The Blog Tour: What, Why, and How I Write

So Jason Arnopp tagged me into this a while back, and today’s the day to publish my answers! It’s a sort of Q&A thing about my writing.

Gosh, this takes me back. I remember in the days before Twitter, where everyone updated their blogs on a weekly basis, these things used to go round all the time… I kind of miss those days…

[gaze drifts off into the distance, reminiscing]

Anyway. Here are my answers.

1) What am I working on?

I’m writing something for a game which I can’t tell you about, but it’s a really nice and interesting gig.

That probably wasn’t terribly helpful.

The  thing I’m working on which I can tell you about is a spec feature. I’ve had the idea in my head for, I don’t know, maybe five years or so now. It’s a big, ballsy period action-adventure in the Hollywood style, and it’s something I’ve wanted to write for ages.

I spent most of last year plotting it.

Most. Of. Last. Year.

The cards were on the corkboard all that time. Sitting at me. Jeering. “Call yourself a writer?” they whispered. “You can’t even fix this. Also, I had your mum.”

Little fuckers.

They moved around, they were replaced, rewritten, scribbled-and-re-scribbled. Act three was thrown away in its entirety. Because it was shit.

Finally got the little fucker beat, though, and I’m now 30 pages in out of an estimated 120. Going well so far. He says, fate-temptingly.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Hm, not something that’s easy for me to answer. But here’s a couple of things that I move towards and away from.

I like short, sharp scenes rather than lengthy ones.

Character revealed through action rather than dialogue.

The thing that I hate most on screen is a long, lingering shot of the beautiful countryside. There’s a lot of that in UK TV and film. Stop it. Get me to the bloody story.

3) Why do I write what I do?

Because I don’t see enough of the stories I like to see in the world.

4) How does my writing process work?

Well, I’ll start with an idea. A paragraph maybe, scribbled in a text file. Then perhaps  half a page on the main characters  – who they are, what they believe, what their attitude is. I might skip this step, though, and go straight to the corkboard.

I talked about the corkboard earlier.

I’ve got two cards pinned above the corkboard as lodestones. They help keep me on track.

The first is John Rogers’ three rules of writing:

  1. Who wants what?
  2. Why can’t they get it?
  3. Why do I give a shit?

And the other is this:

  • How does that make it worse?

I’m a planner. I like to have a map. With the use of the corkboard I know that every scene in the script will have a purpose. Sure, I can go off-map later if I find something interesting to explore, but having the scenes plotted out beforehand means that I already know the shape of the piece, and the major protagonists.

I’m never going to have writers’ block, because the heavy lifting’s already done.

Once I’m happy with the cards I’ll go to script. I used to write a treatment from the cards and then work from that, but these days I just move the board onto the wall behind my computer and go straight from there.

The first draft is Draft Zero. It splurges from my head onto the page. I write fast and – crucially – don’t go back and revise anything. The aim at this stage is to get words onto screen. Not good words, just words. I get to make them good later. But if the scene cards are the skeleton of the script, this is where the muscles to make it move go.

(I know some people who call this the vomit draft, because it all comes out quickly and messily, but I don’t like that phrase because, well, puke.)

Some days this is easy. You get flow, and the pages come quickly and easily, and you know that they’re good, and this is the best job in the fucking world!

Other days it’s like pulling teeth.

But either way, on either day, when I’ve scheduled myself a writing day I sit down and write the damn pages. I have a target number, and I keep working until I hit it. These days I generally aim for five pages a day, but I can crank that up if there’s a deadline.

When it’s done, I put it away. For a month if it’s for me, for as long as I can if it’s for someone else. After that it comes out and I re-read it.

This is the point where I realise that some of it is all right. Some of it might even be quite good. And some of it… Well. Let’s cheer ourselves up with the thought that now we get to fix those.

I print it out, grab my favourite pen (Pilot G-2 black with a 0.7mm nib, since you ask) and start to scribble. Read from front to back, fix. Type up changes. Repeat.

The first couple of passes are for plot. Does it make sense? Am I communicating what I mean to? Is it exciting where it should be exciting and funny where it should be funny?

After that, I use an old actors trick. For each scene, I become the character in the scene and think as that character:

  • What are they feeling at this point?
  • What is their objective?
  • How are they going about achieving their objective?

And changing dialogue and action to reflect their point of view and decisions.

Their objectives will change over the course of the scene. For example:

  • Find out what the ticking sound is
  • Warn everyone else about the bomb
  • Flee through the door (but, when they find it locked…)
  • Flee through the window

Stanislavsky called these individual moments “beats”. If you hang around with actors (and you should, it’ll help you write) they will be parsing the script into these beats to find out how to play the character. And if you don’t put the beats in, the actor will make them up.

They have to. They need something to play.

Don’t let an actor write your script. Put the beats in yourself.

After I’ve done that for every character in the scene, I’ll do a pass of the action lines to make sure they make sense. Is there enough room in here for what’s going on? How does the environment affect the world?

And then onto the next scene.

Once I’ve done all these passes (probably a dozen or so), then the script is ready to show to someone else.

As far as I’m concerned, this version is the first draft.

On a show or game, it’ll go to the script editor or lead writer. For a spec, I have writer friends who’ll have a read and give me notes on it. Either way, when the notes come back I print them out, and mark them all up. Line underneath the note, and a circle in the margin. When I address a note then I’ll put a line through the circle to show that it’s done. Sometimes, more rarely, I decide that the note isn’t a good one. Those ones get a cross through the circle to show that I’m deliberately not doing it. This way I can go back and double-check later – did I really mean to ignore this note?

I’ll go through the script, correcting and amending notes as required, until everything’s done.

I might do this two or three times on a spec, sending it to different people each time.

Then it’s time for the table read. I get some actor buddies round, they read the script aloud. I’m making notes the whole way about where the words cause people to stumble, and which speeches go better (or worse) than they did in my head. Where the laughs and gasps are, if there are any.

Then get some feedback from the actors. Were they confused at any point? Any comments they have on characterisation? Anything unclear?

Then take those notes away, and rewrite again.

Finally, after all that, it’s ready to send out.

So, there you have it. The What, Why, and How of my writing. Hope it was of some interest.

I’m probably supposed to have passed on the tour at the bottom here, like some form of benevolent chain letter, but I haven’t.