Things I’ve Learnt Recently

What’s in a name?

Nothing. Nothing’s in a name and that’s the problem.

So here’s the scenario: you’ve written a script and everyone loves it. There’s a director and a producer who are intent on making it, you’ve gone through multiple drafts and now everyone’s happy. It’s time to send it out to actors.

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To begin with, the script gets sent to people who match the character descriptions … all well and good.

Unless your character descriptions are like these … in which case, not good. Stop that.

As time goes on though, the net gets cast wider. Occasionally a random bit of good luck means so-and-so hears about the script, is intrigued and wants to play a part. This is fantastic! So-and-so is proper famous and a box office draw! We have to let so-and-so play that role!

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Only … the role doesn’t quite work for so-and-so … but fuck it, it’s so-and-so! We’ll rewrite the part to fit and it’ll be all the better for it!

Only … now that other part doesn’t work because whatshisname in that part can’t possibly have THAT relationship to so-and-so on account of them being the wrong age, race and gender.

Fuck it, we’ll rewrite that part too!

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And now thingymajig wants to be in a scene with so-and-so … but there aren’t any suitable scenes. What if we rewrite the potato heist scene to include thingymajig? Yeah, that will work!

But whatshisname has passed and now we have to revert to the original version, leaving all the other changes in place. No problem, we’ll just cut and paste that scene from the old draft! Easy.

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Um …

Which draft was the one where we changed the part to suit whatshisname?

This is what’s not in the name of the draft – the details of what’s in what draft.

If you haven’t been through this before, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s pretty easy to remember what happens in what draft. What’s the problem?

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Well, the problem is there were six main drafts of the scripts over two different versions (one version was a comedy, the other a serious drama). Each draft had two or three sets of minor notes. Then we started casting. The script has now been rewritten nine times, but not in a continuous forward-moving set of changes.

Sometimes A is B’s father, sometimes he’s not. Sometimes A is B’s brother, sometimes A is B’s mother or sister or twin or father again or mother again or completely unrelated or older sister or younger sister no, definitely older sister.

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Or brother.

And while that’s going on, in the same drafts there are multiple versions of a different scene to please whatshisname or so-and-so or … it’s all in flux, all the time. And none of this is reflected in the naming of the drafts.

This is long before the script is locked. This is before blue pages, before there’s a First AD or Line Producer keeping track of this sort of thing. This is just me numbering the script the way that makes sense to me.

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Personally, I tend to number the big drafts (1 … 2 … 3 …), with tiny rewrites meriting a decimal place (3.1 … 3.2 … 3.3 … and so on). Some people hate this but it works for me.

So how do you remember which draft had A as B’s older sister?

I guess you could keep a separate file with a list of all the changes in, but personally I just include a list of the changes in the body of the email when I send the script in.

 

Here you go! Now with A as B’s older sister, the potato heist is now a parsnip fight and the snowman fisting scene has (rightfully) been deleted.

This makes it easily searchable for me and (more crucially) easily searchable for the producer and/or director. In theory they can quickly find whichever draft they’re looking for and know exactly what changed in that draft.

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I suppose I could copy and paste this info into a separate document to make searching easier … but I tend to remember roughly when things changed and only have to look at the emails either side if I’m wrong.

It feels like a courtesy to include a little summary of what I’ve done with the submission anyway – just so the person receiving the script can flip to that scene and read the new bit without all that tedious script-comparing or reading the whole thing looking for tiny changes. So courtesy and convenience combine into a few lines of explanation which help everyone and remain as a permanent record of who did what and when.

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Maybe there’s a better way? If so, I’d love to hear from you … but this one works for me.

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Second that emotion

Hello, happy new year and welcome back. My you’re looking slim. No, honestly, you can’t tell how many boxes of Quality Street you ate. Please allow me to admire you for a second …

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… okay, let us begin the year.

I’m fully immersed in a difficult* rewrite at the moment and the danger with all rewrites (or indeed writes) when they’re taking a long time is that I’ll stray off the point.

Emotionally speaking, that is.

I know the point of the scene and the film and all the themes and character desires and what not … but I’ve found I need to keep reminding myself of the tone lest it wanders off into something too depressing or too silly or too scary or … stuff.

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Tone, to me, is the promise of a specific emotion. The tone tells you ‘you will feel mostly this way during this movie’. I think it’s fine to vary the tone from beginning to end, but not to swing wildly across the emotional spectrum from one scene to the next.

A very silly scene about shoes which features a child-rape in the middle and finishes with a slapstick custard pie is jarring. And weird. And just generally horrendous.

I find keeping in mind the emotion I want the audience to experience helps weed out anything which just doesn’t belong.

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I’ve done that for a while, but what I’ve noticed recently, what I wasn’t aware I was doing, is that I also keep a second emotion in mind – the lowest point of the main character.

What will the she be feeling at the end of the second act?

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How does that contrast with how she’s feeling at the beginning or the tone of the film? Often I find the way she feels at her lowest point is the secret fear which drives her actions throughout. If I know act two is going to conclude with her feeling lost and lonely … then I use that as the fear which colours her decisions throughout.

These two emotions – the tone and the low point should be consistent throughout. That’s not to say the protagonist won’t have fun … but the fear of being alone will always be with her and cause her to make bad choices.

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Take Woody in Toy Story as an example: he’s afraid of being replaced, of not being the top toy. The tone is lighthearted, family-friendly comedy – the audience laugh all the way through … but the underlying emotion is fear of being replaced. His low point comes when Woody realises he’s lost the thing he craves because of his actions.

