Category Archives: writing exercises
Well, it’s been a while. I’d like to say that I have been too busy writing to post anything on this website, but that would be a lie. I have been too busy but, unfortunately, it has not been because of writing. I have managed a bit here and there and, now I have set myself some new targets for the WRAC#17 challenge, I am back on track with a rewrite of a script I got some great feedback on last year.
Writing time is at a premium still, but I have generated that “buzz” you feel when you finally get a chance to sit down and put some words down in Final Draft and a new story begins to take shape. It’s almost like starting again and I find myself thinking about some of the old “rules” and “tools” of writing that can help when you find yourself stuck on a particular writing issue, or pondering a structural conundrum. And, as I am working on a family script, what better advice to seek out than that of the legendary PIXAR.
I love PIXAR’S Rules of Storytelling and ran a series of blog posts when I first started this webpage looking at the rules developed by Emma Coates and expanded on by Stephan Vladimir Bugaj. I think the time is right for a rerun (there is always time for a rerun) and, while it might seem like a bit of a cheat, I always enjoy exploring the rules. If this means I can introduce them to a few new people, then all the better!
If you fancy exploring the PIXAR rules, pop over to the Introduction page to find out a little more about them. I’ll be tweeting the rules over the next few weeks, but you can always explore the links to the various rules if you fancy skipping ahead!
So, sit back, click some links and enjoy the wisdom of PIXAR!
BUY TWISTED 50
ISBN-10: 099565381X ISBN-13: 978-0995653818
I’ve just finished the last story in the TWISTED 50: Volume One collection (Bloated, by Penegrine Shaw) which was probably not the one to be reading as I was eating lunch but, then again, most of the stories within this book are probably better enjoyed sans food!
TWISTED 50 is the first publication to arise from the CREATE 50 community and is a collection of, in their own words, ‘…deliciously dark…’ short tales of horror. And it doesn’t disappoint! There are bugs, blood, the undead, spiders, vampires, ghosts, the apocalypse, arms and limbs flying everywhere… even Thomas the Tank Engine gets a make-over in one of my favourites, Sodor and Gomorrah by N W Twyford.
The “50” gives the game away that you will find 50 short stories within the volume and, as suggested above, there is a wide-variety of twisted material. They may not all be right up your street, but you can bet your life (figuratively, not literally) that there is something for everyone and it is a fantastic book for short bursts of reading. Highly recommended!
The CREATE 50 initiative aims to provide a platform for emerging screenwriters, short story-writers, filmmakers and allied artists to get their work out and seen. There are a variety of ways to get involved and I have submitted a few stories to TWISTED Volume Two, the follow-up (unsurprisingly) to Volume One. Through the website I have been enjoying sharing feedback with other writers on a variety of stories. And that is the beauty of the initiative; for every story you submit, they ask that you kindly provide feedback to three other writers. Considering the limit for short stories is 2,000 words, this is anything but onerous and, once you start, you will find it addictive, feeding back on many more than the expected three.
I have found it to be a fantastic experience to try out a new form of writing to me (I am very new to short stories or any form of prose to be honest) and get feedback on my efforts. It has also been an eye-opener reading such a range of stories from a variety of writers, all at different levels and stages of their careers. They have all been very helpful and welcoming and I would recommend getting involved to anyone, even if you only “dabble”.
Sadly, TWISTED Volume Two is only open for submissions for another six days (at time of writing) although that is still plenty of time to have a go. Entry is stupidly cheap at just £7 a story and great value for the effectively free feedback you will receive.
The good news is that there is another project The Singularity 50 which is still open for submissions until 31st March 2017. Like TWISTED it is looking for 50 short stories but on a theme the explores the ‘journey to the moment technology takes over.’ So, if you are a budding Sci-Fi writer, why not take a look?
Judging by the activity on the website and the great-looking Volume One publication, I suspect the CREATE 50 community will be around for a long time. Even if you don’t have anything for TWISTED or SINGULARITY this time, I am sure there will be more great projects in the future and I, for one, will be keeping an eye out for how I can continue to get involved.
If you have submitted to either of these projects, let me know, I would be more than happy to have a read!
And if you have – Good Luck!
We took the kids to see Swallows and Amazons a few days ago and we all enjoyed the film. It is a fairly slight story, even with added spies, but was a perfect, nostalgia-ridden family-film to spend an afternoon with – the sort of film we, perhaps, don’t see enough of these days?
