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Moffat on First Drafts and Honesty

Steven Moffat, showrunner of Doctor Who, has given his tips on getting your script made, including pitch, first drafts and subsequent drafts; as well as dismissing some myths about writing, he also talks about how hard it is to write.

Steven Moffat 3

You know when you talk to someone about your story and you immediately sound like a loon and feel the idea is awful? In Doctor Who Magazine #471, he writes, tongue firmly in cheek, about why that experience is so painful:

“It is not that writers are sensitive beats – I am, but the rest are well hard – it is that writing is humiliating. It is cataloguing in public everything you think is insightful or clever or funny or exciting. Or, in fact, sexy, which is the worst. No writer has ever had sex, so frankly, it’s all guesswork.”

As Shrek says, ogres are like onions, and it’s exposing those layers to the world in a way very few actually do. It’s telling the truth.

He also tackles that first draft and a perceived wisdom passed on from writer to writer which makes very little sense…

“Everyone who ever says ‘It’s only a first draft’ can do to screaming hell and burn. Somehow that has become the norm. Writers say things like, ‘Well, it’s just a discussion document really!’ No it isn’t… The first draft is the real work. It’s when you haul the story out of the mud, and get a look at what you’ve got. The first draft is authorship – everything after that is engineering. So you give it everything. You draft and redraft every tiny moment, until you honestly believe it’s utterly, transcendently perfect. Until you’re tearing up at its golden qualities. The correct mental  state: there will be no other draft necessary past this, because it’s perfect! This is to be held simultaneously with the other, equally true thought: I will write many other drafts.”

I think this hits the nail on the head. Everyone just accepts that “writing is rewriting” and it’s probably just to make that first draft easier to put down on paper. It’s hard to start.

There are plenty more gems of advice in the issue’s Production Notes column and is truly fascinating for any wannabe screenwriter.

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Posted by on March 31, 2014 in Television

 

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Interview: Bristol Science Fiction Writer, Tim Maughan

I arrive at the Watershed, armed with a notepad full of questions for local science fiction writer, Tim Maughan. His work – principally the short story collection, Paintwork, but also Limited Edition, written for New Scientist’s Arc magazine and shortlisted for a British Science Fiction Association award – is a glimpse into a possible future, mixing the concerns of today with the technology of tomorrow.

Tim Maughan

His writing is inspired by some of the sci-fi greats, including Neuromancer’s William Gibson, Fahrenheit-451 writer, Ray Bradbury, and J. G. Ballard, most famous for Crash. A copy of Ballard’s High-Rise waits for me at home.

I’ve prepared some less-probing questions, ready to ease Tim into the interview; everyday trivia that’s never going to make it into the final article, but nonetheless breaks the ice and allows us both to get to know each other. Standard stuff. But when we sit down on the balcony overlooking Bristol Harbour, I realise I don’t need that notepad. Tim’s enthusiasm is there from the get-go, and we’re discussing the merits of those classic science fiction authors straight away.

I quickly put the Dictaphone on and, an hour-and-a-half or so later, realise that this interview is something special: certainly the most extensive I’ve ever had the pleasure of conducting.
I touch upon Paintwork’s main character, 3Cube, whose art – graffiti utilising QR Codes – pulls Bristolians of tomorrow back to a more innocent time. I tell Tim I felt somewhat nostalgic at this prospect – but was this his intention?

“I guess nostalgia’s applicable,” he replies, mulling it over. “I think the idea there was that 3Cube’s artwork is maybe too optimistic or naive. He’s told that by one of the other characters in the story. I was really trying to write about authenticity in that story and about wanting to define what authenticity was. There was a review – it was on Good Reads, I think – of someone who really hated that story; they accused me of being a hipster, that I was saying it was only authentic if it wasn’t digital and it was analogue… and that wasn’t it at all. I was suggesting some people feel like that but I wasn’t trying to say that that’s how I felt at all.”

Paintwork 1

This brings me onto an idea that fascinates me: that once your writing is read by other people, it’s no longer yours. Everybody puts their own stamp on it; everyone brings something to it. No text is created in a vacuum – and no text is read in one either.

“It’s something that, as writer, you have zero control over,” Tim concedes. “You don’t. And I’ve seen really positive reviews of my stuff where people have come away with things that I didn’t think were in the story, as well as negative reviews. There was a really good review of Limited Edition a few months ago… I was kind of pleased actually because [the reviewer] came away thinking at times he was rooting for the characters and then he had to shake himself and realise that he shouldn’t be! And I like that. I like that he felt like that. You should be rooting for the characters, but at the same time, you shouldn’t. But it’s not their fault that they’re like that – and that’s the situation they’re in… So you have no control over that and I also like to deliberately be very ambiguous, especially about moral issues and issues like authenticity.”

Limited Edition tells the story of the Bristol riots from a looter’s viewpoint. It also raises an important question about if main characters have to be likeable – and even about whether the reader can be won over. I’m reading Neil Cross’ Burial at the moment, which examines an accidental murder. You disagree with what Nathan, the central protagonist, has done, but due to Cross’ sterling narrative, you root for him regardless. It’s an odd situation to be in. Similarly, I was disgusted at the riots a few years ago, believing that peaceful protest is the way forward. But listening to Tim talk so passionately about consumerism and expectations, and reading his short story, I can now sympathise with Limited Edition’s main character.