I think.

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To be honest, I haven’t really thought it through in any detail. I’ve just noticed it’s what I’ve been doing on the last few scripts to help me stay on target. You may already be doing it. You may think it’s silly and doesn’t work. Or you may think it’s a useful way of thinking about things and incorporate it into your toolbox … it’s up to you.

Yes, it’s a simplistic way of looking at a complex story … but sometimes the simple things help inform and support the finer detail.

When I started this post I had a pithy sign off in mind … but I can’t remember what it was … so here’s a baby eating bacon instead.

 


 

* Largely difficult because I’m relocating it from the UK to the US – I didn’t realise how much I didn’t know about America. I mean, it’s all very well knowing what something looks like because you’ve seen it on screen … but what’s it called? That guy who does the thing … what’s his job title in American? And so on. You don’t need to know the names to recognise/understand stuff on screen … doesn’t work in a script.

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2015

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So that was 2015.

No flying cars, there were hoverboards … but they didn’t hover, they just set fire to people’s houses.

Behind the scenes I had a thrilling and exciting year … but I can’t really talk about it.

Not yet, anyway … but one day. soon.

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This is what’s immensely frustrating about being a scriptwriter – all the exciting things happen (and often die) out of the spotlight. By the time I’m allowed to talk about things (because contracts have finally been negotiated and signed) it’s old news and any excitement is feigned.

Well, not feigned … diluted. Like having to remember how excited you were about a Christmas present you got last year when it’s since been broken by the kid next door.fake-smile

But hey, it’s been a busy year with lots of stuff going on. On paper, it probably looks like not a lot … but that’s just the nature of the business. I’ve done a few uncredited rewrites, one of which has just been released … which is a yay I can’t publicly acknowledge.

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But never mind. If I was in it for the applause, I wouldn’t be a writer.

The rest of 2015, the bits I did talk about, went something like this:

JANUARY

Apparently all I did in January was talk about 2014, which although it included Ghostbusters and a suspicious looking codpiece …

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… seems a bit of a waste of a bloggy month.

FEBRUARY

Ah, hello groove I was wondering where you’d gone.

February was a proper blogging month full of blogs and … well, just blogs.

First off I tried to get you all to commit acts of phone-related mischief by adding ‘Okay Google’ phrases into scripts which would punish anyone who had their phone on in the cinema.

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Did any of you do it? Please say someone did it.

Then I defended Footloose because … it’s fucking Footloose. Footloose is awesome.

After succcessfully re-educating the world about the joys of ’80s dance, I went on to prove the three act structure is fine – stop trying to reinvent the wheel, it works just fine.

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And then I immediately explained why it doesn’t really work that well for a scriptwriter.

Aren’t you glad you’ve got me around to explain these things to you?

MARCH

March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb …

I, on the other hand, came in with a thing about the joy of failing

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… stumbled into a confused ramble about clichés

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… mumbled something I can’t be bothered to reread about page thinking

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… compared Joss Whedon to HTC and rambled about how frustrating it must be to be either of them …

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… and went out with an in-depth discussing about liars and lying for a living.

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APRIL

April is where things got interesting …

Just not at first. First I wondered if maybe you shouldn’t really be able to point to the midpoint in a film.

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Then I used my blog to educate my producer as to why he shouldn’t get his hopes up about the first draft I was just about to deliver …

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Just as it might have got interesting … I got angry about spoilers instead.

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Then it got interesting. I had a phone call

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It was Danny Stack … and he didn’t want anything except a chat.

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Where it got interesting was it kicked off a string of phone calls between me and … well, just people. Nice people. People like Calum Chalmers.

MAY

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And it carried on with more nice people like Robin Bell, Andrew Mullins and Dominic Carver.

In fact, most of May was taken up with phone calls, broken only by me trying to figure out how to write the perfect cameo (it worked! I wish I could tell you how well it worked … but I can’t) and to celebrate my 10th wedding anniversary.

Oh and I went on a bit about competition and how much I enjoy it.

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JUNE

June continued the #PhonePhill-ing bringing delightful chats with Dee Chilton, Rosie Claverton and Rebecca Handley.

In fact, June was all phone calls apart from one post about being better and how we should all pursue knowledge as if it were a … thing. I don’t know. Insert your own simile, I’m tired.

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JULY

July brought yet more telephone awesomeness …

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This time in the shape of Mac McSharry, James Moran, Jay Sutherland and Terry Newman.

As well as yakking to people, I also (gasp!) worked over a weekend.

Apparently this is so shocking to me I felt the need to blog about it.

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I also made an uncredited appearance as Iron Man at a little boy’s birthday party in a homemade, cardboard costume:

I enjoyed that.

AUGUST

In August I had a little panic about potentially offending  someone I quite like by giving them script notes. In order to cover my anxiety, I wrote this post about the kind of script notes I get and how upsetting they can be … if you don’t take them in the spirit they’re intended.

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Later on, I followed that post up by giving myself notes on an old script.

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I also pretended a meal/drink with some friends was a sort of #PhonePhill episode … even though it wasn’t.

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But it did lead to this picture, which is my favourite of the year:

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I rounded off August by highlighting my inability to not focus on background detail.

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SEPTEMBER

Man, I did a lot of blogging in 2015. Too much, some might say.

In September I added one more thing to a script and felt the need to tell everyone.

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Then I added a second thing and banged on about that too.

