Years In The Making; Weeks In The Tweaking

It’s sometimes the case that an idea exists in the mind of a writer years before it’s published, or sometimes long before it’s even committed to paper.

Larry Cohen, for instance, pitched his screenplay Phone Booth to Alfred Hitchcock three decades before it was made, but neither of them could think of a reason to keep the main character in the booth. Jilly Cooper lost the original manuscript for Riders in 1970, and it took until 1985 before the novel was finally published.

One of my own pieces took around 15 years to write. When I was in high school, I had a fragment that was supposed to be set to music:

Have I known you too long?
Are we too far gone
as just friends?

But I could do nothing with the fragment. I hadn’t begun writing poetry or even short stories at that point, and I didn’t pursue my interest in playing music.

It wasn’t until 2013 that I revisited the fragment, just when I was beginning to feel confident to call myself a poet. With help from online friends, I shaped it into its current form and it appeared on The Purple Spotlights EP in 2016.

I didn’t mean to write a companion piece. Over the last few months, I’d thought of another fragment I’d initially been unable to use, though I knew it would make a good refrain:

Let’s shag each other senseless.

The catalyst for the companion piece was when I found out something surprising about a couple of friends, which put me into a strange mood and then became entangled with the fragment above. The next day, I was due to take a train journey of 5½ hours each way, and I’d have access to pencils and paper, so I had the means, the motive and the opportunity.

On the trip, I remembered that Tied Up was about platonic friendship, and that the poem I was writing would be about a couple who couldn’t go back to being that way. The first draft was completed in around 24 hours; I named it Tied Down.

Some pieces feel finished once they’re on paper. By contrast, I pulled out this one every day and simply looked at it, trying to make sense of my own words, perhaps because it isn’t a sentiment I normally express in my work. Sometimes I’d score something out; sometimes I’d shuffle around the words.

It currently sits at 67 lines, longer than what I usually write. I haven’t modified it for around a week now, but I’ll probably come back to it in a month and see what changes need to be made.

 

 

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Adapting to Film, Adapting to Change

On Saturday, I went to see a performance of Benidorm at the Edinburgh Playhouse, based upon the ITV2 comedy of the same name. It even featured some of the actors.

The TV series is already rather theatrical in nature, like a Carry On film with a more modern attitude. As such, it transferred very well to the stage.

Sometimes, though, adapting a story from one medium into another is a hit-or-miss affair.

Those I enjoyed include the 2004 film Layer Cake, then I discovered it’s so closely based on the novel by J. J. Connolly that it even contains direct quotes. Similarly, The Thirty-Nine Steps worked as a mock radio adaptation performed on stage, even though the plot was stripped down to the bare essentials.

Yet I was disappointed by the film version of one of my favourite books, Starter For Ten, perhaps because it deviates from the first-person point of view. And the 2016 Dad’s Army movie opened to lacklustre reviews, with The Guardian asking why we needed a film version of a much-loved TV series.

One classic case of an author disowning a film version is Roald Dahl’s reaction to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. He disliked the plot changes and musical numbers so much that no other screenplays of his work were authorised until after his death.

A few years ago, I posed a question to Irvine Welsh at a book signing about his thoughts on adaptation, considering how many of his novels have been on the big screen. He replied that he considered film to be a different medium and he accepted that changes sometimes had to be made.

‘And,’ he concluded, ‘it never hurts book sales.’

A Structured Story

I’ve written several novels, all of which remain unfinished and unpublished. In 2011, I drafted my second one, about a man who takes part in a challenge to win millions of pounds. Since then, I’ve periodically revisited the manuscript, but it never quite shaped it into a form I like.

The most recent attempt was over the bank holiday weekend. I sat down and fitted the key events into a structure that resembles a Hollywood screenplay. There are five major turning points that occur at set intervals during the narrative.

Hollywood Sign
Hollywood Sign (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the face of it, this sounds rather restricting, but for the first time in a long while, I’m actually excited about the project.

One stumbling block was a scene where the main character is taken to another country and left to find his way back to the UK. Having the structure to follow helped transform this rather long and dull trek into a series of shorter journeys, each part ending in a cliffhanger and raising the stakes a little higher.

Every so often, you’ll hear a novel or a film described as ‘formulaic’. This is usually caused by the writer making the structure too obvious. The turning points ought to be invisible to the casual reader or viewer, but they will be there, shaping the story into a form that audiences subconsciously expect.

Episodes

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to be part of the Beans Podcast, run by three friends and updated twice a week. I appeared as one of two guests to speak on a subject of our choosing and to join in the general banter. Released on Christmas Day, the episode is available here.

But the main thrust of today’s entry is to talk about Star Wars. [Reader’s voice: On a writing blog?] Indeed, on a writing blog.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace villag...
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace village nearby Nafta, Tunisia in Tunisia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I hadn’t previously been interested in the series; I’d only seen Episode I: The Phantom Menace on its release while trying to impress a girl. But 1½ weeks ago, I decided it was time to watch Episodes I to VII in the order of release then Episode VIII: The Last Jedi at the cinema, which came as a shock to some friends.

