09 Apr 2014
basac's picture

I’ve had cause to revisit a phrase that has always irritated me, the first one every writer is told when they are starting out, which is ‘write what you know.’

I spent two paragraphs of my book ranting about what a stupid phrase this is. I understand it’s not meant literally, but if writing is about anything – indeed if comedy is about anything – it’s about saying things that no one else has said before. Or saying them in an original way. Everything else is plagiarism. If you’re not stretching your knowledge, discovering new things and surprising yourself, what chance have you got of surprising the audience?

I spotted the phrase again – it’s one of the first things you see when you go to the site of the new ebook from the BBC – How To Write Radio Comedy. When you see the phrase with no context, it's a meaningless piece of advice that tends to get misinterpreted to mean: 'I used to work in a supermarket, so I'm the best person to write a sitcom about working in a supermarket.'

Surely the key is to write what you DON'T know, what it's like to be something you aren't: Was John Sullivan a dodgy wheeler-dealer, were Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews Catholic priests? Of course not, the 'what they know' was the experiences they'd had around those people, who they were themselves, and how this informed their characters.

I delved a bit further, and discovered to my horror that the phrase wasn’t invented by a committee of Hollywood wannabe screenplay execs with fancy job titles and day-old specks of cocaine stuck to their nostril hairs, but Mark Twain. Respect. Did he realise when he first said that, how easily misrepresented that advice would become?

I’ve subsequently heard another good description of the phrase, which means, write from the place in you that is filled with passion. You’re the only person who knows how you feel about something, and if you can put that into your writing others will understand those emotions.

‘Write What You Know’ is one of those general phrases that touches on many issues under the all-encompassing umbrella of ‘advice’. It’s like the much quoted William Goldman line ‘nobody knows anything’, which I’ve heard frequently mis-used to mean ‘anyone who tells you your stuff is no good doesn’t know what they’re talking about.’ William Goldman is a great screenwriter and one of the best ever at giving advice, he obviously knows a lot more than ‘anything’, but is clearly not the first writer to have had his wise advice wilfully misinterpreted.

There is a spectrum of attitudes to advice to writers, ranging from those who say you can’t teach comedy, full stop, to those who probably buy too many ‘how to’ books and read too many blogs like this, partly to put off doing the work, and partly to prove those at the other end of the spectrum correct.

Most of us reside somewhere in-between, keen to learn from others’ experiences but wary of spending too much time over-analysing.

Last week I had an awkward e-mail to-and-fro with a friend whose script I’d agreed to read. He’s helped me loads over the years and I think he’s an excellent writer. He told me he’d already sent the script to BBC Writers’ Room, but I read it anyway.

Here’s what happened – their notes were the exact opposite to mine. I won’t go into detail, I wouldn’t want to reveal someone else’s comedy ideas here, but I really liked the main character, although I thought his second character was not well thought through. And of course they said ‘we don’t like the main character but we think the second one is great.’

Now it’s obvious to me why I’m right and they’re wrong. But what if their ‘wrong’ is more valid than my ‘right’? For instance, if I ever have to read an episode of ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ in script form, there is no way I am ever going to say anything other than I find it an unoriginal, unfunny and unpleasant show.

That’s my opinion and I’m entitled to it. But I do claim to have some professional skill at this, and have worked as a paid script editor on numerous projects. If I’d been working at the BBC and made that critique of ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ I would have been ignored, and I still would, because a producer saw that show live, and believed in it enough to get it onto the telly, and now it’s a huge massive hit watched by millions of people. None of which changes my view.

It’s perfectly possible to get two totally opposite views to one script – of course it is. We’re always reading stories about best-selling novels that were rejected by every publisher until the last one took it and turned it into a blockbuster.

When a producer says ‘no’ to your script, what they’re saying is ‘I, personally, don’t want to make your show at this moment.’ Your default response will be ‘they didn’t like it,’ which might be true, but is not necessarily the same as ‘they think it’s not good enough.’ There can be a thousand other reasons why they reject it – they like it, but are too busy at the moment to put in the hours to make it work, they have something similar in development or they know of something similar being made, they feel they’ll have trouble selling it to the next person up the money chain. If ten producers in a row say ‘no’, perhaps you should be re-thinking it.

Whatever else you do, if you think you have a strong script, a really great script, that’s as good as you can make it at this point, you should be sending it out to as many people as you know. And if you don’t know who those many people are, start finding out. Being a writer, especially when you’re starting out, is also about being your own sales rep. Which of course is the worst possible job description for a writer - one of the things that makes us good is our crippling inability to shine in social situations, and another is the constant self-doubt that makes us the sternest critics of our own work.

It used to be frowned upon to send your script out to more than one producer or development executive at a time, now it’s more or less accepted that you can send it out to everyone at once. If it really is a great script, you’ll hear back from people soon enough.

So what can my poor friend do? What I said to him was ‘go with your instinct’. What does that mean? We tend to think of instinct in abstract terms, it’s a ‘gut response’, it’s ‘the first thing that comes into your head’, but it’s so much more than that – it’s the complete sum of all your experiences, thoughts, beliefs, acquired knowledge from birth to now, and if you leave the script and come back to it after a while, it’s amazing how quickly you’ll start to see what’s wrong, and you’ll work out how to rectify it.

Right - I'm away to a place where people are scarce and wi-fi connection is a thing of the future... back in two weeks.