I normally only post on a Wednesday so this might upset the entire fabric of the space-time continuum but, in advance of heading to the Children’s Media Conference, I thought I’d get in a little update on me and Mooshku. Why? Because I don’t often talk about my current work here and it’s no harm to remind you about what it is that I do.
So what have I been up to? And Méabh? And all of us at Mooshku generally?
Mooshku have been consulting on 3 lovely early stage children’s properties for third party companies. That entails evaluating existing content, focussing it for the right audience and also broadcasters and partners and putting it together to make a really strong pitch for a really strong concept. That has included writing concept documents, show bibles, storylines and also sample scripts. Simply put, we have been making lovely ideas even lovelier!
We created, wrote and produced Trufax Tot Cop for the Nickelodeon shorts programme, just one of four international companies selected. It is absolutely KILLING ME that I haven’t been able to show this yet or say more about it. There are very good reasons why I can’t but I’m so eager to show it to you.
We produced animation for a live science show for the Edinburgh Fringe last year and, around this time last year at Mooshku, we were just finishing production on a pixel art music video for GUNSHIP. You probably know I love my pixel art.
And we have been developing our new IP and producing some new animation samples to show them off. They are really pretty and fun and we’ll be bringing them along to the CMC next week. We’ll post some online soon too, I promise! In the meantime, some pictures:
Sticking with our Mooshku mission of collaboration, Méabh produced the live-action for the 52 episodes of Little Roy for our wonderful friends at JAM Media. And Méabh is currently producing The Overcoat for the talented guys at Giant Animation, featuring the voice talents of Cillian Murphy and Alfred Molina.
And on top of all this, I have been doing a huge amount of writing. Over the last 18 months or so, I have written…
5 episodes of the upcoming Wild Adventures of Blinky Bill for Flying Bark in Australia.
4 episodes of a lovely new show I can’t yet name for Submarine in the Netherlands.
2 Gråtass live-action theatrical children’s feature films for Cinenord in Norway.
More than 10 scripts for top secret early development projects for Ireland and the UK (early development for 3rd party companies is a lot of what we do in Mooshku).
And I have been writing the full 20 episodes of the new Karsten Og Petra series and a Karsten Og Petra feature film, also for Cinenord. This is one that is particularly dear to my heart. This series is so lovely. If you haven’t seen anything from it yet, you should look it up. It is preschool perfection (I can’t take credit for that – it was perfection even before I got involved!).
And I’m working on something lovely for Karrot (of Sarah & Duck) and a nice new show I can’t yet mention but will be a lot of fun.
That post turned out even longer than I expected. We’ve been busy! Really, we’ve been doing what we love to do: make really great stuff for kids. We have our mission to bring kids something really good and we’re strong on that. And we also love collaboration and working with others. We don’t see competition – we see a community. So far, that ethos is working wonderfully for Mooshku.
So that’s the update. If you’re at the CMC, do say hello! It will be lovely to catch up with old friends and meet some new ones too.
As you work through the early stages of a concept, show or story, you’re really gathering information. You get to know your characters, how they work together and how they interact with other secondary characters. You know what you want to say with their interactions, thinking about the many important themes. You know how the environment works in your stories with each location providing so many scene ideas. You know the history, why everyone is the way they are, and where they might go from here.
This is great – you’re getting know the world of your story really well.
And it’s like you’re standing in one of those ball pits, only it’s the size of a large swimming pool. It is your job to take all those balls and stack them together in a really pleasing shape the size of a small cardboard box. With a hole at the bottom.
This is what it’s like crafting a story. All that information is helpful and often important. But it can be crippling too. It can be so hard to know where to start. When you do finally start, it can quickly become a total mess as the sides of your box split and balls roll everywhere and you can’t keep track of which is which.
So what do you do?
My method is to leave all those balls behind. Do the work, find the characters and the ideas and all that important information. Maybe put them in a document as you work through them. Then close that document and leave it behind. It’s like walking out of the ball pit. Then you start fresh and make just a few notes on the very basics. Really stripping everything down to its smallest form (like the 3-sentence characters I have written about before). A few small notes and nothing more.
That’s what you work from when you come up with your story. And that story – you write that up in a couple of lines. In fact, calling it a story should be a stretch. It will be a situation. The characters encounter this and a thing happens. Or one character wants to go here but this is a problem. Now you have a really simple, clear beginning. A focus. You only have a few colourful balls here. It’s not daunting any more.
