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Where is nowhere anyway?

Where is nowhere anyway?

“I’ve been writing for years, and still – I’m getting nowhere with my work!”

Is this you?

You started writing short scripts for the screen, hoping that the smaller budget possibility would help you get your script produced. It might have even worked. Maybe you could get your film seen in some festivals, or use it as a calling card for the bigger picture with agents and producers.

Maybe.

Your experience starts to grow. Your scripts start to become more about your voice as a writer; your characters, a projection of the worlds you want to create. Great! You keep going.

Soon, you’ve written at least five short scripts, a treatment for a high-concept, and a couple of indie-style features. You’ve got structure down, and you’re beginning to understand the importance (and the woe) of rewriting. It’s hard, but you do it anyway.

Then one day, you look at all of your hard work; the sweat, the tears, the joys; the paper trail that is the journey you have taken so far in your craft – and you realise… “Wait. I’m getting nowhere here.”

Your scripts are still locked away in a file on your desktop, or prettily bound in a plastic sleeve, neatly piled on the floor by your desk, or even lost in an email conversation somewhere with an agent’s assistant.

So where exactly is nowhere? Nowhere is hours of graft, piles of pages, hundreds of edits, proof-reads and rewrites, only to wind up with… well, a completed script, and a writer ready to collaborate but nobody is around to take on the task. Nowhere then, is no interest; no interest from agents, producers, directors. Nowhere is a script in hand in an empty room. Nowhere is, ‘what now?’

But here’s where we make the mistake. The empty room becomes our result. We look around and feel disappointed because we are suddenly ‘nowhere’. But the empty room is not the result at all. Take a look at what’s in your hand. This is the real result; the piece of work you have created and crafted and worried over until it finally became a joy to edit and proof. Of course, a script is never really finished until the film is made and the crew WRAP.

But the empty room is a counter-productive place to stay. It is too quiet to stick around. So take your work with you and leave. Send your work out into the world, without expectation and begin again.

You are nowhere. But where is nowhere anyway? Nowhere is to continue. It is to take a breath and keep going, keep working, experiencing and growing as a screenwriter. Nowhere is the place you build a portfolio of work.  Unless you stop; unless you become trapped inside that empty room, nowhere is not really ‘nowhere’ at all. There’s no such thing. Just keep opening doors. Not all of the rooms are empty. And while you’re looking around, keep writing.

Scriptwriting: If you’re in it for the money, rethink!

Why do you want to write films?

I love films. I love the art of visual storytelling. I love creating stories and characters, and I love exploring the nuances of human relationships and behaviours.

I want to write films that will move and engage audiences. I am passionate about creating stories through the medium of film.

Do I also write films because I want to earn a living this way? Of course. But making money from scriptwriting can not be my main motivation. Why? Because it is incredibly difficult to earn a living as a screenwriter.

Eventually, if you are persistent, it may become your reality. But to get there, you have to be willing to write script after script after script, without giving up when they don’t make it to the screen or onto an agent’s ‘yes’ pile. You have to have a passion for, and dedication to the process, even when it feels like you are writing for nobody but yourself; even when it feels like you’re pouring yourself out and getting nothing in return. And this will happen.

Just remember that none of what you write is a waste of time.

You may get a few rejections… more than a few. But you are learning from every script you write, every scene you restructure, every character you create. You are investing time and energy into your chosen craft and finding your voice. You are being a scriptwriter.

I’m not saying it’s easy; far from it actually. Just like any other who chooses an art form as a career, you will troll through blood, sweat, tears, too much coffee, too much sleep, not enough sleep, blank screens, crumpled notes, repetitive strain injury, doubt, more doubt, and maybe one too many of your favourite tipple from time to time. You might even have a couple of days where you question why you’re doing all of this; perhaps think about giving up. But here’s the true test: if you love writing films, you won’t give up. You will take a breath and keep going. Especially when you realise you’re not alone. The struggle is there for all of us. But we keep going too.

On the other hand, if you’re only in it for the money, you will give up.

So… love what you do. You don’t always have to enjoy every part of the process but if you love writing films, if you love creating stories and characters simply because you are passionate about doing so… just keep going.

It’s worth the effort.

Your screenplay deserves more time

Why does your screenplay need to go through a development process?

‘They’ say it all the time: “Writing is rewriting.” But what does that mean, exactly?

