I haven’t written for three days!

If you follow the Bestseller Experiment podcast you might have noticed that we recently finished our first draft. This is always a cause for celebration, even if the draft is a big old mess (which it is) and will need a ton of work (which it will). Simply finishing something is an achievement.

I celebrated by getting a summer cold, and diving straight into rewrites of a TV pilot script. This was huge fun, as this was the script that had been give such a kicking a while ago, but I had spent the time since working on solutions that I couldn’t wait to try out.

The other reason for the hurry is that I’m moving house. The Stay family is leaving the suburbs and heading to the country… Well, maybe not the country, but it’s next to a farm, and for a boy born in the city that counts as the countryside. All this means lots of packing (so many books!), and a break in my usual routine, which means I haven’t written anything other than emails to utility companies in three days.

I’m a ‘write every day’ guy. If I don’t write anything during the working day, I get twitchy. So much so, that I just snuck out of bed in the middle of the night to sit among the boxes and compose this blog…

… and that feels good, even though it’s not the full dose of happiness that I get from a bit of creative writing. But I am reassured by the response we got from Sarah Pinborough on the podcast when we asked her if she wrote every day. ‘No,’ she said. ‘That’s bollocks.’ She went on to clarify that even though she might not actually be writing her latest work in progress, she’s always thinking about it. Well, I’ve been doing lots of thinking, and I’m allowing myself to call that work, even if it’s just for a few days.
The other thought that keeps me going is that when we move I will finally have a writing room. I hate to use the phrase ‘man-cave’, due to all the icky connotations, but it will almost certainly be the very definition of male writer mid-life crisis decor: film posters, books, Lego, and I might even succumb to the lure of vinyl LPs again… Lordy, what have I become…?

In the meantime, keep writing, my friends. I love hearing about your work and news (my friend Graeme Williams just had some amazing news!) and it’ll keep me going till I see you on the other side once I’ve unpacked…

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Ever felt worthless as a writer? You’re not alone.

Up till Tuesday night this week, I was invincible.

I had spent the weekend polishing a TV spec script that was going to be my calling card. It was, without a doubt, the best thing I had ever written. I had spent maybe a year and bit slowly bringing it to life, researching the historical background, building the characters and the world, and it had already been through two beta-readers, who had given me excellent notes and were very positive, and it was ready to go out.

But I wanted one more opinion before I did that, just to be sure, and so I sent it to another writer friend for his opinion.

His notes were like a punch to the gut.

He found problems with the protagonist, the tone, the antagonists, and the ending.

And the worst thing is, he was right.

This is where my old friend self-doubt made an appearance. How could I have been so blind to the script’s flaws? Worse still, how could I have been so supremely confident that it was ready, when it clearly wasn’t even close? I’ve been doing this for long enough that I should know this, surely? I really did not know if I had the judgement to continue with writing. If I couldn’t see my own flaws, then how could I even possibly think about a career as a writer? I was useless. Hopeless. Worthless.

The notes arrived via email late at night, and I barely slept after that, constantly turning dead-end rewrite ideas over in my head.

By the morning, however, almost all of that doubt had gone. I had formulated some ideas for a rewrite and this time it was going to be awesome.

I’m hoping that this sequence of events is familiar to other writers.

I’ve gone through various incarnations of it ever since I started writing at school. I spoke about this on the podcast recently, noting that coping with tough feedback can be a bit like going through the stages of grief. Not to denigrate the overwhelming intensity of losing a loved one, but we writers can be melodramatic, and it cannot be denied that the similarities are pretty remarkable:

First comes denial: They’re wrong! How dare they misinterpret my genius!

Then anger: Fuck ’em!  Look at these shitty notes: he contradicts himself three times, so why should I listen to him?

Bargaining: Maybe I should email them, pointing out the stuff they missed, which will help them see just how brilliant the story really is?

Depression: I’m utterly worthless, a total fraud and I should never put pen to paper ever again.

Acceptance: Ah, y’know what? Maybe they had a point? Let’s get to work.

Earlier that evening I had been messaging a writer friend who was going through the same thing, and I think that’s possibly what exacerbated things this time for me. I was telling my friend to keep his chin-up, you’ll get through this, you’ve been published, people love your books, you’re awesome… And all the while I was thinking how lucky I was to have put those days behind me.

What a doofus I was.

It never goes away.

