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Ep 68 Why journalists should care more about media business models, gorgeous sticky page markers, crime writing short story comp and Random House’s writing comp for kids! And Screenwriter in Residence Tim Gooding.

podcast-artwork In Episode 68 of So you want to be a writer:  Stunning sticky page markers, why journalists should care more about media business models, Ruth Rendell competition, Random House’s kid/teen writing comp, Screenwriter in Residence Tim Gooding, your readability score, protocol when following up with an editor on a commissioned piece, how to boost your author platform, and more!

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Show Notes

Delightful sticky page markers let you build a mini landscape as you read

Why journalists should care more about media business models

The Ruth Rendell Short Story Competition 2015

My Life Short Story Competition

Screenwriter in Residence 
timgoodingTim Gooding writes for stage, film and television. He is also a musician and songwriter. Tim’s feature film credits include Heatwave and On the Loose. He is the recipient of a Distinctly Australian Writers Fellowship from the Australian Film Commission. He devised and co-wrote the ABC TV series Sweet and Sour, the soundtrack of which achieved platinum sales and was a nationwide hit.

He has written television comedy – The Aunty Jack Show, The Norman Gunston Show, Wollongong The Brave, Ratbags – and drama – Rafferty’s Rules, Blue Heelers, Stingers, Water Rats, All Saints – plus numerous other series involving doctors, lawyers, and police officers, or a blend of the three, on land, sea and in the air. For younger viewers he has contributed scripts to Mortified, Time Trackers, Heartbreak High, CJ the DJ, Penelope K By The Way, and others. Tim’s episode 6 of Mortified, “The Talk”, won First Prize at the 2007 Chicago International Children’s Film Festival, and the Theme Prize at 2008 Prix Jeunesse in Munich.

His theatre productions include the musical plays King Of Country and Rock-Ola, Tentshow Pagliacci, The Astounding Optimissimos, and a new translation of Molière’s The Miser. The Sydney Theatre Company production of his comedy Drums Along The Diamantina featured Mel Gibson as Wayne from Queensland.

Tim Gooding teaches Screenwriting Stage 1 an Screenwriting Stage 2 at the Australian Writers’ Centre.

Web Pick

Test your readability score

Working Writer’s Tip

How long until you follow up with an editor on an article that’s been commissioned?

Answered in the podcast!

Want to boost your brand and grow your fanbase?

Check out the Build Your Author Profile online course taught by Allison Tait!

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait @valeriekhoo

Email us podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Interview Transcript 

Valerie

Thanks for joining us today, Tim.

 

Tim

Thank you, Valerie.

 

Valerie

Let’s start off with how did you get into screenwriting?

 

Tim

I half fell into it. I actually started off writing for stage. I grew up in the country and I used to listen to radio a lot and started writing these little radio plays, which I would record with my cousin’s tape recorder.

 

When I got to university that sort of morphed into writing for university reviews and things like that. After leaving university I started writing for the stage. Just was in the right place at the right time, heard about an opening and dived in.

 

I started writing screen sketch comedy for the Aunty Jack show, that was quite awhile back, but it was a good time to be around. I started writing for the small screen, gradually moved up into a larger format.

 

Valerie

You started off writing comedy, which makes sense because you were doing things like the university reviews and stuff like that. But, then you moved also into drama. I know that you’ve written Rafferty’s Rules, and Blue Heelers, Stingers, and Water Rats, All Saints, and, of course my favorite, Heartbreak High… one of my favorites.

 

What was that like? How did you discover your craft? How did you learn about your craft?

 

Tim

Well, I learned about it on the job, basically. There weren’t schools around in those days, you did actually learn on the job. I started in the ‘70s, which is quite some time ago, but it was a good time to start, because basically anything went to a certain extent. Nobody really knew what they were doing, or certain they knew what they were doing, so that made them a bit more open.

 

You could make more mistakes, and I certainly made them. But, there was always someone around to say, “No, no, that’s not right, try this.” So, yeah, they learnt by doing, in consultation with people knew better, or even in the industry. That’s how I branched out.

 

That’s how my first few truly dramatic scripts were, they sort of got made, but they weren’t Citizen Kane.