The first couple of feature scripts I wrote, I later abandoned with a feeling of defeat. The reason? I was impatient. I wanted my first draft (give or take a few tweaks here and there) to be the piece of work that I would send out to agents and producers. I had worked so hard on getting it there and so I figured: surely, it must be ready. But I’ll forgive myself for that naivety. I was still learning.

Forget the was. I am still learning. But during that ongoing process, what I have come to realise is this: If you want to get it right, give it time. If you have spent ages developing your characters, being attentive to the structure and to the story, you might breathe a sigh of relief when you finally finish the last scene of the screenplay. And that’s fine. Now is the time to give yourself a breather.

Take a week away from the script; let it settle. But keep in mind that your job as a screenwriter is only just beginning. Have a trusted reader look over your script. Ask them to be as critical/constructive as possible. Believe me, this is the stage at which constructive criticism will aid you most.

It is very unlikely that your first draft is going to be what your script deserves to become. I say ‘deserves’ because, if you have spent time planning and researching and plotting and writing, then you have made a commitment. Now is not the time to move on and hope you’ve done enough. Once that script is written, it’s time to pull it apart: go back, comb it through, make sure all the beats are in the right place. Does the script have the impact you know it can achieve? Can you make it better?

Rewriting can be the most difficult and frustrating part of the writing process. Especially if you’re overly keen to be sending your work on. But it is the most crucial part.

Many a time I have sent off a script when it was nowhere near ready. Later, I regretted it because I found out that the scripts had so much more to offer, and changed into something much more interesting than the piece of work I was too eager to send out. Like I said, I am still learning. But this particular lesson has been invaluable: Don’t rush. Be patient; give the script time to develop, change and become even stronger than you anticipated.

The script development process can bring things to the surface that may never have crossed your mind while planning and writing the first draft.  To give you a better idea of what I mean, how about a step-by-step example?

My latest feature script required a whole new planning process during the rewriting stage, which is still ongoing. So, here’s the step-by-step of my own screenplay development process:

  • Initial planning
Make notes...

Make notes…...LOTS of them!…LOTS of them!

  • Turning the plan into a treatment
  • Following the treatment as a guide to writing the script
  • Finishing the first draft
  • Making a few tweaks to the first and second drafts
  • Seeking feedback
  • Making big changes, such as deleting a central character, giving more emotional depth to the arc of the protagonist, and so on.
  • Seeking more feedback
  • Making decisions to strengthen the script, such as: changing the gender of the protagonist, deleting another two characters, concentrating on yet more struggle and emotional pay-off for the protagonist, reviewing the order of the beats.
Be brutal

Be brutal

  • A total restructure – Planning again
Using planning techniques to re-structure your script

Using planning techniques to re-structure your script

  • Writing a draft beat sheet
Note down your screenplay's beats using the new structure you have created

Note down your screenplay’s beats using the new structure you have created

  • Turning this into a visual, colour-coded story arc table
  • Using the colour-coded table to highlight gaps and structural clumsiness
Visualising the story arc

Visualising the story arc

  • Structuring a final beat sheet
Your beat sheet becomes a guide for your rewrite

Your beat sheet becomes a guide for your rewrite

  • Rewriting the script with all of the changes in place.
Making Changes

Making Changes

And this is where I am now. Once I rewrite the final scene and sharpen the dialogue (cutting any over-writing and/or clumsy exposition) I will, again, seek critical feedback. But having gone through the script development journey, I now know I am closer to the end result.

Writing is rewriting

Writing is rewriting

So rewriting, in a sense, is like an ongoing planning process. But unlike your initial script plan, this time you have more material to go from and a clearer sense of direction. It takes time. But if you are dedicated to your story, to your characters, and to the film you hope your script will become, it is essential that you allow the script time to develop properly. Agents and producers aren’t going anywhere. They’d much rather see a script that had been given time and investment by a writer who understands their craft, than hear from a writer too eager to do the screenplay justice.

Need to know more about where to start when you are planning a script? Take a look at our YouTube video.

The Final Draft… Is there such a thing?

I’ve just enjoyed a telephone conversation with writer/director, Paul Fraser, on the latest draft of my feature script. We talked about the usual points when in development on a screenplay: cutting characters, stripping back dialogue, building the necessary beats needed to create relationships, conflict and pay-off.

