Thursday, March 27, 2008

Away for a few days

Off to France, for the wedding of Patroclus Snr, where we fully expect to be mocked Gallicly by the community for this debacle.

Monday, March 24, 2008

It IS all very, very scary.

From the last post's comment thread, Anonymous writes:

I've finished writing a script, and am a bit unsure what to do now. I have no experience in the industry at all, but want to get it sent off and... I was wondering if you could give me some advice.

Further research reveals:

It's a sitcom for television; I've written 3 episodes in full and have ideas for 3 more with my friend. Essentially, we don't have any contacts or experience at all, and so feel a bit lost and confused. For example, we don't know what sort of tone our covering letters should have, or how the whole thing works. Do we send it to as many production companies as we can find, or what? It all seems very, very scary...

Hmm. With my MANY YEARS OF EXPERIENCE AT THE TOP OF THIS INDUSTRY (/Sugar), I think probably two things to do straight away:

1. Write a brief outline, about half a page, saying what kind of thing it is you've written (half hour sitcom in this case), what's it's about, who the main characters are and roughly where the stories will be going (turns out I've written a thing about this here, hurrah).

The bad news is, I don't know how many production companies read anything that hasn't been sent to them by an agent. And if they do read unsolicited material, it won't be until they've got all their proper work done. So send it to them by all means, but don't expect an answer for a long long time.

The good news is, the BBC do have a mechanism for reading unsolicited scripts, via the Writer's Room website. The ratio of readers to scripts is pretty low, so again, it may take a while to get a response, but in time, a response is what you should get. So while you're waiting for that to happen, you need to get on with:

2. Find an agent. Look at the credits of shows you like, see who the writers are, google their names, find out who their agents are. Send your script with a brief, polite covering letter including the quick outline mentioned earlier (my own agent Matt Connell wrote a useful list of things agents are looking for in scripts here).

Once you've got an agent, he'll do all the sending to production companies for you, and they'll read it and get back much more quickly. But in the meantime, for god's sake start writing something else. Because there's every chance someone, an agent. production company reader, or person from the BBC will read it, love it, and already have or know of something very similar in production. So practically the best case scenario is that they'll ask 'What else have you got?' And 'Errrrrr' is not an acceptable answer.

Added to which, an agent wants someone who's in it for the long haul. They want to be constantly sending out outlines, looking at new material, finding interesting new ways for you to bring them in money.

And added to that, you can very quickly go mad waiting to hear back from production companies, and agents, only to find two years has gone by, and your script is hopelessly out of date anyway. So by the time someone does get back to you, make sure you've got something new to show them.

The 'what else have you got' question, by the way, is why I wouldn't write the first three episodes of anything, if I hadn't got a solid commitment from a broadcaster or production company. Just write the first script in full, because if it turns out you have to make biggish changes in that one, the knock-on effects could mean throwing the next two already-written scripts out of the window. As an example, the protagonist of the last sitcom script I wrote began as an unstoppable hitman, but by the third draft worked in a record shop specialising in obscure Scandinavian electronica. I mean I still could have had a lot of killing in the next two episodes, it just would have been harder to justify. Although possibly funnier. Hmm.

And all that said, the fact that I recently got my final cheque for the 'unstoppable hitman who turns into a clerk working a record shop specialising in obscure Scandinavian electronica' sitcom pilot with no other comment - no 'we liked this but' or 'ooh not sure', or even a kindly 'go away, you're shit', just... nothing, suggests I am THE WORST PERSON ON EARTH to proffer advice on getting your sitcom made. So if you work in a production company, or the bbc, or are an agent, and think I have just written a load of old useless toss, do please leave a comment below. If you're from Channel 4, a simple cheque will suffice.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Thanks Tony

TONY ROBINSON: ... and over here in the third trench, Carenza has discovered a brick floor. Which is like a wall, but on its side.

Monday, March 17, 2008

I think it's in 'The Best Christmukkah Ever'

One of the many moments which added up to turn The OC from a quite-good teen soap to a Work of Blimmin' Genius was when Summer, one of the less-bright characters, made a joke about Michael Chabon's 'Kavalier and Clay' and the makers of the the show didn't try and explain it to the audience, unlike ITV's The Fixer, the first episode of which I watched on the recommendation of a television critic I spat fish on once.

In it, an otherwise exemplary joke resting on the confusion between a hardback book called 'Genome' and the small porcelein homonculi that live in auntie's gardens and generally arse about in a static sort of way, was horribly messed up by The Amusing Idiot Character leaving the perfect space for the joke to sink in, then saying 'gnomes', while spangly-dressed women danced past holding placards saying 'DO YOU SEE, IT WAS A PLAY ON WORDS!!!!!'. I will watch the second episode, but only because the critic I spat fish on once still likes it, and the main character, a ruthless killer, reminds me amusingly of my deeply Christian, and very nice ex-landlord.

