LSF 2010 – Day 3: Creativity, writers’ block, deals and crime. The highlights of another incredible day.

Seriously, those highlights won’t cover 5% of what I’ve learned on Sunday or during the LSF. And I’m not even including the networking bits, the Script Chats I couldn’t attend, the Off the Page sessions, the Euroscript clinic or Script Pitch… I have to go back to Brazil fairly soon but I cannot imagine not being here in 2011. So, I’ll start saving for the trip and the delegates’ fee as of NOW.

Hope you have some time to look into some of the highlights of the past three days and find useful stuff to apply to your work from the sessions you missed because you chose other seminars or activities or because you couldn’t (or wouldn’t) attend the festival for some reason.

Again, if you think I got something wrong – I make furious notes during the sessions but I do miss stuff or may misinterpret them – please let me know and I’ll be glad to amend it.

Craig Batty delivered a most useful sessions: The Creative Screenwriter. I think the idea of applying “creative writing” techniques to screenwriting somehow scared some people out of the room – to their loss… I agree with Craig when he says screenwriting training and practice tend to focus a lot on the technical aspects of the craft, rather than on the creative side. I talk from experience: the MA in creative writing I did included tons of exercises to expand or focus my creativity; almost all screenwriting workshops I attended focused on technical issues.

So, here are some interesting things Craig said and some of the exercises we did:

. People have different perceptions of creative writing and screenwriting: creative writing is usually associated with “the writer as a creator”, whilst in screenwriting the writer is seen as a “mechanic”; the writer seen as an “author” in creative writing, whilst in screenwriting the writer has a lower status…

. Creativity somehow has been lost, it has become mechanical rather than creative.

. Training for screenwriters is industry-style, focused on scenarios, facts & figures, formulaic models and rules. The “creative” perspective can bring back the enjoyment of writing as a “felt” experience.

. “You can’t teach talent but you can train one on how to use talent.”

. One of the exercises was to think about how to externalise an emotion through actions or images, so we had to come up with 10 ideas or images of what people do to show that emotion. Then we had to choose 1 action from that list and find 15 reasons why that person is doing that (or why one person would react like that).

. During one of the exercises I could see a character develop in an unexpected, much more interesting direction than I had first intended. It gave me an option I hadn’t thought before. For me, it proved straight away that Craig’s approach really work and can be a powerful tool expand your creativity and generate new ideas.

After this session I rushed to Keith Cunningham‘s The Writers’ Voice, which was actually more about creative block than writers’ voice but, in the end, I learned a lot about how the human creative process work. It was simply awesome – and exceptionally hard to summarize. Keith’s book The Soul of Screenwriting – On Writing, Dramatic Truth and Knowing Yourself has the complete take on the creative process and understanding this process can help you get around the natural, totally human – huge sigh of relief – , barriers we face when engaging with it. Highlights:

. All books about screenwriting talk about the product (the script) but ignore the creative process. I heard Craig Batty say that too in the previous session, remember? They look at the writer as a machine and the writers’ subjectivity is ignored. To ignore our subjectivity is to sign up for a writers’ block…

. People get creative blocks when the fall out of rapport with the story. You have a relationship with your story and your characters. The characters are fictional but the relationship is REAL. Therefore, you will invest in it as much energy and emotions as when you have a relationship with a real person. For me, this was a WOW! moment…

. All human beings create “resistance” when they cross thresholds and move into different territories, because everything changes. It’s like moving between dimensions. So when we leave our banal, day-to-day world, and plunge into the world we have just created, we experience that resistance. That’s why humans create rituals when crossing thresholds: for instance, we break a bottle on the ship before it first goes at sea; some writers, when they sit down to write, set up the desk in a very specific way…

. That resistance sometimes can be felt as if an invisible magnetic field is preventing your hands from hitting the keyboard keys… you kind of black out and suddenly… BANG… you’re at the kitchen, opening the fridge… or… BANG! you find yourself hoovering the living room… this is called: resistance.

. Resistance also happens when characters become alive and you lose control over them, they won’t behave solely as you dictate, they’ll have a life of their own and you have to start negotiating with them – or even try to force them back into the mold you’ve created… this can get in the way of your relationship with them.

. Useful tip when the “infatuation” period is over and you want to bring back that “juice”: try everyday to get things that don’t relate to the story or the creative process out of the way by doing some “wild writing” – give yourself an arbitrary time-frame (let’s say 5 mins) and pours out on paper whatever is in your head. It has to be totally transparent and have no censorship: banal things, a shop list, I hate this, I hate this, I hate this… whatever.

There’s so much more I learned from this session – I’ll have more on my full notes – but my advice is: buy the book. I did.

There were 4 new sessions on Sunday. What about that as a bonus! The festival organisers got two new rooms at Regent’s College and promptly arranged 4 new sessions. I was amazed at how quickly they operated and how keen there were to give more to the delegates. Totally awesome!

