Last night was the Showcase. All us what done the 12 week Wide Angle's Round 8 End Game challenge - setting ourselves a goal and shooting for the moon, supported all the way by the wonderful Emma, Abi and Robert, got together and celebrated our work.
It was satifying and encouraging to hear everyone's stories and struggles. There were outright successes - the stated goals were achieved. There were modified goals that were met with moderate success. Learnings were had and we all seemed genuinely impressed by each others' work. Then I got up to outline my goal, and my plan...
...and then I described what I actually achieved...
...but the joy of learning new skills is what End Game is really all about. Supported professional development is a rare beast in the creative industries, not least because governments couldn't give a shit about 'leftie' creatives starving while Gerry Harvey gets millions in fucking job-keeper. So this End Game opportunity was too good to miss, and the outcome, for all of us, was hugely positive.
For what it's worth, I'm now familiar with the depth of my ignorance of writing feature scripts, and can plan my next steps - a revised structure and third draft of the scene breakdown, after which the script will practically *ahem* write itself.
So, a shout-out to my fellow alumni, huge respect and gratitude to all at Wide Angle, and a massive thanks to the actors for participating in the read-throughs. Right, now back to work...
After reviewing film screenplay-maestro and Wide Angle mentor Robert Watson's notes and telephone conversations, I am staying positive. It's true Robert sent me a TikTok of him burning my first draft scene breakdown out in his backyard, and not pissing on it to put it out, but I can see ways to keep this project standing!
I simply need to rewrite it so the characters are interesting, clear and there's a point to every scene - and that the point of the scene is magnificently and instantly obvious to any reader / viewer - all while ensuring the first impressions of my characters are largely on the positive end of the intrigue spectrum. Plus remember to include character arcs for all three characters so they actually go somewhere like real humans rather than stumble through my narrative like Thunderbirds puppets. Simple. In fact I've already started work on the rewrite.
Robert did give me the option of just writing the dialogue script rather than laboriously trying to get the scene breakdown to the point where he wasn't inclined to compost it or feed it to his goat - in part because, thanks to me, his goat is getting quite chubby - but no, I'm a martyr for painful learning experiences, which, thanks to an IQ well to the left of the Bell Curve, is a slower process for me than normal people. So, as soon as I've finished my week's work, it's back into the fray, and hope the dogs aren't too upset by the hoarse sobbing noises coming from my workstation every now and then.
So, at this point in the simple task of turning a novel into a feature script, I'm like...
The goal of writing an entire feature script in 3 months?
So, here's the situation I find myself in. I know my novel backwards. I know my characters, their arcs, and the narrative arc like I know exactly how much alcohol we have left in the house. It's a good, solid, simple story. I'm a third the way through a scene breakdown, identifying the critical events or actions that propel character development or push story.
When asked to write a logline for the feature script - a sentence, two at most, that sums up the core conflict at the heart of the story - I find I have a problem. The thing I think I'm doing is suddenly, bizarrely, unfamiliar.
What is my story? Whose story is it? Explain it simply! Say it in a way that intrigues, and also makes it clear what kind of story it is. Sum the core of it up in a sentence.
My response? It-it's a story about a protagonist...although there's three of them. Kinda. I mean...uh... Anyway, my protagonist/s is/are faced with an immensely time-critical life and death situation...not just the war itself, obviously, or the fact the main protagonist is probably going to die, and then there's the whole being-pursued-by-enemy-soldiers aspect... Wait, I'll start again.
There's a formula for this, by the way. Protagonist + antagonist + life and death stakes.
Simple. Yet, I'm finding myself chest-deep in quicksand trying to summarise the core of the story.
I try out some loglines:
"Three young men, behind enemy lines, find the road to peace."
(Like they find the crossroads and there's a sign with a skull and crossbones pointing left and a smiley face pointing right.)
"Every war is a crime, every soldier a criminal."
(Yes, that's stolen from Hemingway, and, also yes, it doesn't say anything about my story.)
"No one gets the war they signed up for, especially Tassie Eddie."
(At least we've got some clues here - some guy called Eddie goes to war and surprise, surprise, the whole King-and-Country thing turns out to be a crock.)
"A wounded young Tasmanian soldier, behind enemy lines in Timor, has three days to cross two mountain ranges to reach the last rescue ship. He didn't plan on a needy orphaned kid, or an enemy soldier, helping him get there."
(Well that sure af ain't going to fit on the movie poster.)