Something that intrigued me about the film was the re-naming of one of the characters. Titty from the book, became Tatty for the film. The reasons for that change are obvious; a little sad that it was felt necessary but a sign of the times perhaps? The family were certainly not happy. I don’t want to debate the merits of the name change but what it did make me think about was how we go about choosing names for the characters in our screenplays.
Everyone loves a great character name and, most importantly, remembers them. But how are they generated? How do writers come up with some of these gems? And do they spend hours considering the meaning behind those names and how they can be cleverly linked to the theme of their stories and the nature of their characters?
There are also lots of examples of clever names in films; names that are used to enhance the viewers experience. Take Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood (2007) for example – could you get a more descriptive name for a character who sees the world in black and white? Or Louis Cypher from Angel Heart (1987)?
It is incredibly easy to look up the meaning of any name via the wonders of the interweb, using sites such as Behind the Name or Ancestry. There are too many sites to mention, but certainly enough to be able to check names from any corner of the globe and in any language.
I have, in the past, spent a very long time considering the names of some of my characters, thinking there needs to be some deeper meaning behind them. This can often be a very painful process, trying to find just the right name to fit the right personality, only to find two sites that describe the meaning of the name differently; hopefully fairly closely but I have found some that have provided almost opposite meanings to each other.
A screenplay I am currently working on has Chinese characters who are storytellers, so I wanted something that reflected that in my protagonist’s name. Chen Ming was the name I chose in the end, where the surname Chen can mean “exhibit, narrate or arrange”. This fits well with storytelling and the puppetry that features in the story. Ming means “bright”, reflecting both the lights used in their puppetry, but also the nature of a smart lead character. My antagonist is named Lie, which means “fierce” and Ming also meets characters such as Shu (kind or gentle) and Ho (goodness). I spend a long time getting to those names, and I am very happy with them as they do reflect the nature of their characters. However, ultimately, does it really matter? Will it mean much to the majority of people who may make up the audience? Or does it just sound authentic? Won’t most of the audience just want to watch great characters, whatever their names?
As my writing has progressed, I have tried to shy away from obsessing too much over names. I am sure that, while there is always something to be said for smart naming, the deeds, actions and traits of your character are far more important than their name. You could have the greatest name anyone has ever heard of but, put that into a dull, weak story with lifeless characters, and that is all the audience will remember – and not for the right reasons.
So is the creation/use of a name in a script THAT important? Titty/Tatty is a difficult example, actually, as the name refers to a real-life person but, ultimately, does the name matter, or is it the deeds of the heroine in the story that define her more?
What do you think?
Do you painstakingly create clever, meaningful names for your characters?
Or do you think that is all just too much like hard work, when I could, in fact, be writing?
Well do we? Should we?
As I continue to work through my current rewrite, looking carefully at the importance of each scene, I am also searching for sections of scene description that could be reduced. One of the things that Lucy Hay mentions in this post about Revitalising your Scene Description is the “rule of halves” and cutting down unnecessary description. Why use 20 words when you can use 10? Why use 5 lines, when you can convey the same information in 2?
So I have been trying to cut out the superfluous ramblings and flowery language that is taking up white real-estate on my pages. One of the aims of this rewrite is to try and get my page count down below 100 (from 109) and, by being ruthless in this way, I have managed to get down to 103 pages by about a third of the way through. So it seems to be working.
But what am I talking about?
Simple stuff really.
For example, a passage can easily be reduced in terms of word count, but upped in terms of impact and flow. Take this example from the script I am rewriting. It conveys the scene perfectly well, so we know what is going on, but it is four lines long (my personal, absolute limit) and is a thick slab of words – in short, it is clunky:
Daniel attempts to throw a punch, but Keiron grabs
Daniel’s wrist with one hand and pulls a flick knife out
with the other. The blade is closed but held against
Daniel’s neck. He pushes Daniel back against the lockers.
But this easily becomes:
Daniel throws a punch.
He pins Daniel against the lockers, one hand on his throat, the other pulls a knife.
Punchier? More dramatic? Definitely conveys the same information.
I know which I prefer…
In the same way description can be superfluous, whole scenes can also present unnecessary words. I found two sequential scenes this morning that involved the protagonist and his father in the living room of their house. The father is asleep while his son phones his mother (who recently left) and then sneaks out of the room to phone his girlfriend on an extension upstairs.