 

Yeah, I learned on the job and got better at it. There was always someone to point out, particularly in television, which is fairly rigorous in its time demands. There was always someone saying, “No, that’s not right, do it like this.” You weren’t left on your own for a long time, because they had deadlines, very tight deadlines. If it wasn’t working they made it work. If something you wrote wasn’t working and it turned up on the screen, they’d fixed it. You could see from what they had done how they had fixed it. Yeah, that’s how I learned.

 

I’m still learning, there’s no such thing as a perfect script. But, yeah, it is a craft, above all else that’s probably the first thing I tell my students, it’s a craft, not a mystery. But, you’ve got to learn it. And, you learn it by doing it, you can’t learn it in your head. You can understand it in your head, but until you actually do it over and over again, the pennies start to drop, you don’t improve.

 

I’m not a carpenter, but I use the example. I tell the class I can imagine a chair, but it would look ugly and it would collapse when people sat on it because I haven’t learnt the craft. The same thing with painting, in most forms.

 

So, yeah, it’s a craft that can lead to art, but you’ve got to learn the craft first and the way you learn that is by doing it over and over again. And, people telling you where you’re going wrong.

 

Valerie

When you are writing for television it’s such a collaborative process, there’s so many factors involved, existing characters, how much time you might have with an actor, whether you can shoot outdoors, all of that kind of stuff. Is that good or is that frustrating for you?

 

Tim

I don’t find it frustrating. It can be if you do it too much, but it can, in a way… taking too many short-cuts and writing to a sort of template too often can sort of… you can lose your ability to write in other forms, if that makes sense. I know when I write an episode of something that has been running for a year or two, you just have to plug in and follow their format.

 

But, all television involves some short-cuts in dramatic writing, it’s not because of the small screen, it’s because of the budget. So, it’s very different to, say, writing a feature, but you use different techniques in writing features. There’s not so much the time and money constraints there are in writing for television.

 

But, yeah, you get used to it. I get used to know, now, that on television you’re only allowed ten to twelve minutes of outside broadcast and the rest has to be done in the studio with sets. You just write to that. One or two are a little bit difficult, but then you just… it’s part of the craft of TV writing. It’s different to writing for radio or stage or film, but it’s part of the craft.

 

Valerie

Some people would find that surprising, because they haven’t thought about it, there’s budgets that mean you can only do ten to twelve minutes of outside shooting. What are some other kind of creative or budgetary limitations that some people might find surprising about the process?

 

 

 

 

Tim

I’d say the budget thing is probably the most surprising, you can’t have unlimited characters. If you write all of these guest characters in as well as your long standing characters…

 

Valerie

Unless you’re Game of Thrones.

 

Tim

Unless you’re Game of Thrones, even if you’re Game of Thrones… they can spend much more money by their fourth series than they can in their first, because they’ve had huge success.

 

When they started out with Downton Abbey, because it’s a such a huge success they’ve got much more major spend than they had in the first year, so they can afford to do luxurious shoots out at castles, where not a lot happens, but it just looks good, which they certainly couldn’t do in Series 1, just because of money constraints.

 

You have to write for your long-running characters with TV. If you want to bring in a guest, there’s usually limits on how many you can bring in. For craft reasons as well as budget reasons, you’re supposed to focus on your main story. I think that’s probably one of the first things an inexperienced writer does, is thinks of a story and involves another character, rather than playing straight into what the long-running character is doing and that’s generally not the way to go.

 

Valerie

You mentioned that sometimes you can start writing for a series two years after it starts, when you do that do you go back and watch every episode to make sure you get everything? Or is it time-demanding, time-consuming?

 

Tim

You’re supposed to, I think. You’re usually given a few DVDs to watch of past episodes. You’re also provided with what is called the bible, which is generally a 30 or 40-page document with all of the information about the standard characters, the standard storylines, the sets, those sorts of things. You bone up on what’s gone before and what template you have to fit into before you go along with your storyline, or just sit at a table and make up a storyline.

 

There’s a person called a story editor who usually keeps an eye on continuity. So they will say, “No, no, you’re drifting off.” If you supply a story idea they might say, “No, no, you’re drifting away from what we’re really about.” So, they keep an eye on the way things continue in sync, if you like.

