Wednesday 23 April 2014

For those about to write, we salute you.

And so, let us starts with the apologies. I write this in my cups, under the influence, one over the eight, pissed. This blog comes after the best of nights; a night on the lash with other writers. Very appropriate for the 23rd of April 2014, Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. Happy Birthday Bill!

And so I also think it is appropriate to sing the drunken praises of my fellow scribes, those other daughters and sons of the written word. The women and men who understand the human condition and bring it to life of on the page screen, stage and page. Those astronauts in the outer space of empathy and the search for truth. Ah, that’s pretentious babble but it’s not entirely off target.

You see the greatest thing about making a living from putting pen to paper, finger to keyboard, arse to chair is your fellow travellers. That’s what makes this odd choice of career sustainable. The realisation that you are not the only one with that skewed view of the world, that exposed heart, that need to chronicle. And it is a need, not a whim or a vague notion.

And so the best moments of this odd life is not spent at the desk but in the tavern, inn, pub or coffee shop. That moment when you realise it’s not just you! There are other freaks that obsess over the words, over the scenes, over the characters. The first time you squee over that episode, that scene, that minor character. They get it, the minutiae. More importantly, they get you.

It’s an extraordinary moment. A feeling of belonging that you never felt at school, at your first crappy job or even, whisper it, when amongst your family.

That is not to say that your nearest and dearest can’t be taken on the journey. The box set and the book becomes your gift to those you love. Never turn your nose up at a flat, rectangular gift from a writer. Our heart and soul comes in those oblong boxes. It means we love you. In return, buy us stationery. There is nothing more guaranteed to gladden a writer’s heart than an unsullied page and the unused pen.

And so on this holiest days, I salute you my sisters and brothers of the pen. I share your frustrations, your tears, your triumphs and your desire to be ‘got’. And I urge you to remember that there is strength in numbers. The Writers’ Guild is there for you, manned and guided by your fellow writers. Other writers are there for you. Reach out, we’ll be there.

Well, when we’ve got this draft in. You may need to be patient.

Tuesday 15 April 2014

They Say The Darndest Things...

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with some fellow TV writers. Well, I say a conversation; it was more a cathartic expulsion of bile and frustration. But then don’t all conversations between writers ultimately end up that way?

Anyway, the topic under discussion was “things that TV Development Producers say”. Or specifically, “things that Development Producers say that make you wish BBC & ITV buildings had functioning windows so that you could throw yourself out of them”. As I said, it was quite a cathartic discussion.

Many of the producer quotes were greeted with howls of painful recognition. We’d all heard them in meeting after meeting. Those little clich├ęs or go-to questions that they trot out in every meeting with every writer. So much so, that they are now a trigger for involuntary violent fantasies. But were we being fair? Do the producers even realise that they’re doing it? Perhaps they have no idea that we’ve heard all their little sound bites before?

So, I’ve decide to give our colleagues the benefit of the doubt, but offer this as a friendly guide to things you shouldn’t say in development meetings. Especially if your windows are open.

I also provide a little guidance on how a writer should/should not react to these pearls of wisdom.

1. If you could sum this idea in one line…

What You Shouldn’t Say
If I could sum up my idea in one line I wouldn’t need to write a script? Why must everything be boiled down to the small paragraph that will appear in the Radio Times? It strikes me that if you can’t grasp a concept that requires more than ten words you’re in the wrong job.

What You Should Say
It’s Sherlock meets Breaking Bad.

2. This is a great start/first draft.

What You Shouldn’t Say
A great start? A great fucking start? Have you any idea how I’ve sweated over this? And do you really think I’d send you an actual first draft? Writing this ruined my marriage, you prick. I missed my kid’s Nativity play to get this to you.

What You Should Say
I can’t wait to take it to the next level.

3. Why should we tell this story now?

What You Shouldn’t Say
Because I've only just had the idea. And why does it matter anyway? By the time you’ve ummed and ahhed over it, we’ll be five years down the line. For fuck’s sake, aliens could have invaded and UKIP could be in government by the time you make a decision and it actually gets on the screen. And did you ask that question when you were doing your latest reboot/literary adaptation? Or did you just ask whether the material was out of copyright? Wow, do they actually give you a book of stupid, pointless questions to ask?

What You Should Say
I think we can draw a lot of parallels between the 16th century and Austerity Britain. And stories about the human spirit are ultimately timeless.

4. We really like what you’ve got here, but have you considered…

What You Shouldn’t Say
Of course I’ve considered it. I’ve been through every permutation of this story to get to this point. I didn’t just bash it out in an afternoon, you know? I’ve lived with this idea, working it through my mind, drawing on everything I know and have experienced. I’ve lived with these characters until I feel like I know every detail of their lives; things that won’t make it to the screen but will inform everything they do and say. I did all that before I could even consider showing this to you.