Development is all about exploring your options; looking at the ‘what if’ scenarios: what if this character were to be killed off, or this other character played a bigger role in the story? What if this scene was cut altogether? What if you revealed this information later on, or in a different way? If the answer to your ‘what if’, when you strip it to a minimum, is ‘it will make the story stronger, more intriguing, more emotional’ or if it has a positive effect on the script in any sense, then it is worth exploring in your next draft.

A great way to get perspective on the ‘what if’ scenarios, is to seek feedback. Ask someone to read your current draft. But make sure you ask someone who will give you constructive feedback and criticism, for example: another writer, director or producer, a tutor or a writers group.

If you want to be a writer, you must learn how to take criticism. In fact, learn to enjoy seeking constructive feedback, because it is a huge part of developing your script. Learn to take advice by using your best judgement. By this, I mean try to take into account, everything that is suggested and asked about your script. Then ask, ‘what if?’ Only where you believe that the answer will have a positive impact on the story/characters as a whole, should you explore these options. And it’s worth spending a good amount of time thinking about the feedback before you make your decisions. Don’t dismiss anything straight away: question it, let it simmer for a while, and see where it takes you.

The more you enter into the screenwriting development process, the more you will pick up hints and tips that will help you when you come to write your next project. You will start to get a better sense of when to take a step back and ask for someone to critique your work.

But how do you know when you have written the final draft? Will there be a time when you know for sure that a script is ready, final, complete? Well, from personal experience, and from chatting to other writers about their experiences, the short answer is, no – probably not.

Most likely, there will always be something in your script that you can change, or something you can cut. After practice, you might be able to start sensing when a script is ‘almost there’ and trust your own judgement as to how far it has left to go. But, in my opinion, a writer can never really say that a script is ‘final’. And that’s fine. As a writer for performance, the thing to remember is that you are part of a collaboration. The script will continue to change, even once you have submitted it to a director, or a producer, as a ‘final draft’. That’s because the nature of scriptwriting is one of building the foundations for the process of production. And production will add changes to the final outcome – the film.

The script is not intended to be the end result.

But this doesn’t mean you should settle for a piece of work that seems ‘OK’. You should still always strive to get that draft as ‘final’ as it can possibly feel. Why? Because this is your craft; your creation. It should be allowed to grow and develop and strengthen, with every option explored. Your script may be the starting point, the ‘foundation’. But foundations have to be strong and reliable if they are going to be built upon.

So, my advice is to look at it like this: be flexible. When you think you’re at the final draft, seek feedback. When you have explored the ‘what if’ scenarios and exhausted them, trust that you’re almost there, and take a chance on your own judgement.

 

I’m off to the cinema… to read!

I have heard people say that you can’t be a good writer if you do not read, read, and then read some more.

Well, that all depends on what you are writing, and how you choose to learn your craft. If you set out to write a novel, then yes, it might be foolish to have never picked up a piece of fiction and read it through. It’s a good investment for writers to spend the time looking at what other writers have produced. But, if you’re like me, perhaps you don’t need to take the act of ‘reading’ as literally as it sounds.

I am dyslexic.

I don’t enjoy reading novels. I can just about get through when reading non-fiction; something that is instructive, something I’m reading because I need to know how to get from A to B. But reading stories, no matter their quality, no matter how gripping their plot and characters, is a struggle. It feels like hard work, and it feels like I am being forced to wade through words, when all I want to do is close my eyes and let them slide into my mind effortlessly, like music. I envy people who can get through a couple of books a week. It must be a joy to read for pleasure. But some of us don’t find it so enjoyable. So, to those people, as I say, it’s fine to take the advice, but don’t take it so literally. There are other possibilities.

What I mean is, what can reading be for people who struggle with the process? What is reading, to you?

It can be a number of things. ‘Reading’ can be listening (audio-books, radio dramas, radio comedy, recorded stand-up sets, pod casts, and so on) and it can be watching (movies, TV dramas, comedies, and the endless amount of audio-visual fiction and factual available online). ‘Reading’ can mean engaging in discussion and debate, listening to a lecture, watching a play, hearing an influential speaker, observing the sounds and sights around you, anywhere, any time.

There is a reason that The Scriptwriters Academy has a YouTube channel, and a reason you are able to contact the author directly.

