Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Poll: Writing Education and Training

As regular readers of this blog know, I am a fan of writing workshops, classes, books and festivals. I think that while people have natural inclinations towards particular talents, these talents can be enhanced through learning, knowledge sharing, and practice.

I'm sure most people would agree that doctors need medical education and constant training, but what about actors, artists, writers? Is talent alone enough to succeed, or can your career in this increasingly competitive world be bettered by learning?

I thought I'd set up a poll to see what others think. It's probably best geared towards screenwriters, but I'd like to invite all writers to participate. The poll is on the left hand side of the blog, under my profile, and has a variety of options for you to choose from. I've enabled multiple option selection, so please do click any that apply to you. (I'm not sure how easy it will be to interpret multiple options but that's for me to worry about!)

Question: What level of writing education have you undertaken/would consider undertaking?

  1. Postgraduate education: screenwriting MA's, PGDips, creative writing MA's, etc
  2. Undergraduate education: English degrees, writing degrees, etc
  3. Writing Courses: for instance, 10 weeks of screenwriting nightclasses, intense weekend courses, Writer Academys, etc
  4. Occasional Workshops, Seminars, Masterclasses: such as the Adrian Mead, Raindance or Script factory workshops, or perhaps at Book, Film or Screenwriting festivals
  5. Writing books and guides: such as Robert McKee's Story, Stephen King's On Writing, William Goldman's Which Lie Did I Tell etc.
  6. Studied existing scripts or books: you can learn a lot from what's already been written
  7. Transferable experience: perhaps you are an actor, director or producer who has studied scripts, an editor or publisher who knows the business, etc. Also, I spelled this one incorrectly on the poll but I can't change it...
  8. None: you can't learn anything about writing from other people. If you have it, you have it.
I think there is room for more answers to this question, so if you have gained valuable knowledge in other ways please leave a comment on this post. For instance, I gained a lot from my very first bout of script feedback, but I had to know how to at least format a script before sending it out to people. Additionally, if you have attended classes or read books but have seriously learned nothing from the experiences, please say.

I'll keep the poll open for one week - so until 12:00 GMT Tuesday 7th April.

I'd love to hear your views.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Graham Linehan Masterclass

Friday 13th saw me in Glasgow for the 2009 Scottish Students on Screen event. Have to be honest and say that the event wasn't really for me in the end and I left very early, however the Graham Linehan masterclass was the real pull and I managed to fight my way in to that.

As you would expect from a writer on shows like Father Ted, the Fast Show, Black Books and the IT Crowd, he was an intelligent and funny speaker and genuinely interesting to listen to. I took a lot of notes which I thought I'd pass on here. I've typed them up in the order I took them so they might not flow brilliantly, but they are as near to his words as I could scribble...


The character of Ted was created with writing partner Arthur Mathews in a U2 spoof band. Arthur and Graham got started by sending unsolicited sketches to Smith and Jones. From there they were called in, got an agent and it all steamrollered.

He can't write unless he knows there's an audience, or (he changed his mind) he's being paid for it, as payment adds to the pressure and means you have to do it.

He feels that he developed his writing muscles with Father Ted as he was able to use the wide armoury of jokes he had gathered from his time on Smith and Jones - visual gags, quick jokes, and the talking heads of Dougal and Ted.

Father Ted remains his most rewarding experience as a writer, as he was writing with Arthur and thought Arthur was funnier than he was. He was also a bit scared of him, as Arthur was 10 years older. He felt he had to up his game and make what Arthur had already written even funnier, and make the story better, to prove himself.

He thought Ted was a good character as we already make so many assumptions about priests, so simply by a character wearing the outfit we hit the ground running, and a lot of the character work can be easier done.

For sketches and sitcoms, think of a situation that people think they know about but don't really know about. (He was talking about this mainly in relation to the Fast Show characters Ted and Ralph.)

A bit of warmth in a comedy is a good thing to have.

Writers can work best with audience restrictions - TV Burp has to appeal to one of the most potentially easily offended audiences on tv and is one of the funniest shows on. He thinks there is too much reliance on swearing and lewd humour in British sitcoms, and that often the sex situations don't seem real enough to happen, therefore aren't funny.

Don't write down to audiences and explain everything, write up - your audience will understand what is going on in time.

