From time to time, I hear writers declare their love for animation because, in animation, you can just write anything. You’re not limited by what you can shoot in physical locations so it is no more expensive to write in a trip to Jupiter than it is to write a trip to the supermarket. Budget just isn’t an issue.
This is not true.
Budget very much is an issue. Animation is time-consuming and costly and the bottom line is that you have to write something that people can actually produce. And in this case the supermarket could be more expensive than the trip to Jupiter due to having to draw all those items on the shelves and animate customers, staff and so on. More characters on screen means more expensive. New characters means new designs (often new rigs and setups) which is also more expensive. Same with new locations.
What you write has to be produceable. More often than not, it has to work within a tight budget. So unfortunately you can’t write anything and expect it to be produced. You have to keep budget in mind. This is the reality.
The trick then becomes not letting this reality cripple your writing.
Sometimes we get notes back on a script and it is so clear that the writer of the notes was not really paying attention. They were checking their emails, on a phone call, reading twitter all while making notes on our script and they missed that one really important scene that explained the bit they said made no sense.
Doesn’t seem fair, does it?
Well, that’s often how kids watch TV. They’re shuffling around, playing with toys, stabbing their sibling with a Peppa figure, being called in for lunch for the hundredth time. What they are not always doing is paying attention.
So as unfair as it may seem, sometimes that distracted exec is actually a good gauge of how clear our story will really be to our audience. Given we can’t possibly control a child’s environment, is it our problem if kids aren’t paying attention? Of course it is.
So what do we do about it?
The first thing is to make your content as engaging as possible. There are many ways of doing this and many tips already on this blog and more to come.
The second, and really the subject of this particular post, is for us to accept that, no matter how awesome our content is, there may be times children aren’t paying attention. So compensate for that.
Make all goals clear. Several times.
Run your core ideas through the entire story.
Recap. Several times if possible.
Save your story message for the last scene.
State an important line with other action happening that may distract.
Fear repetition. Young kids enjoy repetition.
So make it easy to keep up. Approach your little 7-minute story like it is a 39-episode series with an essential story arc. What happens if your audience misses episodes 25-27? What happens if someone joins the show mid-season? Give kids an in-point to your episode in several places and never forget this: the one part they miss could be your ending.
A message to the people just starting out in this whole making content business – the wannabe writers, directors, designers, creators. Don’t be a wannabe anything. Just be it. Go on, change that twitter profile and remove the ‘wannabe’. Whatever it is you wanted to be, you are now it.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could make a show or app that appeals to absolutely everyone? One that appeals to all broadcasters? All distributors, publishers and everyone involved in making things a success? One that every single kid everywhere just loves?
It’s probably not going to happen.
Why? Because people love different things. You want people to have strong feelings – they have to have strong feelings in order to get excited about what you’re doing. But the thing about strong feelings is that, for everyone who really loves an aspect of what you’re doing, someone else will likely have strong feelings in the whole opposite direction.
A simple example from my own history is how Fluffy Gardens excited a few key broadcasters on little more than the look and yet one broadcaster didn’t want it because they didn’t like characters with big eyes. It was that simple.
Now if you aim to please everyone, to have your show be all things to all people, the solution is to reduce the size of the eyes for that broadcaster. Now you have affected the look, the one thing that had some people excited in the first place.
And this is the problem in a nutshell: in aiming to please everyone, it quickly becomes about easing dislikes rather than enhancing likes and loves. You shave off the edges that may put off individuals until you have something that, sure, nobody really dislikes but nobody loves any more either.
Instead, accept that not everyone will like what you are doing. Focus on those who will like it. And then improve it until they love it. Those people will be your champions. They will make things happen.
No show, no book, no app can be everything to everyone. And attempting that risks losing those who really matter to you.
Expectations play a huge role in any story. It is not as simple as having high or low expectations. Personally, I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t expect a good story and if a film, show or game is entertaining, we will rarely come away disappointed just because we expected something pretty good.
Where expectations become a problem is in those situations where we expected something entirely different to what we got.
For example, if I told you we were going to watch a film with Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey and you started to look forward to a light, quirky romcom then you would likely come away pretty annoyed when it turns out the movie we watch is Texas Chainsaw Massacre The Next Generation, right? You would a very hard time accepting the movie for what it is because there is a huge disconnect between that and what you were expecting.
If I told you in advance we were going to watch a schlocky horror sequel, you would likely have a better time.
The same is true within the stories themselves and, yes, within children’s stories. Sure, we like twists and turns and surprises but if something in your intro has us looking forward to something that is ignored or forgotten about later on, we will likely be disappointed. It’s Chekhov’s gun: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” (side note to preschool writers: avoid stories about loaded rifles).
