Jamie Mathieson
 

writing

So in theory a place to talk about various aspects of writing for a living. In practice a catch all area for short stories and articles which don't quite fit anywhere else...


 

spec scripts are your friend

(Firstly, a definition for the non industry types. 'Spec' is short for speculative, and basically means you're writing something that no-one asked for and no-one is paying for. You simply had the idea and decided to write it.)

When you start out, everything you do is spec, because you are either trying to entice an agent, or you've succeeded and the agent is trying to drum up work, both activities that require proof you can write. Thus, specs.

When I was starting out, I got into the habit of finishing one spec, sending it out into the world and starting the next one immediately. This was a basic ploy to avoid me dwelling on potential failure. Simply start the next thing, focus on that. Don't wait for the phone to ring or the email to ping. Move onto the next thing, which You Will Make Better.

Some writers, once they've started getting work, stop writing specs. Why work for no money when you're getting paid elsewhere? They've proved their chops, surely the films and shows they're helping to make can now act as their demo reel. If they do have a great idea for a new project, they're more likely to limit themselves to a short spec outline. A few pages at most.

I can kind of see the wisdom in this. Why work when you don't have to? There is still no guarantee that your spec will get bought and made, even if you're a successful writer. Why risk wasting weeks, perhaps months honing a script that might come to nothing?

How about because you enjoy writing?

How about because you want to demonstrate a broader range, or an aptitude for different genres that your current back catalogue doesn't show?

I did a quick back-of-an-envelope tally of the specs that my agents possess, most of which they still regularly send out. There are eight, and every single one of them has got me meetings, got me work or made me money.

I'm going to list all eight and roughly describe their genres;

  1. A sci fi fantasy series

  2. A sci-fi horror movie

  3. A hitman comedy movie

  4. A dark superhero movie

  5. A fantasy drama series

  6. A parallel world comedy series

  7. A supernatural comedy series

  8. A thriller series

Now going purely by those broad genre definitions, the range demonstrated doesn't appear massive. But within those eight, I demonstrate every writing skill I possess. There are heartbreaking romances, laugh out loud farces, intricately plotted murders and so on. Pretty much any writing job I go up for, there is a script to fit.

It's no exaggeration to say that I owe my career to those specs. I got the job on Being Human after Toby Whithouse read a spec (number five I think) which proved I could handle drama and wasn't just the joke monkey that Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel lead him to believe. That itself was another spec. I got a meeting with Steven Moffat after he read one spec, failed to impress him in the meeting, then managed to get another meeting a few years later when his wife, the Sherlock producer Sue Vertue, read another.

There is another reason to write specs which only really comes into focus when you've worked in the industry for a little while:

With a spec, there are no notes, at least at the beginning.

(Another sidebar for the non-industry types. A note is an opinion on how your script needs to change, from someone else involved in it's production: showrunner, director, producer etc. They've spotted what they consider a flaw in your work and want you to correct it.)

When you are writing a spec, just for yourself, just for fun, no-one is telling you the numerous ways it sucks other than the voices in your head. You are free to create in any direction you choose. And that freedom, the sense of pure unfettered creation, is for many the main reason they became writers in the first place.


my dad, the doctor

We were walking Biscuit when we found the sunglasses.

The air was cold enough to sting a little when you breathed it in, coming out in clouds of steam that made us all look like dragons. I was busy breaking icy puddles with my new wellies when I heard Dad laugh.

The sunglasses were sitting in a blackened crater just outside the wood. Dad said they looked as if they had fallen like a meteor, but obviously someone had just made a campfire. It was still funny though.

He crouched down to pick them up. I thought he was going to pass them to me, but as soon as he touched them he looked distant. Then he put them on, looked at me and said ‘Well, my eyes appear to be working at any rate.’

Only now his accent was Scottish.

It was a bit like his Shrek voice. I giggled because I loved it when he did voices. That usually meant fun.

Then he turned and walked straight into a tree, a real head butt. He fell over onto his back but his arms were still swinging and his legs were still striding, as if he didn’t realise he wasn’t walking anymore. I roared with laughter and lay down beside him and tried to copy him, the frosty leaves crunching under us. Biscuit jumped around us and over us, barking and licking our faces.

Dad used to do this all the time. Well, not exactly this, but games where he wasn’t Dad. He was a vampire or a troll or a robot or a giant. He would chase me or carry me or I would chase him. Doing voices, pulling faces.

The games had stopped for good when Mum left. And that was months ago. I was so happy to see them back it hurt my heart. (The note from Mum just said she needed a Bit of Space, but then Mrs Dunwoody had seen her at the bus stop with Another Man. And she never came back.)

Dad finally stopped moving his legs and looked up at the tree.

‘Not as easy operating this body as I’d hoped. The interface is a little glitchy. You’re going to have to help me. Lead me that-a-way. And try not to walk me into any more trees.’

He held out an elbow and I started leading him through the wood. Biscuit seemed entirely happy with this new direction and I was just happy to be holding onto Dad, even if it was only his elbow.

On the way Dad told me a story, which went like this:

He wasn’t really Dad anymore. When Dad touched the sunglasses he activated something called a ‘Telepathic Emergency Beacon’ which basically meant that someone else was now controlling Dad. An alien called ‘The Doctor’ whose real body was currently in orbit in a broken spaceship which was going to explode. We had to find something that had fallen from the spaceship and bring it to The Doctor.

