Win a copy of Outside In!

So I was on Croydon Radio last Saturday, chatting away to the hosts of the From Croydon to Gallifrey podcast Janet and Steve about Outside In and Spaceships of Science Fiction.

It was my very first radio interview. I got to plug my books and even choose some records for them to play.

Seriously, I felt like a real writer and everything.

You can listen to the podcast online here, should you have missed it on its original airing. You slacker.

Probably the biggest thing I learned was just how much a person ums and ahs when they’re talking. As soon as I realised what I was doing I tried to cut down on it. But god-damn, it’s much more difficult than you think it is.

If you listen to the podcast, there’s also a competition to win a copy of Outside In. This could be particularly helpful in the UK because it’s not on sale in bookshops here – so if you want to get a copy this is  one of the best ways. Certainly one of the cheapest. 🙂

They also made me sign it, which is probably going to knock about 20% off the price when you flog it on eBay later.

Sorry about that.

Letters From America: Funny Man

originally posted 4th March 2004

Stand up comedy occurred last night.

It seemed to go down well, though it’s difficult to tell when you’re actually performing. I got laughs, and was told that it was excellent for a first timer, so it’s all downhill from here. I have one definite gig next week, then I’ll figure out whether I’m going to do it again. I suspect not (other fish to fry), but we’ll see.

Note for those attempting comedy work: Unless you have a talking penis, keep the microphone closer to your chin than your tummy. Or you won’t be heard at the back of the room.

It took less than two hours from stepping off stage to the first person saying: “So you’re a comedian, eh? Say something funny.”


As far as I can tell I’m the third blogger to go on a TAPS Continuing Drama course, following in the steps of Lucy in 2006 and David in 2007. Perhaps they only let one of us in each year lest we contaminate the other talent and they all start blogging too.

Anyhow, here’s what we got up to:

Beforehand, you had to write a one-page pitch of an original drama which would be shootable on the Emmerdale sets (you get a list and pictures) with no more than six characters.

Friday is getting-to-know-you: introductions, a go-through with a script editor of your pitch document, and a glass or few of free wine.

The course itself started properly on the Saturday with Bill Lyons, a 46-year-veteran of the TV industry telling you about how storylining on a soap works, from story document through to filmed episode, all of which we got to look at. He’s entertaining and full of useful information, and it’s fascinating to see something go from beginning to end.

Main helpful hint: spend at least 25% of your time doing the breakdown. Even if you’ve only got two days, spend the first morning doing the outline.

After lunch, we had an hour to rewrite one of the produced scenes, only without one of the driving characters. They got handed in for later, and the next day, Bill took us through each of the scenes we’d written as they were performed.

Here’s where I fucked up:

I knew that the set we were using wasn’t in fact a set at all, but the interior of a location, and that the exterior of the fictional location was, in fact, the actual exterior of the real building. So I split the scene in two, with a third of it set just outside the front door, thinking that it would be a move of just a few feet.

I was told in no uncertain terms that had this been a real soap, the moment Bill saw EXT. HOUSE, the script would have been binned.

What I’d forgotten is setup time. The entire crew would have had to move outdoors. And all their equipment. And everything would have had to be re-lit. Assuming that the weather’s acceptable.

And, bear in mind, the reason that I’m rewriting this scene at the last minute is because they’ve just lost one of their lead actors and are running behind. So they don’t have time to do that.

Bin. Lesson learned.

It’s more important to be on time and shootable than to be good. A scene can be as brilliant as you bloody like, but if they can’t shoot it, it’s a failure.

At the end of the day we also had to pitch our one-page story in under thirty seconds. It’s a good idea to get a bunch of the other writers together in the bar the night before and practice on each other. Just a couple of go-rounds with live targets makes a huge difference.

Now I’ve got until the 22nd to write up my pitch as a 23-minute script. With an ad break at 11’30”. So that should keep me busy for a while.

I’ve only one real regret about the weekend: I didn’t have anyone with me to take a picture while I stood on the invisible lift in Cardiff Bay.

Ah well.

Short Films – Lessons Learned

I made a short film, Fatal.

The absolute best thing about making a film is that you learn what not to do next time. So in the spirit of saving you some trouble when you make your first short film, here’s a few things I learned.

Have a suitable script

I knew that the film would be a one-day no-budget shoot. So that means, realistically, two or three actors in one location.

I considered going as far as the garden, my bedroom, or the local Travelodge, but in the end decided that my front room would do. Then I wrote a script featuring two actors in a front room. So the shoot itself was quick and easy.