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I did a thing about tokenism and … well, I don’t know what my point was there. Feel free to read it and let me know.

Oh, and then I added some nonsense to Jason Arnopp’s blog post about hands.

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OCTOBER

I kicked off October by contrasting Rose Tyler with Jurassic Park … which, you know, is clearly two different things and needs a blog explaining why.

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And then … the future arrived!

I meant to take a photo of myself with my trousers on inside out … but I didn’t. Possibly because I don’t think I wore any in October.

Instead of wearing trousers, I watched some videos about deleted scenes from all three Star Wars films:

I say three because I’m a prequel denier. At that point I was adamant there were only three Star Wars films. Now, of course, there’s been another half of a Star Wars film.

Hopefully we’ll find out in a couple of years whether or not any of it makes sense.

NOVEMBER

Just when you thought I’d forgotten about it, another #PhonePhill – this time with William Gallagher. He’s written a book, you know. Bits of it are about me.

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Inspired by the resurgence of telephonic communication, I immediately didn’t do it again and instead waffled on about River Theory …

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Expressed my love for the Verity podcast …

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And raved on and on and on about this speech from Doctor Who:

Oh, and I found this photo of a Burt Reynolds crab.

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DECEMBER

Which brings us to now. All I did in December was a handful of short blogs about other people’s stuff. Things like:

Arnopp’s patreon campaign, the UK Scriptwriter’s Handbook and the Heaven Sent/Hell Bent scripts.

There were meant to be more, but there wasn’t.

I didn’t even wish you a merry Christmas.

Merry Christmas.

There, I did it.

And so, with this year nearly spent, all eyes turn to the next one.

Hopefully it’ll include at least one blog about my new office:

And loads and loads about my next script to be produced:

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Happy New Year, let’s chat soon.

Categories: #PhonePhill, Bored, Career Path, Christmas Crackers, Industry Musings, My Way, Progress, Publicity, Random Witterings, Rants, Sad Bastard, Someone Else's Way, Sparkle, The Ties That Bind, Things I've Learnt Recently, Two steps back, Writing and life | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Verity

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I don’t know about you, but I’m loving Doctor Who this season. Last season wasn’t for me, I found it increasingly difficult to watch to the point I had the last episode on in the background but didn’t really pay attention.

As a long term fan of the show I’ve come to accept this as normal. Some seasons I’ll love, some I won’t. Some Doctors I’ll love, some I’ll find annoying.

Last season … there was nothing for me to like. That’s not to say the show was fundamentally unlikeable, it’s just a personal preference.

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This season, I’m so excited. I’ve enjoyed every episode so far. Does that mean it’s quantitatively better?

No, it’s just how I feel about it. There’s always a chance that when I get round to rewatching the season I’ll feel differently, but for whatever the reason# I’m totally hooked again this year.

One of things which is deepening my enjoyment is listening to the Verity Podcast. If you haven’t listened to it, it’s (mostly*) American/Canadian female fans discussing the show. When the show’s airing, they discuss the episodes. When it’s not, they discuss other Who-related topics.

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Now, I know quite a lot of Doctor Who fans … but not many who live close by. I could ring them up to talk about the show … but we’re all busy and ringing people up takes time away from our respective families. Listening to other people discuss the show helps fill that void. I like to hear other people’s opinions, even if they differ from my own.

Actually, especially when they differ from my own. There’s not a lot of point listening to your own opinions repeated back to you (apart from when they codify or clarify something you didn’t know how to express).

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I like to listen and I like to learn to think about things in a different way.

There are a lot of Doctor Who podcasts, but the Verity one achieves this better than most by dint of being (mostly*) Americans/Canadians and solely women.

I don’t know any female Doctor Who fans. Not personally anyway. I know women who enjoy or quite like the show … but would never really describe themselves as fans. I could probably track some down if I really felt the need … but if I were my wife and saw me deliberately seeking out women who shared an interest we didn’t … well, I’d be a bit cross with myself. It would be a weird thing to do.

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Hearing women discuss the show is fascinating because, although most of the things they talk about are universal, there are certain points of view which don’t come naturally to me. This might be because I’m a man or it might be because I’m British or maybe just because I’m me and not them. Doesn’t really matter, I just enjoy hearing a different slant on things.

Similarly, it’s interesting to hear transatlantic opinions on something which feels so quintessentially British. Especially since their depth of knowledge and level of fandom are far greater than mine.

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It also makes me swell with pride. Doctor Who is a massive part of my life but has always been this tiny show, kicked about by the BBC and prematurely murdered just as it was finding its feet again. It had a moment of greatness … but became an embarrassment and something to be mocked. Hearing people halfway around the world loving it feels like a vindication. This is popular, it’s global, liking it is normal.

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If you haven’t listened to the podcast, I highly recommend it and would welcome similar recommendations in return.


 

* Mostly. There’s a Scot in there. And an Australian, I think.

# It might be my new office? Yeah, it’s probably my new office.

Categories: Someone Else's Way, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

Deleted from a galaxy far, far away …

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Last week, while wallowing in nostalgia for Back to the Future* I managed to sidetrack myself by watching deleted scenes from all three of the Star Wars movies. Specifically, the ones in these videos here:

Don’t worry, I don’t expect you to watch those videos … although they are interesting. Two things struck me though:

  1. It amazes me that I’m still learning things I never knew about Star Wars after 38 years of continuous fandom.
  2. All deleted scenes are essentially the same – deleted for a good reason.

