My First BA Conference (and jeweller’s robbery!) – My Writing Diary Ten Years On – May 1st & 2nd 2007

 

The Booksellers’ Association conference is an annual gathering of the great, the good, and (in my case) the liggers of bookselling and publishing. Orion was paying for one of our customers to attend the gala dinner and I went along to be their handler for the evening. This is when the BA hands out their awards, the Nibbies, and there’s sometimes a quiz, plenty of food and drink, and jewellery shop robbery… Maybe that last one isn’t as common? Maybe they laid that on just for me…?

Tuesday 1st May, 2007

 

Harrogate: The Booksellers’ Association conference. Only here for the gala dinner this year. Journey up was fine. Knaresborough looks like a great place to explore: steep and cliffy. Harrogate is a perfect little town and Betty’s Tea Room smells glorious. My agent got back to me on Dead Man’s Finger*. I don’t need to make a decision till next week… Hopefully I’ll get to meet with Jon (Wright) tomorrow to discuss God Of Scarecrows**. We’re planning to meet at King’s Cross tomorrow afternoon.

Off to the gala dinner. It’s too hot to be dressed as a penguin.

 

Wednesday 2nd May, 2007

 

9:50am. On the train to Leeds… Amazing! Just seen the end of a robbery in jewellery shop in Harrogate! I was happily strolling to the train station when, from around the corner, I heard a woman scream, followed by a series of bangs (three, I think), then a red car came screeching around the corner. Its windscreen was bashed, presumably as a result of the banging I heard. Not gunshots, but someone trying to smash the car’s windscreen. I couldn’t see through the cracked glass to identify the drivers. The car sped away at high speed, but before it had even reached the junction at the end of the road, there were three or four people already on the phone to the police yelling its registration number into the receiver. There were at least a dozen other witnesses to the crime, so I figured I wouldn’t be needed. In the two minutes it took me to reach the station the air was full of the noise of sirens and police cars and vans were in hot pursuit. I guess it won’t take them too long to find a red car with a smashed windscreen.

The incident proved what I’ve always feared: I would be a rubbish witness in court. The car was red, a C reg, and I can’t even remember the name of the jewellers’, although I’m pretty sure it was in Prince’s Street.

Anyway… last night was okay enough. Mark Billingham was MC and managed to inject life into some old gags and there was a fairly funny turn from Al Murray, the pub landlord.

Richard Littlejohn proved himself to be the twat I’ve always imagined him to be: he declared Alastair Campbell to be a mate and then proceeded not only to slag him off, but also suggested that Campbell was responsible for the death of weapons inspector Dr. Kelly. This prompted Mark Billingham to splutter, ‘Fuck, if he’s your friend, what do you say about your enemies?’

Littlejohn’s response was, ‘You should hear what he says about me!’

You should hear what we all say about you Littlejohn, you hate-mongering little fuck.

Home, 11pm. Had a good meeting with Jon this afternoon. He had some good ideas for The God Of Scarecrows. I will have to change the ending. We also discussed an idea. More of a framework for a short film that can exploit extremes of sound. Thinking cap on…

Tired now. I’ve spent too long today in trains and taxis.

 

The car was a Rover! And it was red, and a C reg, so maybe I’m not so bad an eyewitness after all? There’s more here… No idea if they ever caught them, but if you’re looking for an eyewitness with a ready-written statement, I’m your man!

 

 

 

*I have zero recollection of what this is.

**A short film idea that I still bloody love, and might fold into a book project I’m tinkering with…

 

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My First EasterCon – My Writing Diary Ten Years On – Easter Sunday, 8th April 2007

Ten years ago I enjoyed/suffered/endured my first ever Eastercon as part of the Gollancz team. Looking back at my diary it’s interesting just how little of the actual conference I chronicled — mostly because I was away filming authors — but I must have liked it, as I’ve been back for more several times since, even getting to attend as an author a couple of years ago! It’s generally a slicker affair these days, but some of that ramshackle charm remains. I won’t be going this year, but I’ll always have Chester…

Easter Sunday, 8th April 2007

I’ve spent the last couple of days in Chester for Eastercon – the British science fiction convention. There were engineering works on the trains all weekend, so I decided to drive the 240-odd miles to Chester. Points of interest along the way included a sign directing tourists to a Secret Bunker, and a pub called The Headless Woman.