So if you’ve got a kids’ story that opens with news that the circus is coming to town, make sure you get to the circus and make that moment as fun as you possibly can. Don’t just make it a throwaway epilogue. Really milk it. Let kids enjoy it because that’s what you told them to expect. Pay off what you set up. Make sure that where the story goes is at least as entertaining as the promise you made when you introduced the ideas.
My advice? When you finish a draft, revisit the opening. If it looks like the story was going somewhere entirely different, change it to reflect where you actually ended up. Don’t ever leave kids hanging, waiting for something that just isn’t going to happen.
Let them know what to expect and then pay that off in the most entertaining way possible.
We have all been told something we’re doing won’t work. For example, years ago we were told by a good broadcaster that Fluffy Gardens wouldn’t work. Broadcasters wouldn’t buy it, kids wouldn’t watch it.
Fluffy Gardens sold. Kids loved it.
Being turned down and told that concepts won’t work is an industry cliché. Every success, small or huge, comes with story after story of people rejecting the idea or saying it will never work.
So when it is your concept they’re saying this about, what do you do?
Well, firstly listen to any criticism. Really think about it and its relevance to your project. If amending something could improve your project and make it a better version of what it is, then do that. Don’t do it because you’re expecting anyone to change their mind. That’s the wrong reason and almost never happens. Don’t do it because they know more than you. Do it if you truly believe your project will be improved. Always strive to make your project better.
Evaluate your pitch and materials. Are you showing your project in the best possible way? If not, learn from that and improve your presentation.
Then accept that the project is not right for that person. That doesn’t mean there’s something fundamentally wrong with your project and it certainly doesn’t mean there is something wrong with that person. We all have different experiences and that person may have tried something similar in the past and it may not have worked for them. Or there may be other quite good reasons why they don’t want what you’re selling and they aren’t going to go into those reasons with you. All it means is that the project is not right for them.
Move on. Quickly. And look for someone who it is right for.
Don’t ever let the negativity drag you down. Don’t completely shut it out either, because you might pick up something useful from the criticism. But don’t let it beat you. Don’t let it stop you. Keep going. Make it better, pitch it better and get it in front of the people who will love it.
Eventually, you’ll be telling your very own story about those people who told you it would never work.
Publishers often like children’s books to be short. So do parents, who invariably end up reading them before bedtime. When my girls were younger, I often improvised abridged versions of long stories, aiming to shorten them without my girls noticing.
So shorter is better, right?
Well, I don’t know. You see, I also ended up reading 2-3 stories, depending on length. And if a book is fun to read, I find I have no desire to create my own abridged version. It turns out that the reason I try to shorten books is not because I don’t want to spend the time reading. It’s because I don’t want to spend the time reading that particular book.
It’s rarely a length issue. It’s quality.
I can’t tell you that you’ll win any arguments with publishers. But I can tell you as a parent that, if your book is fun to read, length isn’t all that much of a concern.
As a last little note on this, I should point out that the books I will most often skip are those books where I find myself stumbling over words. Those are a sure sign the writer wasn’t writing out loud.
Memento was a great movie, wasn’t it? And who didn’t love Godfather Part 2? But we don’t jump around chronologically like that in preschool. There is a very good reason most of the top preschool shows take place in real time, hardly ever even moving on to tomorrow, never mind shifting backwards to yesterday. If 24 had been a preschool show, nobody would have noticed what was different about it.
Generally in preschool, it’s good to stay in the present. Right now. In real time.
Young children don’t always have a clear sense of time. And the younger they are, the harder it is for them to understand. Children live in the moment. They live now. Yes, some actually have surprisingly great memories (like my eldest daughter) but it can be hard to process any true sense of when something really happened. A child might say “yesterday” and that could mean yesterday, last week, last year or five minutes ago. And without truly understanding how the past works, it’s incredibly difficult to really grasp the idea of time in the future.
Back in the early Fluffy Gardens episodes, I made the mistake of writing in too many ‘next day’ transitions. Rookie mistake. Much later with Planet Cosmo, it all takes in real time except for a single story which revolves around bedtime and so required one night-to-morning switch. Making it work took a lot of thought and, even then, I suspect I only managed to get across what was key to the story (bedtime) rather than fully getting across that passage of time, at least with the younger children.
It is okay to do that. You can tell stories like that as long as you know why it is you’re doing it, understand what elements are important to your story and make it absolutely clear, with the understanding that young children are not going to have that same sense of time passing that you do. But unless you really have to, I would always advise staying in the present. Stick to real time. It’s much easier for a preschool audience to grasp and they will be with your characters every moment of your episode.