 

Valerie

When you don’t join a TV and you create one of your own, like you created Sweet and Sour from scratch, and that was your idea. For people, of certainly my age, they’ll remember Sweet and Sour, and it launched careers like Tracy Mann, David Reyne, and Arky Michael, but it also had all of the… so many iconic Australian musicians appearing in it at some point, like I remember seeing Chrissy Amphlett, Renée Geyer, Johnny English, Red Symons, John Paul Young — it’s such a huge part of growing up, if you were growing up at that time. Where did that idea of Sweet and Sour come from? Were you just sitting around one day and you thought, “This might be a good idea for a television series.”?

 

Tim

Well, it developed over time, but I just had the idea of the story of a band that didn’t make would be good, because all of the stories about bands previously had been about bands that went from rags to riches, and I would like to do one about most bans, who don’t make it.

 

And then because I had also been working in the music industry, playing bands myself, I knew a lot of people. I said, “Well, it would be great just to give it just an edge of credibility, some sort of amusement,” just having guest roles for people, you could play spot the pop star.

 

Valerie

Yes!

Tim

So, that became part of it.

 

Also, the songs that we used. I wanted the music to be credible rather than average TV music, TV music can tend to be just… it’s not real in a sort of pop sense, if you like. It’s more just written for TV. I wanted it to be more written by actual song writers. So, I used my contacts to get 20 or 30 different songwriters to submit stuff to the musical director, so thereby sort of make a credible music soundtrack.

 

Now, another idea was to try and… I was probably in a 6:30 timeslot, which that’s the viewer’s kitchen. Try to get as close to reality, if you like, as possible. It’s not strictly possible and it’s not documentary, at 6:30 there’s obviously things that you can’t do.

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

Tim

For that audience, as far as possible, we tried to keep it real, if you like. Especially not have it one of those glamour stories where someone comes from nowhere and rockets to stardom. I didn’t want that, I wanted them to have a choice between friendship and music, or the band, if you like. And, they chose friendship, that’s basically it.

 

It grew as it went and it got bigger. We had a bit of a fight to get it all accepted, because it was a little bit out of the usual mold of those series.

 

Valerie

Yeah, it wasn’t Famous Five.

 

Tim

No, it wasn’t Famous Five. It was not cheap either, it was more expensive to record our own music and all of that, but we argued and argued.

 

Also at that time, I guess it was the early ‘80s there were bigger budgets, if you like, it’s gotten much tighter in TV now. It’s just more governed by marketing and economics, where then ABC still had a bit more money. It wasn’t quite as glorious as the early ‘70s, but the ABC still had a bit of money to make stuff. They took a chance and it worked.

 

Valerie

Let’s move onto writing screenplays for a movie. Can you tell us about the creative process. Do you start with a premise and see where it unfolds? Because I talk to many novelists who don’t actually know what’s going to happen in their story. Or do you have to map it out because a screenplay is so structured? How does it work for you?

 

Tim

I don’t like to map it out. And, if I can possibly avoid mapping it out I will. I usually only map out stuff if there’s a deadline. If someone else is involved and is saying, “You have to do it within six weeks,” then I might map something out, to short-circuit the process.

 

No, I prefer just to start with a character and a trigger incident. So, something happens to someone and I like to follow it where it goes.

 

Valerie

Wow.

 

Tim

If the incident is big enough then it will generate enough material for a feature film, which is why feature films are all about big things like love/hate, redemption, revenge, all of those big things, because something happens that involves it can provide enough material to sustain for 90 or more minutes.

 

My favorite process is just to start with one character that I sort of know a bit about, but not a lot. And something happens with them and see what happens. I mean you still have to make choices, there’s always options as to what they can do in certain circumstances, and you’re sort of challenged, as a screenwriter, to choose the option that gives you the most interest, if you like, for an audience.

 

Valerie

What if you go down that path and it doesn’t lead anywhere?

 

Tim

Well, that happens. And you go back to the start. I mean that also is a process, you know?

 

Most films take umpteen drafts to get right, and so if it doesn’t lead to where you want to go you go back and start again. But, if you get to the end and you’ve got something, then you go back and rework the bits that don’t work and that’s when I usually start structuring, if you like, after I have done a draft or more, rather than trying to think about the exact shape of it from the beginning, I like to just get a story up and go back and rework and structure it after the fact, if you like.

