This is not a post…


Well, it’s been a little while since I posted and I have a few things I want to talk about, but I’m going to save those up for a real post in the next few days. In the mean time, let’s get a couple of random items out of the way.

Firstly, my editing. This is what has been keeping me busy. I have gone through the entire book with a red pen and crossed out great swathes of text… well, ok, I’ve made some alterations but it’s about getting the flow of the sentences and the flow of the narrative that I’ve been working on. I’m now mid-way through putting these alterations into the text file (for while I am a writer, I am perhaps more accurately a typist). I’d hope to have these done by the end of the week so I can start on the path of finding an agent…

Anyway, in addition to that update, I wanted to share some links which I think are particularly useful for the writer. You may or may not be familiar with the writing of Elmore Leonard, but really you should be. His novels have spawned some excellent films – Jackie Brown, Out of Sight, Get Shorty, 3:10 To Yuma – and some not so excellent films which I will not bother to go into.

There are two things that Leonard’s writing is perhaps most well-known for (or that I particularly revere him for) – 1) his characterisation and 2) his narratives. He knows how to draw a character with minimal effort and maximum impact – they always feel real and three-dimensional and you always believe in their actions. It sounds simple but so many writers bring in characters to achieve a certain goal and never flesh them out. But the greater achievement is the narrative thrust he builds. At all points you know he is building towards something and every scene brings you closer to that end goal.

With all that in mind, I would highly recommend you check out his ten rules of writing, available on the NY Times website, here:

http://bit.ly/89ZbAY

He acknowledges that his rules aren’t hard and fast, but it’s best to know the rules before you go about breaking them. Generally, you need a good reason to do any of the things he tells you not to. There’s little point me highlighting any of it – I won’t be able to sum any of it up better than he does – just click the link above…

Secondly I’d like to direct you to a column by Nathan Rabin at the AV Club – an excellent site with some of the best interviews and features around (though despite my high impression of these sections, I find I rarely agree with their film reviews. Strange, I know).

Anyway, Rabin recently released his memoir, The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought To You By Pop Culture. I have to confess to not having read it yet, but Rabin’s columns are some of my favourites on the site, especially his series “My Year of Flops” (http://bit.ly/18xdO5) and so I imagine the book will be a particularly good read.

In the link here…:

http://bit.ly/6Zfoxb

…Rabin discusses various things aspiring authors need to know. Admittedly, it’s relatively US-centric (unsurprisingly), but there are still plenty of things to glean, including the truth about advances, how to accept bad or unfair reviews and what to expect as a real reward for all your hard work. He says it much better.

[Addition on Jan 15th]

An horrific oversight on my part – I have been sent two very useful links on Twitter from @MarkDury. Firstly, how to go about getting your book reviewed. There aren’t that many books that publishers will throw their weight behind and ensure they get press coverage so you may have to do it yourself. However, many people have no idea how to do it without annoying those they wish to influence. Here’s the link:

http://bit.ly/5Gyp0Z

And secondly, 17 applications made especially for writers. While I can’t vouch for the quality of any of these myself, they could well be a better writing partner than MS Word or Open Office, so check ’em out and, if you give them a go, feed back your thoughts on which work best.

http://tr.im/KpgI

Hopefully those are useful links. I shall be back soon with something more substantial, I promise…


Rearranging the Molecules on the Titanic


If you follow me on Twitter (www.twitter.com/BenjaminHendy) then you may have seen that I have already attempted to write this post twice and failed on both occasions, and that I also promised to explain myself when I finally did get it completed. Well, I have something that I want to talk about in this post, but each time I tried to write an introduction I would veer off on some tangent or other that would prove to be perfectly interesting but take me further and further away from what I wanted to talk about. I have saved both these attempted blog posts for future cannibalisation, but for now, let’s address the topic I really wanted to focus on: Editing.

There is a quote from Alfred Hitchcock, though as time passes I wonder where I got it from and if I am correctly attributing it, but hey, let’s roll with it. “The worst part of film making is making the film.” And if I haven’t incorrectly paraphrased him enough already, I’m going to make up a quote to clarify what he means by that: “I have already made the film in my mind by the time I get to the set, at which point I need to coerce the actors to give the performances I have seen in my head.”

Anyway, I feel pretty much the same way about writing; The worst part of writing is the writing. By the time I sit down to write I normally have the story plotted out, along with visualisations of all the key scenes. This means that the actual writing is a mechanical process of transferring that information from my brain to the page in a legible format. I do not like mechanical processes. Witness the fact that more than 10 minutes of any kind of data entry task will pretty much send me to sleep. And writing is only one step up from data entry at this stage.

