Friday, 10 February 2012

Part 2: Why writers are like Superheroes

Writers: So you have a superpower, now what?

In part one I talked about those defining moments when discovery of your ability takes place. So, you SuperWrites, ScriptMan, RewriteWoman-esque superheroes, this post will discuss having the courage to use your ability, discovering your voice and what gives a superhero that staying power. Also, be warned, I’ll use superhero and writer interchangeably. Deal with it.

Where was I? Yes, I was staring at my very own Gotham from the horizon. I had come to understand this intrinsic need/impulse I possessed to write. The next step in a superhero’s journey is how to reconcile their new found ability with their existing lives. My instinctive response was, ‘I must quit my degree and everything that isn’t film or writing related and pursue this and this alone!!!’
Of course, this was a rookie mistake. Keeping your feet on the ground even though you’ve learnt to fly is at times, the utmost important thing a writer can do. You’ll know when you can quit your day job. You’ll know, because at that point you’ll have robots who will type up your script as you speak. I mean, think about it, did Clark Kent quit his day job? Hell to the NO! Did Peter Parker quit his? HELL TO THE NO. 

                                 "Hi, its Clark, I won't be in today, I'm not well *cough*"

I know this is far easier to say than do. I made all the rookie mistakes by not embracing balance: The balance of writing and juggling your daily life. I wanted to write completely. All the time. I wanted to escape from the ‘fake’ identity I had in reality. In fact, I did exactly this during my three year Psychology degree. It was at the end of my second year and just before my final year began, I took the summer and literally opted out of my daily life and wrote all the time. It was almost obsessive, I loved it. But it consumed me.  I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was, when upon emerging I discovered the people I considered to be my friends had moved on with their lives because I hadn’t made the effort to contact them and cancelled a few social events (yes, that’s all it took). This hurt big time. I had awoken to a reality where I’d lost five friends  with no hope of winning them back, but in hindsight, because they didn’t stick around made me realise they probably weren’t very good friends. Refreshingly, a few keepers did stick around. They understood. The problem was, I had become so consumed by the writing side of life, that I had completely let my responsibilities etc slide. At this point, I was to complete my final year of a degree I didn’t want to do. Final year counted as 80% of my overall grade. Writing that year seemed ludicrous. And once again, I stopped. Completely. And we all know where that leads...

So begun my darkest (and most-unsuperhero-y) phase, I accepted the chasm between writing and reality. Hollywood, publishing, films, and dreaming were a far cry from who I really was. And who I really was, was a third year student completing their final year, without the nerve to handle writing, my job and my degree. I finally reached an all time low. I had crashed and burned and yes, I hit rock bottom.

I was burnt out, and all of this was because I couldn’t balance writing with my degree, or my job or my responsibilities, and don’t even get me started on my social life. I was handing in the towel. I was a mess. I find it hard to believe how dejected I had actually gotten. I was ready to ... give up. Something I had never considered before. Something I had never believed to be possible, and I was doing it. I was giving up. Oddly, even while giving up I secretly hoped for a sign. I don’t know what kind of sign I was looking for.  
But I sure as hell found one.

 The very next day, I found myself having lunch with Paul Haggis, discussing writing and ideas. It was ridiculous. It was preposterous. It was, in my mind at least, a screaming, dancing, yelling sign that writing was the path for me and I had to continue.

Seeing the world anew, I began writing, reading and researching scriptwriting more and more, in hopes of teaching myself the craft I had been learning at a sluggish pace previously. I was on fire. This time however, I was wary of my knack for diving in and burning out. So instead of thinking about the rules, the dos and the don’ts, I began doing them. I made changes, some dramatic some small. I applied to do the MA in TV Scriptwriting, I’ve been working as a freelance copywriter, I’ve been creating detailed pitches for all the TV pilots and features I will write. I’m even writing a novel, and have an animated short in production. I’m essentially a Ninja-Me today. I’m not a success story yet, but I am turning it around.

These are the changes I made:

I identified my VOICE.

Everyone has it. I believe it alters slightly depending on what genre a writer is writing, but all the same, every writer has a voice. They have something to say and a way of saying it.
Know your voice. And if you don’t know it, then read through everything you’ve ever written and ask yourself what it’s about, what does each piece of writing convey? What themes recur? Within those pages is your voice.

A quote that I reread when I lose track of this ‘voice’, or I lose track of what the project is about:

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free”- Michael Angelo.
All writing is a work in progress. At times it won’t make sense to you, you know there’s something you want to say, but you just can’t put your finger on it. Don’t commiserate. The voice, the heart of your story is spread within the words you’ve written. It’s in there. Sometimes, this means to stop obsessing, and then return to your project with fresh eyes and read through it. Think about why you wanted to write this idea in the first place, what’s within this idea that compels you to write it?


This is something it has taken me months to develop. I dared myself to write every single day. Length of what you write doesn’t matter. It’s the quality of what you write. I would often struggle because sometimes, I just wasn’t in the mood to write a suspenseful horror. How did I tackle this? I simply began other projects, after creating detailed pitches and outlines. I now have projects in a variety of genres so I’m never bored. I’m never ‘not in the mood’ to write. Even if I write three paragraphs, I’m happy. As long as I do some writing every day. At times, I do just one paragraph of a project, other days I do three different projects for hours on end. The key is to do. It is so easy to delay, but thinking about writing won’t get your projects ready for competitions, producers or agents. They all want people who have completed work, a portfolio of sorts.

Thinking isn’t doing. Doing is doing.

Michelle Lipton (@michellelipton, ), an award winning writer who is currently writing for Hollyoaks, recently paid us a visit on the MA degree. She said a couple of things that really bring the point home.

