Wednesday, July 28, 2004

The difficult art of helping writers

Yesterday afternoon I was phoned by a young lady from Brussels, who wanted to know if I would read her new novel with a view to publishing it.  For a variety of reasons I had to decline, but I did try to offer her some advice as to how she might best proceed. 

This little encounter reminded me that it is not at all easy to help writers to advance their careers.  Sometimes the advice one offers can be misinterpreted, leading to even greater confusion and frustration than was present in the first place.  For instance…

A few years ago I attended a conference for playwrights and screenwriters.  As usual, a number of professionals gave seminars and advised us all on how to get our work produced. 

One of the speakers was a man who worked as a script editor at a television company which specialised in situation comedies.  This man’s job was to sift through the 10 or 15 scripts that were received each week and try to see if he could find something which was worth developing.

The editor told us that he had once been sent a script which was set at the time of the miners’ strike of 1984.  Younger readers will not remember, but that particular industrial dispute was both protracted and bitter; it involved running battles between scores of miners on the one hand and scores of police on the other.

The sitcom script featured two main characters who were a gay couple.  Bill was a  miner, and Fred was a policeman.  The opening scene of the script was set in a hospital ward.  Bill was lying in bed and Fred had come to visit him.  The opening dialogue went like this:

FRED:  Now then, lad, how are you?

BILL:  I was all right until you hit me on the head with your truncheon!

Actually, since the action of the sitcom was set in Yorkshire, and the script was written in broad Yorkshire dialect, it looked more like this:

FRED:  Now then, lad, ’ow are thee?

BILL: Ah were orl reet till thee ’it me ont napper with thi truncheon!

The editor who read this script quite liked it.  It was certainly better than the average submission, so he decided to spend a little time on it.  He wrote an encouraging letter to the author, saying that, with work, the idea might be worth further consideration.  He did have to point out, however, that a sitcom is supposed to be, first and foremost, a comedy, rather than a drama.  ‘The main problem at present,’ he wrote, ‘is that the script hasn’t got enough jokes in it.’

Six weeks later the editor received a revised script.  This time the opening dialogue went as follows:

FRED:  Now then, lad, ’ow are thee?

BILL: Ah were orl reet till thee ’it me ont napper with thi truncheon!  By the way, have you heard the one about…

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