So by now you all should've watched Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe: Writers Special, (if you haven't, hurry, it won't stay on iplayer forever.) I figure I won't often get the chance to be in the company of six such great writers, so in a move of breathtaking arrogance, I have picked out some key comments, and then added my own take. It's my blog and I'll do what I want. But my extra reason behind this is that sometimes it's useful to hear how someone a few, ahem, rungs below the ladder than these guys does it. (There is some paraphrasing below, my shorthand is not THAT good.)
ON GETTING INTO THE INDUSTRY
This is THE classic question, and I've spoken about it before on this blog. My main point is that I think the question how did you get into writing, to writers of a certain age group, is now defunct. You can’t now do, what Tony Jordan did, and put a script in an envelop with BBC London on it, get it read and be offered a gig on Eastenders. Having said that, I think it’s fair to say that even now, comedy writers frequently start off by writing sketches.
ON WRITING ROUTINE
TONY JORDAN: Get in the office about 9am. 14 cups of tea. Play solitaire. Internet. Write 11am. Stop at 11:30am. Cup of tea. Solitaire. Stop for lunch at 1pm. Watch loose women and the news. Cup of tea, solitaire. Maybe some hearts. Come 4pm I realise shit, I’ve haven’t done a thing. But I can write quickly between 4-6pm and if I get done what I need to do that day that’s fine. If not I can be there till midnight.
GRAHAM LINEHAM: I can go for days without writing a word. But at some point I start panicking and think I better write something. So I look for things I find funny and see if I can use that. So part of the procrastinating is feeding the subconscious.
PAUL ABBOTT: It used to be 10 hours a day non stop with some breaks. Now I get 3 days in 10 to write.
JESSE ARMSTRONG & SAM BAIN: 10am-6pm. We storyline together and go away and write the dialogue separately. Starting without a storyline can really hurt you. But that is just our experience. Some people can just go and write. We hate them.
JEZ FREEDMAN: My biggest smile watching the show came after Tony's day description. It would be fair to say that I fit into this mold, the only difference being is that I most certainly don't start at 9am. But I simply can't seem to write before late afternoon at the earliest. This used to bug me, but I've grown to accept it. It's biological! To do with body clocks and all that. Once you recognise what type you are it can be liberating. It's not an excuse not to write though. If you can't really work until late afternoon/evening or even better late at night, you better have an understanding partner and quite possibly two laptops (hence my recent search for a netbook.) This was easier when I was single but you have to write, and if you are better at it later in the day, so be it. But probably best not to mess about the rest of the time (if you're Tony Jordan you can play computer games, the rest of us need to do some sort of work.) So this is when I do my emailing, read other blogs, read scripts, and watch tv. (I rarely watch anything live. Everything is recorded for early afternoons!)
ON OUTLINING/STORY PLANNING
TJ: I like the free fall of just starting with a blank sheet of paper. Before I start I’ll have a rough shape of the piece in my head. I’ll know the opening so I’ll write that. And I’ll know sort of where it’s going. With a show like Hustle I just wrote and got to page 55 and now I have 10 pages to explain in flashback how they get out of it. And I swear to you at that stage I have no idea.
RUSSEL T DAVIES: I have an idea in my head, although not in any real order and you slalom your way through it.
GL: I have a structure as a way of getting me through the first draft. But the first draft for me is just toilet paper. It’s just a bunch of notes.
PA: when I wrote State Of Play I didn’t outline the political story. I know it was defined as such but I just wrote about these people, one of whom happen to be a politician. So I got 10 pages in and this one is dead and that one is dead and thought well I better explain this cos I’m getting paid to! But I like not knowing what’s going to happen when I turn the corner. I’ve had to use index cards recently because of time constraints but I like taking a leap and not knowing where I’m going to land. It’s a really respectable way to write… I have painted myself into a corner, but I love proving that I can get out of it when the odds are against me.
JF: I'm a bit of a structuralist and like to know where I am going, at least to get the first draft done. I feel much happier if I have a plan. That plan may not be anymore than a 1-4 page outline or even a page of bullet points. But there has to be something so when I get stuck and start hyperventilating, I can look at the plan and say ok this come next, keep writing, keep writing. It might be crap and probably will be and need rewriting, but doesn't everything?
RTD: For me it’s instinct. I just sit down and start writing them. And that’s what I’m good at. I know people sit down and draw up lists of where characters went to school, what nickers they wear, if they smoke. And I don’t do any of that. I can imagine characters and I’m good at imagining and writing their voices as they would sound.
TJ: I think you have to recognise something of yourself. There has to be that empathy. I bring different aspects of people I know or have met. I mix and match. It’s like Mr. Potatohead. What you add to that is then the research. In Hustle with Micky Briggs, I had a friend who was effortlessly cool.
GL: Sometimes you get lucky. With Father Ted we created a show with a bunch of characters that really worked. They were separate characters but when we brought them together they felt like a family. And that’s why I think it hit the ground running. I sometimes like cliches because they are funny. In Ted we had an alcoholic who drinks toilet duck. You go so cliched it becomes funny.
PA: Most characters should be 3 people in one. 3 people you know. You pick bits from different people.
