The first draft is … a work in progress.

So you’ve just typed ‘THE END’. Whatever it was, and no matter how long or short it was, you’re flush with a sense of achievement . You’ve done it – you started, got past the middle and romped home to the end. Time to stick it on the shelf and give yourself some distance.

Some writers keep everything on the cloud but I like a couple of ring binders and print off every chapter of the first draft as I finish it. Then it’s like a real book when I come to the critical re-read and it’s as though I’m approaching virgin territory. Did I really write that?

At least a month after finishing the first draft, I begin to read.  The way I work is at the beginning of each chapter I insert a page.  At the top I put a heading, ‘First Impressions’  and half way down the page another heading, ‘Narrative’.

First impressions are useful because sometimes there’s a distance of several months between writing the first draft and reading it again and that gives you the brutal honesty you’ll need  to make it better.   You know instantly when something isn’t working, when it’s not dramatic enough, even when it’s in the wrong viewpoint.  And while your spirit might sink at the thought of all the work ahead, your pride won’t let you step away.   You invested so much time in creating that world,  no matter how many drafts it will take, you’ve going to get it right.

The Narrative section is perhaps more important.  Under this heading as you read, you’re going to jot down the precise plot points of what has happened in that chapter.  Even if you think you know it off by heart, when you strip away all the description and simply list the events that move the plot along, you can be surprised to find contradictions and improbabilities, sometimes downright hilarious.

You can also find yourself having to make big changes and it’s important not to fudge around them.  You’ll know when something’s not working and has to be changed.  Grasp the nettle even if you’ll need tons of imaginary dock leaves later.

Happy editing!

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Women and the World

A few posts ago, I talked about how female actors were choosing not to wear make-up when filming.  Amongst those who had made this decision was the actor, Sarah Lancashire.  She recently won the BAFTA for Leading Actress in the Best Drama, Happy Valley, so less make-up obviously didn’t affect her performance.

Why is it so important for female actors to portray themselves in a naturalistic way?  First, the world of drama becomes more like the ordinary world of the audience and female viewers will connect better to the actors.  It’s all about role models and even adult women need those but do they need the ones portrayed in films.  Yes they can dye their hair the same colour as the heroine and get longer lashes but when they’re playing Jane to some he-man’s Tarzan, as soon as the screen goes black, they’re back in a real jungle where too often they really are Jane.

It’s not just about making role models for ourselves but about finding stories that mean something to women.   Female actors are trying to do this all the time as well as finding work.  For too long, actresses have gone from playing the love interest for the lead man to playing the lead man’s mother – apparently the only acceptable roles for women in a male dominated industry.

When groups of women are portrayed in films, not many story lines dip beneath the surface of what society expects from them so it was good to watch a conversation between Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern talking about how much they enjoyed working with each other on “Big, Little Lies”.  In Witherspoon’s words,

“I think the show pulled back the curtain on what women are really thinking in marriage and life and that it’s not just the persona we construct for society.”

“Big, Little Lies”, the screen version was adapted from the novel of the same name by Liane Moriarty.

This difference between the real world and film where women are concerned was forcefully highlighted when Jessica Chastain spoke out at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

“Chastain, a member of the 2017 festival’s jury, was witness to 20 of the world’s most acclaimed new movies and noticed a disheartening trend. The Academy Award-nominated actress acknowledged that there were exceptions, but most of the female characters seen at the festival were passive and empty shells of characters. Chastain continued by saying that these characters did not reflect any woman she had ever encountered in real life and that the lack of accurate representation speaks to how the world views women as a whole.”  (uinterview.com/news)

Unfortunately, until there are more female directors and writers, film story telling is unlikely to change and neither is the world.

For further insight into women in film this article in the guardian is worth a read.  https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/sep/27/geena-davis-institute-sexism-in-film-industry

 

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The Weight of Words – Death and the Writer

Source: The Weight of Words – Death and the Writer

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The Weight of Words – Death and the Writer

At the turn of the year I sat with my daughter in an otherwise empty  cinema.   She’d just commented that we had our own private viewing when a mother and her young son arrived.  It was term time and I thought it strange that he wasn’t in school.  Then the film started and I forgot about them.

A Monster Calls is about death and how a young boy comes to face a terrifying truth.  Both the book  and the film were written by Patrick Ness inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd, who died before she could realise it.   Both book and film share a dark, frightening world in which a young boy is visited by a monster who comes to him each night to tell him a story.   On the last night, the boy must tell the monster his own tale but it is a story that is too terrible for the boy to speak.

Both the film and the book are dark and the foreboding  atmosphere fills you with dread as you wait for the Monster’s arrival each night at the same time and the nightmarish landscapes which the boy must visit until the very last night when it is his turn to tell his own story.  In the film, Liam Neeson voices the Monster, his deep, booming voice vibrating through the terrifying world that the young boy, played by Lewis MacDougall, inhabits.    His mother is played by Felicity J0nes.  It’s no spoiler that the boy has to face his mother’s death and all that means to his world.

The language and visualisation is dramatic and dark.  As writers we have to find the best ways to tell a story that will affect our audience dramatically and the build in tension and fear is palpable in this film.  We know what is coming but we still remain in our seats, living our hero’s torment on the giant screen as it sucks us into his dark world, hoping that somehow he will escape his fate but knowing that he can’t.

In real life when we are faced with the spectre of death, our language is more restrained, the monsters are in our heads but we subdue and control them with civilised language when we tell their story.  Yet they never go away.  How do we talk about our own death though when we can see that it is imminent?   Steve Hewlett, a journalist with the BBC, used his training to tell his story from diagnosis to near death.   His words were quiet,  his message succinct but just as in the darkness of that cinema, I could not control my tears as I listened.   Here was a journalist plying his trade, delivering his message so that we could understand it, no melodrama, no self pity, for he knew that those of his listeners who were able to feel, would do so somewhere in the depths of themselves.  His words were not dramatic but the weight of them was as wounding as the images of Lewis MacDougall’s struggle in A Monster Calls.

