I was on the Cover to Cover podcast this week…

I had good fun being interviewed by Lee Middleton on the Cover to Cover podcast this week. We talk Star Wars, the Bestseller Experiment, Back to Reality and my thwarted dream to become a firefighter. It’s a fab show for readers and writers alike. Click to listen… https://m.mixcloud.com/Studio5OnAir/cover-to-cover-episode-12/

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Paranoia and delusion – the writer’s friends and how to cope with them…

I saw Florence Foster Jenkins last night, a fine and enjoyable film based on the true story of a socialite who sang opera in New York in the ’40s, eventually playing Carnegie Hall, despite the fact that she had something of a tin ear…

It also reminded me of the incredibly twisted film Windy City Heat, which Jon Wright gleefully introduced me to while we were in pre-production on Robot Overlords. This faux-documentary is an elaborate prank whereby Bobcat Goldthwait and friends fool comedian and wannabe actor Perry Caravello into thinking that he has the lead role in a crime drama called Windy City Heat and they do everything they can to sabotage his dream…

Intriguingly, even after she had heard herself sing on a record, Jenkins still couldn’t discern that there was a problem with her singing, and Perry doesn’t think that he’s a bad actor. And what’s really fascinating is that both of them have just enough talent, the tiniest sliver of ability, to make them think that they can actually achieve their ambitious dreams.

Making Robot Overlords was a dream come true. A British science fiction family epic, with huge stars, a great cast, a decent budget, and a fantastic crew. But I have to confess that while watching Windy City Heat there came a point where I wondered if this was Jon’s way of breaking it to me that the whole project was an elaborate prank, that it really was too good to be true… Thankfully, it wasn’t, and I’m an idiot to think so, but that was just me entertaining the poisonous friend of artist’s everywhere: paranoia.

I’ve yet to meet an artist or creative type who hasn’t feel like a fraud at some point, usually when the rejections, failures and doubts feed the paranoia to a degree where they think they’re a talentless hack. I get it on a regular basis.

Paranoia’s evil twin is delusion. ‘I can do that!’ is my default answer to any challenge, but there comes a time when confidence becomes hubris and you fall flat on your face.

Both can be crippling if you surrender to them, but I encounter them so often now that I think I can cope with both their peaks and troughs, and I’ve found the best way to do this is to use them as creative fuel:

Hubris and delusion are great when I’m faced with a challenge. Can I write this pitch/script/book/comic? Hell, yeah! I can do anything! I hitch a ride on that boost of confidence and get it all on the page and screw the consequences.

Paranoia and self-doubt are useful when it comes to editing. That awesome piece of work I did yesterday? Dear God, it’s a piece of crap. You’re hopeless. Do better! Instead of wallowing in pity, I try and use the critical faculties of paranoia to improve what’s already on the page.

I try to step back and see my work as objectively as possible, but it’s simply impossible to be certain, and I’ve had strangers tell me that they love my work, and I’ve had two-star reviews where they found it dull. Who can ever really know?

But, like Florence and Perry, I enjoy what I do. I write every single day and I love it. Florence sums it up perfectly, ‘People may say I can’t sing,’ she said, ‘but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.’

When is my script ready to send out…? Or, Am I ready for Edna Krabappel?

Imagine you’re going on a date. It’s someone you’ve fancied for ages, and after finally plucking up the nerve to ask them out for a cheeky Nando’s, the time has come to woo them one-on-one with your wit and charm. How do you prepare for this night of nights? Shower, brush your teeth, wear the most obscure geeky film reference T-shirt in your collection, and wear clean underpants. And then you rush straight out the door, yes?

Of course not. What kind of idiot does that?

We all check our appearance in the mirror, or, better still, ask someone else to check for us, ‘How do I look?’ And it is this wonderful friend who points out that there’s a huge bogey dangling from your left nostril, a massive zit threatening to explode on your chin, or that your flies are undone and your Captain America underoos are exposed of all the world to see.

That person just saved your life. And every writer needs at least one person who will do the same for their work, and yet so many of us will gleefully ejaculate our work into the wild without so much as a second glance.

And I know that feeling all too well. I recently finished a draft of a new book. I’ve been working on it for about 18 months in between script work and writing pitches. It’s been my happy place for all that time. I love the characters, the settings, and the story excites me every time I return to it.

