2009, 2010 & The Bare Bones Approach

Hello, you delightful shooting star. 2009, you say? I'd best jot down some thoughts on how it was for me, before it becomes all too tiny in the ol' rear-view mirror. I'll also throw in the most valuable writing lesson I learnt last year...

One of the best things about 2009 was sitting in a room, listening to Tony Jordan telling me I can write. As a writer you ideally have to be able to exist in a vacuum, tough as old hobnail boots, with no need for validation. But Christ Almighty, there's no harm in a bit if someone like Tony's offering. I was sitting in Red Planet Pictures' HQ, as part of a workshop laid on for Red Planet Prize finalists. My relationship with the company - and with a handful of finalists - remains ongoing, as ideas continue to fly. That's a good feeling.

Last year also gave me a nice sense of completion, when it came to my main new TV spec script. On January 1, 2009, I started work on a 30-minute one-off called Letters From Betsy. Truth be told, I poured a great deal of emotion into that script and almost certainly more of me than I'd devoted to a script before - probably with Tony Jordan's words ringing in my ears from the previous Screenwriters' Festival, about writing until your keyboard's covered in tears and snot. Nice.

Letters From Betsy underwent various drafts as the year went on, with untold changes made to direction, emphasis, character... you name it, although the core concept was always there. Indeed, Letters From Betsy's journey would only end when I'd clarified/reminded myself exactly what the core concept was, realising that the rest was mere surplus and should be dispensed with. That's one of the things I really learnt in 2009: bare bones are stronger. Dress 'em up with extra problems for your protagonist and all manner of extraneous tat, and the whole somehow manages to become less than the sum of its parts.

Anyway. Letters From Betsy eventually morphed into Ghost Writer, impressing a few noted industry folk as it did so. It was then chosen by TAPS as one of the four TV dramas which they produce each year. It was filmed in December on Leeds' Emmerdale sets (will write my account of the actual filming ASAP) - and hopefully this month I'll get to see the first edit and give input. But to all intents and purposes, I ended 2009 with a produced film which I started on the year's very first day.

So what else happened in 2009? I had my first commission from a TV production company, Eye Film And TV, to work on four 50-minute episodes of new web series Tempting Fates. That was a really valuable experience, which saw me co-storylining for the first time, thinking in terms of series arcs and generally working as part of a team. Fun fun fun.

At the start of the year, sketches for the show Splendid bubbled away in our collective cauldron. A ticklesome pilot was shot around Spring, with a tremendous June screening, which led to us honing that pilot some more, filming an additional batch of sketchery-pokery. Then another lesson was learnt: creating the pilot is the relatively easy part, compared to persuading industry-folk to watch it. Splendid currently awaits perusal on certain desks, but I remain confident that its irresistible foolishness can't help but charm whichever lucky soul gives it a spin first.

At the beginning of the year, I had some material broadcast on Radio 4's Recorded For Training Purposes, which led to me having material broadcast on that same station's Laurence & Gus: Hearts & Minds, a few months later. I then became a commissioned writer on the Recorded For Training Purposes team, which continues to be huge fun, as the show's next series is pieced together.

What else? I wrote a trial script for the fine BBC One series Waterloo Road, impressing Shed enough to gain a seat on their reserves bench. I associate produced Danny Stack's short film Origin. I became a script-reader for regional agency Screen East and a speaker at the Cheltenham Screenwriters' Festival, chairing two Doctor Who sessions with some excellent show luminaries. At the latter event, I started thinking for the first time about finding the right agent and had a few meetings which gave me some good contacts and possible representation in 2010.

Throughout 2009, I continued to shift the balance between screenwriting and the journalism with which I started out in writing. I'm in the really nice position of being able to pick journalistic jobs which I enjoy - and this has never been truer than when I interviewed former Doctor Who Tom Baker for Doctor Who Magazine. As this had been a longheld career ambition, it can only be described as one of the highlights of my life, let alone 2009. This Christmas, the afterglow became all the warmer, when Tom published the two-part interview on his website: you can read them both here.

