Eight ways to be a better writer (eventually) via FR Leavis, Tinkerbell and fine French cheese.

If you are a disciple of the late, legendary scholar F.R. Leavis (you may have his scowly visage tattooed on your bum, or as you stand on the terraces of your local association football club you may find yourself chanting “Leavis till I die”) then you will be certain that any reading of  any literary text depends on an understanding of the contexts, morality and prejudices that shaped the author during the its inception.

(If you neither know nor care about Leavis then I’d gladly bore you a few hours with illuminating commentary stolen from someone who knows more than I do, but I suspect life is far too short).

Anyway, all you rabid Leavisites are in for a treat in the next few paragraphs as I reveal a number of strange contexts that are occurring to me RIGHT NOW (if you were reading this in real time, which clearly you are not).

Number 1 – I am currently aboard a cross-channel ferry heading for Portsmouth after a cheese-filled fortnight of French food and English flatulence. And writing. More of which later. It is an “express’ ferry which means the journey is only going to take three hours which is excellent; however, with speed comes a certain instability of which my stomach is not particularly fond. However, I will try to maintain my digestive integrity for the remainder of this piece.

Number 2 – To my left sits my son who is watching a film on big screen towards the end of the cabin. This film is “Tinkerbell and the something of something” and might just be the worst film ever made; so bad that I keep looking up from laptop to keep abreast of all the latest doe-eyed action.

Number 3 – Talking of breasts, to my right sits my wife (and that is NOT the connection you smutty buggers) who is reading this week’s edition of “Voici” magazine; this is a French “gossip” publication that seems to contain nothing but pictures of ladies on beaches with their boobs out. This is not necessarily a problem but again it is something of a distraction. (Being French, Voici also has a genuinely excellent recipe page. Boobs and tiramisu: a heady combination).

All of which is by way of an excuse if this blog ends up a little more ragged in its discourse than normal. Not that you’d notice.

Right then, well, as eagle-eyed Leavisites will have gleaned I have just spent a happy couple of weeks in Northern France. The food was excellent and the weather, oh the weather was just magnificent; so magnificent in fact that every French person with whom we broke baguettes told us several times over just how magnificent the weather was and how it was never, ever like this. So that was good. If a little repetitive. But aside from enjoying some glorious Breton sunshine, my other main purpose en France was to being writing a screenplay for what will hopefully become Long Arm’s second feature film.

France. Just lovely.

France. Just lovely.

The project is not nearly advanced enough for me to tell you anything about it, which I am sure is deeply troubling to you, but suffice to say I arrived in France with a few notes and a message to “get on with it” from Jimmy and I return to the UK with over a hundred pages of pretty decent stuff. And it is not yet finished but both Jimmy and I are relatively happy. There are no helicopters in it (yet) but there is a motorway service station, which I think is on a par in terms of filmic spectacle. (Seriously, if you want a GREAT NIGHT OUT then get yourselves along to Membury Services on the M4. It is a riot. Once I went to the loo there and in the cubicle next door I swear someone was being fellated; it is that kind of place – classy).

So yes, I can’t really say more than that but I will press on for a few more paragraphs about the process of writing a script. It sounds a little false but in all honesty a few people have asked me recently “how do you write?” (although many more have asked “How’s the jogging going?” knowing FULL WELL the answer). Now not for a moment would I profess myself to be any authority on the creative process whatsoever, however I have meant for a while now to note down a few thoughts in a WordPress –friendly numbered list format – something like Jim’s Six Tips for Better Writing – but I’ve never managed to get around to it. And even when I do then I wait until the high seven hundreds in the word count before mentioning that this is my intention. You see, this is why I need Jimmy. I’d be utterly absurd without him.

But, for what it’s worth, here are few conclusions gleaned from twenty years of writing stuff. Feel free to ignore them, or tattoo them on to your bum. Or even do both. Which would be a bit odd.

JIM’S LIST OF THINGS THAT HE’S LEARNT ABOUT WRITING (sponsored by Brittany Ferries)

