Scriptwriting… SouthLAnd style

If I may get personal for a moment… I write movies and TV scripts with a writing partner, and recently was extremely happy to find out that our SouthLAnd spec script was a quarter finalist in the 2010 Scriptapalooza TV competition. SouthLAnd is a show that is dear to my heart. It raises its game each and every week, and it’s a show that I love deeply. Writing that script was in some ways my way of paying tribute to the show; it really is the perfect template for the best kind of drama. It’s inspired me in all kinds of ways in writing and in life. After writing the spec script, I wrote a drama pilot which, although set in the cop world, was very different from SouthLAnd. But I tried to adhere to everything I’ve learned from watching this show. If you watch SouthLAnd with a writer’s eye, you see how extraordinary the writing on the show is. Whether it’s Jonathan Lisco’s hyper-detailed situations and emotional precision, or Cheo Hodari Coker’s lively, wide-ranging pop culture references and genius for character work, all the writers on the show bring heart, meaning and an unflinching approach to emotionally devasting moments. Each episode of the show is a masterclass in how to develop characters, how to get into and out of a scene in seconds if necessary, while still giving it maximum psychological impact. The writers are masters of distillation, which all good writers have to be: it’s just that on this show, it’s taken to a whole other level. It’s inspiring on many levels. It inspires me to write, to fight for the dreams that fuel everything I do. It inspires me to learn more, and to push myself beyond my limits, because that’s where the truth is.

These kinds of recognitions form an incremental beauty. Whether it’s stories in anthologies, being placed in script competitions, or almost getting into script workshops, knowing that people respond to what you do, respond to your voice, is a powerful thing. As a writer, making that connection is vital. It’s what it’s all about, and whenever it happens, I feel grateful and inspired to do more.

And I have to say, after watching this week’s episode, Sideways, as a writer I’d be overjoyed if I knew that Allison Anders was going to direct something I had written. Just saying.

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love like a shooting star across the dream-night of the world

This is the title of one of my short stories, published in the Momaya Annual Review, which had its official launch today.

Having a story published means a huge amount to any writer. It’s one of those small, beautiful increments, another step along the yellow brick road to the emerald city, the citadel that awaits the lucky few. As writers, we necessarily spend much of our time writing in the dark, as it were, without recognition, without anyone knowing what we are up to. But we continue to write, not knowing if what we are making will ever reach the outside world, will ever make that alchemical connection with the reader. When an entity like Momaya Press shines a light on our fictional universes, it creates a bridge between our writing and the world; this means everything to me. It’s often said that the words on the page (or the e-reader) are only half the equation, and this is to a certain extent true; when a reader takes in those words and makes them their own, the equation becomes complete.

This particular short story is excerpted from a novel in progress, which itself was inspired by the landscapes of America, the music of U2 (that wide-eyed, widescreen, exultant view of America), and the emotional beats of a daughter trying to connect with whatever may be left of her family. At heart, it’s about the many different aspects and meanings of family; it’s also a road trip and love story. Getting this story published, this preview of the main event, is thrilling. To see some of the characters on the page, is wonderful. It’s inspiring, a tremendous boost to finish the novel, which will also be a screenplay.

So this post is really a big thank you to Momaya Press for liking this story, for seeing something in it that they believed others should also see. It’s a beautiful moment for me, as it would be for any writer. These are the moments that keep us going; those beautiful glimpses of light in the dark that let us know that the citadel awaits.

Terminator Mode

It’s been a Swedish kind of week. I feel like I owe Stieg Larsson.

Here’s how it played out: low key, lots of coffee, read the last few chapters of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, completed the entirety of The Girl Who Played With Fire, started The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest, watched the Dragon Tattoo movie on DVD, and saw the Played With Fire movie in a beautiful old-school cinema like the ones I would go to in the summer when I was a teenager, taking a break from the books I was reading to go and sit in the dark and see other worlds (once the strangely loud local ads were finished running).

But… I also found out the wonderful news that I’m getting a story published in the Momaya Annual Review anthology. The story is called Love Like A Shooting Star Across The Dream-Night Of The World. It’s about dreaming of worlds and making them real, searching for truth, giving yourself to your feelings, and never giving up.

In some ways, this is what Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy is about, and this is also a good way to think of the existence of a writer: we’re mystery-solving, obsessive fighters for new worlds. One of the sections of The Girl Who Played With Fire is entitled Terminator Mode; it’s perfect for that point in the story, and it got me thinking.

As writers, we must always be in terminator mode: we must not stop, ever, until we get want we want. Whether this is publication, a TV, film or stage production, or jokes in a routine, we must pursue it relentlessly and unflinchingly. We need to dream it and then make it real. We have to go to the third dream level every day and plant our ideas, achieve Inception. It can be dangerous and exhausting and requires infinite patience, adrenaline and verve. As someone once said, there’s a word that describes writers who never give up: PUBLISHED. You could insert “hired on a TV show” and “got a movie script made” there also. It’s talent plus luck plus persistance. This is the writer’s trinity. Creating and constructing a dream-reality is a painstaking, deliberate and sometimes overwhelming task. These dreams become real with many thousands of accumulating elements. They coalesce in small increments: a story published here, a script reaching the semi-finals of a contest there. (Thanks to sitcom screenwriter and blogger Evan Shaw for the increment idea). These increments are always deeply meaningful, because each one gets us closer to that promised land. There’s another blog to be written about the journey being the destination, but that’s another story: this one’s about that destination, arriving at the citadel of accomplished dreams.

Making It.