What You Should Say
That’s a really interesting idea.

5. Whose story is it?

What You Shouldn’t Say
It’s MINE! You can’t have it. You’re not worthy!

What You Should Say
Ultimately, it’s about a flawed and complicated protagonist. S/he’s an everyman/woman that the audience will fall in love with.

6. I’ll know what I want when I see it.

What You Shouldn’t Say
Well, any chance you could give us a clue what that might be? Start by telling us what you don’t want to see and we’ll go from there. And don’t give me that shit about your likes and dislikes being irrelevant and it being about ‘good writing’ when we all know it’s about who bought you a drink down at the Groucho Club last week. When I’m made to throw shit at the wall, I’d like to know there is an outside chance that some of it might stick.

What You Should Say
Wow, it’s great to have such a blank canvas. It’s like there are no wrong answers.

7. I gave your script to a friend/my kids/the girl who does my nails to get a second opinion.

What Not To Say
Why? Are you incapable of doing your job? Actually, I asked my postman what he thought of you and he called you an unprofessional dick. The woman in the chip shop agreed. I like to get a second opinion too.

What To Say
It’s always good to see things through a fresh pair of eyes.

But the ultimate annoying question and one that we’d all been asked….

8. But, if the main character does this will the audience like her/him?

What Not To Say
Perhaps not. Perhaps they’ll have a strong emotional reaction to the character instead of simply liking them. I like lots of people but I don’t want to give up an hour of my precious TV viewing time to watch them. Did you like Tony Soprano? Walter White? Nurse Jackie? Hamlet? I think you’re confusing liking a character with having sympathy for them, identifying with them, rooting for them, being outraged by them. The job of the screenwriter is to get us to feel something, not just to ‘like’ it.

What To Say
I was thinking we could cast Martin Freeman/Suranne Jones.

So, there you have it; all genuine things that are said repeatedly in development meetings. If you have ever said any of those things to a writer; shame on you. But it’s not too late to change your ways.

As ever comments are encouraged and welcomed.

Monday 7 April 2014

The Writers' Blog Tour

Dearest Reader,

As you know I am somewhat erratic when it comes to blogging. I usually wait until I’m livid to write something career-threatening and possibly libellous.

And so, I’d like to thank Robin Bell ( for pressganging me into writing something slightly calmer. Basically this seems to be the blog equivalent of a chain letter. I answer the following four questions about my current writing and then get some other sucker to do it. Haven’t chosen the suckers yet, but watch this space.
1. What am I working on?
Currently I’m writing a new episode of Midsomer Murders, but that question never quite covers the reality of being a working TV writer. At any one time I have five to ten other projects in various states of completion from a full script to having a snappy title. Most of those projects I can’t talk about and most of them will never get past the various drama commissioners’ desk. By which point all the life and fun will have been sucked from them.
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
First off, I didn’t word that question. What genre? I write across several genres. I also think that people often confuse genre for form. I assume what is being asked is what sets my writing apart from others. I don’t think that’s for me to say. I hope my writing is warm, sparky and compelling. But then I should imagine everyone hopes that about their work. It’s often said that writers should develop their ‘voice’; I can’t remember when I wrote in anything other than my voice. Although that’s not to say that it is never influenced by the vast amount of TV I watch.
3. Why do I write what I do?
I suppose I should write something noble about being driven to write by a deep inner need to express humanity in all its glory and depravity. Honest answer? Sometimes it’s that. Sometimes there’s a story or character that’s just itching to get on the page. Sometimes I impress myself with a new idea so much that I need to get my ego stroked by getting other people to tell me it’s brilliant. And sometimes I write for the money like a cheap whore.
4. How does my writing process work?
Mainly, it doesn’t. It’s a soul-sucking, self-defeating routine of procrastination, distraction, self-delusion and twatting about on Twitter. However, after a few days of that and with the deadline looming, I kick into tunnel-vision mode where the only thing that matters if getting the fucking thing on the page. I write it like I’m possessed by it and I hate it. It’s a slog of early mornings, late nights, crap food and poor personal hygiene. And then the writing narcotic kicks in. I can never predict when but it’s never a moment too soon and so far it’s never too late. It’s that high you get when it’s finally flowing. When my fingers can’t fly across the keyboard fast enough to get the dialogue down. The characters are speaking and the stories are forming. It’s the closest I get to believing in the supernatural. And then I take a shower, clean the kitchen, phone my parents to tell them that I’m still alive and the next day it starts all over again.
And there you have it!