I loved the story. I loved the fact that Dad was making things up again. Stories were another thing which left with Mum, so getting a game and a story in the same day was like Christmas. I didn’t want our walk through the wood to ever end.

After a while he stopped and said ‘And here we are.’

In the middle of the wood was a battered old blue box, half buried. It had the words POLICE BOX written on it. Of course, if you squinted, you could imagine it was half buried because it had fallen from the sky, but you could also imagine that it had been here for years. Dad stood in front of it clicking his fingers and arguing with it.

‘Come on. Open up. I know I don’t look like me. But it’s me up here. Surely that’s what counts. I mean honestly, the amount of faces I’ve had you’d think you’d make an exception.’

I was laughing until the door opened and he climbed inside.

After a moment I followed him.

I thought I’d hit my head because we were suddenly somewhere else: a big boiler room full of lights with a tall machine that reminded me of a church organ. Dad was skipping around it, pressing buttons, pulling levers and whistling. I gasped and Biscuit barked.

The story was true. All true. This wasn’t my Dad anymore. This was an alien called The Doctor. So where was my Dad? Trapped in his own head?

Then the room began to groan and shudder. I thought about running, just leaving him. But whoever was in his head, it was still my Dad’s body. I had to look after it (even though he hadn’t - he’d put on three stone since Mum left.)

All of that was scary and horrible, but the idea that made me really sad was that Dad hadn’t really played a game with me or told me a story.

My Dad, The Doctor, turned to me and smiled happily.

‘Well thanks for your help. Oh, and tell your Dad thanks for the loan of his body.’ Then he took off the sunglasses and threw them across the room.

They were caught by a thin man with grey hair who was just entering the room. Behind him, through the door, I could see something that didn’t make sense: a room of metal on fire, then the door closed. The thin man put the sunglasses in his pocket and carried on talking in the Doctor’s voice as he moved over to the church organ machine. He was The Doctor. Of course he was.

‘You’ve both been very helpful, it could be argued, against your will. So as a reward, I’m prepared to offer you one free trip, anywhere in time and space.”

My Dad was blinking, confused as he looked around himself, but he heard that. He looked from me to the Doctor and back again.

‘Anywhere?’

 

Mrs Dunwoody was just driving past the bus stop when she saw my mum talking to the Strange Man. But he wasn’t. He was just my Dad, three stone heavier. Even Mum didn’t recognise him.

‘I can give you space.’ said my Dad.

Over his shoulder, the blue box waited…


writing 'my dad, the doctor'

Now I'm going to bang on a little about writing it, no doubt using more words than the actual story. Mainly because I love reading that kind of thing from writers myself and thought it might be fun.

The first thing to say about the story is that I didn't want to burn through an idea that could be used in the show. Having an actor pretend to be 'possessed' by Capaldi would be a real risk in live action, but in your head, the impression is pitch perfect, making the conceit work well in prose. Also, much of it goes on the child's head, all thoughts that would have to be vocal in life action, making it potentially clunky.

I'm going to post the pitch I submitted to get the gig. The thing to note about this is that I had misread the brief. I thought it was to be a 2000 word short story, not 1000 words. Because I am writer not a reader and, let's be frank, on this evidence, a little bit dim.

Here's the pitch.

Obviously quite a bit different to what we ended up with. Ideas I came up with while writing - the whole time loop involving the absent mother, the fact that the gender of the child is not revealed, sonic sunglasses instead of screwdriver and obviously a lot more emotional focus on the missing mother and the relationship between father and child.

This idea was approved and I started writing, still under the misapprehension that I had a whole extra 1000 words to play with. Even with that it still seemed a squeeze. I wrote the whole thing and was struggling for room, then I re-read the brief, realised I'd have to cut the whole thing in half, head butted the desk and started cutting it down.

This oddly made life easier and brought what the story was really about into focus. There was a lot that would just have to go. There was no room for the monster or Clara for example. Or the car. Or the cottage - well you get the idea.

In honour of what might of been, I will end with the beginning as it originally read. Enjoy:

Original beginning.


2000ad and me

Judge Dredd. Rogue Trooper. Slaine. Halo Jones. Nemesis the Warlock. If you are of a certain age and geek status you'll just know. From the age of nine onwards the comic 2000AD and these characters, this attitude, were a massive part of my mental landscape. Buying the comic on Saturday became a magical ritual. The stories and characters are seared into my memory. Thirty years later I can still quote swathes of it verbatim. My shelves groan with comics and geek ephemera, all of which sprouted from that weekly fix.

But all good things must come to an end. In the mid eighties America opened it's chequebook and lured titan after titan away; Gibbons, Bolland, Moore, O'Neill. One day I looked through the comic on the shelf in the newsagents and it just seemed limp and lifeless. For the first time in a decade I left without buying it. I've dipped in occasionally since, but it's like checking out an old lover on Facebook: she's doing different things without me with people I don't recognise.

In it's prime the comic had an outlook, a satirical perspective and very distinct sense of humour which had a huge effect on my creativity. It also shamelessly mixed genres in a way which now seems second nature to me.

So thank you, 2000AD, and all who sailed in you. You opened a door in my head which I've never even tried to close since, have given me immense pleasure and more importantly a career. Of the three projects I am currently being paid to work on, there isn't one that would look out of place between your pages.

Your children have grown up strong and we're doing just fine.