Monthly Archives: August 2015

In the background …

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I was watching an episode of Silicon Valley the other day (if you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out – it’s one of my favourite sitcoms of the moment) and there was this scene in front of a large window.

Behind them, if you were paying attention, Dinesh gets up and heads for the whiteboard. It’s not focussed on, it’s not dwelt on, hell, the window’s hardly in frame … but it’s there. The kind of motion you notice out of the corner of your eye and chuckle because you know exactly what he’s doing and why … but since it happened covertly you feel smug and certain you’re the only one who noticed.

Anyone watching this who didn’t see it will be surprised and laugh when they find out what’s happening (for it was funny in context). If it had been more blatantly done it would be a shitty set up which puts the audience the wrong kind of ahead of the character. It would have made the gag seem obvious and clumsy. It would force you to wait for something you knew was coming.

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But it wasn’t like that. It was subtle. It made me feel clever for noticing. People who didn’t notice will have caught it on a second viewing and marvelled (maybe) at how well thought out it was. A bit like the people who somehow didn’t spot

SPOILER FOR FIGHT CLUB

Tyler Durden appear and disappear on the escalator at the beginning of the film. It’s a huge tip off to his non-existence … but one a lot of people didn’t seem to catch on first viewing.

SPOILER OVER

Second or third time round they see it and are happy as their mental jigsaw click into place.

I love stuff like that. I love stuff you catch on repeat viewings which reinforce what came later. I love Ben Kenobi’s expression in Star Wars when

SPOILER(?) FOR STAR WARS

Luke talks about who his father was.

SPOILER OVER

At the time, that expression meant nothing. After Empire, it means everything … although I don’t think it’s a deliberate thing. I think we’re reading something into an expression which probably just meant Alec Guinness was uncomfortable in his robes. Or had just farted or something.

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Anyway. I love that stuff. I love that it was always there but you just didn’t notice it.

The problem is, how to put that into a script? I don’t really mean ‘How do I write this in a way which will force the director to frame it all properly?’ because any decent director has a conversation with the scriptwriter to determine what they had in mind. The director isn’t obliged to shoot it that way, but they should at least have an understanding of the intention before they choose a different method. Ideally, this is an ongoing conversation throughout development … but sometimes that isn’t possible and a discussion just prior to shooting/pre-production is all there’s time for.

So that’s not the problem. The problem is: how do I convey the same experience to the reader?

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Scripts are a technical document, that’s true … but they should still invoke the same emotional responses as the finished film. Sad bits should be written in a way which makes the reader feel sad. Happy bits should do the opposite. Action scenes should be thrilling and not just “and then they have a fight on a cable car”.

It doesn’t matter if the stunt co-ordinator changes the fight or the location is shifted to a waterwheel. The script can change to reflect that … but in order to get made, it has to thrill someone (or several someones). They have to see in their mind’s eye what the audience will be seeing on screen.

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But if the majority of the audience aren’t supposed to see it, if it’s meant to be hidden until it’s revealed later … well, that’s hard to do in a script.

I’ve tried writing:

IN THE BACKGROUND: Bob pockets the magic dildo of Aramore.

But some readers assume that means it’s a close up of Bob picking it up, looking shifty, and shoving it down his pants. “The dildo twist is too obvious!” they cry, “Everyone will know it’s coming!”

Hmm.

I’ve tried writing:

Whilst Emily punches a marmoset, in the background, just over Emily’s shoulder, Bob surreptitiously steals up the magic dildo.

… with much the same results: they ‘see’ a big old close-up of Bob’s phallus-thieving antics. For some reason, words like ‘surreptitiously’ (as well as being a bugger to spell) seem to invoke a close-up of someone nervously moving their eyes from side to side.

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To be honest, I’m at a bit of a loss as to how to describe it really.

If you were paying attention, you might notice Bob stealing the magic dildo?

Whilst the camera focuses on Emily’s marmoset-punching, at the edge of the frame, Bob steals the dildo?

Unseen by all but the most eagle-eyed viewer, Bob grabs the magic dildo and … ?

I think I like that last one best … but it’s still not ideal.

I think part of the problem is there isn’t a good way to do it without breaking the rules of scriptwriting. You might have to draw attention to what the camera’s pointing at, or explain that the audience aren’t really supposed to notice this bit.

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On screen, the audience probably won’t notice because there’s a lot of other things going on for them to focus on. You can add action on the other side of the screen to draw their attention or an unusual prop or a brief burst of nudity or … you know, stuff.