This took a full page to describe. Not much space in the overall scheme of things, but every page counts. Besides, and to be honest, far too much of it is simply me, the writer, “telling” the audience what is happening; it doesn’t leave anything to their imagination.
As the son has already been given his mum’s number in an earlier scene and, a few scenes later, meets her, we can be safe to assume that he called her. Or she may have called him, we don’t know… but it really doesn’t matter who called who – the meeting is the important thing. The audience will make the leap, provided the “gap” in the telling isn’t too wide, leaving too much to the imagination.
This way, the scene in the living room becomes superfluous and gets cut, leaving just the second scene to play out. The second scene was just a convenient way to link to the next scene in his girlfriend’s bedroom where she (well, you’ll have to read the script to find that out….)… and they start a conversation. I am fairly certain I can probably cut out both scenes and jump straight to the girlfriend’s bedroom without losing the audience.
So more action has been cut because, if I am perfectly honest, it isn’t really action. It’s just dull description of events leading up to the action. I guess you can see it as “action” and “reaction” – if we can suggest the “action” and show the “reaction” our scripts can be cut down to much leaner lengths and the real action of the screenplay will flow more cleanly.
So, when you are in rewrite mode, think carefully about your description and scenes, do you need them? Do you need that level of description and “telling” the audience, or will it be more fun to “show” them what is happening.
Actions and Reactions….
It’s been a couple of weeks since a writing post as I have been a bit busy with “other stuff” but, as I get back into the swing of things, I thought it would be a good time to revisit my plan for the year.
I am currently working on a rewrite of an old script that I haven’t looked at for a couple of years and planning to get it ready for notes/feedback. As I hadn’t seen it for a while, my first pass was a fairly simple affair. Spelling, grammar, dialogue; that sort of thing. I read through the script reacquainting myself with the story and the characters, making changes here and there, but not changing anything drastically – although I did add in a few extra scenes thanks to some comments that I have had sitting around since I last worked on it.
And that is great, but it doesn’t really get the script “ready” – it just polishes the surface, it doesn’t delve beneath the veneer.
So, for my second pass, I looked at it more carefully and explored each scene, one by one, to really poke around into the substance of the script and test it thoroughly. I made myself a spreadsheet that numbers the scenes, lists who is in it, describes the purpose of the scene and questions whether that scene could be cut. We all know scenes need to drive the story forward, develop characters and introduce conflict, so I tested each scene to see if it does these things. If it didn’t, then it was marked for discarding.
By doing this, I was able to ditch a number of scenes; scenes that have been there since day one, scenes that I have grown attached to and was reluctant to take out. But I have been ruthless. I have to be. The flow of the script and the story, as well as the reader’s experience, will be improved by cutting out the deadweight and streamlining the scenes. It should drop a 109 page script to under 100 pages – so getting there.
Interestingly, by being this ruthless, I have also learned something about my writing and how to be more objective about my own work. I noticed a number of scenes that, a few years ago, I would have been adamant were vital to the story, I would have argued that they moved the narrative on and couldn’t be cut.
What a difference a few years makes…
This time around I could easily see where those scenes were not quite as useful as I first thought. While these scenes were telling us something about the story-world and characters, they weren’t necessarily telling us anything new. There were scenes that repeated insights that we had already glimpsed, sometimes in the immediate scene before the one in question. While they seemed like a good idea at the time and reiterated themes and issues in the story, it became clear that they were just that – repetition. What I need my scenes to do is reinforce the themes of the story and the character development in ways that the audience have not already seen, not simply repeat the messages. Repetition stretches the story unnecessarily and may alienate the audience as they have the subtleties of your story unimaginatively rammed down their throats. Audiences are savvy beasts, they will get it, if you write it well.
This is no real revelation for anyone who writes, but this is the first time I have probably really taken it seriously as a process and gone through a script with a fine-toothed comb. I will certainly employ my spreadsheet template in the future and, hopefully, in the next few weeks, I will have that “ready-to-review” script sitting on my screen, ready to go.
NOTE: My plan for the year was to have 4 scripts at this point by the end of the year… so still just about on schedule!
How do you evaluate scenes and decide what to cut?
Just before Christmas I noticed a few posts on Twitter about a free screenwriting course that was being run by the University of East Anglia via the FutureLearn website, which has a variety of free courses available. I “ummed” and “ahhhed” about it for a long time, but eventually signed up in January. To be honest, what had I got to lose, other than a bit of time? And there is never anything wrong with a bit of learning. So I signed up, got access to the pre-course discussion and got ready for the course to kick-off a few weeks later.