JF: I think I find myself somewhere between Russell T Davies and Tony Jordan here. I think I also have an instinct for characters and when I was first starting out I did make all those lists, because I thought that was just how it is done so I better get on with it. And it really pissed me off and felt false. Gradually I've knocked that on the head, but I'll still do a little paragraph about the character, although it will focus more on their attitude to things and temperament, then any background. And if I can draw on characteristics of people I know, or even greater, myself, then so much the better. Because you will inevitably get to a point in the script and think what now. And it's bloody useful if you have a character who is similar to someone you know or yourself. Because you can then turn round and say what would I/they do now. What would I/they be feeling and thinking. There is of course nothing wrong with the other way. As with all things, you find what works for you.
TJ: I have a scene heading. Put the characters in there. And if I’ve done the work on the characters and I know them as people, they’ll start talking to each other and I write down what they say. But the trick to great dialogue is to write your lines, and then start taking out words and see if it still makes sense. You take away as many words as possible and you might only be left with one. But this is snappy dialogue and this is actually how people speak. You can learn craft, story structure, narrative drive, but if you can’t write dialogue you’re kind of screwed.
SB: I act out the characters on the page. It's like being an actor in your own head.
RTD: Bad dialogue is like 95% of TV. Most TV dialogue is functional and talks about the plot. It ping pongs and you are absolutely in trouble when people are actually talking to each other explaining the plot. Jimmy McGovern says I would rather be confused for ten minutes than bored for five seconds. People hardly ever listen to each other. They are just waiting to say their next line. Good dialogue is like two monologues that connect sometimes.
JF: One of the best tips I've ever had is the one Tony gave above, which I first heard from him when last years Red Planet finalists met up back in April. I now have a special rewrite, just for this. I literally go through the script line by line of dialogue to make sure I have done this. And boy does it make a difference. Interestingly, Davies went on to give the example of a drama starting with the line "happy wedding day, sis," and how crap that was. Or someone saying "you would say that, you're my brother." His point was they were expositional and no one talks like this. But it made me think of that Tony Jordan - Zoe & Kat Slater classic "You're not my mother. Yes I am!" To be fair Davies did admit that sometimes you needed to get information across (The Doctor is very useful for just blurting out a load of exposition.) And I think what he was saying of course is that there are good and bad ways to do it. An argument is often a good way. Things do get blurted out when people are arguing. Just imagine if the "happy wedding day, sis" would've been followed by the bride replying "shut up" or "get lost" or worse! That's not what you'd expect. So immediately it makes it more interesting.
PA: I think the first draft is always a drudge and I wish there were elves who could just lay it down. But they can't and you just have to do it.
GL: The thing about writing is that the fist draft is so hard, that once you finish it you don’t want to change anything. Because it was so hard you don’t want to do it ever again. But the second draft will become easier, and the third still. And by the fourth you’ll be having so much fun. Because all the dead wood will be gone and you’ll be adding new jokes and structural work…
JA & SB: We do a lot of rewriting. 22 drafts? But by the end that number can be a bit boastful. Changing the odd line here and there is not really a new draft.
TJ: You have to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. I’ll do ten or twelve drafts of Hustle. Matthew Graham wrote thirty drafts of the Life On Mars pilot. Because you’re honing it all the time, making it smarter, crisper, sharper.
JF: I don't have much to add here. Yes the 1st draft is the hardest, yes you have to rewrite as much as possible. But you also have to recognise when something is 'finished' or good enough to submit. Nothing is ever perfect but tinker too long and you won't write anything else ever again. This comes with experience I think. Finally, I think it's worth noting that Paul Abbott did not say there was no such thing as elves, only that they couldn't write the first draft for you.
ON HOW MUCH DO YOU ACTUALLY ENJOY WRITING
JA: Sometimes you sit down and there’s a scene you’re excited to write but I feel like it should be more fun than it actually is.
SB: The more fun the writing process is, probably less good the show, and the more hard work the writing process is, the funnier it will be.
RTD: It’s like it has to be punishing in some way. But I love it at the same time. I love it when it’s done, when it’s finished and made. But I hate writing at the same time.
TJ: I love having written, I hate f**king writing. I hate the process but love having done it.
JF: Whilst it's certainly true that there is no feeling quite like the one of having finished something, it's scary that everyone seems to hate actually writing! I'm not sure I feel like this. Yes I procrastinate with the best of them, but once I get going, and once I am into a rhythm, I think I enjoy it. I've reluctantly come to accept that I am never going to play for Arsenal (because of my age of course, not anything else) so cannot think of anything else I'd rather be doing.
GL: If you want to write something have an idea about what you want to write about and don’t write it for ages. Writing is kind of like having a poo, it’s really hard if you don’t want to go. But there’s a time when you have to go. And that’s what it should be like. When you have built up all the ideas you’ll be so excited to get going. That’s why people falter, they start writing too soon and don’t know where to go. They don’t know what the characters well enough, they don’t know the tone, the world.
RTD: Finish it. It’s not a script until it’s finished. You’re not a writer unless it’s done. You’re not a writer with it all in your head. It’s not a script with only two pages. You’re not a writer until you have a script or a novel or whatever. So get on with it.
Well as hard as it would be to top Graham's writing is poo analogy, I'm going to leave the last word to the Eastend barrow boy impostor, Mr. Jordan.
TJ: A writer writes. That's it. That's what you do. Clue is in the title - Writer. F**king write.