When the lights went up in that auditorium at the turn of the year, the mother and son were no longer there.

You can listen to Steve Hewlett in the BBC podcast at the following link.  TheEddieMairInterview-20161121-SteveHewlettISeeMyConditionAsABitOfAStory.mp3(3.12MB)?  From:aod-pod-uk-live.akamaized.net

or Search The Eddie Mair Interviews on the BBC Website.

 

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Mirror, mirror on the wall …

Who is the fairest of them all?  If you’re an actor, anyone with access to a good make-up artist.   We take for granted that the people on the small screens in our living rooms or on the big screens in our cinemas are wearing make-up.  They’ve got to look perfect for the camera.  That’s what’s the audience expects but is it what they need, when the character being portrayed should look more like the person next door.

More and more female actors are refusing to wear make-up.  Sarah Lancashire in the UK crime drama series, “Happy Valley” appears without foundation just like any middle-aged policewoman might do in real life, when there’s more important things than lip gloss, like finding the killer or preventing a murder.

As Sheila Hancock pointed out in the MailOnline recently, more and more women actors “hardly wear any make-up at all and that’s why it looks so real.” She goes on to say “the public won’t notice that.” And she’s right, they won’t, because if it’s a good drama, they’ll be concentrating on the film but subconsciously it will filter through the different layers of the story telling. It will have a greater impact on the audience, on their emotions, and on their empathy for the character and long after the lights have gone up in the cinema and the TV screen gone blank, a small spark will keep the memory of what they’ve seen alive.

We still need heroes today, to look up to and emulate, whether they’re fictional or not.  However, when those heroes are coated in layers of make-up, with not a hair or eyelash out of place, how can you have anything in common with them and therefore how can the story have any real meaning?  Good stories should ripple out into our lives.   It’s why we tell them.  To make sense of our lives, we need to identify with the characters and it’s so much easier to do that without a layer of slap in between.

 

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Good versus Bad

Ever got into an argument about a film you thought was great and everyone else in the pub thought was rubbish? And you couldn’t defend your opinion? When I first started thinking about writing for the screen, I’d watch loads of films but couldn’t understand why some of them worked and others didn’t. And you need to understand because pub debates are fuelled by alcohol but also mainly emotion that’s been aroused by what you’ve seen.

When I’m trying to discover why something doesn’t work in a film, I follow Paula Milne’s advice:

“Take a bad film and a good film – in your own estimation, not anyone else’s – and apply this to both. Watch the first 10 to 15 minutes, then switch if off and think: What do I know? What have I been told? What’s the agenda of the film,? What’s at stake?  Who are the characters? Do I care? And do that every 15 minutes or half an hour until the end of the film …”

You’re going to watch films you’ve already seen so you have to stay focused but you’ll enjoy the good ones even more and understand why they work and the bad ones don’t.

The rest of Paula Milne’s advice is at http://www.ideastap.com/IdeasMag/the-knowledge/paula-milne-screenwriter

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Right brain, left brain, no brainer.

Pre-1980’s research into the brain appeared to show that people fall into two distinct camps – left brainers and right brainers. The left brain was  supposed to be the logical, problem solving side and was claimed by people who were good at maths and unemotional, whereas the right side was for all those airy fairy, creative types.  I rather liked the idea of being right brain – I was bad at Maths and good at dreaming.  Now I had an excuse for failing my Maths “O” level.  I wasn’t stupid – I was a creative genius but apparently not.

Smugness always comes before a fall.  Recent research shows that to be good at Maths, you need to use both sides of your brain.  Then just as us so-called right-brainers consoled ourselves that we were still better at language, this too has been blown out of the water, with the identification of a large language centre in the left brain that interprets actions and the world around us

Twenty years ago, I did a study with a class of Creative Writing students on their preferred learning styles – did they learn best from seeing, hearing or doing.  The younger students had very distinct preferences for a certain style, but the older the student the more likely they were to use all of the styles, not showing a preference for any particular one.   The conclusion I drew was that the older you are, the more used you become to accessing all areas of the brain, probably through a process of trial and error.  Humans will usually find the easiest way to do anything.  There was one older student though, who was a visual learner only.  He was the best writer in the group and his novel was very visual but he found it difficult to edit.  He couldn’t see the structure of his work.

So how can we as writers access all the areas of our brains?    It depends how you write.  Do you have an outline or do you,  like Francoise Sagan with “Bonjour Tristesse”, pour it all out verbatim on the page as you go?  If you have an innate sense of structure and drama, then possibly you don’t need an outline.  For anything other than a short story, I do.   If nothing else, it stops me repeating myself!

It also helps me to have a clearer idea of the whole story, so as I write I can ‘see’ it in my head and know what bit is where and why it’s there.    It’s helpful to know about structure –  a bit more than beginning, middle and end – where one ends and the next section begins and what event marks that ending/beginning – three act structure and not only for scripts – you can use it for any story.

And most important of all character biographies – and we’re not talking about what they like to eat or what size shoes they wear, unless it’s crucial to the plot.  It’s the psychology of your characters – what drives them, what are their fears, what are their nightmares?

Here’s a short exercise to get you analysing – write a one page synopsis of something you’ve read or watched in the last couple of days or something you’re working on yourself.  Three paragraphs, okay you can have long ones, one each for beginning, middle and end.  To do it, you have to identify the key points that tell the story – and only the key points and identify when each section ends and the next one begins  and what action causes it.  Happy whole-braining!

 

 

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