Monday 7 January 2013

10 New Years Resolutions That Every Writer Should Break (and 5 They Shouldn't)

It’s that time of year again. The time for self-flagellation and not even in the good, 50 Shades way. It’s the time of year when you berate yourself for not being the non-smoking, teetotal, marathon-running fully-rounded, successful human being with a BMI in single figures that you wanted to be twelve months ago.

And writers are the worst offenders when it comes to self-loathing. We don’t watch the new season of TV drama with joy and hope in our hearts. We watch it with barely concealed jealousy and bitter hatred like Gollum with a laptop. Why haven’t we got our own series yet? Why didn’t we pitch a period drama about a fucking nineteenth century shopkeeper? We should have known! We should have had that idea. We wants the precious! Commission, that is.

And so as we watch the Hootenanny over the last of the Pringles and Baileys, we vow that next year will be different. Next year we’ll be watching clips of our show edited together with an edgy cover version soundtrack. Yeah, Original British Drama? We’re having double helpings of that.

Sidebar: Although I still question how ‘original’ the plethora of adaptations, reboots and period dramas actually are, but maybe that’s just me.

And so we make the same resolutions as last year. And then we’ll break them. And on the 31st of December 2013 we’ll probably be listening to boogie woogie piano and feeling shit again. BUT NO! Not on my watch. This year I’m here to help and tell you not only why you should make those resolutions but why you SHOULD break them. Here’s the top ten…

1. I will no longer procrastinate. I will sit at my desk, fire up Final Draft and just write.

Bollocks. Procrastination is to writers, as breathing is to other more fortunate human beings (the ones that don’t feel compelled to write). Accept that it is part of your process and that whilst you’re googling cute cat videos, you are actually working. The reason you haven’t put your fingers on the keyboard and started to type is because you haven’t anything to type yet. What’s floating about the back of your brain is still making its journey to the front. You have to give it a chance. And you know what will put the pedal to the metal? A deadline. You might still be at your desk at 4am and hating yourself for pissing away days of crystal clear writing time but the next broken resolution will help with that…

2. I will treat my writing like a job and work 9 ‘til 5.

Who died and made you Dolly Parton? This is the year when you will accept that writing is not a 9 to 5. If you wanted one of those then you’d get a proper job. You have to take the rough with the smooth. Sure there’ll be days when you’re sobbing into your keyboard during the wee small hours or bashing away whilst everyone else is watching The X-Factor. But there will also be days when you’ll be able to walk around Ikea without feeling homicidal because you could legitimately go on a weekday; instead of Saturday when all the couples go there for a bag of tealights and relationship endangering argument. Why not? You worked the weekend; you earned your stress free meatballs. Write when you can, not when you think you should.

3. I’m going to totally focus on finishing my one big project.

Well, done, you’ve just committed career suicide. We all have the dream script that we want to write when the time is right. When there are no distractions and when we can do the research, write without interruptions or having to break off. Guess what? That time will never happen. Actually, the more successful you are, less likely that dream time will ever exist. The reality of being a jobbing TV writer who can still pay the rent is that you have to multitask. You have to be writing a final draft, whilst putting together a treatment and pitching for your next job after that. And the reality is that, if you’re lucky, one in ten of your projects will get anywhere. If you focus on just one project you are going to be royally screwed if it goes south. And it more than likely will.

Again, this is the year you will accept that. And maybe the reason you’re still waiting for that mythical golden time to write your dream project is because it’s not ready to be written yet. Diversify. Although, at the risk of contradicting myself…

4. I’m going to generate a new idea every day.

A good idea? Or a box-ticker that you’ll waste your time on. It’s good to diversify. It means you go into meetings with a couple of aces up your sleeve if your big idea falls on stony ground. However, if you start rattling off ill-formed, half-pitches you run the risk of sounding like a desperate Alan Partridge. Monkey Tennis? Smell my cheese!

The number of projects that you have on your slate/in your back pockets depends on you. I juggle between five and seven at various stages of development. I keep a note of when and to whom I’ve pitched them to so that I know when to chase. If a project has had a knockback from all the usual suspects then I take it out of the rotation, pop it on the back burner and come back to it later. By that time, I can usually see what was wrong with it and then I can decide whether to bin it or rework it. Sometimes I realise the reason it got the knockback is because of that old chestnut – they had something similar in development.

Which brings me on to…

5. This is my make or break year. I’m setting myself a deadline and if I don’t have a commission in 12 months I’m packing it in and getting a proper job.

Did you not see the bit about going to Ikea? Why would you want to pack in something you love? And if you don’t love writing then you shouldn’t be bothering in the first place. Setting yourself an arbitrary timescale is unrealistic and na├»ve. It also suggests that you think that YOU are the only obstacle between yourself and your goals. First of all, that’s physically impossible unless you have like a time machine or some shit. Or a clone! Or maybe if you were in a parallel universe and there was some like string theory stuff going on….

Anyway, the unaltered reality is that there are many reasons why you haven’t had that commission yet and not all of them are fair. You can be a victim to the CONSTANT game of Producer Musical Chairs that seems to be going at both the BBC and ITV. Guess what? It’s not going to get any better this year. Premiership football managers have better job security than development producers and commissioners. And there is always the chance that they do ‘have something similar in development’. Or they could have run out of money. Or they could just not like the trainers you wore to the meeting. Shit happens and sometimes you just have to let it. I mean, you don’t have to be happy about it. We all love a good pissy moan, but don’t spend all your time feeling sorry for yourself. Take control of those things that you can – the words on the page. But if you give up writing, you’ve even lost that.

