Shut up

It doesn’t always follow that every writer likes every piece of great writing but, come on, you can’t fail to love every brilliant second of Trainspotting’s script by John Hodge. Only, I was into that film, entirely and completely engrossed from the opening half a second.

And specifically the opening half a second where there isn’t a word. Isn’t a sound.

I know it’s only half a second, maybe 20 frames at most, but the silence is completely arresting. For that one fraction of a moment you’re seeing a street scene before feet come down out of the top of frame and Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life bursts in. Take a look:

Choose life, eh?

Then I suspect few people have ever compared Trainspotting to Gerry Anderson’s UFO, but here goes. Watch the famous title sequence and see what I’m seeing.

The far future of 1980. And the far past of camerawork focusing on a woman’s backside. Anyway. After the Century 21 Television sting, it’s silent for what seems like an age but is actually about a second.

It’s a punch. Maybe because it’s a little different from the usual, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think that silence is a hugely powerful punch.

I think silence can also make you hold your breath. There’s that recent horror film A Quiet Place where you have to shut up to survive, for instance. I’ll never know how effective it is because it’s horror and I’m a wimp. Then there’s a noisy thriller in cinemas right now – I don’t want to spoil it just to make one small point – but it features a single moment of silence and that made me jump.

Flashback 22 years to the first Mission: Impossible film. If you’ve seen it, you remember the very long silent scene as Tom Cruise steals a list from a PC in a CIA vault. Forget the hanging off buildings and aircraft he does in the later films, this silent scene is excruciatingly tense. I love it. If you’ve a little while, take a look at this short video analysing the scene and its production. I can’t show it to you unless I point out that its clips from the television version of Mission: Impossible are from the forgotten 1980s remake instead of the 1960s original, mind.

Also, this is a YouTube video so in the midst of interesting detail it gets childish for a moment or two. Silence would’ve been better.

I’m conscious that for a piece about shutting up, this week I’m showing you an awful lot of audio and video clips. But I think this is all using the same muscles you do in writing. I think video editing is like drafting. I definitely think a film is finally written in the edit suite.

Which means I am a fan of sound and film editor Walter Murch. He works on everything and talks about it too. Of the very, very many lectures of his you can find online, here’s an excerpt where he talks about silence. It’s about the effectiveness of it but does also cop to how sometimes sheer production frustration can create art.

I’ll shut up now. And get on with some writing.

12 Monkeys TV series logo

Draft Dodging

I’m a dozen scripts into my read-a-script-a-day thing and, curiously enough, the 12th one I read was the pilot to 12 Monkeys by Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett. And it’s put me in mind of something about writing that I realise I’ve been at risk of forgetting.

There are of course differences between various drafts we write of scripts and then naturally there are differences between that and the final cut of the filmed version. However, when all of it works, I think these different drafts tend to concentrate and improve the same things regardless of how many monkeys are in your story.

Let me give you an example. The opening teaser sequence of the 12 Monkeys pilot script has four characters walking through post-apocalyptic streets wearing protective clothing and breathing apparatus. The opening sequence of the aired version changes that to just two characters walking through a derelict building.

You’re thinking that’s cheaper and I won’t disagree for an instant. But there’s more. It takes 4 pages of script which includes 17 dialogue speeches. On screen, it takes 1 minute and has 1 long voiceover with just a single speech at the end.

I loathe voiceovers to the extent that I would’ve argued against this one as I would any of them – but I’d have been wrong. This one works and hearing it again now after watching three seasons of this show, I find it delicious that the very opening syllables set up something that recurs and has repercussions throughout the show.

But what I really like is that they ditched 16 speeches and left us with just the last one. As it happens, that too sets up a recurring theme but it’s also intriguing by itself. A man crouches over a body so long dead that it has decayed to a skeleton and he says to it: “See you soon”.

By dropping two characters, ditching costly effects and even saving on the wardrobe costs by losing the protective clothing, there’s no question but that the teaser scene is cheaper. But it’s also better because it keeps what matters and discards everything that doesn’t.