Then you go down a level and flesh that out. Not much. Little half-page outline. At this point, you’re hoping it starts to become an actual story. Have some think time and add a few scene ideas, making a note of where they might fit in the outline. Play with that for a while and, when your outline feels good, start writing.
And here’s the thing – in the writing, your characters are going to start to live. When you get down to a scene level, the relationships really come into play and the details matter. You left that ball pit behind but having spent that time gathering all the info will pay off at this point. Then you work at those details until you have a rich yet clear story.
It’s a little like the food pyramid, which is clearly just a triangle so I’m not sure why they call it a pyramid. You start at the top, small and simple and confined, and it opens out more the deeper you go.
It should be noted that this is just my way of making sense of that ball pit. While we writers face the same challenges, our solutions often differ greatly and your approach will be your own. Find what works for you.
We put so much into our work. So much passion and thought and trial and error. Creating anything is decision after decision. You have to make a call and, each time, you know how important those decisions are. And then you get to a point where it is ready to show someone.
The next step might be to pitch it to someone. Or to test it with children. Or to run it by peers.
And you hesitate. Why? Why don’t you test it with kids? You know people with kids, right? The reason is usually always the same: fear that the response you want is not the response you’ll get. We all go through that. Every time. And when we do send it out to people with the power to make or break our project and an email comes back, our chest flutters as we open it. We’re afraid. And when we see negative feedback or a flat-out rejection, we get angry, we get sad. Often we fluctuate between being hugely demoralised and totally stubborn. I’ll show them!
That’s because it matters to us. It’s because we care. Those feelings suck. They really do. But they’re important because they mean we still care.
What happens to your project all depends on what you do next. You have to be completely honest about that feedback, especially if it comes from testing with kids. You have to really look deep and examine the results you got. What worked. What didn’t work… and why. The key is that you accept the results. Too often, we just look for the results we want and we will find ways of dismissing the results we got. They were distracted. They didn’t read it properly. They missed page 7. I had a cold that day. What do kids know anyway? That way of thinking is all too easy, precisely because we care so much and we feel so attached to our project. And it’s a sure fire way to make a project worse.
Work with the results you get, not the results you want.
That doesn’t mean you cave in at every negative sign. It doesn’t mean you start your project from scratch the second someone tells you they don’t like it. It simply means this: those are the results your project is generating right now. Accept that as truth and then you just have to ask yourself: now what am I going to do about that?
To me, a first draft should not actually be a first draft. You don’t start at the start, type until you hit the last page and then click send. You write, in any order you like (I don’t always write from start to finish), until you have a draft. That is your rough draft, not a first draft. Then you edit. Bit by bit, not all at once – you have to keep it manageable. You amend, you fix.
On top of that, I do separate passes depending on the needs of the script. I always do character dialogue passes, character by character so that I can retain that character’s voice throughout. I’ll do a tighten pass, specifically to take out the fluff (of which there is usually a lot). I’ll do a gag pass if there is supposed to be comedy. And so on.
And I do all this before calling it the first draft. Or a second, third and beyond. Every draft goes through all these processes.
So how do you know when it’s done?
Well it is never truly done. When you call it a day on the 1st draft, you know there will be a 2nd. Even when you hit what everyone calls final draft, there will be production tweaks and last minute requests. So then how do you know when to stop? When does your draft go from being a rough work in progress to being an actual first draft? When is your second draft actually a second draft you can submit?
For me, it is when I’m just faffing around. When I’m changing lines and words simply to change them, and nothing is actually getting better or substantially altering anything, I’m just faffing around. Often I have a couple of days of faffing around before I realise that is what’s happening.
And when I realise that, it’s done. That draft is as good as it is going to be without putting some real distance between me and the keyboard. That is the time to write the draft number and date on the title page and click… wait! Not yet. Do a last pass for typos. Then check the first 10 pages again for typos – it is in the first 10 pages that those typos will truly haunt you.
Then click send. Congrats. You just finished a draft.
Recently, I was exploring an art piece in collaboration with an artist online who really inspired me when I was exploring pixel art for fun. A case of mutual admiration, which is always fantastic. One thing he said to me in a mail was: you really put a lot of love into your pieces. A lovely thing to say and it meant a huge amount as it was, but it was one of those little sentences that opened out into something much bigger as I realised that all the people I admire and all the people who I have loved working with and the people I want to work with in the future share this one thing: they put a lot of love into their work.
