COMEDY WRITING: THE DIVINE ART

I’d never claim to be a comedy writer. It’s a hard row to hoe, whose best practitioners are among the finest writers in any genre, but who also suffer from chronic lack of respect – after all, it’s just a laugh, isn’t it? Still, I’ve written plenty of funny stuff in my time, including loads of animation and, with co-writer Peter Lawrence, several well-received comic novels and a bio of Keith Moon (not without laughs.) Equally to the point, I’m a lifelong comedy buff, the sort of person who’ll watch a TV sitcom if he’s familiar with the writer.

In a desperate attempt to hold back the effects of gravity and pizza, I row regularly. Not on the nearby Thames, but in the living room on a Water Rower, with a telly on the wall opposite to stave off tedium. Recently I acquired, via EBay, a collection of ‘classic’ British sitcoms on DVD, originally giveaways with the Daily Mail. Swallowing my natural aversion to the Rothermere product, I settled down, over the course of several weeks, to work my way through some landmark BBC comedy. I was interested to see which series stood the test of time and which didn’t. Were the seventies and eighties the high water mark of British TV comedy? Or would the water cooler shows of those times now seem dated, corny and irredeemably naff?

In some cases, my suspicions were confirmed, in others I was pleasantly surprised. Hancock is still great, due to the genius writing team of Simpson and Galton and the lad from East Cheam himself. Only Fools and Horses is still pretty funny, in spite of some rather iffy of-their-time racial references. One Foot In The Grave stands out for its superb plotting, the ability of writer David Renwick to drop surprise comic bombshells. I still enjoyed Hi De Hi – It Ain’t Half Hot Mum not so much. While comedy often deals in stereotype, Perry and Croft kept just the right side of the line in HDH, but went too far in Hot Mum. (Generally, they’re pitch perfect – witness the perennial appeal of Dad’s Army, still running forty-odd years after it was first shown.)

CHARACTER STUDIES

It’s been said that sitcom only works if everything works – script, cast, production – but watching these old shows made me realise how much good comedy relies on character. Plotting is great, gags are fine, but it’s the characters that reliably make us laugh. That’s usually why catchphrases work – they’re an integral part of the character that says them. Which leads me to Are You Being Served? This is a show that has attracted equal parts praise and opprobrium, both then and now. Does camp character Mr. Humphries present an unacceptable ‘mincing queen’ stereotype, or is he bravely out and proud in an era when the tabloid press routinely referred to gays as ‘poofs’ or worse? I always found the show funny (partly because I’d worked in a store very much like Grace Brothers) and looking back, I realise that again, it was the characters that made the show. The actors went to town on them, and in most cases it was their finest hour. Mollie Sugden was a fine actress with an impressive body of work, but she’ll always be remembered for her versatile and much-loved pussy.

Recently the BBC made a new ep of Are You Being Served?, with the show supposedly updated to the eighties. I tuned in without much hope – in my book, most remakes are pointless exercises – but was pleasantly surprised. I laughed quite a lot, and later, reviewing it in my mind, realized that writer and actors had again concentrated on the characters, sticking as closely as possible to the original template (and props to John ‘Boycey’ Challis here – his Captain Peacock was almost superior to Frank Thornton’s original.)

INTO THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

But what of the modern product? Do we have anything these days that stands up to comparison with the so-called ‘golden age’ of the seventies and eighties? Here goes – and I’m aware that comedy is the most subjective of all the art forms, one man’s hilarity being another man’s knuckle-gnawing tedium. First of all, much of the comedy from that era often wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I never found Till Death Us Do Part that funny (and a lot of it is wince-making now, despite writer Johnny Speight’s intention to satirise working-class Toryism rather than celebrate it.) Nor Steptoe and Son, nor The Good Life (although I loved Bob Larbey’s far less successful The Other One.)

