Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Being a Better Writer

Another year clicks round and it’s time to look back.

Done that? Great. Let’s look ahead and consider how to be better writers in the coming year.

I’ve got to be honest (which is a good start to the year ahead). I don’t really know what makes a good writer, or what makes ordinary writers write well. All writers are different. But I do know that it’s very easy to become resentful and annoyed that the whole system seems to be against you. Getting a show on TV or the radio, or working on a show, or getting a foot in the door seems impossible. I feel that sometimes, I’ve had three series of my own show on TV in the last five years.

But these feelings are mostly negative and tend not to get you anywhere. If they spur you on to try harder, that’s fine to a point but don’t write to prove people wrong. Don’t write for the money. Or the vindication. There are lots of bad reasons to be a writer. (There are 8 HERE) Some people just like the idea of being a writer. According to YouGov, that’s the most desirable job. But lots of these people who express this wish don’t actually want to write. They just want to ‘be a writer’. Which is a very different thing.

Write because you want to. In fact, most writers I know write because they have to. If that’s you, the only useful resolution you can make is not ‘get a show on TV’ because you have very little control over that. All you have control over is your writing, your words on your pages expressing your ideas through your characters. So make a resolution to do that better.

So here are some thoughts and suggestions to that end. Maybe one of these ideas will help you raise your game in the following year.

1. Be Curious – Take an interest in the world around you. Decide to research something you’ve always wanted to know more about. Google it to start with. That’s fine. But then read some proper books on the subject. Find an expert and ask them questions. Find someone with experience and talk to them. Ask them to refer you to others. You never know where it could lead.

2. Read More Books – The internet is a false friend. It’s possible to feel well-informed without ever cracking the spine of a book. But there’s no substitute for reading books that tell proper stories, fiction or non-fiction. Or books about culture, sport, history, geography, science… with, you know, facts. One of the reasons I try to listen to Start the Week on Radio 4 is to hear a variety of voices and opinions, and then often I end up tracking down the books by those people I've heard. The last time I did that, I ended up reading Where Do Camels Belong? It was fascinating.

3. Be Older – Wanting to write is fine, but you need something to write about, so live life. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to write that magnum opus. Some people peak in their early 20s. They tend to be athletes and sometimes musicians. Writers tend to take a lot longer. Play the long game. Get married. Have kids. Start a business. Go on a journey. Do jury duty. Execute a will. Track down a relative. Meet your neighbours. Be a school governor. Stand for your Parish Council. Volunteer for a food bank. Then you’ll have something to write about.

4. Write Stuff Down – As you live your life, make a note of things that happen as you go, especially unique experiences or near misses. The very act of writing it down probably means you’ll never need to refer to it again. Then, when you’re trying to think of a sitcom plot in a particular area, you’ve got ready made anecdotes to draw on.

5. Watch Less TV – Life too short for Homes Under The Hammer or Bargain Hunt. Watch one or two. Fine. But don’t watch trash every day. Why would you watch a property show when you haven’t read Brothers Karamazov or The Koran?

6. Watch More TV – When you decide to watch TV, watch good stuff. And then realise how high the bar is. Watch the opening scene of The Newsroom and see how powerful words on the page can be. Be inspired.

7. Make Something Better – Take that script you’ve been working on and think is okay and make it as good as it can possibly be. Print it out. Make notes on it. Cut lines that you don’t need. Refine it. Sift it. And then…

8. Send It Off – Send it to a producer who makes stuff that you like (more HERE). Send it into a script competition. Or to the BBC Writers Room. Have someone read it.

9. Listen Carefully to Notes – If you can get anyone to read your script, think carefully about the notes they give you. They might be right. They might be wrong. But resolve not to be defensive and work out how this comments might make your script better.

10. Start Something New – While you polish up that existing script, starts something new. Something exciting. Something you simply can’t wait to write. And hopefully, that script you've sent out will get you a meeting, and then you've got something else to talk about.

11. Think Big – TV is more ambitious now that ever. Look at the scale of Game of Thrones or The Man in the High Castle. It’s always tempting to think of noodly little ideas in which you have just two characters and it’s all in one place and in real time, or something, but why limit yourself like that? I know you want to prove what a great writer you are, but those small situations are plays, not TV shows. You can go anywhere or do anything. Have some ambition.

12. Do Some Research – And once you have an idea, pursue it. Read about it. Talk to people. Be curious. See above.

There’s nothing here that’s terribly profound or clever. Sorry about. The big secret is that there are no secrets. It’s all about the imagination: thinking then reading then writing then re-writing until they tell you to stop.

For slightly more specific information of writing sitcoms, get Writing That Sitcom for Kindle or the Kindle App. And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast.

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