Okay, not all. Barring scenes which were omitted from the theatrical version due to lack of money or interference by people who thought they knew better but didn’t … most deleted scenes are deleted because of pacing or because they restate information the audience already has.

Or both.

In other words, they slow the film down. They’re just not needed.

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All films have scenes like this: subplots which go nowhere, exposition heavy scenes which just aren’t needed, character development scenes which show the character doing character-y things which reinforce the type of character we’d already assumed they were …

And so on.

In retrospect, they’re clearly pointless or a waste of time … so why write them in the first place? If it’s so obvious watching the film, why isn’t it obvious when reading the script?

I mean, okay, writers are in the maze trying to figure their way through … but script readers, directors, producers, they have an overview, don’t they?

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No, not always.

A good director is down there in the maze with you. A good producer might be there too. On the first draft they may have an objective view, sure … but on the tenth? Or the twentieth? Sometimes the opposite thing happens and whole chunks of exposition and character development get deleted because we all know he’s a murderer due to his mum forcing him to wear the wrong colour pants – it’s obvious!

But it’s not. Not to anyone who hasn’t read fifteen drafts of the script, including the fourteen drafts which actually mention the pants in the first place. Sometimes obvious things are a lot less obvious than we imagine.

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Similarly, a script is not a movie. An actor standing on a set, wearing specific clothes under specific lights with specific music playing whilst holding a specific prop against a specific background can convey a lot more information than a single action line in a script.

In a script, you either have to call things out and explicitly state something … or allow the context to build up to an inescapable conclusion.

Often these conclusions are quite escapable because readers all read their own stuff into a script§. Part of the development process is weeding out words which may cause confusion. If a character is a werewolf in half of his scenes and occasionally growls in annoyance when he’s not … well, the word growl is confusing. Is he a wolf at this point or just annoyed?

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Clear on screen, not so clear on the page.

So sometimes whole sequences feel absolutely vital on the page … only to be completely redundant on screen. There’s an oft-quoted story of Steve McQueen crossing out dialogue, knowing he could say it with an expression … and that’s fine. He knows he can do that. Not all actors can. Not all readers/producers/directors can see that expression when it’s written down.

Deleted scenes will always exist because of the disconnect between translating one media (writing) into another (film). Pace on the page doesn’t always equate to pace on screen … and vice versa.

It would be nice to be able to identify which scenes will be deleted before filming. Or even before writing … but I’m not convinced that’s possible. There will always be deleted scenes, most of them are interesting … but ultimately pointless.

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A bit like this post.

I might just delete all the stuff about the elephant.^

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* 2, technically. I guess?

Yes, three. There are only three Star Wars films. Shut up.

Excluding that one summer when my younger brother watched the film once or twice a day, every day for six weeks. That was pretty annoying and almost put me off for life.

Almost.

∞ Underpants, if you’re American – no one ever became a murderer because of their mother’s taste in trousers. That’s just silly.

§ And completed scenes, to be fair. Think of that whisky scene in Skyfall – your interpretation of Bond’s reaction may well decide how you view the rest of the film. Is he hiding how upset he is or is he a callous misogynist~? Bet that was clearer in the script.

~ Who wants to guess how many attempts it took me to spell ‘misogynist’?

^ There is no elephant. Don’t look for the elephant, you’ll never find it.

Categories: Industry Musings, Random Witterings, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tokenism

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I have a second spec TV project on the go at the moment. That’s second to the one I’ve been talking about the last few weeks. If you haven’t read those posts, this possibly needed clarifying … or possibly not.

Anyway, there’s two of the buggers.

Unlike the first (which is genuinely the best thing I’ve written for years) the second isn’t quite right yet and is undergoing a B-story-ectomy. This is a massive pain in the arse and something I’ll talk about in the future.

Unless I’ve already blogged about it, in which case I won’t. I often get confused about which way round time moves.

This second script is something I’ve been kicking around for years (without really putting much effort into). Over a decade ago, the movie version of it won stuff and got me interviews with managers … which came to nothing because I didn’t have any other scripts of similar quality. I was, back then, a one trick pony.

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Now I have more tricks and sleeves to keep them up and everything.

That movie script was okay, but really it needs to be a TV series. So I’ve rewritten it as a pilot episode … and I love it. It’s one of those kind of programmes I’ve been lamenting the lack of. It’s a rollicking Saturday evening, team-adventure thing with a sci-fi twist. It’s exactly the kind of thing child-me would have loved.

The main difference, I guess, between this programme and its ’80s equivalent is that the ’80s version would have had an all white, male cast. With maybe a token sexy-woman thrown in.

Keen not to write the ’80s version, this one is much more diverse.

For a start, three of the five team members are women because … well, I feel like there’s an awful lack of women in these kind of things and I don’t really understand why. Some or all of them may or may not be sexy, it’s hard to tell from words on a page.

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There is a token sexy-bloke though because … well, why not?

The other guy may or may not be sexy too, it’s hard to tell from … blah, blah, blah.

The secondary character in the movie was a young Indian woman because fourteen years ago (when I first wrote it) I had more Indian friends than then existed in movies and wanted to redress this. She’s still Indian in the TV version.

One of the other women is Egyptian because … well, she needs to be for the story.

She’s also in a wheelchair because I’ve been trying to include at least one clearly disabled role in everything I’ve written since that BBC drama thing a few years back.

This one feels odd to me since, generally, it doesn’t matter if two, three or all of them are disabled. I don’t think it matters to the story one way or the other … but I want to help represent the large percentage of disabled people in the UK and this is my way.

