Script Lab Longlist

Just a quick note to share the news that I’ve made the longlist for a BFI Film Hub North scheme called the Northern Exposure Short Film Script Lab, offering professional development for northern writers. It’s a long longlist of 60 hopeful writers, from which ten ideas will be taken into development.

My story has a working title of A Whisper Of Wrens — it’s about a squabbling couple visiting a huge northern marsh, only to find that it isn’t as empty as it was supposed to be. It’s very much in the tradition of modern gothic, or folk horror, or urban fairytale, or low fantasy — whatever you choose to call it. This thread runs through almost all my work, drawing on contemporary things like The Loney or Midsommar or the music of The Antlers, way back to some of my earliest and biggest influences — Roald Dahl’s short stories, Link’s Awakening, the soundscapes of Godspeed You Black Emperor.

Will write more as I have it — I’m throwing lots of things into the aether at the moment, hoping some of them come back. Fingers crossed!

Pitcher’s Progress

An update on The Pitch! Since my last post, I’ve completed a fantastic residential weekend, which both introduced me to my fellow competitors and put me through a developmental mangle with my story. Both of these things were tremendous.

Shout out to the other contestants first — it’s been an absolute blast meeting Paul, James, Jamie, Anderson, Cordelia, Nicholas, Dominik, Daniel and David. They’re awesome. Their ideas are consistently excellent, and it’s been a huge privilege to share this journey with them. I’ve been in plenty of competitions before, but this is the first time I’ve actually worked with the other contestants, and the spirit of camaraderie and support has been a revelation. It’s been incredibly inspiring, too, to share our ideas, processes, thoughts and fears on the process. To do so with other professionals felt transformational. This is what I want to be doing.

And then came the feedback. I was first to get notes, and they felt fairly savage — though in the end everyone was pushed pretty hard. The project mentors, including Laurie Hutzler and Jackie Sheppard, want the best for these stories, and they want us to do well — to push our skills, improve our pitches. Most of the notes were extremely helpful — with feedback of any sort, I always think of Neil Gaiman’s canny observation — when someone points out where they think you’ve gone wrong, they’re almost always right — and when they point out how to fix it, they’re almost always wrong. I fought my corner when I had to. I came here to learn, and I’m learning.

As for the feedback itself — The Pitch is an adaptation challenge, looking for contemporary readings and interpretations of Bible texts. I came away with the sense that my film story was fairly solid, but they thought my adaptation was flimsy, and that’s sent me back to re-read my original source material. My story is a Western based on Christ’s temptations in the desert, with a pioneer woman called Merrily battling two malicious drifters through 1800s badlands. Spending sustained time with the text has transformed how I thought about it, and I’ve carried that understanding into my own script. The story of Jesus in the desert is much braver than I first thought — it’s about the certainty of death, and fighting on regardless.

…I think?

Writing for the screen has transformed how I process stories. The ideas are still rattling around in my skull — cyclists, rabbits, detectives, ghosts, babies — but now I pass everything through a filter, a mesh, asking the same thing over and over again:

Is this visual? Is there an action? Can I see the action on the page? 

Cinema is an empathy engine. Film is the art of turning internal things — emotions, ideas, thoughts, decisions — into external actions that the audience can share. I’m discovering that’s really, really difficult to do. I’m also discovering that when stories are externalised, they become mostly about endings, and that’s another challenge: I’m fairly good at world-building, at situations, at set-ups. But stories don’t care about those things as much as pay-offs and resolutions, both narrative and emotional: stories are about how you feel when they finish.

Even having taught film for so many years, this is next-level learning for me, and I’m loving every moment. The actual process of writing a screenplay feels so open and full of possibility — I’ve now done eight distinct drafts with countless tweaks along the way, and I’m buzzing every time I get back to the story.

What next for The Pitch? In January I’m off to Beaconsfield for day one of the finals: a 10-minute presentation and a 10-minute Q&A with five industry judges. Three of us will be invited back for a second day on Sunday and another, extended presentation, based on feedback from day one. Having seen the quality of the ideas on show, I certainly don’t expect to be in that final three, but I’ve taken so much from this experience already, and I’m going to keep on learning everything I can.