 

Yeah, there’s always a chance that something doesn’t work, it’s the same for novelists and whoever else, I think. You just follow your leads and then you go back, and back, and back, and back until you come up with something.

 

 

Valerie

With movies though, because you’ve got 90 minutes or however long to tell the story, there’s so much that you, in a sense, can’t write about because unlike novels you can’t write all of these pages and chapters of a back story or the inner thoughts of a character or why they’ve got this disease or whatever.

 

Tim

Yes.

 

Valerie

In a movie you have to somehow visually explain everything. How do you get over that? Like, what sort of techniques or tricks do you have to make sure that happens effectively?

 

Tim

I only include crucial detail that an audience absolutely cannot do without, I leave the rest to their imagination, because what happens when people see a movie their imagination fills in all of the stuff that’s left out. And you’ve sort of got to trust that, accept that, that’s the hard thing for the experienced writer to get. What you leave out is sometimes even more important than what you put in. You’ve got to choose just enough so your audience can follow the story, but let them supply any detail that is absolutely crucial to be spoken or depicted. That’s a technique that you develop with time and experience. I sort of give my students the example of six lines are always better than 16, let alone 60. And, that’s a hard one for them to grasp, but it’s true. Each and every scene usually only makes one point, there are exceptions of course, but there’s one point, like she’s leaving him, or he’s shooting him, or he’s injured in a car crash or whatever. That’s the point of the scene the rest is detail and you don’t need as much. You just need the basic bits and they fill it in, which is why old movies feel a bit slow, because 40 or 50 years ago we used to put in more steps. Now we’re much more exposed to media and more used to making the leaps, especially in the…, if you had the sort of media TV stuff from the age of two, then you’re well-versed in putting stuff together. So, you don’t need all of the baby steps. You only need the big links in the chain and the rest can be left out.

 

Valerie

Speaking of leaving out the detail then, I want to talk a bit about research. Sometimes you need a certain level of research for your movies. Let’s even say like some of the dramas I mentioned earlier, like Rafferty’s Rules, which is about the law, Blue Heelers, and Stingers, and Water Rats about police, All Saints about doctors, what kind of level of research do you typically get to when you’re dealing with industries, specific industries and professions like that?

 

Tim

Usually those series have researchers on tap. So, if you’ve got a particular question you can call up an ex-police or an ex-nurse or someone like that. They will give you the information that you need. Part of when you’re plotting out a story, especially in police shows, it’s always seems to be an ex-cop sitting at the table as you came up with the story. They would say, “No, no, that wouldn’t happen,” or, “This would happen…” or whatever. To a certain extent with long-running TV series, in this country anyway, you don’t have to do your own research. There’s always instances when you do, but with TV in particular usually there’s someone, if there is a specialty area, there’s usually someone either with you when you’re doing the storyline, or someone you can contact when you have a question. That speeds up the process as well. There are always instances when you can do it and the internet has sort of helped along those lines, but even with the internet you won’t know if the information you’re getting is actually accurate and specific to this country. You usually do need to talk to somebody who knows what they’re talking about.

 

TV sort of makes a bit easier. With regard to feature film you usually have to do your own. I don’t know how it works in other countries, but in Australia if you’re writing about some special subject you have to do your own research. I mean you have to know the old chestnut, know what you’re writing about. So, you have to do your research, try to immerse yourself, find out about that world that you don’t know about and don’t proceed until you do. Audiences can smell it, if you don’t know what you’re talking about an audience can smell it.

 

Valerie

Yeah, for sure.

 

You’ve been involved in quite a number of iconic Australian shows and movies, but I understand more recently you’ve been doing some work with Germany as well, how does that come about? How do you broaden your international career like that?

 

Tim

Well probably it just dropped into my lap, but that’s the name of the game to a certain extent now, because budgets are going up and the amount of money available in this country is going down. More and more productions are like co-productions. In other words, you have to sell to other countries in order for a program to make its money back.

 

This show that I worked on in Germany wasn’t my idea, but it was a wonderful idea, but they devised out of a sort of Australia-Germany co-production with two lead characters German and two lead characters Australian. I basically went along for that.

