Wednesday 30 December 2020

Habits of Highly Effective Writers #3: Making Notes

Writers don’t just write. They read. They listen.

They also observe. They think. And remember.

Your memory might need some help.

A few people have photographic memories, or brains like an index card system. Good for you. The rest of us have to write stuff down. But have we made that a habit? Have we made a plan to do that?

We see things; we hear a turn of phrase; we read something intriguing; we have a thought; we need to record it. It might not be profound in itself, or even original, but it is noteworthy. So note it, and come back to it another time.

For many, the blank page is terrifying. Where do you start? What are you going to write? One is rarely inspired with the right ideas at the right moment. You need to starting points. You need boosters. You need a spark to ignite something. That’s what these notes are. Sparks that might catch.

My main job is writing sitcom episodes – and helping others to do so. When developing characters, stories and plots, you don’t want to be sitting gazing into space thinking, or at least not for too long. You might produce a few ideas that, but you don’t need a few. You need dozens. Hundreds. The hope is that one of these ideas will be exactly the right shape, size and tone for the moment. The way to generate these ideas is to make notes and then start working through them when you need to turn vague ideas into paper-based reality.

Relying on scraps of paper stuffed into your wallet is not a long-term solution.

If you want to develop the habit of taking notes, you need to a system that will work wherever you are. The options are fairly obvious.

These are some of my notebooks

Option 1: A notebook

Do you have one? I do. Several (see pic)

Even more crucially, do you know where your notebook is? I probably don’t.

Do you have a pen handy? I almost certainly don’t. Get a notebook and pen. Even better, get a notebook which has a slot for a pen.

Don’t get a notebook that’s so nice and expensive that you don’t want to spoil it by writing in it. Get a cheap exercise book or make a wad of paper with a bulldog clip. And have it in your bag. (TK Maxx sell very nice notebooks, including Moleskine ones, for a fraction of the price you’d pay elsewhere, if you have a rummage. You are welcome).

So get a note book. Somehow attach a pen so you can always write in this notebook. And make notes.

As I’ve hinted, I’m hopeless with physical notebooks and pens. I also worry about losing notebooks and ideas, which are the basis of much of my income. So I also use an electronic option. In fact I use two electronic options:

Option 2: Notes App

Even if I have a notebook handy, I won’t be able to find a pen. But I do have a phone and a thumb. So I make heavy use of the Notes app on my phone.

If you’re unable to type for whatever, it does a pretty good job of taking dictation and turning it into text. (Andy Riley told me that.) In fact, even if the text is garbled and some words are transcribed incorrectly, you can still remember the overall point of the note. You could correct it later too when you’re not driving or washing up.

There are at least two upsides of making notes this way.

The first is that they are backed up, and magically appear on my desktop app, so they are accessible.

Secondly, they are searchable. If there’s a key word on half-remembered idea, I can search for it and will probably find it. Probably.

Option 3: Tablets

For quick ideas that occur to me while walking or reading, I use my phone. To make other notes for more long term projects, especially if it’s collaborative, I use an iPad, an Apple pencil and the Notability App, but there are lots of alternative tablets and apps. I rarely share these notes (my handwriting isn't pretty), but I could if I needed to. I might type them up later and if I’m on a busy train, I can see the notes on a screen via my Dropbox and I can type away, without taking up extra table space. Handy. And it's these marginal habits than can make a difference, and make you more productive. So give them some thought for the coming year.

As I’ve said, I have serious trouble keeping hold of pens and pencils. And after losing two different Apple pencils, I hit upon the idea of an iPad case that has a slot for the pencil. In fact, my friend Freya suggested that. And now it’s yours. You are welcome.

My new video course, Writing Your Sitcom, launched soon, but for now, if you have a script a polish before sending off to the BBC Writersroom or an agent or producer, I've produced a PDF of 7 Things You Can Do To Improve Your Script Right Now. Get it here.

Tuesday 29 December 2020

Habits of Highly Effective Writers #2: Listening

We're looking to form better habits in the new year. Last time, we looked at how writers are readers. And I’ll be honest. This post is also about reading. Except a different kind of reading: listening.

After all, how much time do you make for reading during the day? Probably almost none. Maybe there’s a commute. Or used to be. For many of us, we read in bed, and that’s about it. And that's not a lot of reading. It's not enough.

That doesn’t have to be the case. Before we get onto listening, you could read one evening a week instead of watching TV. The pictures on Netflix are good, but even better in your head. You could cancel Netflix for three months and read instead. New habits are hard to form if you don't make an early change that reinforces the habit. And the boxed sets will all be there when you go back to it. And also, do you need to watch 2hrs+ of TV a night?

Listening Is The New Reading

Someone tell her about phones
You can read when you’re washing up, driving or balling socks. You can listen to the best voices reading our finest books. In fact, decent voices reading perfectly serviceable books is superior to the 24 hour news cycle, which doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s a news cycle. The clue is in the title. It gets you back where you started, except slightly angrier and more stressed. Why not listen to Treasure Island? Or Daniel Deronda? Or Hard Times?

Audible’s fab and just works. It has pretty much cornered the market, but there’s a free public domain version called Librivox (there's an App for that), in which enthusiasts read aloud books that are out of copyright. Worth a go.

I’ve been hooked on audio for years. I don’t listen to any news or broadcast radio and haven’t for at least a decade. I’ve been listening to podcasts.

But if you're not careful these can have the same effect as news, commenting on recent cultural developments and stoking anxiety or rage. You end up listening to similar podcast and we're back to the algorithm and the echo chamber. You're a writer. You need to get out of that space. Take decisive action.

Delete All

Overcast App
A while back, I deleted the Podcast App on my iPhone. Podcasts, downloads, everything. It's a truly awful app and Overcast and Pocketcast are much better. But I wanted to start again and try new podcasts on a new App rather than returning to the same voices saying the same things over and over. The Bible, surprisingly, warns against being a dog returning to its vomit. Did you know the Bible said that? Have you read the Bible? Try that. If you have, have you read other foundational texts like Pilgrim's Progress (which I have read and dislike), Paradise Lost (which I've not yet read but realise I need to). Or the holy books of other faiths?

Alongside the bonfire of the vanities on my podcasts, I’ve increased the number of audiobooks I listen to. The other day, I even bought Simon Armitage reading his own translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Why don’t you make an impulse purchase like that? And then listen to it? While you clean the kitchen or dig the garden? And I'll listen to Milton's Paradise Lost.

Ingest more books. Make time to read them. Listen to them. Buy some decent wireless headphones and listen to more proper books.

If you have a script a polish before sending off to the BBC Writersroom or an agent or producer, I've produced a PDF of 7 Things You Can Do To Improve Your Script Right Now. Get it here.

Monday 28 December 2020

Habits of Highly Effective Writers #1: Reading

If you want the year ahead to be a better year writing-wise, consider changing some of your habits.

I’ll be making some suggestions over the next series of blog post. Ignore, use, abuse and plunder them. One size never fits all. They are a little brusque and that is deliberate. But I hope they are practical.

As we proceed, you will note only one of them is actually about actual writing.

But for now let’s start with the bedrock of writing: Reading.

Read More Books

Writers are readers. This is a given. You want to write words. Why should anyone read your words if you’re not prepared to read anyone else’s?

Ideas comes from books. An argument can be carefully constructed with facts and evidence, unlike on the internet where facts seem to get in the way. Writers are interested in ideas. Stories and characters are about ideas, after all. Characters incarnate ideas and perspectives.

The written word also expands our minds since it is a very flexible medium. The writer has total control over what the reader experiences, and therefore the reading experience can take you places hitherto unexplored.

Moreover, published books show how the written word should be written. You learn so much about the art of writing just by reading. So, that's why I say again: Read more books this year.

How to Read More Books

If you find it helpful to set a target, do that. Make a list. If you're the competitive type, compete against yourself. Write a list of the books you read last year, and then try to read more books this year.

