Category Archives: Prep

Losing Focus…but not direction.

Back at the start of the year I wrote post that looked at the year ahead and set myself goals and measurable targets – something that is important if you want to keep yourself on track and keep the writing working for you. Having clear goals makes it easier to manage and achieve them, rather than having vague goals to “write a screenplay,” or “finish a novel,” which don’t really provide the focus you need to manage a long-term task, especially  spread out over a year.

In relation to this planning I also talked about taking part in Gary Graham’s Writer Accountability (WRAC) initiative, whereby a group of writers have signed up to a series of self-set goals for the year ahead. Regular tweets/Facebook posts by co-host Michael Hennessy keep us all on our toes and ensure we regularly review those goals/milestones and keeping ourselves on track.

Well, that’s the theory. My main goals this year revolved around a novel I started writing in 2015 for NANoWriMo, with plans to have an outline and the first quarter written by now.

I did start. I do have the outline and I do have some written… just not as much as I was supposed to have. I do have what was written for NaNoWriMo, but I am reworking it as that effort was fairly meandering. It was a good way to get lots of words down on the page quickly, but I am not sure how good it was for me to keep focus/direction when writing.

The main problem is passion. I am passionate for the concept, but I am not sure I have really figured out the right direction for the novel and I am struggling to work up the enthusiasm to write it so, for now, it is probably time to call it a day.

It probably doesn’t help that I had some great feedback on a screenplay last year and am excited about getting back to that and, in fact, have started a page-1 re-write, giving serious thought the notes I received.

Or maybe it does help. Rather than continuing to flog a dead horse that my heart really isn’t in, it is obviously better to be working on a project I have more interest in. And in all honesty, if you are not enjoying a project, don’t keep at it – you will just ruin your enjoyment of the whole process. Stick the project in a drawer (it isn’t going anywhere) and you can always come back to it next week, next month, or even next year.

Taking a break isn’t the same as giving up. Never give up, just pick your fights.

I’ve lost my focus on one project, but that doesn’t mean I have lost direction, I just need to chose the right direction for me at this time.

Now I just need to beg forgiveness from Gary and Michael for failing my goals and see if I can update them for this year to focus more on my screenplay. Surely it’s not too late… 🙂

When do you decide it is time to move on?


The NaNoWriMo Treatment


National Novel Writing Month 2015

On the 1st November this year I embarked on my first attempt at NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month; an opportunity for writers of all levels, from all over the world to “get together” and write furiously for a month. The point? Write a novel in 30 days, with a target of 50,000 words over the same period.

So how is it going? Well, just over a third of the way through I am at a little over 21,000 words and so still ahead of the curve. It isn’t easy though. The target for each day is 1,667 words which takes a couple of hours. If the words aren’t flowing or a scene/chapter/section isn’t playing ball, then it can take even longer. It is a very different discipline from screenwriting. Obviously some of the principles are the same, but I have found myself trying to unlearn a lot of the rules (yeah, I know) and techniques I have picked up while working on my screenplays. Writing longer, more descriptive passages to set up scenes, and being able to deal in thoughts and feeling more readily has been a bit of a struggle. I am getting used to it, although I worry it might mean returning to he return to the screenplay format might be another shock after NaNoWriMo.

I’m beginning to think that I may not be naturally gifted in the novel department. To be honest, I may not be a natural with screenwriting either, but I find that more of a comfortable approach for me. Not because it is easier (it isn’t)  just different in ways that I enjoy. Despite the shorter form of descriptive passages and the battle against using too many words, I find it easier to express myself in a screenplay as opposed to a novel.

Of course, this may change as we head towards the end of the month and the challenge itself.

I’m still hopeful that I will get to the end of the month and hit the 50,000 word target, and I have accepted that I won’t work on anything else, writing-wise, while NaNoWriMo is ongoing. However, even if I don’t I will, at least, end up with the best, most detailed treatment I have ever written.

And that is a real revelation from NaNoWriMo. Writing a novel this quickly is  like writing a very detailed treatment (albeit with dialogue). I might even try it again on the future projects. I spent about a month researching and planning and another month writing shorter treatments and a chapter outline. Another month to write the novel and a month after that for preparing the screenplay, and you have a first draft in 4 months, which seems a reasonable amount of time for churning out a story when writing part-time.

I have said in the past that I struggle with planning and writing treatments; I usually itch to just get down to the “writing”. NaNoWriMo has given me another insight into how important planning is and, while I suspect 50,000 word treatments won’t become the norm for me, it has (so far) been a great writing exercise in planning ahead to make sure I was able to make the target. I don’t think I would have made it through NaNo without planning. If I had tried making it up as I go along, I suspect I would have stalled early on and would now be struggling to meet targets.

But, for now, I was short on my target for today. I’m still ahead of schedule and will make up some words tomorrow and, fingers crossed, keep it up for the next 20 days.

Good luck to anyone else working on a novel for NaNoWriMo. Feel free to comment on your experiences below!

