What I Learned on the John Yorke Story for Screenwriting Course…

I’ve just completed the John Yorke Story for Screenwriting course. A seven-session course, spread over 16 weeks with the ultimate aim of producing your own original treatment for a feature film or TV pilot.

Full disclosure: I was given free access to this course by John’s team after he appeared on the Bestseller Experiment podcast. It’s usual cost value is over £900, which is a fair chunk of change and something I kept in mind throughout the duration of the course.

The course covers story analysis to build your own understanding of story structure, it looks at the essential elements of story, the five-act structure, how to build stories, countless story tips, and all the time you are submitting your own work, which is reviewed by your peers on the course. You submit everything through the course website, which is a clunky thing that’s starting to show its age with a sometimes confusing user interface. Once you get used to it, it’s okay, but I found myself working with several browser tabs open as that was easier than trying to find your way through the menus.

Make no mistake, this is a big commitment, and people dropped off the course, most likely overwhelmed by the level of work required. It’s not for beginners or hobbyists. I would say this course is ideal for writers who are serious about making a career of writing: maybe they have an agent, or a credit, or have been optioned and want to hone their craft. You need to manage your time for this course carefully. I generally carved out time over the weekend. Be prepared for it to impinge on your regular routine.

The first couple of weeks ease you in and are deceptively simple. You’re asked to watch well-known feature films and complete exercises on structure based on your observations, while referring to John’s book Into The Woods. This was all good narrative theory and great fun: I get to watch Aliens for homework! Though, I have to confess that this was the point where I wondered if the course was going to be a bit lightweight for me, but looking back it was a good way to limber up before the main event.

As the course progresses the exercises become more involved and complex. You’re asked to rewrite scenes from films and TV shows (and due to John’s connection with EastEnders, I found myself watching more of that show than at any time in the last 20 years!) and your writing will be compared to the final show that was screened. Our course tutor was Kieran Grimes (script editor on shows like Red Rock, The Clinic and Fair City) who was firm and fair in his critiquing of our work and went into considerable detail with his observations and was always constrcutive and encouraging. You really felt that he was reading your work properly!

And it’s not all about structure. There’s excellent work on character, and self-analysis. Indeed, one of the most useful things I took away from the course were tools for critiquing my own work (something I’ve often struggled with). There were also opportunities to have live chat Q&As with Kieran and Ashley Pharoah (Life on Mars), which I managed to miss, being stuck on the train home when these were scheduled, but there was always an opportunity to post questions beforehand and read the transcripts afterwards (I never did, to be honest).

In the final stage of the course, you write and submit your own treatment for a feature film or TV pilot based on what you’ve learned. Like many writers, I can’t stand treatments and find them reductive and nigh-on impossible to write from scratch, but the guidance from the course on treatments was very helpful.

However, from the very beginning of the course I knew that I would be writing a treatment, so I decided to start writing a TV pilot script in parallel with the coursework, re-writing as I went as per the lessons learned. Having a completed script to hand at the end of the course made writing the final 4 page treatment was much less painful.

A couple of weeks after the deadline for submission you receive your final feedback on your treatment from both your course tutor (Kieran) and John Yorke himself. It totalled about 1300 words. As with any notes, I didn’t 100% agree with everything they said, but having two perspectives from two seasoned pros revealed common bumps in the road, and highlighted a couple of issues with my treatment, and gave me very clear and actionable notes for my next pass.

I’m always very suspicious of creative writing courses and contests and the like. They’re often nothing more than a way to part wide-eyed noobs with dreams of Hollywood from their hard-earned cash. But John’s course is designed to be practical and has tons of useable advice and tools for professional writers. It’s also unusal in that it’s not just Hollywood-focused. There’s so little for UK-based writers out there and this course fills a much-needed gap in the market. Once the course has run, you have access to all the materials used in the course, and you become part of the course alumni online, which is great for making new writer friends. So, yes, this is an expensive course, but put in the context of certain screenwriter conventions where you might pay hundreds of pounds to passively watch panels it provides good value for money.

While I was on the course, I had a TV show of mine optioned based on a pitch doc (a “Look book” rather than a treatment), and the lessons I took from the course helped me navigate my development meetings with the TV production company, and the TV pilot I produced for my final exercise is one of the strongest things I’ve written, so I’m quietly confident that it will make some noise and get me some attention. Watch this space for more…

In the meantime, here’s a link to the course.