I arrived at around half-six and made contact with the rest of the Gollancz gang. We had dinner at an Italian place called Piccolino’s. The author Roger Levy was there with his wife Tina. Roger is a very pleasant guy, quiet-spoken, but with a quick wit. Also with us was Dave Bradley, editor of SFX.

On Saturday morning I was up fairly early for a stroll around Chester to film its more interesting bits (I had come along to film our authors in conversation, and I thought I might need some links). Chester is completely charming. It has wonderful two-tiered shopping arcades with plenty of independent shops. Even the chains look more interesting, although once you get inside they reveal their usual indentikit selves. One highlight was an evangelist busker who played a five-string bass guitar while singing Amazing Grace at the top of his voice. He was joined by a man with a harmonica, another with an acoustic guitar and a woman in her seventies with a mandolin. They looked like the worst Led Zeppelin tribute band ever.

(Gollancz publicist) Jon Weir grew up in Chester and gave Gillian Redfearn, Sara Mulryan, myself and Marcus Gipps (lovely guy from Blackwells… looks like Paul McCartney circa Let It Be) the grand tour. We saw the ancient walls, the excavations at the amphitheatre and had lunch by the River Dee, which looks a lot like Putney and Richmond, but less crowded.

In the afternoon I filmed Richard Morgan in conversation with Ian McDonald, followed by Roger Levy and Jon Courtney Grimwood. All were great and very pleasant to work with. I like that they didn’t shamelessly plug their books, but instead discussed the issues that inspired their writing.

In the evening we had a Chinese meal at a restaurant called Raffles which had French airship murals on the walls, so we figured it hand’t been Chinese for very long. There was a heated debate between Richard Morgan, Jo Fletcher and Ian Drury on the historical accuracy of the film 300. I was way out of my depth and just listened, learning an awful lot about ancient Greece and Persia.

We followed the meal by attending the British Science Fiction Awards. It was a fairly ramshackle affair, with more in common with a village fete raffle than a glitzy awards ceremony, but that seems to be how the hardcore SF fans like it.

Today we ended the conference with a trip to Jodrell Bank. A very pleasant way to spend an hour or so. We took a 3D trip to Mars, then stood and stared at the mighty dish.

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From L-R: Me, Sara Mulryan, Jon Weir, Bragelonne’s Stephane Marsan, and Gillian Redfearn

I drove with Jon Weir back to London. We discovered a mutual love for John Williams’ movies scores and sang along with Muppets and Disney show tunes. In all the weekend was less a conference and more of a weekend break. Chester is a lovely place, though, and I’d love to go back one day.

Just say No, kids! My Writing Diary, Ten Years On: Monday 8th – Wednesday 10th January, 2007

Thanks to my Odeon Limitless card, I’ve seen more movies than ever before in the last twelve months, but I still haven’t got around to seeing this…

And there’s a very specific reason for that. I just can’t bring myself to see it. To do so would be like revisiting a very bad toothache. Let’s go back to my diary entries for ten years ago today, when I had a meeting with Dean Fisher, who was producing Waiting For Eddie, which I hoped would be my debut film (it wasn’t)

 

Monday 8th January, 2007

Dean asked if I was interested in another project he’s developing. It’s called ‘The Office Christmas Party’, and comes from a party witnessed by his brother. So far it’s just a series of ‘It really happened’ events. There’s no story or even a rough outline, but in some ways that’s best if it gives me more of a free reign. Anyway, I’ll look at what he’s got and see if it’s do-able.

Tuesday 9th January, 2007

I read the notes for Dean’s ‘Office Christmas Party’ idea… Yikes. There’s really nothing to work with. It’s basically what happens when you give people a free bar and too much coke. The concept is a good one, but I’d have to start from scratch and I have a nagging doubt that Dean doesn’t have the money to pay me for that.

