Just a quick note to share the news that my screenplay A Bed For The Boy — the second piece I started and first I actually finished — has somehow won the ‘Northern Exposure’ category of the Grim North Screenplay Festival. I’m absolutely thrilled — hot on the heels of A Sure & Godly Beauty reaching the finals of The Pitch, it feels like some quiet affirmation of this change I’ve made in my writing, and I really needed that. So — thank you, universe. I will keep going.
An update on The Pitch! Since my last post, I’ve completed a fantastic residential weekend, which both introduced me to my fellow competitors and put me through a developmental mangle with my story. Both of these things were tremendous.
Shout out to the other contestants first — it’s been an absolute blast meeting Paul, James, Jamie, Anderson, Cordelia, Nicholas, Dominik, Daniel and David. They’re awesome. Their ideas are consistently excellent, and it’s been a huge privilege to share this journey with them. I’ve been in plenty of competitions before, but this is the first time I’ve actually worked with the other contestants, and the spirit of camaraderie and support has been a revelation. It’s been incredibly inspiring, too, to share our ideas, processes, thoughts and fears on the process. To do so with other professionals felt transformational. This is what I want to be doing.
And then came the feedback. I was first to get notes, and they felt fairly savage — though in the end everyone was pushed pretty hard. The project mentors, including Laurie Hutzler and Jackie Sheppard, want the best for these stories, and they want us to do well — to push our skills, improve our pitches. Most of the notes were extremely helpful — with feedback of any sort, I always think of Neil Gaiman’s canny observation — when someone points out where they think you’ve gone wrong, they’re almost always right — and when they point out how to fix it, they’re almost always wrong. I fought my corner when I had to. I came here to learn, and I’m learning.
As for the feedback itself — The Pitch is an adaptation challenge, looking for contemporary readings and interpretations of Bible texts. I came away with the sense that my film story was fairly solid, but they thought my adaptation was flimsy, and that’s sent me back to re-read my original source material. My story is a Western based on Christ’s temptations in the desert, with a pioneer woman called Merrily battling two malicious drifters through 1800s badlands. Spending sustained time with the text has transformed how I thought about it, and I’ve carried that understanding into my own script. The story of Jesus in the desert is much braver than I first thought — it’s about the certainty of death, and fighting on regardless.
Writing for the screen has transformed how I process stories. The ideas are still rattling around in my skull — cyclists, rabbits, detectives, ghosts, babies — but now I pass everything through a filter, a mesh, asking the same thing over and over again:
Is this visual? Is there an action? Can I see the action on the page?
Cinema is an empathy engine. Film is the art of turning internal things — emotions, ideas, thoughts, decisions — into external actions that the audience can share. I’m discovering that’s really, really difficult to do. I’m also discovering that when stories are externalised, they become mostly about endings, and that’s another challenge: I’m fairly good at world-building, at situations, at set-ups. But stories don’t care about those things as much as pay-offs and resolutions, both narrative and emotional: stories are about how you feel when they finish.
Even having taught film for so many years, this is next-level learning for me, and I’m loving every moment. The actual process of writing a screenplay feels so open and full of possibility — I’ve now done eight distinct drafts with countless tweaks along the way, and I’m buzzing every time I get back to the story.
What next for The Pitch? In January I’m off to Beaconsfield for day one of the finals: a 10-minute presentation and a 10-minute Q&A with five industry judges. Three of us will be invited back for a second day on Sunday and another, extended presentation, based on feedback from day one. Having seen the quality of the ideas on show, I certainly don’t expect to be in that final three, but I’ve taken so much from this experience already, and I’m going to keep on learning everything I can.
Posting with the happy news that I’ve been extremely lucky in the competition I mentioned here — somehow my film idea has trickled all the way through the longlist onto the shortlist, and is now one of ten finalists. The next stage is a residential masterclass — three days of workshops and training with industry professionals, all pointed towards the final in January. I’m both thrilled and humbled to have made it this far, not least as this is the first film competition I’ve entered. Talk about luck!
The main reason for entering the contest was to make myself share some film ideas in public — it was a line I had to cross at some point, and this was a good way to make it happen. I feel extraordinarily fortunate to get this far, and grateful for the training opportunities it brings. The goal was always to work with other professionals and build my skills as best I can. For a while, at least, this is the way I’m going, and little triumphs like this feel like milestones — yes lad, this is the way.