Over the last couple of decades we’ve had the sharp satire of Ab Fab; the game-changing mockumentary style of The Office; the demented and often semi-surreal Father Ted; and the retro homage of Miranda. Which leads us to now. If you were to believe the pundits, TV comedy is currently a desert. I beg to differ. Plebs – writers Basden and Leifer – is sharp, filthy, and crucially, very funny. It’s been largely ignored, perhaps due to its berth on ITV3. Robert Popper’s Friday Night Dinner has got funnier and funnier as the series have progressed (in passing, Mark Heap’s loony neighbour is superb.) Greg Davies’s Man Down is consistently entertaining, and occasionally hilarious.

But to me the current reigning monarch of TV comedy is Sharon Horgan. A few years back Pulling raised the bar for anarchic, female-centric mayhem, and recently Catastrophe confirmed that Horgan has staying power. But with the recently broadcast one-off The Circuit, documenting a dinner party from the deepest abysses of hell, she staked a claim to Mike Leigh territory and established herself as a major comic writing talent.

Denmark has apparently got the happiest population in the world, and it does sound like a nice place to live. But it’s never going to produce a B B King or a Lenny Bruce, or for that matter a Hancock. Too happy, see? By the same token, the UK is full of miserable exploited bastards who are scraping by on fourpence a week and spending tuppence of it getting off their heads. But we’ve always produced great comedy, from music hall stage to the age of the podcast. In my opinion TV sitcom is in rude health, only matched by our reputation for stand-up. Nice to know we lead the world in something.

 

 

 

 

BRILLIANT REVIEWS FOR NEW BOOK!

“… quite the page-turner… a strong central character… slick and pacy… action-packed… strong characters… I really enjoyed it… an accomplished writer…

Actually these snippets are not from reviews, but they are genuine comments, taken from rejection letters for a novel which my writing partner Peter and I currently have doing the rounds of publishers. It’s only gone to a few, so it’s early days (authors rejected by dozens of publishers include John Le Carre, Orwell and J K Rowling) but what’s dispiriting is that all of the above comments – which, strung together, really would be a brilliant review – came with the inevitable ‘but’: “I don’t like the subsidiary characters,” “it could have gone deeper into this or that,” “the plot needed to be simpler,” and so on.

I’m not complaining – we’ve got a brilliant agent, who I’m sure will sooner or later be able to place the work. But I can’t help thinking that there was a time when publishers actually nurtured writers, taking them on even if their work wasn’t perfect as it stood, offering expert advice and editorial input that would allow them to publish a book with the kind of attributes they were looking for, without the aspects they didn’t want. Because they will have gone back to the author and said, “we love the book, except for this bit or these bits, which we want you to fix. And by the way, here are some ideas about how we want you to fix them.”

Peter and I might have been spoiled by the fact that our first book was published by the wonderful Quartet Books back in the seventies, whose original owners were enthusiasts who did exactly what I I’ve described above: liaised with their authors and offered advice. They were editors as well as proprietors. Moving on a few years, ‘Full Moon,’ our bio of Keith Moon, was originally published by W H Allen back in the eighties, under similar circumstances: the commissioning editor who bought the book loved it, but didn’t think it was perfect. He sent us away to fix what he didn’t like, and we did. On the basis that a fresh pair of eyes can see things that the author can’t, I think it was probably a better book for it (and as it slowly became the classic chronicle of rock’n’roll excess, eventually being republished by the illustrious Faber & Faber a few years ago, between us we must have been doing something right.)

But there came a point in the nineties, when I placed a YA novel with a London publisher that’s now a household name, that I found that all that was over and done with. In the first place, it seemed that the commissioning editor literally didn’t want to talk to me (or any other authors, I later found out.) I couldn’t get hold of her or her minions by phone, and only rarely by email. Essentially, she only contacted me when it suited her – I was basically just an outworker who happened to provide the product upon which her whole edifice company. This non–communication meant that my approval of the cover, despite being contractually required, was overlooked, resulting in a disaster of a cover that did nothing to help the book’s chances. That’s not all though. My line editor – the one whose job it was to go through the book to check for inaccuracies and inconsistencies – was a freelance, who I never saw or had a conversation with (she was also useless, actually changing correct things to incorrect things, but that’s another story.)

