In the Beginning Was the Word

Have you heard the joke about the Hollywood starlet who was so dumb she slept with the writer?

Another favourite of mine is the joke about the writer who died and was offered the option of going to Heaven or to Hell.  So he went to Hell, escorted by St Peter, and was shown a room full of writers chained to desks, being beaten and whipped and abused by demons. He didn’t fancy that, so he went to Heaven and was shown a room full of writers in chains, being beaten and whipped and abused etc. The writer, baffled, asked what actually was the difference between the two places? And St Peter said, “In Heaven, the writers all have book deals.”

I love writer jokes because they’re all true;  writers are crazy people who only write because they have to.

In the course of my career I’ve met a lot of writers.  Almost all of them nice, a couple not so nice.  I’ve worked with theatre writers and movie writers, including one Oscar winner (“The British are coming!”), and as a writer myself I’ve written prime time TV cop shows, thrillers, movies (2, as co-writer), and a pretty wide variety of radio plays, as well as writing SF for those nice people in Orbit.  [NB the software on this site is programmed to automatically amend  the words ‘my bloody publishers’ to ‘those nice people at Orbit’ – clever, huh?]

Writers, you’ll be interested to hear, are all the same, no matter what medium they write for.  We’re all, in other words, wonderful, warm-hearted, generous, and totally obsessed with the ideas in our own brains.  We’re also inclined to carp; Kieran Prendeville once told me that the apposite collective noun is a ‘whinge’ of writers.But some writers are sprinters. Those are the TV writers, and the movie scribes.  Like lions, they sit basking in the sun for ages (or down the boozer); but when the gig comes along they get fired up with insane amounts of energy, work non-stop, and DON’T WRITE STUFF. That’s the art of being a great screenwriter; all the stuff you don’t say.  The implied meanings; the gaps between the words.  Less is

You see what I’m saying?

Oh and you have to be good in meetings.  That means you have to be energised, and practised in the art of persuading the producer in a tactful and ego-affirming way that their  ideas are all idiotic should be staked and buried at a crossroads.

But other writers prefer the marathon. That would be us SF novel writers, who have to create an entire universe filled with credible tech stuff and many many characters all of whom have to have different personalities, in the course of a story which contractually can’t be less than 110,000 words.  AND we have to describe things. A screenwriter can say:   INT. AMAZING SPACESHIP FULL OF ALIENS – DAY, and leave the rest to the production designer and director.  The novelist has to actually create everything!

When I write a novel, I tend to sketch things in at first; then fill in the details with every subsequent pass. It’s a process of slow accretion of detail.  When I write a screenplay, I do the opposite; every rewrite means taking out more and more.  A three page speech becomes a one page speech. A one page speech becomes a three line exchange.  That tiny shard of  dialogue somehow, or so we hope, still retains everything that was there in the original long version; but with less words.

But there is a reason why writers do what they do; and it’s about power.  That’s the bit the writer jokes neglect; writers have power.  And in different media, writers have different powers. When we write novels, we are gods – we create an entire world.  We clothe our characters, we design our spaceships, we create family relationships, we even kill people!  (Especially me!   I’m renowned for my bloodthirstiness as a writer; though in real life, I rarely kill, and only if REALLY provoked.)

But in drama, writers are even more godlike; because we have the power to control actual  people, not just words on a page. There’s no joy more exquisite than sitting down at a readthrough with a bunch of talented actors, and hearing them speak YOUR words.  They stop being actors, they become players in the imaginary universe the writer has created.  They fight, they quarrel, they even have sex.  (Radio sex scenes are, by the way, SO funny to watch.)  And the words on the writer’s page become manifest in characters who live and breathe;  who needs LARP!

Those moments of godlike grandeur are, sadly, brief; but they make it all worthwhile.

And usually of course writers are surplus to requirements once a drama is being made. There’s nothing duller than sitting on the set of a drama you’ve written, knowing that NO ONE WANTS YOU THERE.   And sometimes writers can even be barred;  as happened to me when, ahem, I was listening to one of those aforementioned  radio sex scenes in a play I’d written,  with the actors lying on the bed in a small cramped room,  and my tummy rumbled.  The mike picked it up beautifully, of course , and it was a case of Palmer – out!

For me, one of the biggest   differences between  writing prose and  writing drama  is in the editor/ writer relationship.  All writers need editors; but for the print writer, there’s usually a one-to-one relationship between a writer and an editor, and meetings are conducted in a highly amicable and relaxed fashion.

Drama writers have to be team  players however; and script conferences can be heated and crowded affairs. And there are pros and cons to that. At its best, the process of  brain storming a story with a small team of producer/director/script editor/writer can be inspiring; in fact, it can be the best bit of the writer’s job. But at other times, “feedback” can be a deafening whine. It’s particularly onerous in television, where there are armies of people who all insist on having  input – producers, exec producers, directors, commissioners and so forth.  And sometimes, in the worst case scenarios, script notes flow remorselessly down from level to level; the senior BBC executive gives notes to the junior BBC executive, who gives notes to the executive producer, who conveys those notes  to the producer, who passes those notes on to the script editor, who then delivers the notes to the writer. It’s  like being at the bottom of a chocolate fountain; except, unfortunately, it’s not always chocolate.

This is why the script editor’s role in television is often defined as being the “writer’s friend”. With notes flying from all quarters, a friend is really what you need!

I do, I have to admit, hugely enjoy the discipline of moving from one medium to another.  I love the variety. I love the script conferences. And I love writing for actors – and relish the fact that they  will grumble bitterly if their character arcs aren’t right,  and will often ask the writer to CUT lines of their own dialogue, if that will make the drama stronger.  Now that’s what I call integrity…

But despite the constant adrenalin rush of drama writing – and the fact you actually meet people! – nothing can beat the pure joy of writing a sentence that sings, in a book that will forever sit on the writer’s shelf; to be cherished like a beloved child, but without the tantrums.