This week I’m turning over the blog to narrative structure goddess Linda Aronson for some tough love … She’s definitely given me a run for my money in the “smack talk” stakes! Thanks Linda 😉
1. Impersonate what you think is “writerly” behaviour.
I was once in an elevator at a very prestigious film school with some students. They were unaware who I was, and quite unselfconsciously they started to discuss their major graduation piece, a short film, due very shortly. None of them had properly started it. One had an aunt who, he claimed, was quite a funny character – and was anyone going to the party tonight? I was stunned. In a brutal and overcrowded industry those students were idly throwing away their one really strong chance of getting powerful people to view their work. Why? Because, I suspect, they were impersonating what they took to be the behavior of professional writers as per popular myth – lazy, disorganized, and whipping off brilliant work at the last minute, glass of red wine in hand. A myth, I might add, that many real writers play up to, for fun.
The reality here is that real writers work hard – because writing is hard. Many writers who say they don’t plan are mentally planning for ages before and during. As for drugs and alcohol, writers may party hard, but nothing would get written if they weren’t on the ball for the overwhelming majority of the time. Yes, there are famous writers who have substance abuse problems and struggle on, but it’s when they’re established and often it’s binge behavior between long bouts of sober writing. Even Dylan Thomas worked very hard between downing the gallons. And let’s face it, it’s one thing to be drunk and interesting when you’re famous. When you’re drunk and unknown you tend to stay that way. [More on B2W: Dear Writer].
2. Get very drunk at industry parties and insult people who’ve helped you.
This is stage two of ‘impersonating a writer’. You may smile at the idea of a new writer being so foolish as to get drunk and insult industry people, but I have seen it more times than I can recall. Again, one stands there and watches in amazement. Two drinks are enough. If someone helps you, they are being kind. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. If you publicly demonstrate that you are actively unpleasant to deal with and liable to waste everyone’s time by having tantrums (time is money, remember) don’t be surprised if people don’t want to deal with you. [Lucy V discusses crazy writers in Scriptmag].
3. Arrive unprepared at a story conference.
Your first TV job will probably be pretty menial, so you might imagine you can do it on your ear. Be warned. It’s much harder to create a fine script out of weak material than it is to be brilliant when you have a free hand at the content. That’s why it’s so important that you produce your very best work in this situation. Arrive unprepared and you are saying ‘I’m lazy, I don’t really care and I need a lot of assistance’. Assistance in practical terms means someone else has to cover you, working double time. There may not be the budget or the inclination to permit that. Instead of arriving with nothing, be the best prepared in the room. Working on an existing TV series? Learn everything about it. Watch, re-watch, analyse. If they ask for three plot ideas bring ten. Scour the series bible story elements you could bring out in your episode. Explore the sets and find bits that haven’t been used, so your episode will look new. Dazzle. As I often say, the person making the tea today will be head of drama in five years, and they will want a team. [More On B2W: Relationships & Teamwork].
4. Turn up late at a story conference.
Turn up late and you are not only insulting everyone else present but you immediately imply that your script will also come in late and require assistance, for which see number 3 above. When they are culling writers or creating a shortlist, who do you think will get the chop? Who would you give the chop? [More: Lucy V talks collaborating on the BritFlicks podcast].
5. Abuse your talent.
Some writers boast that they churn out rubbish for the soaps while saving their energies for their Great Work. Terrifyingly, if you write below your best you will find, without realising it, that you lose your ear for how real people think and react and speak. You will end up writing clichés. This is how good writers become hacks. Trust me, I’ve seen it. Whatever it is you are writing, seek out the emotional and intellectual truth of it. Get yourself inside those characters, feel their emotions, write to your very best. This passion and high seriousness will be noticed because personal passion – a unique voice within the parameters of the genre along with the ability to create strong emotion in an audience – is the Holy Grail for producers. That’s how you’ll land the prestigious work. [More on B2W: 7 Ways To Showcase Your Writer’s Voice].
6. Be rude/ go off message/ waste time in plotting meetings.
In film school or screenwriting courses robust debate is entirely appropriate and part of the learning curve. In a plotting room situation where writers have plot input, the job is not to challenge. It is to plot brilliantly, quickly and with great flexibility within specific parameters of plot and format. In short, Homer Simpson can’t be a secret heroin addict. If you have a very good idea that might challenge a rule, do so politely and in awareness that, normally, to challenge the agreed boundaries is a waste of everyone’s time. If, having put forward your idea, you get a no, you’ve got a no.
