Hard at work!

As some may have noticed, we’ve been a bit quiet on the blog front. We bought another agency back in April, and have been paddling hard like the proverbial duck while attempting to look serene.

The easiest part of the process was doing the deal with my agent friend. She was great and furnished me with all sorts of information: spreadsheets of current licences, contact details, email addresses of royalty departments and so forth. Granted, the deal was on the basis that the agency couldn’t accommodate a large number of new clients – not with the level of attention we like to give.

What I’ve learned in the process:

1. Agents carry a very large amount of information in their heads. You think you’ve put everything down on paper, but it’s a whole nother thing to come along as a newcomer to this information.
2. Some people need telling twice. Some people are still trying to send money to the old agency. There will be people I have to remind more than twice, I can already tell.
3. You have to take the time it takes to establish good relationships. This applies to the new clients as well as new co-agents and publishers. It’s well worth it.
4. Change makes everyone anxious. Of course.

We’ve worked out who needs what tax forms, who’s writing what and for whom, and what money hasn’t arrived. It’s also been important to work out the new clients’ preferences in style of agenting, from the ‘professional only and don’t ask me about my new dog’, to the ‘I’d quite like an opinion on everything I’ve ever written’, to the ‘I miss old-fashioned publishing lunches and I’ll be really happy if we can linger till four in the afternoon talking about old friends and bad books’.

A few things have gone by the board lately, which we should apologise for. We haven’t been as responsive as we’d like to submissions, in particular. But everything’s now getting back onto an even keel. Still paddling hard, though.

Where is the money?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere’s been a lot of coverage this week about the ALCS’s latest survey of writers’ earnings:
http://www.alcs.co.uk/Documents/Downloads/whatarewordsworth.aspx
Nicola Solomon, Chief Executive of the Society of Authors, makes astute comments on the publishing aspects here:
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/11/traditional-publishing-fair-sustainable-society-of-authors
Briefly, in publishing, book sales have been declining over the past few years; however, as Nicola points out, publishers don’t appear to be suffering. In television, companies have had to provide new digital services with no extra funding. Other media, such as film and theatre, have suffered from austerity cuts. Who loses out? The individual, as always – the writers.
What can be done about this? For a start, it’s time for the writers’ unions and agents to examine the writer’s share of money generated by their work. In the way that poor people’s benefits have been cut, almost as a punishment during the austerity cuts, writers seem to be expected to subsidise the digital developments in the media. Second, both the Labour and Conservative governments can stop suspecting there’s money to be found in creative content if we can just make it cheaper for the consumer, or promote our culture… without spending any money on it. At this rate, we won’t have a culture.
(Meg)

What Was I Doing, Again?

I’ve been pondering (in short bursts) the effect of modern life on our concentration. When I was a kid, I’d spend a whole afternoon reading. Now, a minute seems like a long time if I’m not shifting between emails, phone calls, making notes on a contract and drafting a submission list for a new project. Looking around on the train, everyone’s checking messages and Facebook while reading short articles in the paper.
We spend a lot of time wondering how to attract someone to a book, programme or film, but it feels like an even bigger challenge to keep their attention. Does writing need to change, in response?
TV has long been viewed in relatively short periods, broken up by commercial breaks and trailers. We’re also used to thinking of it as a background to making a cup of tea, having a conversation and playing a game on our tablet. Television is the medium where the drama is slow enough to dot all the I’s and cross the T’s; lots of redundancy so we don’t miss too much. If you do, the catch-up services are good enough (and will soon be even better) that you can relax and have another look. Or, conversely, watch it in a glorious binge.
It’s harder not to be fully immersed in a film, since a screen that large is kind of hard to miss (although some people manage it – you see the annoying lit screens of their mobiles as they text).
Some books can still make me miss my stop, and I wonder if that’s what it takes now to keep someone riveted to the page: cliff-hangers, plot twists, vivid characterisation, outrageous wit – and perhaps the pacing, too, as if writing in sprints can mesh with a reader whose concentrating in sprints.
I’d hate to suggest to writers that they change their style, but perhaps it’s worth bearing this tendency in mind.DSC_0261ap (2)

13 Hour Drama

Storytelling

Kevin Spacey has suggested we might be seeing the production of 13-hour dramas, due to the change in viewing habits:

http://www.broadcastnow.co.uk/5059536.article

We ‘gorge’ on series these days, for all that the BBC reported today that most people still sit down in front of the telly and watch what’s on right now.  I was chatting to one of my clients this week, who said he felt his brain would have exploded if he couldn’t watch Breaking Bad as back-to-back episodes.

Right now, writers have to put in cliff-hangers at precise moments – just before the commercial break – to hook viewers into staying with the programme.  It’s noticeable when the plot beats come too slowly (filling time) or a twist seems manufactured.  A bit like a body wearing a wrongly-shaped corset.

This way, the story can be paced in a much more organic way – and even take the time it needs, whether it’s an hour and five minutes, or 13 hours.

But a story still needs to keep the viewer’s attention. The Victorians feared that – without a corset – a woman’s vital organs would slosh about dangerously.  In storytelling terms, we don’t want 13 hours of formless tale.  Our forebears knew it – Homer kept us going in The Odyssey. Cliff-hangers and reversals are a couple of standard devices for this, as are changes in tone or genre.

As Chris Fowler puts it, a story is like a pudding and, every little while, there should be a nice plum.  I’m looking forward to 13 hours of these storytelling rewards.

Description – the Cinderella of the writing world

Description

Editorial notes concentrate rightly on plot and characters, but description is often neglected or taken for granted.  It can add so much to a novel or script that it doesn’t deserve to be a Cinderella.

In a script, (besides denoting the action) description consists of the crucial few words you use to tell a director what mood you’re after for a scene.

In a novel, description is where the author is also the director.  Besides the obvious need to ground the characters in a time and place, there are four other functions to consider:

1.  Tone/atmosphere

Your character is shown to their room a badly-run hotel.   You can vividly show this with the unpleasant hairs in the bath-tub, the sticky patch on the carpet, the television that receives only channels in Welsh.  The tone can convey whether the character is depressed, infuriated, or amused – and the reader picks up on that, entering into the mood.

2.  Sub-text

A woman brings her emotionally cold husband a Coke with too much ice.  That’s all the author needs to say, in order to drop this clearly but inconspicuously into the reader’s head.

3.  Pauses and passage of time

A character considers how to answer their companion.  The author can drop in a bit of set dressing here, while there’s a pause, rather than clogging up the momentum with it earlier on when action needs to happen.

4.  What’s going through the character’s head

A boy’s walking down the street with his girlfriend, but the description tells us about the graffiti on the wall.  What’s going on?  Clearly he’s so blinded by love that he can hardly bear to look at her.

Description is one of the most subtle but most powerful set of tools a writer has.

Down a deep well

 

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/features/2013/daily_rituals/is_the_key_to_becoming_a_great_writer_having_a_day_job.html

MicroscopeFor a long time, I thought that all writers should be full-time.  Shame on a society whose economy doesn’t allow creative people to spend all their time on their art.

This doesn’t actually suit all writers.  Sometimes you talk to an author in the course of the day and realise they’re still in a different universe doing something else.  They call their agent on a pretext: what are their sales figures in France?  Has their book been submitted for some obscure award?  It feels like someone calling up from the bottom of a well they’ve got stuck down.  It’s dark here – is there anyone else up there?

Scriptwriters usually have it easier, working full time.  They get called into meetings.  They work on a couple of things at once.  Their script editor calls for a long conversation.  But book writers need to consider whether a job, even part-time, would keep them connected with the outside world.

I was talking to a trainee nurse once, who said she’d had a seminar on how to protect herself from the job.  That sounds like a wise thing for anyone with absorbing work.  Writers need to immerse themselves fully in the world of their story, and the characters, for it all to come alive.  But I wonder if they can get stranded in there for too long, and need some form of decompression, like a diver.

Lest I find myself in a glass house throwing stones, anyone listening to a group of agents talking about high discount clauses or turnaround provisions would say we probably need to get out more, too.

Don’t tell me what to write

 

New handbagIsn’t it lovely when your prejudices are confirmed?  Lisa Campbell’s editorial in Broadcast this week says:

“At Mip, we heard one overriding message from successful European creatives: it sounds paradoxical, but global success occurs when storytellers are encouraged to write for viewers in their own countries – and not the international marketplace.”

http://www.broadcastnow.co.uk/comment/the-editor/home-is-where-the-heart-is/5053783.article?blocktitle=THE-EDITOR&contentID=970

In other words, let’s concentrate on great stories, rather than stories that look like good candidates for co-production.  International sales follow if the story works well for a specific audience.

We’ve seen something of a renaissance of interesting foreign TV series in this country lately.  Clearly a UK audience can not just cope with, but enjoy, foreign programmes.  And ours are also enjoyed worldwide.  What these programmes have in common is that –although they’re aimed toward a home market – they’re not parochial.

It’s clear that good plots, good characters, and heartfelt writing and production, are still paramount.