So I chose one of those new sessions to attend: Julian Friedmann‘s 20 Negotiating Tips for Writers. I would have seriously regretted not to have attended this because now, despite the short time Julian had to cover so much ground, I understand a lot more about deals and contracts. Eager as I am to sell my scripts, I am now much more aware of what they involve, the pitfalls and how to protect myself. For example:

. To aim at writing TV series is a huge, risky and difficult to achieve ambition. However, if you get it, try to make sure you write as many episodes they will allow you – normally, they will allow you to write none. In any case, make sure you get the “format fee.”

. Also negotiate to be allowed to read all scripts written for the series and to participate in the meetings – to sit in the corner, listen and learn, not to interfere. According to Julian, the producers of the show have a moral obligation to at least allow you to learn from what you’ve created.

. Some beginner writers don’t know that when someone “options” your script they are not actually buying it. They may pay for the option but this doesn’t mean they can make the film. Producers may option your script and a time-frame will be established to give them time to find the money to buy the script and start the proper production process and, in the contract, the purchase price will be established. If you can get your option price to be 5% of the purchase price, fantastic; normally, it’s 1%.

. Try to get into the option contract a clause saying – and producers will try to keep it out – that you’ll get your script back if material (meaningful, substantial) progress hasn’t been made within the agreed time-frame. Normally, options are automatically renewed and you can’t option your script to anyone else whilst a producer has optioned it. Therefore, if you include this clause, then it can only be renewed if the producer actually demonstrates progress, so you can get it back and option it to someone else.

Again, I’ll try and compile full notes for this session but this gives you a brief sample on deals that can really protect you. The Writers’ Guild and TwelvePoint.com are also valuable sources of information about that.

Writing for Crime was the session I chose to go after that and, again, what a panel! Rick Drew (Shattered), Daniel Eckhart (the German Tatort), Andrew Taft (The Bill), chaired by Barbara Machin (Waking the Dead) gave us a fantastic overview of what it’s like to create those shows. It was mostly about writing crime television series, which is not actually what I normally write but, as they say, it’s about human drama and this is pertinent to all genres. Here are some highlights:

. Rick Drew talked about this fantastic, fresh, brave new concept, in Barbara Machin’s words, in Shattered: a cop with multiple personalities and how those personalities affect his work and his relationships. It’s just amazing. I’d never think of a cop that had to deal with such a hard mental condition! What Rick says is that this very “damaged” character had, dramatically speaking, a lot of leg to carry the show.

. In such series, and this applies to most series, not only the central character is important, you must get the ensemble of characters right: they must have lives of their own but, basically, they exist to illustrate characteristics of the central character and make him or her deal with/confront them.

. Whilst the concept of Shattered is very fresh and new, so is the concept of Life on Mars but it took 7 years for the series to come out of the paper because the UK industry seems to be a lot more conservative and afraid of taking risks. Apparently, nobody seemed to be able to take a decision.

. Barbara’s advice for writers: Be brave! Make it happen! We have to find a way to do more new things – it has to be genius and it’s tough but give it a go. Producers and broadcasters say they’ll recognise genius when they see it but they don’t, she says. You can’t really see genius in a treatment or a pitch, those new concepts need to be allowed to evolve, to be developed.

. Why cops & docs are so successful? Various reasons: they are characters in life & death situations; the stakes are very high; the dramatic situations are picked up quickly by the audience; the audience enjoys solving the mystery with the show; people empathise with the characters… As a writer, Daniel says he also likes to be on the edge of his seat as he writes it.

. Crime shows are getting harder to do because they don’t deal with burglars and bank robberies anymore, they deal with terrorism and identity theft, which are “faceless” crimes… so it’s harder to grip the audience.

. Andrew says we need more interesting villains, more interesting bad guys – not to glorify them – but more strong characters in interesting situations. This again applies to all genres.

. One way to keep characters fresh is to dig deeper – and therefore to know a lot about – their history, to explore under their layers. Revisit their stories and find small things that can reveal a whole new aspect of the character. The most innocent little thing in their past can be a key in keeping the character fresh. But beware: don’t use your back stories too soon – sometimes it can take years for those “personal issues” to arise – just like in real life…

. When looking for a new crime show be sure you’re doing something different. Find the spin. Find the way to make it utterly distinctive. The Sopranos, for instance, is a type of crime show (rather a family saga disguised as crime show, according to Barbara, but brilliant) where the police is almost an outsider.

There’s so much to digest, to consider, to think about. I’ll revisit those notes soon and much more will come out of them. What those brief notes tell, for sure, is how much you can get from this Festival. My advice is, if for some reason you couldn’t attend this year, next year, make sure you are there.

Check the highlights of Day 1 and Day 2.

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