But that was before just about every piece of knowledge from the entire planet decided to plonk itself right in front of us as we work. And even without that, think about those times you are buried in your work and someone interrupts to tell you something that, actually, has no real relevance to anything you are doing or are ever going to do. That knowledge is not power. It is distraction.
The truth is, there is more in the world than we could ever learn in a hundred lifetimes. We can amass knowledge. Everyone can. In a way, that has completely levelled many playing fields. Knowledge is not power any more. Not on its own.
Action is power – that comes from having drive rather than lots of knowledge. Relevant knowledge is power when applied – relevance and a sense of what is actually important comes from experience rather than just information-gathering. Above all, focus is power. And focus, by its very nature, means shutting some things out because you just don’t have the time or energy for them. Oh, I’m not anti-learning. Not by a long shot and anyone who reads this little blog would know that very well. I feel we should learn about the world and beyond our world, grow, test and challenge ideas. But when we are working, actually immersed in projects, we need focus.
And as it happens, it seems that focus is much harder to achieve these days than finding knowledge.
So in those situations, consider filtering just what information gets in. My rule of thumb: if the information is something I can’t take any action on, I don’t need it.
We had a great day on Saturday talking through writing and developing for preschool media. For the most part, we stayed with the needs of the audience and how best to focus and present the creative in engaging ways. But any work comes with systems that must be dealt with on top of all the fun creative and dealing with notes is part of almost any process. We touched on this a little on Saturday but I felt it worth expanding on here. It’s fantastic to get notes about how awesome our work is but, when we aren’t used to them, more critical notes can sometimes feel like a kick in the gut.
They can feel rotten and can be hard to take when we are so close to our work. That’s the truth of it.
So knowing that, here are my top tips for handling notes you don’t particularly like:
1. Don’t react instantly.
Read the notes. Then do nothing. Don’t send a mail, don’t pick up the phone and don’t tear your work apart. Do nothing. Instead, leave them and revisit them the next day. They’ll look different and you have now had time to process them even if you weren’t considering them directly. Sure, there may be some notes in there you still don’t like but the knee-jerk reaction is gone and you will be better able to consider them for what they really are.
2. Remember they are not out to get you.
People write notes to contribute. And you know what? Most do contribute. If there are notes that you vehemently disagree with, remind yourself that the person who wrote the notes is not your enemy. They want to help and their intentions are good. I could have done with someone reminding me this early in my career.
3. Really consider them.
This is so important. You might read something in the notes that doesn’t match with your initial thinking or they may be phrased poorly or even (the odd time) read as offensive but is it possible that the point behind the note might actually make your story better? Or is it possible that you might be able to implement them in some way that would produce, for you, a neutral result – so that you give on the note without feeling like you have lost what you were aiming for? If so, do it. Most of the time, even a note we see as rotten has a very valid point behind it. It’s a sign something hasn’t worked. The truth is, it is the critical notes that have value.
4. Choose your battles carefully.
Eventually you will find a note that, to you, defeats the whole purpose of what you wrote. One that would make you feel terrible if you went with it. You need to save your credits for that one. Don’t waste them on the little things, those things that don’t really matter. Don’t get into the habit of rejecting notes – it will wear you and everyone else down. Save the credits.
5. Those battles? They can’t be battles.
If it becomes a confrontational situation, everyone loses. You win by keeping people happy, acknowledging that something hasn’t quite worked and looking for solutions that are positive for everyone. Keep control, get the results you want while making sure everyone is okay with that. Be positive and stay constructive, not destructive.
And the most important tip of all when you have notes arriving in…
6. Cut off your email.
Don’t check project emails in the evening or weekend. Give yourself a cut-off and stick to it. I would even advise picking a time early Friday afternoon or lunchtime and cutting it off from then. Because someone might send a note on a Friday just as they are walking out of the office, like dropping a little nuclear bomb on your weekend. And you can’t do a thing about it until Monday morning. So let it wait until Monday. Don’t have it on your mind all weekend. You need your weekends, you need your evenings and you need your sleep. So be selective about when you open yourself up to mails.
So those are my top tips for handing those notes we don’t agree with instantly.
I will leave you with just one other thing to consider. I so often preach the value of Audience Awareness – knowing who it is we write for and keeping our audience in mind at all times. One of the wonderful by-products of embracing Audience Awareness is that it can take ego out of the equation. It becomes all about the kids and not in any way about you. When that happens, it stops being personal and you can really see that notes are not about being critical of you or what you can do, but are about seeing if a whole team can give something even better to children.