  1. No one knows anything about writing. Never buy a textbook; never pay to go on a course; never read blogs on the subject; never read this blog; ignore websites claiming “How the three act structure will transform your scripts” because you’re sure as hellfire then going to stumble on one claiming “How the three act structure will destroy your script”. It is all balls. No one knows anything.
  1. Accept that Point 1 is true, now please ignore Point 1. By which I mean gather together a small coterie (if only for the joy of being able to use the word coterie) who you trust to read your stuff and give you honest feedback. And don’t just ask people who love you because that’s no use. They need to love you AND hate you enough to wilfully make you cross. Because you will get cross. In fact, love is irrelevant but you do need to respect them if you are going to accept that they may have a point. My first script reader is always Jimmy – he gives daily feedback when a script is underway and he is relentlessly honest. I need this. And he is almost always right. I also regularly bend the ear of three of four others and I care about what they think; I will respond to what they think. Establish a working relationship with your chosen few and then go back to Point. 1.
  1. Your first five years (at least) are going to be rubbish. Unless you are Rimbaud (or maybe even Rambo) or Kate Bush then your first attempts are writing are most likely to be a bit shit. And this is fine. This is necessary. It took me at least ten years to write anything that was half-decent and not the linguistic equivalent of either self-pity or self-love. Neither of which are very desirable qualities. The more you write, the better you’ll be. This is a simple principle but one I believe to be inherently true.
  1. Read. Read well. I went to poetry reading many years ago and Simon Armitage, a poet familiar to anyone who’s studied GCSE English in the UK in the past fifteen years , and also a sodding genius as far as I’m concerned, answered the dull question “How do you become a good a writer?” with a simple one-word answer: read. And he was right. And I don’t do enough of it as I am always exhausted at the end of the day. And I am a worse writer because of it. (Case-in-point: I just began that previous sentence with “and”). Read decent writers, don’t read The Daily Mail and you’ll be on the right track.
  2. Don’t associate creativity with things that are going to kill you. This began for me many years ago when I’d sit under a plum tree in my parents’ garden with my dear friend Kris and we’d write scripts for our university comedy group and smoke fags. And not just normal fags either, these were big ones. Marlboro 100s as they were called. And it was bloody brilliant. However, there’s been a part of my brain that associated smoking with creativity ever since. Most of my pals gave up smoking years ago but I’ve been doggedly persistent (until a more recent, much-needed breakthrough and a stern talking to from a scary Doctor) because I think, I know, that somewhere in my brain smoking means, for me, being able to write. This is fucking stupid. Don’t do this.
  1. Some people are going to hate your stuff. Some people will be indifferent. The second of which is worse actually. But you need to get used to both reactions. And unless these people are card-carrying members (and yes, do make membership cards) of your coterie (see Point 2) then you just need to square your shoulders and walk away.
  2. Tea is your friend. Unless you drink it in sufficient quantities to make it pertinent to Point 5.
  3. Write with heart and purpose. Well if the ferry doesn’t make you vomit then statements like that certainly will. But please keep your dinner down below for a moment while I explain. You should write about things that you give a shit about; whether it is things that make you happy or aroused or sad or very bloody angry. Or maybe all of these things together. If you don’t then your work will be like a glass of non-alcoholic beer: all craft and no substance (and it won’t get you pissed). As for purpose, always have a reason for writing. Write for someone. This could be one person, it could be millions, (and the chances are you’ll fall short of your target) but it will give your work an edge, a polish, a reason for existing. Otherwise all you’ll have done is just leave a few sheaves of paper in a drawer or, more likely, a few 0s and 1s etched on some server somewhere. This is a bit sad. Your work will be richer for being read.

And that’ll do for now. I quite like eight. You don’t see lists of eight on Buzzfeed (get me Nat!) so that seems reason enough to alight this particular train of thought at this stop. I’d had some notes about writing decent dialogue that I may save for a future date. Or may bin altogether.

Maybe some of the above was of use to you. Maybe not. Bear in mind that I am just an idiot from Devon so everything I say could well be a load of old balls. And anyway, the 3G signal has just connected on my phone and, as we approach the motherland, I want to check the football results. Because I am interested. And because you should never lock people into lazy stereotypes because they’ll always do something to surprise you (a bonus Point 9!).

Oh if you are interested, at the end of Tinkerbell and the something of something it turns out that it was all a dream. And the Butler did it. And Bruce Willis rides off into the blood-red sunset on a stolen motorcycle with a soundtrack by Philip Glass. I know, I know, who’d have thought it?

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4 thoughts on “Eight ways to be a better writer (eventually) via FR Leavis, Tinkerbell and fine French cheese.

  1. When I was younger my primary school teacher would only underline the first five spelling mistakes in any piece of work so that I didn’t feel too despondent. My mum thought this was stupid and used to go through my work after the teacher and underline all the spelling mistakes and then write in capitals in the margin the correct spelling. She remains the best critic of my writing because I know that she will never spare feelings.

    She is also very useful for helping me to consume high volumes of point 7.

  2. My childhood memories of running to the end of your garden as a child just to demolish those beautifiul plums has now been trashed by the thought of you and your uni friends puffing on Marlborough under said plum tree. And finally Tinkerbell is the name of my overweight fluffy cat and I admire little one’s choice of film… However I do believe that you are right about creative writing, it cannot be taught and your blog makes perfect sense.
    Paula – Devon Dumpling and webbed footed cousin….

  3. Words on film (it’s a global conspiracy actually). – James Gillingham - Long Arm Films

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