Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Headshot image of ChloeRevered script consultant Michael Hauge, whose blockbuster credits range from Pirates of the Caribbean to Hancock, happily gives away trade secrets at www.storymastery.com .

A young wannabe wrote to Mr Hauge of his frustration at getting no response from Hollywood script agents. The submitted scripts, intended for mainstream USA audiences, featured Sikh characters and included roles for the writer, who’s also ‘an aspiring actor’. He asked if he must ‘write to sell instead of writing good quality screenplays with unique characters’. You can read Michael’s beautifully honest reply on the Q+A page of www.storymastery.com

Michael’s response might be tough for a frustrated writer / actor /director to read. That’s why it’s so valuable.

I believe that ‘commercial and ‘good quality’ are not mutually exclusive – in fact the creative challenge to balance those elements is a big part of the fun!

To me, creative process means communicating my ideas – in ways that will win audiences. Grab them, hold them, provoke them into thinking (that’s hard!), give them laughter and other reasons to go on living.

Emotional power

Obviously I’m white British, irretrievably middle class and now sagging into middle age. Yet somehow I’ve always been aware of long established respect for Sikhism in the UK. When I was aged six or seven I loved the serial in my weekly comic about a Sikh army officer. I was also a child who suffered horrible nightmares. Time and again I summoned up the image of that warrior in his turban and uniform as I prepared to face the wild landscapes of night; the thought of that character made me feel protected.

So let’s think Life of Pi. Think Slum Dog Millionaire. Those films involve cultures outside the experience of a large part of western cinema audiences, yet the stories have vivid characters about whom you really care, they have visual magnificence and narratives that corkscrew between magical romance and raw survival. Cultural settings are secondary to the films’ emotional power.

5 year plan

But that young Sikh writer-actor must also remember that British creative industries have gatekeepers who tend to revel in their power and who only deign to give the time of day to their chosen clique. Outsiders are almost never allowed in. I suspect the USA, land of opportunity, is no different when it comes to film and television.

I suggest that, given he knows what he’s capable of when he gets his break, the young man needs a 5 year campaign:
1) To build a good reputation in the right places as a Sikh actor. Be available in many countries, do the widest possible range of work to learn how different aspects of the industry create success (and to see how NOT to do many things!) Respected actors do get opportunities as writers + directors.
2) To offer scripts to specialists in making films that feature Sikh culture.  Initially he should not ask to act in his own films, until decision makers know and trust his writing and his acting. So where are the Sikh film makers, all around the world? Hollywood is not the only fruit.
3) To trust that all experience is useful as he works towards writing scripts that celebrate his Sikh culture and weave that material into a wider (western) context that will hook Hollywood decision makers’ attention. If he still wants that.
4) To network, study, work ordinary jobs to pay his bills and discover life; and keep writing. NOTHING IS WASTED even if it isn’t used this year … or next…

All about the money

I know all about failing to see beyond my own potential. “If only bookers/audiences would see how brilliant my performances and material are…”

And my work is constantly devalued, even when people enjoy it. “It’s just storytelling. It’s just for kids.” “We’re a charity.”

Just last week a conversation went bad because someone said “It’s not all about the money” to which I responded “But money is important. I have to pay the rent”. They couldn’t assume that I deliver my work fuelled by a lifetime of experience, 15 years of full time commitment and all the artistic integrity of which I’m capable. Instead they leapt to the easier assumption that I’m crassly commercial.

Right now I’m wriggling my material around to reach a new market. The world première of my first all-contemporary story cabaret Scheherazade’s Shed was hailed by the director of Cheltenham Poetry Festival 2015 as a “highlight of the festival”. I should have done this years ago!

Terrified

But when I started out in 1999, the senior practitioners of my (very small) creative industry terrified me into believing that only one kind of work was acceptable. They were the gatekeepers so I did what they said they wanted. And 15 years on I’ve realised that didn’t work either! Sometimes the doors aren’t just locked against you, they’re bricked up. Time to stop banging my poor bloody head against a brick wall.

