28 September 2011

The Birth of the Writers' Factory Introduction to Screenwriting Course

I've started studying at Screen Academy Scotland, which turns out to be on the way to my old school. I must have walked past it without knowing it was there hundreds of times.

I rather fell into their beginners' course by accident, my father sending me a link two days before the registration deadline. It's free for the unemployed, so what's not to love? I signed up immediately.

In the first class we covered the origins of the course. It's an interesting tale. Back in the Noughties, or so the story goes, the outgoing chair of the UK Film Council's Lottery funding committee left a stinker of a memo in his successor's in tray, underneath the stationary bill.

He wrote that the quality of the Scottish films he was asked to assess was "disappointing" because of their poor writing. He concluded that Scottish screenwriters needed to step up their game a lot if the films coming out of Scotland were going to be any good.

The current course tutor described this memo as "unpopular with the film community". Can you imagine?*

The story has a happy ending, however. Rather than retreat into a self-righteous huff, the UK Film Council commissioned Phillip Parker ("the closest thing the UK has to a screenwriting guru") to write the course I am currently studying. Its purpose was to catalyse a new wave of Scottish screenwriters - that's us!

* Note that this man (who is, sadly, unnamed, which means I cannot pray for him) was the 'outgoing' chair of the Lottery funding committee.

21 September 2011

Writers' Lifestyles: Hard Science Fiction

Writing is more than an occupation or a living, it's a lifestyle.

You may be able to write the words, but can you walk the walk? I interviewed writer and publisher Mark Harding to see what really makes a hard science fiction writer tick.


Mark Harding spared a few moments to talk to me outside his home in South Morningside.
Mark wears:  Jacket - Harris Tweed, Brown Jumper - Topman.
Accessories: Sunglasses - RayBan, Pipe - Bartlett and Bickley.
Accessories: Varius Ivanhoe ballpoint pen - Caran d'Ache, Notebook - Tescos.
"Practicality is at all times the essence," said Mark Harding, 41, from Edinburgh, Scotland.

The pipe is never used to smoke tobacco.


The most efficient foodstuff is the soya bean, which Mark generally cooks in batches at the beginning of the week.

For dinner parties, or other special occasions, Mark serves rehydratable space foods from his Russian supplier.


"The NASA research series is great at the moment, if you can afford it. Although they're technically research, I find them very accessibly written."

Mark's bookshelf also houses the complete works of the Wittgenstein family and Emmanuel Kant's On Reason.

Although Mark doesn't drink, he says his favourite pub in The Canny Man, in Morningside, Edinburgh.

13 September 2011

The Failed Retreat, 4-9 September 2011

I've just got back from The Failed Retreat - a termly activity that gathers Failed Novelists together to write and workshop under the same roof. This was my third or fourth (I forget) retreat with the same organiser, and, as always, the most valuable part was getting to see first-hand how people instinctively react to my work, and getting to see how I reacted to theirs.

The retreats began modestly a long time ago, before I came to Oxford. These days they're so popular that the poor host has to run two separate weeks every holiday in order to sate demand.

Development Hell

My first Big Project for the week was a radio play called The Fear Diary, which is about an out-of-control psychology experiment on fear. This was my main project during the week, and everything else was procrastination. Especially my second Big Project, a novel about Oxford's underground prostitution scene called The Tragedy of Magpie Lane.*

Both Big Projects are still in the plotting phase, so working on them was, and remains, very tiring. A lot of time was spent choosing suitably symbolic names for characters and answering the Proust questionnaire over and over again. Graphs were drawn, subplots were dreamed up and discarded, character arts were inspected for excessive similarity to each other, and my insistence that becoming a management consultant is a suitably dreadful fate for my villain was questioned by the group on multiple occasions. No significant progress was made.

I also spent a lot of time studying Story by Robert McKee, and wondering whether his dilemma triangle actually makes sense. One of the other Failed Novelists had brought a copy too, so we were able to have a right old bitch about it.

Much head was wracked as to how storys can be best structured. Should one plot beforehand, or "do a McKee" as we called it, or simply written to see what happens?