In a well written script, everything on the page is relevant. That’s what frustrating about some badly-written scripts – they contain lots of pointless detail you feel you need to remember … only to find out it’s irrelevant. If it’s mentioned on the page, if the knife and fork on the Brigadier’s dinner table is a lime green, plastic Winnie-the-Pooh set then (hopefully) it has some relevance to the plot or to describing the Brigadier’s character. If it’s irrelevant, why mention it?

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Using the same logic, if the script mentions that Bob pockets the magic dildo, then that magic dildo is probably really important later on and is to be remembered. Just by being on the page, it’s drawing attention to itself. Even when you don’t want it to.

So maybe the way to hide it on the page is the same way you’d hide it on screen? Maybe deliberately clumping a lot of action lines together (say five or six?) and inserting the covert didlo-filching into the middle of the abnormally large block is the way to go?

People do tend to skim read larger blocks of text. Many would possibly miss it. Maybe?

I don’t know. I don’t have a good answer for this. If you do, I’d love to hear it.

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I’m sure many wouldn’t – I’m a bit weird about watching the edges of the screen when people are talking. I think it’s because I used to enjoy spotting boom mics. You rarely see them any more.

* If you ever get the chance, stand at the back of an auditorium during a whodunnit or a film with a twist. As the twist looms closer, people lean in. As they get the twist, they lean back. Some people lean back significantly before everyone else. If one or two people lean back before the twist, they look smug – they worked out a brilliant twist because they are brilliant. If the majority of people lean back – they look bored. It’s an obvious, shit twist and now they’re just killing time waiting for the protagonist to catch up with them.

This is 100%, universally true. Except when it’s not.

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Categories: My Way, Someone Else's Way | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments

What do producer’s notes look like?

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A couple of weeks ago, whilst panicking about possibly offending a friend with my callous note-giving, I asked if anyone would be interested in seeing what script notes look like.

Apparently,  a few of you would be.

Although only one of you is prepared to say that in public.

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I should probably mention at this point that this post will largely benefit writers who have yet to enter production or receive notes from anyone who isn’t either a friend (being nice) or someone they’ve paid to get notes from (being polite). If you’re a more experienced writer, you may like to chuckle along in recognition or perhaps be outraged because you’ve never had notes like this.

Don’t be outraged. Be thankful.

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So these notes are second or third draft notes. First draft notes tend to be a bit more general and hand wavy:

I know we’re doing a live-action remake of Dumbo, but I’ve just found out how expensive elephants are … so can we make him a hamster?

or

The first act is great. The second act flags a bit and … well, there isn’t a third act. Can we fix this?

In essence, they like the concept and see potential … but want everything else to change.

By the second or third draft, all these things have been fixed. The big pieces are (mostly) in the right places (even though they’ll all change next time round) and attention can be spared for the finer details.

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So that’s what these notes are … but there’s a problem. In order to show what notes look like, I need a script to make notes on.

I had considered writing a deliberately early-stages three page script … but decided it was probably impossible to write something I thought was good enough to hand in and then immediately find all the flaws in it as if I was someone else reading it for the first time.

Then I considered asking someone to send in a short script … and quickly decided it would be a fairly unpleasant thing to tear someone’s script apart like this.

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So instead, I opened up my long-forgotten short-scripts folder and picked the first script off the list. This one is alphabetically and chronologically the first short script I ever wrote.

Boy is it shit.

But, saying that, it got optioned twice and won a short script competition … so some people saw some merit in it somewhere.

Fuck knows why.

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So here it is: 1939 – 1945 pm by (the young) Phillip Barron – it’s the entire history of WWII told in one afternoon in one street. Ish.

First off, have a read of the virgin, un-noted first three pages of a 14 page script. Imagine you’re a fresh-faced writer who thinks he’s written a work of genius.

Try not to form your own opinions just yet.

Page 1

Page 2

Page 3

 

Yeah.

Right.

Okay. So let’s now imagine you’ve sent it off to a producer and they’ve gushed on about how wonderful it is and made your head all big and swollen. Maybe you are a genius! They love it! They’ve optioned it!

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Fame and fortune here you come!

Because that’s exactly how this business works – you option a short script and are instantly catapulted into a full-time, fully paid professional position where people are hurling Oscars and BAFTAs at you.

Sometimes I want to build a time machine so I can go back in time and beat some sense into myself.

Anyway. You’ve had a meeting, you’ve made some big changes … which they love! They love you! Here comes the teeny, tiny little nit-picky notes:

Notes 1

 

Wait, what the fuck? (The bits in bold are me then. The bits in brackets are me now. Me now doesn’t like me then much)

What’s all that red? I thought they loved this? How come they no longer seem to understand what’s going on? I deliberately left out all the scene descriptions because they told me the script was too long and needed to be trimmed! They know the answers to all these questions!

How fucking dare they point out a typo (damn it! I missed that!) in the same paragraph they make a typo!

Do they really not know what ‘etc’ means?

(Later on you’ll find out they’re asking exactly how many Germans ‘etc’ means since they have to work out how many people to hire. For now, you’re just wrongly outraged.)

Why are they asking about the uniforms? How is that my decision? That’s down to the wardrobe department, surely? Isn’t that what they tell us in scriptwriting school?

Notes 2

 

Christ, it gets worse!

Hitler’s accent is up to the actor playing him, surely?

(Yes and no. They will make up their own mind (and possibly accent), but you still need to give the reader some clue as to how to read it.)

What does ‘too political’ mean? Do they want me to whitewash the Jews out of history? I can’t just not mention them, but the holocaust isn’t funny – what do they want me to do?

(They don’t know. Neither did I. Or do I. That note probably means we need to talk about this.)

Why bother giving me a note saying they understand something when they could just wait to the next line and find out?

(Because they’re giving you their impressions as they read. They think you’re someone they can just chat to through their typing. They probably found it easier to type an apology than to go back and correct it. Anyway, sometimes things like this are useful – knowing where you lost a reader (or viewer) can be the difference between someone finishing a script and hurling it at the bin).

More rousing? Fuck!

(Typically, writers will make it five percent more rousing for the next draft instead of 3000%. When someone wants more, give them MORE!)

I genuinely can’t remember if Arthur is historical or not … 

Notes 3

 

Two beats? What the fuck does two beats mean?

(Doesn’t mean anything – it’s just an observation. There are two beats in a short space of time, one in dialogue, one in parentheses.)

Who’s confused? They are, obviously! It’s so fucking clear who’s confused!

(Yes … but will it still be clear when there’s dozens of people standing around on set?)

Himmler was always a child!

And where’s the typo on that line? I’ve been looking at it for ages – there fucking isn’t one!

(Usually, when queried about this, producers can’t remember what they thought was a typo either.)

Discuss black and white? Okay: You’re a fucking imbecile for considering it.

There, how was that?

(It’s a whim. The producer will probably have forgotten why they thought that when you actually talk over these notes).

Of course Hitler wasn’t Himmler’s dad! Don’t be a fucking moron!

Chevy Chase? What the fuck does that mean?

(They won’t remember. They won’t even remember writing it. Just move on.)

Notes 4Has he got that power? Um … I don’t know. Does it matter? Wait, do you mean in real life or in this story? Oh fuck, I’m confused now.

Why do they love the word ‘promise’?

(They just do. Don’t question it, it doesn’t matter.)

Several means … I don’t fucking know! You choose! How many can you afford?

The English house looks like whatever the actual house looks like in the fucking location you pick. How is that my job to know that?

(Because someone has to go looking for a house which matches the picture in your head. It’s helpful if they know what that picture is.)

Peace and piece … those are Chamberlain’s actual words, you fucking idiot! And I’ve just realised you spelt his name wrong on the last page. Hah! I win the notes!

Swearing … yeah, okay. I like swearing but maybe you don’t?

No? What does ‘no’ mean on the last line?

And so on until your liver explodes in a shower of bile.

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If you want to know how to deal with notes, the answer is here.

The main problem with receiving notes like these is they’re all right. All of them. Even the ones which aren’t. They hurt because they feel like everything you’ve done is wrong … but that’s not what they’re saying. If everything you’d done was wrong, there’d either just be one note:

This is shit.

Or, more commonly, no notes because you’d never have heard back from the producer in the first place.

These notes, the myriad of tiny notes on every line, are the notes of someone who is on your side and is trying to help finesse the details. They may feel like a personal attack, but they’re not. This is just what the job is and how the process works.

Forewarned is forearmed. If you’re expecting this sort of evisceration then you can prepare yourself for it. Script editors tend to be more woolly and lovely about giving notes. Directors and producers tend to be more technical and clinical, brusque even.

As is always best practice, don’t respond straight away.

