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PEN Masterclasses 2004

Help for writers

A special report from the Masterclasses at the London Book Fair, March 2004


The 2004 Masterclasses at the London Book Fair were sponsored by the Daily Mail and organised with great flair by English PENSupported by eminent writers, this is the English branch of International Pen, which has centres in nearly 100 countries. It fights for freedom of expression and against political censorship. It campaigns for writers harassed, imprisoned and sometimes murdered for their views. They repeated a familiar formula, which nonetheless worked well, of two writers presenting and discussing their work, with a chair to coordinate the session.

Screenwriting for the cinema

This Masterclass involved Julian Fellows and Anthony Minghella. Julian is the actor-turned-screenwriter who was commissioned to write an original screenplay which became Gosford Park. This, he said was because: 'experienced screenwriters who understood what a still-room maid did were thin on the ground'. Anthony is the distinguished screenplay writer and director of The Talented Mr Ripley, The English Patient and Cold Mountain.

Both writers were generous in sharing their insights with the audience, through accounts of their own careers and ways of approaching the work, and answering many searching questions from the floor.

Julian said: 'For me it's about characters - you have to give the narrative through what people say.' He pointed out that people have to read scripts who don't know anything about them. You have to write enough for them to 'see' the script. It's important to see your early scripts as audition pieces, rather than something you're determined to see made into a film, so people get the chance to see you as someone they would like to work with. He emphasised though that: 'the only thing that will ever bring you any success or artistic satisfaction is what you have about you that no-one else has.'

Both writers talked about the importance of the individual writer's voice. You should find your USP and then use it to promote yourself. They also agreed on the way scriptwriting works. Anthony Minghella said that the way the action unfolded in his head was like 'witnessing an event in some kind of inner cinema.' He went on to describe the process of 'sharing some piece of interior choreography' since 'your inner screen has to be animated by sometimes a hundred people.'

They also advised writers to keep writing, rather than stopping to edit or forcing yourself to do a certain number of words a day. It's better to go back and rework it later. Anthony advised: ' If you're writing, just write. Don't have a rule which inhibits your writing.'

As regards getting work taken on, Anthony revealed that his own production company won't read a script unless it comes from an agent, because of potential litigation problems. He also said that he thought it more important to find a director to work with than it was to get an agent.

This concluded a fascinating and useful session, containing advice which would help and encourage any aspiring screenwriter. As Julian said in relation to getting your work taken on: 'You have to have a real core of believing that it's possible, then explore every avenue that is not connected to high cost.'

To contact English PEN