Because reading is not just sitting down and diving into a good book. Read what you love. Read in the way that supports your learning, and read the things that are a joy to ‘read’ – whatever form they may take.

To close this blog entry, I am going to publish a short monologue of mine, which was performed as part of Whispering Theatre, at 2013’s DYSPLA festival. (A festival which showcases the work of dyslexic artists and story makers). Be Loud!

Be Loud! By Melanie Hunter

“I firmly believe that if you are not a reader, you will never be a good writer. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.”

That’s what she said. And because it was written and published, people will believe it.

Y’know, we might not like to think about it, but we grow up believing people for reasons like: they’re older than us, they’re teaching us, they’re successful or powerful, or charismatic.

But what if I believed her? What if other people like me still believe her? What if you do? I mean, I dunno, you might agree. You’re free to, of course.

But… “Never”, she said. You’ll NEVER be a good writer if you’re not a reader. No room for argument. Would you argue with that?

I mean, she’s an intelligent lady. She’s successful. She seems to know the industry. It would be very easy to believe her.

But then I remember…

A wide vocabulary doesn’t always equal an inspiring story. The written word is not the only place to be moved by the creation of a beautiful, flawed character, or lost in a powerful journey. Attention to detail doesn’t just mean constructing the perfect sentence.

I want to tell people not to believe her. Especially those like me: the non-readers who write anyway; with passion, inspired by story, spoken word, a visual world, the world of feeling… of being moved.

I want to tell them: read stories if you love to read. But if it hurts, and if the words scramble in front of you, stop. Look around and be inspired by other things. The world is vast, and creativity – immeasurable.

I want to remind them to forget the ‘how’ and remember the ‘what’. How you write is only a means to an end, but what you write, and what you create, and the passion and guts it takes to expose the ‘what’ to the world… that’s where you should live.

I want to stand up and tell them to live inside the things that they believe.

Because you know what?

We’re louder than we think.

Are Screenwriting Courses Worthwhile?

OK, so it might seem that my take on this topic is obvious. After all, I have attended courses, and I have written a screenwriting course of my own. So, I suppose, in answer to the header, I will sit on the ‘yes’ side of the fence. However, I will say this – they won’t be for everyone.

Let’s put it this way: do you need to take a screenwriting course to write your first screenplay, or even to write scripts for a living? Well…No. And the proof is out there. It’s all about personal choice, and what you need, as a writer, to help you get from one step to the other.

For me, taking courses and reading self-study books was the best way to learn. It meant that I could give myself structure, I could progress through something and come out at the end feeling like I had the information and experience I needed to move forward. It was good to be given practical exercises, so that I could put my learning on paper, and review what I had done. For me, it was all about practising the craft – learning all of the elements that make a script what it is, and why they are important.

But what I would advise to aspiring screenwriters just starting out, is this: Look at all of your options and consider how you work best. Maybe watching films, reading scripts and joining writing communities will be enough to figure out what you want to write and how you need to write it. Perhaps a few self-study books will help give you some structure and additional hints and tips. It’s all about what works for you – it’s your process, it’s your work.

Perhaps you have the time and money to take a university or college course – that is something to consider, as the feedback and collaborative opportunities with fellow students, and maybe even with actors and directors, can offer invaluable experience. But there are alternatives. Not everyone has the time or bank balance to go down the qualification road. And, as I said earlier, it’s not an essential requirement. You can find collaboration and feedback opportunities elsewhere: writers groups, film festivals, social media – you can still find the experience you need, if you do your homework.

So, the way I would conclude my opinion is this: yes, I think screenwriting courses can certainly be worthwhile, but only if this is the road you want to and can afford to take. University and college courses are what you allow them to be. They can be an experience in which you immerse yourself in the opportunity to seek criticism, learn from others, listen to fellow students about their own experiences, network, and reflect. In a similar way, self-study books can give you practical experiences as you learn. They can offer advice, point you in the right direction, give you a solid foundation to work from.

It’s good to know the basics: the formula for creating a strong protagonist, the difference between simply writing a story, and writing a story for a visual medium, how the classical narrative works, and so on. So, no matter how you go about it: a course, a book, living in the cinema, reading the thousand movie scripts that you’ve downloaded online… seek this information as a starting point. It’s the best place to start!