But to return to the start (collect two hundred pounds), I am three chapters into Michael Chabon's new one, 'The Yiddish Policemen's Union', which I started reading in Pizza Express with a fine glass of red, and almost immediately started composing a list of people to email with a sort of 'bloody hell you HAVE to read this it is REALLY REALLY good' and then I thought oh yeah, I have a blog, so I thought I'd put it here instead.

I could have linked various titles and stuff to Amazon, but in the spirit of The OC I will do you the respect of assuming you are not unfamiliar with Mister Google.

UPDATE: oooh ooh, by a weird coincidence, I've just realised that the subject of 'not apologising for jokes which need a bit of work' is also raised in the post in which I spat fish on a critic! (click on the 'critics' tag). I AM ON FIRE (not literally).

Thursday, March 13, 2008

In the sense that I can always write a load of rubbish.

On Tuesday I did (performed? maestroed?) a Narrative Workshop for the Digital Animation course at Falmouth Art College, which went well I think, in that at least no-one shouted 'You are clearly making this up!' at any point. A big part of the workshop was getting the students to look at the various rules different genres have, make up a character and story in that genre, then smash a completely different genre into it at high speed and see what happens. I pretended they had to do this in the name of getting them to realize they already know a lot more about the conventions of different types of story than they think they do, but really because I thought it might be a laugh.

My great hope, for a Godzilla Detective movie, sadly failed to transpire, but the Post-Apocalyptic Kids Fantasy came out well, as did the Jane Austen B-Movie. I think there was also a Post-Apocalyptic Musical in there as well (can you tell everyone's favourite genre at the moment?) but I may have imagined it.

Afterwards, some of the students were kind enough to ask me questions (I think the course leader bribed them to look interested).

STUDENT: So do you have, you know, ever, a writer's blog?
ME: Well, yes, I've gone one called jamesandthebluecat actually, and I think it's useful to have a blog if you're doing any kind of creative endeavour, because, you know, like minds linking up, power of collaboration etc etc...

I continue in this vein for MANY HOURS until eventually I notice the student has developed a slight rictus grin, his eyes desperately darting from side to side as he attempts to telepathically summon over another human being to stem the ENDLESS TIDE OF WISDOM.

Slight pause.

ME: You actually asked if I ever have writer's block didn't you?
ME: No I don't.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Tommy The Tungsten Robot

You know that thing when Richard from Green Wing says 'ooh I'm going to make a film about a robot with some mates, do you want to help?' and you say 'sure, just let me know what I can do', and they do let you know, but you don't get round to it and anyway you live in Cornwall which is often a good excuse to get out of doing anything ever?

Well Richard from Green Wing and his mates gone done made the film without my help, which I find astounding. If you look carefully, you will see Richard acting in it, and Fay from Green Wing in it acting as well. YouTube has cut the film into two parts thusly:

Monday, March 10, 2008

Cornwall is having a HURRICANE!

I went into town to post a thing earlier, and NEARLY BLEW AWAY. The post office was very exciting, everyone thinks they are going to be washed into the sea by the hurricane soon and are sending postcards like 'Dear Aunty Sue, please send us hampers of extraordinary food and a bottle of nice port because we will have no supplies soon because of the hurricane'.

Later I will tell you all about how I went to the DUMBfunded thing which I was worried about because of the reverse stage fright thing, but it was all fine, I decided not to take the reserved seats at the front, but rather stand lurking at the back, which was the correct decision I think because I started sweating profusely the moment the first lot of performers started striding towards the stage, and then by the time they'd actually reached the stage, my legs had buckled and I slid slowly down the wall and sat on the floor instead. I would describe the amount of sympathy given to me by my pregnant partner as 'acceptable'. So I listened to it rather than seeing it, but it all went down jolly well.

Look, she's not that pregnant. I got some seats over at the back on the other side (I don't mean 'dead') for the second half.

Anyway, back to the hurricane, it's all jolly exciting, and I for one am quite glad I don't have a wooden bowl of Christmas clementines, or a limestone floor, or any minute now one would be vomiting across the other, I'll be bound.

*goes back to cradling shotgun, waiting for looters*

Friday, March 07, 2008

Gary Gygax changed my life.

He really did.

Gary Gygax, who died a couple of days ago was, for the non-geeks among you (I'm assuming there's a couple), together with Dave Arneson, the inventor of Dungeons and Dragons, right back in the year Nineteen... Tumpty Tum. Now D&D is nowhere near the best roleplaying game. In fact it's nearly the worst; it's clunky, humourless, sees Renaissance Fairs as examples of medieval-style gritty realism and mashes together Tolkien, Jack Vance and gribbly monsters in a way that doesn't make any sense whichever way you hold up the Monster Manual.