So even then I could see which way the wind was blowing and now, anecdotally at any rate, the situation is much, much worse. As the publishing industry boils down to a few big global players, they are looking more and more for sure-fire best-sellers that are guaranteed to boost their profit margins, with little interest in nurturing talent for the long term, to taking a punt on material that’s outré, out of left field, obscure, weird or unpolished. In particular, to go back to my opening argument, it seems that they are looking for books that can be published virtually without alteration; without the faff of having staff liaising with authors, without the expense of competent in-house editors, and ideally without having to make any alterations to the manuscript, which should arrive on their doormats perfect, fully-formed, without a comma having to be changed. It reminds me of the music business in the seventies, when the Holy Grail was someone coming into the record company office with a demo which was not only a potential hit but which could be released as was, with no further alteration.

Finally, just to end on a depressing note, here’s a precis of part of a presentation recently given by Angela Bole, CEO of the Independent Book Publishers Association, about publishing trends for 2016: “Hybrid publishing will become a more prominent business model, with publishers acquiring authors that subsidize their own work. This is not vanity publishing. These publishers follow a traditional acquisitions process, vetting new titles, and offering traditional sales channels. As self-publishing continues to grow, the demand for hybrid publishing will grow with it. This is the alternative for people who want to publish their book but can’t find an in into the traditional sales channel, and don’t want to have to market and sell books themselves. We have to leave space for these kinds of emerging models in the industry, and I predict that we will see this continue to grow in the future.”

To me this is truly astonishing. In a world in which it is already difficult enough for writers to make a living at all, let alone a good one, it now seems that publishers are expecting us to enthusiastically embrace the worst of all worlds: we’ll suffer from publishers’ traditional incompetence and half-heartedness, poor editing and mostly-asleep publicity departments, while at the same time having to pay for it. To go into review mode: “sorry, the idea is just too far-fetched.”

BREXIT – FADE TO BLACK

Going back a few years, I was a mentor on a two-part scriptwriting workshop that took place in Poland and Germany, with Polish, German and British involvement in its funding and organisation. Between the first and second halves of the workshop, the British funding was suddenly pulled, so abruptly that the British organiser was unable to pay for the flight to attend the second session. It turned out to be a sign of things to come, with successive workshops lacking British funding entirely and the British contingent of students getting fewer and fewer. Since the Brexit vote, I see this as a metaphor: as Britain becomes more and more a hard-right, market-driven society – as will be the inevitable result of this turkeys-voting-for-Christmas event – the ideas of co-operation, internationalism, all that hands-across-the-water crap that sustains the likes of us creative types, will wither and shrivel even further.

Take a look at the leaders of this revolution: Johnson, Gove and Farage. Johnson’s a hard-right ideologue in buffoon’s clothing, who has pursued a career as a Murdoch lackey. Gove as Education Secretary famously pulled To Kill A Mocking Bird and Of Mice and Men from the school curriculum. While Farage… well, what can I say? He is on record as saying that he doesn’t listen to music, watch TV or read books. Of course at presstime there’s no saying who, if any, of this gruesome trio will end up in positions of power (Farage is already whining that he’s being excluded from the negotiating table – apparently, hard-right politicians are not very nice, who knew?) But in setting a general tone, it’s not looking good.

Back in May I wrote a blog outlining what I thought the result might be for writers and other creatives if the UK voted this way. I wasn’t sanguine about our prospects then, and now it’s actually happened, I’m even less sanguine. With successive right-leaning governments since 1979 (and I’m putting the New Labour lot into that category) there has been a progressive erosion of support and funding for the arts and creative industries, to the extent that it’s a wonder that our creative people have managed to survive, let alone hold their position amongst the world’s finest. They – we – have somehow managed to thrive in spite of official and governmental indifference. Now, with an incoming regime which will probably make the Thatcher era look like some kind of hippy-dippy love-fest, the situation looks blacker than ever.

