Created on 30/6/2008
I’m just starting to write a new book. For any of you who have ever undertaken this kind of creative work you’ll know that I am currently going through the usual pre sit down and do it stage. The kind of thing where you look to see if the seat will actually be comfortable enough, should you have another cup of tea before starting, and trying out the title on people?
Mostly this is a security blanket of ticks and gestures before you start. You know that the idea works for you, kind of, and you have no idea, ever, if it will ever work for anyone else. It isn’t the money, because if you had any sense you would never write thinking about money as your main priority, because if you did you would go crazy before you went broke.
The reason for writing is because you think you have something you want to share with people you have never met, nor will ever meet. It can be very disconcerting when you do meet someone who has read your work, even when they like your stuff. I encountered this when I was commissioned for a screenplay in my early thirties. The executive producer had paid my agent my initial fee, I had written the first draft and submitted it via the agent. A little while later the production company called me in to discuss the first draft. I admit to a great deal of trepidation, and although my agent, friends and family reassured me, I was convinced that I was about to be eviscerated by the executive producer, who had a reputation for being arrogant, tough and unhelpful. We sat down in the portly gentlemen’s vast London office. We were all very polite to one another, myself, my friend Dave, who was producing with me, and the two executive producers, the one who talked a lot and said nothing, Michael, and the other one, also called David, who talked very little but said a lot.
Michael went through various pleasantries, reiterating that he had never made a film before, loved Coronation Street, the long running British TV soap, and that he loved this project. Always a bad sign, that vote of confidence. It’s a bit like the sports franchise owner saying that they will always stand behind their chief coach, immediately before they sack him. He waffled a bit more, all very vague and generalized, and no help at all to me, the writer. In that capacity you need very specific script notes or you’re in trouble. I pressed him a bit for some specifics. Finally, after it had become a bit heated in the room, he rounded on me and said, “Well it is supposed to have comedic elements, it needs to be 35% funnier.” I turned to my colleague David, and he returned my incredulous stare. Their David, the second Executive Producer, also raised an exasperated eyebrow. But such was the balance of power within that company at that time, that we all pretended this was a very fine and specific script note. Michael asked me how long the re-write would take. I had been thoroughly briefed on the correct response to such a question from agents and fellow professional writers, who had cautioned me against the speed with which I handed in my work. So I responded that it would be about six to eight weeks, thinking I could actually do it in three to five. I received assurances from everyone that they would leave me alone to do my work as I told them it became almost impossible for me to do this work if I could feel their hot breath too close to my shoulder.
I retired to my small writing room. I have always favoured the return to the womb type environment, and started to do the re-writes. The comment, make this script 35% funnier was playing on my mind. Did it mean that I should add some additional humour on every third page, or should I do what is usually done in a re-write, do a little and talk about it a lot? It’s very surprising how often a writer finds out that the person who’s meeting with you to discuss your script hasn’t actually read it, having left this irksome chore to a spotty 18 year old undergraduate. Having once been that person myself I knew how true it was. I decided to fastidiously work on the notes that both the David’s had delivered and hope for the best on the Michael comedy front. I’ve always believed funny comes from situations rather than shtick.
After three weeks I was still struggling along with the screenplay, it was proving tough. The telephone rang, it was Michael. He had broken his word and rang me several weeks early. “Sorry about that.” he said in that somewhat plumy voice only English public school types can ever manage, “but I simply couldn’t wait to hear how it’s going?” I hardly paused, “It’s going fine, I’m about half way there.” I responded, “Really?” he enquired, “Yes.” I said, “It’s about seventeen and a half per cent funnier.” There was a pause in the conversation. I don’t remember much more about it, except that he cancelled the film very shortly thereafter. But I do think my joke was pretty good.
Today promises to be the hottest day of the year so far in the UK, and of course, to add to my writing woes, I developed an overnight cold. Now I can hardly breathe, my nose is running like a leaky faucet and I’m too hot. Guess what, I just wrote ten pages, more than 2,000 words. I wish I could understand how this all works.