Shakubuku, n. — a swift, spiritual kick to the head.
I’ve been needing one for a long time. I’ve needed a change of direction.
Writers have different reasons to write — callings that send them back to those keyboards day after day. For some it’s character — others write for the love of language — some write with a message, or to exorcise a ghost. And all these things are connected, of course, but I suspect each writer has a particular theme or mission that drives them more than the others. I write for the story. Stories are a purely human magic. They fascinate me and have always fascinated me. I don’t know of anything in art as satisfying as a complete and perfect story, completely and perfectly told. That’s the compulsion that drove me to writing and filmmaking and editing, and it’s story that keeps me working despite the reasons not to.
I teach film production. Each year, I work as something like a producer/story supervisor on many dozens of student films, contributing anything from gentle advice to full rewrites — I’ve overseen literally hundreds of student shorts in the seven or eight years I’ve run the course. During the final projects, I invest a huge amount of creative energy in making sure my learners are heading in the right direction, and that’s fine — that’s part of the job, and I certainly don’t begrudge the students, who are awesome. But I need to start conserving more of that energy for myself. Last year, I spent so much time writing with students that I didn’t manage any of my own — not a word of it, not for months. I was drained. As the college workload has increased, year on year, my ability to sustain a novel has declined. I’m sad about that, but I’m not going to drown in it.
I’ve been brewing for a while on trying something new, and maybe writing some film scripts of my own — it’s a medium I love, a process I know, and I wondered whether I’d find a script easier to pick up and put down than a novel. After months of doldrums, I did something about it. I started writing.
It’s true that a change is as good as a rest.
I’ve now finished three short films, coming in at variously 3, 11 and 23 pages. I’ve written and submitted a pitch to this competition, booked myself onto this short film workshop and started organising my ideas. At the moment I can envisage another half-dozen shorts and a couple of feature films. Not to say that I’ll write them all, or even start them all, but I have plenty to think about, to be getting on with. I’ve loved the exchange of dialogue, of honing lines, of stripping a story back to the bones. I’ve thrived on the blocking of scenes and the problem-solving, unravelling snags in the story. I’ve even loved learning new software. Finding my way in a new medium has been a joy, and I’ve enjoyed these steps in screenwriting more than I can say.
In tandem with this, I’ve been reading some classic works on story structure and writing for film. I’ve worked my way through Syd Field‘s Definitive Guide To Screenwriting and his excellent collection of analysis, Four Screenplays; Blake Snyder‘s cynical but efficacious model of conventional film structure, Save The Cat; Darren Aronofsky‘s blistering Guerrilla Diaries; John Yorke‘s sublime study of storytelling, Into The Woods, and am currently reading The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. After that, I’m heading into the bible of storytelling, Story by Robert McKee. More than anything else, I’m thrilled to be learning again — it’s been too long since I threw myself into something new, and I’m really enjoying the knowledge I’m gaining.
None of this means I’m giving up on writing novels or surrendering my short stories. Indeed, I’ve been writing lots of flash fiction lately, if you’d like to have a read. But for the good of my mental health, I need to do something different, even if it’s only for a little while.
Here’s a thing: a long time ago, I studied English Literature at Lancaster University. In the last weeks, after the exams, one of my tutors asked me a question that completely disarmed me — why, he wondered, had I written all my final year essays about films? At first, I was puzzled, but when I checked — he was right. Unconsciously I’d been exploring cinema, rather than literature. It was his observation that sent me off to study film in depth, and from there to work in television.
I’ve been thinking about some of the things people have been kind enough to say about my work. The single comment I hear most often is that my stories are ‘atmospheric‘. I’ve taken that to mean that readers have enjoyed the emotions and tensions of the worlds I’ve tried to make — that they’ve shared a feeling of empathy for the world — that they’ve been convinced by the places and feelings I’ve tried to create. But any richness I’ve managed to capture in my prose has come from my film training — imagining those locations as though composed through a camera lens, then layered with sound, light, weather, the bustle of background detail.
As with my university essays, all those years ago — maybe I’ve been writing the wrong way round.