Screenwriting Books – The Screenwriter’s Bible


Amazon UK (Other book shops are available)

ISBN-10: 1935247107   ISBN-13: 978-1935247104

Following on from Save the Cat, in the first episode of this series looking at some of the screenwriting books I have read, David Trottier’s Screenwriter’s Bible is another well-known and well-renowned guide to screenwriting. Unlike Save the Cat though, I am not sure I have ever heard anyone criticise the book. While I am sure it does have its critics, but that is not what this post is about.

The Screenwriter’s Bible is again aimed at those starting out. Not that it might not be useful to the more seasoned writer, but it takes the reader from the very first steps of having an idea through to planning, writing and, ultimately, marketing your work. It makes this all the more easy for us to understand by splitting itself into five distinct “books”, each looking at a different part of this process. Indeed, this is one of its main selling points, 5 books in 1!

The books include:

  1. BOOKI –  How to Write a Screenplay: A Primer – this takes us through some of the considerations of what makes a story work, plot, character, dialogue and scenes; the building blocks of any story.
  2. BOOKII – 7 Steps to a Stunning Script: A Workbook – the workbook offers templates and outlines for coming up with ideas, planning your story, developing characters and producing treatments.
  3. BOOKIII – Proper Formatting Technique: A Style Guide – this book runs through pretty much every formatting “rule” that a new writer may need to know to finish their first script.
  4. BOOKIV – Writing and Revising your Breakthrough Script: A Script Consultant’s View – this book explores how to rewrite your script and make it stand out from the crowd.
  5. BOOKV – How to Sell your Script: A Marketing Plan – Five steps to help you develop a plan for marketing yourself and your script.

Personally I have not yet used the information in Book V and I think Books I, II and IV are dealt with in many other texts; everyone has a different take on developing concepts and rewriting a script. However, for me, the Bible was incredibly important as a writer starting out because of Book III and because it deals with the main stumbling block for all us newbies; format. How the hell do I correctly format a script?

While there are many software packages out there that will help you with the main formatting issues like borders, tabs and spacing etc, what they can’t necessarily help you with is how to format a montage or a scene that happens over the telephone.What David does in Book III is provide some pages of a sample script that includes lots of examples of classic screenwriting format. I think David would be the first to admit that his way is not necessarily the ONLY way you can format a script, but if you start with these basics, you can’t go too far wrong. Once you develop your skills as a writer, you can learn other ways to format the same things and experiment with your own format but, for now, it will make life a lot easier if you start by following the “rules”. Learn how to walk before you can run.

A lot of writers may balk at this and proclaim that “so-and-so” writer does this in “such-and-such” a script. They often do, but they are also often well-established and respected writers who can get away with it. I am sure that many writers, more experienced than I, would agree that getting your format right for your breakthrough script is vitally important.

In short, I really like the Screenwriter’s Bible and have bought reissues and updates in the past. It doesn’t come off the shelf as often as it used to as I am getting to grips with a lot of the basics. However, if there is something I am not sure about, or haven’t used for a while, I know I will more than likely be able to find an answer within it’s pages.

And if you can’t, then you might be able to through David’s website – Keep Writing and sell what you write

Do you use The Screenwriter’s Bible?

How has it helped you?


Other reading:

Screenwriting Books – Save the Cat


Amazon UK (other book shops are available)

ISBN-10: 1932907009  ISBN-13: 978-1932907001

Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” is one screenwriting book that everyone seems to have heard of and about which everyone has a view. It is one of the first books I read when re-embarking on my writing mission a few years back. It was recommended to me by a friend who had recently read it and chose it on the basis of the strapline on the front cover; the idea that this would be the last book on screenwriting he would ever need to read.

And who could ignore a statement like that?

I didn’t…

However, I have read a number of books on screenwriting since. Not because Save the Cat didn’t have all the answers (naturally, it doesn’t) but because it was a good starting point for exploring the way (some) films are written and it gave me the impetus and intrigue to widen my net and explore other texts.

What Blake did with Save the Cat is examine a lot of films and reduce them to a simple set of “beats” that he collected in his “beat sheet” – a simple template that helps the writer place certain events and actions in their films. For example, where your “Inciting Incident” should occur and when your screenplay should “break into” Act II. These beats were accompanied with fairly specific timings or page counts for your screenplay, making many of them fixed-points in the flow of a film. While many see this as too restrictive for being creative, I did find it a useful primer that kick-started my learning in terms of story structure.

[NB: The book also contains various other comments, advice, primers and tools that might be useful to you, but I am concentrating on the Beat Sheet here as it is the main thing that springs to mind when thinking of the book and Snyder. I am also not going to debate each of these beats as there really isn’t space for a full critique, but you will find more details in Snyder’s book if you chose to read it. ]

The beat sheet breaks down in the following way (I’ve summarised the descriptions here):


It does work…

… to a degree.

When I started watching films with this in the back of my mind I was astounded by how many matched the paradigm. So many of them seemed to hit their midpoint at the 55 minute mark. They would include a “Dark Night of the Soul” and the third Act would break around the 85 minute mark, delivering a closing image that reflected the opening image.

Try it yourself, you’ll see what I mean – if you stick to “typical” Hollywood, commercial films.