Wednesday 10th January, 2007

Agreed with Dean to put together a two-page treatment for his April deadline…

The more observant of you might be asking, ‘What the hell? You clearly didn’t like the idea, so why are you writing a treatment for it?’ Indeed, and you’d be right to be confused. But I was inexperienced, eager to please a producer who was developing another project of mine, and I had the writer’s hubris to think that I could mould this idea into a personal statement. How wrong was I? Well, let’s say this led to a further three and a half years of working on a film that would never happen. Three and half years! I know this because I looked it up in my diary…

 

Wednesday 8th September, 2010

Dean called yesterday and I think I’ve finally laid the ghost of The Christmas Office Party to rest. I simply told him I’d run cold on the idea. He was disappointed, but seemed resigned to it.

You’ll note the slight title change there (because we didn’t anyone thinking it was anything to do with Ricky Gervais’s The Office… how times have changed). It’s not a question of the time taken, or not being paid – I’ve worked longer and for less on other projects – but the difference here is I was completely wrong for the project. I didn’t believe in it, I didn’t like the tone they wanted, nor had I any experience in writing a raucous comedy, but I still said yes. It was an interesting concept, and I thought it could get made, and when you’re an un-produced screenwriter, all you really want in life is to get something  made.

The lesson I had yet to learn is the most powerful thing a writer can do is say No.

Seriously, try it.

Saying no means you can move and find something new and follow your passions. Saying no means you still have all the power. Saying no means they might even consider paying you for the project.

Saying yes means you’re suddenly obliged to deliver writing, for little or no money, and with no end in sight.

This isn’t to disparage Dean as a producer. Like all indie producers, he’s building a slate and simply doesn’t have the money to pay writers for endless drafts. The mistake was all mine, and hindsight is a wonderful thing.

So, it was with very mixed feelings when I first saw the trailer for ‘The Office Christmas Party’. It was a good idea, and Dean had beaten Hollywood to it by ten years… he just needed the right writer. Trouble is, it wasn’t me.

 

Film London Microschool, My Writing Diary, Ten Years On, Thursday 12th & Friday 13th October, 2006

Ten years ago, my script Waiting For Eddie had a producera director and had been chosen for the first ever Film London Microwave scheme, which was designed to produce at least two debut films with a budget of £100k.

After three days of intense workshopping (see previous blog entries), we were given a day away to prepare our pitches for the real thing on Friday…

Thursday 12th October, 2006

A blissful day at home working on the pitch and the script for Eddie. Got lots done. Had a conference call with Dean and Jon. I was confident then, but nerves are starting already.

Friday 13th October, 2006

Dean, Jon and I pitched to Film London this morning. As pitches go, it was textbook stuff and we covered everything. However, Dean called a little after to nine to say that we didn’t get the green light. No reason was offered and he didn’t ask. The positive spin is that we can now go and raise a proper budget instead rather than be constrained by the strict £100k that Film London insisted on. Dean’s right: at least this way we get to make it on our terms. Still, I can’t help but feel really disappointed. The green light from Film London could have meant that the film would be in cinemas next year and would have got us all some quick recognition.

Dean also reminded me that Film London’s remit is to support independent/arthouse film, and our script is very much mainstream and commercial and much more likely to get funding elsewhere than some of the other projects on the Microwave scheme. There’s no news yet on who actually did get through. Apparently an announcement will be made in the next ten days.

Aah, can you hear it? The post-disappointment rationalisation? There is some truth in our reasoning: the script is a ghost story, with a far more substantial VFX budget than any other script on the scheme (a habit I can’t seem to shake!), and it would have been nigh-on impossible to make effectively on such a small budget. All that fluff about arthouse versus commercial is balls, though. Looking back at my script ten years on, it’s far too idiosyncratic to be commercial, and the films that were selected by Film London were both eminently marketable and, while not runaway box offices successes, earned their money back, were highly acclaimed, and successfully launched careers.

The first I saw was Eran Creevy’s Shifty, which is a fantastic debut with terrific performances from Riz Ahmed and Daniel Mays. The second was Mum and Dad, a nicely twisted horror directed by Steven Shiel.

We eventually learned that we were ultimately rejected because my script was “too TV”, which burned at the time (and felt a bit of a flannely excuse), though now it’s got my cogs whirring and wondering if there’s mileage in a London-set TV series about a haunted house and guy called Eddie trying to figure out who murdered him. TV execs: you know where to find me!

Film London Microschool: Day Three. My Writing Diary, Ten Years On, Wednesday 11th October, 2006

Ten years ago, my script Waiting For Eddie had a producera director and had been chosen for the first ever Film London Microwave scheme, which was designed to produce at least two debut films with a budget of £100k.