We overwrite. And we overwrite explanations. Worse, we abdicate opinions – wait, I need to explain that one a bit better. There’s a moment in the 12 Monkeys pilot script where that man, James Cole, has to kill a colleague. He does so and it reads as quite a jolt but then we get this from another character:

RAMSE: Had to be done. No choice.

You know that is said so that we are on the side of Cole, that we know he’s a Good Guy. What it actually does is externalise something that we should be thinking and feeling ourselves: we should be making our own mind up about this character. Given that the situation as written is bleedin’ obvious, you’d have to personally know the character being killed in order to disagree with what Cole has done. So telling us that it had to be done, no choice, is actually distancing us from the characters. It’s weakening our reaction to them therefore it’s weakening them.

That whole sequence is gone, possibly because it involved a fifth character and some flame thrower fire effects, but whatever the reason, its absence is an improvement.

Here’s one that stays in the show but is also improved with a new draft.

Cole puts the gun to his [Frost’s] head.

COLE: Let’s find out.

CRACK! The back of Frost’s head blows out

That’s Cole killing someone else – this can be a violent show – but here’s how that plays in the aired episode:

Cole puts the gun to his [Frost’s] head.

CRACK! The back of Frost’s head blows out

That’s it. No dialogue. I actually don’t dislike the “Let’s find out” line because it makes sense in the context. But still it’s close to something I loathe: the 1970s US TV wisecrack.

If those ever worked, they don’t now – go count how many times they do it in Star Wars: The Last Jedi and cringe – but I think it also points to something fundamental. Less is more.

I’ve read multiple drafts of scripts and I’ve seen how the video editing suite is really where a final draft is created. When it works, when this is done right, each new draft simplifies things. Yes, it probably makes things cheaper. But it makes it clearer, it pares down, it whittles down to what matters.

I’ll keep that in mind as I continue reading scripts but I hope I’ll also keep it in mind as write them.

You can read the 12 Monkeys pilot script online. The fourth and final season airs sometime this year and the first two are now on Netflix UK. The first three are on iTunes.

Writing fast and slow

Here’s an example of writing too quickly: this week I was made Deputy Chair of the national Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. The End.

I mean, that’s factual and it’s entirely accurate, but it doesn’t do anything else. You can guess how I feel about this happening but that’s more because you’re you and you get these things, it’s not that I’ve conveyed it at all in the writing.

Actually, I’m not sure I’ve grasped it all in order to convey it in the slightest, but the fact that this is taking a time to settle in my head is one thing that’s made me want to talk to you about something else. The other prompt is that I’ve just had a report on a script of mine and it’s more praising than the best reviews I’ve ever got for things that have been made.

I can tell you the report was so good because it’s also a rejection. I nearly didn’t read it: once you read the first ‘but’ in the email, you know you’re out. On the rare times I get any more detail I will file it away to read later and then never do, but this time it was more.

Specifically, I’d written the script at lightspeed and it failed so I knew the whole idea was rubbish, my writing just didn’t cut it. I was going to scrap that and write something else.

For some reason I read on and, cor, you should read this stuff. I now think it’s my best work in ages. Okay, my best rejected work, but still.

So let you and I both take a telling from this: read the feedback.

But.

Feeling good about this does put the idea back on the top of pile but it doesn’t take away the fact that I wrote it at ludicrous speed.

And that’s what I’ve been thinking about on multiple long train journeys all week.

I think I write at my best when I am writing at speed – and that this isn’t good enough.

I’ve seen this before, most especially with articles and books where if it comes easily, it reads the best. When it’s a slog, you can feel that as a reader and the life is gone from it.

When there’s time on an article that’s gone wrong like this, I will walk away, come back and try a second blast-draft to see where I get. Invariably it’s better but invariably I also hold back because I’m afraid of getting it wrong again. So we get a third go and it becomes okay. It’s only ever very good when it flowed easily the first time.

I did think about this sample script for a fortnight and it’s an idea I’ve had plus written short stories around for at least three years but the total time from writing FADE IN: to about 15 pages later is measured in hours. Single-figure hours.