Don’t just read more books. Read fewer books if you like. But try and read better books. Some trash is fine, and might be educational or inspiring. But read a few classics. A class was invariably written decades and centuries ago, and has subsequently been declared a classic. This means you will be looking through a clear, reveal window of a time when people were the same, but they thought very differently. Look through some new windows this coming year.

Read More Widely

If you read mostly fiction, read more non-fiction. I’m the other way around, and have to make myself read more fiction. I’m glad I have. And I read plenty of novels that I liked. And plenty that I didn’t like. I even gave up on a few of them, but I’m glad I started them and gave them a hundred pages before bailing.

What happens if don’t need to read books to the end?

Nothing. Nothing happens. You don't have to read books to the end.

If you’ve ever written a book, you might be more inclined to do so given you know how much work has gone into that book. But slogging on to the end of a book can just be a waste of time. Sometimes it’s worth it. I would probably have given up on A Gentleman in Moscow half way through if my wife hadn’t insisted it was worth continuing. I’m glad I did, although I maintain the book is still at least 50 pages too long, if not 80.

A few years ago, I gave up on Gilead after a hundred pages (nothing was happening and I was assured that nothing was going to happen) and I'm fine with that.

It's not just taste about pace. Sometimes books are just too long or poorly edited. Non-fiction is often guilty of being too long, especially in books about ideas (rather than biographies). Perhaps there is a need to deliver perceived value, but often the thesis is set out clearly in the first eighty pages, and thereafter there is a law of diminishing returns. I’ve been recommending The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt to everyone over the last five years, but even I would admit that 90% of the value of that book is in the first 120 pages or so.

Warning: Don’t Let Your Pile of Books Get Too High

A big pile starts to feel like homework.

Try to buy only a book or two ahead. It’s exciting to get a new book, and that’s when you want to read it most. If you’ve got a stack of nine books, you’re not going to get to this new one for a few months, and the fire of excitement may have dimmed. You might not even remember why you bought the book. Make a list of books you want to read and buy them as you go.

Beat the Amazon Algorithm

Amazon is a never-ending flowing river of books, and the algorithm is smart, but pretty soon, you’ll reading similar overlapping books if you just rely on their recommendations. Avoid this. Here's how:

Ask your friends in person or social media for book recommendations, especially asking for books that surprised them or that they encountered randomly. What was their favourite book of last year? Or ever? Ask people you don’t know very well for book recommendations, as you might get some outliers that way, and you may end up reading a book that changes your life, or opens up a whole new area for you.

Get recommendations from magazines that review books, or weekend newspapers. You don’t even need to read the review, or prejudge it based on the reviewers comments, but these book sections just bring new books to your attention. You might stumble across a new book about oak trees, quantum computing or the Raj that you suddenly want to read. This is the kind of book that would otherwise not have entered your echo chamber. Buy it and read it, remembering you don’t have to read to the end.

Browsing Books

You might want to browse a book first, or check it out. You can often read the first chapter of a book using Kindle Samples on Amazon. You get the first part of the book sent to your kindle or Kindle App for free. I use this function a lot, especially with non-fiction. Usually I’m checking the book is about what I think it’s about. I’m also making sure the writing style doesn’t grate with me for whatever reason.

Alternatively, pandemic permitting, go to an actual bookshop. Remember those? Have a good look around. But also make an arbitrary rule to pay special attention to books with, say, red or blue covers. Go to a section you never normally go to. Mix it up.

You’ll find an even more esoteric collection in second hand bookshops, charity shop or bric-a-brac stores. Pop in and see what they’ve got. It might only take five minutes to have a flick through their book section. The book might only cost 50p. What have you got to lose?

Writers read. If you want to improve your writer and have more to write about, read more and read wider.

If you have a sitcom script needs a polish before sending off to the BBC Writersroom or an agent or producer, I've produced a PDF of 7 Things You Can Do To Improve Your Script Right Now. Get it here.

Monday 21 December 2020

What's the Difference between a Sitcom and a Comedy Drama?

