There are two things I struggle to do during the festive period; dieting and writing. And for much the same reasons. There all those parties and distractions and drinking Baileys for breakfast; it increases the waistline not the word count. I rationalise it by telling myself that even if I were to bash out a pitch for every window I open on my advent calendar, there’d be no-one sober enough around to read it anyway. And so, after downing tools for the festive period, I am back with a few new words for the new term.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog called 10 New Year Resolutions Every Writer Should Break . This year I’m giving you the 5 New Year Writing Resolutions that I’m personally going to try and keep. Of course, it’s entirely up to you whether you join me in my virtuous pursuit of the higher literary ground. I also realise that it might be inviting my fellow writers to police my habits for the next twelve months. I’m not.
However, if you see me on a branch of Greggs after the second of January, you do have my permission to drag me out before I can purchase a Steak Bake.
1. Get my priorities straight.
It’s been a weird old year with lots of distractions including voluntary work, family upheaval and binge watching six seasons of Parenthood. I tried to establish Monday as my admin day when I would clear my to-do list, my inbox and my head so that I could get cracking with the actual writing Tuesday through Friday. The truth is, it’s not working (in both senses of the word).
Admin begets more admin. You reply to fifteen emails and you get fifteen back. So Admin Monday becomes Follow-up Tuesday becomes What Now? Wednesday becomes Leave Me Alone Thursday becomes Oh Fuck It Friday.
And now I’m wondering if I’ve got my priorities skew-whiff. My job is writing. Everything else - the talks, the meetings, the event organising – are not. That’s not to say I’ll be giving it all up. There is nothing I love more than being in a room with other writers. However, there’s a point when you start to feel like a fraud. When it feels like being a writer is your job, not actually knuckling down and doing the bloody work.
So, Admin Mondays are no more.
2. I will differentiate between writing that is not to my taste and bad writing.
One of the new phrases I added to my vocabulary this year was ‘Hot Take’. Because, you know, I’m so down with the kids and that. Do you want to see me twerk?
2015 was the Year of Rushing To Judgement whether it was about election poll numbers, pictures of alleged jihadists in the bath or how deep you should bow at the cenotaph. And I have not been immune to it. I have watched first episodes of shows and decided that a series was bobbins. Even though I know that writing opening episodes is a Herculean task. Conversely I have been swayed by other people's opinions on social media. I’ve watched series to the bitter end despite not really enjoying or understanding the show because everyone on Twitter was calling it the best thing since Breaking Bad/The Wire/Crossroads. But worst of all, I have dismissed shows as terrible or badly-written just because they weren’t to my taste.
It has to stop and for a good reason. We have a battle on our hands at the moment to save the BBC. And one of the most prevalent and irritating arguments against Auntie Beeb seems to be; Why should I pay my licence fee when I don’t like Strictly Come Dancing/Top Gear/University Challenge/That Awful Bloody Pop Music They Insist On Playing Morning, Noon and Night On Radio One?
It so easy to get dragged into playing a game of fantasy channel controller where you decide what your £145.50 a year should and shouldn't pay for. It’s a dangerous game that has already put 6Music and the Asian Network under threat and led to BBC Three moving online. It chips away at vulnerable services and content. The fact is it doesn’t matter if your televisual diet consists purely of Wolf Hall and BBC Four documentaries about canal boats. It’s irrelevant if you only turn on the box to watch Mrs Brown’s Boys and Eastenders. The Wolf Hall mob pay for Eastenders and vice versa. It is a beautifully balanced and unique system. No wonder the politicians loath it.
So, I’m going to strive not to play their game any longer. I will respect the writers, producers, techies etc who work hard to get stuff up on screen and I will give it a fair crack of the whip; at least two episodes. And if I still don’t like it, then I’ll turn off the damn TV.
However, I still reserve the right to unpick, discuss and analyse – respectfully. I consider it part of my job as a writer. And perhaps the powerful person who skulks around social media ‘calling out’ writers who discuss other writers’ work could respect that? Flipping heck, love. We all Google ourselves to see what folk are saying about us, but we don’t advertise the fact.