But, and here's the crucial bit - it gets way worse than not being able to write a movie logline. I'm disappearing down a rabbit hole because the feature script I'm trying to build is looking a lot like...
But why am I suddenly losing confidence in what, in novel form at least, is a strong, layered, engaging story? I know a feature script is a very different creature, but how can I suggest people see a 'war movie' if I not only don't think it's a war movie, but I wouldn't go out of my way to watch it if it was?
I'm not 'into' war stories per se, and I even get tetchy when my long-suffering mentor, Robert Watson, calls it an 'anti-war' movie. For one, almost every contemporary war movie is an 'anti-war' movie, and for another, I have no intention of writing one. It's not about 'war is bad, m'kay?' Is every murder-mystery an 'anti-murder' movie? So if it's not a war movie or an anti-war movie, what the hell is it? An action-adventure? A dramedy? Famous Five Go on an Adventure meets Reservoir Dogs? Hey, what if I leaned on a music soundtrack? Apocalypse Now meets Trainspotting! Yes! Now we're talking...I'll have musical interludes and they'll shed ironic counterpoint to the action and be funny and poignant and also great music and...
...and suddenly, I'm not just trying to write a logline any more. I'm standing in the rain, wondering about my life, clueless. How do I transform a simple idea that works as a novel, into an even simpler single idea that cuts to the core of all the ideas that went into that novel?
[Photographer: Bruce Davidson / Subject: Jimmy Armstrong - Palisades, NY, 1958]
Yeah but nah.
If, like me, you've never written a feature script, only novels, then, like me, you might be naive about how different they are. I assumed I'd take the 'good bits' and critical moments from my edited MS - what I thought was a straightforward coming-of-age-in-a-time-of-conflict story - throw them into a scene breakdown (a paragraph thumb-nailing what happens in each scene), and then write the dialogue script.
Nope. Typewriter says 'no'.
Turns out, even though I'm a television scriptwriter, I apparently learned nothing by watching hundreds of films and am largely clueless about building a feature script. It's the difference between living with bookshelves all one's life, then actually constructing one. It requires an understanding of new tools, and and an attention to detail that a lazy novelist like myself finds difficult.
All the subtext and nuance in your deathless prose means zero when you have to communicate ideas and emotions visually - often in an entirely obvious way. You need to write the scene in which the viewer actually hears a character say 'I love you', and sees the kiss.
And so it was that my mentor, the estimable, Robert Watson, received my first draft of a scene breakdown for the opening sequence, with a dismay he graciously hid behind some patient advice to try writing the same sequence as script. This I did...
...only to achieve the same response. I'd completely failed to introduce the characters in a way that provided viewers with understanding, empathy and insight. Waaat...?
In a lengthy phone call, Robert guided me toward understanding the difference between writing a descriptive passage and creating visual action that tells story. It seems so obvious, I know, but the subtleties of prose have to be tossed, the clever novelist expansion of plot and character has to be kicked aside, the narrative has to be pulled apart and sorted to find workable components - or write new story to make all the bits work as story. I need to write new material to show stuff happening, and engage viewers much earlier. My novel on which this is based, is to be viewed as a dumpster of building materials, some of which are junk and some of which are useful.
I'll be honest - it's hard.
Three months to write a feature script in between my working days?
I got my story. Where do I begin working out what to put in a script? What process do I use? Wide Angle hooked me up with Robert Watson, screenwriter, screenplay analyst, editor, teacher, historian, philosopher and, oh yeah, he paints landscapes in his spare time. We met and he clued me in to the crucial equations of novel conversion and screenplay structure.
We talked through starting and end points. In the case of my story, The Sparrow, it begins with one of my three main characters being shot. His body goes flying back and down a small cliff and yada yada, things get worse until the end. Simple.
So, what do I do first? Write a list of the main events - the large and small but crucial moments of the physical and emotional journey. List? I can do a list, damn it! Bullet-points? You got it!
Then I have to sift the list. Each item on the list is a key moment of interaction between the characters and their environments, one which advances plot and character development in that one moment. Sifting the list means looking for items that might be a repeat or a non-essential moment, or simply less interesting, then taking that item out. What's left can be large or small - from death to disappointment - but it has to be critical to story and character arcs. Is it lifting the emotional drivers of the story to a higher pitch? Keep it. Done that? Good. Take a rest, and maybe tidy the desk.
Next steps, consult with Robert, then put scene headings on the remaining items. Then write a brief outline of what happens in that scene - a scene breakdown. Then the easy bit, write the dialogue. How hard can it be?