I think good writers are able to hold conflicting thoughts in their heads. It’s the only way you can have characters with opposing views convincingly have at each other on the page. The trouble with this skill is you can be all too empathetic when people criticise your work. My inclination is to immediately agree with them; yeah, you’re right, it’s crap isn’t it?

I looked back at the notes that my friend had sent me. There was so much positive stuff in there. He loved the pace, the characters (mostly), the period, the maguffin, he said it was huge fun, unusual and really visual. Why was I only seeing this now? My eyes had somehow glazed over this and chose to focus on the shit.

I’m not posting this for ‘Aw, hun’ hugs, I just want other writers to know that if you’re going through this rollercoaster, you’re not alone.

And once you start to recognise the stages, it becomes easier to manage them, move through them more rapidly, find yourself working on solutions, and thanking your lucky stars that someone cared enough to help you make your work better.

So here I go with another rewrite. And this time, it really will be the dog’s bollocks.

 

 

Hope this wasn’t too depressing. Normal service will resume shortly. But if you think you know a writer/creative who might benefit from this post, then please do share… or give them a hug… or tea and biscuits usually does the job!

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Did you know Harold Pinter wrote a pantomime starring Michael Caine…?

Well, of course he didn’t…

But this was the premise for a sketch that I filmed with some old friends a couple of years ago. Friends that I was writing comedy sketches with back when I was a teenager. The way I remember it is we would meet in the drama hall after school, writing, improvising and laughing for about two hours non-stop. And by laugh, I mean breathless, bent-over-in-agony, pounding the floor, thinking you’re going to die, convulsing in spasms laughter. I have not laughed so hard since.

As a teenage boy there was a kind of comedy arms race among my peers: we were always trying to be the fastest and the funniest, and a few of us tried to get it down on paper, then on its feet, thinking we were going to be the next Monty Python…

Well, of course, we were not…

But it was the first writing I did with an audience in mind, and we’ve since all gone on to do cool, creative things: Jeremy is now a documentary filmmaker, Dom is an incredible musician and award-winning filmmaker, Paul works in West End theatre, and I write words and sometimes get paid for them. There’s a moment in Jerry Seinfeld’s documentary Comedian where he recalls the same thing. His friends at school were as funny as he was, if not funnier. The difference is, he pursued it as a career and didn’t allow the formalities of life — getting a job, behaving like an adult in polite company etc. — slowly beat it out of him. It’s a sobering thought that I’ll never be as funny as I was when I was a kid, confirmed perhaps by the sketch we filmed when we all reunited again for Paul’s fortieth birthday…

Yes, that’s me on the right as Michael Caine (as Widow Twankey), with Paul on the left (Aladdin), in a sketch written by Dom and filmed by Jeremy. There’s an alternative universe where we’re begrudgingly reuniting for a stadium tour, we’re all millionaires and we all hate each other… I wouldn’t want to live there, but it might be worth a short visit.

My son is fourteen, my daughter seventeen, and they’re both quick wits and make me laugh every single day, and I regularly plead with them not to let life beat that humour out of them.

Cling on to the funny, folks.

Christ knows, over the next few years I suspect we will need a good laugh more than ever before.

Just say No, kids! My Writing Diary, Ten Years On: Monday 8th – Wednesday 10th January, 2007

Thanks to my Odeon Limitless card, I’ve seen more movies than ever before in the last twelve months, but I still haven’t got around to seeing this…

And there’s a very specific reason for that. I just can’t bring myself to see it. To do so would be like revisiting a very bad toothache. Let’s go back to my diary entries for ten years ago today, when I had a meeting with Dean Fisher, who was producing Waiting For Eddie, which I hoped would be my debut film (it wasn’t)

 

Monday 8th January, 2007

Dean asked if I was interested in another project he’s developing. It’s called ‘The Office Christmas Party’, and comes from a party witnessed by his brother. So far it’s just a series of ‘It really happened’ events. There’s no story or even a rough outline, but in some ways that’s best if it gives me more of a free reign. Anyway, I’ll look at what he’s got and see if it’s do-able.

Tuesday 9th January, 2007

I read the notes for Dean’s ‘Office Christmas Party’ idea… Yikes. There’s really nothing to work with. It’s basically what happens when you give people a free bar and too much coke. The concept is a good one, but I’d have to start from scratch and I have a nagging doubt that Dean doesn’t have the money to pay me for that.

