Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Writing and screenwriting

I started to write a blog entry the other day, saying some critical things about a couple of TV shows. In particular, I was criticizing how the shows didn't seem to be able to make up their minds about what kind of shows they were. They would go in one direction for a while (dark, adult, for example) then suddenly switch course (comedy, for example). I was saying the writers didn't have enough belief in their shows.

But you know what? That's not this blog entry. I trashed that one. I trashed it because of a DVD extra that I watched from Angel, season 3. The extra is called 'From Page to Screen', and it covered pretty much what you would expect: the whole process of coming up with an episode of a show from conception to finished product.

The writers on the show have (if they are lucky) a week to write a 42 minute episode of a show. A week. Sometimes less. And this is the way they have to go about it:

  1. Someone pitches an idea and it gets structured it, point by point, in a writers' meeting
  2. One of the writers takes that away and writes an outline
  3. They return the outline and are given notes on it
  4. Take the notes away and write the script
  5. Get notes on the script and rewrite it
A week to write it. Sometimes for or five days. For 22 episodes in a year.

I realized that I, as a short story and novel writer, am in absolutely no position to criticize a few inconsistencies in a show when that's the process they have to go through so quickly just to get a script.

And I can't help but think that many of us who do write short stories and novels can be just a little bit too precious about our writing. 

I have writing sessions where I come away only having written 50 words. Sometimes nothing at all. If I was a screenwriter, that just simply wouldn't be an option. People would be waiting for the script, and they would have deadlines too. Short ones. 

If I was a screenwriter, I wouldn't be able to complain that I wasn't inspired or that I had no decent ideas that day or that I or that I was too tired or that I couldn't work from an outline. I wouldn't be able to wait two months between drafts to clear my head. I'd just have to do it. Right then. No matter what.

I wouldn't have the luxury of whining about an editor wanting to change that one little line that I loved. Everything I wrote would be torn up, mercilessly, if necessary, to make the episode work.

Now, I'm not saying that what is produced by a screenwriter working like this is necessarily better than that which a novelist working for a year or five years on a single book produces. (Nor vice versa, for that matter.) I'm not even saying that the forms are the same (fiction writing is a much more solo activity; screenwriting is more collaborative).

But I do think there's a lot we can learn from this type of process. About stripping away the chance for excuses. About not being overly precious and resistant to suggestions for changes. About planning and outlining and redrafting. About being accountable and about other people relying on you deliver something of quality on time, no matter what. About buckling down even if you're exhausted or uninspired or stressed. And that's what this blog entry always should have been about.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Being a writer

You’ve all been in this situation before. You meet someone for the first time, in a casual acquaintance type of way. It might be at a party or it might be meeting another parent when you’re picking your kid up from school. Whatever. And they ask you what you do.

Here’s the thing. When people ask me, I never say I’m a writer. Not ever. I say I’m a web designer.

And I am a web designer, of course. I love that part of my life. Building websites is great. It’s fun, it’s challenging, it’s stimulating, it’s satisfying, and I’m good at it. But it’s not the thing I’m most passionate about. It’s not the thing I dreamed about from, oh, the beginning of high school. (The web didn’t exist back then...) What I always dreamed about was being a writer.

But the truth is, I’m embarrassed to say I’m a writer. I figure that if I do, people are going to ask what books I’ve got out, and I haven’t published any books. I’ve only published short stories. Most people never read short stories. I think that if I call myself a writer, people will think I’m deluding myself. They’ll think I’m full of it.

When someone does get out of me that I’m a writer (usually because my wife tells them), I say I “just” write short stories (or “only short stories”, like I realized I did in the paragraph above), as though somehow they’re not worth mentioning.

But the truth is, I’m damned proud of those short stories. I worked long and hard at them. Editors were willing to pay money for them and print them in their magazines and anthologies. Some of these are really good stories.

If I add up the money I’ve been paid for my short stories, it comes to at least the same amount as the average advance for a first novel, probably more. My stories have reached far more people than most first novels ever do.

And here’s another thing. By not saying that I’m a writer, I’m deprioritizing my own writing. I’m telling myself every time that the writing is not the most important part of my career. I’m telling myself that the time I have for work should always be for web design, and that if I spend some of it writing, I’m doing the wrong thing. That writing time is wasted time.

So, I’ve decided to make a new New(ish) Year’s resolution: I’m going to start saying I’m a writer when people ask what I do. I’m going to say I’m a web designer too, but that’s not all I’m going to say, because it’s not all I do.

And maybe, just maybe, that’ll make me give the writing the priority it deserves.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Complicating things

For the last couple of weeks, I've been working (on and off) on a couple of short stories, one of which was a kind of YA fantasy (with relatively little fantasy content) and the other of which was (I thought) an adult fantasy with much more fantasy content.

They were pretty different stories, and the only thing they really had in common was that I didn't quite know where either of them were going, and I was kind of stumped.

Well, I'm not someone who likes to make life easy for myself (well, I actually like it; I just rarely do it). So, I stuck the two stories together, almost unchanged, just alternating the points of view.

And the funny thing is, I do actually know where the combined story is going now. It's going to be tough to fit everything together and make it come out well, but it at least it has a purpose and direction.

Back when I was at Clarion West in 2001, I remember Nalo Hopkinson saying that every scene needed two things going on. It's the same for every story. There have to be (at least) two things going on that can play off against each other, inform each other, head off and rejoin each other, twist around and complicate. 

Neither of the stories had that before. Now they both do. How they'll finally work out, I can't say. But at least they have a chance now.

Book Review: Rivers of London, by Ben Aaronovitch

Note: This book is titled 'Midnight Riot' in the U.S.

Ben Aaronovitch obviously has a thing for London, and Rivers of London is a book which revels in a sense of place and history. Even if there wasn't a fantastic story in here, you could read it for an exuberant tour of London.

But there is a good story, and a quirky, original take on urban fantasy.

When probationary police constable Peter Grant encounters a ghost during a murder investigation, he is recruited by Chief Inspector Nightingale, the force's only wizard. Before he can come to terms with his status as the an apprentice magician, he finds himself investigating a series of horrific supernatural murders.

And if that wasn't enough, he has to negotiate a truce between the fractious Genii Loci - the local gods - of the Thames.

The nearest comparison I can come up with for Aaronovitch's book is Mike Carey's Felix Castor novels, although Carey's books are darker and more noir, where Aaronvitch maintains a lightness and humour (which doesn't always quite come off).

Aaronovitch has written screenplays and tie-in books before, but this is first purely solo novel, and this shows slightly in the earlier parts of the book, where a bit trimming would have helped certain scenes, but once the book really gets going, I soon forgot this, and by the time it reached its climax, it was utterly gripping.

This is a modern, urban fantasy, but it follows its own path, almost unaware of, and certainly unaffected by, the cliches that creep into some urban fantasies.


Note: The sequel to Rivers of London, Moon Over Soho, has already been published in both the US and UK.