How I Write: The Trick is to Keep Writing

I wrote a blog about how I write for the Scottish Book Trust a couple of months ago. I love the sound of my own fingers typing, so I wrote way more than would ever have been useful. While I’m dumping some stuff off my desktop as part of a New Year’s spruce up, here are some of the extra bits SBT weren’t able to use.

We all have two writing lives: our fantasy writing life and our real writing life.

In my fantasy writing life, I write sitting up straight, at a desk, in an office. The office is always, always clean.

In my fantasy writing life, I write the elements of my stories down on post-its and move them around and – aha! – the whole plot is there, fully formed. I just have to join the dots.

In my fantasy writing life, I write from ‘Once upon a time’ to ‘The End’ and only have to check the spelling once before sending something out.

In my fantasy writing life, writing is easy.

In my real writing life, writing is something I do hunched over in bed, with my laptop balanced on my belly (in my real writing life, I have spent a fortune on physiotherapy).

In my real writing life, writing is something I do in-between a full-time job and a part-time job, and a social life that’s made up of haphazard coffee dates, bottles of wine and bad films.

In my real writing life, I suffer from fear of the blank page, and would do anything rather than stare at that little blinking cursor.

In my real writing life – where there is so much to do, so much to be distracted by – I hate writing.

Luckily – in my real writing life – I love having written.

Writing is re-writing. You’ve got to have something to have something to work with.

Here are a couple of things I’ve learned to get my words onto the page.

Thinking out loud

We got our first computer when I was 9, and I was on the internet soon after that, so I feel a certain affinity with the ‘digital natives’ who can’t do anything unless it’s in 1s and 0s.

That being said, I still do my best writing on paper.

For me, there’s something tactile about writing on paper: I need to be in the right space – high ceilings for writing, low ceilings for re-writing, good coffee to keep me sitting up straight – and it needs to be the right notebook.

I always buy fancy notebooks with nice covers and thick paper, and then end up writing in scrappy 3-for-2 jobs I’ve picked up in Poundland because those fancy notebooks are too nice for me to make mistakes in.

If there’s anything worse than fear of the blank page, it’s fear of the fancy blank page.

My notebooks are – to coin a phrase – where the magic happens.

For me, this process – scenes written haphazardly, out of sync, snippets of character and drawings of settings – is about thinking out loud. It’s my way of conquering that fear of the blank page by allowing myself to be messy and make mistakes and get things wrong.

Only when I’ve written something in my notebook – and gone over it a couple of times, taken bits out and put bits in and rewritten it a couple of times, this time with a drawing of one of my characters chasing another down the lefthand margin – am I able to write it up ‘in neat’.

The Snowflake Method

Once I’ve given myself time to think out loud – in my notebooks – I start writing things up ‘in neat’, which means getting everything onto my laptop. Sometimes it means going back to the drawing board, and for that, I use the Snowflake Method.

Developed by the improbably-named Randy Ingermanson, the Snowflake Method is about starting with the bare bones of your story – literally a one liner that tells us the who, what and when – and gradually building from there.

Once you’ve got the one liner, you build to a paragraph; then three paragraphs, reflecting your beginning, muddle and end.

Eventually, you end up with a detailed outline and, ultimately, you end up with a fleshed-out first draft.

That’s when the hard work begins.

Using this method, for me, helps me put all of the work I’ve done in my notebooks in order. My own process is messy and non-linear. The Snowflake Method is ordered and methodical.

Somehow, we meet in the middle.

The Pomodoro Technique

As an almost-‘digital native’, I have an app for most things: running, walking, eating, keeping track of my favourite TV shows.

When you have an app for most things, everything becomes a game.

Developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 80s, the Pomodoro technique – named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Franky C used when he was a university student – is based on the idea that frequent breaks can improve mental agility.

For me, it’s about the way that work fills the amount of time you give it.

You set a timer for 20 minutes, then work like billy-oh throughout those twenty minutes. When those twenty minutes are up – no matter where you are – you stop and take a 10 minute break.

Sometimes I set myself a goal for the twenty minutes – a word count, or a scene, or a thought process – usually I don’t.

Half the battle of writing is getting words down on the page. The Pomodoro technique means I don’t stop and go back and check what I’ve done. I don’t have time.

The Pomodoro technique is something I’ve learned to use to make writing a game, where the goal is to do as many ‘turns’ as I can in a day. I always aim to do at least two ‘turns’ a day, and I haven’t broken my streak since June.

I’ve almost finished my novel.

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Thoughts on transgender representation

I spent the weekend in London, at Pilar Alessandra’s masterclass on writing for television, put on by London Screenwriters Festival.