 

 

 

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A few notes on formatting screenplays

This week a friend of mine asked me to take a look at his first-ever screenplay. He’s a novelist, with a succesful historical fiction series at a major publisher, and he was adapting one his novels into a TV pilot. Story-wise it was all pretty ship-shape, but the formatting of his script was a bit skewy, and I thought I would share some of the notes I sent him as it covers a lot of the basics when it comes to formatting your screenplay. Some of the details have been changed to protect the innocent…

 

Formatting:

You’ll hear all sorts of dictatorial “rules” about how you should or shouldn’t format a screenplay, and there are certain people out there who make lots of money running expensive screenwriting courses who will tell you how your screenplay will be instantly rejected if you ever break one of these sacred rules…

This is, of course, bollocks. All that matters is clarity.

So, when reading what follows, always remember that these are not hard and fast rules. But there are some principles that you should observe if you want to set yourself apart from noob screenwriters.

Scene numbers: Don’t bother with these quite yet. They’re usually added by a line producer just prior to going into production. The screenplay is then locked and any subsequent scene number changes will need to be logged. For example, a scene that’s added between scene 27 and scene 28 will be logged as 27a. However, for the purposes of my feedback I’ll refer to them now, but you should probably delete them before you submit them to your agent or production companies.

Same goes for the (CONTINUED)s at the top and bottom of each page. Most people don’t bother with these, but some screenplay apps have them as a default, so it’s your call if you want to keep them (I find them clunky).

Scene 1. You’ve split LONDON 1792 over two lines. Any titles or subtitles should ideally be on one single line of text.

When introducing a character for the first time put their name in CAPS. This helps the production team identify when a new character appears in the script. It helps to remember that so much of what you put in a script is there to make the lives of the cast and crew easier. It’s also generally accepted that you should really only put the name in caps when the character first appears, and not all the way through the script.

Any sound effects should really be in caps, too. This helps the director, editor and sound designer note when noises will need to be added in post-production.

A note on Wrylies. These are the little bits of direction in parentheses…

ALFRED
(mutters in annoyance)
Bloody fool.

Lose ’em. All of ’em. Okay, maybe allow yourself one every ten pages. Writers put them there to give the actors on guidance on how to say a line, but actors generally hate being told how to act (especially by the writer!) and they should be used very, very sparingly and only when there’s a point of clarity to be made, usually when a line could be read as either straight or sarcastic. That’s why they’re called wrylies… he said wryly.

I can understand that in your case that you’re trying to preserve the intention in your novel. When writing dialogue in a novel you have far more control over how that line will be interpreted. But in film and TV you’re going to have to learn to trust the actor and director, and they’ll surprise you and will often bring something new and wonderful to the line that you might not have thought of.

Sluglines

Scenes 3, 4, 5 and more simply say CORRIDOR or STAIRWAY. Yes, these scenes follow on from one to the next, but remember that these are used as guides for the reader and the production team and will sometimes be read in isolation from the rest of the script. So maybe go with:

INT. CORRIDOR – CONTINUOUS

This lets the reader know that that the scene is set inside and continues from the previous scene.

However, with a pre-production draft I think it’s it’s fine to leave them off if you think it makes the script a faster, easier read. But when you go into production the sluglines will be made to work harder.

When I started out I found The Screenwriter’s Bible to be helpful on formatting, but to be honest why not just read a whole bunch of scripts for free? One of the best resources is the BBC Writers’ Room Script Library. Hundreds of free TV, film and radio scrips all available to download legally and freely. You’ll learn tons!

And, for variety, why not check out scripts by the likes of Tarantino or Wes Anderson. They ignore a lot of screenplay conventions and they seem to be doing pretty well for themselves.

Caveat: there are no rules, only principals, and what matters most is clarity. If you can, try and wangle a day on a film set. Watch how everyone works with the script, and when you’re next writing, try and put yourself in the shoes of the director, the actors, and the production team. Good luck!

 

While you’re here, check out my new grimfun fantasy novel The End of Magic

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/

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.

 

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…

Old Ideas Never Die – My Writing Diary, Ten Years On, Friday 23rd June, 2006

One of the most fascinating things about looking back at an old diary is the sheer tonnage of stuff that I would otherwise have completely forgotten: people I’ve met, places I’ve been, and ideas for stories that never got beyond the scribble-on-a-scrap-of-paper stage. Some turn out to be complete duffers, but some still linger, and that includes an idea for a story that occurred to me exactly ten years ago today.

It started with an exercise where I jotted down various movie sub-genres on a page and drew random lines between them. The world isn’t quite ready for my superhero-slapstick-kung-fu musical, but there might be something in a Western Ghost Story…

Friday 23rd June, 2006

I’ve been scribbling ideas down for a Western Ghost story. I’ve talked to Steve, who can’t recall seeing that combination before, and he knows more about westerns than anyone I know. I sent him an email asking if he wants to work on this one with me.