Although at presstime there’s no certainty as to what’s actually going to happen post-Brexit (clearly there was no Plan A, B or C in place) there’s a pretty good likelihood that there will be some cobbled-together alliance of – I nearly said crypto-fascists, but that’s a bit seventies-ish – right-wing ideologues, steering the ship of state. For us, the creative community, it’s likely to be a catastrophe (and I know this sounds like a classic ‘first world problem’, but hey, we live in the first world.)

Leaving aside the lack of empathy at state level, in practical terms the only way is down. Clearly, while the new government is busy building a hospital a week and giving everyone in Sunderland a thousand quid, the arts and creative industries are going to have to take a back seat, and by back seat I mean a small fold-down just behind the guard at the back of the guard’s van. One of my colleagues, a long-time pan-European creative consultant, is already talking about relocating from London to Berlin (and that’s probably going to be difficult enough.) For people involved in animation (another area in which we’re among the world leaders) it’s as though a rug has been whipped out from under our feet. Most of the work I’ve done over the last ten or fifteen years has been either been directly for European production houses, or for European co-productions, in some case involving four or five different countries (could be a nightmare to work on, by that’s another story.)

At the very least, the layers of bureaucracy involved are likely to reduce the possibility of such co-productions if not eliminate them altogether. We’ve all got used to European co-operation, we’ve taken it for granted, as can be seen by the reaction of other creative industries: advertising for example, with big players reporting large chunks of business being pulled. The music industry, the ultimate cross-border business, had its say in a pre-vote Twitter poll, with a resounding 91% saying it would be bad news.

I could go on, but you get the general idea. What can we do? Well, individual writers are often at the bottom of the food chain (I once heard a producer describing us as being ‘two a penny’) but at times like this, we probably need to put that commission (if we’re lucky enough to have one) aside for a moment and have our say, in blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, any medium in which we can make our voices heard. I’ve already seen a handful of posters on windows proclaiming “Brexit – not in my name!’ We need to make it clear that’s where we stand too.

IN OR OUT – A WRITER’S P.O.V.

In a quiet, leafy area a mile or so from the centre of Brussels, there’s an imposing period building that houses a number of businesses and enterprises. One entire floor is taken up by an arts organisation, which, judging by the elegant panelled rooms and up-to-date equipment, and the fact that it’s situated in Brussels, you might think is the hub of some vast pan-European, or even international organisation. In fact, it houses Vlaams Audiovisueel Fonds, aka the Flanders Audiovisual Fund. This is an organisation devoted to supporting and funding the audio-visual arts in Flanders.

Here’s an extract from the VAF’s manifesto: “The aims of the Flanders Audiovisual Fund are threefold: to develop a sustainable audiovisual industry, to encourage and support upcoming audiovisual talent and to promote a vibrant audiovisual culture in Flanders. VAF accomplishes four main tasks. It provides financial support for audiovisual productions (1) and promotes these in Flanders as well as abroad (2). The Fund also grants scholarships, finances professional training and supports/organises workshops (3) as well as carries out surveys on the audiovisual field (4).”

Impressive, eh? I think so – and I have to emphasize that this organisation is for the benefit of Flanders, not the whole of Belgium. Flanders is about the size of the West Country, and although it’s densely populated, it’s home to no more than about 6 million people – half the population of London. I know all this because a couple of times now, the VAF has invited me to conduct short scriptwriting workshops for students of animation. Good fun on both occasions, and judging by the feedback, the students seemed to get something out of the sessions.