I am, of course, exaggerating. There are plenty of aspects of writing a story I enjoy, especially coming up with small moments of characterisation that capture what a person is going through. This doesn’t stop much of it becoming a chore, only made bearable by the act of completion.

Except completion isn’t completion, is it? Oh no, then comes the editing. Some editing can be done as you go along. Indeed, this is the way I approach a lot of scriptwriting. But for prose it is considerably more intense and in-depth. Instead of having 60 pages of predominantly white paper, I have 259 pages completely covered in text to go through.

I was trying to think of a suitable simile for what I feel like I am going through right now. Similes aren’t really my thing, something which may well become evident momentarily. It’s like if you were a chef and your idea were the recipe and writing the book was cooking the meal, editing would be going through the meal on a molecule by molecule basis to ensure that the salt and pepper were perfectly evenly spaced and actually, it would be better if you took out the onion and replaced with a slightly different onion because the flavour of the first onion hadn’t quite bled out across the rest of the meal properly, etc and so on. Frankly, if that was what being a chef was, there would be no restaurants, only McDonald’s. And no, McDonald’s, no matter how much you protest, I will not accept your establishments being labelled restaurants any more than I will accept that having a large TV in my living room makes it a cinema.

So it’s quite a tedious process, that’s what I’m getting at, mildly preferable to having thousands of tiny needles inserted into your eyes. If it was only hundreds I’d probably go with the needles…

As I kind of intimated in the simile, there are two levels of editing I am doing. The first, working on the molecular level, is essentially proof-reading. Microsoft Word (other word processors are available) is predominantly a good piece of software, but until it learns when I mean to type ‘from’ and when I mean to type ‘form’, its spellcheck facility is going to be of little use. Particularly as I am using a number of made up words throughout the book. So I am going through with a fine-tooth comb  (though I’d love to use a fine tooth-comb) looking for all these little details that I have done wrong.

Allied to this is the task of checking the text actually scans. It is amazing what, when in the midst of a brain-splurge writing session, comes out and how difficult it can be to unravel the intended meaning behind the words. So I am reading the book aloud to myself to make sure all the text scans. Any sign of confusion and I try to reword the sentence. As a pedant, this is quite a big thing for me. As someone with a short attention span who has been working on this story for 3 or more years, this is incredibly frustrating.

Not, however, as frustrating as the second type of editing that’s going on. This is where, halfway through the book I realised that a character lacked definition. Instead of heading back to the beginning and rewriting the character’s scenes, I left it for the edit. So now I am having to rewrite scenes and sequences to ensure character consistency. In many ways, this is far more frustrating than the rest of it. At least the rest of the work I am doing is relatively black and white; rewriting a character is chaos theory in action. “Oh, but if I change that like that, than it changes this scene, which then impacts on the other scene…” and so it goes on. And before you know it, your comedy of manners has metamorphosed into Transformers 3: The Quest for WD40, all because, actually, it would be more interesting if Brian had taken a keener interest in photography in his youth to justify him taking that picture. It’s painful.

Fortunately, the changes I am having to make won’t affect things quite as much as I intimate above, but there is still a ripple that runs through the book and you have to re-read it again and again to make sure that it still all hangs together. I think the remarkable thing here is that it actually does still hang together. And that is why I keep going. If I found the story tedious, if I couldn’t revel in the excitement of the characters on the tenth time of reading I wouldn’t be able to finish it. But it also tells me that the story is fresh, which hopefully means that it will be enjoyed by children. Well, at the very least, it would be enjoyed by me when I was 9, which is my target audience. Hopefully my taste then is representative of kids today.

Professional Presentation


Let me take you back. In an ideal world, right now you are imagining some harp music and a shimmering visual effect to indicate that we’re heading down memory lane. From about the age of 18 I wanted to make a film. A low-to-no budget film. I was inspired by people like Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs clocked in at $1.5m) and more importantly Kevin Smith (Clerks: $27k). My story was closer to Tarantino’s, my budget closer to Smith’s. I was only about $26.9k away from matching him, and I had a bad script entitled Debut ready to go. It never happened and let’s all thank God for that. I’d still be paying it off if I’d tried and I’m not sure it would have opened any doors. It was immature and derivative, but it was a stepping stone. It was the first thing I ever wrote as an ‘adult’ and without it I’m not sure my writing would have developed to where it is now.