When you see something on TV that's really, really good, you should watch it lots and absorb it. He famously did this with Seinfeld when writing Black Books. He thinks the Simpsons is good for this too - one thing he took from the Simpsons was the idea of starting with something shockingly unlike the rest of the episode.

He has a fear of writing negative women in case he does it badly, as he says that 'women are mysteries for men'. He hated the trend a few years back of women characters in sitcoms who just came into a scene and commented on how silly the men were, and never wants to write a character like that. Despite this fear of writing negative women, he admits that Mrs Doyle is the best female character that they (he and Arthur) have written - she's not an ideal of a woman but of how the Catholic Church treated women, and how some women acquiesced with this view and allowed themselves to be negative figures.

There's an idea that if you're not typing, then you're not writing, but that's bull***t. (He swore there, of course, didn't actually say *.) Thinking about what you are going to write and planning it in your head is part of it.

He recommends StumbleUpon as a good way of finding out more about something you are writing, or getting inspiration. (If you've not used it before, check it out, there's a firefox add on which is great fun). He searches for terms - eg airplane - and sees what amazing web pages are returned.

He scribbles down lines, scenes, prop ideas, characters etc on cue cards as he thinks of something. When he has 100 he likes to lay them all out and find connections for episodes.

He likes to have three big funny moments worked out before he starts to write an episode, as he thinks it gives you the confidence to write the whole thing. If you are writing a scene which is a bit dull, you know you're going to get to the funny bit soon. When rewriting you might find the scenes aren't as funny as you thought, but they propelled you through the first draft so were useful.

You need to know your characters inside out, before you even write anything. He recommended checking out the Indiana Jones character PDF which is going about just now as a great example of a well worked out character. This particular comment was in relation to an audience question - one boy found that he couldn't link the funny bits in his sitcom together. Graham suggested that this was down to not knowing what the characters were going to do or say.

He's not a great fan of treatments, particularly not if you want to send something in for a producer to read. He reckons that if you are at all fired up about the project then you should write the script.

He says not to worry about copyrighting everything as people don't steal ideas. He says that a producer wants to find the right person to work with, not a script to steal.


Hope that's of interest.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Birds Eye View Festival 2009

I went to the Birds Eye View festival screenings in Edinburgh yesterday. A selection of 5 short films by female directors were shown, followed by some networking (which I didn't go to).

Quite often I'll attend short film events and not click with everything on show. It's quite a personal medium, and can be a very self indulgent one, so one persons ideal short can be another persons idea of nonsense. Last year's EIFF saw me attend a few short screenings: one in particular made me want to gouge my eyes out and plug my ears with them just so I wouldn't be subjected to some of the films any more.

Yesterday's Birds Eye View films shown were:
  • Love You More - an energetic, raunchy short about two teenagers
  • Sanctuary - a very moving documentary animation about an asylum seeker in the UK
  • Trip - about a dad taking his two daughters to the beach
  • Good Morning, My Sun! - a documentary short about an energetic elderly lady in Kyrgyz
  • August 15th - adapted from a true story about a young Chinese woman on a fateful bus trip
(I don't want to give anything away plot wise!)

The films were universally good - all but Good Morning, My Sun! were polished affairs (the rough translation and shambolic pacing in this mirrored the woman's home, whether or not this was intentional I don't know, but it lent it some charm).

I'd be hard pressed to find a favourite... Love You More was probably the highest calibre film, but August 15th is the one that has stayed with me. I'd watch them all again, and wish them all success in the festival circuits.

There are more events in London running over the next few days, and Potdoll has typed up some interesting notes from the Mary Harron masterclass.

Thursday, March 05, 2009


I'm on IMDB.

***End of boast***

Ahem. Well, I can't go into much detail about the film I'm credited against just now, but when it's released I will tell you all about it. At this point I can tell you that it was produced and directed by the multi-talented Victoria Thomas, with Mona Hammond and Una McLean as our lovely leading ladies.

(It's weird - I'm both embarassed and excited to be telling you about this. I'm not very good at proper self promotion, you know.)

Between the Skillset careers interview I have lined up, a catchup with old and new friends from the Screen Academy on Saturday, and this, I am feeling far peppier about Screenwriting than I was a couple of months ago. I'm going to redraft one of my scripts (the one which did ok in the last Red Planet Prize) when I have finished the next novel rewrite, and get it OUT there. No more putting things off, just because I'm not confident. I will feign it from now on.