Monday 22 August 2016

We All Had To Start Somewhere.

About three weeks ago, I made a pledge to stop tweeting about Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party leadership race. I still think it was the right decision and forms part of my attempted ‘light not heat’ social media policy (at which I often fail miserably). Still, the last thing the whole issue needs is another gob on a stick firing off half-thought through jokes and sleights.

For the record, I am neither a full blown-Corbynista nor a Smithite. I don’t think Jezza is a cross between Dumbledore and Gandalf sent to save us from the evil forces of VolderBlair and the Red Tories. Neither do I think he is the love-child of Fidel Castro and L. Ron Hubbard leading his mindless followers into some sort of anti-Semitic/misogynist Jonestown.

However, this morning, I came as close as I had to breaking my self-imposed embargo. At a rally last night, Corbyn is reported to have said “There is a poet, a painting, a novel, a play in all of us”. There was then a flurry of tweets that were the social media equivalent of a long eye roll and a deep sigh. Comments included “Don’t encourage them”, “There isn’t one in me, I went this morning” and suggestions that literary agents would be crying out in pain. Most of those comments were made in jest. Just cheap shots, the usual fast-fingered responses. Not particularly funny, but not the end of the world.

I will say this however. My mum left school at 14 and she paints, sews, cooks, writes poetry, embroiders, gardens and does marvellous things with a glue gun. It makes her happy and interesting and interested and skilled and means she has a way to show the world just how bloody brilliant she is. In fact, most of my family have some sort of creative outlet – we’re a very talented bunch. That’s probably why when I announced I wanted to be writer nobody rolled their eyes and told me to get a proper bloody job. Also, because they are not spiteful twats. I don’t think Mr Corbyn was suggesting that everyone should have their inner books published or their own wall at the Tate. I think he was saying that everyone should have a chance to express and enrich themselves through equal access to opportunity and education at all stages of life. It sort of feels like something that everyone in the Labour Party should be supporting.

Anyway, I digress…

So, then I saw a couple of writers respond in an equally dismissive manner to the quote. One suggested that it was annoying when people s/he meets casually find out s/he is a writer, the immediate response is to say “I’ve written a script”. The writer went on to say that s/he had no interest in some random person’s script and s/he wished they would keep them to themselves. There were other similar responses from some fellow writers.

Apologies for the clumsiness of that last paragraph. It’s deliberately vague and gender-neutral as I don’t want to unleash a mob on the writers in question. These are the times we live in.

Something about this response got my back up and pushed my buttons. I wanted to tweet back “Well, who did you ask to read your first script? And how much courage did that take?” Because one of the most formative moments in a writer’s life is the first time you ask someone who isn’t your mum/mate/hairdresser to read your script. The first time you seek out someone who has the career you would dearly love to pursue and clumsily hand over your precious word-baby. That fateful day when you take what feels like the biggest gamble of your life.

Because up until that moment, you’ve rather audaciously decided that you might have some talent. You’ve twatted about at your computer for weeks, months, maybe even years. You’ve actually managed to write something (already an achievement). And ever since then you’ve been oscillating between thinking it might be ‘alright’ or ‘absolute crap’ but now you need to find out. So, you’ve called in a favour, screwed up your courage, cyber-stalked a writer or you’ve happened across one and you are taking it as a sign. However you approach it, it’s pretty bloody scary.

My magic moment was finding out that a bloke I worked with was married to Kay Mellor’s daughter. It took me weeks to ask him if he would get his mother-in-law to read my script. He told me he would put it on the pile and she probably wouldn’t get around to it for months. Luckily for me (and to Kay’s absolute credit) she read it in a few weeks, told me everything that was wrong with it without dashing my hopes and six weeks later I was writing a trial for Playing The Field. I didn’t get it, but a year later I was a commissioned writer on Fat Friends. The gamble paid off and I will owe Kay a debt of gratitude for the rest of my career.

And I feel that the best way I can show that gratitude is to not pull the ladder up behind me now that I have had some success. So, when people take their shot with me and ask me to read their script, I always say yes. People have approached me on social media, via friends, at events and at even at weddings. And I salute them.

Now, I’ll be honest with you, approximately 90% of those scripts have been bloody awful. A couple have been so bad that I have really struggled to find something constructive to say about them. But some have been a delight. Some have been clearly written as therapy and are intensely personal. Some have been written after the writer has been on some expensive screenplay structure course and need to be a bit more personal. But they’ve all been written by a fellow human being. And that’s the important bit.

Reading other people’s scripts is a pain the arse and a huge responsibility but how else will we find new talent. If you have a no-read policy that is between you and your God, but I think you are a selfish prick. Someone has to find those rough diamonds. I appreciate that it’s not your paying job but if you establish a few boundaries it can do wonders for your karma. So, here are my rules for reading…

  1. I say yes to everyone who asks me to read their script. Especially now that I realise most people will never get round to sending me one.
  2. I warn them that all I can offer is feedback. I can’t further their careers, find them an agent or introduce them to Spielberg.
  3. I send all new writers to the BBC Writers Room site. It is an extraordinary resource.
  4. I don’t read to a deadline. I’m not providing a pre-delivery proof-reading service for Red Planet entries. It could take months for me to read it.
  5. I give honest feedback. No bullshit. But I NEVER tell anyone that they should give up. That’s not my call and, anyway, it would make me a prick.

 Equally, there are ways that new writers could make the task of reading a little less onerous.
  1. Ask nicely. Show an interest in my work, be polite and I’ll reciprocate.
  2. There is no excuse for a badly laid-out script. There are hundreds of layout guides online. Learn to Google. Same goes for poor punctuation and spelling. As I said, I’m not your proof-reader.
  3. I’m also not your script editor. Don’t send me first drafts. Or unfinished work. And don’t send me the whole series/novel. Send one script/three chapters – max.
  4. Be patient not pushy. It’s okay to follow-up after a few weeks, not a few hours.
  5. Be open to robust and constructive criticism. If you just want someone to read your script and tell you how brilliant you are then you are pursuing the wrong career. Being a writer is to be criticised. By the same token, don’t be a pushover. Be a passionate but polite advocate for your own work – that’s impressive.

 Obviously, now I’m leaving myself open to everyone with a knock-off copy of Final Draft asking me to read their opus. So be it. Someone did it for me.

Thank you, Kay.