 

Now I’ve got one of my own that I’m trying to get up, which I hope isn’t going to be an English-Australian co-production. So, I am trying to devise it with that in mind and trying… I’ve been going to London about three times in the last eight months trying to set up that end of the process, if you like.

 

Valerie

So, it’s not just writing, it’s actually putting together the different collaborators in order to make it happen?

 

Tim

More and more it’s getting to that. If you want to get your own series you, there’s much more and more down that road. You can’t sort of just write your own series these days and then Australia makes it, it doesn’t happen very often. It happens much less than it used to anyway.

 

Valerie

Sure.

 

Tim

It has to be amenable, approachable to overseas markets. You need to do your research. I suppose if it’s really base-level Aussie soap, maybe not so much, but even Aussie soap has been huge overseas. If anything, it’s going to require a lot of money, we can’t afford to do it here. You have to take that into account when you do it. Either you hook up with a producer who does it for you, or you do it yourself and try to design it that way.

 

Valerie

What do you enjoy most about writing for television or writing for feature films? What’s the bit that makes your eyes light up and makes you smile kind of thing?

 

Tim

When they make it and I get paid.

 

No, no, no… the most joyful time for me is when I’m exploring. When I’m just up in my shed, where I write, and as I’ve said I’ve started off with a trigger incident and a character and I’m just exploring and I’ve got liberty, the freedom to follow that story wherever I want, and I can just live in that world in my head, that’s the most enjoyable thing for me. Writing isn’t easy in itself, it’s not just a means to an end. You can fall into that trap with people in television, where it just becomes a means to an end, making a living. You can fall into that trap where you lose sight of why you wrote in the first place, it’s fun. It’s actually fun.

 

Especially in a small country, it’s not easy to make a living. You have to get the fun out of it, you have to get the nourishment from just the writing, because if you’re just in it for a living you get very stressed.

 

Valerie

Yeah, right.

 

You love the ideas that…

 

Tim

I love the ideas and exploring where it can go.

 

Valerie

You also teach screenwriting, because you teach here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, what do you enjoy about teaching screenwriting?

 

Tim

I think enjoy it most when I see a penny drop, suddenly a student gets it. Every now and then you’ll get a student who’s got it already, but most come in and they don’t have much experience with the screenwriting, so as I said before they can understand it academically, but when they come to actually write they can’t actually put those principles into practice.

 

But, when someone, as I say, when they try to start it out, they go away and come back and it seems like the penny’s dropped, they’ve got it. For example, the oldest principal in screenwriting, especially for the big screen, is show don’t tell. That ‘show’… you want to let the audience deduce, then tell us what’s happening in the dialogue. Most students go away and they start to write a scene, they write three pages of dialogue, because we live in a word culture. Those characters start saying, “I’m feeling sad…” “No, just show us a picture of them crying,” or something like that.

 

But, when that penny drops, when they stop writing words coming out of people’s mouth and they’ve found it, they could have almost written a silent scene where the audience has seen that scene and knows exactly what it’s about without having any dialogue, or without being told exactly what’s going on. That’s probably the best moment for me, whenever… there’s about half a dozen pennies, I suppose. When one of those pennies drops. Like, leaving out stuff. When a student suddenly says, “Oh yeah, I can’t cross out every third line and it doesn’t make any difference, it actually makes it better.” That sort of thing, that is most rewarding, if you like.

 

Valerie

What sort of advice would you give to people who are aspiring screenwriters? Apart from obviously doing a course like yours. What else can they do? What else should they be feeding their mind with or exploring themselves? Apart from learning.

 

Tim

I think they should look at scripts. Go online and Google free feature films or free short film scripts. Read those scripts and get a bit of a handle on what they actually look like. Screenwriting is a very curious format of writing. In a way it’s like cartoony. It’s not so much writing in a literary fashion.

 

Familiarize themselves with screenplays. Maybe sit and watch a film with the screenplay in front of them.

 

And if they want to write, start writing. Just write anything, just get stuff down on paper that they can then look at and decide, “Well, if I were an audience would this work for me?”

