Laurence Timms is a script writer and novelist. I met him way back in 2009 at Adrian Mead’s Career Guide course when I was just starting out, and as well as having read some of his scripts through feedback exchange, I was impressed by his winning entry to the London Screenwriters’ Festival’s script competition in 2010. Since then, Laurence’s career has kicked off. I caught up with him to find out what he’s been up to…
1. You’ve been a little quiet on the blogosphere for quite some time! What’ve you been up to?
I’ve been writing a novel! It’s called Rule Zero. I’m going to get that in early. Actually, I was working on a film script and getting Rule Zero started at the same time and the novel gradually took over my writing life and snuffed everything else out, including my (admittedly intermittent) blogging and tweeting. I did finish the film script, though.
2. Would you recommend novel-writing to other screenwriters as another avenue for story ideas?
Writing a novel is hard work in the same way that screenwriting is hard work. It’s just a different kind of hard work.
I don’t think it’s for everyone, to be honest. I’d never tell a writer not to have a crack at it, but writing a novel is hard work in the same way that screenwriting is hard work. It’s just a different kind of hard work. But then anyone who has tried to write a treatment or a pitch knows that every kind of writing has its own unique challenges.
I haven’t found novel writing a unique genesis for new story ideas. I tend to have the ideas first and then decide on the most appropriate execution later. I wish I knew where the ideas come from. They tend to bubble up into my consciousness on those occasions when my brain is in neutral such as when I’m doing the washing up or sitting in a meeting.
3. How did you find the transition from screenwriting to novel-writing?
The discipline of screenwriting is an excellent proving ground for honest, hard-working writers. Lots of people think that writing a novel is just directing a stream of words onto a page like pissing in the snow, and you don’t tend to get so much of that attitude amongst serious screenwriters once they’re a couple of full-length scripts down the road. They understand that there are ground rules, and you’ve got to understand them before you go breaking them. I had to alter my rule set when it came to the novel, though.
Initially I found myself writing it in scene-by-scene mode and thinking way too much about elapsed time and visual cues.
After a while I realised I was missing a trick, that I wasn’t really plumbing the depths of what long form fiction could do. So I did what all writers do, and re-wrote until I was happy with it.
4. Would you consider adapting your own novel for the screen?
Yes, it’d be fun. It’d be a frighteningly expensive production, though. Helicopters, tanks, superpowers, explosions. London comes in for a serious hammering in Rule Zero. The CGI budget alone would be on a par with Avengers. I think perhaps I’d do something completely unexpected and write a radio or stage version of Rule Zero, just for laughs. I’d love to see it performed on a bare stage by the Reduced Shakespeare Company.
5. Now that you write in both disciplines, which would you say you prefer? Are there pros and cons to both of them?
When you’re writing your first novel there’s only one person you should be trying to entertain, and that’s yourself.
You could make the same argument about spec scripts, but when you’re screenwriting for real there are a whole bunch of people who need to buy into the script, not least the people who are financing it. When I’m writing for screen I have to keep this stuff in mind. When I’m writing a novel I can blow up the world for free.
I can see myself sticking with the novels for the time being.
Rule Zero is the first in a planned series, and I’d really like to get those books written over the next few years. That said, if someone comes up with an interesting screenwriting job then I might have to dust off my copy of Final Draft.
6. You’ve co-penned a feature, Survivors, that is now going into post production. Tell us about that – what’s it about, how did you come to be involved and should we expect to have nightmares after watching it?
I’d worked alongside the director and co-writer, Adam Spinks, on another project. He got in touch out of the blue and asked me to cast an eye over a script he’d written and give him some feedback. I did this with as much honesty and insight as I could muster and the upshot of that was that he asked me to get involved. We reworked the story together, made adjustments to characters and events while keeping true to his original vision, and I did some heavy lifting with the words and dialogue.
I don’t want to spoil things by giving too much of the story away, but essentially Survivors is a story about three people thrown together in the midst of an unfolding major-scale disaster.
It’s structured in a really unique way which I’d love to talk about in more detail but will have to wait for now! When it’s ready for release we’ll be blowing the metaphorical trumpets. Will you get nightmares? There’s every chance, yes. There are some scenes that have really stayed with me. Let it be known that I believe that things you can’t see are often more frightening than things you can see.
7. You’ve written across genres – you love comedy and drama, and Survivors looks pretty scary. Have you discovered a liking for one genre more than the others? What do you like about each?