I thought I would write up my experience of this course as it is running again in May. It might be of interest to other writers who like free things!
Led by Michael Lengsfield, the course is split over a number of modules that are spread across two weeks. However, you can access all of the articles, videos and discussion from the off.
Michael is supported on the course by Christabelle Dilks, Molly Naylor and Tom Benn who crop up in the various video discussions that form parts of the course. They are also on hand to offer comment and advice in the discussion attached to each section of the course.
The course elements cover subjects such as Cinematic Form, Structure, Acts, Developing Characters, Writing Scenes, Formatting and getting through that First Draft. Each section can be attacked in any order (although chronologically makes most sense) and can be checked off in your account to show you have completed it. You can also join in a discussion on each section if you so wish.
The course suggested 3 hours a week, but this can be more or less, depending on your current experience and how much time you want to put into reviewing the lessons and working on some of the tools and exercises. However, there is no pressure to do anything and it can all be undertaken at your own pace; you can do as much, or as little as you like. (Of course, the more you put in the more you should get out.)
Certificates are available, but these are charged for – you will need to decide for yourself whether you think you need a certificate from the course and a charge is understandable when you consider the course is free.
So is it any good?
Well, it certainly won’t do you any harm if you sign up and take part. How much benefit you get from it depends entirely on how much experience you have with screenplays and how much time you want to invest in the course.
If you are very experienced, then this might not be the course for you. Personally, I did find I had covered a lot of the content before, in other courses and texts. However, there were one of two things that I took away from the course that I think will be helpful. In addition to this, it is always informative and fascinating to get involved in writing discussion with other writers, and much can be learned from bouncing ideas and thoughts off each other in the discussion sections for each module.
If you are brand new to screenplays and want a nice introduction to what they are all about and an overview of format and structure, you could do a lot worse than sign up for this course. As I may have mentioned… it is free, so you don’t really have anything to lose and, if you are worried about the time commitment, I am now a couple of weeks after the end of my course, and I still have access to the materials.
Part of me feels that the course is also a bit of an advert for the full-time courses that are run by the University, but this is hardly surprising and there is no hard sell.
One aspect of the course that did annoy me was the discussion sections. As great as it is to have access to a forum to discuss what you have just learned, there was little structure to the discussion. The discussions are not organised in a typical forum style, but presented as simply a list of chronological comments on the subject in hand. Responses can be embedded, but the list of comments soon runs into the hundreds (sometimes thousands) so it is unlikely you will be able to take it all in. Some more structure to this might help people see more of the discussion they are interested in.
Having said that, it is possible to follow individuals who have generated interesting discussions and to filter their content, meaning you only see what you want to see. So it is not impossible to use, I just found it a bit clunky.
But, otherwise, as a free course, it was easy to sign up to, had a decent amount of information to help you on your way, was nicely presented and easy to use. As I have said, if you are starting out, or need a bit of inspiration, then this is a good course to cut your teeth on.
If you are an experienced writer, it may still be interesting, but may not further your knowledge to any great degree.
Check it out and let me know if you took part in February or are signing up for May. As with anything like this, if you want to do it, do it and, most importantly, have fun doing it!
Having taken a bit of a step back from my work and embarking on a “new” rewrite, my mind is now full of how I can rewrite the script I am currently focusing on and what, exactly, is rewriting?
I touched on the importance of taking a step back last week and how, if I don’t, my rewrites tend to be nothing more than a tidy up of dialogue and descriptive text; perhaps saving me a few lines here and there but not, effectively, altering or improving the story. If I am not careful, I just end up editing my work – or at least doing to it what I would consider editing. The work will read better, and flow more pleasantly, but the story, the characters, the plot, themes and emotions will be identical. It can be easy to do this a few times and think you have improved your story, but any reader worth their salt will be able to see through this in an instant. A patchy narrative or a weak plot, is still just that, regardless of how good your editing skills are.
To rewrite effectively, I think you need to have a plan. Stories live or die on their plots, themes and, often most importantly, characters. You need to focus on what you are aiming for with your story, its strengths, weakness and its characters. You need to be able to delve more deeply into the story, to explore the underlying structure, themes and motivations so you don’t just scratch the surface or, more accurately, polish the surface!
But how to focus and plan?