Art by Robert Carter

Art by Robert Carter

“I think if readers aren’t coming up with their own takes on my stuff, then I’m probably not being ambiguous enough. And it’s tough in science fiction, because I found a lot of readers and some critics don’t like ambiguity. They’re not interested in it. They want everything to be framed ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ They want heroes,” he explains. “There was a review a few months ago of Paintwork and one of the reviewers wasn’t happy with how I portrayed Paul in Havana Augmented as a hero. And I didn’t know that I had. I hadn’t set out to portray him as a hero. They were unhappy with the ending; he goes into this re-education camp, he’s treated well… But what about all the other people in the camp? It was a fair point, but I didn’t think that I was saying he should’ve been treated well. He was treated well in the camp because he was seen as this national hero – was that right? Have his actions damaged Cuba? But I don’t want to ram points home to people; I want people to come away with their own opinions. That’s fine.”

He argues that this definite line between hero and villain is linked to comic book culture, but says that he’s got used to dealing with what readers bring to his own writing. “It’s always interesting to me to hear what people think about your own stuff [but] I had to come to terms with it a bit,” Tim says, and recalls his main concern initially: “Does this mean I’m not getting my point across or does it mean that I can’t get my point across without ramming it home to people? And I don’t ever want to ram anything home to anyone. I sometimes joke about it with a friend of mine; sometimes, it feels like you can only be ambiguous if you spell out that you’re being ambiguous! I write the stuff, chuck it out there, people like it, don’t like it, have their own opinions on it – I have to learn to live with that. And that’s fine; I’m quite happy with that.”

Paintwork 2

Still, this ambiguity can be an issue when it comes to offending others.

“I got some probably fair criticism for not including female characters enough in my stories, but part of what I was trying to write about was male pride, and the role of young men in urban society; how they struggle with having significance and standing out and making their mark on things,” he says. “It goes back to this idea of showing who you are in a society where consumerism is more important than self-expression.”

The fact is, readers will always bring themselves to a text – and that’s not really a bad thing. “If people are talking about it, then it’s worked,” he concludes.

You can read my full three-part interview with Tim over at Guide2Bristol. In Part One, we discuss his sci-fi influences, most notably Ballard, while in Part Two, we talk about what it means to be Cyberpunk and how celebrity culture has affected his work. And, in Part Three, we conclude by mulling over the relevance of 1980s ideals, if the landscape of Paintwork is the future he wants to live in, and what’s next for Tim.

And you can read Limited Edition here and watch the short film based on Paintwork here.

(Thanks to Tim Maughan and Guide2Bristol’s Rudy Millard.)

 
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Posted by on August 2, 2013 in Books, Interview, Published work

 

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Why Write A Blog Advent?

ADVENT DAY TWENTY-FOUR: Christmas. It’s not long away. And to celebrate advent, new content will be added to this blog every day in the countdown to the big day. You’ll see reviews, opinion pieces, links to some of my other work, videos – maybe even a short story! Remember to check back every day (in between the mad rush of packing presents, getting the freezer stocked up and watching Home Alone on repeat).

This is the second year running that I’ve done a blog advent, updating the blog every day. But why? It’s certainly a big commitment. But there are good reasons…

Rockefeller 2012

Writing

The biggest task of all for a writer is to write. It sounds stupid, but to actually sit down and write… takes a lot of effort. Personally, I always think to myself, ‘if I do it now, I won’t do it right.’ It’s not me being lazy – it’s a genuine concern. And I know I’m not alone.

But once you start, it’s fine. Enjoyable. And this blog advent is a strict regime: you have to do it once it’s started! Sure, it’s tough, but when you’re on a roll…

I’ve clocked up nearly 8,000 words in this blog advent alone. That’s nearly 8,000 words more than I had at the start of December. It looks much better than a blank page, believe me.

Improvisation

A blog advent stretches your skills. I don’t get up and know what I’m writing. It’s improvisation. It’s reacting to what’s going on around you; what you feel like writing; and what you want to say.

Sure, there’s some planning involved – but plans change. I knew, for instance, that I wanted to do a Doctor Who quiz again this year, with a separate post for answers. But I certainly didn’t know when I was going to do it. They went up merely when the time was right.

It’s a skill that comes in handy if you’re trying to write daily; if you’re trying to get into journalism, or continue your career or even just hone your trade.

Learning new things

On the search for new content, I learnt a few things. Not necessarily things that I’ve even turned into a post – but things that I researched just because they interested me. The idea of perceptual adaptation really grabbed me… and who knows? Maybe I’ll write a post about it once day.

A bigger audience

Google loves a regularly updated blog: one with links, and a range of topics; quotes and pictures and videos. The more content – no, the more good content you have, the bigger an audience you’ll reach. Maybe someone will find your blog by searching for Looney Tunes cartoons, but then visit again and again (even subscribe) because they’re also a fan of The Killers or Doctor Who.

2012 Bauble

Showcasing your work

Also, the more content you have, the more work you have online to show off your skills. Editors, fellow journalists, friends: they all need to know what you can do.

Show them.

Deadlines

To be able to show editors you can be responsible and stick to strict deadlines is invaluable. This is what editors need to know.

Yes, they also need to know you’re good at what you do – but proving yourself reliable is half the battle.

And if you don’t think that updating your blog every day isn’t a challenge… try it. And if you still don’t… I’m impressed. Also, a little concerned.

Develop

Writing style is important, as is understanding language, syntax, grammar, spelling, rhetoric… I could go on. To develop these, you have to write. Something which forces you to write is surely a brilliant thing to help your writing grow.

Naturally, your writing shouldn’t ever stop evolving – or else, why be a writer at all? – but a little annual kick along the way must help.

Who I Am

Your blog is a reflection of you. Remember that. Everything on it says something about you. So tell people who you are.

Oh, and by the way… Thanks for reading.

Have a very Merry Christmas.

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2012 in Blog Advent - 2012

 

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