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Is she a token disabled person?

Maybe. Depends on who’s cast in the other roles. Hopefully there would be disablity-blind casting … but, sadly, we all know that any character whose gender, ability, race or sexuality isn’t specified ends up being a white, able-bodied, male hetrosexual.

Even in our minds, say BARTENDER or DOCTOR or SKIER and our default image tends to be white and male and … so on.

So at least one of the main roles is specified as disabled.

One of the women is a lesbian because it’s the best thing for the pilot story and it helps (un)define the relationship between her and one of the men. They become best of friends, but will never be lovers. There is no sexual tension between them and never will be. That’s important for later.

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Similarly, one of the men is gay because it’s the only mechanic I could find which makes sense and creates the right reasons for the events which unfold throughout. He’s not necessarily camp though. His sexuality is absolutely incidental to the week to week unfolding of the story … until the end. At the end of the first season his actions retrospectively make sense because of who he’s in love with.

So there’s a gay one and a lesbian one and an Egyptian one and a disabled one and an Indian one and three out of five of them are women and …

Oh, hang on. None of them are black.

Right … so, whereas it would be nice if there was naturally an ethnic mix across the remaining three cast members, we come back to that default white casting setting.

 

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So why not specify one or more of them as black?

And maybe one should be Chinese or Japanese or Korean?

Ooh, and transgender! They’re not very well represented, one of them should be transgender.

And I’ve always thought one of them would be best played by Warwick Davies. This isn’t a “let’s get a little person in there” thing. I just think he’s awesome and genuinely the best actor for that role, irrespective of height.

So now my mental casting looks like it’s been done by the commitee for minority integration. It’s starting to look less like a bunch of people doing a job and more like they were all hand picked to represent something.

Which is kind of 50% true, I guess.

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The playing field isn’t level. The default casting tends to discriminate against a lot of people. I don’t know why this is, I don’t know if there’s genuinely a dearth of variety among actors or if there’s an unconscious bias which prevails in a predominantly white, male industry. It kind of doesn’t matter because I have no control over any of that.

Unless I give up and reduce the straight, white, able-bodied male writers by one.

What I do have control of is how I specify characters in my scripts. If I say nothing, there’s a better than average chance they’ll cast the default. If I get specific, they’ll search for that type of person.

Unless there’s a bloody good reason not to. Isms not being a good reason.

It’s kind of part of my job to write diversity into the script.

But. and here’s the thing I need to keep reminding myself,  I don’t have to fight every battle all the time.

This isn’t the only script I’m going to write. I can keep some of my white, middle class male guilt for the next script and the one after that and the one after that. Maybe the next script will have a transgender character in it? Preferably one whose story doesn’t revolve around their trans-ness. Maybe the next script will have five transgender characters in? Or five wheelchair users? Maybe there won’t be a single white, able-bodied, straight man in the whole script?

Or maybe the next script will be only about white men because that’s what the story demands?

I don’t know what story that might be, but maybe it will?

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I hope not.

The point I keep having to relearn is that no one script will change the world … but a general trend towards diversity will.  At the moment, making sure the characters are an even mix of race, sexuality and ability can look a little odd. Hopefully that’s changing and in the near future it won’t?

I guess my job is to add to the trickle which builds to the flood.

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Categories: For Want of a Nail, Industry Musings, My Way, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

The second thing

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Last week I went on (at great length) about how changing the arena of a script instantly made it more appealing to people. This week’s post is kind of an extension of that, a further twist to the arena knife which allows the story to haemorrhage awesomeness.

Wow. Haemorrhage is a really hard word to spell.

My writing partner and I had moved our story from a council estate to a community which grew out of the Great Sunday Squat. Set on an illegally occupied airbase it had all the qualities of a council estate with none of the resistance we’d been meeting whilst trying to get people to read it.

But something still wasn’t right.

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All the time Jay and I had been writing this, the story had been fighting us. Scenes felt dated. Attitudes and locations felt somehow wrong. It was a real struggle to keep it feeling fresh and modern … and then the shift in location/arena added a new problem.

This society had been set up in 1946. Most of these squats were gone by the mid-fifties. Keeping one around longer than that is a stretch, but not a huge one. Maybe one or two did continue longer than that? Maybe one is even still around to this day?

Maybe.

But then … does that ring true? Would a large swathe of illegally occupied land be left to fester under the no-longer-caring control of a bunch of squatters? Would any modern council allow those people to keep what will have become prime real estate?

In short, is it believable?

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Not to me, no.

It may actually be true (maybe?) but it’s not believable … and that’s a problem.

The way I’ve written this blog, it makes the solution seem obvious … but it really wasn’t. This blog makes it sound like there was a dead body with a stab-wound and a man holding a bloody knife … but that description doesn’t include the thousands of other facts which could obscure that obvious conclusion.

It took us a while, but eventually the blindingly obvious struck us – this wasn’t a contemporary story any more, it’s an historical one.

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Suddenly, all the scenes which had felt horribly 80s became typically 80s. We went from thinking people don’t live/behave like this to realising people did live/behave like this.

Suddenly it all made sense.

And the more I looked into moving the script through time, the more sense it made.

This script has a parallel narrative – the same characters go through two different yet interconnected stories which are set 7 years apart.

Think about what someone in 2015 wears. Now think about what someone in 2008 wore. Could you identify which set of clothes belonged to which year instantly?

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Think about someone holding an iPhone 3G up to their ear. Now imagine it’s an iPhone 6. Or an iPhone 5 (if they can’t afford the latest model) … is the difference so pronounced there’s no possibility of confusion?

What about cars? Is there a significant difference between now and then?

Not to my eyes.

Now think about the difference between 1978 and 1985. Think about seventies clothing. Now think about the eighties … is there a clear and recognisable difference to you? There is to me.

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Okay, so I know there was a blending of styles between 1978 and 1985. Some people in ’78 wore flares, some were punks. Not everyone wore decade-defining clothes … but the point remains. I think it’s easier to spot the difference between a 70s’ suit and an 80s’ one

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… than it is between a modern day one and one from 08.

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Hell, even the police cars were completely different. The 70s’ ones were the blue and white panda cars:

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The 80s brought us red and white jam sandwiches.

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What did police cars look like in 2008? Exactly the same as they do now? Silver Battenberg models as far as I can remember.

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To our eyes, changing the script from present day to the seventies/eighties gives it another level of intrigue – it’s another change to the arena which is inherently interesting. Plus, in that time Britain moved from a Labour government to a Tory one. Drastically so. There’s a world of difference between Callaghan and Thatcher – visually and in terms of policies. Policies which exactly mirror the attitudes of our dual protagonists.

If the Prime Minister was on a black, flatscreen TV in the background … could you tell at a glance if we were in 2008 or 2015?

Well, yes, probably. Especially if it was a close up of his face. Brown vs Cameron is an easy spot. Blair vs Cameron is trickier – two suited pretty boys who look like they’re dressed by the same stylist.

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Now think of the difference between Callaghan on a wooden TV and Thatcher on a brightly coloured plastic one.

Changing the time just made sense.*

Suddenly the script was set in an interesting location at an interesting time. Visually it’s striking and it just sounds different. The arena is unusual and therefore more intriguing.

So although this post and last week’s are technically about two different things, they’re really about one thing – arena. Where does the script happen? What’s the world, is it interesting to explore?

A sitcom about a  office worker who’s desperately in love with a girl but keeps fucking it up because he’s an imbecile sounds … familiar. I guess the execution might be good.

The same story set in Ancient Rome … that’s more interesting.

The arena is different. It’s the same com and needs to be equally as funny, but the sit’s different. The sit is what attracts people to a sitcom. The com is what keeps them watching.

Maybe.

Or maybe not. I just made that up without really thinking it through.

If it is true, then I think the same is (at least partially) true with all stories – find an interesting arena and you’re one step closer to making a sale.

Bullshit or not?

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* It also made a fuck load of annoying work while I tried to figure out what was invented when and how people did simple everyday things in 1978. 1985 I can remember fairly accurately, but 78? I was 6, I have no idea how petrol stations worked or banks or the police.

Categories: My Way, Random Witterings, The Ties That Bind, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

One more thing …

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I wrote a script a while back (with Jay Sutherland) and the result was … well, pretty good. We like it anyway. We had something we wanted to say, something we wanted to achieve and a story we wanted to tell. After multiple drafts and a lot of head-scratching, we achieved all three.

The end result was a great script … which no one wanted to read.

Not a script no one wanted to option, but one no one wanted to read.

Hmm … why not?

Maybe it was the pitch?

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Well, obviously it was the pitch since that was the only thing we could get people to read. Clearly there must be something wrong with it?

But there wasn’t. Or rather there was, but it wasn’t the pitch’s fault. The pitch accurately described the project in an exciting way … but the project itself was fundamentally flawed.

I say fundamentally flawed, but that may not be strictly true. Maybe the problem lies in other people’s perceptions/prejudices? Because, in essence, the fundamental flaw was two words – two words which, unfortunately, describe the arena in which the story takes place.

Those two words were ‘council estate’.%

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Okay, so I kind of get this. There are certain kinds of story which get set on a council estate. Often the kinds of story described by adjectives like ‘grim’ and ‘gritty’.

I’m not a fan of grim and gritty.

I recognise these stories have their place and can accurately reflect modern society or even inform people about the kinds of lives people do or have lived in the UK. I even enjoy such stories when I’m in the right mood … but generally I like my films to be escapist. I like to leave a cinema feeling good. Films which make me feel bad or an emotional wreck can be excellent … but for preference, I’d rather be uplifted.

British working class dramas tend not to be uplifting.

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Tend. Not ‘are never’, just tend.

Jay and I wanted to follow more in the footsteps of American blue-collar films which tend to be about triumphing over adversity or be somehow more life-affirming.

Again, this is a tendency, not a hard and fast rule.

Maybe these aren’t even tendencies and just the perceptions/prejudices of Jay and I#?

I don’t know.

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The problem is, as soom as people read ‘council estate’ they put the pitch down. They weren’t really interested in that kind of grim and gritty story.

Which is a shame, because we’d specifically written a non-grim-and-gritty story.

So what to do? We’d written a genre-busting* script which no one wanted to read because they didn’t like the genre. This is a colossal waste of time.

Thing is, I like the script. I like the story. I think people would like it too if they read it … we just needed to find out how to do that.

It just needed one more thing.

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It needed that extra twist which makes the script inherently more interesting.

In the end we settled on two more things.

The first was to change the arena. If people don’t want to read a script set on a council estate (I live on a council estate, by the way. My wife and I own our house, but it’s on a council estate) then we need to change it to a different location without losing the essence of the story.

