04 July, 2007

Novice writers' mind-set

I've just come across this interesting article on my computer while looking for my old Paris Hilton pics.

It was posted a few years ago to a writer’s messageboard by Binkie in reaction to a rant from a new writer. It's a bit harsh but it forced me to try and switch from the “novice writers’ mind-set” to a “pre-professional mind-set”.

As a tyro with some broadcast credits, but no career to speak of, I have been thinking about the novice writer's mind-set. For what they are worth, these are my reflections. I thought I'd share them with you because it might help other writers to know how I feel and it might help producers and broadcasters to understand why we inundate them with dreck.

It seems to me that many of us, languishing at the bottom of the food chain, lack a self-validating sense of our own worth. Having no body of produced work from which we can derive our status as writers, our self-esteem is inextricably bound up with others' feedback. So, the responses we receive from broadcasters and producers loom disproportionately large in our emotional landscape. On those occasions when we receive feedback that we consider harsh, offhand or callous, we feel that our status has been diminished and the validity of our enterprise called into question. This makes us angry, resentful and prone to mistake the benign indifference of the marketplace for a malign, personalised, conspiracy.

So far as writers' learning tools are concerned, the books, courses and professional mentors can offer us little more than a method of identifying the flaws in our work. They can't tell us what to write, they can't write it for us and they can't help us find our voice. But the problem with following the advice to find our own voice is that, to us novices, it seems to be counter-intuitive. We learn through imitation. Unfamiliar with our craft, we naturally nick a bit of Milligan and try to pass it off as our own, just as, when we were kids, we used to parrot our parents' jokes without understanding what made them funny.

Because most of us don't have the luxury of a private income, or an indulgent employer who will allow us to do our own work on its time, we are necessarily looking for a quick fix. We have perhaps made choices with our lives that we now regret, and we want to leave behind the world of full-time editing/ bricklaying/ studying/ parenting/ dossing, and to position ourselves as a full-time professional writer as quickly as possible, because life is short, the present unrewarding, and the future uncertain.

Because we are writing speculatively, with no immediate prospect of financial reward, we minimise our investment in the job. Like a bunch of bodgers, we try to pull the wool over broadcasters' and producers' eyes with cheap materials, papering over the cracks of flimsy motivation, implausible plotting and stereotypical characterisation by using scintillating dialogue, surrealism and outlandish premises. We believe that great ideas are the key, because we can have great ideas economically, while watching "Neighbours" or shampooing the dog. Some of us can't be bothered to progress beyond the ideas stage, hoping to pass on to other writers the hard work of bringing our concept to life. Those who bother to flesh out their ideas rush into writing dialogue without giving any thought to characterisation or structure, because creating characters and structuring a piece takes time and careful thought, neither of which comes cheap when you've got a day job.

Because we are out of the loop, we adopt unrealistic strategies and, rather than honing our craft, concentrate on the peripherals. We debate whether to compromise our integrity by writing for established shows for which we have no prospect of being invited to write. We become pre-occupied with the presentation of our work. We try to ingratiate ourselves with network executives. Some of us snipe at others' generous-but-ungrammatical postings. In confident anticipation of success, some of us enquire about the fee structure that will eventually apply to our unproduced masterpiece.

The expectation of great reward for little effort appears to me to be most significant enemy of promise. Time and again, posters to this board have expressed their frustration at not having broken into the business after weeks and even months of hard, unrewarded graft. And people do get early breaks. And we reckon we could write funnier stuff than most of the comedy that gets broadcast. So we console ourselves that it can be done, and we become frustrated that it hasn't happened to us. "If I could just get a break, I'd give up the day job and show 'em what I can do". How many of us have thought along these lines?

I know I have. I got lucky early on in my career, wrote a dozen episodes of an existing show, and thought I had a career. That was over six years ago, and I have not had anything produced since. I don't feel hard done-by, and I'm not looking for sympathy, but I do still want a career as a writer. If I look at my circumstances, I know in my heart that the other calls upon my time - work, family - don't allow me to devote sufficient care and energy to my writing to enable me to compete with writers who are on top of their game. I know that, unless and until I treat the job of writing as a job that really matters - even though I'm not being paid a penny for it - and bring to it the same degree of seriousness as the big boys and girls, I won't deserve to succeed. Did anyone else sense the collective intake of breath when GMW disclosed how many ideas he forced himself to come up with in a working day? That's what it's going to take.

It's comforting being a loser. Losers never leave their comfort zones. There's always a plausible excuse for their predicament. They know what they'll be doing this time next year, and they can hang out with other losers and swap sob stories.

The best advice I have derived from these boards is to concentrate on your craft, keep plugging away, and expect nothing.


Oli said...

Hmmmm... falls somewhere between inspiring and depressing.

Robin Kelly said...

I know what you mean, but on balance I'm a better writer for reading it than I would have been otherwise.

Sheikspear said...

Great post Mr Kelly, Sir!

I found Binkie's words an "inspiring truth". I am a novice writer myself, and have just elevated, (I hope) the dusty old grey cells from the “novice writers’ mind-set” to a “pre-professional mind-set”.

Dom, from "Dom's world" said in an email:- "You're either write or you don't. Start thinking of yourself as a writer and then other people will too"

Changing your mind set is a big step forward when you're starting out, especially when you have no industry contacts or even like minded friends in your own social groups, but when you cross that bridge you do feel more positive about your writing (well, 'ark at me, I really mean I do anyway) I think it's a positive move forward, but as this and your other your posts say you also have to find your time and do the hard work to nurture the talent.