Kathy Fuller: What Writers Can Learn from My Mad Fat Diary

It’s not what you think…or maybe it is.

by Kathy Fuller

I LOVE BBC television. I’m a big fan of their short seasons, clever writing, tight plotting, and real characters. But I’m also envious of BBC. The writers seem to have much more freedom to be honest, messy, and politically incorrect. They take chances. My Mad Fat Diary is one of them.

The story premise (based very loosely on the published diary of Rae Earl) is straightforward: set in 1996, an overweight teen with self-esteem issues re-enters the world after a stint in a mental hospital. Rae’s issues have issues–she’s fat, her mother is self-centered, her father is absent, her best friend is often her worst enemy…the list goes on. To deal, she overeats, cuts herself, and is suicidal. Pretty much your standard angst-ridden coming-of-age story.

Except when it’s not. There’s an excellent balance between melodrama and humor. The pacing is slightly askew and impulsive, just like teenage life. Basic writing formula is present, but it’s often turned on it’s head. So what can writers learn from this show?

1) Be real. This show can be painful to watch. Rae treats her mother horribly, but her mother gives it right back. The family is broken and we don’t just see it, we feel it. No sugar coating, or worse, manipulation. Every real moment is grounded in the real moment before it, and all of it is a reflection of life, whether in England or the US or 1996 or 2013.

2) Be fearless. Conflict abounds in this series. Rae is put through hell every episode–friends turn on her, she suffers embarrassing moments by the dozen, she and her mother can barely speak without drawing each other’s blood. But Rae has to go through the fire in order to be changed–for better or worse–by the end of the series. One step forward always leads three steps back.

3) Be funny. I’m all about the humor, and with this kind of heavy material, humor is a must. Of course it’s sarcastic, dry, witty humor (my favorite) but it serves an important purpose. It also comes organically–Rae is a funny girl, not just when she needs to be. It’s part of who she is, which one reason the viewer wants her to win.

4) Be inventive. This show uses different story-telling devices–flashbacks, dream sequences, protagonist narration, and graffiti-type overlays. None of that is inventive, and they’ve all been overused. But when sprinkled throughout each episode they enhance the story, like seasoning a fine meal.

My Mad Fat Diary has it’s flaws. At times it’s too rushed, and the finale should have been stretched out to two episodes. The key to this show (and to all writing) is balance, and at times the lopsidedness is glaring. But like Rae and life in general, nothing is perfect. I hope next season the writing is just as top-notch. Unfortunately I have to wait until 2014 to see it.

Kathy Fuller: 5 Ways You’re Accidentally Making Everyone Hate You

So what does the above title have to do with writing?

1) The article is written by David Wong, a writer/novelist/my-book-is-now-a-movie-guy that I could easily hate, but because of this article I understand why I don’t have to.

2) The writing biz, whether you’re slaving in Hollywood or slaving in Ismay, Montana, (pop. 19) is filled with EGOS. The only way to avoid dealing with EGOS is to never let your writing see the light of day, and of course that’s not what you’re going to do. So navigating those EGOS while you pitch, produce, refine, get rejected, wallow in self-pity, then do it all over again is key to survival.

Also, there’s some good general life advice here, too. Let’s stop the hate, shall we? Read on:

I hate them already.
KF: I hate them already.

5 Ways You’re Accidentally Making Everyone Hate You

by David Wong

Have you recently had friends, co-workers, or strangers suddenly get pissed off at you for what seemed like no reason at all? Maybe you told yourself that they were overreacting or being too sensitive, or that they had no right to be angry when you clearly didn’t mean to do whatever you did (and in fact aren’t even sure what it was). If you’re a socially inept type like me, I bet you’ve had this happen within the last month.

Well, I’m here to help. Fortunately, I am the nation’s foremost expert on social missteps, with more than 30 years of experience in the field (some of you know me as the best-selling author of I Couldn’t Help But Notice Your Father’s Corpse Had a Boner: The Psychology of the Socially Awkward Man, MacMillan, 2008), and I have found that the answer to “Why is everyone suddenly mad at me?” is usually one of the following.

Hint: It’s almost always about power.

Read more

Kathy Fuller: Check Your Attitude at the Door

by Kathy Fuller

Attitude

I just finished reading Herbie J. Pilato’s post: Kindness Trumps Talent, which is a great piece about how passion and attitude can often overcome a lack of talent. Mr. P. was talking about actors and acting, but this also applies to writing.

Writing is, for the most part, a solitary endeavor. Sure you can interact with other people through brainstorming, critiquing, and liquid lunches bemoaning the state of publishing/television/movies/society in general. But putting words on paper and then editing those words until they become a literary masterpiece requires only one person. Writing can be done by committee, but the physical act still rests on a single person’s shoulders. Or should I say fingertips.

But after the writing is done there are still people to deal with, and no one wants to deal with a supercilious writer. Whether you’re pitching your TV pilot, conferencing with an editor on your latest book, or talking to the media about your upcoming project, check your attitude at the door. Better yet, leave it at home.