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Think it over, get a face to face meeting or a phone call and go through the notes. You’ll get the chance to explain and defend the bits you’re certain are right (I’m rarely certain and like being persuaded) and they’ll get the chance to explain what they actually mean by things like ‘Chevy Chase’ … if they ever meant anything in the first place.

Categories: Someone Else's Way, Writing and life | Tags: , | 4 Comments

#P̶h̶o̶n̶e̶ MeetPhill – Meeting #1: Piers Beckley, Michelle Lipton & J̶a̶s̶o̶n̶ ̶A̶r̶n̶o̶p̶p̶

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A very special #PhonePhill this week in that it didn’t involve a phone at all, but rather an actual face to face meeting with all the delights and risk of contamination these things bring.

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How can such a thing happen, you’re doubtlessly asking?

What kind of Earth-shattering calamity could persuade Phill to leave the relative safety of the Secret Writing Island and venture into deepest, darkest London where people can actually see him face to face and possibly even (gasp!) be nice to him?

Well, I’m glad you asked. It’s all Piers Beckley‘s fault.

Piers used to (or possibly still does but hasn’t for a while) run these monthly get togethers for writers in London. He was nice enough to invite me to join in and as is my want, I declined.

For I am shy.

Except when I’m not.

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But he persisted and I eventually caved in to his smooth-talking big city ways and found myself venturing into London to meet a lovely bunch of lovely people who were in various states of drunkeness.

And fun was had by all.

For largely geographical reasons (except Piers, who travels. Possibly in some kind of mysterious wrought iron carriage powered by dreams), Piers, Michelle, Jason and I began a tradition of extra-curricular meetings in Brighton. And sometimes London.

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Which is where this inaugural #MeetPhill took place.

Although, obviously, this wasn’t our inaugural meeting. Nor was it an opportunity for them to meet me so much as for all of us to meet each other. Again. Also, inaugural implies there’ll be more opportunities for people to meet me.

There won’t.

Well, there will. But I’m far too lazy to traipse into London for a random natter with anyone who emails me.

To be honest, this was just three friends meeting up for a chat about writing and life and stuff.

Wait a minute. Three? Don’t I mean four?

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No. One person has been strangely elusive of late. He says he’s doing this newfangled thing called writing … but that sounds frankly ludicrous and can’t be true.

The truth is … we’ve lost Arnopp. Has anybody seen him? If you spot him, give him a cuddle and some gin and send him home.

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The rest of us had a lovely time. We saw dinosaurs and ate Japanese food and got caught in a Tube strike and, oh … everything. We regaled each other with discussions, including but not limited to:

  1. Getting a proper writing job on a proper TV programme  … and then having to turn down another proper writing job on another proper TV programme because they clashed.
  2. Writing erotic fiction.
  3. Writing for a proper A-list actor who actually read the script and loved it and wanted to do it … and then didn’t because of reasons which are depressing but totally understandable.
  4. Something so insanely exciting but also very, very personal and private which can’t be discussed despite it being the bestest news ever.
  5. Developing a new TV series for and with someone.
  6. The pitiful amount of custard served with the steamed treacle pudding in the last pub we went into. Which also didn’t have a working kettle and hence, no tea. Which was disappointing.
  7. Purging the urge to write scripts for existing TV shows by actually writing them in a useful way.
  8. Other stuff.

Usually in a #PhonePhill there’s some aspect of the discussion which I’ll pull out and highlight in great length, but in this case the meeting of peers is the point. Sideways networking, meeting up with other writers, having a bit of a chat and building those relationships is vital.

Networking with producers and directors is all well and good. Vital, in fact … but it’s the other writers, the other people on the same journey who will help you the most.

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Yes, sometimes we read each others’ scripts. Sometimes. Sometimes we share information or opportunities. Sometimes those things even lead somewhere.

Just prior to meeting Piers and Shel, for example, I had a meeting with a new producer to discuss optioning a feature script. That meeting came about because of Piers – he knew the guy was looking for scripts and thought I may have had the sort of thing he was looking for.

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Piers was right.

That new contact, that new opportunity and new option is a direct result of sideways networking. Writers tend to be awfully nice people who have a lot of time for each other and are very supportive. Well, in my experience anyway.

If you’re a writer who doesn’t know other writers, find some and know them. You’ll be glad you did.

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Categories: #PhonePhill, Career Path, Writing and life | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

What do script notes look like?

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An actor friend of mine recently asked if I could read his script for him. Now normally I would say no*, but I like this guy and I’ve been we’ve been chatting about the concept for a while now and I thought – what the hell?

So I read the script and gave some opinions. Just opinions, not facts, just my (flawed) perception of the script as I understood it.

He went away, did some rewrites and came back with a better draft.

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Now there’s an odd thing with a script – the better it is, the more notes it generates … until it gets really good and the notes slowly dry up.

Essentially it’s because first drafts are terrible and need major de-and-reconstruction to make them work. I expect to throw out 50% of every first draft. Notes will be along the lines of:

It’s great up until the third act (this means the first act is shit).

or

I don’t like the protagonist but her friend is really cool (usually because the protagonist was their idea and their friend was the one I wanted to write).

or

I don’t know, the (insert whatever plot element they specified) is so clichéd now.

or

None of this makes any fucking sense (which usually means … yeah, I fucked up).

The notes are big notes about big things because the big things don’t work. There are fewer big notes about big things than small notes about small things because there are fewer big things than small things in a script.

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The second draft is (hopefully) far better. It actually works as a movie.  It’s coherent, it’s funny/sexy/affecting (or whatever it’s meant to be) … it just works.

Now we can start to make it good.

Now we get onto the small notes about small things.

Now we tear out the writer’s heart and stamp on it.

These kind of notes are awful and upsetting and often feel pointless and overwhelming and … hurtful.

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But they’re not. Not really. Well, not always. They’re usually right or at least right from the note-giver’s point of view. They’re not given in a malicious sense, they’re given in a sleeves-rolled-up, let’s-get-into-the-details-and-make-it-better sense.

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These notes are polishing. And polishing, by its nature, involves methodically going over every square inch of script.

Every line, every name, every scene heading … all of it.

Experienced writers … well, we don’t enjoy getting these notes, but we expect them. When people don’t interrogate the script and just go “Brilliant! Let’s film it!” (which has happened to me), when they’re apparently not interested in refining the script … the film will be shit. Because they clearly don’t care enough to put the effort into improving it.

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Actors, like my friend, I don’t know if actors are used to notes like that. Actors get notes on their performance, true. But I think (and correct me if I’m wrong) that they tend to be along the lines of:

That was great. Can we try one where you’re angry?

Followed by an in-depth discussion/explanation of why the director thinks the character should  be angry at this point.

Actors (I think – I may be talking out of my arse here) rarely get notes which go:

Your left foot, can you move it two inches to the left? Your right foot doesn’t make sense. Let’s rotate it 30 degrees so you’re standing on the outside edge. Your left ankle is fine but your right ankle is too fat – change that …

And so on, all the way up their body, criticising every joint, muscle and sinew until they get told to make their blinking asynchronous.

Maybe that does happen – I suspect (and hope) it doesn’t.

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So I gave my in-depth, nit-picky notes on what is now a much better script, sent them off … and was immediately worried – what if he’s upset by my notes? What if he reacts to them the way I did the first time I received notes like that? I think maybe he’s done devised work and de-constructed scenes until they’ve learnt to fucking behave themselves … but what if he hasn’t?

Oh no! What if he doesn’t understand the more notes=better script equation?

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Eh … he’s a big boy, he’ll get over it.

But then I was thinking – would it be useful to newer writers to get a sense of what kind of notes they’re going to get once they’re working for a client?

Is that the kind of thing you’d like to read? Would you like me to post an excerpt from a script with development-style notes attached?

I was just going to do it, but this post is already too long and frankly I’m boring myself here … so I put it to you, is this something which would be helpful to those of you just starting out? Or even those of you far along the path who want to know we all get the same level of script-hammering?

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Answers in the comments (or by email, which seems to be your preferred means of communication – why is that? Why have you all gone so shy all of a sudden?).

Vote with silence or NO and I’ll not bother. Vote yes and I’ll post something next week … or maybe the week after since there’s a #PhonePhill to write up.

Here’s some Bohemian Rhapsody because … because.

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* Because it takes a lot of time to read, think and opine.

Because people (especially non-writers or writers with limited experience) get pissed off and take it to heart if my opinion is anything other than ‘GENIUS! YOU ARE ONE!’

Because people often think agreeing to read one draft is actually agreeing to read the next 78 nigh-on-identical drafts where nothing I say is ever taken into consideration and none of the problems are ever resolved.#

Because I don’t want to.

#This is weird – you don’t like/trust my advice enough to actually follow it … but you want more of it? Lots more of it? Are you just trying to see how wrong I can be?

Categories: My Way, Random Witterings, Writing and life | Tags: , | 3 Comments

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