Again, big shout-out to Abi and Emma at Wide Angle for connecting me with Robert. Slainte!
Just won a place in Round 8 of Wide Angle's End Game programme! For the win!
It's a real leg-up to have this level of support pushing the first draft of a project through - in this case turning a historical novel manuscript into a feature script. While I'm familiar with television scriptwriting, I'm painfully aware how big a set of challenges I now face.
...is the challenge. It's one thing to have written the narrative of an unlikely friendship between a Timorese criado, a young Tasmanian commando, and a Japanese defector during the Pacific War; it's another set of challenges to turn that into a feature script - a story which will be told by actors, director and cinematographer. When End Game kicks off, all of us in it will have 12 weeks to deliver a project. *gulp* But, hey, how hard can it be?
Big shout-out and thanks to Abi and Emma at Wide Angle for the opportunity, and [waving] hi to my fellow Round 8 End Gamers.
In most forms of storytelling, character is everything. Even narratives we'd describe as plot-driven only work - are memorable, compelling, etc - when we emotionally engage with the characters. Screenwriters are more sensitive to this reality because they are largely collaborative storytellers working in an industry which has a commercial imperative - everything has to work. That doesn't limit us in the stories we tell, as Anthony Mullins, Australian screenwriter and novelist, points out in his new book, Beyond the Hero's Journey - A Screenwriting Guide For When You Have A Different Story To Tell
There are many books that guide storytellers in this era, for screen and off, including those who reference the standard 'hero's journey' and 'three-act' structure. Including those approaches, Mullins' book is particularly useful, not least because I'd recommend it for writers in any genre or format. It's not a how-to, nor is it painfully academic or require wall-covering plot analysis for your WIP.
Screenwriters focus on character and their arcs. Mullins points to how that process plays out in a diverse sampling of feature films, and does so simply, succinctly and engagingly. I recommend it. So, if you're a writer, with a WIP, and interested in reading a short review about Beyond Hero's, hit the link to the review at Tasmanian Times.
Pro tip: after having your business card printed, check the contact details are correct or else, as in my case, somewhere in the world, someone else with your name, whom you've never met, is being contacted about writing a book they have probably never heard of.
If anyone contacts firstname.lastname@example.org because they have one of THESE business cards...
...they will not be contacting me. They will be contacting another b.p.marshall whose life and existence I can only imagine. Perhaps this other b.p.marshall has also written a novel. Perhaps we'd have much in common. Perhaps, even, they too had a business card made up in the vague belief that, when attending a writers' festival, a writer should have cards to hand out - to whom and for what purpose they can only dimly imagine. Perhaps, even more incredibly, my b.p.marshall doppelganger also had the wrong email address printed on their business card. We'd laugh and become the best of friends...
Or, as has actually happened, I've emailed a complete stranger explaining the whole thing...
...making it clear that I'm the idiot and that any multi-million dollar feature film offers should instead go to THIS carefully curated correct email address...
To my doppelganger b.p.marshall, I apologise unconditionally... Unless, tempted by the multi-million dollar offer from a major film studio, you are, at this very moment, writing a script using my novel as template. In which case your evil genius impresses the hell out of me. Well played b.p., well played.
As a ‘festival virgin’, a clueless debut novelist invited to their first ever writers’ festival, I was nervous about attending the Bellingen Writers and Readers Festival.
In fact, when first invited, I wondered if I could get out of it. Though dimly sensing only a complete idiot would try and dodge this amazing opportunity, I wondered if I could think up some kind of excuse, or break my own leg – anything that would graciously excuse me from being onstage with other, far better and cleverer writers, facing an audience expecting something more than, “Um, so yeah, the book? I guess it’s like this big, um, road trip and, yeah, stuff happens.”
A public speaker I am not.
But, I figured I owed my brave little publisher, Brio Books, some payback for publishing me. After all, with no marketing budget and mid-pandemic, literally no one knew about my novel, let alone was buying it. Brio weren’t doing well from their investment in me. So I vowed to go and do my dib-dib-dib best. (I was a cub in the Scout movement for a few weeks when I was about seven, and the only thing that stayed with me was “dib-dib-dib, dob-dob-dob”. No, I don’t know what it means but there’s clearly still a part of me forever wearing shorts and long socks.)
Arriving at Coffs Harbour, alone and timid, I was greeted by Liz who instantly relaxed me and took me to my billet, something I dreaded mainly because all I could think about was the discomfort of having to poo in some kind strangers’ house while they were also in it. I know, but that’s how my mind works.