Writing Writing Writing

Each evening at Failed Retreats, the inmates (as they are called) gather to share and comment on each other's work. Highlights this week included some cuneiform poetry, the memoir of a Communist grandmother and a horror story about creating monsters in a lab.

The lab monster was a response to my "horror challenge", which demanded that everyone wrote a horror story by midnight on the first night for a firelight reading. (I confess this idea was nicked off Byron. Perhaps The Fear Diary will be the next Frankenstein? Somehow I doubt it.)

This horror theme continued throughout the week, no doubt fueled by me going on about The Fear Diary. One of the other inmates actually write a fan poem based on my play, although, as the host cruelly pointed out, I can't really copyright the concept of "fear" for my own work.

Pigs on a Plane

By far my most successful contribution to the evening workshops was a television short called Pigs on a Plane, inspired by some real life pork prancing we witnessed on a blueberry-picking ramble. In it, Churchill and Athquith, two pigs in need of affection, escaped from their farm and started stalking some writers, in the hopes of a hug. The humans don't understand the pigs' good intentions, of course, and hilarious complications ensue.

As you can imagine, I started writing straight away and didn't bother with plotting or character development or anything like that. It's just a joke, I told myself. Curiously, imagining Winston Churchill and Herbert Asquith as pigs resulted in quite well-developed characters. The simplicity of the story made structuring of the plot very natural. And the stilted formality of television script formatting made its rather silly content even more gigglesome.

Athquith the pig ("Asquith" with a lisp) taught me that all pigs really want is to be loved. Photo source.
It was a mediocre offering, but the group loved it unconditionally. It just goes to show the strange power of cuteness. Perhaps I should stop trying to plot deep and meaningful novels, and just write television series about fluffy animals?

Or perhaps not taking the plotting too seriously freed me up just to write something enjoyable?

We'll never know. And no, the dilemma triangle does not make sense, no matter what else you may think of McKee.

* Magpie Lane is a real street in Oxford famed for its rather rude history.

6 September 2011

How to Escape English Student's Block

My experiences of Oxford taught me that formal education and creative writing are surprisingly good bedfellows. Despite everyone I know insisting that academia would kill my creativity, I think I've escaped unscathed.

How did I do it? I got on with it. Also, I actually studied Music, which no doubt assisted.

English students' block - it's a well-know phenomenon. The young would-be-writer goes up to university to study English literature, spends three years reading James Joyce and Chaucer, and is totally unable to write their own fiction. I've heard many theories as to why this might be:
  • Spending too much time reading academic essays makes you write fiction that sounds like you've got gout. You'll be intelligent enough to realise your work is dross and stop writing it.
  • Constant comparison of your own work to the Booker-winning novel of your tutor is inevitable,* and will leave your sense of self esteem in tatters. You'll feel like you've got to write literary gold, when actually you'd be better off writing a nice thriller.
  • You're so primed to analyse texts that you'll keep seeing Freudian/Orientalist/metaphallicist significance in your work and throw it away in disgust.
  • You keep having nightmares about the Death of the Author.
Roland Barthes contemplating my early death.
The University of Oxford isn't exactly known for nurturing creativity, but I actually found it a great environment for dabbling in creative writing, so with a dash of self analysis I constructed a guide on How to Stop Academia Killing Your Creativity yesterday. But when I showed it to some friends, they pointed out that it had nothing to do with academia at all. My advice applied equally to anyone who wasn't a full-time writer, and most of it to full-time writers as well.

You see, English students' block doesn't exist.

Using academia as an excuse not to write is like using your job, your family commitments, or the death of your cat as an excuse not to write. They're still excuses. If you really wanted to write, you'd make the time. At some point, you're just going to have to admit that if you're not writing then you're not a writer.

I think what really stops people from writing is that they're not really prepared to put in the leg work. Whatever your aims in writing, from becoming a celebrity autobiographer to writing the next La recherche, all that planning, plotting, replotting, drafting, redrafting and redrafting and redrafting is a lot of work indeed. You'd have to be mad to be prepared to actually do all of that. The sad truth is that most people aren't mad.

