Monthly Archives: April 2014

Starting From Scratch

I confess I haven’t done very much writing this week. This is partly because I’ve just finished the first draft of one project and am now leaving it to settle for a bit before coming back to it and re-reading it with what I hope will be a fresh perspective.

This can be a bracing, even shocking experience. It takes a certain period of time to be able to read something objectively, ie with enough distance to realise that your lovingly crafted masterpiece is in fact pretty much a load of old cobblers. With any luck, there’ll be a few nice turns of phrase, a couple of decent lines of dialogue that really do reflect what you were trying to achieve in the first place and which give you enough to build on as you start on The Rewrite.

It’s an accepted truth among the screenwriting fraternity that the first draft of anything will be crap. Not being much of a prose writer, I don’t know to what extent this holds true for novels and short stories but it’s certainly the case for screenplays. It’s quite common even for well-established writers to find that it isn’t until they’re on the fourth or fifth draft that they really begin to get a proper sense of the story they’re trying to tell.

There are innumerable tales of scripts that were re-written again and again – literally dozens of times – as their creators did battle with the detailed specifics of character, theme and plot in order to create a story that would really resonate on the big screen.

Emma Thomson spent five years working on the screenplay for Sense and Sensibility and is alleged – though I can’t vouch for it – to have written in excess of ninety drafts before shooting began.

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Mind you, it’s brilliant and manages to remain true to the essence of Jane Austen’s original novel while making it relevant and true for a modern audience too. It quite deservedly won an Oscar.

Real writing is damned hard work and there’s no getting away from that fact. I was at an event for TV writers yesterday during which there was a panel discussion with Toby Whithouse, who wrote Being Human and No Angels and Richard Warlow, who created Ripper Street and Mistresses. Both spoke about the years that it took to get these projects off the ground.

Asked about his writing methods on Being Human, Toby Whithouse talked eloquently about the pages and pages of preparatory material he produced – every detail of each character and relationship, documents scoping out the entire world of the story and examining every possible permutation of the plot. This is what it took for him to feel that he knew story well enough to start actually writing the script. It took months and months and no-one but him ever saw or read these notes.

Being human

As an aside, it was interesting to hear that the original idea for the series was that it was about an ordinary flatshare, and it took several drafts for Whithouse to realise that none of the protagonists were alive!

Perhaps the biggest irony of writing for the screen is the amount of sheer effort it takes to produce what? A couple of hours of idle entertainment on a Saturday night. It’s all too easy to dismiss out of hand what may have amounted to years of someone’s life, something they’ve sweated blood to create. I don’t for one minute pretend that all films are good, but I do try to give proper thought and consideration to what the writer and director were trying to achieve, even if they haven’t completely succeeded. As a fellow sufferer, I owe them that at least.

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Friends and Family

It’s the holidays and the kids are off school. I like having them around, even though it means a constant stream interruptions in the vein of; “Mum, where’re my black jeans?” or “Mum, will you make me some toast?” or “Mum, can you drive me to the shops?”

Distracting though this is, I enjoy being in the midst of a bustling, noisy household. Although we’ve only got two kids, when they’re off school, the chances are one or half a dozen their friends will be round at our house. My son in particular has a tendency to invite his friends over, usually with the minimum of notice – ie I’m lucky if I get a phone call ten minutes in advance.

On occasion this can be trying – especially if I’ve just spent half the day tidying up. Last week, I’d barely stowed the vacuum back in its cupboard and sat down with a well-earned cuppa, when the dear boy arrived unannounced with a whole bunch of mates, and promptly took occupancy of my newly immaculate front room. (OK, I concede that “immaculate” might be a bit of an exaggeration, but at least it was dust-free and the cushions were plumped up and placed neatly on the sofa.) By the time they left, it was back to its usual shabby state, and I and the spouse spent the rest of the evening retrieving sweet-wrappers, empty coke bottles and miscellaneous socks from the deeper recesses of the three-piece suite.

Of course, I could tell the children not to invite their friends over; I’d certainly have a tidier house, and there’d be less risk of finding the biscuit tin empty. But in the truth is, I like having an open house, and the sense that we’ve created a home our children can share. It’s their home too, after all, not just mine.

I confess it gladdens my heart that my children both have a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, because surely it’s this, more than anything else, that makes life meaningful and fun? Of course it’s important for the kids to do well at school and be successful academically, but in all the focus we give to the relatively narrow set of skills developed through the traditional school syllabus, it’s easy to overlook the life-skills that come with building successful relationships in the playground and beyond.