It’s a huge time investment to watch eight films at around 2¼ hours each, and you risk letting your concentration wander, thus missing a vital plot point. However, I’m pleased to report I’ve now become really rather immersed in the universe. From reading articles online, it seems I’m more or less up to speed with the action so far, and I’m understanding a lot of the jokes and references. The next stop will be to watch some of the official spin-offs.

Whether or not you’re a fan of Star Wars, it won’t be news to you that the plot of each one follows a formula. Yet you might be surprised to find out that almost every mainstream film follows a similar formula. On his website, Michael Hague discusses the six turning points of all successful screenplays, using Erin Brockovich and Gladiator for reference.

The word ‘formulaic’ is often used negatively as a synonym for ‘predictable’. Predictability often stems from weak plot twists. A formula, by contrast, helps the screenwriter to keep the attention of the audience as the characters’ difficulties become worse and worse.  Note that a happy ending isn’t necessary, merely a satisfying resolution of the preceding story; I refer you to A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Buried (2010).

Next time you’re at the pictures, look out for the structure. A good writer will make the turning points natural and the formula invisible, but these elements will almost certainly be present.

Further To…

As National Novel Writing Month draws to a close, I thought I might have run out of steam by now.

English: NWP teachers at work.
English: NWP teachers at work. This photo has little relation to the entry; I just like the guy’s hat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the contrary, I hit a turning point in my novel on Saturday, a remarkable 25 days into the contest. I now have a new structure that I’m pleased with, and I’m more excited than ever to commit it to paper. The downside is that the new structure incorporates little of the material I’ve already written, so what I have now is effectively a 40,000-word collection of character sketches.

It therefore looks like I’ll be continuing this project during December as I don’t want to let the momentum trail off.

What I actually planned to do in December was to turn a certain public-domain novel into a screenplay; as far as I can tell, nobody has done it before with this book. It’s waited more than one-and-a-third centuries, though, so a few more months of delay won’t make much difference.

Finally, you might remember I made an entry regarding my experience of understanding the Scots and Dundee dialects; it was called Fluent in 1½ Languages. Since then, some brainbox at the University of Abertay has shown that understanding the Dundee dialect is as good as knowing a second language.

Double Deckard

In one of my writing groups, it’s almost a running joke that I’ve never seen many popular films that the other members have. So when a friend mentioned that she wanted to see Blade Runner 2049, I decided to do it properly.

English: Oscar Pistorius during 2011 World cha...
Oops, wrong blade runner. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A week ago on Saturday, I started an intensive weekend of reading the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick. I followed this up with the original Blade Runner on the Sunday night; then on Monday, the three official short films that tie in with the story; and on Tuesday, I finally watched 2049.

Was the preparation worth it? A decisive yes, as I was then familiar with the universe, but the first film is a different beast from its source material.

The novel has elements that are shuffled or omitted in Blade Runner: replicants are called androids, there’s prestige in owning a real animal, and Rick Deckard is married. In fact, the only near-verbatim scene was Rachel’s empathy test. Despite the changes, however, Dick was reportedly satisfied with the end product.

Which brings me to the latest instalment. I like that a similar period of time has elapsed in the fictional universe as in real life, especially as the first film has had time to build up a cult following.

But 2049 also focuses slightly less on action and takes a more philosophical tone, mirroring the book; this is made possible with a running time of more than 2½ hours. I think there’s still a glaring gap for someone to write an adaptation that’s more faithful to the novel.

At the risk of turning into a name dropper, I once had the opportunity to ask Irvine Welsh how he feels about his books being made into films; Trainspotting, The Acid House, et al. He replied that he accepts the differences between the two media and that however the film turns out, “It never hurts book sales.”

Outside The Box

Regular readers will be aware that this blog covers all types of writing from short stories and poetry to screenplays and rap music. I believe there’s a lot we can learn from all these forms. Even watching Made in Chelsea is a great lesson in improv.

However, on moving into a new place last month, I took the decision not to own a TV. This was something I’d considered for a long time as I would either rarely watch it, or it would become a distraction when I could be doing something productive. Either way, it would more than counteract the benefits of having one.

The other factor swaying my decision is the matter of the TV licence. In the UK, you need to pay an annual fee if you have equipment that receives television broadcasts, if you watch live TV online, or if you use BBC iPlayer for any purpose. The money goes towards funding the BBC and there are heavy fines if you aren’t correctly licensed.

While it’s a difficult field to police, that’s enough of a disincentive for me not to have a telly. If there’s something I really want to see, I have other options. You can watch DVDs or most catch-up services without a licence, and you can also own a radio without charge. Even better, I’m fortunate enough to be within easy reach of two cinemas: one mainstream, the other independent.

With not having a TV, it’s an obvious question to ask what I have in its place. The answer: