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.

 

 

 

I got a rejection this week… and I’m in good company…

I loved this Tweet from VE Schwab asking authors if they had received rejections of their work recently…

She was deluged with replies, some from some very big names, and one from me. Only last week, I had a book pitch rejected by a publisher. The response I got was, “We pissed ourselves laughing, we loved it, we just don’t know how to sell it.” And that’s fine. I appreciate the honesty and know that there would be nothing worse than slogging away on a novel for however many months only for the publisher to give a shrug on publication.

I more positive news I was inspired by blog posts from a couple of writers friends. Julian Barr talks about what he strives for here, and Laurence Doherty talks about working up from rejections to the NI New Writers Focus Scheme here.

And the big treat for the week is the Bestseller Experiment live show with Orion editor Emad Akhtar (pictured above). He answered all sorts of listener questions on writing, editing, storytelling and WWE wrestling… Yes really. You can listen here.

Till next time, happy writing!

Pixar’s Brave… or playing it safe?

Just returned from enjoying Pixar’s Brave. An entertaining movie, if – oddly for Pixar – an entirely predictable one. The story lacked suspense or surprise, and got by on the charm of its characters and the stunning locations.

This movie was to represent many firsts for Pixar: first period piece, first female protagonist and first female director. But then about a year prior to release it was quietly announced that director Brenda Chapman was no longer working on the project (though she still retains a co-director credit). This is not an unusual move for Pixar. Ratatouille suffered a similar setback with the original director Jan Pinkava being replaced by Brad Bird, but it is perhaps more notable that in this case a woman was replaced by a man.

In a recent piece in the New York Times, Chapman speaks for the first time of the heartbreak of being removed from Brave, and wonders how women can gain more positions of power in Hollywood. Pixar, for all its genius over the years, is starting to come across as a bit of a boys’ club, with no women whatsoever on the famed brain trust and one too many movies about Cars. Surely there must be a some women in the organisation who can add a few x chromosome into the brain trust mix?

I doubt the truth of what really happened will come out anytime soon, and it’s a fact of life that directors and writers are often fired from movie projects, particularly in the perilous world of animation where Directors’ Guild and WGA rules don’t seem to apply. But I wonder if Brenda Chapman’s more personal version of Brave might not have felt so pat, might not have been so obvious? Might it not, for all its flaws, have been more interesting?

“Thag no like change.” From cave paintings to 3D

Thoroughly enjoyed The Artist the other night. A really charming film that’s basically Singin’ in the rain without the – er – Singin’. In other words it’s that old story about one form replacing another. Change creating upheaval in an artist’s life.

There’s a lot of that about at the moment. Music download sales finally overtook physical recently, and in my day job everyone’s fretting about the decline of physical book sales as eBooks rapidly become the predominant form. And just the other day I shared a cab with a screenwriter and director; the former romanticising celluloid’s organic qualities, while the director preferred the flexibility offered by high-quality digital.

Tonight I watched Werner Herzog’s Cave of forgotten dreams, the latest of his excellent documentaries. This one featured prehistoric paintings from the Chauvet caves in the south of France. Some of the paintings are over 35,000 years old and represent humanity’s first artistic endeavours. Herzog looks at one likeness of a bison, painted with eight legs blurred in a depiction of what he calls ‘proto-cinema’, and imagines how it must have looked with a fire burning and the flames throwing shadows on the cave walls. It’s an almost hallucinogenic moment in a really engaging film.

And this is is where the storytelling urge began. Our ancestors seeing something that moved them and wanting to capture it and share it with their contemporaries (except Neanderthals, they apparently showed no artistic flair whatsoever… which is why they’re now all PE teachers). And that urge is still with us now, whatever the form.

When The Artist was first released, I read many reviews wryly suggesting that Hollywood would no doubt be lining up a whole slew of copycat silent movies, cashing in on the phenomenon. But, as far as I can tell, that hasn’t happened. Maybe they figured out that moviegoers went to see The Artist because of the great story and the engaging characters, or maybe it’s because Hollywood is still so mesmerised by 3D it can’t be arsed to go back to silent movies.

But it’s never the form that endures. Oh sure, 3D, Kindle, HD and iTunes will excite people for a while, but the reason they keep coming back are the stories; that little flutter in the heart when we’re moved by something. Vinyl, celluloid and hardbacks will probably always be with us, even if they become sidelined and niché, and when the apocalypse comes we can go full circle back to cave paintings. Only this time it’ll be mushroom clouds or hordes of zombies we’ll be painting. That’ll give Herzog’s descendants something to talke about 35,000 years from now.