Chris Trengove

Writing about writing

Archive for May 2016

IN OR OUT? A WRITER’S P.O.V.

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11th May 2016

In a quiet, leafy area a mile or so from the centre of Brussels, there’s an imposing period building that houses a number of businesses and enterprises. One entire floor is taken up by an arts organisation, which, judging by the elegant panelled rooms and up-to-date equipment, and the fact that it’s situated in Brussels, you might think is the hub of some vast pan-European, or even international organisation. In fact, it houses Vlaams Audiovisueel Fonds, aka the Flanders Audiovisual Fund. This is an organisation devoted to supporting and funding the audio-visual arts in Flanders.

Here’s an extract from the VAF’s manifesto: “The aims of the Flanders Audiovisual Fund are threefold: to develop a sustainable audiovisual industry, to encourage and support upcoming audiovisual talent and to promote a vibrant audiovisual culture in Flanders. VAF accomplishes four main tasks. It provides financial support for audiovisual productions (1) and promotes these in Flanders as well as abroad (2). The Fund also grants scholarships, finances professional training and supports/organises workshops (3) as well as carries out surveys on the audiovisual field (4).”

Impressive, eh? I think so – and I have to emphasize that this organisation is for the benefit of Flanders, not the whole of Belgium. Flanders is about the size of the West Country, and although it’s densely populated, it’s home to no more than about 6 million people – half the population of London. I know all this because a couple of times now, the VAF has invited me to conduct short scriptwriting workshops for students of animation. Good fun on both occasions, and judging by the feedback, the students seemed to get something out of the sessions.

However, bear with me; I’m not just blowing my own trumpet. The point I’m leading to is that here, young people working in the visual arts are being supported. Not just by being able to pick the brains of a ‘veteran scriptwriter’ (as one of them described me) imported from the UK, but by a whole range of support services, particularly financial. Not long after my last session I heard that one of my students had received the funds to have their (excellent) project fully produced.

This nurturing culture is not confined to Flanders, or to Belgium. Over the last few years I’ve led many European scriptwriting workshops, and again and again my students – whether they’re from Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden or Poland – have mentioned that they’re developing their projects with a view to gaining funding. Even if they’re developing projects for their own pleasure or satisfaction, there’s a chance that they may be able to apply for, and receive, financial support. What’s more, funding bodies are often local, even more local than the Flanders fund.

Nice work if you can get it – and in the UK, by and large, you can’t. There are few funds available to support creative projects, and what there are aimed more at the ‘fine arts’ end – particularly writers of novels. Although Britain is still a world leader in the creative arts, particularly television, it is in spite of rather than because of encouragement and support by the state.

Why does this matter? Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment. The French film industry is often derided for its pretentious, self-consciously ‘arty’ output, the result, critics say, of its sucking at the government teat, of not having to stand on its own two feet. Of course, there’s something in that argument, but counter to it is the fact that France retains a thriving industry that is distinctively French, and that regularly manages to turn out artistic and commercial successes alike.

By comparison, the British film industry, always oscillating between boom and bust, seems doomed – with a few honourable exceptions – to churn out either ‘diamond geezer’ gang movies or period toffery. Meanwhile, publishers’ lists are filling up with ghost-ridden celebrity drivel, while actual writers find their incomes in freefall. (Just today I read about an elaborate launch party for the debut novel of ‘Lady’ Victoria Hervey – a woman hitherto known mainly for falling out of her clothes on various red carpets.)

The official British attitude – more so than ever with the current government – is that everything must have a monetary value. Ideally, an immediate monetary value. Long-term cultural strategy? Nah. Wellbeing of the artistic and creative community? You’ll be lucky. All right then – how about ‘it’s the duty of the state to foster an educated, aware and questioning population, who in the long run are likely to be happier and more productive?’ I should coco. With a Culture Secretary with no apparent interest in culture, who seems more interested in whipping the BBC into submission and having a professional dominatrix do the same to him, this situation doesn’t look likely to change any time soon.

Back to my headline question – in or out? I’m not going to pretend to offer a balanced view – I’m a lifelong internationalist, and don’t think there’s a single good reason for cutting ties to Europe. But as a writer, I’d naturally like to see opportunities for people in the creative fields expand rather than contract, and as things stand in the UK – and as they are going – I think this is unlikely to happen. I doubt that the environment for writers and creative will radically improve if we do stay in the EU, but I think that they’ll get worse if we don’t.

