Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Revelations [Danny Stack Memed Me]

Danny Stack memed me on his blog, suggesting I post thoughts on any revelations I've had during my career as a working writer. At first, I didn't think myself qualified to contribute, as I'm still working towards securing my TV drama writing debut. But I've a screenwriting prize, had 18 novels published, a radio play broadcast and been making my living from writer for nearly eight years - so here goes.

1. Don't work with someone you can't trust or respect. You don't have to like everyone, but without trust or respect the job of writing gets that much harder. I had an opportunity to collaborate with a producer last year, a golden opportunity to break into a new area. But a tiny voice at the back of my brain was screaming, 'Run away! Run away!'. The producer was more interested in playing mind games and wielding power than helping anyone - except themselves. After two meetings I walked out and have never regretted it.

2. Life is too short for maybe. You've got to know when to pull the plug on a project. There are producers who will talk the talk, blow smoke up your arse, promise the world - but never actually deliver. All the good will and encouragement in the world mean nothing if they don't one day turn into live opportunities. Strange as it seems, you can die of hope. If somebody really wants to make one of your projects happen, they will find a way.

3. Don't be ashamed of being shameless. Sometimes you simply have to hustle. Pimp yourself, because nobody else will do it for you. That doesn't mean you have to create an entire cult of personality around the Wonder That Is You - shamelessness can easily tip over into crass, relentless self-delusion. But you need to set aside any ingrained reserve and tout your abilities. I struggle with this myself. In New Zealand where I come from, people who promoted themselves too hard were known as skites. But I've realised you mustn't be afraid to trumpet your successes.

4. Over 30 is too old for entry level jobs. On the MA screenwriting course at Screen Academy Scotland, lots of students were over 30. They'd done other jobs but wanted to have a crack at screenwriting, fulfilling a long-held ambition. No problem there. Age brings life experience and a sense of perspective inaccessible to 17-year-old wonder kids. But I've yet to meet any film or TV company that wanted anyone over 30 for an entry level job. Acne good, wrinkles bad. Get used to it.

5. Every new project starts from scratch. The blank page or screen is still blank every time you start a new project, no matter how much success or experience you've had as a writer. My 19th novel gets published this November, but that doesn't make plotting number 20 any easier. The same applies just as much to other mediums. Sometimes I worry there's a finite number of stories in the wellsprings of my imagination, but that's just fear. Dig deep enough, there's always another story you'll want to tell.

6. Be passionate about your stories. If you don't care about what you're writing, why the hell should anyone reading your story care? You've got to be burning to write your tale. It needs to displace everything else in your life everytime you sit down to work on it. Sometimes writing jobs have to be hacked out, but you should always aspire to write better today than you did yesterday. Get passionate.

7. Perserving your voice ain't easy. Finding your unique voice as a writer is a bugger. What makes you stand out from the crowd. What have you got to say that's different from everyone else? Why should we care what you think about anything? But once you've found that voice, holding on to it is even harder. To write TV drama as a newcomer, you'll most likely be working on other people's shows, other people's characters, even other people's stories. Maintaining your own voice in such circumstances is tough - but also essential. It's the only thing that makes you worth employing.

8. Nobody owes you a living. Never forget, you choose to become a writer. So what if you've just finished a post-graduate writing course? Join the hundreds and thousands of others you've done the same. That piece of paper is not a magic key, merely proof you could have in fit-for-purpose assignments on time. So what if you've secured representation from an agent? That's guarantee you'll ever get work. The only thing that matters is your writing, so write.

9. Fight for your work, but choose your battles. Nobody likes a high maintenance writer. You know the sort, people who don't know when to stop arguing or who exhibit a constant need for reassurance. Unless they're a solid gold genius, the high maintenance writer will get cast aside for being too much trouble. As a writer you have to fight against decisions that damage your stories, but pick your battles wisely. Don't sweat the small stuff, save yourself for the most important fights.

10. Don't be passive, make things happen. Among the best advice I ever heard came from Adrian Mead the first time I met him. He visited the MA screenwriting class and encouraged each of us to make things happen. Don't be one of those students who spend their breaks bitching in the cafeteria. Better to buttonhole guest speakers, hustle for opportunities, and always keep writing, keep working to improve your writing.

11. Nurture good sources of feedback. Writers can be blind to their mistakes and mis-steps. All writers need an editorial process, be it formal or casual, workshop or readers' reports. If you find somebody who gives you constructive criticism, nurture that precious gem. They will help you get the best out of any story, or enable you to recognise a tale isn't worth the telling. Be thankful and be appreciative to that person.

12. Listen to and learn from feedback. Too many writers go through the motions of seeking out feedback, yet don't learn from what's being said. If people keep telling you to improve your action text or work on your dialogue, then focus on your action text or give each script a dialogue pass. You will only improve by paying attention to feedback and incorporating the lessons learned into future work. Don't argue or justify yourself - listen.


Danny Stack said...

Top stuff! You are the strongest link, hello.

Lucy said...

Nicely done sir. Though you missed one:

13. Worship Lucy Vee, for she is all that is holy in script reading circles - and never that impostor Danny Stack or the impostor of the imposter Danny Stack, Denny Stark.

; )

Far Away said...

top stuff Mr Bishop

and why not get yourself up on scribomatic huh?

joelmead said...

These are good tips. Although I work mainly as a journo rather than in fiction, all of these things are applicable. I have dealt with people I don't trust in the past and it's a big headache…