Spent most of the afternoon researching ghost towns on the net. Got some great stuff, including the story of Henry Plummer. History still hasn’t decided if he was a fine, upstanding lawman or the worst kind of lowlife, but he was once the sheriff of Bannack, Montana, most of which is still standing, even though it’s totally deserted. How does a town get like that?

Monday 26th June, 2006

Did some work on the Western Ghost Story. Synopsis coming along nicely.

Wednesday 28th June, 2006

Found plenty of time to finish the Western Ghost Story synopsis, which Steve likes, so hopefully we can work on it together.

Thursday 29th June, 2006

Steve’s given me Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy to read. He says I’ll find inspiration in its pages.

I did indeed. Lordy, that’s one hell of a book. Relentless and truly shocking.

The Western Ghost Story idea became something called The Ghost of Little Shiloh, which never really got beyond the treatment stage. One reason is that my friend Steve Mayhew started his doctorate in John Ford movies and that combined with a full-time job didn’t give him much spare time to write. And, as you’ll see in future diary entries, I was about to become quite busy myself.

But I still have a folder on my laptop labelled ‘Western’ (it was last modified 17th September, 2006), and every now and then the idea gives me a nudge and wonders why I don’t call anymore, and I entertain the notion. However, the sad truth is I’ve learned a lot about the business in the last ten years, and no one’s looking for original Western ghost stories these days (or superhero-slapstick-kung-fu musicals). Plus, Doctor Steve’s busy with his own books and sharing his substantial knowledge with the world. But you never know… old story ideas never die, but they might just become ghosts.

Getting Paid – My Writing Diary, Ten Years On, Thursday 25th May, 2006

If you’re an aspiring screenwriter and cursed/blessed with a vivid imagination, you might get a bit carried away when fantasising about that first ever professional payment. Would it be for a life-changing sum of money? A million dollar deal that meant you could finally say sayonara to the day job and pursue your dream full time? Or would it be for about £82.73 (less tax) and take forever to arrive? Guess which one happened to me!

My script Waiting For Eddie had been optioned by a producer back in November 2005. The producer paid promptly, but whenever I asked my agent about the money I only ever got vague replies. Things were complicated by the fact that I had two agents: one for film and a literary agent. The film agent did the deal, but all the money went through the lit agent. I found a handful of mentions of it in my 2006 diaries, and I’m clearly getting a bit fed-up at this point…

Tuesday 18th April, 2006

Script agent emailed me to day and told me that the Literary Agent has had my Waiting For Eddie option money since November… It’s only £85, but it doesn’t instil me with much confidence.

Then, over a month later…

Tuesday 23rd May, 2006

I got another rejection today… Oh, and they (Literary Agent) found my cheque. It was at the bottom of an in-tray… I should get it tomorrow.

Thursday 25th May, 2006

The cheque arrived today. My first money earned from writing. I suppose I can call myself a writer now… £82.73. I don’t think I’ll be quitting the day job just yet.

Nearly six months from option to pay! Believe me, that would not happen now. I’d be on the phone with an earful of righteous indignation for someone in less than 48 hours. When you’re starting out, it’s not uncommon to be coy about getting paid, but never forget that what you do as a writer has a value. No one would be on that set if not for you and your ideas. Forget any bullshit about getting exposure, or publicity value, or an opportunity to “get on the ladder”. You have worked your butt off producing a work, and if they want to make it, they have to pay you, and pay you the going rate. If they can’t afford to pay you, then they shouldn’t be in business. No other industry puts up with this crap – try asking a baker to make you some bread for free – and yet it still goes on today: see the recent scandal over Sainsbury’s attempt to get an artist to work for free.

And just put yourself in the producer’s shoes for a minute. They have a slate of projects, including your script, which they optioned for free, and another script which they paid money for. Which one do you think will be their priority? They have to make a return on their investment, and producers hate losing money, so your little freebie won’t be getting to the top of their pile anytime soon. It’s all about being valued. Make sure you are.

I’ll leave the last word to the wonderful Harlan Ellison. This video has been doing the rounds for a few years now and it’s one of my favourites (and yes, I’m aware of the irony that, this being YouTube, Mr. Ellison probably doesn’t see a penny from this), but he sums it up better than I ever could…

By the way, I still have a day job, so clearly need to work harder at this payment malarkey myself.