Wednesday 10th January, 2007

Agreed with Dean to put together a two-page treatment for his April deadline…

The more observant of you might be asking, ‘What the hell? You clearly didn’t like the idea, so why are you writing a treatment for it?’ Indeed, and you’d be right to be confused. But I was inexperienced, eager to please a producer who was developing another project of mine, and I had the writer’s hubris to think that I could mould this idea into a personal statement. How wrong was I? Well, let’s say this led to a further three and a half years of working on a film that would never happen. Three and half years! I know this because I looked it up in my diary…

 

Wednesday 8th September, 2010

Dean called yesterday and I think I’ve finally laid the ghost of The Christmas Office Party to rest. I simply told him I’d run cold on the idea. He was disappointed, but seemed resigned to it.

You’ll note the slight title change there (because we didn’t anyone thinking it was anything to do with Ricky Gervais’s The Office… how times have changed). It’s not a question of the time taken, or not being paid – I’ve worked longer and for less on other projects – but the difference here is I was completely wrong for the project. I didn’t believe in it, I didn’t like the tone they wanted, nor had I any experience in writing a raucous comedy, but I still said yes. It was an interesting concept, and I thought it could get made, and when you’re an un-produced screenwriter, all you really want in life is to get something  made.

The lesson I had yet to learn is the most powerful thing a writer can do is say No.

Seriously, try it.

Saying no means you can move and find something new and follow your passions. Saying no means you still have all the power. Saying no means they might even consider paying you for the project.

Saying yes means you’re suddenly obliged to deliver writing, for little or no money, and with no end in sight.

This isn’t to disparage Dean as a producer. Like all indie producers, he’s building a slate and simply doesn’t have the money to pay writers for endless drafts. The mistake was all mine, and hindsight is a wonderful thing.

So, it was with very mixed feelings when I first saw the trailer for ‘The Office Christmas Party’. It was a good idea, and Dean had beaten Hollywood to it by ten years… he just needed the right writer. Trouble is, it wasn’t me.

 

The Bestseller Experiment launches today!

A simple proposition: write, edit, publish and market a self-published eBook and get it up the Kindle charts… in a year. Fifty-two weeks. Yeah, a doddle…

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Oh, and while you’re trying to achieve this, and on top of all the other crap you have going on in your life, you’ll also be helping run a weekly podcast where you interview folk from the industry and maybe a few authors? Maybe even a few bestselling, mega-million-household-name-type authors?

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And yet, here we are… Luckily, my cohort in this exercise in insanity is the super-driven entrepreneur and life coach Mark Desvaux who could convince the most devout nun to abandon her vows and take up pole dancing (don’t worry, he only uses his powers for good, not evil).

Mark is also that wannabe writer who’s started writing a novel a few times, but has never finished one. He still has that joyous naivety that all it takes is a bit of application and before you know it you’ve written Harry Potter And The Cash Cow Of Azkaban.

I, on the other hand, am a cynical sod who’s worked in bookselling and publishing for over twenty years and have seen more disasters than Donald Trump’s press office. There’s no way you can cynically take a dash of Dan Brown, add a smidgen of James Patterson, sprinkle it with EL James’s chutzpah and wait for the royalty cheques to come rolling in.

However, that’s not entirely our plan. While our book may end up the literary equivalent of the Hindenberg, we are totally convinced that there are writers out there who can beat us to it. Writers who might have a half-finished book in their bottom drawer, writers who just need a little guidance from the experts (that’s not us, let me make that absolutely clear!), and could get their work published and read by the masses.

So, if you think that’s you, or a buddy of yours, or you just like listening to fantastic interviews with the likes of Joanne Harris, Joe Abercrombie, Maria Semple, Michelle Paver, Scott Lynch, John Connolly, Michael Connelly and many more (yeah, we got some of those million-sellers recorded already, baby!), then join us. It might end in utter disaster, but it will be fun.

We launch today with three episodes, so you can really get your teeth into it, and they’re all fab. You can find the podcast on iTunes: http://bestsellerexperiment.com/itunes

Please subscribe so you don’t miss future episodes, and, if you like us, please, please, please leave a review and a rating on iTunes. I had no idea how important this stuff is to keeping your podcast alive. Apple use these as their major metric when it comes to making the podcast visible and easy to find! Without them, we wither and die… and I want this to fail because I was right, not because of some sodding metric!

If you’re not on iTunes, you can listen and download from our website: http://bestsellerexperiment.com/podcasts/

We’re also on Facebook and Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram, oh, and if you sign up to our newsletter you get a free eBook, The Writers’ Vault of Gold

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This really is aces. Updated every week it’s the highlights of our interviews, and by the time we’re done there will be about 80,000 words of advice from some of the best authors on the planet… For free! You’d be crazy not to.

