Tuesday 3 August 2010

Passion, People and Money

One of the best articles I've read about how to make your way in the creative industries is by a banjo player called Danny Barnes. He has written a long piece about making a living through one's music here. It is well worth reading in full and translating to the craft of writing. Naturally, some of it doesn't apply, in particular the stuff about performing live and doing gigs. But the overall tone is interesting. It is laid-back, self-assured and calm. If I may paraphrase, his advice can be boiled down to this: Work out what your art is, and then pursue it. Make sure you work with good people. Get rid of bad people or phonies. If you can see trouble ahead, avoid it. Do your taxes properly. Get a job. And stop whining. It's not about you.

There is much to be learned from all of this. And my recent experiences have chimed with them too. Let's focus on three things. Passion, people and money.

1. Passion - it is essential to be passionate about your project, or story, or character. If you're not, writing it will be an impossibly hard slog. It's hard enough to write a half hour script of a sitcom you are completely in love with. To do that for a show that you're ambivalent about is soul-crushing. Passion is essential. Ditch the project and ideas that you're not passionate about. They might be good ideas, or clever ideas, or even original ideas, but don't bother with them. I remember once developing a sitcom idea into something that seemed original and possibly interesting for a TV Commissioner - but it didn't interest me at all. So I left it. Good move.

I was once asked to come up with a TV movie that fulfilled about seven different criteria for a notable transatlantic media company. I came up with one that ticked all of the boxes and was quite interesting, although the constraints of the media company limited it, I felt. Eventually I ended up on a conference call and we were all discussing an 8-page treatment of the idea, but eventually they said 'We're all about passion at [transatlantic media company]. We just don't feel you're passionate about this story'. This is both a dumb and a sensible thing to say. I wouldn't have come up with the idea without their preposterously long list of requirements. And yet there were right that I wasn't passionate about it. So it was best that we all walked away from it and, yet again, I had done days and days of work on the promise of money that never materialise but these things happen. It could have been worse. I could currently be banging my head against a wall trying to rewrite the third act of a TV movie I never really liked in the first place.

Passion is essential, or it's just too hard. Writing it is too hard, and getting through the commissioning process without sticking your head into a gas oven is impossible without passion.

2. The other thing I've been realising is how important it is to work with good people. In fact, if you work with good people, work barely seems like work at all. It's good fun. Plus these good people make your work better. It may mean having to turn down a better offer so that you can work with the people who really understand you and the project. It may just be walking away from people that you're just not at all excited about working with. These decisions normally prove to be the right ones to make. If at all possible, avoid working with people that get on your nerves, or just don't seem to get what you do.

3. Money follows (1) and (2). You need passion to get a project written and off the ground. You need good people to get the project to be any good. If what you do is any good, money will turn up sooner or later because most TV and the vast majority of movies aren't any good. The fact is that if you're a writer, you will write. No-one will be able to stop you. And nothing else will matter to you. Getting paid is great. And is essential every now and then. But the money is always secondary to the project - or at least it should be. If you're a writer, money is something you need to help you write - like a decent word-processor, a chair and some drinkable coffee. So get passionate about that story, find the people to bring that story to life and sit down and write it.


  1. This is the least subtle way of reminding me I owe you £15 I can think of.

  2. Concur with your thoughts, James, and can only add that, sadly, almost everyone in a position to pay a writer agrees with your third point too.

  3. I hear your pain, Dixewills, but you wouldn't swap places with them, would you?

  4. Going to go all zen on you.
    Having read your article (writing) and Danny's (music) I'll add another to the mix: aikido. Yup.
    I write words and I play bass guitar and I do aikido and they all come down to the same thing: passion (endless repetition in order to get the small stuff right, as the big things won't work unless the small things do) and people (working with the right people).
    I seem to remember there was something about money in there too, but maybe that was irrelevant.
    Nice post, by the way.