Wednesday 11th October, 2006

Last full day of Microschool. First of all, I have to tip my hat to our fellow filmmakers… a thoroughly nice bunch. An awful word was coined by a producer (who shall remain anonymous): “co-opetition”. A mash of co-operation and competition that he felt summed-up the spirit in which he wanted us to work. We ignored his banal wittering and just got on with each other anyway. Special mention should go to Rani Creevy, writer/director of Shifty, and Carol Morley, writer/director of Hotel Deadly – she was a straight-talking breath of fresh air, as was her producer Cairo Cannon.

Producer Christine Alderson was really helpful, too. She basically guided our group through the sessions with plenty of wise and practical advice. Judy Counihan, co-writer of the excellent Faber book The Pitch, came along to talk for an hour on pitching and I made nearly three pages of notes.

Dean (Fisher) is still wary of the restrictions on the budget, but Jon (Wright) is still confident that we can pull it off. I’ll work on our pitch script at home tomorrow and Friday is the day we pitch to the Film London panel!

What’s fascinating about looking back on this entry is the wealth of talent at this first Microschool. I didn’t know it at the time, but Eran (Rani) Creevy would win the first Microwave and go on to make Shifty, and then Welcome To The Punch, and Carol Morley, who, like us, would not win, but went on to make some of my favourite films of the last decade including Dreams Of Life and The Falling. What’s doubly fascinating is I recall their passion and no-nonsense approach to their filmmaking. No “co-opetition” for them, they just wanted to get their fucking films made…

Oh, and Faber books have somehow let The Pitch go out of print! Boo, Faber, boo! Simply the best book on pitching your film ever written. Totally essential, and grab a copy if you can.

More on how turned out soon (though I guess if you’ve been paying attention you already know the ending)…

Film London Microschool: Day Two. My Writing Diary, Ten Years On, Tuesday 10th October, 2006

Ten years ago, my horror-comedy script Waiting For Eddie had a producera director and had been chosen for the first ever Film London Microwave scheme, which was designed to produce at least two debut films with a budget of £100k. And day two saw the script get some serious interrogation from some industry professionals. Would it be knocked out in the first round, or would it pick itself up, battered and bruised, and ask for more…?

Tuesday 10th October, 2006

Day two of Microschool. Jon (Wright) and I had a meeting with script editor Toby Rushton that was so good it gave me goosebumps. He started by saying some very nice things about the script, we then all agreed on some of the problems. He liked the suggestion in the script that the house has something to do with its murderous history. Jon and I were initially wary: we didn’t want to go down the Amityville Horror route, but then I latched on to the slaughtered Victorian family in the Fleetwood sequence and we now have a new character called Cassandra and an ending that is ten times better.

Poor Dean (Fisher) was stuck in the basement at the Institute Francais, poring over the budget with all the other producers. He’s still wary of making of making Eddie for £100k, but Jon is more optimistic.

This was the first time the script had been read by anyone not directly associated with the film, and it was something of a relief to be told that it wasn’t a steaming turd, and how dare I call myself a writer? I remember the goosebumps came when Toby took a tiny part of the script — a throwaway line about previous murders in this haunted house — and started talking about how we could extrapolate that into something bigger, and by the time our session was over we had a new character and a better ending (and I had a ton of revisions ahead of me… years of them, in fact).

Getting feedback and notes can be a traumatic experience, but this was such a thrill to be given permission almost to dig deeper and explore these characters and situations all the more. At the end of day two I was certain of one thing: our film would get the £100k and would be made within the year (spoiler alert: nah).

For more on Day Three of Microschool, tune in tomorrow!

