Doctor Who? – Fifty Years of a Jack In A Box

Icon-TV-150It’s the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who, and the BBC is spoiling fans with special after special, culminating with The Day of The Doctor, the hotly anticipated anniversary episode. As a sometimes fan of The Doctor, I wanted to give some thought to his identity, and this seemed the perfect time to do so.

I recently saw the character of Doctor Who described as ‘C.S. Lewis meets H.G. Wells meets Father Christmas.’ But the Doctor isn’t just a heroic, time-travelling nigh-paedophile. No, Doctor Who is a monster. A monster who needs a companion to keep him human, to keep him interested; someone to spark off, to tell him how brilliant he is, a muse, someone he can impress, someone who isn’t afraid of him, someone who needs him, who adores him. Basically: A child.

He is all those things and he is also none of them. In short, whether we like to think of him that way or not, Doctor Who is our hero/anti-hero of postmodernity; a mercurial deity in our cultural pantheon. He becomes what the narrative demands, from scientist to genocidal maniac, lover to virgin. He shifts and changes as the viewers do, coaxing them out from behind the sofa, then slapping them around the head with a lonely over-sized clown shoe, while telling them they like it. No wonder he is feared. No wonder he is loved.

And the best bit of this analogy? It’s completely untrue, and also as true as it needs to be. The Doctor is a mirror; we choose to see and embrace the aspects of our favourite incarnations, we see what we want, what we need. And the opposing views of co-fans are just as true and just as relevant.

Happy birthday, Doctor Who.

10 Lessons from the London Screenwriters’ Festival 2013

Icon-Writing-150So, London Screenwriters’ Festival is over and some semblance of a new normal has emerged. It was a wonderful time, immersed in opportunity and community and I’ll be going again next year. There were some things I learnt whilst there, some of which relating to the festival itself, some of them related to writing and all of which I wish I knew ahead of time, so I’ll share them now:

  1. I won’t tease, I’ll put the most important one up front: Do everything! Seriously, don’t leave a thing out. Competitions for table reads or mentoring? It can’t hurt to try. Informal drinks ahead of time? Go! Meet everyone! Fill every slot of the festival itself, go to additional slots either side of the event, soak up as much as you can, attend every social. Meet people, drink with them, get to know them; they are your tribe, your supporters and cheerleaders.
  2. If you have a project, even if you think it’s not quite finished or sufficiently polished, Pitch It. Is it terrifying at first? Absolutely. But then it turns out you’re just spending five minutes talking to someone who wants to love your project as much as you do.  It might not go anywhere, but then you’ve lost nothing. Or it might open doors you couldn’t have imagined.
  3. Loglines. I’m probably going to do a separate post on loglines, but they’ve gone from being ‘those horrible things I’m not very good at writing, but if I have to‘ to ‘the most important thing ever‘. Seriously, do loglines for everything, polish them, practise them in front of people, writers and non-writers alike; do them for your feature, your TV serial, each episode of your serial, hell, do them for your characters, write one about yourself. Learn how to do a logline; at an event like LSF, and for the rest of your screenwriting career, you’ll need them.
  4. A word on Festival Preparation.  I did as much as I could ahead of time, so how did it all work out? Business cards: Yes! (A warning to some people: Put your damn email address on the business card!) Website branding? No. Loglines? See above. Pitch documents? Yes! Writers’ CV? Good to have, but nobody asked to see it. Script for Actor’s Table Read? Yes, dear god, don’t forget that! Printed schedule? Don’t bother, get a new one every morning from the registration desk.
  5. I am a total convert to the benefits of a Table Read. At LSF you had a director, a narrator and actors workshopping your script segment. But even if you don’t have that available to you, I absolutely recommend getting some people together to read out your dialogue. Only when you hear it out loud can you truly find your unnecessary or clunky dialogue. I read just the other day how most writers never hear their dialogue spoken out loud until they go to watch their movie. It’s too late then, get it done beforehand. Apparently next year’s LSF will have more Actor’s Table Read slots, and will also allow an audience.
  6. A word on Outlines. There was some debate as to the value of outlines, though the message often got muddied as to whether people were talking about outlines created ahead of the script to give it structure, or outlines created afterwards to describe the project in detail. You can’t get around the latter, so you may as well learn it as a skill. And the former? There were a lot of people who considered writing an outline ahead of time to be akin to The Man coming in and crushing all art and creativity out of a beautiful butterfly. Guess what? None of those people were professional screenwriters; even professionals that didn’t use them still knew their value. Determining the approximate story structure ahead of sitting down to write dialogue won’t kill the story, it is the story. You don’t have to keep to the outline, but you need an idea of what you’re departing from.
  7. I had some thoughts on Constraints when Pilar Alessandra was teaching about loglines, about how our creativity is stretched and challenged when we have less room to manoeuvre. This was only compounded by J. Blakeson in his Script to Screen of The Disappearance of Alice Creed, where he talked about writing a script that he could film in his own flat with just his credit card to finance it. It didn’t turn out that way of course, but he wrote it with the constraints in place and I do believe it helped craft such a wonderfully tight narrative. Oh, and as it turns out, J. didn’t write an outline for it.
  8. Everybody talks about Networking, and it never ceases to conjure an image of hyper-slick marketing weasels having power lunches. Well, especially at an event like LSF, it’s just a whole bunch of people having a drink or two together who all have something in common. Unlike the real world, you can talk to any of them, ask them what they’re working on, what they’ve been enjoying of the festival so far or where they’ve come from. All without prejudice or agenda or fear. We’re all in the same boat, so get to know your fellow seamen. Remember, these people are your community, your tribe. And they all want to hear your logline.
  9. Chris Jones‘ slogan, repeated often throughout the festival, constantly rings in my ears. “Opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one.” And it totally applies to this blog post too.
  10. Did you know some utter maniacs set up the London Writers’ Circle while at LSF and that you should totally come?