I’ve always had a problem with genre. I never know what genre I’m meant to be in.
I write first and try to figure genre out later.
I think it’s perhaps because I’ve never been a fan of any one single genre, either in terms of film or in terms of novels. My all time favourite horror film, and I’m going to call it horror because it had me backed up against the bedroom wall gibbering with fear the first time I saw it, is Alien. It’s an absolute masterpiece in terms of script, dialogue (or lack thereof), direction, production design, everything. Loving Alien didn’t make me want to seek out other horror films though. It made me seek out other films that elicited a similarly vast emotional reaction, whether that reaction was horror, happiness, sadness, schadenfreude or sheer joy such as watching John McClane get the better of Gruber in the last few minutes of Die Hard. I’m an emotion junkie.
8. You’ve also been writing for the smart phone drama Persona. What’s that experience been like?
If you’ve ever had Phill Barron as your script editor then you’ll know: tough. I’m being light hearted, to be fair. Phill worked incredibly hard to make the Persona scripts as good as they could possibly be, and when you’ve got multiple interweaving stories with daily episodes that only get a minute or two to deliver the punch then you’ve got your work cut out. I enjoyed writing them, though.
Keeping them as short as they needed to be was a bit like painting a portrait on an inch-square piece of paper.
9. Do you prefer to write short works or lengthier works?
Longer. I’ve written a couple of short stories just to get my toe in the water, but I’ve never been a fan of short stories myself and I can’t see the point of writing something I wouldn’t read. I kind of believe in giving value for money. We’d feel short-changed if a feature film ran to less than 90 minutes, for example. There are some genre-based ground rules about the page count for novels and I’ve tried to bear those in mind when it came to Rule Zero. Of course I had to work out what genre it was first. I’m still not sure I know. Is there a contemporary fantasy/thriller/dark comedy genre?
10. What advice would you give to screenwriters or novelists who are just starting out – what’s the best way to advance?
The answer is boring and true. Work. Work hard, write lots, be self-critical (but not to the extent that you are frozen in self-analysis) and learn the dark art of re-writing.
Don’t bother sending your material to friends and relatives for feedback, you’ll only get good reviews.
Seek out peers who will give honest and insightful feedback. Accept that feedback in silence, digest it inwardly for a minimum of 24 hours before responding. Realise that rejection of your work is not rejection of you. Find your own voice. Read lots, watch lots, be inspired but don’t fall into the trap of copying. Don’t chase fads.
Be brave, write the novel – or script – that only you could possibly have written. Seek to divide opinion. It’s better to have a hundred ardent fans who hang on your every word than a thousand indifferent readers who’ll have forgotten they ever read your stuff in a month’s time.
Learn how to pitch. Learn how to speak with passion about your work, about your project, about your idea. Learn how to be concise, engaging and interesting. Learn how to write a one-page pitch document, a short treatment, a long treatment, a scene-by-scene treatment, a series bible.
Spread your network of contacts. Get in touch with other people in your chosen industry. Offer help. Be honest and complimentary. If you like something that someone’s done, tell them. Go to conventions, meetings and gatherings and treat this like work. If you meet film-makers then ask permission to pitch. Make more contacts. Maintain them over time. Express an interest in what other people are doing. Listen. Learn. Look for opportunities, angles. Make suggestions.
Don’t be an annoying arse or a timewaster. If you say you’re going to do something, do it. Above all, be yourself.
11. You’ve been successful in quite a few competitions, including London Screenwriters’ Festival short screenplay award, the Circalit television pilot competition and Red Planet Prize. What’s your advice to writers who are keen to enter competitions and initiatives?
They are an important part of the big picture, and an excellent way of honing your skills and building your writing muscle. Good to put on the CV too.
Only rarely, however, are they a direct gateway to success.
I know better writers than me who have won more prestigious awards and still not met with the success that they undoubtedly deserve. Likewise there are thousands of people earning a good living from their writing who have never entered a competition in their life. If you really want to go in for competitions always make sure you have a drawer full of solid, polished scripts good and ready to go. Don’t fling a rush job script into a competition, you’re just wasting your time. Really. I’ve made this mistake, so believe me.
12. What’s next on the cards? Any other/new projects in the pipelines?
I have a couple of very tentative leads on the screenwriting front but I’m really not chasing them at the moment. The next book in the Harry Bacon series, the successor to Rule Zero, needs writing.