And then this amazing thing happened. The strangers in whose house I was inevitably fated to poo in, Beth and Tim, weren’t just nice, super-focused and intelligent in a relaxed and inclusive way, they weren’t just the sort of people who’d ignore me pooing in their toilet – they were immediate friends whom I felt relaxed and happy to be with. I had the weird sensation that they were simply a couple of my oldest friends I’d inexplicably forgotten I had. Now, if one of them needed a kidney, I have one to spare.
In other words, I was ready to poo and it would be a happy poo.
A whisky hangover later, the next day saw the Festival Opening with the two raconteurs, Miklo (Michael Jarrett), and William McInnes. Miklo brought us together by teaching us all to adjust our POV and ask for welcome to country. McInnes, playing a calculated casualness, appeared to ramble while actually applying the raconteur’s razor sharp wit. Then, a poetry slam, packed with locals trying out their best lines. Young and old, literary and loose, funny and grim, naïve and sophisticated – anyone could and did have a go. It was egalitarian, engaging and funny.
It began to dawn on me that I was in a community who loved words and story. Was this my ‘tribe’?
Writers advice 101: Find your tribe. What does that mean? For a recluse who lives in a remote mountain valley in Tasmania, it meant little. The idea is that you, as a writer, write in a certain genre, so you need to find those fellow authors, and your readers, who are, ultimately, part of the same ecosystem. For those of us writing multiple genres, unsure where we fit in, or struggling with introversion, finding a tribe sounds like the opposite of what we’d naturally do, which would be to find the quiet corner of the party by the bookcase, and try to blend in with the curtains.
So I’m nervous about my Big Day. I’m due on ‘Mornings’ – a chat with Organiser and MC Adam Norris at 9.45, then a speculative fiction panel with Nike Sulway and Rohan Wilson at 1.45 – followed by a book-signing, and finally an author-reading beside the wise and funny international bestseller Michael Robotham, fearless and tender journo-author Mohammed Massoud Morsi, and acutely incisive word-dancer poet Rebecca Jessen at 5.45, followed by another book-signing. Me, the awkward introvert on stage saying…stuff.
What can I say about the day I feared most? The day on which my pretense to authenticity as a writer would be cruelly exposed in front of writers and readers smart enough to know bullshit when they saw and heard it.
I’m such an idiot. From the moment Adam Norris’ dulcet, radio-perfect voice asked the first questions, I felt myself cupped and comforted by him and our small audience. I didn’t have to try and fail, I only had to be honest and helpful. I didn’t have to please people, I only had to share a little love and insight with them.
The spec-fic panel with Nike Sulway and Rohan Wilson had me relaxed and cheerfully sharing what I could, impressed by Nike’s generous moderation and Rohan’s deep and incisive insights into writing and politics.
Then, finally, the bit I'd feared most - the author-reading.
I asked my fellow authors for advice, and they kindly gave it. “Avoid reading passages with lots of dialogue.” “Don’t read your first few pages.” “Don’t, for the love of God, do accents.”
What did I do? I think you can see where this is going.
I started by clearing my throat, then, in a heavy south London accent… “Chapter One. My name is Blanco…”
My forever thanks to Adam, Liz, Sue and all who organised Bellingen Readers and Writers’ Festival, to my publishers David Henley and Alice Grundy, to my hosts Tim Cadman and Beth Gibbings, to the kind, clever and endlessly wise authors I met, especially Kate Forsyth – a gracious and wise Empress of empathy, Rohan Wilson – a constant font of insights, kindness and boyish enthusiasm, Rebecca Jessen – the soft-spoken word-dancer whose poetry instantly took me to other places and times, Mohammed Massoud Morsi – good humoured rogue journalist and novelist who brought us all, and himself, to tears, Mirandi Riwoe for kind words and great advice despite a teeth-grinding migraine, Michael Robotham – international superstar – who kindly admitted I hadn’t completely fucked up the ‘sarf Larndin’ accent, the audience – a diverse group of people who loved and listened to it all, and finally, those lovely kind people who asked me to sign their copies of The Last Circus on Earth.
In an unexpected plot twist, Blanco and the circus meet up with a 'journalist' in the middle of nowhere - probably somewhere in the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan, as they all travel south following the denouement of Last Circus. Assaph Mehr's excellent interview blog, dedicated to the protagonists of many, many novels, has published the story of this encounter.
And for readers of The Last Circus on Earth wanting to see the real star of the book, Daisy, here she is.