 

The sooner they start the process of actually writing rather than saying you have to learn all of this stuff before they can start writing, I think it’s better just to start, within the format. But, if they have a look at some screenplays you can pretty much pick that up in ten or fifteen minutes.

 

And then write something. Write something and get to the end.

 

Valerie

You mentioned short films, how useful or important is that in a screenwriter’s development? Should they be starting with short films?

 

Tim

In my opinion, yes. Writing a feature film from scratch — it’s a big, big project and you tend to get lost in the story, rather than learning the craft. You tend to get lost in, “What can happen in my story?” rather than learning the craft of screenwriting, which is also why we started at the Writers’ Centre with a short film script.

 

Short films are also important in other ways. If you get together a few like minded souls, and make a little short film, get it into Tropfest or Short and Sweet or St Kilda Festival, or any of those film festivals and a producer sees it. That’s the only time the industry will come to you. That’s the only time that a producer, a representative will come to you and say, “Oh, I liked what you did. Have you got anything more?” That’s when you pull out your feature film idea or your feature film script.

 

That’s a way of getting into the industry, because in the industry there’s no career path. When students graduate they don’t automatically — there aren’t head hunters out there looking at them to get them jobs. You’ve got to get your toe in the water, foot in the door, whatever the metaphor is. One of those ways to do that and have a good time and learn is to make a short film. Yeah, so I’m all for it. I think short filmmaking is an undervalued form in itself. I think it’s a very great shame that we don’t show short films, for example, on television very much, because you can tell a big story in a short film, if you like. But, they tend just to be in festivals, and that’s all. They serve a purpose, but they are things in themselves as well.

 

Valerie

Similar to the short stories, very undervalued as well.

 

Tim

Yes.

 

Valerie

Finally, tell us about when you’re in writing mode, you’re writing a series or you’re in film, whatever, and you’re in your shed, do you have a routine? Do you have… you wake up at this time, you do this for the first half of the day? What’s your writing routine?

 

Tim

Yeah. Well, my writing routine is I’m not an early starter. So, I typically don’t start… I get up have a cup of coffee, have breakfast, I probably won’t start until 9:00 or 9:30. I will write straight through to 2:30 or 3:00, and then eat lunch. I’ve found after I eat lunch I get fatigued and sort of you need to start again. So, I try and get five or so good hours in before I take a break.

 

I’m very good at just plunking my bum on the seat at that time. But, also 9:00 to 3:00 also happened to coincide — my son has left home now, but used to coincide with school hours as well. Where I sort of threw him out before nine o’clock, get him off, and he would be home at 3:30. So, it was also governed by that.

 

But, yeah, different writers have different routines. But, mine is get up, have a bit of breakfast, start, go straight for five or six hours, then have lunch, relax a bit, then go back and look at what I’ve done. Usually, print it out in hard copy form, slightly different context. Looking at it on paper is different than looking at it on screen for some reason. I tend to go over what I’ve done for that day.

 

So, that’s my routine. It’s always been pretty much the same. When I was younger I used to write in long spurts, but these days I’m much more sort of routine-orientated and proud of it. But, it’s a habit, like most things. Once you get the habit and you just stick to it.

 

Valerie

It’s a discipline, isn’t it? You have to put your bum in that seat and not just hope that inspiration is going to hit you like a bolt of lightning.

 

Tim

You can’t think of an inspiration… you just do it. It’s like going swimming in winter, if you think about it you won’t do it. You know? You’ve just got to go and jump in.

 

Even if my mind is telling me, “No, you don’t want to do it today, not you’re not feeling like it…” As soon as I turn on that screen and it lights up I start. All of those doubts go away. So, you’ve got to get yourself to that point and you’re OK. Yeah, it’s a habit and it’s a good habit, you know? You can’t just write one thing. Inspiration, I find that inspiration and perspiration — the balance is pretty much the same. I’ve written horrible stuff when I’m inspired and I’ve written really good stuff when I haven’t been inspired, and vice versa. On the average it evens itself out.

 

Valerie

On that note, thank you so much for your time today, Tim.

 

Tim

Thank you very much, Valerie. Good to talk.

Jul 6, 2015 Podcasts Australian Writers' Centre Team

Written by Australian Writers' Centre Team

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