But if I’d been more confident, I’d have found the way round much faster. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll only get what you always got. Creative work MUST be influenced by commercial demands, i.e. what audiences like. Otherwise your work is just amateur self indulgence.

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Photo on 2012-02-03 at 18.11

From my fluffy little paradise…

I’ve just been horrified by reading a book from the Teen section of the library. I’m researching what publishers think teens want. Because I don’t wish to publicly attack an author about whom I know nothing, I’m not going to name the work.

The story, first published in 2007, zooms past in 134 pages of big print with gulfs of white space between lines. I read the thing in 20 minutes.

It’s about an Edinburgh ‘hard man’ who tries to save an ex girlfriend from a gangster. The action unrolls like something low budget out of Hollywood: starts with a road rage incident – showing us how ‘hard’ the hero is – and continues with guns, murder, assaults, kidnapping a mum in front of her children, and all the trappings of lowlife subsistence, to the final shoot-out in which the mother dies.

Every page – and I mean every page – is splattered with expletives. Someone has to shout  “f—–g” in almost every paragraph, and “c–t” is thrown in every three pages. This in a book for teens and, unavoidably, children. When women the world over are battling a tidal wave of hatred, I really don’t think it helps to use anyone’s body part as a swear word.

Vomit and violence

Presumably the layout is meant to make the book ‘cool’ for a target market with poor reading ability. Ditto the brutally short sentences. Stabbing phrases. Scenes barely set. Colours and faces sketched without detail. Done for pace and hard boiled effect?

It’s like Philip Marlowe for 12-year-olds. ‘Spender’ (Jimmy Nail) dumbed down for the semi literate. A highlight comedy moment, b t w, features a small girl vomiting in the back seat of a car and the hero’s dog trying to eat the result.

There are some … jokes. The bad guy is called Banksy and his sidekick is a Jack Bower. Ha very ha.

There is nothing here to show impressionable young readers that life can be anything other than a sewer.

Nothing in this story suggests that anyone can escape a sordid existence of fear and violence. Indeed with its humour, swearing and slick style, this book glorifies the worst of everything. Guns are admired, chopping off a finger is a spinetingling tale, smashing up someone’s car is shown as a thrill – and justifiable.

But the young people who are likely to read this book are exactly the ones who, I’d say, desperately need to see that life can change. That they DON’T have to endure being bullied and used and terrified. That they DON’T have to endlessly say fuck and cunt, and hurt people, to gain status.

Wallowing in negativity

Yes, I know, my middle class is showing… Yes, I know my life is a fluffy little paradise compared to what millions of inner city kids go through.

But I keep my eyes and ears open as I float around being all posh and useless. I happen to think pretty much everyone gets scared and pressured. Sometimes it’s at knifepoint or by social media; sometimes it’s over years working for lousy bosses who constantly threaten unemployment.

People need hope – especially our young people. Grim school environments don’t help. From my admittedly limited experience with a widely spread sample I’d say that large numbers of students throughout the UK currently see education as pointless. Punishment for existing. The OECD recently identified that English young people start adult life with nearly the worst literacy and numeracy skills in the developed world [see www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-24433320 ].

I think that writing about decay and despair became necessary during the 20th century, especially after the first and second world wars, into the Cold War. But I also think that wallowing in negativity and/or sleaze became worthy – “read these books because they’re good for you” … and then intellectually fashionable… Think (in slightly random order) Crome Yellow succeeded by 1984Kes (originally A Kestrel for a Knave), A Clockwork Orange, Lolita, Lord of the Flies.

We don’t want Pollyanna but neither do we now need hopeless-and-horrible fiction. We all have bad times, friends with troubles. We watch international tv news: we bloody well know life is hard. And science has made it very clear:  if all you can imagine is failure – then that’s all you’ll get.

Our teenagers need stories that help them imagine how they go about success. How to think their way out of difficult situations and how to overcome disadvantage.

As far as I can see, this book fails its teen readers. Miserably.

  • So, you tell me: what does a story like this do for (young) people whose lives are affected by violence and/or real hardship? Does this story glorify brutality or does it warn against it? I am trying to understand: what good is a book like this?
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