It sounds like the step up to a joke, doesn't it? Ask three different people and you'll get three different answers. But this stuff really matters if you're trying to write one and don't know how to get the tone and balance right.

I made a short YouTube video about this if you want to have look. It's only a few minutes long:

In fact, worrying about the tone and the balance of comedy with the drama are a bit of a red herring. What you're really looking for is clarity. What is the show? Do you know what it is? I unpack all of this in a 40 minute seminar called 'So What Is a Comedy Drama?' which you can watch as many times as you like for free. Go here for access to it. I hope it helps.

Thursday 17 December 2020

Are you Writing Fan Fiction rather than a Sitcom?

Previously on this blog (and my Youtube Channel), we’ve looked at 5 Mistakes In The First Ten Pages Of Your Sitcom Script. But I’ve thought of a sixth – and it partly comes from the previous post, What Makes A Truly Great Sitcom?

Here’s the mistake and then I’ll explain it. It’s this.

Mistake #6

You’re writing Fan Fiction. Not a sitcom. You’re writing fan fiction, not a sitcom.

What I mean by that is this: You love sitcoms. You loved watching them growing up as a kid. You watch them now. New ones. Old ones. Classics. And the ones that don’t work but still have a charm to them (like Paris or Nathan Barley). And you want to write them. Why wouldn’t you?

You’re basically in love with the form, and so you try to create your own. This is where a lot of people start, and I did this. In fact, fan fiction is technically writing something from an existing universe. So if you’re writing Harry potter short stories, that’s fan fiction. You can’t make money off it, but people do it.

In fact, when I was about 18, I wrote a fan fiction episode of Blackadder, except it was set during the Norman Conquest, and Baldrick managed to shoot Harold in the eye at the Battle of Hastings. I know great idea. (I now realise its basically the same as first episode of the original Blackadder series at the Battle of Bosworth.) I loved the show and I wanted to have a go.

This 'fan fiction' is not to be confused with the 'spec script' which, to be honest, is an American phenomenon and isn't such a thing any more. That’s where you show your credentials as a writer. It is writing an episode of an existing show to prove that you can write in someone else’s style or voice and that you are able to join a team or table of writers on sitcom.

In a way, it's a good exercise, because you’re taking proven characters in a proven situation and trying to make it work with a new story. It’s like riding a bike with stabilisers. All fine.

But it may be that you love sitcoms, you want to create your own. You want to be a sitcom writer. And you’ve come up with a situation that feels original, with some characters, and you’ve got some stories and some jokes. Now that’s all fine. You’ve assembled something that looks like a sitcom.

The problem comes when you send it off to producers and enter it into competitions. And it’s not getting anywhere. No-one’s interested. And you can’t figure why. In your mind, it looks exactly like the shows you see on TV. In fact, you think it’s better than some of the shows you see on TV. It's all very frustrating.

But what you’ve got there, and often becomes obvious in the first ten pages, is fan fiction. Not a sitcom script. It’s a love letter to the art of sitcom. But it’s not actually a sitcom in it’s own right.

Truly Great Sitcoms have a timeliness about them. Or they’re about something timeless. They’re about a particular kind of relationship expressed in a new way. Or they’re about a new situation that’s arisen in society, or a character we’ve not seen before but feels of the moment.

In short, any sitcom needs a reason to exist.

You can’t speak a sitcom into existence by saying here are some characters and a situation. Here’s a plot and are some jokes.

Worked Example

If I asked you what your script is about, you might say it’s about a car mechanic. And you point to the three guys in boiler suits, the tow truck, the receptionist and the MOT inspector. The plot is based on the realisation that a spanner has been left in a car and that car is now a death trap and they have to get if off the road without admitting they made a massive mistake.

Problem: That’s a sitcom and a plot that could have been in any sitcom about car mechanics for the last 60 years. It’s not enough. That's fan fiction. Why are you writing this show now?