There are a number of reasons why it was never going to get off the ground – the lack of characterisation and understanding of how to construct an interesting narrative being only two of the myriad issues involved. I didn’t have any kind of understanding of the film industry, for one thing. In 1994-96, the kind of period we’re talking about, the new independent movement was suddenly in vogue and art house had a mini-boom. Or maybe it just seemed that way as my eyes had only recently been opened to films outside of the mainstream.

However, there was one thing I did understand – if I was going to make a film I would need help and money from other people and I would need to convince them of the viability of my project. Respectful begging letters were sent to various producers, along with a copy of the script. I even sent it to agents of actors like Tim Roth (newly discovered in Reservoir Dogs – God I was naive). The point being, I tried to engage with people in a way that would make me seem like a professional – someone who knew what he was doing and would be successful at turning his first script into a break-out indie Brit-hit and would be the youngest ever best-Director Oscar winner (yes, I seriously thought that – I view it as a sign of my growing maturity that I can now look back, point fingers at myself and laugh).

Fast forward to December 13th, 2009, and I receive a message on Facebook from an unfamiliar name…:

hi benjamin, i have completed ,y MA producing film and tv course from bournemouth university and i am planning to make a feature film. I hae a story and need a good scriptwriter to take it in the rright direction. The genre is sex comedy and the format is low budget digital format. If ur interested pls contact me at xxxxxxxxxxxx@hotmail.com or call me at 07xxxxxxxxx. Also mention ur previous exp in scriptwrting.
cheers
xxxxx

That entire message needs a big ‘[sic]’ stamped across it.

Now, my first reaction was to chuckle and ignore it, but as time went on it played on my mind and I really wanted to send something in response. But what?

As I said in my first post, I am far from a professional writer. However, I think I can still offer a little advice on how to present yourself as an enticing proposition. He may not be asking me for money, but he is asking me for an investment. So I dived in with some helpful tips. My reply in full:

Hi xxxxx,

Thanks for getting in touch to discuss your project – I assume you came across my name either directly through the University as a graduate of the Scriptwriting degree course, or through my membership of groups on here. I admire your chutzpah in setting out to produce a low budget feature film – something that, a few years back, I was very keen to do myself – and I hope that the MA has set you with the appropriate skills required for the task. However, given the message you have sent to me, I would have my concerns.

First and foremost, I would assume that your project will produced for free – or as good as free – and you will be requiring goodwill from all those involved in order to be able to bring your vision to fruition. As such you need to sell to me (or whoever you are contacting) why I/they should devote my/their time and energy to your project. As I am sure you know, the film marketplace is more crowded than it has ever been and fewer and fewer low budget, independent films ever get released, let alone make their money back. As a writer, I am constantly working on one project or another off my own back – currently finishing a children’s novel. I pick which project I want to work on now based on two criteria – how much will I enjoy working on it and how will it further my writing career. As I said, you need to sell your project to me – why would working with you be beneficial to me? What contacts do you have? Who are you also working with? What projects have you previously pulled together? Etc and so on.

Granted – having pulled my name from some B’mouth Uni alumni list or other, you have no way of knowing whether I am any good – as you reference with your request for my experience. Obviously a totally fair question and, were your pitch to sound particularly intriguing or the opportunity like it was too good to miss, I would be happy to provide you with samples of my writing to demonstrate my talents.

So what kind of information would I be after (and would I expect anyone with any sense to be after)? Aside from the few questions about yourself I mentioned above, it would be useful to know more about the project. Ideally, when do you want to shoot (and thus how long is there to work on the script)? What kind of budget are you going to work with? But most importantly, do you have any idea about the story itself?

See, the reason that last question is important is because, if you haven’t already got some kind of brief outline is that if you aren’t bringing an idea to a writer, you are asking the writer to dream up something all by themselves. “So what?” you may well ask. Well, if I was going to write a sex comedy that I dreamed up all by myself, why wouldn’t I try and sell it to a studio or something like that? Then I’d get paid for it and potentially get a proper (ie not low-to-no budget) movie made of my work.

I’m not saying you need to have written a treatment even, you could just go for a line: for example, two best friends are running out of money and decide to make a porno together to pay the bills – Zack & Miri Make A Porno. This gives the writer something to work from and suggests that the production has some direction that the producers are committed to.

In addition to having a pitch ready for people containing the information outlined above, you may also find it advantageous to approach people in a slightly more professional sounding manner – ie use a capital letter for their name, or, indeed, capital letters throughout, check your spelling, not use ‘text speak’ and so on. It doesn’t fill me with faith in your ability to pull together a successful film project.