It was a fantastic class. I’ve listened to Pilar’s podcast for years, so I was really excited about the course, and I’ve managed to do a lot of significant work on the next script I want to write. I find her approach to story – of knowing the rules but not being constrained by them – refreshingly accessible; I write from character, and structure is something I struggle with, so the weekend has given me a strong backbone for my new story, and lots to think about.

The guest speaker on Saturday was John Yorke. There aren’t enough superlatives for his book, Into the Woods, which is a fascinating look at the how and why of stories, and the only screenwriting book I know that uses a Muppets song to illuminate storytelling theory.

muppets

One of the exercises Pilar got us to do invoked – involuntarily – my favourite subject, transgender representation.

To get a sense of some of the different ways you can develop episode ideas based on a series logline – pulling from theme or turning character relationships – Pilar set us a task to work on the longline for a series about a disgraced professor who is fired because of some sort of scandal and goes to work at a high school.

A good half a dozen people pitched premises where the ‘scandal’ was that the professor was trans – either a trans woman who’d left the college in disgrace, or a trans man who’d taken on someone else’s identity in order to escape their past, and a slew of trans identities in between – so many that Pilar joked, after the third or forth, that ‘transgender storylines have already become cliche!’

She was joking, but I don’t think she was wrong.

With trans issues so prominent in the media at the moment – and with trans people as main cast members in some of the most popular dramas on television – television is going to chase the trans issue as a ‘trend’. I imagine that – at story conferences up and down the country – every soap is figuring out who and how they can introduce a trans character, and I know there are a number of TV projects on their way with trans characters at their heart (and I am so, so excited about Boy Meets Girl coming to BBC 2 later this year).

As much as I want to see transgender people on television, part of me worries. I’ve seen – first hand – trans people have their lives pillaged for stories; friends who’s entire existence has been shrunk down to their trans identity – their ‘journey from man to woman’ – in 500 words and a before-and-after picture. I don’t think that’s fair.

Equally, I’ve seen trans representation done wrong on television; so frequently, trans people are the butt of the joke – the pull back and reveal – presented as perverts or deceivers; Rantasmo has a great video on trans representation in film, which presents some of the worst offenders.

Being trans is not a scandal.

Representation is always a journey, and we seem to be moving away from the trans deceiver, the hysterical trans woman (because it’s always a trans woman, but misogyny is a story for another day) sex worker killed off in the teaser. For anyone writing – or thinking about writing – trans characters, All About Trans is a really useful resource. They put together a great infographic, in the wake of Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out, that covers some of the basics of trans representation:

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I did a lecture earlier this year with student screenwriters at GCU on trans representation on film and television, and put together an article for Bang2Write on 11 notable trans characters and the 11 things experts want to see next in terms of trans representation.

And for an example of trans representation done well, check out Sense 8, a brilliant, bonkers Netflix epic from the Wachowskis.

jamie

Writing queer characters and telling queer stories is my passion – check out the first 10 pages of my Trans Comedy Award script.

If you want to chat about trans representation, please send me an email!

Dad Chat

I’m rewriting a script at the moment for Comedy Script Room.

My scripts rarely feature straight white guys because I’m super committed to diversity, and because I literally have no idea what they talk about.

I was chatting with my partner last night about how I’m struggling with some of the ‘Dad chat’ in the scenes between the Dad and son:

Callum: Well, what sort of stuff does your Dad talk about?

Michael: He doesn’t, really, he just does Simpsons bits in funny voices, bangs on pots with the end of a spoon, makes chicken noises – I don’t think my Dad is the right example.

So – what do straight white guys sound like? What does your Dad talk about?

First 10 Pages: Real Life Experience

In 2013, I was ‘highly commended’ for the Trans Comedy Award, an initiative put together in conjunction with BBC Writersroom in order to improve the representation of transgender people on TV.

When I saw the initiative advertised, I was over the moon; I’d just graduated from an MA in Writing for Television. I’d been working with the trans community for years, having set up Trans* Youth Glasgow, a youth project for transgender young people. I was passionate about seeing our stories, queer stories on TV.

This was my moment.

And I started writing the script I thought the judges would want to see.

It was about a trans woman – her age fluctuated, from her late teens to her mid-fifties – coming out and going out as a woman for the first time.

All of the cliches of trans representation were present and correct; there she is, on page one, looking in the mirror as she applies her make-up; on page two, she’s putting on her sparkly dress. By the end of the script, she’d copped off for the first time with someone who turned out to be a transphobe.

