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Write On

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Did I ever tell you how much I hate education?

No? Well, that's probably because I don't. How could I? Education is the answer to every single problem in the world. The broadening of understanding, the acquisition, exchange and challenging of wisdom. What's not to like? Well... OK, there is an area of education I hate. The area is commercial courses. This is the area I predominantly work in although, in the interest of full disclosure, I feel I should exempt myself from the sweeping generalisations I'm about to make because the courses I run are uniformly excellent.

So, in my field - screenwriting education - there's a lot I hate and that mainly is the lack of focus on craft and hard work which seems to be replaced with magic formulas. Now, the public are every bit as complicit in this con as the snake oil salesmen who lay on the weekend courses and publish the flimsy paperbacks that promise to turn you into a screenwriter in several easy steps.

I tend to open all of my screenwriting courses, from the 22-week 'introduction to screenwriting' course to the one-day workshops, by dissuading my students from pursuing a life in screenwriting. I make it clear to them that by the age of 27, I myself had decided it was a career path for the insane and had opted to open a shop instead. As many times as I've had the phrase 'Those that can do, those that can't teach' waved in front of me (correct response: 'Those that say that have no concept that the wide range of skills required to teach mean that the teacher not only 'can' but 'can do' a shitload more than you, you hacky, cliche-ridden unthinking twatface') I've always taken solace in the fact that I'm inarguably a brilliant screenwriter but don't have the other skills required for that career - ie, I couldn't hide my expression of disgust every time a coke-addled executive chimed in with an idea, I couldn't sit through endless meetings in central London offices which seemed to be about anything but the creative focus of a project and I couldn't stomach explaining to people that yes, I made my living as a screenwriter and no, they wouldn't have seen anything I'd done.

The approach to screenwriting I espouse is simple - it's a craft. Like building or carpentry. Screenwriting requires understanding of a very specific form of structure and formatting, it requires you to be creative but also completely practical as you're not creating a work of art but a blueprint for a lot of different people with different jobs to put together a single piece of work. There are simply no great intuitive screenwriters. Nobody has a latent talent for it and you can't fake it. You have to start by being creative and intelligent and then you have to be a shitty, awful screenwriter for a while until you either get a proper education and technical grasp or so much experience you start to get a feel for it. To be honest, it's not an either-or, you need both. It's not something you can learn in a weekend or from a paperback and it's not a transferable skill.

My pet hate is a series of books called 'Save The Cat' which have sold an awful lot of copies. Amusingly, the first book in the series is subtitled "the last book on screenwriting you'll ever need" which was pretty much the only sentiment I agreed with in the whole thing. This kind of bilge really is the last thing you need.

I'll cut all the crap right now and tell you the only two things you need to write a screenplay - a point to make and an understanding of the 3-act structure. If you have those two things, you're as likely to make it as you would be without the endless lists and hyperbolic formulas offered by hacks. Which is still... not very likely at all unless you put in years and years of work.

In my experience, people want to go into screenwriting for one of three reasons:
1.It's a glamorous sounding position which best fits their creative bent.
2.They're massive film fans and don't have the confidence to be directors.
3.They can't not.

Number 3 is the only valid reason and, as much as I understand the other two, the third is the one I relate to. Because once you know what screenwriting is, it becomes your Ben Nevis. Not only is it easily the hardest form of writing to conquer, not only do you have to find crafty ways to actively hide your creativity in it to protect it from the other creative forces that will ravage it (directors, actors, editors, producers...) but even if you produce a work of brilliance, your likelihood to actually get it firstly sold, then made, then released, then released to any notable effect is a journey of obsession.

It's a calling. Any notion of kudos goes out the window with all of the wannabes when they realise how impossible the fight is to win. Even if you meet the most successful screenwriters in the world, they will tell you that they are the most unappreciated, unvalued and despised members of any production. The director resents the writer for the sin of original conception (which denies them the title of auteur), the producer hates them for being the creative Jiminy Cricket constantly reminding them that their commercial agenda is crass and the audience have only the vaguest notion of who they are and where they really fit in.

I wasn't man enough to make it to the mountain top. Maybe I wasn't stupid enough. Maybe I was clever and, now as a teacher, represent those geniuses who made their fortune in the gold rush not by trying to find gold but by selling tools to the prospectors. Except I've never made a fortune from it. And I'm really not that cynical. I see it now as my job to arm aspiring screenwriters for the battle. To educate them and open their eyes and get them on the right path with honesty and support rather than profit from their foolish dreams and provide them with mere motivational hyperbole which will see them weeks later considering themselves an even bigger failure for not having 'made it' despite being given a surefire 5-step formula to producing 'screenplays that sell'

Part of my work in screenwriting education is providing weighty screenplay critiques for a company called Writers' Workshop. They provide many services for aspiring writers and screenwriters, including script critiques, script editing and providing links into the industry for those of a decent standard. Last weekend, WW hosted its annual Festival of Writing weekend at York University. They hired me to film it. As much as I love WW, it's not an event I would have ever chosen to attend. I'm immediately suspicious of such things. Anything targeted at the weekend author sets alarm bells off in me and the phrase 'mini-workshop' makes me want to kill myself. But I need money, and I like the company, so off I set for a weekend in student accommodation surrounded by the people I hate the most - those who aspire to be creative but don't have the guts to decisively go for it and those who see this weakness and profit from it.

I, of course, was fundamentally wrong. It ended up being quite a learning experience for me. The professionals WW had selected were uniformly decent people, working professionally and highly experienced but, most importantly, honest. If there was one ethos bouncing about the entire weekend through workshops, keynote speeches and debates it was that there was no easy ride and that nothing could replace hard work, honesty, integrity and intelligence. This is really the opposite of what seems to be taught in filmic circles. In debates as to whether or not to self-publish, neither side was evangelical or defensive, both stated that there is no easy answer. The workshops all sanctioned nothing but serious work and the keynote speeches from best-selling authors Jojo Moyes and Stuart MacBride chose to focus far more on their failures and the principle that hard work and a willingness to learn, along with dumb luck, got them where they were. They were motivational but in the most appropriate way.

The event also put its money where its mouth was in the core of the thing, it promised delegates one-to-one meetings with top agents and publishers. And it gave exactly that. These people flew in from all over the world and had read the samples of work from each of the delegates, then sat opposite them individually at little tables and talked. Some delegates got signed on the spot. Some left their meetings in floods of tears. They'd been forced to face reality. Sometimes, when you get what you think you want, you actually get what you need (you know exactly who I'm paraphrasing there) - but it's true. There is this huge illusion that 'if only I could get my work in front of someone who matters, I'd have a career' - this weekend that proved to be intermittently true and brutal.

I was stunned to see, for the first time in my experience, a commercial educational venture which avoided hyperbole and formula and instead offered its attendees a dose of honesty and reality.

Most importantly, it seemed to promote my own personal ethos which is that success in a creative field should not be considered as a financial sum. The most important factors must always be self-expression and the satisfaction of creating. And once you've nailed those things, maybe other people will be interested in what you have to say.