  • Be sure to smile, even if you don’t feel like it.
  • Be easy to work with, even if the person you’re working with is a moron.
  • Be approachable, even if you’d rather be left alone (which most writers prefer).
  • Be kind, even if you normally make Gregory House M.D. look like a sweetheart. Like Mr. P. said, kindness trumps talent.
  • Be funny, even if you have to work on it. A sense of humor is endearing. Be snarky, or clever, or goofy. Just don’t be obnoxious.
  • Be passionate about your work, even if at times you wonder why you ever decided to be a writer.

You need to cultivate a good reputation to survive in this business. No one wants to work with a diva or a divo. Polish your social skills with the same zeal you use to polish your final draft, and you’ll have an advantage over the competition.

Kathy Sees AMERICA IN PRIMETIME

Hello, stereotypical American family.
Hello, stereotypical American family.

by Kathy Fuller

Netflix–the gift that keeps on giving. This week I watched America in Primetime, a four-part series about…television. Combining interviews with showrunners, actors, and archival footage from the 50s through the current decade, this documentary is definitely worth six hours of your life (I suck at math so maybe its a little more than six or a little less, who cares).

The first episode, “Man of the House”, is about how male characters and viewpoints have evolved on television and in America. The second ep, “Independent Woman”…I’ll let you guess. Those were interesting enough but it’s the third and fourth eps, “The Misfit” and “The Crusader” that were really interesting to me, because there’s a lot of discussion about writing and characterization and why people identify with certain shows and characters who exist outside the norm. I found the discussion about Dexter to be particularly interesting (and it’s at the very end of the series, so watch the whole thing folks) because this character and series are so polarizing that David Simon won’t watch the show. To find out why, you’ll have to see this documentary.

It’s all pretty thought provoking and provides great insight into writing and development. Since it’s a documentary and tries to cover many different eras, there’s a lot of skimming the surface here–an entire episode could have centered around the nuances of The Wire, for example–but IMO it’s a must watch for writers, whether you’re planning to go into television or not.

TVWriter™ Contribs See MAN OF STEEL Pt. 1 – Kathy

For reasons we aren’t certain of, MAN OF STEEL has become the most-discussed film of the year among TVWriter™ visitors/staff/students/fans. Here’s the first of two passionate viewpoints:

by Kathy Fuller

Oh, Henry.
Oh, Henry.

Continuing onward with my #1 summer activity, I went to the movies again and saw Man of Steel. Now, I love me some superhero movies. I don’t care if they’re from DC or Marvel, I enjoy them all. So Man of Steel would have to literally be unwatchable for me not to enjoy it. And enjoy it I did. But it’s not without its problems.

First, the good. I loved the story concept. The CGI was very cool–I kinda wish I hadn’t made a vow for eternity not to watch another 3D movie, because I think this one would have been excellent in that format. The casting was spot on. And I’m not afraid to swim in the shallow end and say Henry Cavill is so easy on the eyes it’s hard to believe he’s real. Despite all that, there were two main problems with the movie.

1) Dialogue. As the movie progressed I started to feel like I’d heard all this before. Which was stupid because it’s been years since I’ve seen a Superman movie and it wasn’t like the lines were lifted straight from the comic books. (They weren’t, were they?)

Then halfway through I realized the problem–George Lucas. The stilted and at times corny dialogue sounded straight out of the Star Wars prequels. Everyone sounded the same. Some of the actors even delivered their lines identically: A few words, a long pause as if they needed to reach for an inhaler to continue, then end the sentence. The only two characters who made this work were Clark and Jor-el. Being from a more advanced planet, stilted made sense. Coming from Lois Lane, not so much. I think the actors tried to give trite, meaningless, over-explaining dialogue some gravitas but it didn’t really work.

2) Characterization. The big story question facing Kal-el is whether he will choose to save his own people or save the humans. In order for his choice to make sense (the humans, of course) he’d have to be motivated to save them. We get tiny glimpses of this motivation–his close relationship with his human parents (told in flashback) his connection with Lois Lane (which is so superficial you’d think he’d never seen a girl before she came into his life) and the Snidely Whiplash evil of Zod (so completely over the top I wanted a mute button every time he spoke). There are also a few scenes of him being compelled to save humans (again shown in flashback) and holding back his anger when provoked by bullies–guess how that part of the story was told? All this is good in theory, but the execution is one big fat fail.

The use of nonlinear storytelling and numerous flashbacks crush the character of Superman. He makes no real human connections. There’s one scene of adult Superman talking with his human mother, but it’s short and like his relationship with Lois, superficial. All the emotional notes are in the flashbacks, leaving very little insight into the heart of adult Superman. He doesn’t choose to save humans because he wants to, it’s because he’s compelled–or even programmed, since he seems almost computer-esque at times–to that purpose. Basically Superman 2013 is really Robo-Superman.

I caught glimpses of what this film could have been through Cavill’s performance. The times he was allowed to show emotion–a smile, an angry roar, a confused lift of the brow–gave Superman some humanity. But then the scene would abruptly cut off to a sterile, stone-faced Superman. Or Zod. Or Lois. For most of the movie they look constipated, both physically and emotionally.

All this was a reminder to make sure I give my own characters opportunities to hit the emotional beats. It’s also a reminder not to be fancy with the storytelling for the sake of being “different”. This is a genre movie. It has rules for a reason. Plot is important but character is key, and when storytelling gets in the way of character then you have…Man of Steel. 

The second POV on MAN OF STEEL is here.