Thursday, July 31, 2008

Outlines, and sample script pages.

Twice recently, I've written a brief outline for a production company (an outline is a a brief document designed to roughly lay out idea for the series, or film, that thus far exists only in the writer's head), and had it turned down, or nearly turned down, for including too much detail. And I've only just worked out where I went wrong.

Specifically, I not only wrote a four page document detailing characters, plotlines, and tone, but went on to write a few pages of script, some sample scenes giving each character a few lines of dialogue. So the four page Word document was accompanied by a three or four page Final Draft document that acted as a trailer, a teensy snippet of the joys to come. Ha! I thought. My extra time and effort will certainly play out in this instance, ho yuss.

No. Wrong. Bad. Mistake.

Both the producers loved the treatments. And the treatments are designed to be loved. The ideas for both series are big bold concepts that are sort of in fashion right now, but not so much that they're played out. The characters are described as likeable, but not sentimentally so. They're slightly odd, but not wacky. The tone riffs on some of the big recent successes in the appropriate genres, but not so much that there's the whiff of day-old Cornish Yarg producers get when they hear 'like The Office, but more sort of quirky' for the fifth time that day. Fresh takes are balanced with tried and trusted character arcs in a harmonic fashion that would make a Zen master weep. Were a samurai to write such a document as part of his calligraphic workout (samurai had to balance out their swordsmanship with flower-arranging and penmanship, well cool I reckon), whole armies would weep to see the complexities hidden in simple brush strokes. I give good outline.

But then they read the sample script. And both producers said, within a day of each other, 'yeeeeeeeah, you know, I kind of had a different tone in my head, so when I read the samples, they didn't quite.... work'. And there lies the nub of the matter, sitting there like a big... nub.

When you write an outline, you're selling something. Tone, character arcs, soundtrack, whatever, you're trying to build a picture in the mind of the person reading it of what the final result is going to look like. The finished product has to lie shimmering just beyond the horizon, a glorious vision of what could possibly be. At this point, you are basically a big ho, and a big ho does not promise the client the dance of seven veils, then at veil three drop to her knees and... well, you know what I'm saying. You do the dance of the veils, promise worlds untold, then retreat back into the darkness and await the call.

Of course some writers don't do outlines at all. Steven Moffat said in a recent interview with Jason Arnopp:

"I’ve always stuck to this theory, apart from one occasion when I was very tired: you never write a storyline and you certainly never submit one. Or at least, I haven’t had to for years and I rebel if asked! You write the script, and you write it in order. Because if you ever find yourself in a situation where... (thinks for a moment) You want each scene to justify itself and be good at the time. The ride has to be good at every point. You can’t be justifying things because they’ll be interesting later. If that makes sense! You could have the best idea in the world for the second half of the episode, but if the first half of the episode doesn’t have an interesting way of getting there, you’re screwed. So if you write everything in order, you know that it’s good."

Which of course lead to a half hour existential crisis on my part, because I cling to outlines, frankly (there's a blurring here with storylines, which aren't entirely the same thing, but close enough for our purposes), and I don't entirely mind writing them. Am I doing it properly, I thought? Am I some kind of producer's lackey, a Gollum to their Frodo, only taller and with great hair?

Not that S. Moffat was doing anything other than describing his own way of working - and when I walked back out of the sea and read the next sentence:

“It's probably worth adding that lots of brilliant writers... do outlines, and swear by them. I think - I'm a bit hazy - that Paul Abbott is one of them, and he's the very best. Everyone's different, and the 'no outlines' things is just personal preference."

... I chilled out a bit.

In fact, the reason I'm quite happy to do outlines and/or storylines is because my mind is constantly aglow with whirling, transient nodes of thought careening through a cosmic vapor of invention. And I'm not great at structure. Consequently, when I started writing for Bob the Builder (all roads lead back to Bob, mainly because he built them), having to write a detailed outline for each episode so the animators could work out how many puppets could fit in each scene and whether they'd have to build any new props came as a great revelation to me. When I actually came to write the script, no longer would I constantly have to rip up great swathes of dialogue because I had forgotten that the previous scene placed the two characters currently having a nice chat with each other, hundreds of miles apart.

I suspect also that S. Moffat is blimmin' steeped in structure. Just watch episodes of Press Gang, or Coupling, and the larking about with structure is built in at an almost molecular level. Moffat eats, drinks and breathes structure, like a Doozer. Which is, I reckon, why he doesn't need to worry about outlines. But why I do.

Anyway, producer 1 has passed on the outline, producer 2 is sending the other one up the line to development, but without the sample pages. And I will never write sample script pages again.

Of course the other possibility is that the sample pages just weren't very good. But that simply doesn't bear thinking about.

Monday, July 28, 2008

It was the toast.

Kate Beaton's comics are the shizz, and have reminded me that I should start blogging again, even though July and August are weird months for writing, because every fecker is off on holiday, so I spend a lot of those months saying 'tum te tum', and sighing.

Except that in an unprecedented turn of events, I have been given lots of work to do from today onwards! I was so excited I immediately fell asleep. But I will start it properly tomorrow.


Patroclus and I were at the maternity bit of the hospital, having the Blue Kitten scanned.

SCANNING LADY: Well, the brain is very slightly smaller than is usual at this point.

ME: Eek.

SCANNING LADY: However, her legs are slightly longer than is normal.

PATROCLUS: We have made a bimbo.