Which is all very nice for me. Except I can make a good article this way and I believe I can write a fair book, but there’s a limit with scripts. I think at my best I am able to make a script be very, very good – but not great. But lacking.

And that’s the problem. It needs work – this script, all scripts – and the more I work at a piece, the worse it gets.

I’m going to have to pull my finger out, aren’t I?

The show comes first

There are several things that I believe in, most recently the fact that if a hotel says nope, there’s no room at the inn, you should check their website and suggest that maybe they look again.

This is on my mind because I’ve just had the best night’s sleep of my adult life in a hotel that had taken one look at my exhausted face and had initially decided it would be fun to suggest I get back on the motorway and drive for another hour.

But that’s not what’s on my mind to talk to you about. Nor is this: I believe that it is always better to be crew than passenger.

The belief I actually want to natter with you about and which I’m delaying discussing at all, is that the show comes first.

Doesn’t matter what show.

Doesn’t matter what it needs or what I need or what I want. If I’m working on a thing, then I’m working on it and the job is to do whatever it takes. This is why I’ve never watched a clock when working: I suppose I’ve often enough been hired for certain hours but in my head it’s not 9 to 5 or whatever, it’s When I’m Needed until When I’m Not O’Clock.

This is so deep into me that this week the belief overrode all common sense.

I’ve been running a writing workshop series for Writing West Midlands and the Birmingham and Midland Institute. It concluded this week and for the last session, I wanted two things. One was a guest speaker to talking about what one needs when preparing writing for publication and one was to somehow cover editing and rewriting.

The guest was Katharine D’Souza who is also an editor and in an unrelated crime has been editing my collection of short stories.

So last Monday, I was planning this session and actually having a lot of trouble getting it right, getting it to be good. Katharine chooses that moment to let me know that she doesn’t like my stories. “It’s not all awful,” she didn’t say but nearly did. “They are typed very well.”

And my first thought is not a typical writer’s feeling of rejection, which takes many flavours but always adds up to ow.

Instead, my first thought is ooooh.

My first thought is that maybe we could discuss this in the session. She’s going to be there anyway, I’m going to be there anyway.

“Are you sure you want your writing ripped into bloody pieces in front of people?” she also didn’t say but I’m certain was thinking it. (Actually, I’m sure she did mention blood.)

“N – ye – no – yes – no – yessss,” I said, with total and instant certainty.

I say that to you as a joke but I did hesitate, just not over whether I was happy doing this in front of an audience. The hesitation, the thing that I think drove Katharine toward madness in that phone call, was that I vacillated over this point: whether it would be interesting for the workshop or not.

I also worried about how much time it would take: I needed something quite substantial, the session needed a really chunky, quite long piece. “Not a problem,” she didn’t actually laugh. “It’s ten stories, I could fill a month.”

So on the night, we took the starts of two of my precious new stories, the best things I’ve ever written, and examined why they are not the best things that anyone has written.

It was the right thing for the workshop, it was interesting and it got everyone examining text, looking at when to rewrite, when to give up writing and go home to a different career, William, and it so perfectly fitted in with the next part about publishing that I’m actually proud of that session.

Only, since this is just you and me here, I’d like to confess something.

It is true that my first thought was the show.

But my second was that it sounded like I was going to be destroyed here and if it were going to happen, doing it in a workshop was the safest thing. You know what it’s like when you’re presenting something, you’re in Performance Mode and I figured that no matter how excoriating the criticism I’d get was, I’d be playing the host and my concentration on the audience would mean the knives wouldn’t penetrate as deep.

Also, I’m less keen to admit this bit but it’s true and you’re looking at me like that, so here it is: I did think I’d look pretty good being willing to do this. I’d look like a mensch.

That bit didn’t work out.

But then nor did the criticism. Instead of this one editor, Katharine, telling me that I shouldn’t rule out moving to accountancy, I had something like 16 people telling me yeah, you should listen to her.

Or, to put it a slightly different way, I had a total of 17 talented writers improving the short stories that I care most about.

Bastards.