So … reverse engineering time. What is it about a council estate which made it right for the story? What elements of an estate do we need to keep? Which elements do we need to throw away?

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Well, there were two tower blocks and stuff happened involving people looking down from them – is that important?

No. Not really. They can look across. Or up. It doesn’t matter.

What else?

We wanted to write an inspirational/aspirational working class story. Does that need to be set on a council estate?

Nope.

We wanted it to be a self-contained society on the outskirts of a town which was marginalised by the more affluent people in the town and downright ignored by the police. So long as people stayed on the estate, the police didn’t care what they did.

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That felt more tricky. I mean, we could have transplanted this story to an off-planet colony. One which was failing and being ignored by Earth … but then that tips it over into science fiction and whereas I love sci-fi,  I don’t want it for this story.

Still, that’s not a bad idea because it adds one more thing: an unusual arena.

This, I feel, is important because it automatically piques someone’s interest. The Martian looks like exactly the same (or at least a very similar) story as Cast Away or Robinson Crusoe.

Someone is stuck somewhere on their own, having to survive in ridiculously tough circumstances.

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Clearly there are a million ways to tell this story without changing the arena. Cast Away and The Martian may well be exactly the same story (it doesn’t look like it, but I haven’t seen or read The Martian so I can’t be certain) but setting one on a deserted island and the other on Mars makes them instantly feel different.

Changing the arena changes the level of interest. It can make the difference from someone going “Oh for fuck’s sake! Not another stranded on a desert island story!” to “Ooh, stuck on Mars! How’s he going to survive that?”

If people feel they know everything about one arena (even when they probably don’t), then switching it to one they know less about can make the difference between a read and a pass.

So what arenas are like a council estate … but not? What haven’t we seen on screen before? Or recently?

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And this is where an eclectic reading habit comes in useful. Hoover up knowledge, you never know when you might need it.

Two things sprang to mind, two things I remember reading and being fascinated by: The Principality of Sealand and Freetown Christiania. Both are small communities set up on the fringes of society, occasionally attacked by the authorities before settling down into an uneasy truce.

Sealand’s story I know was optioned by someone at some point – there may well be a film about that (or inspired by that) in the works.

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Freetown Christiania feels uniquely Danish … but maybe there’s a British equivalent? After all, we did have a lot of abandoned Air Force bases after WWII.

A brief spot of googling turned up The Great Sunday Squat of 1946. Turns out there were hundreds (or possibly tens) of these kind of mini-societies set up in the UK. Some of them set up their own councils and laws and schools and existed for over a decade.

So … what if one of them still existed today? What would that look like? How would that fit into modern Britain if it were on the edge of a more affluent town?

In the 1940s squatting was an accepted part of normal life. Nowadays it’s villified. That’s interesting, isn’t it?

We think so anyway. It’s not a council estate, it’s something else. It’s visually interesting to look at and (as far as I know) it’s never been done before.

So that’s the first thing. By changing the arena, we’ve created a much more appealing story. It’s exactly the same story (mostly) but the setting makes it instantly more intriguing.^

The second thing … I’ll talk about next week.

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% And the last paragraph of the original pitch. The last paragraph made us sound like egotistical wankers who believed we were the saviours of the British film industry. We don’t and we’re not. Sorry about that.

# The Full Monty is pretty uplifting, for example.

* Okay, maybe not busting. Bending? And not really genre since ‘council estate’ isn’t a genre … it’s just apparently perceived as one.

^ Other options could have been a Model Village which was abandoned by it’s philanthropist owner, or a factory village created to house workers for a factory which then went bust, or railway village whose station was closed by Dr Beeching, something like The Epcot Centre (which was designed to be lived in but never was, imagine if it had?) … and so on.

Categories: The Ties That Bind, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

#PhonePhill – Conversation #6: Rosie Claverton

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Wow … I never expected this to carry on this long, never mind it being this much fun.

This week (or last week, depending on when I get round to posting this*) I spoke to Rosie Claverton. Rosie’s a scriptwriter and novelist and blogger (the rather excellent Swords and Lattes) who is also a consummate medical professional and runs the monthly #psywrite over on Twitter.

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She’s lovely.

I’ve known Rosie for a few years now, but never spoken to her. Rosie was one of the writers on Persona (the mobile-delivered drama series I got conned into being the lead writer for). In fact, Rosie was one of the best writers on Persona, something I’ve banged on about before.

And yet, despite knowing Rosie for all this time, this was the first time I’ve spoken to her.

The first thing you need to know is: she’s not Welsh.

That’s neither good nor bad, it just is. I thought she was. She’s not.

She is highly articulate, very interesting and great fun to talk to though.

Conversation got off to a shaky start when Skype (for I was in America and she wasn’t) did that weird thing of ringing on my phone and my laptop but refusing to stop ringing when I answered it on only one of them.

Then it did that weird thing of not bothering to give me any audio until I’d hung up and redialed several times.

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Skype – a wonderful program … until it isn’t.

So the first few minutes of our chat were that old Skype classic of:

Hello? Can you hear me? Hello? I don’t know if you can … Hello? If you can hear me I’m going to hang up and ring you back.

And so on.

Once we did finally get a decent connection, we quickly established neither of us is very good at auditory concentration. Which, you know, is quite important on a phone call.

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But we persevered.

I’m not sure what was going on with me, but I seemed to be a bit brain addled and kept forgetting which word I was intending to use whilst in the middle of using it. I’m not convinced I was saying what I meant to say … but if I wasn’t, Rosie was polite enough not to comment.

