Hello Goldminers and welcome to today’s blog, in which I’ll be revealing some of the things that I’ve found useful in my writing, my development work, and my life in general.
We’ll be looking at a range of stuff, including practical tips on how to manage your own creative process (i.e. how to get the damned words on the page), resources to help you deal with with the mental stresses and strains of this peculiar industry, and ways of dealing with the dull technical bits and bobs like software and accounting. There’s also some stuff on procrastination, in which I am an expert. In fact, procrastination is pretty much the only reason I know anything at all about software and accounting…
You’ve got to hand it to the Beeb. This is a brilliant, brilliant resource. All you really need to teach yourself screenwriting is to read a lot of scripts, as thousands of talented screenwriters did before it first occurred to any guru to flog a book. And the Writers’ Room Library has shedloads of ’em. Better than that, they’re UK TV drama scripts, many of current and past favourite (and not-so-favourite) shows.
And if it’s movie scripts you’re after, these poorly-designed but carefully curated repositories are the places to go. It’s hard to overstate how important it is to read lots of movie scripts, even if you’re focus is on writing for television. And now you can.
johnaugust.com and the Scriptnotes Podcast
A ton of useful information about screenwriting. Not much more to say. Well, actually there is a bit more to say: John August is extraordinarily generous with the time he devotes to new writers, and has built up a mini-empire of advice.
Now, John is American, and a movie writer, while we are mainly concerned with UK TV writing. No matter: much of the site’s content is general stuff about the craft of screenwriting, which applies universally. Besides, the US-specific stuff is interesting, and if you’re really good at this writing lark you’ll probably end up working in LA anyway.
The other marvellous thing about Mr August is his podcast with Craig Mazin, called Scriptnotes. In fact, johnaugust.com is now pretty much dominated by Scriptnotes (though you can find some useful links to old article by clicking on the menu icon in the top-right).
John and Craig are a delightful double-act: erudite, articulate, self-deprecating and always funny. Sure, there are times when they waffle on about WGA stuff which might not be so exciting for UK-based writers. But let’s face it, if Hollywood came knocking you’d probably answer the door wouldn’t you? So it can’t hurt to know about all these shenanigans either way. (Apologies to those readers who are already so wildly successful that they can turn their noses up at LA-LA-Land.)
In fact, Scriptnotes is so great that one particular episode counts as one of the tools in Viv’s Box. More on that in a later section.
Actual physical libraries. The ones that are still open anyway. They are, by and large, great places to write. It can be a lonely old business, writing, and the benefits of getting out of the house every so often are huge.
I’ve written in several libraries over the years. Some are better than others of course. One featured a large man in a grubby hi-vis jacket who was always fast asleep, snoring loudly, in the same corner. Possibly the staff just left him in there every night. Or maybe he was an animatic model, to give the place some atmosphere. Anyway—the point is, headphones are a good idea. (But don’t be that person who has them up too loud. Please, please, never be that person.)
Have you ever had any great ideas while staring at a blank screen and the accusatory blinking of the cursor? Neither have I.
You need to fill your creative tank, and walking can be a great way to this. It doesn’t have to be walking of course, but walking gets you out into the world, can take you somewhere unexpected, and has an element of fun and maybe even weirdness about it if you don’t stick to the beaten track.
Filling your creative tank is usually a lateral process rather than a linear one. You’re unlikely to go out, experience a load of things, then come back to your desk and write about them. So don’t focus on the end result too much—just savour it, enjoy it and trust that your brain will make the connections in the background somewhere.
That said, do take a notebook or phone so you can jot down any ideas. (Although as a writer, you already do that, right?). I have an email account to which I send all my ideas, big or small. It’s amazing what ends up there when you haven’t checked it for a few weeks.
This episode of Scriptnotes requires a subscription to listen to ($1.99 a month and you can cancel immediately if you wish). Or if times are hard you can read the transcript free of charge.
Screenwriting, like any kind of writing, can be tough on the old psyche. Writers, being creative and also wordy and obsessive types, are often prone to mental ups and downs. And the job itself comes with enough inbuilt insecurities to test even the most mentally resilient.
When you’re starting out you will be asking yourself a lot of questions, like: “What the hell am I doing?” “Will anyone ever pay me?” “Does everyone think I’m a joke?”
Once you’ve been doing it for a while these will change into: “OK, they commissioned me this time but they’re going to find out I don’t know what I’m doing any day now.” “When I get fired, which will definitely happen, am I now unqualified to do anything, even stack supermarket shelves at night?,” and, “WILL I DIE ALONE?”
And always: “Am I any good at this?”
Many of us have this. And it never goes away. And that’s OK.
David Simon, creator of The Wire, Treme and Generation Kill, sums it up in this interview:
Like many writers, I live every day with the vague nightmare that at some point, someone more knowledgeable than myself is going to sit up and pen a massive screed indicating exactly where my work is shallow and fraudulent and rooted in lame, half-assed assumptions. I see myself labeled a writer, and I get good reviews, and I have the same doubts buried, latent, even after my successes. I suspect many, many writers feel this way. I think it is rooted in the absolute arrogance that comes with standing up at the community campfire and declaring, essentially, that we have the best story that ought to be told next and that people should fucking listen.
And speaking of procrastination…
This is a lovely, charming piece about the perils of procrastination, with a series of crude but hilarious illustrations. If you’ve ever been to the “Dark Playground” (and as a writer there is a higher-than-average chance that you have), you will find a lot that chimes with you here. And yes, I’m aware many of you will reading this article as a form of procrastination. Never mind, it’s better than cat videos.
Everyone is banging on about mindfulness these days, aren’t they? Well, I’m afraid I’m going to as well. Why? Look, just trust me on this. It helps with almost everything—particularly with focus, creativity, confidence, dealing with stress—all things that writers could do with some help with in fact. In an age of almost permanent distraction, it’s never been more important to have some headspace to yourself.
You can learn to meditate and “be mindful” in a number of ways, but by far the simplest is Andy Puddicombe’s Headspace. It’s a series of guided meditations and you can get it as an app for your phone or tablet, or just through the Headspace website. The first few sessions are free and after that it’s a fiver a month (if you pay anually in advance; otherwise it’s £7.95 a month). Andy’s voice took me a bit of getting used to—he’s prone to the odd “fake laugh” which can get on your nerves if you let it—but bear with it and soon you’ll reap the rewards in almost every aspect of your life.
Big claim? Yep. Well that’s not all. According to a Harvard study, mindfulness meditation actually changes the physical structure of your brain. The hippocampus (important for learning and memory) gets denser, as do structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. Meanwhile the amygdala (the home of anxiety) becomes less dense.
That’s it for this week! In the next installment I’ll be talking about software and admin stuff—dull maybe, but essential, so make sure you tune in.
Have a good time, all the time.