20 Things I've Learned In 20 Years As A Professional Writer
20 Things I've Learned In 20 Years As A Professional Writer
I should start this by putting my cards on the table and stating that whilst ‘writer’ is the box I tick whenever I’m asked for my occupation, I never actually wanted to be one.
There was no study, no passion and certainly no drive. Nor am I what you would call the stereotypical exponent of the craft. I rarely network, know only a couple of other writers and never attend either literary or film festivals although to be fair, I’m never invited to any.
OK, I’ll admit that I can tell a story, and with 15 books and 3 feature films on my resume I’m clearly doing something right but if you’re expecting me to tell you what it is, I can’t. Because the simple truth is that like most events in my 57 years on this earth, becoming a writer just kind of happened. As a consequence, I spent most of my time wondering how I’m getting away with it.
However, what the 20 years that have passed since the publication of my first book have equipped me with is experience. Lots of it. And since I’ve been asked to contribute a blog to Stage32, I thought this might be the perfect opportunity to pass on some of the pearls of wisdom I’ve accumulated. Hopefully, one or two of them might help someone wanting to tread the same slippery path as I have.
So, in no particular order:
1) If you can’t take criticism or rejection, walk away because if you write, both are going to come your way and sometimes, they’ll come hard. Tears and dark rooms fuel neither sanity nor creativity. If however, you understand that they are an essential part of the process and you’re able to treat them accordingly, you’re on your way.
2) Concept is king. It stands to reason that not even a brilliantly written and constructed script will sell if the basic concept is flawed but a brilliant concept will sell even an average script.
3) Personally, when working on a spec script, I see my job as developing an idea to the point where a producer will get excited enough about it to start talking money. After that, the whole thing becomes a collaborative process with my role being simply to work with others to develop my original concept to the point where the camera starts rolling.
4) In the same vein, get it into your head that your scripts are written in pencil and that every single syllable is open to discussion and change. OK, there will be things you’ll fight tooth and nail for and that’s your right but get precious about everything and you’ll soon be in trouble.
5) The best marketing tool you will ever have is yourself, so be yourself. If people don’t like you, f**k ‘em. There are always more people, there’s only one you.
6) Only work with people who make you smile.
7) Write this on a post-it note and stick it to the top of your computer screen: ‘Time is money. My money.’ Generally speaking, if someone wants to meet you, they want something from you. That’s fine (and often fun) but if it’s in a professional capacity and involves the use of your time and experience, there had better be a good reason why they aren’t prepared to pay you. Usually, there isn’t so in such instances, do not hesitate to turn them down. If they’re serious and professional, they’ll come back with an offer of some kind. If they don’t, you’ve lost nothing (and possibly had a close shave).
8) Nothing shows commitment like cold hard cash and in most cases, you (or your agent) should get some of that cash upfront. Promises of higher back-end payments are generally worthless.
9)The internet is the enemy of creativity and social media are it’s special forces. Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat are not careers, nor do they pay your bills but if you’re not careful, they will happily consume your time faster than you can ever imagine.
10) When a deadline looms, you could well end up working 20 hour days for as long as it takes. For that reason, when you don’t have a deadline to meet then ‘I can’t be bothered today’ is a perfectly legitimate excuse for wanting to go out on a motorbike, watch TV or simply sit in Starbucks watching the world go by.
11) Adapting your own novel for the screen is a bad idea. There’s not much fun to be found in spending weeks cutting perfectly good bits from a story you previously spent months creating. To make matters worse, despite the fact that ultimately you have little or no control over what ends up on screen, everyone will blame you if it’s not as good as the book but no one will praise you if it’s better. Conversely, writing a novel based on your own screenplay is a great idea. You get to put in even more good bits and tell the story that you really wanted to tell.
12) There is no way to write, only ways. So find what works best for you and stick with it. Personally, it’s headphones, loud music and early mornings.
13) If you’re serious about screenwriting, use Final Draft. It’s the established tool of your trade and if you’re not prepared to invest in it, how can you expect people to invest in you?
14) Always have two entirely different projects on the go. If you find that you’re stuck on one, simply switch to the other one and carry on writing. You’d be amazed at how quickly your head clears and what can jump into your thinking.
15) You can’t edit a blank page.
16) Find a comfy chair and love it like one of your children.
17) Don’t play safe. If you have something to say, then say it. And don’t write to a budget. That’s not your job.
18) Never resent anyone else’s success. Unless it’s E.L. James in which case you are perfectly entitled to think ‘how the f**k?’
19) Join the Writers Guild. They are your union and they are awesome. Oh, and never sign anything either they, your agent or a lawyer haven’t checked first!
20) Trust only two things: your gut instinct and your bank balance. Neither will ever let you down.
Finally, and most important of all….
- If you are lucky enough to enjoy success, embrace it. You deserve it and you’ll certainly have earned it!
But don’t forget to build on it!
About the Author
Writer of the multi-award winning features 'Green Street' (Elijah Wood, Charlie Hunnam), 'Top Dog' (Leo Gregory) and 'We Still Kill The Old Way'. CEO of Red Bus Movies Ltd Author of 15 best-selling books including both fiction and non-fiction as well as the creator of three children.