I hope you take this message in the spirit it was meant. My aim was not to rain on your parade but to offer some constructive criticism that may help you in pursuing your dream of succeeding with this production and building a successful career. Unfortunately, however, from the information you have given me I am not currently interested in working on your project. If you wish to refine your pitch and contact me again, I will consider it and, if I am interested, I will forward on some of my work to prove my credentials.

In the meantime, all the best,

Ben

I think this is pretty well reasoned, and let’s be honest, the majority of it is a combination of common sense and common courtesy; the kind of things I wouldn’t think twice about. Maybe I’m over-sensitive and over-fussy, and maybe the bolshy and driven 19-year-old me trying to produce Debut would have responded favourably to the original request, but now I give a damn about grammar and punctuation – indeed, I will stop people mid-sentence if they are pronouncing words wrong. But I think the bigger point is, if this is how he is going to approach someone he is asking for time from – and considerable time if we’re talking about writing a feature film for free – how is he going to approach potential investors, distributors, etc and so on?

I didn’t expect a reply. While I’d hate to think I’d have sent such an email 15 years ago (technology notwithstanding), my mindset at the time would probably have just tossed it to one side. Part of me thought (and maybe hoped just a little bit) I might get some kind of expletive led reply dismissing me. I certainly didn’t expect anything more than that.

Cue this afternoon:

Hi Benjamin, thx for ur reply. I can surely make out from ur reply that u like to write, but i havent pitched u anything yet. My concern was to find out first of all that ur still into scripwriting and that can u be a part of a micro budget production which can work only on a deferral payment system. i found ur name in the group ‘Bournemouth scriptwriters’, unfortunately very few writers continue their passion for a long time after university. I’m glad to learn that ur still into writing.
i deally i want to shoot sometime in june/july, but it all depends on the script. i will not start any production work until unless im 100% happy with the script. As far as the money is concerned, im looking at a budget of 25-30k, which i will raise from private investors.
At the moment im in search of a scriptwriter who dreams to make it big and is just waiting for an oppurtunity. i have a treatment but it needs a lot of polishing. If u can work on such a system then lemme know and i if u say yes then i will formally pitch u.

cheers
xxxxx

It’s an interesting reply. It would appear that certain lessons have been learned. There is formatting, capital letters (though it is worth pointing out that his own name did not contain a capital letter – perhaps the sign of a true artist?), and he shows that perhaps he does have some degree of professionalism in him, what with the treatment and all. However, clearly the text speak is still there – perhaps he was unsure what I meant by that. (And as a side note, a part of me feels that even with text speak, his grammar is out – isn’t “ur” “your” and “u r” “you’re”, or does “ur” normally just stand in for both? And yes, I do realise I have become – or always been – one of them).

I have to say that, at this point, I am filled with numerous conflicting emotions. I am desperate to see the treatment even though I have no desire to be involved. Even if I wanted to I don’t have the time available to me, but I want to know what this script is going to be about. Maybe it is destined to be the Citizen Kane of sex comedies – prizes for the best title to fill that description.

I also feel bad about posting this and ragging this chap out. He believes in his project and I’d love to believe in it too. I’d love it to be a success and reward his hard work, but something just tells me it’s not going to happen. And only partially because it’s only about 0.0001% of all low-to-no budget movies that make anything in the long run. I mean, seriously – Clerks, El Mariachi, Brother’s McMullan, Twenty-Four-Seven, Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity
– that’s all I got. I’m sure someone will correct me, mind.

But I want to help the guy, and help others. If anyone out there is going down this route, best of luck to you, but I do suggest make yourself sound like you know what you’re doing. If you sound like an amateur or a chancer, people will think you’re an amateur or a chancer and they will treat you as such. I wouldn’t trust an amateur or a chancer with £25-30k of my money. Likewise, I wouldn’t spend six months of my life writing a script for an amateur or a chancer. If I am going to spend time or money on a project, I want to have faith that there is a reward coming. And to get that faith I need to believe I am working with serious, committed and talented people.

Sending the kind of messages shared above is not how ur going to build that faith.

Sorry.

PS – Well, this is more of a kind of deleted scene – I couldn’t find a natural place to put this in the above text without losing the flow, so I’m just going to add it down here.