However, bear with me; I’m not just blowing my own trumpet. The point I’m leading to is that here, young people working in the visual arts are being supported. Not just by being able to pick the brains of a ‘veteran scriptwriter’ (as one of them described me) imported from the UK, but by a whole range of support services, particularly financial. Not long after my last session I heard that one of my students had received the funds to have their (excellent) project fully produced.

This nurturing culture is not confined to Flanders, or to Belgium. Over the last few years I’ve led many European scriptwriting workshops, and again and again my students – whether they’re from Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden or Poland – have mentioned that they’re developing their projects with a view to gaining funding. Even if they’re developing projects for their own pleasure or satisfaction, there’s a chance that they may be able to apply for, and receive, financial support. What’s more, funding bodies are often local, even more local than the Flanders fund.

Nice work if you can get it – and in the UK, by and large, you can’t. There are few funds available to support creative projects, and what there are aimed more at the ‘fine arts’ end – particularly writers of novels. Although Britain is still a world leader in the creative arts, particularly television, it is in spite of rather than because of encouragement and support by the state.

Why does this matter? Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment. The French film industry is often derided for its pretentious, self-consciously ‘arty’ output, the result, critics say, of its sucking at the government teat, of not having to stand on its own two feet. Of course, there’s something in that argument, but counter to it is the fact that France retains a thriving industry that is distinctively French, and that regularly manages to turn out artistic and commercial successes alike.

By comparison, the British film industry, always oscillating between boom and bust, seems doomed – with a few honourable exceptions – to churn out either ‘diamond geezer’ gang movies or period toffery. Meanwhile, publishers’ lists are filling up with ghost-ridden celebrity drivel, while actual writers find their incomes in freefall. (Just today I read about an elaborate launch party for the debut novel of ‘Lady’ Victoria Hervey – a woman hitherto known mainly for falling out of her clothes on various red carpets.)

The official British attitude – more so than ever with the current government – is that everything must have a monetary value. Ideally, an immediate monetary value. Long-term cultural strategy? Nah. Wellbeing of the artistic and creative community? You’ll be lucky. All right then – how about ‘it’s the duty of the state to foster an educated, aware and questioning population, who in the long run are likely to be happier and more productive?’ I should coco. With a Culture Secretary with no apparent interest in culture, who seems more interested in whipping the BBC into submission and having a professional dominatrix do the same to him, this situation doesn’t look likely to change any time soon.

Back to my headline question – in or out? I’m not going to pretend to offer a balanced view – I’m a lifelong internationalist, and don’t think there’s a single good reason for cutting ties to Europe. But as a writer, I’d naturally like to see opportunities for people in the creative fields expand rather than contract, and as things stand in the UK – and as they are going – I think this is unlikely to happen. I doubt that the environment for writers and creative will radically improve if we do stay in the EU, but I think that they’ll get worse if we don’t.

It’s a question of tone as much as anything else. It’s already feared that the government will make a bonfire of workers’ rights if we pull out, and I suspect that Brexit will also make things worse for creatives. The market will become even more of a free-for-all, and it will become ever harder for writers and their like to make a living. (Just as an aside, look at the leading lights of the Brexiteers: Johnson, Duncan Smith, Gove, Galloway, Farage – every one a potential book-burner if you ask me.)

Having worked for several French production houses over the years, every month or so I get a handy payment, sometimes for shows that I worked on more than a decade ago. These payments are courtesy of the SACD – the Societe des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques – a French organisation that takes the radical view that scriptwriters and authors should be properly paid for what they do. As I understand it, there’s a pot of money that producers and other ne’er-do-wells (just kidding, producers) can’t touch. It’s purely for writers, and gets distributed when shows get repeated, sold abroad and so on. Of course the ALCS performs a similar role in the UK, but I can’t help noticing that, script for script, the SACD is the organisation that coughs up the more serious funds. In my view, France has got the right idea.