ME: What if she turns out to be blonde as well? SHE COULD NEVER SURVIVE IN THE REAL WORLD!

PATROCLUS: I'm sure she's fine.

SCANNING LADY frowns at the screen, on which there appears to be some motion.

SCANNING LADY: Now she appears to be punching herself in the face.

We all look at the scanner. Blue Kitten does indeed appear to be punching herself in the face.

ME: Hmm.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tum te tum

It's all gone a bit faffy at the moment, what with waiting to hear back from various people, all of whom have apparently gone on holiday (not you, Agent Matt).

Also, I was at a bbc drama party last week, at which people kept interrupting my conversation with another writer by saying 'Excuse me, but aren't you James? OMG I love your blog!'

Except the person I was standing with was this James. So they weren't talking to me.


ALSO: just noticed that Green Wing is now available from the iTunes Store, hurrah! Out of idle curiosity, is anyone able to tell me if it's also available from the American version of iTunes?

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Patroclus and I attend our first ante-natal class.

I have been lied to by every sitcom and mid-range comedy film I have ever seen. There are no plastic models of uteruses, and we do not sit in a circle and practice breathing, while I try not to faint at faint at stories about tearing, and stitches and various bodily functions that frankly don't crop up in games of D&D all that often unless you've done something really wrong.

Instead, the nice lady talks gently about how the needs of the mother must be addressed as well as the needs of the baby. Yawn. I fight the urge to stand up and tell everyone how I got into scriptwriting, which is what I've had to do every time I've been in a room with plastic chairs, bottles of water and more than five people in the past five years. At various points I try to meet the gaze of the only other male parental unit in the room, and go 'cuh', but he's busy leaning forward, frowning studiously, while the nice lady goes 'blah blah blah' in the background. He's not observing what's going on around him at all! His blog post will be rubbish. I am already the winner!

Patroclus gently nudges my foot (ow) and I realise we are being urged to discuss Our Fears About Baby. Well, my main fear that we are moving into a parallel world where the Definite Article has unaccountably vanished seems to have come true without anyone else noticing. I consider asking the 'What if Baby is really really ugly?' for a laugh, but decide not to in the end. In the end I come with something about dropping Baby (argh, now I'm doing it) on a tiled floor, just to keep the meeting moving. I can't remember what the reassuring answer was. Anyway, I have big goalkeeper's hands, it'll probably be fine.

Now, says the nice lady, let's talk about all the positive things. What have you all been looking forward to?

Patroclus and I exchange a look, and it suddenly occurs to both of us that we have been expecting nothing but unrelenting horror for the forseeable future, with the best possible result being that after eighteen years or so, Offspring learns to treat us with a sort of affectionate disdain.

Every one else is looking too shy to speak. Dammit, I could have cleaned up, if I could think of any positive aspect of baby having. Patroclus and I rack our brains. Nothing.

Well, says the nice lady (we lean forward, expectantly) sometimes parents learn to take things at a slower pace. You often find yourself singing little songs to yourself! And making a little commentary to yourself as you go about the house. And when Baby is a little older, a simple five minute trip down the road can take half an hour, as you have to stop and make a story about every leaf and snail you pass.

That appears to be it. Patroclus and I slump back in our chairs. These are all things we do anyway. Bugger.

Finally, the nice lady talks about to juggle both aspects of parenting. She seems to be under the impression that all mothers stay at home, while all fathers go to work! Fortunately, ours is a more modern relationship, where Patroclus works from home, while I sit around the house and turn down work, and play games on the X-Box, and sometimes fall asleep in the afternoon.

This is going to be easy!

On the way out, I sing the Nokia theme song, and stop to look at a snail.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Quote Of The Day

Originally uploaded by jamesandthebluecat
From this piece.

The British Museum has had its most successful year since it started counting visitors - and probably since its foundation in 1753. In the financial year 2007-08, a record 6 million people came through the doors, including 35,000 who visited on a single day to celebrate the Chinese new year.

The museum's director, Neil MacGregor, said: "We had to shut the main gates on Great Russell Street to prevent more people from coming in. It was the first time we did that since the Chartist riots of 1848 - although on that occasion the staff were actually on the roof, armed with stones."


A mighty crowd has gathered at the gates of the museum. Members of staff glare menacingly from the roof.

CHARTIST CROWD: We just want to use the toilets!

The staff begin throwing stones. The crowd retreat a little under the attack, but remain unbowed. A spokesman finally struggles forward.

SPOKESMAN: Look, we'll all buy coffees, how about that!

A small clay Anthony Gormley hits the spokesman in the forehead. He collapses.


A squad of French schoolchildren are pushed in under the gates


From inside, the sound of breakages and theft can dimly be made out. The staff go into a huddle. Meanwhile, the crowd has begun a chant.





After a while, the staff seem to have come to some sort of conclusion. One senior member of staff steps gingerly to the edge of the roof, and holds a rolled poster for the 'Lord John Russell's Toby Jugs: A Retrospective' exhibition up to his mouth.

STAFF MEMBER: (Is this thing on?) We can do a deal! Did anyone bring any antiquities?

The crowd have a think. Eventually a small child is pushed forward. In his arms he bears a bundle of rolled-up papers.

CHILD: I bring charts!




STAFF MEMBER: Bit previous.


UPDATE: when I bothered to actually look up Chartism rather than just make up silly sketches about it, it's actually quite interesting.