You can see it. You can feel it. You might not use those words but, on some level, you know. The love shines through in great work. The love even shines through in work that isn’t so great technically but is approached with honesty and passion. It elevates work.
Find something to love. To really love.
When you find what that is and you try it, no matter how raw you are at the start, you will put more into it than just time or hard work. You will put a little or even a large piece of yourself into everything you do. And people will feel it. It will count. And they will love it too.
Want to start a piece of work and never finish? Fancy tinkering away endlessly at something until you die? Here’s the sure fire way to do it: edit your work while you’re writing.
Or alternatively, if you’re in the mood to get something finished, don’t do that.
Often we can spot things we want to fix very quickly. We might have a glance at what we’ve written the day before and know that there is a better way of doing it. Or maybe those lines could be better. That bit should be shorter… or longer. Maybe it’s worse and what you have written is a total train wreck. The temptation is to get stuck in and fix it.
Don’t do it.
There will ALWAYS be something to fix. Fixing things as you go along is a trap. It’s a void which sucks you in and will never let go of you until you either die of boredom or of actual death. If you spot something to fix, great – that’s good! Make a note of it for the next draft and then continue on. Your first goal should always be to finish what you’re doing. Polished and unfinished? No use to anyone. Rough and finished? That’s a milestone and now you can see the big picture and know what you need to fix.
The important part is that you have a beginning, middle and end.
By the way, I think this is true of design work too. If you’re designing characters or a location, don’t give up on it or wipe everything away because it isn’t going right. Keep at it. Worst case scenario is that you end up with a sample of something you can rule out – that’s a key part of the design process. But there may be something in there you really like if you use it a different way. You need to see the design in order to know that.
It’s with good reason that Yoda asks Ben “will he finish what he begins?” about Luke. He doesn’t ask “will he get it right?” or “will he be totes awesome?” or anything else. He looked for patience and the ability to finish. And then Luke went running off to Bespin. Oh, Luke.
Finish what you start. The way to do that is to avoid the urge to edit your work as you go along. Write, finish, then edit.
In spite of the title above, I often find myself advising people to stop reading books or blogs about writing. Why? I find a lot of people do it instead of actually writing. I know I did, for a LONG time. It just becomes another form of procrastination – one we can fool ourselves with, remaining convinced that we are learning so much and our writing will be all the better for it.
That only works if you actually write. So the rest of this post assumes you are writing. If you’re not, start.
If you are, then your writing will benefit massively from reading about the theory. Story structure, movie structure, character. Read McKee’s Story, Snyder’s Save The Cat and anything that covers the basics of story theory. Knowing structure and the whys behind it will give you a fantastic set of tools with which to craft your story. It becomes especially valuable when pulling the ideas together and really shaping it into something you can present to others. It gives you an important checklist to test elements of your story once you’re close to being finished.
But I find that learning the basics once just isn’t enough.
Firstly, you can forget the details. You can forget the reasons behind things and certain parts can lose importance. As with just about any other part of the process of creating media, I love reminders. Going back to basics every now and again always helps me.
But more than that, I find keeping this information fresh can hugely motivate and inspire while I work. A sentence in a book might spark a scene idea. A page might use a movie reference as an example and I suddenly realise there is already a parallel in my story and I can use it in a much better way. Reading a page here and there can help keep focus and clarity while crafting a story.
And it isn’t just the basics. Glancing over at my shelf, I see a book called Between The Lines (about the subtle elements in storytelling). Your Screenplay Sucks – a very handy book on ways your script might not be as good as it can be and how to fix it. Directing Actors, The Writer’s Portable Therapist, Creating Unforgettable Characters and more. Each one offers insights into different areas and it all helps.
I haven’t read them all from start to finish. Often, I just pick them up and browse sections. Before I know it, my brain is finding ways to apply what I’m reading to my characters and off I go again, writing. It keeps me moving and, importantly, keeps those core storytelling goals in mind at all times.
So write. And read. And write and read some more, until you have created something wonderful.
Let’s talk about Paulie’s robot. Rocky was a film series that began with a very human story, about things we could all relate to. It had heart. It had truth. By film 4, it was nations versus nations, montage after montage and Paulie had a robot for some reason. It seems quite far from where Rocky started.