Want to drive everyone up the wall? Keep returning to your pet idea, and if you really want to get people’s backs up, heap scorn on the ideas of the experienced writers around the room. Will you really stymy your chances if you do any of this stuff? Depends how kind the person running the table is and how talented and passionate and hardworking you are. Realistically, probably not. But you’d better be talented. And if you keep wasting people’s time in the end you may end up being labelled as someone who’s talented but no good to work with because, well, they just don’t get it. [More On B2W: Lies Writers Tell Themselves: Careers].
7. Get someone to read your script and get enraged or sulk if you get criticised.
Don’t ask for notes if you are not prepared to listen to the response, and be aware that taking notes is part of the scriptwriter’s job description, indeed occurs regularly as the script progresses. If you hate this, leave and write in some other medium.
While every writer wants to be told that the script, even a first draft, is utterly brilliant and without fault, the reality is that later you will look back at the first draft in horror, wondering how you could think it had any merit at all. New writers can take a few scripts to become convinced of this. [More on B2W: 5 Ways To Use Feedback Effectively].
8. Be unable to write unless you have optimum conditions.
A writer/producer friend with no kids offered part of his beautiful country farmhouse for free as a writers’ retreat. To his amazement, only the amateur writers took up his offer. Why? Professional writers have to write every day despite every kind of domestic interruption. You are setting yourself up for disaster if you convince yourself you can’t work under adverse conditions. Don’t leave it all until Sunday. Your child will get mumps on Sunday. Don’t train yourself so that you have to be on your own in some lovely empty house in the woods or on the coast, or with some special pen or in some magic chair, or kid yourself that you will write your brilliant novel only if you go to some wonderful writers’ retreat. If there is a rule in this business it’s that great offers come at exactly the wrong time – because some writer has dropped out at the last minute. Train yourself to work under adverse conditions. By all means, get away occasionally if you can, but writers’ retreats? Borrow a friend’s flat when they’re at work. More On B2W: Help! My Partner Won’t Let Me Write and the B2W Writing With Kids Series, Part 1 and Part 2].
9. Spend years on One Great Work to the exclusion of everything else.
No great artist ever produced only one work. However, I’ve often come across people who spend years entirely on one script. The odd thing is that not only do they never finish that script but at some level they don’t want to and go to extraordinary lengths to prevent it happening. Sometimes a script you love is not worth fixing. If you are a new writer, often the great script you cannot leave belongs to a less-skilled part of your career and you were learning on the job. Love it, honor it for what it taught you, and put it in a drawer. If you have a script that you absolutely cannot leave, write some other scripts in between. [More on B2W: Why You MUST Finish].
10. Wait for the career to come to you.
It won’t. You know the old saying: every producer wants to be the first to do something second. Produces find it much easier to take on a new writer if that person has a proven track record and is clearly hungry, so make your own opportunities. Write stage and radio plays, make your own films, go in for competitions, get free online training via film funding bodies, LSF and the trusty BBC Writers’ Room. Stage plays are a great investment of your time. Not only can they demonstrate your skills with dialogue plot and character, but theatres, particularly little theatres, constantly need new product and welcome new writers. Best of all, a successful play can permit you to jump the queue to write the prestigious stuff for film and TV. [More on B2W: 5 Career Strategies For Writers].
3 great clues to enhance your chances …
1. Don’t project as lazy. People will forgive inexperience. They will even (if there is talent), forgive arrogance. They will not forgive laziness – or what comes over as laziness.
2. The producer buys the writer as much as the script. Good film ideas are ten a penny. The question always is: ‘can this particular writer cut the mustard and actually write this script well?’
3. Every producer dreams of discovering a brilliant, hardworking new writer. In a world of fierce competition your newness is a great asset and you won’t have it for long. Don’t waste it.
Good luck and warm wishes to you all,
Linda Aronson is a multi-award-winning writer who’s spent more than thirty years as a writer for companies in Australia, UK, New Zealand and USA, with credits for TV drama series, serials, mini-series, children’s TV, drama documentary, feature film, stage plays, four novels, short stories, radio drama, journalism and four books on writing craft. She’s also been employed to create TV drama series and storylines, been a script judge/selector in many contexts, including the Emmys, and worked all over the world as a consultant and teacher specializing in nonlinear and complex script structure. Subscribe to Linda Aronson’s new newsletter.