Film London Microschool, My Writing Diary, Ten Years On, Monday 9th October, 2006

My script Waiting For Eddie had a producer, a director and had been chosen for the first ever Film London Microwave scheme, which was designed to produce at least two debut films with a budget of £100k. But we weren’t the only ones, of course, and first had to survive a week of Microschool: a kind of Bake Off for filmmakers. Jon and I were treated to masterclasses from producers, writers and sales agents, while our poor producer Dean was sent to a dark basement for a week of budget school (some people get all the luck). Reading this ten years on I feel like I come across as a cocky little know-it-all. Don’t worry, dear reader, the next ten years of trying to get scripts off the ground will knock that out of me…

Monday 9th October, 2006

Day one of Microschool. An up and down sort of day. It started with some sales agents telling us exactly what sort of things they were looking for in a film. A lot of what they said could be filed under “The Bleeding Obvious”, but it was surprising just how few of our fellow filmmakers have twigged to the basic tenets of writing for a market. Some just want to experiment at the artistic end of the spectrum and that’s great, but I think Film London are looking for a hit to come out of this scheme and, as far as the comedy films are concerned, we’re the only one of this scheme that comes close. That said, there’s a lot of work to do this week: budgets need a rethink and the script will need to be knocked into a practical shape. Dean is torn: he’s still totally convinced that he can get £400k for Eddie, but Jon and I feel that we should really get our teeth into this week and go for a win!

This was my first time surrounded by other filmmakers in a hotbed of talent and competition, and it was pretty intimidating at first, but you soon discover that they’re just as terrified (or as full of shit) as you are, and you start to realise that you might actually deserve a place at the table here.

You hear people talking about breaking into the film industry like you just need to kick down one door and suddenly you’re a filmmaker. It’s nothing like that at all. More a series of incremental inch-like shuffles in a never-ending post office queue, but while you’re in the queue you get talking to others who have just as far to go as you and before you know it you have a peer group and a sense of belonging. I’ll always be grateful to the Microwave scheme and Dean and Jon for getting me a place at the back of the line, and I’ll stop now before this metaphor completely exhausts itself.

More on day two of Microwave tomorrow!

 

 

You Are Not Your Software – My Writing Diary, Ten Years On, Monday 18th September 2006

There’s a lot of fetishisation* around the writing process. Articles and books on screenwriting would tell you about George Lucas only writing on yellow legal pads in pencil, attributing part of the mystique of Star Wars’ success to this arcane ritual.

Then he went and wrote the prequels the same way.

And perhaps you’ve heard the quote about Hemingway writing drunk and editing sober (though he probably never said it)? Or of Anthony Trollope getting up at the crack of dawn to write for three hours before going to work at the post office? Or of the many authors renowned for writing in bed?

Everyone seems to have their rituals, and accompanying magic talismanic devices to ensure that the muse is welcomed into their aura and the magic can begin. If the modern screenwriter is a knight valiantly overcoming the onslaught of movie execs and development notes, then our hero’s sword and shield are Final Draft and a Macbook. In September, 2006, I came into a bit of money thanks to a defunct pension scheme. I had two grand spare! My wife wanted a new kitchen. Guess what I got instead…?

Monday 18th September, 2006

The Mac came with me on the commute to work. Progress on the script was slower than I would have liked as I’m still getting used to the peculiarities of Final Draft. It was distracting, too, as I spent more time worrying about formatting than the script itself. I’ll get used to it though**

Final Draft touts itself as the industry standard, with the inference being that you simply can’t call yourself a screenwriter unless you have a copy. It’s expensive and brimming with features that you probably won’t ever use, even if you go into production. In my experience it’s been fairly well behaved, but like Microsoft Word it has to be all things to all screenwriters and as a result it feels very top-heavy… Oh, and every now and then they update it in a way that means you can’t open old versions of your script (at least, not without a huge hassle) and they charge you more dosh for the privilege. That’s always fun. For a very entertaining debate on the vagaries of FD, do check out the transcript of this episode of Scriptnotes. These days I keep it simple. Slugline is favourite, though I also dabble with Highland and Fade-In, all of which are based on Fountain, a plain text markup language.

But back in 2006 I felt like I had joined a secret club. Until now I had been writing in MS Word and formatting everything manually. Final Draft did all the formatting as I typed, which was very nifty, and I had a MacBook! Surely a Hollywood movie deal was just around the corner?

Not exactly. I still had to write. Once I got used to all the keyboard shortcuts, I was still just a writer trying to make words on a page jump into the reader’s head and screen a movie. There’s no software for that.

A ritual does not make you a writer, Final Draft and a Macbook does not make you a screenwriter, a Fender Stratocaster does not make you Eric Clapton. You are not your software. I should have bought a kitchen.

