Writers: plugging yourself to strangers with misguided confidence… My Writing Diary – Ten Years On: Thursday 27th April, 2006

My day job is with the wonderful Orion Publishing Group in the sales department. I’ve been there since 2003 and through work have met some remarkable people. Indeed one of the reasons I started keeping a diary was because with my feeble mind for names I was losing track of some of them and it’s always handy to look back and double check.

I’m always meeting authors and agents, but ten years ago it was fairly unusual for me to meet anyone from the film world, and I’m afraid that when a film or TV producer entered the building it would take every ounce of what little professionalism I had to stop myself from pouncing on them, yelling “READ MY SCRIPT! GIVE ME MONEY! I WANT TO MAKE STAR WARS!”

However, as you’ll see, on this occasion I had an in: I knew someone who knew these people… My friend Simon worked as an editor in the same building as them… once… ages ago… Well, it was better than nothing.

Thursday 27th April, 2006

Ian Sharples and Rod Brown, the producers of the forthcoming TV version of THE HOGFATHER came in today. Their director is Vadim Jean and they all remember working in the same building as Simon in Wandsworth (I should point out that Vadim wasn’t there today – he was asleep after a night shoot). They remembered Simon fondly. I had to mention my near-miss with Vadim many years ago. I suppose I was 17 (just after he released LEON THE PIG FARMER). Simon gave me Vadim’s details and I sent him my CV begging for work as only an actor can… and Vadim called me back!

Except I was out.

Dad took the call, and the number, and for some idiotic reason I never called Vadim back.

Still, I got both Ian and Rod’s details and gave my script THE LAST TIME MACHINE a hearty plug!

The idiotic reason for not calling Vadim…? Shyness? Lack of confidence? A feeling that I wasn’t ready? God knows. I wouldn’t hesitate today. And having had a few writers ask me for advice (me?? Yes, really) I’ve been only too happy to dole out what guidance I can, and I’m sure Vadim would have too.

If you’re an aspiring writer and you have questions and you find yourself offered an opportunity to ask for advice, take it! Be polite, don’t outstay your welcome, but don’t be frightened. And if you meet producers or directors and have something to pitch, then choose your moment carefully. There’s nothing worse than some writer derailing a conversation with an ill-timed pitch (like I did here). Ask for the best way to get in touch, or if it’s possible to get a meeting. That way everyone can relax and you get to pitch to someone who’s receptive to your ideas, and not defensive like cornered prey.

I do meet Vadim again one day, but that comes in a future instalment of this diary…

 

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My workshops at the Epsom & Ewell Arts Festival in June

I’m delighted to be part of the inaugural Epsom & Ewell Arts Festival this June! There are oodles of activities to choose from including music, art and literature.

I’ll be running a couple of screenwriting workshops. One for children, one for adults.

First up for the kids…

THE HERO’S JOURNEY – YOUNG SCREENWRITERS’ WORKSHOP

 

screenwriting workshop mgso4 arts festival
Event date:
Saturday, 25 June 2016 – 11:30am
Artist:

Author and screenwriter Mark Stay

Venue:
Epsom Library, Ebbisham Centre.
Ticket price:
£6.50
Book now

Join professional screenwriter Mark Stay for a fun workshop where we’ll look at the ‘Hero’s Journey’, how one page of script becomes a finished scene, and we’ll create our own story using ideas and methods explored during the session. .

Mark Stay wrote the screenplay for the film Robot Overlords, released in 2014, starring Gillian Anderson and Ben Kingsley.

Robot Overlords is set in a world where Earth has been invaded by an occupying force of robots from another world. Every citizen has an implant in their neck that alerts the robots if you step outside. You get one warning… then you’re vaporised!

Suitable for ages 10-12.
Epsom Library, Learning Centre.

Mark will be signing copies of his original novel Robot Overlords after the event.

Event access:
Wheelchair accessible
Then, for anyone 13+ …

‘FROM PAGE TO SCREEN’

WRITING WORKSHOP

 

Mark Stay MGSO4 arts festival 2016
Event date:
Saturday, 25 June 2016 – 4:15pm
Artist:

Screenwriter Mark Stay

Venue:
Bourne Hall, Ewell
Ticket price:
£10
Book now

Join professional screenwriter Mark Stay for a scriptwriting workshop and fascinating insider look at the development of a screenplay. Discover how one page of a screenplay becomes a finished film via storyboards, rehearsal, pre-viz, shooting, VFX, scoring through to the final scene.

Mark Stay wrote the screenplay for the film Robot Overlords, released in 2014, starring Gillian Anderson and Ben Kingsley.

Suitable for ages 13+.