Now a lot of people liked Rocky 4. Rewatching it now, it has almost no movie there in between the fights. But people really liked it. Paulie’s robot, however, was what would later become known as ‘jumping the shark’. Named after an episode of Happy Days in which Fonzie actually jumped over a shark, the term has come to mean the decline of a show or movie series that can be marked by a moment of writing desperation to try to retain any sort of interest.
Rocky 5 attempted to undo the robot and take Rocky back to his roots by having him lose all his money and allowing the focus to stay with a more human story. It’s a lot closer to the original in most ways and yet isn’t all that popular among the Rocky movies. Rocky Balboa, the movie that eventually followed, would be better received. And yet Rocky Balboa couldn’t have been the movie it was without Rocky 5 trying to pull the series backwards. Rocky Balboa is a natural progression from where we left Rocky in Rocky 5. It moved forwards. It would have been a far harder movie to make if it had to follow Rocky 4 instead, if it had to build on a world that contained Paulie’s robot.
So what’s happening here? Why were we okay with Paulie’s robot in a series that began so grounded and yet not so keen on the next movie that tried to bring the series back to its roots?
There are a lot of factors but one huge one, in my view, is that a story or series must progress. It must move forwards. It is very difficult to successfully go backwards. Rocky 2 built on Rocky (barely, but just enough). Rocky 3 built on Rocky 2 and was already beginning to morph into something else. Rocky 4 built on Rocky 3. It’s a ridiculous movie and, put side by side with the original, it’s hard to see them existing in the same universe and yet it is a result of a move forwards. It built each time and we accepted that, robot and all.
Rocky 5 attempted a rewind. Now that’s not the only issue with that movie but Rocky 5 is incredibly jarring following Rocky 4. It feels like something broke Rocky.
Generally, you have to move forwards. You have to progress. If you don’t, you will very quickly find you are churning out more of the same, and the audience will drop away. Had Rocky not progressed, even while risking the ridiculous, I’m not sure it would even have made it to five movies. At a certain point, your audience will think, I’ve seen this already. This series has nothing more to offer. And when that happens, you will have a very hard time getting them back.
You move forwards and offer what the audiences expect plus something extra. Something new. Something that retains interest. And yes, sooner or later, maybe you’re going to jump that shark. You’ll give Paulie a robot. That’s a risk. But if you hadn’t progressed along the way, you may not have lasted long enough to write your wonderful shark-jumping moment.
Here is one thing to watch out for in your story when you move on to draft 2 and draft 3 and beyond. You, and likely most other people involved, know what happened in draft 1. The audience doesn’t.
Very often, remnants of draft 1 get left behind. Things that once had meaning now no longer have meaning. Setups that once paid off now don’t. Or worse, pay offs remain where the setup has been removed. A scene that demonstrated why a character is taking a particular course of action is now gone and the action no longer makes sense. Very often, it is the opening that needs the most tightening in a story and it is very easy to cut a crucial piece of information and forget to get it across some other way.
Thing is, they are like typos. Story typos, in a way – because they are often small and really hard to spot. As we go through our drafts, our brain fills in the gaps. Our minds tells us, yeah, I know why that’s there, just carry on. So you don’t even spot the hole. To you, there is no hole because you remember what happened in draft 1.
So you have to actively look for the connections yourself. Go through the story and ask yourself: does each setup have a payoff? Does each payoff have a setup? Do the details still matter? Are you missing an important detail?
And one of the best ways to catch these is to make sure someone new reads each draft, without the prior knowledge of what happened in the earlier drafts. With every revision, it becomes harder and harder for everyone involved to retain any kind of objectivity. Find fresh eyes.
Every single time I work on a project, I have one goal in mind: this will be the best thing I’ve ever made. This is true whether it is the start of a whole new concept or just one more episode of a continuing series.
Does it always turn out to be the best thing I’ve actually ever made? Not always. But having that as the goal always pushes me to make something better, try something different and give the audience something a little bit special. It prevents me from being overwhelmed by deadlines and letting something go that just isn’t ready yet.
This goal is its own quality control.
And really, why would you possibly want to do anything less?
So whatever you’re doing, whether you’re mid-production or coming up with something new, set a high goal. Make it the best thing you’ve ever made. Simply keeping that as your core goal will vastly increase the chances that it is.