Friday, August 06, 2010

A Question of Negotiation

I don’t know about you, but I hate showing anyone my story plan for a book. I do it for me. It’s my own shorthand, a kind of wish list of scenes I would like for the story.

If I show it to an editor, I only find myself having to explain it, justify it, quantify it. And I won’t do that, because for me that’s the essence of the writing process. Which is private and personal.

By now, I kind of expect that my publishers have a degree of trust in my ability to produce the goods. After all, I’ve been doing it professionally for more than thirty years. And by and large they do.

But recently I have been working once more in the visual medium, and the reasons for my quitting TV after fifteen years in the business have come flooding back to me.

Unlike books, scripts are not so much written as negotiated.

To start with you have to deal with the producer, who will sit down and tell you earnestly that he is not a writer - then proceed to instruct you how to do your job. I have often wondered if such people might not be better off employing a shorthand typist.

Endless hours of haggling and negotiation follow. The guts get ripped out of the original story idea, and very often the heart with it. And you’re still only at the stage of writing the damned synopsis! “I don’t think that character would say that,” the producer will tell you. And you want to grab him by the throat and say, “Of course he ****ing wouldn’t, and he won’t in the script either! It’s just a synopsis!”

It would be like someone telling a portrait artist that the jawline in the preliminary sketch is not quite right.

The problem is, as they are so quick to tell you, they are NOT writers. They don’t actually understand the process, and even if you could you wouldn’t have the time to explain it to them.

Then, of course, beyond the producer, you have the director (who very often likes to think he is a writer, too), and then the actor. Everyone chipping away at your original concept and every line of dialogue in the script. Everyone with his own interpretation, and the director at the end of the day running off with the credit of “auteur”.

It’s all crap of course. The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain used to have a great poster which was a cartoon drawing of a writer sitting at his typewriter, supporting an inverted pyramid of everyone from the make-up artist to the director. And, yes, it’s true. Every single one of them would be out of a job without the writer. But, still, most of them like to think they know better.

Which is not to say that producers (and editors) don’t have a role to play in the process. After all, since they are coughing up the dough, they have the right to decide in the first instance whether they like your idea or not. It’s your job to sell them on that. And when it’s finished, they have every right to exercise their critical judgement and put your work under the microscope.

A good producer, like a good editor, will guide your hand through the finishing editing process and help you produce something better. But they should also trust you to do what it is they’re paying you to do in the first place - write the damned thing!

I will start storylining my new book next week. Just me and my keyboard. I can’t wait!


John Corrigan said...

Interesting post. Thanks for sharing the insights.

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