Just get words on a page. Pen on paper, pencil on a yellow legal pad, words on a screen. Build a story. You can worry about the formatting shizzle later.

By the way, MacBooks are also expensive and brimming with features you will never use. But they’re bloody awesome, and the software updates are free.

*A word I can type, but simply cannot say aloud without sounding like a drunk.

**Sort of did… eventually…

Eager or hopelessly naive? – My Writing Diary, Ten Years On, Wednesday 6th September 2006

I was at the London Screenwriters’ Festival last weekend, and it was delightful to meet so many writers, young and old, starting out on their writing careers. Their optimism, energy and determination made me feel very old invigorated me… and they reminded me of myself ten years ago. My script, Waiting For Eddie, had a producer in Dean Fisher, a director in Jon Wright, and we were waiting for news on our submission to London Film’s inaugural Microwave film scheme…

 

Wednesday 6th September, 2006

A most excellent day. Dean called to confirm that we’re through to the final stage of the Microwave scheme! A week of intensive script development awaits me in October and, with any luck, we’ll start production.

Told my agent and she was very excited. She also let slip that Working Title have agreed to read The Last Time Machine – they’ll reject it, of course, but it’ll be interesting to hear what they say.

I also bought my Apple MacBook today. It’s gorgeous, though I’ve spent most of the evening trying to figure out how it works.

 

Cos you can’t be a writer unless you have a MacBook, people!* And Final Draft. Can’t call yourself a screenwriter unless you have Final Draft!**

Before you go rushing off to IMDb, I should warn you that (spoiler alert) neither Waiting For Eddie or The Last Time Machine were made into films, so all that talk of ‘Going into production’ was fuelled by the same kind of optimism, energy and determination those new writers had at the London SWF. Okay, you might call it hopeless naivety, and some days that’s all you’ve got, but when someone else shows interest in your work I would encourage every writer to enjoy and revel in the moment… then put it aside and get on with writing the next thing. Because, even if it your script is picked up and made into a movie, they’ll want something new right away, and if they don’t, you’ll need something new for the next round of crashing disappointments submissions.

Keep writing!

 

*Not true.

**Even less true.

Meeting Your Mentor – My Writing Diary, Ten Years On, September 1st, 2006

Summer 2006 suddenly went very quiet on the writing diary front. Producer Dean Fisher was pitching my script Waiting For Eddie around town, and then everyone goes on holiday in August. These are always worrying times for a writer. The phone stops ringing, emails don’t ping in your inbox, and you begin to wonder if all the enthusiasm for your project has just evaporated… Then summer ended and it all started kicking off again. September 2006 began with a fortuitous meeting with someone who was to change the course of my writing career, film director Jon Wright

 

Friday, 1st September, 2006

I jumped on a train to London for the really important meeting of the week. Dean, Jon Wright and I headed off to a meeting with Film London (to pitch Waiting For Eddie for the first ever Microwave Scheme).

Jon and I hit it off immediately. Quite literally: we bumped heads as we both sat down. Jon had some notes on the script, which were excellent. He definitely gets the script and it’s hugely gratifying to hear someone enthuse about it who will hopefully be in a position to make it a reality.

The Film London meeting went really well. Both Maggie Ellis and Sol Gatti-Pascual were friendly and encouraging and I have to say that Dean, Jon and I certainly held our own (I was a bag of nerves). I got the feeling that Sol really wants to work with Jon, so this could definitely work in our favour. We’ll hear if we get through to the next stage on Tuesday, but both Jon and Dean said they wouldn’t be despondent if we didn’t get through as they’re confident we can raise the budget elsewhere.

So, yes, in the kind of meet-cute you could only find on the corniest romcom, Jon and I met by head-butting each other. To put it in some kind of context, he was the first proper film director that I had ever had a meeting with, and I started by giving him a Glasgow Kiss. For a second I seriously thought I had completely ruined any chance I ever had of working in film ever, but fortunately he laughed it off and we got down to business.

The real boost was getting his very insightful and thoughtful notes. Like I said, he really understood the tone of my warped ghost story and it became clear that we shared many sensibilities, which would definitely pay off in the future, as he would eventually become Obi-Wan to my… Jar Jar…? Stay tuned for more…