Mark will be signing copies of his original novel Robot Overlords after the event.

Event access:
Wheelchair accessible

When the Ideas Pixies steal one of yours… My Writing Diary – Ten Years On: 25th April 2006

There are times when a writer will have a fantastic idea for a story, only for the Ideas Pixies — mischievous sprites in the pay of big Hollywood studios — to come in the middle of the night, pluck it from your brain and give it to someone like, I dunno, Tom Cruise, who can have the whole thing packaged and announced in Variety before you can even sharpen your pencils.

The first time this happened to me was when I was still acting. I had watched a documentary on two rival snipers during the siege of Stalingrad in WWII, and I made a note to start researching it, as it was a fantastic idea for a movie.

The next morning – the VERY NEXT MORNING! – I received a casting report for a film called ENEMY AT THE GATES, based on the true story of two rival snipers during the siege of Stalingrad in WWII.

The Ideas Pixies had struck!

Looking back at my diary, I find that they returned ten years ago today. I had been working on an epic science fiction time travel script called THE LAST TIME MACHINE (LTM in the diaries). It had started with an idea called THE LOCAL LOONEY, about a man babbling in the High Street about travelling through time, and it evolved into a much more mainstream idea about a girl who befriends this poor fellow, realises it’s her supposedly dead father who’s travelled back through time and is trying to stop his rival from activating the machine and destroying the universe. A rip opens in time and modern London is deluged with dinosaurs, Roman Legions, and the Luftwaffe, and there’s a neat side plot about a Hyde Park gig with legendary dead musicians including Jimi Hendrix. It was big and ambitious and would never get made, but I was hoping that it would be my calling card and a gateway to getting paid work on an actual movie. Then, getting home from a long day flying to and from Edinburgh for the day job, this happened…

TUESDAY 25TH APRIL, 2006

The evening ended depressingly when reading SFX on the loo – there’s a new TV series being filmed with Douglas Henshall called PRIMEVAL – it’s about people fighting dinosaurs coming through tears in the fabric of the universe… Basically, a major part of LTM. Initially, I thought it was a year’s work down the Swanee, but on reflection it just means another rewrite. I’ll send my agent an email…

Yes, there’s no better place to receive bad news than on the crapper. Later that night…

Had a text conversation with my agent. She’s going to look at the SFX article and call me tomorrow. She read LTM and loved it, so there’s hope yet.

Spoke to (fellow writer) Steve. His reply, “May I suggest the word bollocks?”

WEDNESDAY 26TH APRIL, 2006

Spoke to my agent about LTM. We agreed that the dinosaurs will probably have to go, but the main thrust of the story will not be affected. She really enjoyed it and felt I should make more of the parallel universes. I’m going to email her some dates and we’ll meet soon.

So, there we have it. Firm evidence that Ideas Pixies are real… Or, it could be that every now and then writers will have vaguely similar ideas, especially so in science fiction where the same tropes crop up again and again. I continued writing LTM, but other events happened later in the year that meant I would put it to one side. There’s a draft in a folder somewhere, and maybe one day I’ll dust it off? Primeval has been and gone in the meantime (a show we loved, by the way – great family viewing!).

What should a writer do when you discover that someone else is developing an idea similar to yours? If you’re starting out and writing a sample then maybe you’ll say screw ’em and carry on anyway. Why not? Sometimes you’ll find that your take is sufficiently different. After all, there have been rival asteroid movies, Robin Hood adventures, volcano disaster epics and Jungle Books, and whose to say that yours isn’t the better version?

Sometimes you’re just screwed, particularly if you’re writing for a producer; the idea really might be just too close to the bone for them, and your rivals may already in pre-production and you haven’t even finished your second draft. You have to shrug, put it down to experience and move on. Not easy, but it’s happened to me a couple of times, and I’m sure it’s happened to plenty of others.

Oh, and whatever you do, don’t try and sue them for stealing your idea. They didn’t. And the Ideas Pixies have better lawyers than you anyhow.

Stay tuned for another revealing diary entry soon…

 

 

Ten Years On: My writing diary – Tuesday 18th to Thursday 20th April 2006

The first script of mine that ever got any serious industry attention, and made me any kind of money, was a ghost story called WAITING FOR EDDIE. I’d originally written it as a one-act play which I had staged at the Leatherhead Drama Festival the previous year.

The premise is that Eddie has been killed by his girlfriend Sam and comes back as a ghost to torment her and find out why she murdered him. Meanwhile, poor Sam is coming to terms with having committed such a terrible crime, and then not only does she have to deal with her boyfriend’s ghost, but has to put up with his ex suddenly turning up on her doorstep.