Blooms

Since becoming so suddenly single, I’ve picked my roses with care — the delicate Life Begins At Forty, perfectly porcelain white — the convalescent You Only Live Once, pink as pink could be — the melancholy Absent Friend, flushing so sweetly into yellow — and Celebration Time, of course, visceral and rich, wetly crimson.

They grow so prettily around my husband’s grave. They flourish and curl, they sing with colour. But alas, I think I’ll have to cut them down…

My neighbours are getting suspicious.

The Pitch

Posting with the happy news that I’ve been extremely lucky in the competition I mentioned here — somehow my film idea has trickled all the way through the longlist onto the shortlist, and is now one of ten finalists. The next stage is a residential masterclass — three days of workshops and training with industry professionals, all pointed towards the final in January. I’m both thrilled and humbled to have made it this far, not least as this is the first film competition I’ve entered. Talk about luck!

The main reason for entering the contest was to make myself share some film ideas in public — it was a line I had to cross at some point, and this was a good way to make it happen. I feel extraordinarily fortunate to get this far, and grateful for the training opportunities it brings. The goal was always to work with other professionals and build my skills as best I can. For a while, at least, this is the way I’m going, and little triumphs like this feel like milestones — yes lad, this is the way.

Rats

She carried herself into my office like the cradle of life. Knew she was bad luck. Dames like that don’t carry themselves into offices like mine. I shoulda said no. She looked so pretty when she cried. I took the job. Simple enough, right? — her old man can’t be found. All I gotta do is find him.

Now she’s gone and all. Her cheque bounced like a goddamn ball. The address she gave was demolished a decade ago. The cops come calling. They say, Charlie, you’re sniffing around. How come you’re sniffing around, Charlie? What do you smell?

I think I smell a fucking rat.

Screen Play

Shakubukun. — a swift, spiritual kick to the head.

I’ve been needing one for a long time. I’ve needed a change of direction.

Writers have different reasons to write — callings that send them back to those keyboards day after day. For some it’s character — others write for the love of language — some write with a message, or to exorcise a ghost. And all these things are connected, of course, but I suspect each writer has a particular theme or mission that drives them more than the others. I write for the story. Stories are a purely human magic. They fascinate me and have always fascinated me. I don’t know of anything in art as satisfying as a complete and perfect story, completely and perfectly told. That’s the compulsion that drove me to writing and filmmaking and editing, and it’s story that keeps me working despite the reasons not to.

I teach film production. Each year, I work as something like a producer/story supervisor on many dozens of student films, contributing anything from gentle advice to full rewrites  — I’ve overseen literally hundreds of student shorts in the seven or eight years I’ve run the course. During the final projects, I invest a huge amount of creative energy in making sure my learners are heading in the right direction, and that’s fine — that’s part of the job, and I certainly don’t begrudge the students, who are awesome. But I need to start conserving more of that energy for myself. Last year, I spent so much time writing with students that I didn’t manage any of my own — not a word of it, not for months. I was drained. As the college workload has increased, year on year, my ability to sustain a novel has declined. I’m sad about that, but I’m not going to drown in it.

I’ve been brewing for a while on trying something new, and maybe writing some film scripts of my own — it’s a medium I love, a process I know, and I wondered whether I’d find a script easier to pick up and put down than a novel. After months of doldrums, I did something about it. I started writing.

It’s true that a change is as good as a rest.

I’ve now finished three short films, coming in at variously 3, 11 and 23 pages. I’ve written and submitted a pitch to this competition, booked myself onto this short film workshop and started organising my ideas. At the moment I can envisage another half-dozen shorts and a couple of feature films. Not to say that I’ll write them all, or even start them all, but I have plenty to think about, to be getting on with. I’ve loved the exchange of dialogue, of honing lines, of stripping a story back to the bones. I’ve thrived on the blocking of scenes and the problem-solving, unravelling snags in the story. I’ve even loved learning new software. Finding my way in a new medium has been a joy, and I’ve enjoyed these steps in screenwriting more than I can say.