There's a wonderful 1940s psychology term 'Barnum statements', which refers to phrases that when presented as a psychological report or astrological reading appear to give an insight into a person, when in fact they are totally generic. These can be vague and fudgey, like:
Sometimes you feel sad and lonely, but at other times you feel popular and joyful.
or surprisingly direct, like:
You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
One of them is:
You feel like you have a novel in you.
Maybe most people do have novels in them, but most people won't write them because it's too much effort. Even for people who do write a lot of, say, poetry and flash fiction, The Novel, The First Collection or The Screenplay is a very intimidating prospect.

The thing that distinguishes real writers from mere horoscope believers is that they actually write.

So if you're reading this as an English student who thinks they've got books breeding in their bowels, my advice is to operate immediately or accept that they're going to stay there. Try NaNoWriMo (considerably more encouraging than me) and 750words (the morning exercise routine for writers, again a lot happier than I am). Write anything and everything, and one day you - and I - will one day build up to finishing that elusive magnum opus.

Having said all that, I've heard terrible rumours about a psychological condition called English graduates block...

* This isn't a problem for most people, or for me personally, but replace "of your tutor" with "that you've studied" for the same effect. There are plenty of prize-winning novelists who are academic tutors though. Imagine having Umberto Eco as your tutor. Shivers.

P.S. Thank you to everyone who has been reading so far, and a special thank you to those giving me feedback or sending encouraging messages. For the record, it's unlikely I will write a gay romance novel set in Ancient Greece.

5 September 2011

Can Customer Reviews be a Literary Genre?

A new literary genre has been born: the Amazon customer review.

The Amazon page for these ridiculously overpriced speaker cables* has been inundated with satirical customer reviews.

Review posters range from Father Christmas to electricity itself. Some of the customers experienced quasi-religious experiences involving Kylie Minogue, others found alternative uses for the cables like fixing space ships, making impromptu reigns for sand worms or reactor-powered electric whips.

There are several things we can learn from these fictional reviews, alongside the reviews of these one-gallon Tuscan whole milk cartons:
  1. There are a lot of people out there with a lot of spare time.
  2. The customer review is a wonderful platform for pretending to be someone else, gloriously misunderstanding the purpose of the product, or generally dicking around.
Aside from simply venting rage at how expensive something is, or showing off, is it possible to use a customer review (or series of reviews) to tell a proper story?

Amazon isn't the only selling website that can be co-opted into storytelling. Many will remember the eBay listing for My Brother-in-Law's Shit Record Collection (which has since been sold and sadly removed from eBay). It told the story of seller's relationship with the original owner of the records as this man met, married and eventually moved on from the seller's sister, leaving his terrible record collection behind. The seller dude didn't like his brother in law much, and used selling his records as an excuse to badmouth him as much as possible. Wonderful stuff, as you can imagine.

I suppose these misuses of sales websites are a development of funny newspaper advertisements like the London Review of Books' famous lonely hearts personals. Sadly, none of these technological updates quite beat that classic Hemingway classified ad:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
But then what will?

The customer review, and its related genre the product description, both strike me as under-explored media.  Watch this space, and I might produce something along those lines... (And so should everyone else.)

Does anyone have any more examples of people hijacking capitalist websites for story-telling purposes? 

* Though shipping is free.

3 September 2011

Becoming a Blogger: Why I'm Here and What I'll Do

The theory is that my adventures in the writing world will be good fodder for an informative blog. I'll be writing about my experiences of writing courses and how-to-write books as well as well as posting reviews and analysis as takes my fancy. Anything, basically, about a life writing fiction and trying to gather the funds to support it.

I've just left university and I'm about to try and become a professional fiction writer. I'm enrolling in courses, reading how-to books and networking at conferences like any good would-be pro should.

Oh and I actually write. Sometimes.

Trying to earn a living at the same time as all this learning and writing is where life gets difficult. The expectation for Oxford leavers is that we'll be taking the bar rather than working behind it, and I'm singularly unqualified to do anything other than work in the City or become a best-selling novelist.

I'm quite open as to what this blog should be, as long as it's about writing. If you have ideas for what I should write about or if you would like to contribute a post(/s) the blog yourself, please do get in touch by commenting below or email.