So here would be my question: what your car mechanic sitcom really about? The answer should not be car-based. Car's are a symbol or metaphor. (The Top Gear of the Clarkson was not about cars, but freedom)

So what is your sitcom really about?
Is it a show about father and two sons, and he can’t decide who should be in charge when he retires? It’s not great but it’s a start.

It is about a guy who’s told old for cars because essentially, they require laptops and code to reprogramme these days and that’s a whole new ball game. The aging mechanic is in denial about it and he won’t listen to his daughter who is trying to modernise the business.

Is it about a woman who’s great at fixing cars but no-one will take her seriously, even a world where she thought equality had been settled?

Is it about a guy who fixes classic cars, who doesn’t want to live in the modern world because he doesn’t want to face up to some awful truth about the world and himself?
That’s the kind of thing you show should be about. (one of them. Be specific)

And do you know what? If your script has a really strong and clear reason to exist, a clear viewpoint, if it feels of the moment, the person reading that script will probably forgive mistakes 1-5 and might well get in touch. There's an awful lot of sitcom fan fiction about.

So look at your script and ask what’s it really about? And you need a really good answer.

If you don’t have one, you’re just writing fan fiction. Which is okay. It’s good to get it out of your system. You've done the exercises. You've gotten used to characters, situations, writing dialogue and all that. But you probably need to start again. In which case, I’ve got a video course for you which arrives on 7th January 2021.

I say all over the above on my YouTube channel called The Situation Room.

And from 7th January 2020, my video course will take you through the whole process from beginning to end.

But if you’ve got a script that needs some improvement, there’s a lot to be said for making it as good as it can be. In which case, get my handy guide called 7 Ways To Improve Your Sitcom Script Right Now.

Wednesday 16 December 2020

What Makes A Truly Great Sitcom?

If you're reading this blog, you may well be trying to write a sitcom?


Probably because you love sitcoms. There were some you loved growing up, then you found other shows and loved those. And there’s something that sets the format apart from dramas, murder mysteries and movies.

You’re wanting to write a sitcom as good as the great ones you watched. That’s the aim. The gold standard. That’s certainly the case for me. I was hooked by shows like Blackadder, BBC used to show Bilko (The Phil Silvers Show - much loved in the UK, much forgotten in the US), and then M*A*S*H, others shows like Rising Damp and Only When I Laugh, and then I discovered Yes Prime Minister, which is my favourite British show. And by favourite American show is probably Seinfeld, even though, like all Comedy writers my age or older, I love the Larry Sanders Show.

Obviously, I set out to make shows that good. If you’re in this too make money, you’re in the wrong game. The odds are not in your favour. You’ve got to be in it because you love the form and you have something to say.

So here’s a question that’s worth considering:

What makes a truly great sitcom?

This is a different question from what you need to make a good sitcom? Or what are the key ingredients? The answers to most questions like that is normally 'characters'. They are what draw you into a sitcom. The idea or setting might grab your attention. The plots are need to feel fresh and original, sure, but they are only really the ways in which your characters express themselves. Maybe you’ve read Story by McKee, or at least we feel like we have.

But story and character are not enough. The show needs a reason to exist NOW.

In fact, this moment is in an episode of Seinfeld when Jerry and George are pitching a sitcom to NBC (see it over on Youtube HERE) and the studio executive says ‘Why am I watching it?’. George says ‘Because it’s on TV.’ To which the exec says ‘not yet.’

The show needs a reason to exist. In that case with in Seinfeld, the reason was Jerry was a rising comedy star so that’s why he was pitching (and his friend George was ruining it). In real life, that might apply to Bill Burr, Melissa McCarthy, James Acaster – and you get sitcoms that do fine that come from comedians you’ve seen on panel games.

If you’re not a comedian who appears on panel games and chat shows, if you’re a writer starting out, if you don’t have a Youtube Channel with a million subscribers (which still wouldn’t be enough), if you don’t have a Twitter hander with a million followers, you need to write a pilot script for a sitcom that has to have a reason to exist now. It’s all about timing.