And the only way we can do that is to act like Lisbeth Salander and James Cameron’s Terminator. We must always be in terminator mode. We must be relentless until we get there. And even then, because this is what we do, we’ll dream the next reality, and we’ll fight our way towards it.

Shining a light

It’s always nice to get recognition; so much of what we do as writers is solitary, theoretical, awaiting the completion of another’s perception. We wrestle with the old philosophical saw about the tree falling in a forest: if no-one hears it, is it real? Deep down, it’s every writer’s fear. Michael Chabon describes writing as a secret handshake that only makes sense in the presence of another; writing is a concept that needs to be received to be whole. Like love; the alchemy requires another consciousness: one won’t do. When something we write is noticed and applauded, it’s a kind of magic. It can be the subtle kind, or it can be on the David scale (Blaine, Copperfield). The only thing to remember is that it’s real. The truth is that it was always real, but writers being what they are sometimes just need to be told. And so to the wonderful folks at Leaf Books, in Wales. With great kindness and generosity, in a recent Blog competition, they selected one of my posts as being commended: Subtle Fractures, from last year. They also published this post on their Showcase Website. Yes, I think they are lovely. The blog itself is a fragment of the writing world that I am building, word by line, chapter by book, novel by screenplay. All writers are building their own worlds – we love the control – and when a little piece of our world shines with another’s praise, we feel a little warmer inside. Thank you, Leaf Books, for shining a light into my little corner of the blogosphere. Sometimes the satellites sent forth by the publishing gatekeepers detect our remote fictional worlds and report their findings, sending their signals back to the citadel. That brief transmission, that subtle pulse of acknowledgement, can make all the difference.

subtle fractures, hidden structures

“As the variety of the environment magnifies in both time and space and the structures that were thought to describe the operation of the world become progressively more unworkable, other concepts of organization must become current” – Brian Eno

“One story just isn’t enough… I think I’ll keep going until every sentence is a different story” – Michael Cunningham

What makes a novel, a novel? What makes it “one thing,” one cohesive object? How disparate can a work’s elements be for it still to be considered a novel? These questions come to my mind as I read and reread my novel, because it began life as a short story, and then another, and another… until suddenly I had a whole book of stories focused on the same characters, their lives, their places – in one way, it contains multiple emotional trajectories, but in another, more profound way, it’s one trajectory, one “moment.” All the stories, or chapters, weave together as the one story progresses to a conclusion (of sorts). So, it’s a novel. As I thought about it more, I realized that this a scene that has been quietly developing: works published as novels that may be collections of stories in disguise. I trace it back to David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, back in ’99. Published to great acclaim as a novel, the connections between each chapter are minimal. It does not fully involve the same people, places, emotions or atmospheres. It’s disparate, diverse. In Tessa Hadley’s Accidents In The Home, published in 2002, the fault lines are much more subtle – the chapters involve the same characters at least, but in different times, different situations, far away from each other. Michael Cunningham took this further in Specimen Days, published in 2005: it features the same set of characters in the same city (New York), but in three completely different times (the past, the present and the future), and in different incarnations of themselves (human, android, alien). It could be three novellas, or one novel, depending on your preferred perspective. We’ll leave aside the marketing and commercial perspective for now, save to note that publishing something as novel is clearly commercially more viable (interesting though that this commercial imperative creates these hybrid works). In 2006, David Mitchell (having published Cloud Atlas in 2004) returned with Black Swan Green, which he described as thirteen stand-alone stories that happened to be a novel. It’s fascinating, this crossing of the lines. This is where the energy is. Michael Chabon, in a precise and cogent essay entitled “Trickster In A Suit Of Lights,” references Lewis Hyde’s notion of the Trickster, the maverick creative spirit that resides in the borders between between genres; the intersections of the known forms of writing. “The Trickster goes where the action is,” writes Chabon, “and the action is in the borders between things.” The Trickster dwells at the threshold, the crossroads, the places where new directions take form. Chabon urges writers to uncover “the secret shelves between the sections in the bookstore.” Once we step outside of what we think we know about genres and structures, interesting things can happen. Once we realize that what we used to consider “a novel” is changing, we can discover beautiful things, wonderful possibilities, like those brought to light by Mitchell, Hadley and Cunningham. How contiguous does a novel really have to be? Could its ‘novel-ness’ be an emergent quality from a swirling mass of narratives? There are underlying, hidden structures, felt rather than seen, that can allow a diverse collection to be considered “one thing.” If we look to other artforms, it seems easier: an album is really a collection of songs, but is seen as one coherent item. Maybe if we think of these fractured novels as concept albums, we’ll have an easier time of it. Maybe the individual stories are movements in a symphony. It seems as though we need a new philosophical landscape for the novel; we need to move, as Brian Eno describes, from definitions that are fixed, to definitions that are “multiple, shifting, blurred, experimental and adaptive.” Theories are stories, theorists are storytellers, and existing hierarchies are comfortable fictions. It seems that it’s just a story we tell ourselves at this point in time, that this is a novel, and that is a short story collection. We can tell new and different stories about what we consider to be novels. As Chuck Palahniuk has said, “any long story, any novel, is just a collection of short stories.” Our whole world (“one thing”) is of course a collection of many stories. Our consicousnesses are a blend of all the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and why we did this, or that. Our “consciousness,” which we think of as one unbroken flowing thing, is a beautiful emergent quality of many millions of things. Once you explore beneath what Michel Faber calls the “narrative exteriors,” any number of wonderful things might be happening. It’s incredibly exciting to me that a book could be a novel and a collection of stories at the same time, that we can not just be held to one linear definition, but can move to quantum states of multiple ideas coexisting in the same space; novels evolving in fluid motion over time, into newer forms.