Overall, I doubt whether the UK exits or remains will make much material difference to writers, at least not in the short term. Times will probably be hard, and continue to get harder, whether Britain stays in or decides to go it alone. But in terms of setting a broad cultural agenda, I think Brexit would send a signal to the free marketeers and the cultural deadheads, and that message would be something along the lines of ‘thank God we’re rid of those continentals and their poncey, artsy-fartsy subsidizing ways.’ Which is why, come June 23rd, I shall be marking the box marked ‘remain.’

 

 

 

CAN YOU LEARN TO WRITE?

No. Not really. But you can learn to write better, if you have some talent, or flair, to begin with. As the actor Steve Martin famously remarked: “Some people have a way with words, and other people… oh, uh, not have way.” You need that way, and if you haven’t got it, no amount of creative writing courses or workshops is going to make much difference (although your grammar and spelling might improve, which is always good.) It’s the same with most branches of the arts: you could (probably) teach a chimpanzee to play the piano if you gave him enough time and enough bananas, but the end result wouldn’t be art, or even entertainment. Because by and large, chimps don’t have a flair for music.

So, flair, talent, call it what you will – what else do you need? Something else that can’t be taught: the ability to come up with ideas. Good ones, preferably. A young acquaintance recently sent me some fragments of her writing, just a few hundred words each, stream of consciousness really. They weren’t poems, they weren’t journalism, they didn’t fit into any recognizable format, so weren’t publishable. But they had an energy and rhythm that showed that the writer did have a way with words. Even better, there were the beginnings of original ideas swimming around in there, unformed and undeveloped, but ideas nevertheless.

My old friend and long-time writing partner Peter Lawrence has recounted how, as showrunner, he picked new writers for the iconic show Thundercats. He was prepared to overlook inexperience and unfamiliarity with the format, provided the script had an imaginative idea at heart. Scripts can be edited for structure, style, dialogue but you can’t edit in a good basic idea.

Flair, talent, ideas, they all coalesce in the creative imagination. It’s not a coincidence that people proficient in one branch of the arts often excel in another form: Steve Martin (again) is an interesting writer and a banjo player of professional standard; funny man and movie star Dudley Moore was an internationally recognized jazz pianist; writer Henry Miller was an internationally exhibited artist, as was ‘godfather of punk’ William S. Burroughs. There are many more examples. Flair, imagination, ideas, these guys had them all in spades.

So if you can’t learn to write, what can you learn? I have to go back a few years, to 2004, when I was first asked to mentor at a scriptwriting workshop. I was a little sceptical, as my writing career had been firmly based around the principle of ‘write; then write some more; then write some more.’ Honing my craft, I’d worked as a journalist and an advertising copywriter. I wrote a lot, and over the course of the years worked out what was bad and what as good, and bit by bit impressed enough people that I was able to make a living at it. Workshop? A word that I’d hitherto only associated with piles of old tyres and an ailing Ford Mondeo on a ramp. However, I said yes, as I was curious, I was going to get paid, and I make it a professional rule to say yes to everything.

Truthfully I had no idea what to expect, or even what I was supposed to do, but over the course of the first week, at a big old house in the Kent countryside, it slowly became apparent that I wasn’t expected to be a teacher of writing – the participants all had at least some professional experience – but a kind of roving counsellor-cum-sounding-board-cum-sympathetic ear. I was able to help not by commenting on paragraph structure or the minutiae of dialogue, but by talking, guiding, suggesting, throwing ideas at the participants that they might not have thought of themselves.

What I was offering them was the practical expertise that I’d built up over the course of a couple of decades, helping them out of holes that y might have written themselves into, working with them to make their projects as good as they possibly could be. Often, it was simply a case of pointing out a way forward that hadn’t occurred to them: “why don’t you try this?”, “why don’t  you try that?” In the end you have to teach yourself, and a good educator is someone who gives you the tools and inspiration to do just that.

