A Writer’s Quest: Crystallising Goals

01st September 2017

Yesterday marked the end of my 30th birthday month. Milestone birthdays often force us to look at ourselves—at our successes and failures, at what we’ve achieved and hope to achieve in the future. The lucky ones face such introspection by default with a surge of optimism; for others, myself included, there is the obligatory fog of despair through which one has to pass, a fog replete with the ghosts of missed opportunities and the sad howl of all that is surely lost. I know that fog. I’ve passed through it many times, often alone and to the sound of a favourite album or movie. This time, I was helped along by a book.

A few days ago, I was deep in the fog and desperate for a beacon of light. I browsed Amazon for a book or movie to buy and the browser suggested The Happiness of Pursuit, by Chris Guillebeau. It’s not the kind of book I usually read, but the subject matter is something I strongly believe in, so I gave it a shot.

In a nutshell, The Happiness of Pursuit is about the significance of the personal quest, and its power to create within us a sense of happiness, purpose and inner peace. This is something I instinctively knew before reading Guillebeau’s book, and it was something I knew was missing from my life. Or, to be more specific, it was something which I didn’t realise I already had. Reading the stories of people pursuing their own quests was exactly the jolt I needed to crystallise the goals I was already working on in pursuit of my own quest.

But what was that quest? And, more importantly, what is a quest?

According to Guillebeau, a quest should be an unambiguous objective that has a clear end-goal and criteria that are measurable in order to chart your progress. It should also be challenging and carry with it an element of sacrifice for the person undertaking the quest. What underpins all of this is the feeling that this quest has to be done, no matter what. Family and friends may not always understand what it is you’re doing, but that’s fine. As long as you, and whoever you may be questing with, keeps their eyes on the prize, that’s all that matters.

This is where my ‘quest’ comes into play.

A little over three years ago, I made a pact with Ian Smyth—my friend and closest collaborator—that we would make a feature film together. We were already making short films here and there, but this was our Everest: to get a DVD on the shelves and in distribution, that we made together, as a 50/50 venture. It didn’t take us long to come up with our core theme, and within a few weeks we had the first draft of the screenplay. Of course, that draft was dogshit, but we had made a start on our quest.

The problem was, however, that there was no focus to the task overall. At least from me there wasn’t. It was always just “something we’d do one day”, or a cool story to tell my friends from time to time. Yes, life got busy over the course of those three years, but that’s by the by. If a quest is solidly established in one’s mind, nothing gets in the way. And you don’t even have to hurt anyone in the process; it’s about focus, not fallout.

Around halfway through Guillebeau’s book, I came across a quote from a musician called Stephen Kellogg which resonated strongly with me:

“I’ve just grown from a boy with an inclination into a man with a focus. It all started with a dream, but then I followed that dream. Following the dream made all the difference.”

Hearing someone else describe my own position was highly refreshing. It helped to shine a light on my current self, thereby dragging me out of the fog. Here I am, a thirty-year-old man with the focus to follow the dreams of a boy (or a much younger man, in my case). And that dream has to be pursued; I can’t passively wait for it to happen to me. Not anymore.

So that’s where I am now. I’m clear of my hectic, hedonistic and relatively directionless third decade, and it’s time to crystallise my goals as I pursue my quests.

The Quest(s)

As an aspiring writer of dramatic narratives, there are two clear quests which I have set for myself. The first, as touched on above, is to make a feature-length movie of No Hidden Extras. The end-goal is to see the DVD on a shelf, and to have it distributed for sale to the general public. It’s a task that Ian and I have already committed a lot of work to, and as such this will be my primary goal.

The second quest is one that’s more personal to me alone: to write a full-length stage play. The end-goal will be opening night of the play in a full theatrical production, and it will complete my validation as a writer in my chosen field. Although I have a clear idea of what the project will be, I am far less familiar with playwriting than I am with screenwriting. This is therefore a newer, rawer project, which makes it both exciting and daunting in equal measures.

Today is Friday the first of September. In order to measure my progress and maintain focus, I will post one blog post every Friday. This blog will measure where I am at that point, state what I achieved in the previous week, what I hope to achieve in the following week, and any other thoughts, experiences or lessons learned along the way. I can post more than one a week, but this is the absolute minimum, to be done every Friday.

Therein lies my challenge.

There and Back Again: The London Screenwriters’ Festival

The word ‘hiatus’ has been on my mind lately.

It’s been 7 months since my last blog post, where I shared a few words about the art of perseverance (or, how to stop worrying about how big the tree is and keep swinging that axe).

It’s also been 3 years since I last attended the London Screenwriters’ Festival.

lsf-logo

A lot has happened in those time frames. Since my last post, I became a father for the first time. A year before that I bought my first house. Go a little further back and you’ll find me burrowing into the Welsh independent filmmaking scene, where I have been active ever since.

With the arrival of my perfect little daughter five months ago, the selfish writer in me wondered whether I would ever hear and feel the buzz of the Festival again, like I did in 2012 and ’13.

I do have the Welsh scene, which continues to astound me with its depth of talent and boundless potential. There are still mountains to climb there, as my creative relationships continue to flourish and projects roll ahead.

There’s just something about London.

Swarms of hopeful writers rubbing shoulders with industry professionals; the absence of comfort zones; the heady sound of dreams being fuelled, doubts being validated, and stories being exchanged. Throw in the opportunities to pitch your ideas, analyse scripts, conduct table reads and lock yourself in an elevator with a Hollywood exec, and it’s quite an experience.

Only I did none of that when I attended.

I didn’t pitch; I didn’t sign up to a table read or a script lab; and I avoided the infamous ‘Elevator Pitch’ like leprosy. I did network, and I met some wonderful people who I remain in contact with; my first Festival led, through several degrees of separation, to meeting the group of filmmakers who I work with to this day.

However, my networking was limited by the same thing that prevented me from putting myself and my work out there:

Fear. Of rejection; of humiliation; of finding out that I’m hopelessly wasting my precious time.

These fears are real, and they will remain unchallenged unless I face them. At least by sharing my work with more people I’ll get an idea of how to improve. And if I’m to take the craft of screenwriting seriously, as it deserves, then that’s got to be worth the investment.

Time poverty, fiscal restraints, and a comfortable creative niche in my own country were, I felt, all valid reasons not to make the annual pilgrimage to London. These reasons still exist. But so too does my love for screenwriting, and my desire to overcome my fears and personal flaws.

Now, three years older and three years more experienced, I feel better placed to capitalise on everything the London Screenwriters’ Festival has to offer. Life is passing by at quite a rate. If I’m not careful it’ll take all of its best opportunities along with it.

And that’s precisely why I’ll be going next year.

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.