But when I was a socially-crippled teenager (and I don't mean that in a self-deprecating way, I mean literally hobbled with embarrassment and shame and fear even beyond the standard requirements of teenagerdom), D&D gave me a means by which I could interact with other kids my own age without it mattering what music I liked (Supertramp), or how good I was at sport (not very), or whether I had the right kind of clothes (Supertramp t-shirt). What matters in rpgs is how well you can tell a story, and how well you can work with the other players to make the collaborative story far better than anything any one of you could make up on your own.

Eventually of course, the whole thing fell apart, when alcohol came along, and then girls, and I was left clutching a plastic bag full of character sheets and funny shaped dice, wondering what had just happened. I still do, to be honest.

We hadn't just played D&D though - in fact once the limitations of the system became apparent, we moved on to a game based around the works of Michael Moorcock, utterly unhindered that only one of our number had even read them. Call of Cthulhu was another favourite, in which nineteen thirties investigators confronted Lovecraftian monsters from the beyond and went gradually and irrevocably mad. I also ran a game of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in which an anthropomorphic fox and polar bear teamed up to fight a) alien monsters and b) Robocop in order to protect another alien disguised as Denholm Elliot, but to be honest even I don't really know what was going on in that one.

But one thing D&D had showed me, even before we starting mucking about with other games, was a sense that collaborative storytelling could be a thing all of its own, like and yet unlike reading a novel, watching a film or attending the theatre. At its best, it encompasses any and all of those and yet can still be its own thing entirely. And entertaining though it was, we were dimly aware that on some level we were creating a strange kind of Art, that was entirely ours and unlike anything we were taught as school. I wanted to be a writer long before I became a gamer, but what kept me sticking with it even through shit jobs, and years of thinking I wasn't getting anywhere with it at all, was trying to recapture a tiny bit of that genuine storytelling magic I used to experience three times a week over at Ben's house, drinking way too much coffee and rolling little plastic dice.

So Gary Gygax, I will forever be in your debt. Although I still think the Cure Light Wounds spell was underpowered.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Quick catchy-up stuff

Long time blog chum PP is doing a sponsored run for Sport Relief, which I think you, yes, YOU, should sponsor him for. Linky here. It's linked to Comic Relief, so if you do donate something, you then don't have to have anything to do with the rest of the whole ghastly parade, hurrah.

Order Of The Stick reacts to Gary Gygax's death: Awwwww.

Simon Pegg reacts (on Edgar Wright's blog) to the announcement that a US version of Spaced is going to be made, without him or Edgar being consulted at any point, or Jessica Stephenson/Hynes even being mentioned in the press release as a co-creator.

The gist: he's not happy.

I have finally given up on the BLOODY MUSHROOMS, and tipped the lot into the compost bin, where at least they might have another chance.

My Shaun the Sheep episode has been accepted, woo!

Monday, March 03, 2008

Agent Matt And The Towering Pile Of Questions

I won't put a picture of Agent Matt up, partly because he operates from out of the shadows, and partly because I can't find one, but anyway, he's been my agent for a good five years now, I reckon, and he really is ver ver good. He is here now to answer the questions put to him ages ago, which he started answering, then went on holiday and forgot about, then Boz reminded me, and I reminded him, and now he's done them.

How and why did you become an agent?

It was pretty much an accident. I had just done an MA and was wondering what I wanted to do for a career when I got some work experience at an agency. And then, frankly, everyone kept leaving.... So I had started out as an assistant/reader, then a junior agent, and then was juggling a full list quite early on. Almost all agents start out as assistants, which is obviously a good training ground.

What qualities does a good agent need?

I suppose, like with most jobs, there’s an element of contradiction in being a good agent: you need to be hard-nosed but amenable, thick-skinned but sensitive, stubborn but diplomatic. In other words, there are different qualities needed when building relationships with clients and with producers, for instance. More generally, it helps to be good with names and faces, you need to be pretty organised (imagine having 30 clients working on say 3 or 4 different projects each with 3 or 4 more in the pipeline – that’s 240 entirely different projects to keep track of) and to have a good eye for detail. And obviously you need to know the right people (the ‘right’ people being different people for every writer), to know something of the mechanics of scriptwriting, and to have a pretty good understanding of writers’ agreements and contract law. (Those last few aren’t strictly ‘qualities’, I know.)

Do agents tend to stay being agents, or end up agenting for a bit and then moving on to different jobs in the media?

Personally, I can’t imagine doing something else now, but lots of agents take a break and turn up elsewhere, eg both the National Theatre’s associate director/literary manager and their literary contracts manager used to be agents and there are lots of ex-agents in the industry.

How many clients do you have to look after?

