Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The Question All Writers Get Asked

If you stare at a cursor blinking on a screen (daring you to write something) for a living you'd better put some kind of exercise programme in place otherwise you'll start to feel the flab growing around you. Believe me, I know.
So in a bid to get back to somewhere near a respectable fighting weight I went back to the gym last week. I had a long chat with Jim at the gym and we agreed some goals. Of course what I do for a living came up and as soon as I said writer he said, "Where do you get your ideas?".
It's the question I can never answer. The best answer I've heard is "A little golden bird sings to me in my sleep". But that's not my answer; I'm not sure I have one.
I've had ideas come from thinking of a title, a character, a situation. They pop into my head when I'm not consciously thinking about a project at all. I'm not too good at trying to tailor something to the current market. I've always thought, if they've got one of those why would they want another but sometimes you can come up with your own idea off the back of a current series.
I'll pick up any magazine and flick through. And I mean any. From Camping and Caravanning to Homes and Garden, Nuts to Top Gear. And I read endlessly. Biographies and Factual, Novels and Short Stories. Absolutely anything can contain the kernel that starts the process.

Once I get an idea I play with it in my head. What will my characters be like? (try to think of people you know or you've encountered rather than basing them on characters you've seen in other shows). If you're trying to create a series, what will your stories be? If you're contemplating setting it around a fantastic character you've met make sure there are enough stories that would be true to that person in his/her world. If he's a plumber emergency call outs to blocked drains might get old pretty quickly. And a plumber who solves murder mysteries will stretch credulity. Maybe he's not a plumber but a Priest.

When I get an idea I research as much as possible about and around the subject. From anything that might be procedural to the characters associated with the topic and any stories I can glean. But when it comes to putting it all together, making something come alive I don't know where that spark comes from. What I do know is that things start to fall into place. The subconscious takes over. I don't know how that happens, nor do I wish to. It happens, I'm grateful, move on.

Yes, there is such a thing as a muse but if you want to keep writing for TV or film I don't believe that's something you can rely on. You have to treat the job as a job. You can't wait for inspiration to descend, you have to write. When I first moved away from writing comedy sketches and tried my hand at longer narrative forms it was undoubtedly a mess. I'd start writing the moment I had a thought, try and write my story as I went.

That is such a bad idea.

You lurch from scene to scene, not knowing where you're going, writing dialogue you think is snappy, only to discover you have no story and no kind of character development.
These days I spend as much time as I can researching a subject before I even write an outline. Once the outline is down I'll play with it, find twists and turns, surprises, tear it up, start again. Only when I'm happy with the outline do I start writing pages. And then I take heed of the best piece of advice I ever heard:

Don't be afraid to write bad.

When you're working from a detailed outline you KNOW where you're going - it doesn't mean you can't deviate if a better idea pops up, that's the time to STOP writing, go back to the outline and work that idea through. But even when you know where you're heading sometimes you can get held up by a line of dialogue or piece of action that you know isn't right. Doesn't matter. Write it bad. Don't let it hold you up. You can always come back and make it sing later. Remember, Paul McCartney's dummy lyric to Yesterday was Scrambled Eggs. he had the tune, he had the rhythm, and eventually he had the perfect words.

So, once you get a notion, go research. Fill yourself up with all the detail you can find, write your outline, hone it, polish it, tear it up, write it again and then start writing the script. Once your head is full to bursting the ideas flow.
Only when you've learned to ride the bike can you do tricks on it. That's when the fun begins.

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