Things I Learnt This Weekend – Southern Script Festival 2011

I can now tick Bournemouth off my ‘Places to see in the UK’ list.

For those of you who don’t know, this weekend just gone was the Southern Script Festival (SSF) in Bournemouth. It was the very first one this year, held at Bournemouth Uni (famous for it’s screenwriting course, among other things) and organised by the students there – which is no mean feat. Considering they had a fair whack of people show up, a free lunch buffet and four rooms to co-ordinate each session between, everyone did a fantastic job. I certainly didn’t feel a hitch in the proceedings so if anything did go catastrophically wrong, they hid it well.

Having met a few students from Bournemouth Uni at the London Screenwriters’ Festival last year and managing to keep in touch via email and the wonderous nature of Twitter, I decided that I’d head down (or is it up?) – the wonderfully cheap price making it an easy sell. It was a fantastic weekend and the weather was gorgeous – I even managed a stroll along the beach after the Festival finished on Saturday!

As I Tweeted throughout the event, I was asked to put together a blog about the top ten things I learnt at the Festival.

So, without any further ado:

Top Ten Things I Learnt At The Southern Script Festival This Weekend
(in no particular order)

1. Networking is key.
Networking can be a fearsome beast. It does take awhile to really get into the swing of things properly. I had a huge crash course in introducing myself to strangers (some may say ‘butting in’) at the London Screenwriters’ Festival because I only really knew people from my Twitter family but not in real life. The amount of people I spoke to at SSF who didn’t have business cards or stuck amongst the group of people they knew without branching out was quite high. Most of the industry people I spoke to had business cards, which I swapped for mine but I gave away all of mine over the course of the weekend. I didn’t get as many back as I gave away. It’ll be interesting to see if I actually get any emails from those people or whether my cards gather dust in their bottom drawers.

And never be afraid to ask someone for something. The worst they can say is no and then you’re left exactly where you were but you know not to ask them again. The best they can say is yes and then you’re off and racing. But you never know until you ask!

2. Lucy Hay knows her shit.
(I did kind of know this anyway, but shhh.)

I feel somewhat cheated because the schedule got swapped around on Sunday and so Lucy’s session and Chris Jones’ session clashed. I was torn, but opted to go to Lucy’s session on script-reading and spec scripts – mostly because I’m planning to head to Chris Jones’ Guerilla Film Makers Masterclass in June (tickets are ¬£60 until the end of the week – go go go!) and I know it’ll be just as (if not slightly more than) amazing as his session – and I’m a huge fan of Lucy’s Blog. I’m really glad I went, because it was EXACTLY what I wish I’d been taught about writing when I went to university. It wasn’t even anything too radical or outlandish – it was almost pointing out the obvious, but sometimes you can’t see the obvious when it’s right in front of your face.

Lucy talked about the hive mind of writers – how similar scripts can get written at the same time for no particular reason (one year there was an influx of witch burning scripts, for instance) or sometimes they’re triggered by current events (she’s expecting a heap of natural disasters in the next few years because of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan). Most valuable for me, she talked about the most common scenes or moments that turn up in scripts that she reads. I have to say, I was guilty of a few of them but now that I’m aware of them, I can look at them more critically and decide whether they actually lend themselves to the story or whether they’re just there for the sake of it.

3. Collaborations and co-writing can be wicked.
The good kind of wicked. I went to a fabulous session with the wonderful Tim Clague, who I’d met last year at the Screenwriters’ Festival who talked about working with other writers to punch out a lot of ideas. He gave us a concept and told us to come up with a collection of ideas for a sketch show. I’m going to throw it out there and say that a lot of the ones that our group came up with we were pretty happy with and we found that often someone would suggest one idea and that would spark an idea in someone else’s head. With other writers or filmmakers, you can work faster and keep each other focused on the task at hand – as Tim pointed out, no-one had gotten bored and wanted to check their Twitter or Facebook halfway through brainstorming.

4. Trust your instincts and don’t sell yourself short.
This wasn’t any particular session but definitely something I needed to remember. Stuck in a slightly precarious position with a producer I’d been working with, I thought I’d ask a few people who produced professionally and had had a heap of their work produced their opinions on my situation. They were fantastic and gave me really great, genuine advice and reminded me that the most important thing in this industry when you’re starting out is to protect yourself. Not in the way of having your work stolen from you (Lucy pointed out that in her ten years of script-reading, she’d never heard of a credible case of a producer stealing a writer’s script), but just ensuring that the producer is going to do right by you as a writer – especially when there’s little or no money involved. Get the producer to sign a document agreed on by the two of you that says if the producer doesn’t do anything with your script in a year/two years/whenever, it comes back to you and belongs to you once again. What it boiled down to for me, though, was the fact that more often than not people want to encourage up and coming writers and if something doesn’t feel right, something probably isn’t. Trust your instincts and do what you have to to protect yourself in that situation.

5. Don’t be obsessed with perfection.
Writing is a messy business. For me, it is, anyway. It’s about finding the common thread in the mess and putting it together to make it neat and tidy and make sense. The wonderful thing about writing is that there are such things as rewrites. I know so many writers hate rewriting – I don’t. I love re-writing (but I’m weird, I love getting constructive feedback as well [I don’t mean ‘That was really good. I liked reading it. Hey, wanna go out and see Rango later?’ but real feedback]). For me, I’m all about getting the best story possible and if that means I have to do fifteen rewrites, then I’ll do fifteen rewrites. But a lot of people get nervous by the blank page because they feel as though once it’s written, it’s final.

It’s not final. Remember that. Everything can be changed until the film is up on the cinema screen. You’re allowed to change your story if something isn’t working – it doesn’t have to be perfect the first time around.

6. Rules are your friend.
Each genre has certain rules and conventions that are expected of it. I’ve spoken a little about these before but in a romantic comedy you expect the happily ever after, in a horror you expect most of the characters to die. These are ingrained into the audience so use them to your advantage. Lull them into a false sense of security that they think they know where they’re going and then surprise them. But the key is to know the rules before you can use them as tools. Lucy (yeah, I keep going on about her, but I wouldn’t if she was rubbish) put it this way –

When a builder builds a house, he doesn’t stand there and say ‘I’m going to put this together however I want.’ He builds the foundation of the house and from then he adds in all the other bits and pieces he needs (kitchen, bathroom, bedroom) and some of the things he wants (basement, garage, swimming pool). Writers should think no differently. Every genre has conventions that are the foundations of the genre and you need to know those as writers.

I’m paraphrasing, but that was the general gist. Once you put in everything the genre needs, you can start adding the other parts you want – as long as they fit. A builder isn’t going to put a cash register in a residential house – neither should you write a serial killer into a romantic comedy – unless you’ve already built the basement with all the various tools and industrial strength bleach in the corner.

7. Endings are about choices.
Coming off the back of my previous post about endings in short films (part II coming up soon), The Writer’s Avenue held a session about writing for theatre – although there’s obviously a lot of overlap between theatre and film. The most important thing I took away from this fabulous session was that the ending of your script – be it theatre or film – is about the character having to make a choice between two high risk situations. This point, for me, was great. I’m working on a romantic comedy script at the moment and I’ve been worried that my ending is still embedded in clich√©. Realising this fact meant that I had to really look at the choice that my character makes to break the two of them up so that it really feels final.

8. How to beat writer’s block.
I’ve been pretty lucky when it comes to writer’s block – I usually force my way through it to write something (because even if it’s no good, it’s still words and it’s not final and I know I can rewrite it. Plus, the core idea of what I’m writing might be good enough to salvage and use again) – but John Foster spoke about ways he knew of to get around writer’s block. One way was freewriting. I’d only heard of this relatively recently and it’s basically ten minutes of stream of consciousness, non-stop writing. Even if you get stuck, write that over and over and over until another thought forces its way in. You can have a topic or you can write whatever you want. But it works as the equivalent of warming up before a running race – it gets the cogs turning and the brain kicking into gear.

9. Having an awareness of production can help you as a writer.
It’s weird, this had always kind of been my plan. Even before I knew I wanted to be a writer, I knew I wanted to write but I was realistic in that I knew it was very difficult to make a living out of it. So I figured I’d get into production, build up relationships with directors and producers and offer to write things for them. This being my plan of attack when I was 16 years old. Mind you, it’s working out pretty well for me so far – I went to uni and studied film and television production and have been working in it ever since. And since I’ve got to London, the friends I’ve made over here (ranging from producers to directors) have started asking me to write scripts or work on ideas for them. Knowing how much things will cost and being really familiar with post-production because of my editing skills is a definite advantage to writing something low-budget friendly and feasible.

10. Nicholas Cage never dies.
I swear, between Charlie and I, we tried to kill off Nicholas Cage – first with John Travolta shooting him in the head and then crashing the bus, but he’s like a cockroach – he never dies. Someone was always eager to revive him. But it’s okay, because Henry and Brian Cox watched the Earth be sucked into a black hole, before Joe mercifully ended it all by fading to black.

Make no sense? Doesn’t really to me either and I helped write the thing. It was an attempt at a collaborative scripting session, with every writer adding a line of the script. But under pressure we’re not entirely original so we ended up with Nicholas Cage, John Travolta, Dennis Hopper and a few others starring. Either way, it was a fun way to round off the Festival.

11. Bournemouth Uni hoodies are really warm.
Yeah, I bought one. But at least I’m more original than the people who come back from London with an Oxford Uni jumper having never actually set foot in the university.

At any rate, I technically studied writing at Bournemouth Uni this weekend and now I have the jumper to prove it:


Southern Script Festival
London Screenwriters’ Festival

Lucy Hay’s Blog – if you want to write – READ IT.
Follow Lucy on Twitter
Join Lucy’s Bang2writers on Facebook

Living Spirit Pictures – Chris Jones
Chris Jones’ Film Workshop – if you want to make films – GO TO IT.
Follow Chris on Twitter

Tim Clague’s Blog
UK Scriptwriters – Podcasts with Tim Clague and Danny Stack

The Writer’s Avenue

3 thoughts on “Things I Learnt This Weekend – Southern Script Festival 2011

  1. Sammy J says:

    Although this has been chucked around all over the place by kind people, I felt I’d prove this blog is useful by saying it is in the comments.

    Good stuff!

  2. Alli Parker says:

    Thanks for the comments, guys, I’m glad someone can find it of some use.

    And I have no opinion on which university is better. All I know is Bournemouth Uni had bright purple hoodies and sunshine. So far, it’s winning…

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