It varies, some agents might have less than 10, others might have upwards of 50. I suppose, to be crude, it would depend on how much money was being generated – my thinking would always be that I’d rather have a smaller list but with everyone working, rather than a big list with a handful of earners and lots of others struggling to compete for my time.

How often do you lie as part of your job?

Less than you might think. Obviously there are times when you don’t want to show all your cards, and you sometimes have to be creative in putting clients up for projects or levering for good deals, but that’s not really lying, is it? Is it?

How many places up the hatred pile are you from estate agents?

Before the previous question, I would have hoped the answer would be ‘quite a few’. Now, I’m not so sure.

Ari Gold: hero, role model or tosser?

A mixture of hero and tosser, but definitely not a role model. Murray from Flight of the Conchords is more of a personal hero for me.

Do you actively seek out new writers, or do you tend to have them recommended to you?

Both. Recommendations are always helpful (and will always push a script further up the ‘priority’ pile), but it’s also nice to be able to uncover an exciting new talent. When taking on a new writer, it’s almost more fun if they’re very new so that you’ve got a blank slate to start from, although their writing probably has to be that little bit more distinctive than if they already have a track record.

Have you ever put real slush in a slush pile?


Do you have certain times put aside for reading? How many scripts do you get round to reading at those times? How many are good?

Firstly, if anyone who reads James’ blog is still waiting for me to read their script, I’m really really really sorry for the delay. I try to take occasional reading days, but invariably these get taken up with reading clients’ scripts (some agents do lots of work with clients’ spec scripts, giving notes/feedback etc). I try to read scripts at evenings and weekends as much as possible, but my girlfriend gets mad at all the scripts cluttering up our flat. One thing that I think writers sometimes forget is that most agencies don’t employ external readers and they’re not actually obliged to read unsolicited scripts (unlike, say, the BBC or new writing theatres) so it inevitably takes a while to get a response.

What are the best ways to impress an agent? What are the worst?

At the risk of sounding obvious, the best way to impress an agent is to write a terrific script. One of the pleasures of representing writers (as opposed to actors, directors, technicians etc) is that writers always have the opportunity to display their wares – ie you can always show how good you are (rather than just having to submit a CV or a short film or a headshot or a showreel). So, in theory, good writing should always find a home. Although this might be wishful thinking on my part....

The worst way is to constantly chase for a response. Most agents do appreciate how frustrating it is waiting to hear back, but it sets alarm bells ringing in an agent’s head if they’re already getting hassle from a writer before even taking them on!

How long should someone wait after they've sent you a script to chase up yo lazy ass?

Hard to say, because every agent needs a different reading period. It’s fine to ask ‘how long before I might expect to hear?’ when you first make contact, but then don’t chase within that time period.
Have you ever veto-d anything on this blog?

Not as such, but occasionally I might have to gently remind James that he can’t really distribute copyrighted material illegally via his blog (eg Green Wing series 2 scripts as suggested last week).* He’s quite outspoken sometimes, but usually in quite a British way, so I don’t think he’s unwittingly made any enemies in the industry.** Not yet anyway.

What’s that on your shoe?


* Oops.
** This is true. I have made them entirely wittingly.

Thanks for that.

When I first took the simple city girl that is The Divine Miss P and dragged her down my luxurious country abode, ignoring the lamentations of London's menfolk, any of whom I could have taken in a fight btw, I quickly decided that the matter of Cornwall And Its Many Funny-Sounding Placenames would have to be dealt with really quite carefully.

Bad enough with Paul Pennyfeather, who can't go to Bristol without ringing me in high-pitched voice and squeaking 'Bristols! Tee hee hee!', and still regularly falls over trying to work out which local newspaper slogan sounds funniest: 'Pick Up A Cornishman', or 'Why Not Grope A Falmouth Packet' (I made the second one up).

So yesterday, when Miss P and I travelled deep into the heart of Cornwall to pick up a second-hand bed that by the way looks a lot girlier in RL than it did on the photo on ebay, my first thought was to make sure we passed neither Indian Queens (tee hee!) or Praze an Beeble (just silly). Neither did we go anywhere near Cornwall's highest geographical feature, a proto-mountain called Brown Willy.

We did, however, go past a place called 'Ventongimps', the derivation of which I don't really want to think about. Much mirth was caused, but there we are, I thought, that's about it. Cornwall has a number of rather odd place names, and we're through the worst of it. A certain acclimatization has taken place, and from now on, there is no village name silly, or rude, or just plain saucy enough to cause any reaction at all.

Four minutes later, we drive through a village called 'Cocks'.

UPDATE: for those asking about the interview thing with Agent Matt, he's been on holiday recently, and gave profuse apologies for not completing the thing before he went away. However he is now back, so I shall shout at him.