What I also noticed was that there are plenty of films out there that don’t fit this paradigm. They might contain aspect of it; perhaps an Inciting Incident on page 10, but their Second Act may break much earlier (or later) or the Midpoint turn might occur much closer to the start of Act III.

I think, in the early stages of my screenwriting efforts, that this is where I began to realise that there was no “quick win”; no “magic formula” to writing an effective story.

Snyder’s Beat Sheet does work for writing stories. But it is fairly inflexible. If you prescribe to any set template for writing you will soon find you have stifled your own creativity as you constantly strive to fit your stories into the same format. I did that with the first couple of screenplays I wrote and, while it helped me get a story on the page, I feel that Snyder’s beat sheet also funneled me down a path that led to fairly predictable writing. I wrote a couple of decent screenplays, but they wouldn’t win any awards and they won’t really stand out from the crowd. Snyder helped me cut my teeth on breaking down stories and thinking about basic structure but I moved away from that specific Beat Sheet fairly quickly as I gained more experience, read more books and started to find my own voice and way of writing.

There is far too little space here to fully appraise all of Snyder’s book. As I said in the introduction to these posts, I just want to share my thoughts on the books and let you know what I got from them, so you can make a decision as to whether you think they are worth buying/borrowing. I would suggest that Snyder’s book is a great starting point for anyone completely new to screenwriting who wants a down and dirty introduction to the structure of story. But use the advice in the book to your advantage and as a springboard to other learning. Use it to develop your skills, not stifle them. Do not think that Snyder’s way is the only way. You have to find YOUR way too. If you have been writing for a while, you may do better to steer clear as you could find yourself taking a backwards step as you try to retro-fit Snyder’s approach to your own well-developed style/systems.

So yes, Snyder’s Save the Cat is a great launch pad for new writers. I enjoyed reading it and do not regret working through it. But I did move on from it fairly quickly. I don’t think I would be as far on with my writing if I hadn’t read it but it is unlikely that I will ever go back to it again. It will get you started, but it isn’t the final solution.

It’s a bit like the instruction manual for your new laptop; you might read it once just so you know how to switch it on but, once you are familiar with the kit, it gets thrown away and you have more fun just pressing buttons to see what they will do.

Do/have you used the Save the Cat Beat Sheet?

How has it helped your writing?

Feel free to comment below and let us know what impact Save the Cat may have had on your writing.

Let it Go!


Everyone has a different approach to their writing; we all know there is no “one right way” to write. I’m still working on finding the perfect process for me, although I think it is probably a lot better than it was a few years ago – or, at least, it is more structured now.

But I still find there are some aspects of the process that I don’t enjoy, or that I find a bit more of a chore than others. I haven’t managed to get a lot or work done in the last couple of weeks. Partly this is just due to “life/work stuff” that has had to take priority but also because of the stage of writing I am at.


Prep is that stage of of my process that I like the least. It feels like a barrier stopping me getting to the next stage of actually writing the project; getting the screenplay on the page. We all want to get to the screenplay and start writing, anything that gets in the way is an inconvenience. I want to get stuck in rather than worry over specifics about locations or characters, plots and scenes.

So what gets me through and keeps me working on prep, even if I do slow down a bit?

Well, I tried leaving it out on a couple of occasions early on. I tried going straight into writing for two ideas, thinking I knew the story and could just write the screenplay. One is still only about 30 pages long and the other, first draft, came in at just 70 pages. What I found was that, without prep, I really didn’t know the story and realised there was a lot missing from the screenplay that had been rumbling around in my head, not quite fully formed.

Basically, I ran out of steam.

However, the “experiment” helped me understand how important prep was (for me) in getting the story blueprint ready before I started to hang words on my ideas. It made me realise I HAVE to prep my projects so I can be sure I am doing justice to the story when I move on to writing it. Perhaps that is why I struggle with it; I HAVE to do it! Of course, once I am writing the screenplay, I realise how important and useful the prep was in my process and the frustration fades as I plough through the writing stage with a lot more ease than I did without it.

Similarly, in the past, I haven’t been best friends with the index card method for plotting scenes and acts. I tried to force myself to use it on a number of occasions because I had read that was THE way to do it. So I left that out for a couple of goes around and, guess what? I found that I don’t have to use the index cards when plotting a story. For me they just didn’t work, but it didn’t stop me prepping a story; they were just part of a process I didn’t need and probably made the prep process easier for me in the long run.

Of course, everyone is different, and you may not need to prep in the same way, perhaps you CAN go straight to writing? Perhaps you find index cards to be the ONLY way you can prep your story?

Ultimately, what I am trying to say is, just because you have read about the writing process and what should be involved, or your writer friends do something in a particular way, it doesn’t mean you have to do it the same way. Experiment. Change things up. There is no one way to write so, if you find something isn’t working for you, let it go and see what happens! You might find something you can throw away or realise the importance of something you struggle with.

And anything you do discard can easily be reinstated if you change your mind in the future!

Not only do writers need to find their voice, they need to recognise their method.

Are there any parts of your process that you struggle with, that you wish you didn’t have to go through?

Have you tried leaving them out to see what happens?

Feel free to comment below and let us know if you do try letting something go in your process.

MK McFadden

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