She carried herself into my office like the cradle of life. Shoulda known she was bad luck. Dames like that don’t come into offices like mine. I shoulda said no, but she looked so pretty when she cried. I took the job. Simple enough, right? — her old man can’t be found. All I gotta do is find the guy.
Only now she’s gone and all. Her cheque bounced like a goddamn ball. The address she gave was demolished a decade ago. The cops come calling. They say, Charlie, you’re sniffing around. How come you’re sniffing around, Charlie? What do you smell?
I think I smell a fucking rat.
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.
See them quaking in their black hearts, yonder — villains that they are. Blackguards! Fearties! Bespawlers and bampots! Rogues!
My bright and bonny lads bang shields. We’re ready. Our swords are sharp. We’re fed and rested. Any man of us would give himself for the others, and gladly too. Then it comes, the word o’ God, a thunder from on high, a command that we obey:
“Knight to Rook three, man.”
And the battle is begun.
‘Those marks on the wall look like fingernail scratches,’ I said.
‘Hahahahahahahahaha, no they don’t,’ said the estate agent.
Did you hear? There’s one of them mermaids up the canal. I know. Fancy! Perched on the gas main she is, combing her hair and singing them dirty songs. Scarcely dressed, I heard. Filthy thing. Never would have believed it, not round here. But you mark my words. She’ll be hounded out, soon enough, with a right round flea in her ear.
My Eric seems to spend a lot of time fishing, these days.
‘But if she’s such a nice old lady,’ hissed Gretel, ‘why does she keep rubbing us with garlic?’
Daddy ain’t moving, so I been playing demolition derby with his bottles like I ain’t not supposed to. Only now I’m getting hungry and still he don’t wake up. When I creep close, he’s got flies in his eyes. They move, but he don’t. No flies in my eyes, cos I’m all friends with the spiders in the skirting, but him? He’s got flies in his eyes.
Daddy, I says, Daddy, ain’t you got some food for me? All the chips is done. I’m hungry, Pa, I’m hungry.
But my Daddy, he ain’t a one for moving.