6. I’m going to go to every screenwriting workshop and read all the screenwriting books and blogs.

I actually do have a resolution this year; death to all screenwriting gurus. They are full of shit and the only thing they are interested in is taking your money. Why would you bother reading McKee’s tedious blabbing on when you could be writing? Why would you spend two hundred quid to watch him give a fucking powerpoint presentation that he could probably do in his sleep? As for the various self-appointed writing experts on the internet chatting shit about how you should write…

Okay, I appreciate that I’m being a tad hypocritical here. But the thing about my advice is that you can take it or leave it. Use the bits that help and jettison the stuff that doesn’t. However, if someone is telling you that they are going to clue you in on the only possible way to write, the only way to structure or write dialogue, then give them the elbow. And ask yourself this question; if they are so good at writing, why aren’t they doing it? Why aren’t they winning Oscars in LA instead of teaching 3-act structure in a drafty hall in Lambeth?

7. I’m going to enter all the writing competitions.

This way madness lies. There are some brilliant competitions run by magnificent and committed people. And if you have a script that meets their criteria then bang it in. However, if you’re reading the criteria for a competition and wondering whether two weeks is long enough to produce a 90 minute script, then stop. If you’re trying to write something in a genre or format that you actually have no real interest in, then stop. If the competition costs $200 to enter, then stop.

You can waste a lot of time, energy and money on competitions that you probably won’t and don’t really want to win.

However, if you love anything with a spaceship in it and there is a Sci-Fi writing competition, then have at it. If you had the perfect idea for the Red Planet award last year but you didn’t have the time and nerve to enter, go for it. If it’s free to enter and you can hit the deadline without the needing to be sectioned, this could be your year.

8. I’m going to be a networking ninja.

This is a personal plea. Can aspiring writers stop coming up to me and giving me their business card? We’re writers not Japanese businessmen. Seriously, unless I write “annoying git with ginger hair” on the back of that card I’m not going to remember who you are when I fish it out of the bottom of my handbag two weeks later. This year, I want your networking to be focussed. Just collecting acquaintances is not useful to your career. It’s not 2003 anymore; nobody is impressed by how many Facebook friends you’ve got.

However, if there is someone who you think would really like your script/project idea, then cultivate them. Talk to them on Twitter. Introduce yourself at writing events. Be polite, brief and patient. DO NOT shove a script into their hands and demand they read it. Instead, ask politely if they would be kind enough to give your script a read. If they say yes, send it promptly by email and then be patient. Do not email two days later asking if they’ve read it yet. Don’t even do that two weeks later. They’re doing you a favour; don’t turn into a pain in the arse.

Oh, and buy ‘em a drink. Mine’s a Campari and soda.

9. I’m going to give up Facebook, Twitter and all other time-sapping social networking.

Shall we just hand out the razor blades now? Writing is a lonely, isolating occupation on occasion. There can be weeks when the only people you speak to are imaginary. The best thing that’s happened for writers in the last few years has been social networking. It gives us solidarity, a connection that sustains us through the really tough times. On both Twitter and Facebook I’ve made friends that I’ve never actually met. And yet, I know that on the days it is all going to shit they will be there to sympathise, cajole and give virtual hugs. And there is a not a day goes by that someone doesn’t make me laugh, warm my heart or raise my blood pressure. Writers need that.

Except for LinkedIn. That shit is just pointless and annoying.

10. I’m going to make sure my finger is on the pulse.

Do you mean you’re going to hop on every bandwagon. Hey, Zombies are pretty popular at the moment. What about vampires? If you could just find a new way to write those bloodsuckers… Oh yeah, and didn’t that BBC bloke say that they were looking for more crime shows? Or was it less crime? Or was it medical shows? Or perhaps a medical show with crime? And zombie-vampires!

STOP! By the time something is trendy, it’s already over. And that bloke from the BBC? If the commissioners knew what they actually wanted, they’d commission it. They’d ring up their favourite writers and ask for the medical crime drama with the zombie vampires possibly set in a nineteenth century department store. The reality is that they don’t know what they want until they actually see it. They’re like spoilt toddlers. They want whatever toy the other kid has got. Until they actually get it and then they want a completely different toy to play with. You just have to keep throwing toys in the pram until you find something that keeps the little fuckers quiet.

So, this year, why not just write what you’re passionate about? The genres you love. The characters you want to meet. The stories you want to tell. And if that story happens to be about Detective Inspector Dracula MD who has a penchant for eating brains, good luck to you.

So, there are ten New Year resolutions that you can break guilt-free. But here are five you should make and keep.

1.      Get/Stay Healthy – The better you feel, the better you will write.

2.      Get paid. – Join the Writer’s Guild and learn what you are actually worth.

3.      Write more diverse characters – Just let go of your middle-class, PC guilt and write characters rich in different experiences and culture.

4.      Take an interest in your industry – Watch more telly, see more films and plays. Know your shit.

5.      Just write.

 I wish you a happy, creative and surprising 2013. Can’t wait to see what we’re all going to get up to.