In tandem with this, I’ve been reading some classic works on story structure and writing for film. I’ve worked my way through Syd Field‘s Definitive Guide To Screenwriting and his excellent collection of analysis, Four Screenplays; Blake Snyder‘s cynical but efficacious model of conventional film structure, Save The Cat; Darren Aronofsky‘s blistering Guerrilla Diaries; John Yorke‘s sublime study of storytelling, Into The Woods, and am currently reading The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. After that, I’m heading into the bible of storytelling, Story by Robert McKee. More than anything else, I’m thrilled to be learning again — it’s been too long since I threw myself into something new, and I’m really enjoying the knowledge I’m gaining.

None of this means I’m giving up on writing novels or surrendering my short stories. Indeed, I’ve been writing lots of flash fiction lately, if you’d like to have a read. But for the good of my mental health, I need to do something different, even if it’s only for a little while.

Here’s a thing: a long time ago, I studied English Literature at Lancaster University. In the last weeks, after the exams, one of my tutors asked me a question that completely disarmed me — why, he wondered, had I written all my final year essays about films? At first, I was puzzled, but when I checked — he was right. Unconsciously I’d been exploring cinema, rather than literature. It was his observation that sent me off to study film in depth, and from there to work in television.

I’ve been thinking about some of the things people have been kind enough to say about my work. The single comment I hear most often is that my stories are ‘atmospheric‘. I’ve taken that to mean that readers have enjoyed the emotions and tensions of the worlds I’ve tried to make — that they’ve shared a feeling of empathy for the world — that they’ve been convinced by the places and feelings I’ve tried to create. But any richness I’ve managed to capture in my prose has come from my film training — imagining those locations as though composed through a camera lens, then layered with sound, light, weather, the bustle of background detail.

As with my university essays, all those years ago — maybe I’ve been writing the wrong way round.

Shakubuku, peeps.

film set

Coalface

Coalface, yes: a face made of coal. A coal golem, animated and at work, joints grinding, black dust squeezing from each movement. The Word in his head tells him to dig, to dig, to dig, to haul the substance of his own body from the ground, to pry it from the great seams that thread the earth, to smash it into bricks, to bag it and banish it into the light. He digs, yes, and he dreams — incineration, immolation, white heat.

I didn’t mean to start like that. Sorry. Just a thought that ran away with itself. Reminds me of a David Hartley story.

I’m trying to write a little. This year has been exhausting. As well as the house renovations, things have been difficult in college, where we’ve struggled to find regular staff and I’ve done double the admin. My brain has turned to glue. I’ve spent my evenings editing student scripts and then having no energy for my own, though that’s no one’s fault but mine. Something else I need to work on.

But yes — writing again, just a little. I don’t have a name for it yet, and I’m reluctant to share too much of it publicly. I’m very conscious of the hope, emotion and effort I’ve invested in the novella, two novels and three half-novels I’ve written since The Visitors was published. The ideas are still there, battling for attention, but in truth my confidence is shot. I’ve lost some of my sense of what and how to write — the compass that helps me navigate through plot, characters, prose.

Reading and writing (and rest, probably) are the only things that will help me get the balance back, but I’m not good at giving myself that sort of a break. I have such little time to write, and I feel a huge pressure to fill it with perfect words — to feel like I’m making progress. When I don’t it brings me down. Writing 4,000 or 5,000 words a day feels a lifetime ago. A good day is 1,000 now, but I guess that’s the deal. If you want the diamonds, you need to be carving out the coal.

Watch out for golems though.

coal1_158428490.jpg

Thickets

Six months since my last blog post. Six bleeding months. At this rate, I’ll be blogging once a year, which isn’t really blogging at all. But this year has been strange and full of changes, and it continues to be odd. I’ve been brewing on a lot of things.