Typing ‘The End’ — a naive act by any writer on their first draft, and yet we all do it — activated that overwhelming impulse to send it out immediately to agents and publishers and everyone in my address book. It’s perfect! I even did a ‘But’ pass…

… I checked for all my usual tropes, I made a timeline, and I even drew a bloody map. Surely it’s ready?

A few years ago I would have succumbed to this seductive urge, but experience has taught me that doing so would have killed the project before the poor wobbly-legged lamb could have staggered to its feet.

Nothing is more likely to wreck a writing project’s chances than sending it out before it’s ready. That agent/publisher/producer is your hot date with Edna Krabappel, and as Sideshow Bob said…

My life was saved by my friend Graeme. I work with Graeme and we’re both writers and we’ll read each other’s stuff and give notes.

I got about five pages of notes from Graeme.

Five!

As well as words of encouragement, he confirmed many nagging doubts I had about certain parts of the story, and he also spotted a couple of whopping plot holes that would have almost certainly made me look a complete dingus.

I bought Graeme lunch. It was the least I could do. He wanted the film rights and a co-writer credit, but I could only afford lunch.

I shall rewrite accordingly. And then I shall probably give it to another friend — a fresh pair of eyes — for their opinion. And I suspect yet another rewrite will be on the cards after that. I’m not on a deadline with this. I can afford the luxury of time and I intend to spend it.

So, when will it be ready to send out…?

I was asked this when talking to some third year writing students recently, and the truth is I still don’t know. There usually comes a point where you go completely word blind and can’t tell what works and what doesn’t. So maybe then? Maybe when I run out of Graemes. Eventually, we all run out of Graemes. What I do know is that I’ve not made the error I’ve made so often in the past by sending it out too soon. Edna awaits…

“Ullo my lover..” – Robin Hood Prince of Thieves and how an imperfect film can mean so much.

Robin... mate... your pants are fire...
Robin… mate… your pants are fire…

Robin Hood Prince of Thieves is on TV, and I’m getting all misty-eyed.

Here’s the trailer and, yes, voice-over man really does start by saying “It was a time of waaaaar…”

This is a much maligned movie: the myriad, wandering accents, the glaring historical inaccuracies, the poor grasp of British geography, Costner’s mullet, the dodgy attempted-marital-rape-done-for-laughs scene, and last but by no means least, that bloody song… As anyone who was alive with any degree of hearing will tell you, you couldn’t turn on the radio that summer without Mr. Adams’ gravelly tones imploring that everything he was doing was indeed solely for your benefit. Still, it does have a lovely middle-8 guitar solo.

But, for all its faults, I bloody love this film and it’s my favourite Robin Hood movie by far (ahead of the sprightly Errol Flynn classic and the slightly more mournful Robin and Marian). Yes, Alan Rickman steals everything but the scenery, but this is the film where the woman who would later deign to marry me first flirted with me at the cinema. It later became our film and we will still greet one another with “Ullo, my lover.”

Also, I was working in a hi-fi/CD shop in Dorking at the time, and our rep for BMG records was called Steve Densham. I learned that his brother was Pen Densham who was the screenwriter of this beloved movie. This was the first time I had known someone who knew someone that had written an actual film. And not just any film, but the biggest film of that year. My one regret is that I never asked for some writing advice, but I was 17, unsure of myself and these things only ever occur to me some twelve hours after they might have been useful. (Top writing tip for younger writers: don’t be shy and always take the opportunity to ask for advice from more experienced writers – they can only tell you to sod off).

And watching again on TV just now (the horrible extended director’s cut with unnecessary backstory for Rickman’s Sheriff) I got all the feels all over again.

The emotional impact of a film often has less to do with the content, and more to do with when you saw it and who you saw it with. This is why seeing a movie in the cinema is so important. Sitting in the dark with your friends and family, surrounded by strangers, and sharing that experience is one of only a few communal experiences we still have in the modern world. And when it works, even with a less-than-perfect film, the event gets wrapped up in memories and emotions that resurface like old friends when you watch the movie again.

I had a meeting recently with a development exec at a very big animation studio (ooh, get me!). He told me that their most successful films transported the audience to worlds. Not just to other planets, but any place where the audience can escape to time and time again. That’s not to say that all films should be pure escapism, but they seem to be the ones we like to watch on repeat.

So, historical accuracy and gritty reboots be damned. Give me Kevin “This is English currige” Costner every time. All together now… “Look into my eyes…”

 

PS. Oh, and if anyone has a cut of the film where they keep in Christian Slater’s “Fuck me!” line, then do please get in touch.