It’s just as important to be able to negotiate, persuade, compromise, empathise and give and receive support, as it is to learn geometry or how to conjugate French verbs. Similarly, what I miss from the time when I worked in an office, aren’t the day-to-day tasks but the relationships with colleagues – the gossip, laughter and making common cause against rivals in another team or department. In many ways, an office is like a village; it’s not uncommon for people to end up having closer, more enduring relationships with their colleagues than with anybody else, including their spouses.

It’s a truism that writing’s a lonely business. At one level it has to be, since the aim is to articulate one person’s unique vision of the world. But at the same time, writers have to be firmly rooted in the community in order to be able to reflect it truthfully and to be relevant to it. You have to be connected. Some people like to write in cafes or other places where there’s a sense of bustle and people around. Personally, I find it easier to write in solitude, with only the washing machine churning away for company. The kids are a great reminder that there’s a real world out there, and for that, I’m truly grateful.

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Blooming Marvellous

It’s a fine spring day. Sunshine and showers. Tulips, wallflowers and muscari blooming in the garden and a mass of feathery fluff from the pussy willows at the end of the road blowing every which way. It’s the time of year when gardening begins to compete with writing for my attention. I love planting things and seeing them grow. I love the force with which shoots of delphiniums and peonies and rudbeckia pierce the earth, the urge for life that makes them rise so irrepressibly from the cool, dark earth and the joyous sense of the world being made anew. I dare say it’s a cliché, but there really is something miraculous about the way a tiny, hard grain can sprout into something as gorgeous as a nasturtium or geranium or sweet pea.
Last year, I grew vegetables for the first time. My success was mixed. I did well with potatoes, tomatoes and courgettes, but the onions failed to fill out and the bugs and slugs made short work of my lettuces and carrots. The beans got off to a slow start, then suddenly took off and rambled all over the pear tree, with the result that I had to risk life and limb climbing right up to the top of it to collect my crop. A couple of years ago, I bought a Victoria plum tree. So far, it hasn’t borne any fruit, however this year, to my delight, it’s been covered in a mass of creamy blossoms. I know there’s still a long way to go before I can expect bowlfuls of delicious plums and it’s still possible there’ll be a late frost, but at least it’s got off to a good start.
As well as flowers, I love the wildlife that the garden attracts. The plum blossom brought an early influx of Peacock butterflies and we get a terrific range of garden birds – blue tits, chaffinches, robins, blackbirds, magpies, wrens and even the occasional green woodpecker. The pond has played host to newts, frogs and water snails. Of course, the garden has its challenges as well as its pleasures. The soil here is very heavy and full of clay and it’s a job to keep it soft and crumbly. It tends to get water-logged in the winter, while in the summer it has a propensity to bake into hard, concrete-like lumps if it isn’t kept well irrigated and mulched. The one upside is that roses love a clay soil, so I can always count of a good display of those if all else fails.
One of the nice things about gardening is that if something doesn’t grow well one year, you can start again the following year having learned from past experience. And if something really fails to flourish, there’s nothing to stop you trying an entirely different plant that’s better suited to that particular spot. There isn’t a patch of ground on which something won’t grow – it’s just a question of finding the right something that will flourish in the conditions you have. I think writing’s like that too. If something doesn’t work, then you just have to keep on trying alternatives until you find what it is that does work. Sometimes a story just doesn’t seem to come together and it’s only when you come back to it much later that you can put your finger on what’s needed to make it come alive. Like a shoot sprouting from a seed, the richest, most compelling stories grow from the germ of an idea in ways that are surprising, unexpected and never less than miraculous. If you’re lucky, a strange and magical alchemy will take place that transforms chains of letters and words on a page into something truly beautiful.

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After A Separation, the divorce: Asghar Farhadi’s sort-of-sequel, The Past

A strong recommendation for Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past” from Dominic Wells. Has convinced me I definitely need to see this film over the Easter break!

London, Hollywood

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I’ve just seen my first great movie of the year*. It’s not flashy. It’s not ground-breaking. But it is very, very well observed, richly acted (including a terrific performance from a young boy, always hard to achieve), and just absolutely bloody brilliantly written.

The film is The Past, and it’s the first that Asghar Farhadi has shot outside of Iran. Farhadi is one of the rare Iranian film-makers who have managed to make films of artistic worth without falling foul of the authorities. “The restrictions and censorship in Iran are a bit like the British weather,” Farhadi said philosophically after A Separation won best film at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival, on the way to winning the 2012 best foreign film Oscar. “One day it’s sunny, the next day it’s raining. You just have to hope you walk out into the sunshine.”

Friends of Farhadi’s, however, have failed to pack their…

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