It all started in August 2017, when Mon and I drove past a very neglected house for sale in the middle of Kendal. It’s a grand old Victorian thing, all wonky floors and high ceilings. The garden backs onto the grounds of Kendal Castle through thickets of trees thronging with birds, and we fell in love with it at once. After months of wrangling, we bought it, then set about weeks of demolition, stripping out countless bags of blown plaster — by my estimation, about 12 tonnes of the stuff — while getting quotes from builders. Then the real fun started. To cut a very long story short, while our love for the place grows day by day, it’s been something of a rollercoaster. It’s still nowhere near habitable, and we’re currently living with Mon’s long-suffering parents while the builders do their buildery thing. Moving house with two kids, dealing with the renovation, and still trying to juggle all of our various jobs, has been nothing shy of demented.

This wasn’t supposed to be a gripe. I only wanted to explain where my writing has gone. On top of everything else, I’ve been absolutely inundated with video work, most especially as an editor, which is increasingly the way I’m moving — I love editing. In the last three months I’ve cut a short film for Alpkit about mental health and frostbite, a promotional film for the Komoot app, and most recently the trailer for Kendal Mountain Festival 2018, which looks like this:

I’m proud of this — as well as editing and writing the poem, I co-directed the little drama sequences that bookend the montage of festival films. I’d forgotten the peculiar adrenaline of directing — it made me hungry for more. I’ve been working a lot with filmmaker Dom Bush and his company Land+Sky, and we’ve more films planned for next year. We’re making a documentary for The Guardian about the sustainability of Cumbrian hill farms, and exploring several other interesting projects. This is the moment to say:

If you need a badass film, get in touch, and we will make you a badass film.

I have managed a little writing this year around everything else. I’m 40,000 words into a completely new book. I haven’t opened the manuscript for a couple of months, but it’ll be there when I’m ready. I’ve also finished a long and weird short story that I don’t quite know what to do with. It’s called Sharks, and it’s simultaneously too odd for a literary submission and not odd enough for a speculative/genre submission. My friend Mark suggested recording it as a wee audio thing, which would be fun, but again it’s time, time, time. I never have enough of it, and I’ve never felt the need for it so keenly.

What else? I’ve read The Vorrh and The Erstwhile as well as fantastic draft novels from a couple of friends. Mon and I popped down to London for the Frida Kahlo show at the V&A, which was extraordinary. Killing Eve is the best BBC drama for years, and I recently caught the Wim Wenders film Wings Of Desire, which has been a firework in my head ever since. I still feel sad when I listen to Frightened Rabbit, but I’m still listening to Frightened Rabbit. There’s more to say, but I want to switch off. I’ll try to blog more often. Things should settle when we get into the house — hopefully in the New Year — and I’ll see if I can remember how to write. Speak soon, comrades.

fv_wingsofdesire_gallery_1_1100x600.jpg

Nothing Stays Secret For Long

first draft

This is a long overdue post. Actually, all my posts are overdue these days. Last month I was honoured to take part in Nothing Stays Secret For Long, a one-off event at Manchester’s Chetham’s Library organised by First Draft cabaret nights. Chetham’s is an extraordinary place — the oldest public lending library in the English-speaking world, and a collage of architectures — it’s been a house, a courtroom, a school, a college, and at one point served as home to Dr John Dee, the Elizabethan alchemist, scientist, philosopher and spy. We left our coats in the room where he accidentally summoned the devil.

Nothing Stays Secret For Long gathered several poets, writers, singers and performers to respond to a key item in the library’s collection — the diaries of Dora Turnor, an invalid Victorian teenager. She was very poorly but also very rich, and the survival of her diaries offers an astonishing window into her life and times. We were asked to create a ten-minute piece from the transcripts of her journals, some of which can be read online.

Reading someone else’s diaries is an extraordinarily transporting thing. Taking that private experience for your own is a betrayal, a theft and an intimacy, all at once — even 150 years later. I liked Dora. For all of her wealth and occasionally snobbery, there was a humour and a hope that carried her personality across the decades. When she was ill — and she was often ill — her loneliness, frustration and misery boiled on the page. There were also plenty of wry moments that are still written in teenage diaries all over the world — ‘Will I die alone?’ — ‘Does everybody hate me?’