Still not convinced? Then check out our trailer for a quick peek…

Like I said, this is going to be fun.

Oh, and to the chap who left a comment on our Facebook page bemoaning the whole exercise and declaring that Graham Greene would never have stooped to this… it’s called the Bestseller Experiment, not the Timeless Literary Classic Experiment.

That’s next year…

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Film London Microschool, My Writing Diary, Ten Years On, Thursday 12th & Friday 13th October, 2006

Ten years ago, my script Waiting For Eddie had a producera director and had been chosen for the first ever Film London Microwave scheme, which was designed to produce at least two debut films with a budget of £100k.

After three days of intense workshopping (see previous blog entries), we were given a day away to prepare our pitches for the real thing on Friday…

Thursday 12th October, 2006

A blissful day at home working on the pitch and the script for Eddie. Got lots done. Had a conference call with Dean and Jon. I was confident then, but nerves are starting already.

Friday 13th October, 2006

Dean, Jon and I pitched to Film London this morning. As pitches go, it was textbook stuff and we covered everything. However, Dean called a little after to nine to say that we didn’t get the green light. No reason was offered and he didn’t ask. The positive spin is that we can now go and raise a proper budget instead rather than be constrained by the strict £100k that Film London insisted on. Dean’s right: at least this way we get to make it on our terms. Still, I can’t help but feel really disappointed. The green light from Film London could have meant that the film would be in cinemas next year and would have got us all some quick recognition.

Dean also reminded me that Film London’s remit is to support independent/arthouse film, and our script is very much mainstream and commercial and much more likely to get funding elsewhere than some of the other projects on the Microwave scheme. There’s no news yet on who actually did get through. Apparently an announcement will be made in the next ten days.

Aah, can you hear it? The post-disappointment rationalisation? There is some truth in our reasoning: the script is a ghost story, with a far more substantial VFX budget than any other script on the scheme (a habit I can’t seem to shake!), and it would have been nigh-on impossible to make effectively on such a small budget. All that fluff about arthouse versus commercial is balls, though. Looking back at my script ten years on, it’s far too idiosyncratic to be commercial, and the films that were selected by Film London were both eminently marketable and, while not runaway box offices successes, earned their money back, were highly acclaimed, and successfully launched careers.

The first I saw was Eran Creevy’s Shifty, which is a fantastic debut with terrific performances from Riz Ahmed and Daniel Mays. The second was Mum and Dad, a nicely twisted horror directed by Steven Shiel.

We eventually learned that we were ultimately rejected because my script was “too TV”, which burned at the time (and felt a bit of a flannely excuse), though now it’s got my cogs whirring and wondering if there’s mileage in a London-set TV series about a haunted house and guy called Eddie trying to figure out who murdered him. TV execs: you know where to find me!

Film London Microschool: Day Three. My Writing Diary, Ten Years On, Wednesday 11th October, 2006

Ten years ago, my script Waiting For Eddie had a producera director and had been chosen for the first ever Film London Microwave scheme, which was designed to produce at least two debut films with a budget of £100k.

Wednesday 11th October, 2006

Last full day of Microschool. First of all, I have to tip my hat to our fellow filmmakers… a thoroughly nice bunch. An awful word was coined by a producer (who shall remain anonymous): “co-opetition”. A mash of co-operation and competition that he felt summed-up the spirit in which he wanted us to work. We ignored his banal wittering and just got on with each other anyway. Special mention should go to Rani Creevy, writer/director of Shifty, and Carol Morley, writer/director of Hotel Deadly – she was a straight-talking breath of fresh air, as was her producer Cairo Cannon.

Producer Christine Alderson was really helpful, too. She basically guided our group through the sessions with plenty of wise and practical advice. Judy Counihan, co-writer of the excellent Faber book The Pitch, came along to talk for an hour on pitching and I made nearly three pages of notes.

Dean (Fisher) is still wary of the restrictions on the budget, but Jon (Wright) is still confident that we can pull it off. I’ll work on our pitch script at home tomorrow and Friday is the day we pitch to the Film London panel!

