I have the real privilege and excitement of mentoring two new writers, plus script editing two established but still newish writers. These four people have become quite dear to my heart. Oh, alright then, very dear to my heart. Working with them, talking to them about drama and writing and character and motive and sub-text and all that, has helped to crystallise what I know – and hold to be true – about writing. A good writer has to be honest, absolutely honest, in everything they put words to. Each scene, and each moment has to ring true, or it’s worthless. It’s not about the writer, it’s about the writing. Never write to show the world how clever you are, because that’s not what makes a good writer. ‘Good writers aren’t clever, they’re just writers.’ That’s a well known quote I heard again today and it rings as clear as the clearest clarion call. Don’t be clever, be you. And if you’re a bit woolly minded like me, what the hell? Write anyway. The world is full of woolly minded people and some of them may just feel less alone when they read your work, or they may begin to understand their world a little better, or you may just make their day brighter.
If you’re a writer, you don’t have any choice. You’re going to write. If someone tells me ‘I have a book inside my head’ I change the subject. It’s not worth pursuing that line. If you’re a writer, you write. If you’re a sentient being you sense. If you’re a thinker you think. If you’ve never held a piece of wood in your hand in your whole life, do you call yourself a carpenter?
Some writers write blogs and will never write a book or a play; they’re still writers. Some writers write columns, editorials, news reports; they’re writers. Some writers write sermons and talks; they’re writers. Some writers write poetry; they’re writers. Some writers write for their own pleasure and never show it to anyone else; they’re writers. Writers write. There’s no bar to reach, no exam to pass, just the requirement to write.
I think that a writer is a servant. I hope I am. If you asked me now what I do I would like to have the courage to say ‘I serve and pray.’ but I don’t think I’d be quite that open and bold – I’d probably shrug and say ‘Not much.’ (I’m much braver in the written word than in speech. My speech is halting and clumsy, so if ever we meet don’t expect some erudite conversationalist)
Does it seem odd to you that I want to serve? That’s the role of a Christian, but I really do believe that it’s also the role of a writer, on another plane, in another sphere, but still serving. Which makes being a Christian writer a double joy.
I worked on two very long running soaps for a couple of years and I was rubbish at it. Really poor. For me it was the most soul-destroying experience ever. And you know what was so bad about it? ‘Course you don’t, so I’ll tell you; it wasn’t the money (that was good) or the story conferences (they were just about bearable), or the travelling (I love driving) or the hotels (quite swanky). It was the damn hooks. At about every 12 minutes (for ITV) and about every 26 minutes (BBC) there has to be a huge hook, a moment when you will exploit the drama and the character and reverse expectations, and create a drum roll (OK, so now you know one of the soaps I’m talking about). I couldn’t do it! I just don’t find plotting easy. It takes me weeks to come up with plot and structure, and then the writing happens in a great joyous flash. A soap is a monstrous big fat story-guzzling creature, with an insatiable appetite for the sensational. The writer has to be really good at twists and turns and surprises, but the actual writing – once all that has been worked out – is only a few pages for each episode. My skills are the very very opposite.
Why did I stay for two years? Well, because each time it was a one year contract, and because I’m an idiot, and I was a workaholic – but both of these hugely successful soaps, very different in style and content, defeated me. I just couldn’t cut the mustard, couldn’t write as they wanted me to write. I tried, I really tried, but I couldn’t do it. Some of our best writers are working on soaps. They are talented and hard working, and they’re on a treadmill of real hard labour, and they are great at structure and plot. Doff your hat.
So, how dare I mentor anyone at all? Hmm. Good point. I think I’m OK as a mentor. Not fab, not high falutin’, but the thing is, I love writers! I love their mistakes and their aspirations, passion, excitement, energy, insanity, creativity. And when you love people you are (I hope) generally good for and with them. Not always but…
My favourite writing quote is from Robert Frost: No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.
Good writing, honest writing, costs. It’s hard work and it demands something of you. If it was easy, as the old cliché goes, everyone would be doing it. But oh, if you have the gift, what a gift it is.
These four writers I’m working with, they are such a delight. Four delights. They’re honest and open and their characters are true, their words are full of life and everything, everything they write is striving towards authenticity. They’re all learning that it’s not their job to show the world how clever they are, but just to show the world the world.
You heard it here first. Writers can be total eedjits, and still be good writers.