It’s a question of tone as much as anything else. It’s already feared that the government will make a bonfire of workers’ rights if we pull out, and I suspect that Brexit will also make things worse for creatives. The market will become even more of a free-for-all, and it will become ever harder for writers and their like to make a living. (Just as an aside, look at the leading lights of the Brexiteers: Johnson, Duncan Smith, Gove, Galloway, Farage – every one a potential book-burner if you ask me.)

Having worked for several French production houses over the years, every month or so I get a handy payment, sometimes for shows that I worked on more than a decade ago. These payments are courtesy of the SACD – the Societe des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques – a French organisation that takes the radical view that scriptwriters and authors should be properly paid for what they do. As I understand it, there’s a pot of money that producers and other ne’er-do-wells (just kidding, producers) can’t touch. It’s purely for writers, and gets distributed when shows get repeated, sold abroad and so on. Of course the ALCS performs a similar role in the UK, but I can’t help noticing that, script for script, the SACD is the organisation that coughs up the more serious funds. In my view, France has got the right idea.

Overall, I doubt whether the UK exits or remains will make much material difference to writers, at least not in the short term. Times will probably be hard, and continue to get harder, whether Britain stays in or decides to go it alone. But in terms of setting a broad cultural agenda, I think Brexit would send a signal to the free marketeers and the cultural deadheads, and that message would be something along the lines of ‘thank God we’re rid of those continentals and their poncey, artsy-fartsy subsidizing ways.’ Which is why, come June 23rd, I shall be marking the box marked ‘remain.’

Written by Chris Trengove

May 12, 2016 at 3:13 pm

CAN YOU LEARN TO WRITE?

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19th April 2016
No. Not really. But you can learn to write better, if you have some talent, or flair, to begin with. As the actor Steve Martin famously remarked: “Some people have a way with words, and other people… oh, uh, not have way.” You need that way, and if you haven’t got it, no amount of creative writing courses or workshops is going to make much difference (although your grammar and spelling might improve, which is always good.) It’s the same with most branches of the arts: you could (probably) teach a chimpanzee to play the piano if you gave him enough time and enough bananas, but the end result wouldn’t be art, or even entertainment. Because by and large, chimps don’t have a flair for music.

So, flair, talent, call it what you will – what else do you need? Something else that can’t be taught: the ability to come up with ideas. Good ones, preferably. A young acquaintance recently sent me some fragments of her writing, just a few hundred words each, stream of consciousness really. They weren’t poems, they weren’t journalism, they didn’t fit into any recognizable format, so weren’t publishable. But they had an energy and rhythm that showed that the writer did have a way with words. Even better, there were the beginnings of original ideas swimming around in there, unformed and undeveloped, but ideas nevertheless.

My old friend and long-time writing partner Peter Lawrence has recounted how, as showrunner, he picked new writers for the iconic show Thundercats. He was prepared to overlook inexperience and unfamiliarity with the format, provided the script had an imaginative idea at heart. Scripts can be edited for structure, style, dialogue but you can’t edit in a good basic idea.

Flair, talent, ideas, they all coalesce in the creative imagination. It’s not a coincidence that people proficient in one branch of the arts often excel in another form: Steve Martin (again) is an interesting writer and a banjo player of professional standard; funny man and movie star Dudley Moore was an internationally recognized jazz pianist; writer Henry Miller was an internationally exhibited artist, as was ‘godfather of punk’ William S. Burroughs. There are many more examples. Flair, imagination, ideas, these guys had them all in spades.

So if you can’t learn to write, what can you learn? I have to go back a few years, to 2004, when I was first asked to mentor at a scriptwriting workshop. I was a little sceptical, as my writing career had been firmly based around the principle of ‘write; then write some more; then write some more.’ Honing my craft, I’d worked as a journalist and an advertising copywriter. I wrote a lot, and over the course of the years worked out what was bad and what as good, and bit by bit impressed enough people that I was able to make a living at it. Workshop? A word that I’d hitherto only associated with piles of old tyres and an ailing Ford Mondeo on a ramp. However, I said yes, as I was curious, I was going to get paid, and I make it a professional rule to say yes to everything.

Truthfully I had no idea what to expect, or even what I was supposed to do, but over the course of the first week, at a big old house in the Kent countryside, it slowly became apparent that I wasn’t expected to be a teacher of writing – the participants all had at least some professional experience – but a kind of roving counsellor-cum-sounding-board-cum-sympathetic ear. I was able to help not by commenting on paragraph structure or the minutiae of dialogue, but by talking, guiding, suggesting, throwing ideas at the participants that they might not have thought of themselves.