I also quickly realised that what I was doing was what a good editor does: clearing a way for the writer to best realize their ‘vision’, without compromising their creative signature. Like most writers, over the years I’ve edited and I’ve been edited, and I’ve come to realise that the greatest gift the good editor can bring to a project is simply a second pair of (informed, interested, expert) eyes. When you’re working on a project, there’s always a point at which you can’t see the wood for the trees. To mix metaphors, you’re so involved in nurturing your baby that you don’t notice that it has an extra couple of toes. It takes someone else to do that, to gently point the fact out, and to suggest solutions. Many psychiatrists see psychiatrists: to quote a fictional example, in The Sopranos, Tony’s psychiatrist Dr. Melfi regularly sees a psychiatrist herself, colleague Dr. Kupferberg, to maintain and tune her own mental balance.

What else? Well, interest is all. I’m a lifelong jazz fan and occasional musician, and if I can’t play something, at least I know how it should be played, because I love the music and have spent countless hours listening to top players. But from talking to music teachers, I know that many come to jazz playing without any real history of listening – they’ve heard Norah Jones in a wine bar and think they like jazz, whereas what they like is something that sounds a bit like jazz. If you’re not into it, why would you want to play it? Same with writing – if you’re not a reader, you’ll probably never be a writer, and why would you want to be? Again I, and others in my field, report that many would-be writers seem to have read little. Or, if they’re scriptwriters, they don’t have a working knowledge of the classic movies or TV shows, even in the field they’re working in.

So, to go back to my original thesis – can you learn to write? No – but if you’ve got the spark, the basic skills, the right help can make a difference. Help you speed the process up. Perhaps help you bypass some of the heavy lifting that writers had to do before the advent of creative writing courses and the like. My experience of workshops over the years has shown me that overall, they provide a positive and inspiring experience for both mentors and participants. The people who take them already pretty much know to write; but by listening, trying this, trying that, experimenting within a nurturing environment, they can learn how to write just a little bit better.

 

SAT NAV FOR WRITERS…

The great thing about writing rules is that they’re there to be broken –  just ask Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and any number of others. In any event, these aren’t even rules, they’re just a rough guide, a sat nav if you like, that can get you onto the right road, and, most of the time, get you where you want to go. However, if you wanted to go to Hampton Court  and ended up at a block of flats in North London, well, you should have glanced at a map too. By which I mean that these are just tips that I’ve worked out for myself over the years. Mostly, but not always, they’re useful…

1: Keep going 

Don’t be discouraged if you have a sneaking suspicion that what you’ve just written is rubbish. All writers know the feeling, however long they’ve been at it. Just press on. Don’t look back. Get to the end. Then go back and assess what you’ve done. Chances are that what you wrote first time wasn’t so bad, and if it was: so what? As the old Hollywood saying has it, writing is re-writing.

2: It’s in there somewhere

Whatever you’re writing – book, TV ep, screenplay – don’t think of it as linear. Instead, consider it as a whole, as if you’re starting off with a block of stone and creating a statue. Somewhere in that block is the story you want, you’ve just got to chip off the rest of the stone. As you’re writing, think forward, think back, make the connections that turn a sequence of events into a coherent story.

3: Set yourself a target


Set yourself a daily word or page goal. 1000 words or 7 or 8 pages of a script is a reasonable target – although some can write much more (and some less.) At 1000 words a day, in a couple of months you’d have most of a novel.

4: Make a plan

Everyone who works in TV or film is familiar with writing to an outline, sometimes provided by others. Literary novelists may scoff, but it’s generally useful to map out a narrative in advance. At the very least, it’ll provide a rope and tackle to help climb that mountain of a first draft, and you don’t have to stick to it rigorously (or at all.)

5: Cut and cut again

When you’re getting close to final draft stage, analyse every line. What is it doing? Why is it there? Is it funny? Is it dramatic? Does it illuminate character? Is it advancing the story? If it’s not really doing anything, cut it. Very few pieces of work have ever suffered by being made shorter. As Truman Capote said ““I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”