Link: To Those Saying The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith Tanked: Please Stop

linkThe whole world of readers, writers, publishers and book sellers is abuzz: J.K. Rowling wrote the crime novel The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, a debut writer. I’m with those think it was the act of someone who loves writing, despite never needing to write again, just wanting to write, free of the hype cycle and free of reviews of the author rather than of the work.

I even understand why she chose to write under a man’s name: There is an endemic sexism in the world of books. It’s why Harry Potter was published under the name J.K. instead of Joanne Rowling: The assumption persists that good crime, sci-fi, fantasy and horror can only be written by men, and that men and boys are reluctant to read books written by women.

But there is also a snarky narrative that Galbraith’s book tanked, selling a mere 1500 copies, pre-revelation. Sadly, those are very respectable sales for a debut writer with good reviews over a three-month timeframe. And so…

To Those Saying The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith Tanked: Please Stop


Links: Chuck Wendig on Sexism and Misogyny in Writing & Publishing

25 Things To Know About Sexism & Misogyny in Writing & Publishing

This, its initial triggers and fallout caused quite a stir in writing circles. Sometimes even for the right reasons, as Chuck speaks with truth and passion.

It was therefore followed up by:

Challenging Responses to Sexism & Misogyny

Wherein Chuck responds to his detractors. On the accusation that having solid female characters “doesn’t serve the story”, he responds:

I hate this excuse. I hate it like I hate the DMV, hemorrhoids, airline travel delays, and bad coffee. I hate it because it suggests that writers are not in control of their own stories, that they are merely conduits for some kind of divine unicorn breath, some heady Musefart that they can’t help but gassily breathe onto the page. I AM VESSEL. STORY IS LOA.

I hate it because it absolves you of ever having to change anything — whether that means changing a character’s race or sex or even just making edits to improve a story.

I hate it because it allows you to rely on lazy crutches, institutional biases, stereotypical culture patterns, and a whole lot of horrible shit-ass storytelling.

I hate it because it excuses you from making effort or taking responsibility.

Amen, Chuck.

See also: The Sexy Lamp Test.

The Anxiety of Steampunk

“Steampunk is the anxiety of empire.”

William Gibson, quoting China Mieville

steampunk legoI can’t lie, when I heard about the future existence of Steampunk Lego, my initial reaction was one of unfettered glee. I come from a background of the cyberpunk of Sterling and Gibson, the genre of the disaffected of the near future, a techno-dystopic, hard science fiction that spoke of society and the differences between the technological haves and have-nots. This then directly led to the creation of steampunk in their joint novel The Difference Engine. I loved the ‘what-if’ premise of a society that receives their technological Great Leap Forward early, and hypothesises what that looks like and what repercussions it has. I loved the aesthetics, the brass and the gears and the great engines of industry.

But over time I fell out of love with the genre, for reasons I couldn’t pin down. I began to look askance at the emerging of steampunk fashion while also enjoying the visual aesthetic and the craft involved in it. And yet I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong – at least not until I observed Jess Nevins and Warren Ellis partake in a hashtag game on Twitter, in which this contribution caused some controversy:

Seemingly innocuous, but it started me thinking; started making me realise what the issue was. There was no more ‘punk’ in steampunk. Hell, these days there was barely even any steam, but that’s an irrelevance. It had become affectation, it had become an aesthetic; it had become about middle-class white men, espousing a rose-tinted memory of Victorian ethics, who happened to be wearing top hats and welding goggles. In short, steampunk had stopped punching up and started punching down. We had allowed the genre of technological underclasses and the repressed to become, again in Jess Nevin’s words, “masturbatory techno-fetishism & glorification of imperialism“.

It set me to writing with a rage in my belly, a desire to tell a different story, a steampunk as I thought it should be, a steampunk that asked questions of the premise of the genre: Who was making all these wonderous devices, if not the poor of the workhouses? Where were the women? How was the steam-based technological boom affecting the have-nots? Where in this society were the immigrant communities that thronged the Brick Lane of Victorian London and what role did they play? Exactly how well did a steam automaton function when it was caked with the stinking night soil of an East London alley?

This project was to be called Broken Gears, a steampunk comic, a gaslit dystopia. Sadly it hasn’t yet come to pass; comics is a collaborative medium and can sometimes suffer delays because of that. But I haven’t given up on the project and I still hope it will find new life in whatever guise.

And until then, I’ll still have the dilemma, the anxiety of steampunk; I will cheer Charles Stross’s article on the matter, but also browse steampunk pocket watches on Etsy. I will start planning where to put my inevitable new Steampunk Lego, while also raging about the fact that its ‘protagonist’ is yet again a middle-class gent in a top hat. Presumably his goggles are an optional extra, available for sale separately. I will continue to admire the craft and skill that has gone into the attire of the Steampunk Aesthetes, and continually dream of what more could be done with the genre. If only it was just a little more about punk and a little less about affectation.

By Stephan Burn