Wednesday, April 07, 2010

A good man always knows his limitations

Over at his blog Dom Carver wonders is 41 too old to still be pursuing a writing career? The answer is yes, no and maybe - but it depends on individual circumstances. There are many novelists who haven't enjoyed success until after later in life. The best-selling No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series was published when author Sandy McCall Smith was closer to 50 than 40.

Writers on the TV series Skins have an average age of 21, but co-creator Bryan Elsley is more than double that age. The BBC Writers' Academy trains people to write for continuing drama, and takes writers ranging from early 20s into their 40s and beyond. It can be argued some areas of writing favour younger people, but I'd suggest age is not the key factor in determining success.

Perhaps a more pertinent question is how long should you pursue the dream of a writing career? Is there some statute of limitations on achieving your goals, or your dreams? A commonly held wisdom suggests it takes 5-10 years to become a successful screenwriter. Quite how you define that success is another debate, so let's just call it making a living from writing for the screen.

Five years ago I chose to shift focus from writing tie-in tales across various media to screenwriting. Since then I've completed an MA, won a prize and been a finalist for several more, had a radio play broadcast, secured representation by a London agent and got my first TV drama credit. Am I making a living solely from writing for the screen? Not yet, but I'm getting there.

Along the way I've dipped my toe in certain waters to see if they're a good fit for me. [Excuse the mixed metaphor.] Sketch comedy writing? Not so much. Children's show? A specialist area, the jury's still out. Continuing drama? Loving it. Feature films? Not there yet. Script editing? Seems I'm too old to get an entry level position in that field. Radio drama? Loving it, more to come there [I hope].

These efforts have been a means of learning what I do well naturally, what I can learn to do well and what doesn't suit me at all. There's an apposite quote in the 1973 Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force: "A good man always knows his limitations." There's no shame in admitting you don't do something well. Me, I can't write sketch comedy, so I don't pursue it as a career.

In his excellent book Making It As a Screenwriter [available here, all proceeds to Childline], Adrian Mead has a reality checklist. Among the questions he asks: Are you still struggling to get your break and become a professional screenwriter, despite years of effort? Adrian's tough but cruel advice - make everyone happy, get another hobby.

I aspired to being a professional actor, long ago. Even auditioned for the New Zealand school of drama, the only place in my home country you could train for that career at the time. Didn't get in. I knew things weren't going well at the audition when the examiner laughed during my tragic speech from Hamlet. Ouch. I wasn't good enough. So I concentrated my energies elsewhere.

I still enjoy amateur dramatics, both acting and directing. It was a blow to realise I'd never be a professional actor, but I got over it. So if you've been slogging away for a few too many years without achieving any of your major goals [you've been setting goals for yourself, right?], then maybe it is time to give up. Remember: A good man always knows his limitations. Onwards!


laurence timms said...

I'm 41 and the only thing that'd stop my writing career is more people telling me I'm crap at it than good. So far that's not happening, so I'll push on.

I'm reminded of a blog post from James Estil of Not From Concentrate a few days ago. On the subject of Diversity he suggested the word 'Quality' was more appropriate:

"Diverse talent? No, quality talent. Diverse commissioning? Quality commissioning has more of a ring to it, don’t you think? Diverse casting? Er, how about quality casting?"

I'll make a better living as quality screenwriter of 40+ than a mediocre 20-something screenwriter.

John said...

I'm 41 too. Is this the year to have a wobble?

I think the other thing to consider is "Are you making progress?" Some people might take 2 years. Some 10. As long as you're making progress, the breaks are getting bigger, the feedback better, you're going in the right direction.

Ultimately, do you still enjoy it? If you do, to hell with everyone else. Sure, it's important to make it, but it's also important to enjoy the journey. And no-one puts it better than Mr Barron here: