Chris Trengove

Writing about writing

Posts Tagged ‘writers

BREXIT – FADE TO BLACK

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Going back a few years, I was a mentor on a two-part scriptwriting workshop that took place in Poland and Germany, with Polish, German and British involvement in its funding and organisation. Between the first and second halves of the workshop, the British funding was suddenly pulled, so abruptly that the British organiser was unable to pay for the flight to attend the second session. It turned out to be a sign of things to come, with successive workshops lacking British funding entirely and the British contingent of students getting fewer and fewer. Since the Brexit vote, I see this as a metaphor: as Britain becomes more and more a hard-right, market-driven society – as will be the inevitable result of this turkeys-voting-for-Christmas event – the ideas of co-operation, internationalism, all that hands-across-the-water crap that sustains the likes of us creative types, will wither and shrivel even further.

Take a look at the leaders of this revolution: Johnson, Gove and Farage. Johnson’s a hard-right ideologue in buffoon’s clothing, who has pursued a career as a Murdoch lackey. Gove as Education Secretary famously pulled To Kill A Mocking Bird and Of Mice and Men from the school curriculum. While Farage… well, what can I say? He is on record as saying that he doesn’t listen to music, watch TV or read books. Of course at presstime there’s no saying who, if any, of this gruesome trio will end up in positions of power (Farage is already whining that he’s being excluded from the negotiating table – apparently, hard-right politicians are not very nice, who knew?) But in setting a general tone, it’s not looking good.

Back in May I wrote a blog outlining what I thought the result might be for writers and other creatives if the UK voted this way. I wasn’t sanguine about our prospects then, and now it’s actually happened, I’m even less sanguine. With successive right-leaning governments since 1979 (and I’m putting the New Labour lot into that category) there has been a progressive erosion of support and funding for the arts and creative industries, to the extent that it’s a wonder that our creative people have managed to survive, let alone hold their position amongst the world’s finest. They – we – have somehow managed to thrive in spite of official and governmental indifference. Now, with an incoming regime which will probably make the Thatcher era look like some kind of hippy-dippy love-fest, the situation looks blacker than ever.

Although at presstime there’s no certainty as to what’s actually going to happen post-Brexit (clearly there was no Plan A, B or C in place) there’s a pretty good likelihood that there will be some cobbled-together alliance of – I nearly said crypto-fascists, but that’s a bit seventies-ish – right-wing ideologues, steering the ship of state. For us, the creative community, it’s likely to be a catastrophe (and I know this sounds like a classic ‘first world problem’, but hey, we live in the first world.)

Leaving aside the lack of empathy at state level, in practical terms the only way is down. Clearly, while the new government is busy building a hospital a week and giving everyone in Sunderland a thousand quid, the arts and creative industries are going to have to take a back seat, and by back seat I mean a small fold-down just behind the guard at the back of the guard’s van. One of my colleagues, a long-time pan-European creative consultant, is already talking about relocating from London to Berlin (and that’s probably going to be difficult enough.) For people involved in animation (another area in which we’re among the world leaders) it’s as though a rug has been whipped out from under our feet. Most of the work I’ve done over the last ten or fifteen years has been either been directly for European production houses, or for European co-productions, in some case involving four or five different countries (could be a nightmare to work on, by that’s another story.)

At the very least, the layers of bureaucracy involved are likely to reduce the possibility of such co-productions if not eliminate them altogether. We’ve all got used to European co-operation, we’ve taken it for granted, as can be seen by the reaction of other creative industries: advertising for example, with big players reporting large chunks of business being pulled. The music industry, the ultimate cross-border business, had its say in a pre-vote Twitter poll, with a resounding 91% saying it would be bad news.

I could go on, but you get the general idea. What can we do? Well, individual writers are often at the bottom of the food chain (I once heard a producer describing us as being ‘two a penny’) but at times like this, we probably need to put that commission (if we’re lucky enough to have one) aside for a moment and have our say, in blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, any medium in which we can make our voices heard. I’ve already seen a handful of posters on windows proclaiming “Brexit – not in my name!’ We need to make it clear that’s where we stand too.

Written by Chris Trengove

June 28, 2016 at 1:52 pm

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

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