Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Let's talk about collaboration

Creative writing tends to be a solitary endeavour. Novelists bash away at their manuscripts for weeks, months, even years largely in isolation. Some have a group of acquaintances they invite to read the book and offer comments, observations, opinions. Some have agents who act as in a way not dissimilar to editors, offering feedback. And then there are editors, copy editors and the like. But - for the most part - writing novels is a solitary occupation. There may be a few writing partnerships, often on what's derisively known as chick lit, but there aren't many truly collaborative novels.

The same applies to many other areas of creative writing - plays, radio drama, screenplays, comics and graphic novels, poetry - you know it, chances are the vast majority of people doing it are doing it solo. They're probably using both hands and ideally all of their fingers, but it's still a lonely activity. [I'm talking about writing here - please, people, try to focus.] True collaboration, the act of multiple scribes writing something together, that's rare in the UK.

Not so when it comes to TV writing in North America. Sitcoms and dramas across the Atlantic generally use a writers' room system, whereby the plot and structure of an episode are bashed out by a collective. This is often known as breaking the story, identifying its individual beats and finding the best order for these to appear. [If anybody owns the Region 1 DVD release of The Shield Season Three, there's a cracking fly on the wall documentary that shows the cop drama's writing staff breaking the story strands for that year's finale - fascinating stuff.]

There have been a few attempts to import this technique to the UK, with limited success. It's perhaps more easily applied to sitcoms, where the need to generate gags and laughs can sometimes be better fed by a collective than an individual or a pair of writers staring at a screen until their eyes bleed. The BBC adopted the writers' room system for its sitcom My Family, which has proved a long-running success with viewers, if not critics. The BBC was also looking to apply the writers' room approach to a new drama called Merlin, but the series did not secure a commission.

Having spent the past six years alone in a room writing for the most part, I would love to experience life inside a writers' room environment. The radio drama writers' lab I went on this month reminded me how much I enjoyed the company of other writers and the creative energy that multiple scribes can generate in a room together. I know that the gender split can sometimes be an issue - we had five male writers and three female - and create it's own dynamic, not always for the better. At the lab the facilitators were very good at managing the room so that never became an issue.

It was fascinating to work alongside writers who are character-led storytellers and literary novelists. They brought a depth of emotion and a richness of language to their writing that tends to be beyond me - it's certainly not something that comes naturally. By comparison, my years in journalism, comics and writing commercially for a living seemed to give me an edge when it came to structure, tautness of prose and self-editing. All the writers quickly came to respect each other's strengths and there were no obvious them-and-us gender divisions.

Of course, while the writers' lab had eight working writers in a room, the focus was on writing for radio, not collaboration. We were each creating our own scenes and ideas, not attempting to marry them al together as a collaborative effort. [That was something we did on the previous, two-day radio drama lab I did. It was frustrating at times, but also creating an over-arching narrative I doubt any of us would have ever stumbled upon working by ourselves.]

There's an interesting piece in The Guardian newspaper today about five female playwrights who were brought together to collaborate on a joint effort. The resulting play, Catch, opens this week at the Royal Court in London. The initiative was inspired by a previous effort in the early 70s, when seven male playwrights collaborated on a play called Lay By. [Back then the men had a female secretary to take notes - times have changed a little.] It sounds as if all the women gained a lot from the experience of writing collaboratively. I just wish there were more opportunities for this to happen within British TV, particularly TV drama. Maybe one day...

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