What I was offering them was the practical expertise that I’d built up over the course of a couple of decades, helping them out of holes that y might have written themselves into, working with them to make their projects as good as they possibly could be. Often, it was simply a case of pointing out a way forward that hadn’t occurred to them: “why don’t you try this?”, “why don’t you try that?” In the end you have to teach yourself, and a good educator is someone who gives you the tools and inspiration to do just that.

I also quickly realised that what I was doing was what a good editor does: clearing a way for the writer to best realize their ‘vision’, without compromising their creative signature. Like most writers, over the years I’ve edited and I’ve been edited, and I’ve come to realise that the greatest gift the good editor can bring to a project is simply a second pair of (informed, interested, expert) eyes. When you’re working on a project, there’s always a point at which you can’t see the wood for the trees. To mix metaphors, you’re so involved in nurturing your baby that you don’t notice that it has an extra couple of toes. It takes someone else to do that, to gently point the fact out, and to suggest solutions. Many psychiatrists see psychiatrists: to quote a fictional example, in The Sopranos, Tony’s psychiatrist Dr. Melfi regularly sees a psychiatrist herself, colleague Dr. Kupferberg, to maintain and tune her own mental balance.

What else? Well, interest is all. I’m a lifelong jazz fan and occasional musician, and if I can’t play something, at least I know how it should be played, because I love the music and have spent countless hours listening to top players. But from talking to music teachers, I know that many come to jazz playing without any real history of listening – they’ve heard Norah Jones in a wine bar and think they like jazz, whereas what they like is something that sounds a bit like jazz. If you’re not into it, why would you want to play it? Same with writing – if you’re not a reader, you’ll probably never be a writer, and why would you want to be? Again I, and others in my field, report that many would-be writers seem to have read little. Or, if they’re scriptwriters, they don’t have a working knowledge of the classic movies or TV shows, even in the field they’re working in.

So, to go back to my original thesis – can you learn to write? No – but if you’ve got the spark, the basic skills, the right help can make a difference. Help you speed the process up. Perhaps help you bypass some of the heavy lifting that writers had to do before the advent of creative writing courses and the like. My experience of workshops over the years has shown me that overall, they provide a positive and inspiring experience for both mentors and participants. The people who take them already pretty much know to write; but by listening, trying this, trying that, experimenting within a nurturing environment, they can learn how to write just a little bit better.

Written by Chris Trengove

May 12, 2016 at 3:11 pm

SAT NAV FOR WRITERS

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16th March 2016
The great thing about writing rules is that they’re there to be broken – just ask Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and any number of others. In any event, these aren’t even rules, they’re just a rough guide, a sat nav if you like, that can get you onto the right road, and, most of the time, get you where you want to go. However, if you wanted to go to Hampton Court and ended up at a block of flats in North London, well, you should have glanced at a map too. By which I mean that these are just tips that I’ve worked out for myself over the years. Mostly, but not always, they’re useful…

1: Keep going

Don’t be discouraged if you have a sneaking suspicion that what you’ve just written is rubbish. All writers know the feeling, however long they’ve been at it. Just press on. Don’t look back. Get to the end. Then go back and assess what you’ve done. Chances are that what you wrote first time wasn’t so bad, and if it was: so what? As the old Hollywood saying has it, writing is re-writing.

2: It’s in there somewhere

Whatever you’re writing – book, TV ep, screenplay – don’t think of it as linear. Instead, consider it as a whole, as if you’re starting off with a block of stone and creating a statue. Somewhere in that block is the story you want, you’ve just got to chip off the rest of the stone. As you’re writing, think forward, think back, make the connections that turn a sequence of events into a coherent story.

3: Set yourself a target

Set yourself a daily word or page goal. 1000 words or 7 or 8 pages of a script is a reasonable target – although some can write much more (and some less.) At 1000 words a day, in a couple of months you’d have most of a novel.

4: Make a plan

Everyone who works in TV or film is familiar with writing to an outline, sometimes provided by others. Literary novelists may scoff, but it’s generally useful to map out a narrative in advance. At the very least, it’ll provide a rope and tackle to help climb that mountain of a first draft, and you don’t have to stick to it rigorously (or at all.)

5: Cut and cut again

When you’re getting close to final draft stage, analyse every line. What is it doing? Why is it there? Is it funny? Is it dramatic? Does it illuminate character? Is it advancing the story? If it’s not really doing anything, cut it. Very few pieces of work have ever suffered by being made shorter. As Truman Capote said ““I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”

Written by Chris Trengove

May 12, 2016 at 3:09 pm