Record your sound separately

Seriously, this is the most important thing I learned. Always have a separate soundtrack.

I knew one sound guy, and he’s no longer working in the business. I tried a couple of other leads, but time was getting short, and the DP swore blind that we could just run the sound from the boom mike into the camera and it would be fine.

Not having a separate sound guy is the worst mistake you can have.

If no-one’s monitoring the sound levels when you’re shooting, this means that you can’t match sound in editing. There were some great shots I couldn’t use at all because the background traffic noise was too high. Sound levels vary from scene to scene because no-one was watching the meters, so the actors don’t sound their best – the recorded dialogue is either clipped, or too quiet and had to be boosted (with loss of quality, and added background noise).

Editing the film took maybe twice as long as it needed to because I had to dance around the sound problems all the time. Even now, there’s one particular shot where the traffic is super-loud – and that was the best take, even after playing with it to filter out as much background noise as I could.

And then there are the scenes which sound the way they should. But, of course, they don’t match the rest of the scenes. To make it work, I had to add extra traffic noise throughout, so that although it’s noisy at least it matches.

Sound guy. Don’t believe anyone who says you can run it into the camera.

One small crumb of comfort is that even Joss Whedon can get it wrong. Check the traffic noise suddenly springing up in the laundrette in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog when Captain Hammer confronts his nemesis.

Be aware of the background

I cleared out a lot of the front room to get a nice background. (See those nice empty shelves next to the music system?)

Not enough, though. All the clutter in the background distracts you from the important thing: the acting.

Also, there’s a piece of gaffer tape that appears and disappears from the bannisters, because it got stuck there to keep it out of the way and no-one noticed it was in shot.

Have more runners than you think you need

It was a five-person crew, including me. As little as one extra runner to make tea, sort out food, and check the background would have freed me up to do more actual directing.

Assign someone to be the production manager and deal with everything that’s not directing. If you’re the director and production manager on the same shoot, both jobs are going to suffer.

Mark off your coverage

I had a shotlist, but I didn’t make sure that all the dialogue was covered twice. In one place I had nothing but a master shot.

Fortunately, I had a master shot. The master shot is the first thing you shoot when you do the scene: Camera static, everything in view, run the scene from beginning to end. It meant I had something to fall back on when I was short of footage.

Which I was, because I didn’t mark off my coverage.

So there you have it. With my next film, I can look forward to making lots of exciting new mistakes.

Radio Days

Some time ago, I directed a radio play.

I joined a Radio Theatre Group at work. Figured it would be fun and interesting. An email went round a while back saying “Here is an interesting play. Who wants to direct this?” and I thought: Why not. I’ve not directed anything before.

So I volunteered.

In the spirit of passing on what I’ve learned, here are a few useful things to know about directing for radio.

Have a rehearsal

The recording went much more smoothly thanks to the actors knowing who their characters were and what they were doing ahead of time.

It was all quite painless: The actors got sent a copy of the play beforehand, and after a readthrough to get us all settled in, I asked them some questions about their characters, and what they thought the characters knew, thought, felt.

Because we’d thought through these things in the rehearsal, we didn’t have to stop during the recording to ask any questions like “Why am I saying this?” or “What exactly do I mean here?”

Which results in a much more stress-free recording. Which is good for everyone.

Re-format your script

Specifically, number your lines.

A writers’ draft doesn’t need them. For example, check out The King’s Coiner by Philip Palmer for an example of a radio script in the BBC standard format.

But when it comes to recording, it’s immensely useful to be able to refer to an exact line quickly.

So reformat the script with a number next to each speech or sound cue. Try Porshia by Ed Harris for an example.

You could number everything, as this production draft does, or start afresh on each page like I did. Either way, it makes production easier because you can simply say “Let’s have line three again.” or “From line eight on page twelve.”

Listen through after you’ve finished editing

We finished our edit, and didn’t have a listen-through before quitting the edit suite. So of the two takes we could have used for one particular section… we had both. Plus a longish section of me saying “That was it! Let’s have it one more time.” Which isn’t really what you want in the middle of your radio play.

Which leads me to:

Back up your masters

Because if you don’t, and they get accidentally deleted from the computer you’re editing on, you could be absolutely screwed.

Which is what happened.

Fortunately, if you

Always burn a CD of the edit to take home with you at the end of an edit session

You may be able to salvage something.

So, with a special thanks to William Gallagher, who was able to take the edit and cut out the worst of the fluffs and pops and me, here it is.

Politics, by Katharine Way.