As mentioned above, both xxxxx and I went to Bournemouth University to study and, as promised in my first post, I will one day discuss the university, the course and my time there. What I’d like to point out now is, what the Hell are they teaching on that MA? I feel that just receiving that email has devalued the degree I got there. A Masters graduate can’t type, spell or punctuate correctly? He doesn’t know how to make an approach to people? I don’t feel that I am just being a grumpy old man when I say that I find this genuinely shocking. Maybe you feel differently. Maybe you’re wrong.

Openings….


I stand to be corrected on practically everything I say on this blog, but I am going open with a rash statement off the top of my head:

There are two ways to open a story.

Nowadays, with shorter attention spans and more content than ever fighting for your attention, it has become almost standard to open with a bang. Gone (though not entirely) are the days when an action movie can open with scene setters and character introduction, as seen in Die Hard. Now it’s all about the explosive beginning trying to surprise the audience, or, at the very least, grab them by the unmentionables (see Die Hard With A Vengeance).

With all that in mind, I am going against the grain and will attempt the more traditional opening: the scene setter. I’m going to try to lay out my aims and the themes that should be featuring in this blog as it – hopefully – grows over the passing, days, weeks, months and years.

The journey that you and I shall be taking is a journey through the landscape of writing. I shall be looking at techniques involved in the craft, the frustrations that lie in wait and the different approaches favoured. Not only that, if things go well I shall hopefully be able to talk about agents, publishers and readings. And if things don’t go so well, vanity publishing and bankruptcy. All in all, you may well get yourself a tour of the world of writing. And if you’re lucky, I’ll manage not to be the incompetent tour guide who got hammered last night, is working through the mother of all hangovers, and is only really doing this to flirt with members of the opposite sex and delay having to get a real job…

So who am I and why do I think I might be capable of this monumental task? Well, to answer the second part of that question first, I’m probably not capable. Now, back to the first part. My name is Benjamin Hendy and I am a writer. Saying that (or writing it) makes this seem like some kind of confessional-come-alcoholics-anonymous-session, and maybe this is, because until you’re getting paid to write, calling yourself a writer will always feel, on some level, like a lie – no matter how many words you put down on paper. If you tell someone you’re a writer they will expect to be able to buy your book or read your column or in some way have immediate proof that you do indeed do this. It’s strange, I don’t get this in my day job. “You’re an analyst? Where can I see your latest spreadsheet?” they don’t cry…

Anyway, my background. When I was younger (yes, you’re right, so much younger than today), I used to write stories. They were rubbish. I was 7, 8, 9, 10, so of course they were rubbish. But the point is, I did it. To some extent, telling stories has always been a part of me. As I aged, the arty subjects became harder and I lacked both motivation and discipline. I had always been pretty good with numbers and so through secondary school I concentrated on those skills which came easy – maths and science – rather than those that required greater study and understanding such as English. Then, upon starting out on my A levels of double maths, physics and chemistry, I came to realise
that those subjects required study and understanding too, and that I would rather try to study and understand subjects I enjoyed. I dropped them and moved to English language, media studies and theatre studies.

This is lesson number one, as far as I am concerned. Try to study the things you enjoy, rather than the things you can necessarily do. In my experience, in the longer term, it will bring you great fulfilment. But maybe that’s just me…

Anyway, after completing my A levels, I twiddled my thumbs for a year (and I thank Pizza Hut for paying me while I did this) before going to University to study Scriptwriting for Film and TV. One day I will post on the reasons for this choice rather than, say, English, and my thoughts on how this helped and/or hindered me, but now is not the time for that. This is just a brief overview…

I have written film scripts, television scripts and scripts for shorts. I have written drama, comedy, tragedy, dramedy, cama, dragedy and a number of other combinations of those words. I have not [yet] had anything produced or published.

In the meantime I have held down: jobs; relationships; friendships. Writing has always had to fit around the outside of having a life. I am aware that writing does not guarantee a career and so I have tried to keep everything else going on around it. I am, by no means, prolific. For the last three or four years – and let’s be honest, who really counts? – I have been working on a children’s book. It is based on those stories I used to write when I was 7, 8, 9, 10, and it is essentially written for that child back then. That book is almost complete. I have one sweep of editing to do and a few pages to write and then – hopefully – an adventure will begin. Fingers crossed it won’t feature quite as much danger as the story itself does.

So, in short, I am a writer – as in, someone who writes. I have written narrative fiction of one kind or another for sometime, and I will continue doing so. Writing is a skill that you learn over time. I am certainly a long way from mastering it but equally I feel I have a little knowledge I may be able to pass on. In return, dear reader [and how long have I yearned to type those words?], I hope that you can pass on a little knowledge, the odd hint or tip, as and when I require it.