I’d put a lot of time and effort into writing something I wouldn’t – didn’t – want to watch, and something I wasn’t proud of.

With eight days to go before the end of the competition, I scrapped my original ideas and started working on something else.

I pulled my logline – a young transman starts his final year of school, socialising as a boy for the first time – out of thin air and started writing something that I was interested in.

Everything that’s in the script – the wee guy being ‘outed’ in assembly; being turned down for the school football team before he even tries out; using his trans status as a way to get served in a pub – is drawn from real life examples of the kids I’d worked with and supported to come out in school.

When I read it back, I realised there was a lot of my own stuff – about masculinity, about identity, about my relationships with my family – in there, too.

It’s one of the most personal things I’ve ever written, and one of the things I’m most proud of.

One of the drawbacks of writing scripts can be how long it takes to get a project off the ground; that you can write something and it can take years before it even gets in front of the right people, if it ever does.

Real Life Experience is the little script that could. It’s done the rounds a few times, and been ‘almost there’ almost every time it’s been submitted for something. Having had my work commended by Sophie Clarke-Jervoise, Kate Rowland and Jon Plowman – whose name comes up in the credits for all of my favourite British comedies – was already a huge achievement for me.

In the interest of putting stuff out there in order to get it in front of the right person – or people – here’s the first ten pages.

I’d love to find out what you think – give me a shout if you want to read the rest!

Postscript:

Last week, I attended the first screening of High Heels Aren’t Compulsory, a film made by Lock Up Your Daughters based on a script that had initially been submitted for the Trans Comedy Award. The film was incredible, and it was really inspiring to find out where it had come from – and where it was going. The Daughters are intending to submit it to film festivals over the summer, so I hope you get to see it soon!

Michael Lee Richardson: Annual General Review 2014

5 things I wrote

  • Monster, another half hour comedy pilot, that didn’t exist until someone asked for it, and then – it did
  • A decent chunk of Blackout, another hour long drama script that I’m hoping to start sending out in 2015
  • ‘Last Night’, a short story adapted from a script I wrote for my MA (which was, incidentally, adapted from a script I wrote to get onto my MA)
  • ‘Wendy’, a short story
  • A pitching document and episode breakdown for My Mad Family, an idea I’d originally pitched at a CBBC development lab

4 things I achieved

  • My comedy script Monster was shortlisted for the BAFTA Rocliffe New Comedy Forum
  • Won the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award after having been shortlisted for the past two years – third time’s a charm!
  • The Last Will and Testament of Alistair James McKay, a short play I wrote a while ago, was part of The Progressive Playwright at the Tron Theatre – the cast were amazing, and I got a lot out of seeing it up on it’s feet (and learned a lot about actually reading something over before you submit, because there were some clangers in there!)
  • My short story ‘Last Night’ was published in Hide It, an anthology of short stories for Young Adults

3 things I did (writing)

  • Helped secure some money to run a conference for early career TV writer’s in Scotland – watch this space, it’ll be on in May!
  • Got a bursary to take part in LOCO’s Kickstart Your Comedy Career programme, and met some super cool dudes in the process
  • Expanded my horizons by having my first prose short story published, and working on comic book scripts and sketches

2 things I did (life and other stuff)

1 thing I learned

I learned a lot of things about writing in 2014 – about how I write, about the shape of stories, and about writing for a living – but I think the most important lesson I’ve had has been to pace myself.

I’ve been ill for much of the back end of 2014 – turns out, I had hepatitis – and ended up in hospital for four days in December.

I think a lot of that had to do with taking on too much work, not saying ‘no’ often enough, and trying to prove that I’m superhuman.

I think a lot of my writing suffered in 2014 from being too rushed – from being (metaphorically) written on the bus ten minutes before I went in – and from me not having the time or the focus to make sure it was as good as it could be.

That’s not who I am, as a writer or a person – I’m dependable, I’m a finisher, I want to do the best job I can.

2015 is a bit of a flagpole year. It’s the year I turn 30, and I want it to be the year some of this writing stuff starts paying off. As part of my coaching last year, I said I wanted to be the bride, not the bridesmaid, before I turn 30. I’d said I wanted a sign that I was moving in the right direction – to stop being shortlisted and start winning the opportunities I was applying for – and I’ve already had that, so I definitely feel like the start of 2015 is a good place.

5 things I want to do in 2014

  • Finish Blackout, make a start on Station Road
  • Make something funny for the internet
  • Keep revisiting my scripts and stories to make sure they’re the best they can be at that moment
  • Do something live
  • Continue my concentrated effort to get an agent