Chat ranged across the difference between writing novels and scripts (for Rosie has done both and knows these things), the NHS, the perils of regular blogging, the value of a good editor and the disappointment you feel when you first get to see the filmed version of something you wrote … which seems to have random bits added somewhere during the process – bits which don’t really make any sense.

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That’s the main difference I think between novels and scripts – you’re unlikely to open your own novel and find someone’s changed all the words and put them in a different order.

Novels are written, then edited. And presumably rewritten a lot too, but the editor’s notes are guidelines to help bring out the best in your story. They’re not mandatory (I believe!) and ultimately the choice of what word goes where is the author’s. They make the decisions, they get the glory … or the blame.

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Contrast that to a movie where (even if you wrote the initial draft on spec) you have to bend, alter and break the story to fit the director’s vision, the actors’ whims and the producer’s nervous breakdown.

Even if, after all that, you still end up with a script you’re proud of … it can still be thwarted by actors saying their own words (or, more commonly, someone else’s – essentially ‘improvising’ lines from different movies), directors pointing the camera at the wrong thing, an editor who cobbles together all the worst takes in a way which makes no fucking sense and then finishing the whole mess off with a soundtrack which is completely at odds with what’s going on on screen.

It’s a wonder any film is ever even barely watchable.

The worst bit of that process is then having people watch the film and tell you the script is terrible. The script they haven’t read.

No wonder talented scriptwriters like Rosie occasionally toddle off to write novels. Must be nice to be actually responsible for all the mistakes.

All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable chat. Rosie was even kind enough to explain to me that I probably wasn’t a serial killer, despite me believing I have the same psychological make up. Apparently, so long as I don’t kill any dogs, I’ll be just fine.

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Which is nice to know.

If you’re a writer, you could do a lot worse than reading Rosie’s blog or participating in #psywrite. Hell, you could even show how lovely you are by buying one of Rosie’s Amy Lane novels.

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Go on, be nice.

Rosie is.

And so ends another lovely #PhonePhill. Who’s next?

Well, not next. I know who’s next because I did this morning. Who wants to join the one after? Which, confusingly, is the next one because I’m now a week adrift.

Are you a person? Do you have a mouth and a telephone and/or Skype?

If so, I’d love to chat to you, drop me an email and we’ll work it out.

Come on, #PhonePhill

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* Last week. Definitely last week.

 It’s  pain in the arse and takes up too much time. From my point of view, it’s not the words, it’s the pictures. The words I knock out in fifteen minutes … the photos take me hours to carefully select.

Bullshit or not?

Categories: #PhonePhill, Someone Else's Way, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

#PhonePhill

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Last Monday my phone suddenly, and unusually, emitted a strange sound. It was a sort of warbling, chirping noise I hadn’t heard before.

And it didn’t stop. It just kept on warbling and chirping.

Quick as a flash, I ambled out into the garden and found a stick to poke it with (just in case it was dangerous) and upon my return I was delighted to discover an email from the lovely Danny Stack informing me he’d tried to ring and inquiring how I was.

As it happens, I was perplexed.

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Apparently my phone can receive phone calls, a capability I was hitherto unaware of. Truly we live in an age of wonders where mere phones can receive phone calls. I’m half convinced it can make calls too … but further investigation is required before I commit myself to such outrageous claims.

Monday was a good day. It was the day we finally had our hall carpet fitted after months of sanding, scraping, painting and varnishing. Here it is:

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I think it looks quite nice.

On a day which included the culmination of months of hard work, a phone call from Danny was absolutely the highlight.

If you don’t know Danny, you should. His blog, here, is one of the very, very, few of the UK-advice-blogs which is worth reading. Danny’s the real deal, a working writer who shares vaulable insights. If you don’t read his blog, then you should at least listen to his and Tim Clague’s podcast which is equally as informative.

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Danny and I keep in touch via the odd email or social media message. Occasionally, once in a blue moon, we’ve meet face to face … but that’s kind of it. So to get a phone call out of the blue with no motive attached is … well, it’s special.

It’s lovely, in fact.

And it got me thinking.

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Maybe there are other people out there who fancy a natter? Maybe you’re a novice writer who’d like to chat to someone a teeny bit further down the path? Maybe you’re an incredibly experienced writer who’s (inexplicably) got no writing chums to talk to? Maybe you’re an avid movie watcher who’d like to ring up and know just how the fuck utter dross like Strippers vs Werewolves got made? Maybe you just want to complain to someone about your boy/girlfriend’s utter inability to grasp simple concepts like special relativity?

Maybe. I don’t know.

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I’m usually procrastinating so if you fancy a little chat, email me (the address is on the right – take this as a simple intelligence test, if you can’t find it you probably can’t operate a phone anyway), I’ll send you my phone number and you can ring up and have a chat.

I don’t know if anyone wants to do such an outlandish thing as actual voice-to-voice contact with another human being … but if you do … great. If there’s more than one of you per week (which seems unlikely) then we’ll form some kind of queuing system.

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Or line up in height order or something.

If you’re in one of those dangerous foreign places then maybe we can Skype or something. So long as you don’t expect video because that involves me putting pants on and that’s never going to happen.

Share this post with people if you like. Or don’t. It’s up to you. I’m just curious to see what happens.

#PhonePhill

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Categories: #PhonePhill, Things I've Learnt Recently, Writing and life | Tags: , , | 17 Comments

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