3. I will learn to talk confidently about money.
The Writers’ Guild is currently running a campaign called Free Is Not An Option. We want to talk frankly about the increasing amount of work that writers are being to be asked to do for free. And we’ve all done it. A pitch turns into a treatment which turns into a series bible which turns into a pilot script. And the longer this goes on, the harder it gets to mention the money.
Although, sometimes remuneration is dangled in front of writer like a carrot on a stick. I’ve lost count of the number of times that a development producer has told me that s/he is ‘trying to find some money’ for me. In the words of someone wiser than me; Do. Or do not. There is no try.
Bottom line? A company should have a proper budget for development not some ad-hoc arrangement based on goodwill and crossed fingers.
However, I am going to take more responsibility for the financial aspects of my career from now. I will discuss money in the first meeting. I will tell development bods that whilst I am very excited about working with them, I am also excited about paying my mortgage.
This is my job, not my hobby.
4. I will no longer stand for workplace bullying and bad work practices.
It’s another thing that most writers will encounter during their careers; the late notes, sudden story changes, the quick turnover on yet another draft and the subsequent cancelled arrangements/life. And it’s getting out of hand.
Look, all writers joke about procrastination and working up to the last second of a deadline. However, the reality is that a lot of writers have no choice but to write into the wee hours, over the weekend and whilst supposedly on holiday. It’s become so prevalent that producers and script editors are not even apologising for it any longer. It’s just assumed that a writer will take the punishment of contradictory notes, too many drafts and tight turnovers. There is now no point trying to explain that you are exhausted or on the verge of divorce or you’ve eaten nothing but take away for a week. Because if you do complain? Well, you’re a nightmare. You’re unprofessional. You can’t hack it.
Bullshit. If you are running a show where it is consistently necessary for your writers to write through the night or for weeks without a decent break, then YOU are being unprofessional. You are running a production that is badly scheduled and managed. You need to do your job better. Actually, it’s probably not just you that needs to do your job better. It’s a probably a whole roomful of producers sticking their oar in and gumming up the works.
The thing is, it’s the law of diminishing returns. With each rushed draft, the writer gets further and further away from what s/he wants to see on the screen. As the time ticks away, the dialogue gets more on the nose, the plot becomes leakier and the characters start doing stupid things. More damaging, with each massive rewrite a writer's confidence is eroded and that shows in tentative, run of the mill, risk-free scripts.
When it comes to scripts, you can have it fast or you can have it right. You can’t have both.
When it comes to scripts, you can have it fast or you can have it right. You can’t have both.
So, how to remedy this? Well, this year I’m going to do the following:-
* I’m going to listen out for the tell-tale signs of bad working practises. If a schedule is described as ‘a bit tight’ that means it is impossible.
* If there isn’t a script schedule with deadlines for first drafts, second drafts and shooting scripts, I’m going to ask for one. And I’m going to ask why the production is not sticking to the schedule as significant dates sail by without comment.
* I’m going to ask who will be giving me notes and when. If the big boss (executive or commissioning producer) isn’t reading my script until the day before it shoots, that’s a potential problem. Because they could ask for big changes and I’ll have no option but to take them on board. If they have to have an input, then it needs to be early and often.
Let’s reject the narrative of the great exec coming down from the mountain with the essential note that will save the episode. It never happens like that. More often they insist on a change that screws up the rest of the episode and negates months of work. But they pay the wages, so no-one can say anything.
* For my part, I will inform the production of any holidays, family responsibilities or days when I will not be available. In the past I’ve kept schtum and hoped that I could slip away, worried that my having an actual life would be misinterpreted as a lack of commitment to the production. But let’s stop pretending that shows get better when they are turned into a competition to see who can work the most unsociable hours. They don’t.
5. Diversity, diversity, diversity.
I’ve been trying to improve the diversity of the characters I write for a long time. I’ve realised it’s about so much more than just sticking someone called Mohammed in a scene or making the doctor female. It’s all about listening, reading and educating myself. In fact, it’s about shutting the fuck up and letting other people tell me their stories before I start trying to write mine. I expect to be working on this for the rest of my career. But then I love a learning curve. I will do better.
And so, I embark upon 2016 with hope in my heart, fire in my belly and dangerous levels of caffeine in my bloodstream. I hope I get to shoot the breeze with a decent number of you along the way. Here’s to the lead in your pencil!