Keep Swinging the Axe

Blog - tree


“It’s like chopping down a huge tree of immense girth. You won’t accomplish it with one swing of your axe. If you keep chopping away at it, though, and do not let up, eventually, whether it wants to or not, it will suddenly topple down. When that time comes, you could round up everyone you could find and pay them to hold the tree up, but they wouldn’t be able to do it. It would still come crashing to the ground. . . . But if the woodcutter stopped after one or two strokes of his axe to ask the third son of Mr. Chang, “Why doesn’t this tree fall?” And after three or four more strokes stopped again to ask the fourth son of Mr. Li, “Why doesn’t this tree fall?” he would never succeed in felling the tree. It is no different for someone who is practicing the Way.”

— Zen Master Hakuin


Enter the Demon


One of the biggest struggles I’ve experienced so far as a screenwriter is switching off to Inner Critic in the middle of a draft.

Self-awareness is essential, along with a healthy level of honest criticism. It’s the only way to produce good pages. And to completely succumb to the ‘Wild Man’ side of our creative brain – the side that is pure, unbridled creation – is both messy and directionless, and better suited for freewriting, morning pages or brainstorming an idea.

But when you’re drafting, Inner Critic is a nasty piece of work.

You know the guy, right? He’s the one who constantly berates your every clack of the keyboard, who spits on your characterization and drags your dialogue through the mud. He’s the one who tells you you’re no good, why do this, just give it all up now and save yourself years of graft and inevitable embarrassment – or, at the very least, burn everything you’ve ever written to date and start again because it’s all a big steaming pile of Tom Tit.

Yeah. That guy.

Well, for the past few months I’ve been grinding out redrafts of a feature script I’m writing with fellow System Street colleague Ian Smyth. It’s called No Hidden Extras, and it’s based on a short film of the same name we shot back in November, which is currently in postproduction.

NHE script front page

It’s a story that Ian and I truly believe in, and we think it has the potential to be made into a solid film one day – when the script is in good enough shape. The story is there, and we know the main arcs and events…it’s just the simple matter of articulating them in the best way possible. (Yeah, ‘simple’…)

Inner Critic, though, seems to have other plans from time to time.

I know that the drafting process, by definition, requires the work to be re-worked until it’s as close to right as my abilities allow. I know that each draft is only a snapshot of how the story is devleoping at that particular stage. And I know that endlessly going over the same scene or sequence because it’s not perfect is one way to ensure that a draft will never see the words FADE OUT.

And yet, thar he blows.

Inner Critic, in its most severe and stultifying manifestation, is one of the great mysteries of the creative process. Creative people want – nay, need – to create. And creation without completion is nothing more than a soundless scream. It is a flaw of the mental processes involved, then, that we can find ourselves prevented from completion by something that seems so entwined with our creative desires. Wild Man and Inner Critic; Yin and Yang; Joker and Batman.

You complete me.

I have gotten over the wrath of Inner Critic several times already, having written a few short- and feature-length scripts so far. But my experience is not yet enough to have banished him totally from my working practice. Who’s to say he will ever really be gone?

I often say (only half-jokingly) that I can’t speak about a project too loudly, just in case the noise scares away my shy little muse. Maybe if I keep talking about Inner Critic, if I shout his name and shame him to anyone who will listen, he will go forth and be gone – at least for the time being.

If he does, I’m sure he’ll be back.

Get it read, get it right, get it written



When the postman stops at my door, it’s usually to deliver bills or junk mail. Today, however, I opened a parcel containing two very promising books: The Art of Script Editing by Karol Griffiths, and Reading Screenplays: How To Analyse & Evaluate Film Scripts by Lucy Scher.

Beats a damn bank statement any day. And the nuggets of knowledge they contain are likely to be worth more than the cover price for those who are going it alone.

One of the apparent downfalls of not taking a postgraduate course in screenwriting is the lack of immersion in your chosen craft. (Note that word, ‘apparent’.) Access to lecturers is shunned; the regularity of face-to-face interaction with fellow creatives is greatly reduced; and knowledge – that magical word that is commonly known to dispel fear – is a little more difficult to come by. Not to mention the self-discipline required to push on when there’s nobody around to actively encourage you during the tough times.

Today’s world is a lot different than it used to be, however. Now there are groups like Tuesday Night Writes, run by the spiffing Janine H. Jones both online and via weekly meetings in Cardiff Bay. And with the ever-growing availability of knowledge that is either free or a damn sight cheaper than current postgraduate fees, indulging in constant study is easier now than it ever has been – with or without uni. (No Bono impressions here, thank you.)

Of course, it is far from being all about the money.

I have read a fair number of screenplays, even analytically and with a view to providing my own evaluation of them. But as an autodidact there’s always that monkey whispering: “What if you’re doing it wrong?”

Well, thanks to books like these I can get a better idea of the tree up which I’m barking. They will take their place on my shelf alongside the books of John Yorke, Christopher Booker, and Linda Aronson to name a few, and I will doubtlessly dog-ear their pages for years to come.

Knowledge dispels fear. Without the right kind of mindset, that fear can drive some to spend thousands of pounds on an education that you could have got for a few quid in late fees from the local library (to paraphrase Will Hunting). At worst, it’ll cost you a fraction of your monthly wage and as much time as you’re willing to sacrifice – which, if you truly love your craft, will be as much time as you have to spare (and a little more on top).

With or without uni, professional writers put themselves out there, do the research, read the right material and get their pages down. There is simply no substitute for getting it read and getting it written.

Do that enough times and you might even get it right.