The Secret of Comedy

We all know the secret of comedy is timing. But it's not just the timing of the joke, but the timing of the show. When does it comes out? Is it riding a wave, or predicting the future in a believable or satirical way? Shows like The Day Today felt like the creators had seen the future, or at least where we were headed. It was like now only more so. This was the direction of travel of news. And they weren't far wrong. It felt perfectly of the moment. It was a truly great show, albeit not a sitcom.

The New Statesman is an example of a sitcom that was truly of the moment, satirically pushing Thatcherism to it's ultimate conclusion via the grotesquely evil and wonderfully named Alan B'Stard played by a comedy actor who was also of the moments. The planets aligned.


But timing is difficult. The experienced pros can get it wrong. Look at Nathan Barley which felt like it had missed the boat. The man behind (and in front of) The Day Today, along with the consistently brilliant Charlie Brooker, served up a sitcom that felt like its moment had already passed. It came out in 2005. It felt like we had all noticed this mad world of new media was filled with lightweights and airheads. The dotcom bubble had burst a few years earlier.

I was rather puzzled when I watched the show, expecting something more prophetic. If the show had launched in 1998, it would have been truly ahead of the curve and hit its stride when the bubble was burstying.

That said, I rewatched some episodes recently and found it funny, as it was a time capsule in it's own way. It's so entrenched in a time and place that 15-20 years on you don't worry about five years this way or that way. (The Goldbergs certainly don't!) You just remember a decade and think "yep. That's how it was. Or at least how it seemed".

It's one reasons why the broadcasters should make more historical comedies. They don't date. We still love Blackadder. Dad's Army still dominates the BBC2 comedy ratings. Maybe we should all take another look at the French and Saunders sitcom Let Them Eat Cake.

So there's something timely about a show that makes it great.

The Thick of It was a very timely show. There was a freshness to it which showed how we did politics then (and now) in a state of panic and terror and a media that sees and reports everything. It was well written and craft, with brilliant monstrous characters along with some jaw-dropping lines. One or two clips still give me a rush, like the time Malcom Tucker pushes back at the Goulding Inquiry and refuses to accept that he is the bad guy. And his scene with Olly, trying to talk about Star Wars, is just amazing. It's a great show. I watched every episode. It has all of the key ingredients. Including timing. It was timely. It was of the moment.

Timely is good.

Being Timeless

The only thing that could be better is being timeless, which is why there is a show I prefer to The Thick of It. My favourite sitcom of all time, Yes, Prime Minster. It's the Rolls Royce of sitcoms. Not only is it engineering perfection, but it feels like it's never out of date.  Each episode is about an issue of contemporary life or public policy which is then examined from both sides in a measured and considerate way, by two wonderful characters played by brilliant actors whose lines are not only perfection but very very funny.

It's up there with the very best of Oscar Wilde and GK Chesterton. It's stuff people will still be quoting in a hundred years time. It's timeless. And truly truly great.

There is only one thing better than being timely and timeless. It is this: 

Being Timely and Timeless

Of course, some shows aren't just timely or timeless. Somehow, they are both. And maybe that's why the platinum-sitcom in the UK remains Only Fools and Horses. It was, in its pomp, the ultimate sitcom in reflecting its time – and our story as a nation. Del Boy's journey from scrapping borderline criminal market trader dealing in probably stolen goods to wannabe yuppie. It was exactly of its time. 

Even Rodney's journey from trading sidekick to computer programmer said something about the times.

But the whole show was about a family scrapping to survive. What could be more universal and timeless about that? Which is why it’s never off our screens, the Christmas special did huge business, it came back for some ill-advised new episodes, and it went on stage at the West End. People can't get enough of it. Because it's truly great.

This is what we’re aiming for in our sitcom scripts. Something either timely, or timeless or both. But this is, of course, easier said than done.

I say all over the above on my YouTube channel called The Situation Room.

And from 7th January 2020, my video course will take you through the whole process from beginning to end.

But if you’ve got a script that needs some improvement, there’s a lot to be said for making it as good as it can be. In which case, get my handy guide called 7 Ways To Improve Your Sitcom Script Right Now.