  1.       Don’t leave the desk
  2.        Writer’s block isn’t an option

Point 1 is simple. It’s from the ‘finish what you start’ school of thought. Once you sit down to write, yes, you happen to notice the window sill needs a clean, while you’re at it turning on the television won’t hurt... Don’t. Stay put. Only get up for toilet breaks, coffee/tea/food top ups and if a krispy kreme’s salesman is at the door.

Point 2 is controversial between writers, but as far as I’m concerned, writer’s block doesn’t even exist. If you’re a writer, you will write. It may not be the project you want to or need to write, but you will. If you’re a writer with a deadline, you will write and you will finish. In the world of soap-writing there’s no room for writer’s block. Its a fast-paced environment where you’re working on future episodes while baring in mind what’s currently on air, while receiving notes for your last script while writing a new script. Yes. It’s insane. (Kudos to Michelle and the other soap writers out there!)

This is the kind of environment a writer needs to train themselves to write in. I’m not saying become a soap writer, not at all. What I’m saying is, the skills, the determination and bullet-proof imagination needed for soap-writing reflect what, in my opinion, real writers are. Endlessly creative, adaptable and hard-working.

By being hard on yourself and defenestrating the concept of ‘writer’s block’, you’ll soon find you’re making progress and the more you exercise the imagination muscle, the stronger it gets. Everyone knows their limits when it comes to pushing themselves, but sometimes it’s healthy to push those limits ever so slightly, just give them a nudge and see what you may be capable of.

Disclaimer: I take no responsibility for nervous breakdowns that will occur as a result of the above statement.

Perhaps I’m cocky, perhaps I’m naive, but when people say ‘don’t be too hard on yourself’, I think, ‘STOP UNDERESTIMATING ME’, and I hammer on. This could also be due to the next key issue...

Time Management

This is the one thing I have found most difficult, being all or nothing is hardly constructive. I've been changing my habits as a writer. But oddly, time management happens to be the hardest thing for a writer to nail, all that managing of your time, making time, keeping time, working to deadlines etc, its hardcore. The key here is the more you write, the faster and more efficient you become as a writer. 

Write every day. It doesn’t matter what you write. But write every day. I have a folder full of ‘writer-bursts’, which are pages filled with fiction, nonsense and some cool ideas. Things I’ve just written to exercise my writing skills and imagination muscle (NOTE: Imagination isn’t actually a muscle, but you know what I mean) even when I wasn't in the 'mood' to write.

Time is the one thing you never get back. It is something I’m almost obsessive about. So much time is wasted and it’s in fact the most expensive thing in life. I organise my time rigidly, so I can do the whole live, laugh, love etc malarkey AND (hopefully) build a career as a writer.
Time is like money, you can spend it, you can invest it, but you will never get it back. I live by this rule. Think of making time to write as an investment in your soon-to-be career. Manage your time carefully. Networking is important, but be careful not to substitute networking with being a social butterfly/seeking social validation and socialising with writers all the time. 

Writers who aren’t writing aren’t writers.

I’m not saying go live in a cave where only the ocean speaks to you and stuff, not at all. But prioritise.

I don’t attend weekly drinks etc, I don’t even attend monthly drinks. But I do make time to rest and catch up with dear friends and family, I use it as a reward system. When I'm happy and keeping deadlines, I can make time to catch up and unwind. The key in time management is balance and discipline.

The company you keep

Be around people who know what they are talking about regarding the industry, and be around people who are supportive and constructive. A lot of writers are afraid to try new formats etc. Sometimes you might think you lack the know-how and confidence to write a certain way. Hold on a second... you’re a writer. Of course you can write. You can write whatever the hell you want, in any format you want. Yes, you’ll make mistakes. That’s the process. That’s how you learn. However, you'd be surprised how many writers don't switch format or experiment out of fear, fear they have developed as a result of getting little support from those around them. If I announce I'm writing a new format, my mother gets all 'here you go again, starting something new' and assumes I'm some commitophobic. How do you tackle people like that? You finish what you start then flaunt it (so mature, I know). 

I have some very good friends, who are honest when they don’t like something in my writing or they think something doesn’t work, and they’re open to discussing it. Its constructive and helpful. As the writer, who has rehearsed the idea hundreds of times in your own head, you think on paper it’s blatantly clear. That isn’t always the case. We’re privy to more information than our readers, and at times this is why we fail to execute a certain scene etc. This is where friends, readers and editors come in.  It is important to sample writing for different formats, even if you’ve decided to stick to one. You can learn so much, and it will only help your craft and increase your opportunities. I make it a point to befriend writers who actually disappear to write. For me, that’s a sign of a good writer. It demonstrates a writer with work-ethic. Good habits, like bad habits rub off on people.

Batman doesn’t roll with criminals and Superman doesn’t play singstar with Zod. So many superhero tales are about the individual stepping up and taking responsibility for their ability, and what it means for them, their life and the people around them. Writers should do the same (look at me, preaching. Pfft...)

The importance of Persistence

This is my concluding point. It’s the one piece of advice that has kept me going.  The key piece of advice Paul Haggis gave me was, ‘Just keep writing.’

Keep writing

It sounds so simple, it sounds so obvious... but in reality, it’s so easy to be faint hearted and give up after one, two, twenty rejections. It is so easy to stop, that it’s almost... too easy. Easy isn’t the path I chose when I decided to be a writer: a career with a ridiculously unstable income and insanely complex path to success. You need to be persistent. You need to keep writing. When you get lost along the way, you need to have the courage to make your way back.

Always keep writing.

For me, writing is a way of life. Just as superheroes have abilities, writers have purpose. Where superheroes have villains, writers have obstacles.  If you can harness the five things I have mentioned, sooner or later, you’re gonna make it. It isn’t a matter of ‘if’, it becomes a matter of ‘when’.

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