It was a nicely twisted black comedy on the stage, and I thought it would translate well onto film, and my script agent got it into the hands of a producer called Dean Fisher whose company Scanner-Rhodes optioned it for the princely sum of £100 (£85 to me after agent’s commission). My first ever money earned as a screenwriter… eventually. As you’ll see from my snarky note below, the cheque took some time getting to me, apparently lingering at the bottom of an agent’s in-tray for several months.

Dean was one of my early mentors in the world of film. He’s very adept at producing low-budget movies that have a targeted market, with international appeal, that make money for their investors through EIS schemes, a crucial business initiative for any independent filmmaker. He felt that WAITING FOR EDDIE could work as a low-budget horror, and his enthusiasm and encouragement got me through many a rewrite and improved the script immensely, moving it on from its stage roots and making it properly cinematic.

There’s some light editing here, and some names have been redacted to protect the innocent (mainly my agents), and for the first time in these diaries you’ll see mentions of my wife Claire (who starred as Sam in the original stage production) and my friend and fellow writer Steve Mayhew…

Tuesday 18th April, 2006

Script agent emailed me today and told me that my book agent has had my WAITING FOR EDDIE money since November… it’s only £85, but it doesn’t instil me with much confidence.

Wednesday 19th April, 2006

Got an email from Dean Fisher at Scanner Rhodes to tell me that he’s taking WFE to Cannes to find funding. That’s bloody script’s better travelled than me!

Thursday 20th April, 2006

I had a proper read of the Scanner-Rhodes business plan. It’s incredibly thorough. 56 pages long and minutely detailed (down to the £120 they’re going to spend on stationery), but the basic gist is; invest in four films over five years, then the company will be wound-up and everyone gets their money. But, for me, the most exciting and important bit was the production timetable. If everything goes to plan WAITING FOR EDDIE will be in cinemas Summer 2008!

I can already see the trailer and Claire is picking out a frock for the premiere. But, in an email exchange with Steve, we decided the best thing would be to enjoy this moment and then file it all away in a big box marked ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’

Well, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that it’s still in that box, gathering dust in the attic of my mind with a bunch of other unmade scripts. But my script had been optioned! I had earned some money (eventually)! And for the first time I felt like I could actually call myself a writer. I know that getting paid for writing shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of writing, but it did put a smile on my face and a skip in my step.

And the process of developing that script over the next year or so taught me an incredible amount and put me in touch with some amazing people, not least a film director who had some very cool short films to his name and was hoping to make his breakthrough feature debut… Mr. Jon Wright.

Stay tuned for another thrilling instalment…!

Ten Years On: My writing diary – Saturday 15th April 2006

I started keeping a diary ten years ago this month! It was partly to help me sleep at nights (I had a theory that putting the day’s events on paper would help… which it does… a bit) and partly to keep track of writing projects I’d submitted.

I mention two projects. A play called BAN THIS FILTH! which I had staged at my local theatre and thought I could adapt for radio, and a children’s book called MORRIS MINOR AND THE ABOMINABLE CHALET OF DOOM.

This was at an exciting but uncertain time for me. I had two agents – one for books, one for scripts – but was still struggling to figure out what kind of writer I was (something I’m still trying to work out, to be honest), hence the identity crisis.

There’s some light editing here, and some names have been changed or redacted to protect the innocent.

SATURDAY 15th APRIL, 2006

Two – count ’em – two! rejection letters in the post this morning. The first was for a pitch I sent to BBC radio for ‘Ban This Filth’. Fair enough. I only have the fuzziest memory of sending the pitch, so I’m not too fussed about that one (although… the shite they have on the radio sometimes…).

The second one was the real gutter. <A MAJOR PUBLISHER> said no to ‘Morris’. It was a pleasant enough rejection (‘We liked it… however…’ – I’m going to put those words on my bloody gravestone) but my agent is comparing me to Jeremy Strong (too young!) so anyone reading it is prepped for a completely different kind of book. Mind you, the rejecting editor did use words like ‘crazy’ and ‘zanier’ (is that even a word?), so I reckon I’ve had a lucky escape.

I’m not entirely sure my agent likes me, either… the rejection letter was forwarded with a blank compliment slip… No ‘Chin up… there’s plenty more fish in the sea!’ Nothing. It’s almost like an ‘I told you so’ from them. Someone needs to work on their people skills.

Ah, rejection. I like to think I cope with it a little better these days. For me, there are four stages to rejection: furious anger, blind denial, dismal depression, then a calm acceptance. I try to skip straight to the final stage if possible.