What’s fascinating about looking back on this entry is the wealth of talent at this first Microschool. I didn’t know it at the time, but Eran (Rani) Creevy would win the first Microwave and go on to make Shifty, and then Welcome To The Punch, and Carol Morley, who, like us, would not win, but went on to make some of my favourite films of the last decade including Dreams Of Life and The Falling. What’s doubly fascinating is I recall their passion and no-nonsense approach to their filmmaking. No “co-opetition” for them, they just wanted to get their fucking films made…

Oh, and Faber books have somehow let The Pitch go out of print! Boo, Faber, boo! Simply the best book on pitching your film ever written. Totally essential, and grab a copy if you can.

More on how turned out soon (though I guess if you’ve been paying attention you already know the ending)…

Film London Microschool: Day Two. My Writing Diary, Ten Years On, Tuesday 10th October, 2006

Ten years ago, my horror-comedy script Waiting For Eddie had a producera director and had been chosen for the first ever Film London Microwave scheme, which was designed to produce at least two debut films with a budget of £100k. And day two saw the script get some serious interrogation from some industry professionals. Would it be knocked out in the first round, or would it pick itself up, battered and bruised, and ask for more…?

Tuesday 10th October, 2006

Day two of Microschool. Jon (Wright) and I had a meeting with script editor Toby Rushton that was so good it gave me goosebumps. He started by saying some very nice things about the script, we then all agreed on some of the problems. He liked the suggestion in the script that the house has something to do with its murderous history. Jon and I were initially wary: we didn’t want to go down the Amityville Horror route, but then I latched on to the slaughtered Victorian family in the Fleetwood sequence and we now have a new character called Cassandra and an ending that is ten times better.

Poor Dean (Fisher) was stuck in the basement at the Institute Francais, poring over the budget with all the other producers. He’s still wary of making of making Eddie for £100k, but Jon is more optimistic.

This was the first time the script had been read by anyone not directly associated with the film, and it was something of a relief to be told that it wasn’t a steaming turd, and how dare I call myself a writer? I remember the goosebumps came when Toby took a tiny part of the script — a throwaway line about previous murders in this haunted house — and started talking about how we could extrapolate that into something bigger, and by the time our session was over we had a new character and a better ending (and I had a ton of revisions ahead of me… years of them, in fact).

Getting feedback and notes can be a traumatic experience, but this was such a thrill to be given permission almost to dig deeper and explore these characters and situations all the more. At the end of day two I was certain of one thing: our film would get the £100k and would be made within the year (spoiler alert: nah).

For more on Day Three of Microschool, tune in tomorrow!

Film London Microschool, My Writing Diary, Ten Years On, Monday 9th October, 2006

My script Waiting For Eddie had a producer, a director and had been chosen for the first ever Film London Microwave scheme, which was designed to produce at least two debut films with a budget of £100k. But we weren’t the only ones, of course, and first had to survive a week of Microschool: a kind of Bake Off for filmmakers. Jon and I were treated to masterclasses from producers, writers and sales agents, while our poor producer Dean was sent to a dark basement for a week of budget school (some people get all the luck). Reading this ten years on I feel like I come across as a cocky little know-it-all. Don’t worry, dear reader, the next ten years of trying to get scripts off the ground will knock that out of me…

Monday 9th October, 2006

Day one of Microschool. An up and down sort of day. It started with some sales agents telling us exactly what sort of things they were looking for in a film. A lot of what they said could be filed under “The Bleeding Obvious”, but it was surprising just how few of our fellow filmmakers have twigged to the basic tenets of writing for a market. Some just want to experiment at the artistic end of the spectrum and that’s great, but I think Film London are looking for a hit to come out of this scheme and, as far as the comedy films are concerned, we’re the only one of this scheme that comes close. That said, there’s a lot of work to do this week: budgets need a rethink and the script will need to be knocked into a practical shape. Dean is torn: he’s still totally convinced that he can get £400k for Eddie, but Jon and I feel that we should really get our teeth into this week and go for a win!

This was my first time surrounded by other filmmakers in a hotbed of talent and competition, and it was pretty intimidating at first, but you soon discover that they’re just as terrified (or as full of shit) as you are, and you start to realise that you might actually deserve a place at the table here.

You hear people talking about breaking into the film industry like you just need to kick down one door and suddenly you’re a filmmaker. It’s nothing like that at all. More a series of incremental inch-like shuffles in a never-ending post office queue, but while you’re in the queue you get talking to others who have just as far to go as you and before you know it you have a peer group and a sense of belonging. I’ll always be grateful to the Microwave scheme and Dean and Jon for getting me a place at the back of the line, and I’ll stop now before this metaphor completely exhausts itself.

More on day two of Microwave tomorrow!