A manuscript flopped on to an editor’s desk. The prose was absolutely captivating, every word honed to perfection. A joy to read. It was about a boy wizard, attending a school for magic while battling a rising evil linked to his past. Only this novel was written by…let’s call them ‘Dave’. From Droitwich. Dave had done his market research and had accurately discovered that there was a great public hunger for stories about boy wizards so he’d set out to write the best boy wizard story he possibly could. He laboured over that pristine prose for three years. Every diamond word.
You should be able to find that book self-published on Amazon, for 99p. Download it. Worth a punt at that price, surely. Luxuriate in that great writing, for a couple of pages at least. Then it’ll sit on your Kindle until you delete it.
Want to see a grown person cry? Corner an editor at a convention and ask them about the manuscripts they’ve received for secondary world quest novels with a group of plucky heroes fighting…I don’t know…Horcs?…and…no, not a magic ring…maybe a magic…goblet? Or about serial killers taking trophies from their victims. Or zombies battling a dwindling band of surviving humans. Many of them absolutely beautifully crafted.
I’ve seen aspiring writers draft and re-draft and re-re-re-re-draft their opus, making sure every single sentence sings while draining away the days of their lives. And all for nothing. Because the seed they originally pushed into that fertile earth was already dead.
Dan Brown takes a lot of flak for his novels. Yes, some of the prose may lack elegance. But the readers keep buying his work in enormous numbers, despite the critics’ views. After the huge success of The Da Vinci Code, his publisher – my publisher – did extensive market research to find out why readers loved that novel so much. The overwhelming response? They didn’t care about the writing. They were excited because Dan Brown was telling them something they didn’t know.
Readers, and TV and film viewers, desperately want to be told something new (even when they think they don’t), or to experience new feelings, or to be prompted into new thoughts.
RULE # 5: It’s not about the writing. It’s about the ideas.
Received knowledge says writers are in the writing business. They’re not. They’re in the ideas business. Editors and TV and film commissioners buy the idea. They buy the person creating it, the sum total of their thoughts and feelings and analysis and life which will be poured into the project. They expect the work to be beautifully crafted too, of course they do. That’s the job. But it’s not the essential part.
Ideas. New ideas, that get the brain fizzing and the heart pumping.
Every year I get invited to the BBC Writers Festival, which is open to any screenwriter who has had work produced and screened on TV. You get to hear from the top people in the industry about what they’re looking for, to commission, and to garner all the insider knowledge. Those still slaving over their unsold scripts no doubt think it’s the media equivalent of the Bilderberg Group, where the elite swill champagne and plot to ruin the next year’s TV schedules. (It’s actually a place where writers can get passionate about the craft and bitch and moan. Writers are writers wherever they are.)
This year a very senior TV executive who dishes out millions of pounds to creatives said: “We’re only really interested in the premise and the characters. Everything else is fixable.”
In his must-read screenwriting manual, Story, Robert McKee exhorts that you should never put fingers to keyboard until eighty per cent of the work has already been done. It’s a natural human instinct to launch straight into writing once you get that creative rush of a new idea. But if you talk to agents and editors and producers you’ll find that what is new to you is not necessarily new. They’ve usually seen your fantastic new idea six times *that week*.
McKee advises caution because you need to be brutally hard on yourself and ensure you have the right idea, formulated in the right way, with the right characters. If you don’t, any writing, however brilliant, is wasted effort and time.
Many people think creative writing courses will get you published or produced. That’s a misconception. All they can ever do is teach you to recognise good writing. They can show you how to change the spark plugs and how to tune the carb, but they can’t show you how to win the Grand Prix. That bit is inside you.
The writing is how you communicate those ideas and it has to be perfect to carry the thing at its heart. But in the end it’s just a wireless signal rolling out into the great void. The idea comes first.
Ideas are your currency. Good ones are in very short supply, and they will buy you riches beyond imagination and that gilded future you dream about. But you need to know how to mine them, and how to recognise them when you turn them up in the soil. In the coming weeks we’ll talk about how you find those answers.
And yes, I hear you cry that people don’t *really* want new ideas. Aren’t books and TV filled with familiar tropes? Well, yes. And no. We’ll get to that too.
But for now, find those ideas. And, remember, as a general rule of thumb, the first twenty are the ones most people have. The next ten or so some people have. It’s only after that that you get to the really unique ones, that only you could produce.
Yes, it’s extremely hard work. It’s much easier simply to start writing and sink into the words. But that’s why there are so many writers and so few who make a living from it. Teach yourself to sweat and labour.