Needless to say, I’m no longer with that agent (stay tuned for the diary entry when they drop me!). And, despite my bitter accusatory tone, it’s not a fault of theirs that it wasn’t working. We were just wrong for each other. They had a fixed idea of what kind of writer I was, and I didn’t have the first clue. No wonder there was a clash. Finding your voice is one of the most important things for a writer. I clearly had some way to go…

Great podcasts for screenwriters…

I love me a podcast. On my daily commute, any long(ish) drive or walk, or when I’m doing the ironing or washing up, I’ll plug in and absorb news and information like Neo in the Matrix. Well, I like to think that’s how my mind works, though the reality is I need the same ideas reinforced again and again and again, and podcasts are a great way of doing that.

Many of the podcasts I listen to are writing- or film-related, and I thought I would share them with you now (and yes, I did something similar a couple of years ago, but these are updated and I have a handful of new additions)…

You can get all of these on iTunes or whatever podcast software you use for free, but it’s well worth having a look at their related blogs and Twitter feeds too.

Scriptnotes with John August and Craig Mazin:

 

@johnaugust

@clmazin

There’s never been a better time to get on board with this one, as the latest episode is a Spring Break clip show, essentially a greatest hits. Click here to listen.

What sets these guys apart from the Syd Fields and Robert McKees of this world, is they’re actually working as writers in the film industry, so they can talk with authority about how the industry works today. They cover everything from writing techniques, to agents, managers, lawyers, the WGA, writing software (don’t get Craig started on the vagaries of Final Draft!), and even typefaces and fonts (John August also develops apps). It’s been running for quite a few years now, and the most recent 20 episodes are free, and the backlist is only available via the premium feed, or you could buy a USB stick with all the episodes. It’s worth it: this is cheaper than any seminar or writers’ retreat and far more useful.

Scriptwriting in the UK with Danny Stack and Tim Clague:

@scriptwritingUK

Danny has one of the best UK scriptwriting blogs out there, and, in this monthly podcast, he and Tim Clague cover all aspects of writing for the screen: film, TV and games. And, most astonishingly, they actually went and made their own children’s film, WHO KILLED NELSON NUTMEG? which premiered at the London Film Festival. An incredible achievement, and an experience that has informed their podcast ever since.

This is invaluable for insights into the UK film and TV industry, and they’ve interviewed the likes of Tony Jordan, Chris ChibnallAndrew Ellard, and yours truly (if I sound like I’m at the bottom of a well, it’s because it was recorded via Skype in a glass room!)

The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith:

@yogoldsmith

Jeff gets an amazing roster of writers talking at great length about how they started, their careers and their latest film. This is American too, but he gets loads of British writers on the show. These are often recorded after a screening, and the audience get to ask questions.

He previously presented the Creative Screenwriting podcast, which no longer seems to be on iTunes, but I’m sure you can find it if you go digging online. They were terrific, essentially the same format, but presented in association with the magazine Creative Screenwriting.

Filmsack:

Not a podcast about writing, but these guys love popcorn movies. They watch them on Netflix (which can skew what kinds of movies are available) then get together over Skype to dissect them. They’re really good at pointing out tropes and plot holes, which is invaluable for a writer. The earlier episodes on films like Superman and Wrath of Khan are outstanding.

Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review:

@wittertainment

Probably the best film show on radio. It goes through phases of being overly self-referential, but Kermode is passionate and really knows his stuff, and Mayo keeps him in line, and it’s a weekly lesson in how intelligent, informed audiences will react to movies.  Hello to Jason Isaacs.

Empire:

I bloody love Empire, and this podcast is huge fun, but it’s the spoiler specials that are particularly good for writers as the gang will often dissect the story in minute detail. The epic Chris McQuarrie Mission Impossible spoiler special (nearly three hours long!) is an incredibly frank look at how a blockbuster gets made. Gold:

 

 

The BAFTA Screenwriters’ Lecture Series:

More of an annual event than a regular podcast, these are live lectures recorded for podcasts, and so there are references to clips that the listener doesn’t get to see, but there are some very experienced and wise minds dispensing advice here and you’d be a fool to miss out!

Film Nuts

Filmmaker Mustapha Kseibati shares his colossal passion for film in this series of interviews with UK writers and directors. And it’s the only place where you’ll here me get excited about the Dad’s Army film. Mus’ is a busy man, so there aren’t as many of these as I’d like, but each one has nuggets of wisdom.

The Allusionist

Okay, so not a podcast about writing, but if you’re a writer you’ll love words and Helen Zaltzman’s podcast is a delight. You’ll come away from each episode with another insight into what makes word work, and that can only make you a better writer.

 

And that’s it! Do please let me know if there are any I’ve missed. I’m not sure I can squeeze any more into my week, but I’m always up for something new.