 

My First Agents – My Writing Diary, Ten Years On: Sunday 14th May & Monday 15th May, 2006

I had not one but two agents at this very early stage of my writing career (that word still makes me look over my shoulder to check that no one’s sniggering at me). I met my first literary agent at a networking event at Waterstone’s Piccadilly called ‘The Film World Meets The Book World’ (I think). I can’t remember how I heard about it, but I knew that I had to go as there would be agents and film producers and people who would surely see my colossal writing genius for what it was and insist on flying me out to Hollywood to introduce me to Mr. Spielberg that very weekend… I’m nothing if not optimistic.

Like many British people I can find it difficult just introducing myself to strangers for no reason other than personal gain (or “networking” as it’s known) and like many aspiring writers I found it borderline fraudulent to introduce myself as a writer at a time when I’d only written and staged a handful of plays. But one of the most important lessons I had learned from my failed career as an actor is that no one will knock on your front door and ask if you fancy a role in the Royal Shakespeare Company… You have to go to them and let them know that you’re good and what you do could be of value to them.

And so I walked into a crowded room where everyone seemed to know each other and I knew no one.

Eventually, and I have no real recollection how, I found myself talking to a very nice lady who ran a well-established literary agency, primarily for children’s books. I had no real desire to be a children’s author (at the time), but happily chatted with her and pitched my first play to her, which had a teen protagonist. She thought it would make an excellent children’s book and asked to read it. She was also intrigued that I worked in publishing and we discovered that we had a few mutual friends. I made it very clear that I wanted to be a screenwriter first and foremost and she said that was fine and that she would hook me up with a film agent, too.

Which is how I ended up with two agents. This all came together in the autumn of 2003, so I had been with them both for a couple of years at this point and had been trying, unsuccessfully, to pursue the children’s author career. I had written a couple of books that got some very nice rejections from publishers, and the pleasant lady who ran the agency had since passed me on to one of her junior associates. To be honest, the junior associate and I did not get on. She pulled strange faces when talking about my work, and seemed to treat me like a nuisance if I ever got in touch.

The film agent, however, was terrific. She was very encouraging and wanted to get me work and I was kicking myself for faffing about with the books for so long, and so in 2006 I made sure I would have a spec script for her to show around town. Few spec scripts sell, so I was determined not to worry about budget or anything that might seem small or too kitchen-sink-British. I wanted to write a commercial Hollywood movie that would get me noticed by commercial Hollywood people, and I came up with an idea called The Last Time Machine, which was epic stuff with time travel, dinosaurs, Roman Legions, the Luftwaffe and the end of the known universe  (I write more about this project and how it was doomed here).

By May 2006 I had finished a polished draft (written in Microsoft Word, hence my note that it needed formatting!), my script agent had read it, and we were set to meet for lunch on the Monday, and here are my diary entries for that time:

Sunday 14th May, 2006

Had a quick read-through of The Last Time Machine script in prep for tomorrow’s meeting. Made a few minor notations. I’m proud of it, just a shame it’ll never get made.

Monday 15th May, 2006

Had lunch with my agent today. She loved ‘The Last Time Machine’ and has a whole list of people she’s going to send it to. I just need to format it finally and she’ll send it off. She said a very nice thing: she’d wondered if she’d been having too good a day when she read LTM because she had so few notes. She really couldn’t find anything wrong with it. I explained that this was my first truly original script without the baggage of having previously been a play. We talked about other movies I could write – she’d love to see me write a horror movie – and my career. I asked about the teams that write for the likes of Spooks and Hustle. She’d rather establish me as a feature film writer first (her words – there’s something a little bit unreal about all this… at least until I earn some money from it or see my name on the big screen).

I wasn’t so aware of it back then, but she was doing the things that a good agent should aways do: she was encouraging, she was critical, but in a positive way, and she was talking about my future and the direction of my career. The horror movie thing is interesting, as horror features are often the best way for a commercial writer to get a film made: they can be produced for a low budget and can be very profitable, thus giving your career a great start. The very next thing I wrote was a horror film and it very nearly got made, introduced me to some very influential folk, and definitely took me up a notch.

The junior associate literary agent also had some ideas about my career, but they didn’t tally with the direction I wanted to go in and so it was an uncomfortable relationship. Like dating someone you know isn’t right for you, but you’re so desperate to cling on to a girlfriend/boyfriend that you’ll put up with the unhappiness, but we all know that can never end well. If you’re dreading an email or a phone call from your agent then something is seriously wrong.

I stayed with the literary agent until they eventually dropped me in 2010, but it became an increasingly distant relationship. I wanted to make films, and 2006 would be the year where this once-fantastic dream very nearly became a reality…

 

 

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.’