With such rich source material, I was absolutely flooded with fleeting ideas — writing boxes and grumpy golems — but none of them seemed to stick. I wrote a story about a haunting in the waters of a Victorian spa, but it wasn’t working either. With less than a week to go, I started anew, and wrote a story called A Choice & A Choosing — although, in the end, it almost wrote itself, as many of my favourite stories seem to. When in doubt, go weird. I’ll pop it up at some point.

The event was a wonder. I love the sense of community at spoken word nights, and Nothing Stays Secret was packed with it — 80 of us sharing the vaulted ceilings of Chetham’s, swords and lances on the wall. I loved how each of the performers had taken something slightly different from Dora. In combination, the patchwork of our words brought something of her into the room as well (though I imagine she’d have been rolling her eyes at it all). In particular, I want to acknowledge the startling, mesmerising poetry of Nasima Begum and Amina Atiq, the bittersweet cabaret “or whatever this is” of Mitch Robinson, the comedy of Sophie Galpin and the music of Yemi Bolatiwa. It was an absolute honour to share the stage with such talent.

I’ve been needing something like this to remind me who I am. Mon and I are scrabbling for every scrap of time we can find, engrossed in a project that’s taken over much of our lives — I’ll share news of that later — and it’s all too easy, when I’m not writing, to wonder whether I’ll get back to work at all. I’m thankful for nights like this to remind me where I’m going — a map to my compass.

First Draft are doing five more of these events in Manchester and Newcastle, so try to support them if you can. They’re doing good work.

Let’s play out with this woozy delight from audio whizz Rickerly, produced in response to Dora’s diaries. Rickerly is also the magpie maestro who creates the Hillside Curation podcast with genius David Hartley, and you should definitely check that out too.

 

Gravity

I’ve been tinkering on my new book since the summer. It’s coming together, slowly, slowly — I learn more about the world of it every time I sit down to work. My writing days have been overtaken lately with a succession of film jobs and Real Life things getting in the way, but I’m still onboard with my second 100 Days Of Writing, and I usually manage somewhere between 30 and 300 words a day. One step at a time, right? It’s all going in the right direction.

After this morning’s writing session, I’ve been reflecting on how stories change. Halfway through The Visitors, the lead characters took me completely by surprise with the way they wanted to go. By the time I’d finished redrafting and rewriting, it was a completely different book to the one that started out. It’s sometimes only on finishing that I realise what the story actually is. That’s true of every long story I’ve worked on, I think, and it’s almost certainly true of the current book. The core idea has stayed the same throughout, but the characters have swirled about it like satellites, each waiting for the gravity of the plot to draw them in. The ones I thought would lead the story have drifted away into space, mute, watching the world recede into a dot of light. And others, characters I assumed had only minor parts to play, have crashed into the story like meteors, hitting hard enough to shake the orbit — to tilt the axis into something new.

If you’re new to my blog, please note that I love an extended metaphor.

Back in November, I cut the story from 35,000 words down to 15,000, as the characters corkscrewed into my head and the story revealed itself as something new. Having steadily built my way back to 28,000 words, I’m about to cut the first two chapters — they’re only short, but I thought they were important for backstory and building the world. (And actually that’s true — but only for me and my understanding of the journey I’m embarking on.) No one else needs them, not really. Instead I’ve come up with a single sentence that literally does the job of 2,500 words. Knowing that I’m going to dispatch them to the great black hole of deleted chapters feels rather freeing — like dropping ballast. Ballast has an essential function until the exact moment it becomes dead weight.

The book calls louder, the further I run with it. The relationship between the lead character and a very minor character has become the hinge on which the whole story swings, and it’s quietly stunning for me to sit back and soak that in — to think that it’s been there all along, and only now do I know why. Back to it tomorrow. 100 words a day. Steady away, lad — casting ballast, rising up.

11237194915_b26ca4ae4d_o