to say it should all stay in the final draft. Hell no! sayeth I. But you’ve got out everything that’s been buzzing around in your head, you’ve laid the foundations on which you can build something amazing.

I recently completed a first draft of a sitcom. It was a sleep-deprived splurge of everything that had whizzed around my brain since I started thinking about it last year. Last year it was about a bunch of middle-aged men. Then I realised that patriarchy courses through my veins but I had a choice to write the same ol’ stories or write the stories I wanted to see. It’s now a female-centric sitcom.

The minute I hit send, the flaws came flooding in and the desire to consign it to the trash increased. I didn’t though. I didn’t do it because I’ve been talking about it for so long I have friends who want to read it so I can’t just archive it like I have with everything else. It’s time for me to be brave. To step up to the plate. To be the writer I know I can be. Without the wibbling.

I’ve got some feedback from an independent script editor so I’m going to take a break, take a step away, and go back to it next week.

There’s another project I’m working on for theatre to occupy my brain. I spent the entire day yesterday trawling through my research pile. I say pile because that’s what it is. It’s a pile of clippings, photos, postcards, scraps of paper, scraps of scenes and dialogue. I’ve found a lots of things I’d forgotten about. It was wonderful to go through it and rediscover gems, not to mention a rather cathartic tidy-up! So I think I have a direction to head in with a project two. I’m going to spend the rest of the weekend writing more scraps of dialogue, more word-vomit and a little digging through my collection of scraps and see what emerges.

It’s not that I think I’m a better writer than anyone else or that I might make a decent living from writing – far from it – I just have stories I want to tell.

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Night owl.

So last post I was embarking on a writing shift. I kept office hours of 8.30-4.30. Except these were the night shift hours. I don’t know if it’s good or bad but I found that my most productive time was 1.45 – 4.45am.

Not very sociable nor convenient if, like me, you happen to have a day job. Perhaps I can start sleeping in shifts…

At the moment, I’m lucky enough to be working part-time hours and so might try the overnight write again, see where it takes me.

What are your most productive writing hours?

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The consequences of writing…

According to the NHS website – no, not Web MD. Are you crazy? That just tells me I have something incurable and deadly – people who are prone to getting Vitamin D deficiency are, amongst others:

“people who are not exposed to much sun, such as people who cover up their skin when outdoors, or those who are housebound or confined indoors for long periods”

So that would be why I, a writer living in the UK, am Vitamin D deficient, wouldn’t it? (That and this ex-Goth isn’t a friend of sunshine.)

I spend long periods of the day inside. Even when it’s sunny. Anyone who’s tried to work on a laptop outside knows only too well that it’ll overheat like a thing possessed after a short while and I don’t want to have to replace mine.

Recently the sun has been shining on old Blighty and I’ve been trying to get out while I can but I have a looming deadline and a job to keep me in beer and baked beans.

Is it just me? Does anyone else write most effectively under pressure? I recently posted about writing every day. While I try to do that, I don’t always manage it and in order to finish something, I need a deadline, even if it’s further off in the distance; I need to have something to work towards.

Anthony Trollope worked full time as a civil servant and wrote every day, from 5.30am: a practice which allowed him “no mercy”. Trollope believed that three hours a day “will produce as much as a man ought to write.” (From An Autobiography, by Anthony Trollope)

True that. Anymore than that and I ramble!

The full three hours were not spent solely on writing; he would review the previous day’s work and take note of the sound and rhythm of the words. When he did write, Trollope challenged himself to write 250 words every 15 minutes.

I am in awe. I hope that one day I can both write like that, and drag myself from bed at some ungodly hour to write every day, with or without a deadline.

We’re all different and I keep trying to work out when is the best time for me to write. Is it the middle of the night? Mid-afternoon? First thing in the morning? It really has to be – until I’ve established a routine – a time when I can’t be distracted by Twitter conversations, Facebook debates or The-Buzzfeed-loop-of-lists.

HSleeping patternsey, I have limited self-control!

I found this infographic on the working habits of some of our most amazing creatives recently. I don’t know how true it is but I think it’s very telling that many of these creatives (including one of my favourite authors) writes overnight. How many disruptions do you think there are at that time of the night?

Along with sunshine, I need more discipline. And a workable plan. I’m willing to try anything so, after a day’s work, I’m about to put in another working day. It’s just that this time, it’s overnight…

See you on the other side!