So, yeah, 2009 was pretty busy and fruitful. There were of course a few projects that I worked up, only for them to creatively fizzle out, or hit dead ends. I wrote half a horror feature, then was forced to shift priorities to something else, and still need to climb back on that saddle. I also spent the entire year tinkering with my previously Hollywood-optioned horror feature Panik, only to realise over the last couple of months that it needs to be stripped right down, then built back up. Sometimes when a project is rooted in work carried out by Less Experienced You, those roots need pulling up altogether and replanting.

2010 will again be about hard work, only more so. I'm going to capitalise on all the opportunities which Ghost Writer's filming - and its planned BAFTA screening for industry types, this April - will bring, aiming to secure my first TV commission by year's end. Various projects will move forward and new ones will be willed into corporeal existence.

My key word for 2010 is 'focus'. It's all too tempting to diversify in terms of the genres you write, but this year I'm going to push for my priority: TV drama. As much as I enjoy sketchery-pokery and straight-up comedy, there'll be less of that from me this year. Focus, focus, focus. I'll still be writing feature scripts as well as TV scripts, but genre-wise, drama will provide my main sandpit - and as we all know, drama is broad enough church in itself.

Talking of focus, here's the most valuable writing lesson I learnt last year. It's the kind of thing we all think we know, but as Adrian Mead is fond of saying, sometimes knowing isn't doing. During TAPS' Continuing Drama weekend in October, we spent a lot of time with Emmerdale's chief writer Bill Lyons. A brutally honest, yet clearly lovely guy, he passed judgement on various scenes which the class had been tasked with writing in 60 minutes, then were acted by a couple of thespians. You could often feel that dialogue had been overwritten, the moment that actors became a tad stilted. The effort they were devoting to saying all those words, rendered them unable to actually act. As Bill said, "If you put too many words in an actor's mouth, you're actually stopping them from doing their job". That's a fine sentence to remember this year when you're writing dialogue - and especially when redrafting it.

2010, then: the year of focus, bare bones, letting actors do their jobs and - lest we forget - having a right old hoot. Bring. It. On.

Handy 2009 Links

Michelle Lipton on Ten Things She Learnt Last Year. If you didn't much care for The Thing That I Learned, this article will make up for it

Piers Beckley on setting controllable goals

Evernote - a handy application which syncs web, portable device and computer, allowing you to easily store ideas, research materials or indeed Bars You Would Like To Visit

Carbonite - the best back-up service I discovered last year. It simply hoovers your files up into the internet, ridding you of all worries. Even if your house burns down, your stuff is safe

My Twitter page
: I discovered this social networking site in 2009, and love it to bits. Give it a go, if you haven't already, and follow me if it pleases you


Phill Barron said...

Hmm ... given I read this blog and occasionally hang out with you in the pub - how come I'm only hearing about half of this stuff now?

Damn you, Arnopp - you're stamping on my inappropriate sense of entitlement.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Great advice effortlessly given. and what a good year eh, Lord A? I expect to see your name brightening a screen or two this year. Good for you sir! x


You worked very hard for it, but what a great year, Lord Arnopp.

Here's to an even better-er one this 2010!

laurence timms said...

Bloody well done.

Do you actually sleep? Or are you chipping away at the granite edifice of The Industry 24 hours a day?

Piers said...

He chips away at the granite edifice of the industry 24 hours a day.

Sadly the only tools that he has been able to procure are sharpened human bones.

Jason Arnopp said...

Thanks gentlemen.

Oh, and I compiled 51 crossword puzzles during 2009, too. Their white squares were fashioned from human bone.

Piers said...

And the dark squares? Distilled from human misery.

laurence timms said...

I'd have just done those with a felt tip pen. Way easier.

Anonymous said...

I'm looking at the photo of Tony Jordan next to your blog photo... and I'm wondering, are you actually Tony Jordan's younger brother? Or maybe his love child? I think we should be told.