Saturday, July 05, 2008

Sage words of wisdom for the would-be scribbler

Screenwriter, columnist and all-round pen waggler Jason Arnopp writes a damnably good blog. You should visit it by clicking here. Recently, he interviewed up-and-coming new King of Dr Who, Steven Moffat, who had some sage advice for the aspiring writer:

'Write an awful lot, and always write. Don’t go round whining that your stuff is better than everything else on television, because that’s a hopeless waste of talent. Don’t rave at the world for not employing you. Don’t moan that television executives are fools: I’ve worked with television executives and none of them are fools. They’re really bright, and they’d take most people to pieces in a conversation. It’s all too easy to be a neglected genius in a reeking bedsit, railing at the world.'

The Moff is completely right. There is nothing constructive about just sitting around whingeing. By all means have a good whinge but do it while continuing to write and submit your work, day after day after day. The more you write, the better you get. The more you write, the larger and more diverse your pool of work becomes. The more you write, the better chance you have of one day having that certain piece to hand that catches the editor's, agent's or TV executive's attention.

I also recently found some advice unexpectedly hiding among nested sub-folders on one of my hard drives. What I found was a feature, written by my late father, that I'd never read before. I have a whole load of them that were originally written on his old 1980s word processor but I've not yet read them all. That's because they've been parsed through about six pieces of software since he wrote them and they're stuffed to the gunwhales with odd bits of ASCII code and weird Cyrillic symbols. It takes at least a couple of hours' hard graft to rescue, reformat and decode each 2000 word essay. But I'm glad I persisted with this one as it was a real eye-opener. In it, he talks candidly about his first heart attack (aged 45) and how it had forced him to re-evaluate his life. At the time he was a detective involved in the highly-stressful work of homicide investigation. So, he took his hobby as a writer and made it his profession. Sadly, as regular readers will know, that career was tragically curtailed by a second massive heart attack just a few years later.

It was quite strange - spooky even - to read the document as it almost felt like a 'message from beyond'. I could almost hear him saying the words. And there were details in there that I'd never known before. As I say, spooky. But it was fascinating reading and I think that it's worth sharing some of it with you. It shows, if nothing else, that life for the would-be writer was the same in 1989 (his reference to Harry Enfield's Loadsamoney character and typewriters dates it instantly) as it is now.

'Those of you who are now contemplating pursuing a similar career, or hobby in retirement, should be aware of the drawbacks. First, you will need a typewriter as one cannot expect an editor to wade through pages of foolscap on which, purporting to be writing, is what appears to be the trail of a drunken stoat that has fallen in an ink-well. A room to work in is desirable and one must be cognisant of an editor's requirements. Before producing your first masterpiece, study the market you are aiming your work at. The library has many books that will assist you, as do the various Writers & Artists Year Books available at bookshops. Alternatively, understand the market by reading the books and magazines concerned and noting the style and content of the publication itself.

Most important of all, be prepared for the Rejection Slip. It will drop through your letterbox with sickening regularity. Be prepared also for the editors who, in spite of advertising themselves as being receptive to unsolicited manuscripts, will totally ignore your hours of creativity ... stamped addressed envelope and all. And do not expect to make ‘loadsamoney’ unless you are very, very good. Your monetary return for hours of work will be, at times, disproportionately low but probably represents a fee that the publication can afford. However, if you love to write, you will write regardless. And for me, it is an all-absorbing and satisfying pastime that occupies much of my enforced retirement.

I do keep a record of my income and expenditure just in case I ever do earn enough for the taxman to cast an interested vulture-like eye in my direction. However, my output is dictated by my interests, what suits me at the time, and the way I feel on any particular day. So when the sun is shining and my well-being permits, you’ll find me not at the keyboard but in my garden or out walking in the beautiful Cornish countryside. I may have a debilitating illness and I may have reluctantly entered retirement, but I've found that there is no need to stagnate. There is, I believe, a passion for everyone to follow. And I have found mine.'


Me said...

It truly does seem like a missive from Dad directed at you. Your sampler book arrived today, complete with inscription and artwork. I am so very proud of you and all you have acheived - the late night angst, determination and celtish bloody mindedness has paid off!

Stevyn Colgan said...

I'm so pleased you like it! And thank you for all of your support throughout those long years of angst, determination and Celtic bloody-mindedness. Writing is a lonely affair and it's family and friends like yourself egging me on (and giving me the time to indulge myself) that has led me to finally making some dent in the great world of publishing. X

Jason Arnopp said...

Sir, I thank you both for the plug and the appreciation. I am honoured to become a Key Word on Stevyn Colgan's blog!

It's clear, too, that your dad was a wise man. I love a bit of wisdom, me. Post-Screenwriters' Festival, I feel the need to continue Hoovering it up like some demented inspiration-addict.

potdoll said...

how lovely that your Dad found his passion. I'd kill to find something my Dad had written.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Credit where credit is due, sirrah. Wish I could have been at the festival too. It looks like it was a right royal rave and no mistake. Mr Pratchett is looking well, I thought. If beardier than usual.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Potdoll - I'm lucky in that Dad was a fairly obsessive filesmith so all of his typewritten stuff still exists and I have all the electronic texts. That said, there are still a number of his files that I've yet to translate into Word docs. It's like a time capsule.

Just recently, my Mum unearthed some of my grandfather's poetry. He wrote all through World War II and some of it is pretty visceral. So that's been an eye-opener too.

Sorry to hear about your Dad. I'd like to think that maybe, just maybe, there's a hidden cache somewhere for you to find one day. X

willow said...

I wondered where bloody-mindedness came's the runs in our family, too.

Any career in the arts has its fair share of rejections.

You should post some of your father's poetry from WWII. I would be very interested in reading it.

Jon M said...

Some words of wisdom there and isn't it strange how the advice doesn't change. Looking forward to Moffat taking over...I've just watched the Tardis tow the Earth through space...shudder...

Stevyn Colgan said...

Willow - I might just do that.

Jon - I've still to watch it (I have family round for a party so it would be bad form to sit and watch telly!) but my nephew did tell me that there was a degree of, let me say, silliness in the final episode.

And yes, the advice never changes. The big difference between Dad's time and ours is the rise of self-publishing. That would have been an expensive pipe-dream for him wheras now it's quite affordable.