If I have taken enough time away from a project, I can come back to it with fresh eyes. My current project did surprise me in a couple of ways as there were aspects of it that I did not remember writing. By coming back to it fresh, I can come back at it in a more objective way. After reading it through once, I then go through it again and think about the characters, the scenes, sequences, themes, twists and turns. Does it all work, are the characters believeable, is there enough conflict, what are the components that need work?
As I start to make notes, I will come up with a plan for the various components. For example, for each character, noting how they should develop, how I can make their voices clearer in the narrative and how I can make them more believeable. I will take notes from my peers (if I have them) and see how certain plot elements could be changed and adapted and how that could effect the whole work. I start to make myself a rewriting “to-do” list that focused my attention on these various components.
And this is where, for me, things differ from simple editing.
For editing, my to-do list might just be:
a combination of editing and proof-reading, a broad and unfocused overview. My rewrite checklist, on the other hand, will be a lot more detailed:
- BOB needs to be more aggressive in his scenes with PAM
- The dog needs to be foreshadowed much earlier in the script
- Incident with the artichokes needs to come much earlier in the script and before PAM finds out about the butler’s misdemeanour
- How will the aftermath of PAM’s discovery affect the revelation in ACT II?
Obviously, these are just made up but you get the picture. They are more specific and measurable changes to the work, to make it more interesting to read and more dramatic, or faster-paced and action-packed. All of it is designed to make it a better story, not just make it look nice on paper. It is certainly more focused.
And these changes don’t all have to be done in one go or in one pass of the script from start to finish. In fact, it is possibly better not to do that. A single scene might not require much work, but if I wanted to up the ante on PAM and BOB’s relationship, then perhaps I would need to go through the script and pull out all of Pam and Bob’s scenes to focus on them away from the work as a whole. Just working from FADE IN to FADE OUT might not be enough to elevate your process from simple editing to effective rewriting. You need to focus on the areas that require work and fight to make them better. (Have a look at the link below on The Surgical Drape Technique for another perspective on this.)
If that sounds like a lot of work well… it is. And it has to be. You need to be prepared to break your script down in order to build it up. Rewriting is hard and it is probably one aspect of writing that many of us are most afraid of. That might be the reason why rewrites in my early life as a writer involved a simple editorial polish, rather than a full rewrite; I was too scared to get really stuck in and mess with what I thought was a perfect draft.
Now, I understand the importance of rewriting and how invaluable it is to the creative process. We have all heard someone say that “Writing is Rewriting” and we often spend longer doing the rewriting than putting the original draft together. This can put us off rewriting as it appears to take us away from what we really want to be doing – writing and creating. But Rewriting is also Writing (whether you like it or not), so it doesn’t remove you from your creative process, it actually puts you in the thick of it and can only make you a better writer in the long run.
So, get stuck in, focus on your rewriting and enjoy the creative process!
How do you approach re-writing?
Are you guilty of polishing, rather than rewriting?
Feel free to comment below and share your thoughts on the process of rewriting.
(And bonus points for anyone who came here via Twitter and can name the device in the picture and what it is for – the theme of this post is a clue.)
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!
We all like writing games, don’t we? Games and exercises to test our writing chops and help us learn about ourselves and our writing. Whether writing in a different form, trying a new style, rewriting existing works or adding a new slant on an old theme anything can be a writing game as long as it challenges you to be a better writer. And what better challenge to a writer than taking part in something like NaNoWriMo – or National Novel Writing Month – in case you were wondering. One month to write a 50,000 word novel, and a safe environment to do it in.
I’ve thought about it a couple of times over the last two years, but this year decided to give it a whirl and test myself. I have never even planned a novel, let alone written one, so I think it will be a great opportunity to flex my writing muscles, challenge myself and, hopefully, learn a little about my approach to writing along the way.
So, for the remainder of the month I am going to be putting the finishing touches to an outline for a novel and, from 1st November, will join the other NaNoWriMo’ers and give it my best shot at writing a novel. As I have never done this before I suspect it will be hard work but, at the very worst, I can only hope to come out the other end as a better writer. I may even end up with a half-decent novel that I could adapt into a screenplay. I may even blog about it from time to time to update my progress.
Is anyone else taking part in NaNoWriMo in 2015? If you are let me know how you get on, or pop up and say Hi! on the website. Even if you are not taking part this year, but have in the past, it would be great to hear how you got on!
Feel free to comment below and, if you are taking part, good luck and keep writing!