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An Article by Oliver Taylor.
Steve Martin once remarked that ‘thankfully, perseverance is a good substitute for talent.’ With that in mind, we’ve collected the wisdom of a number of influential writers and filmmakers to help you find the drive and strength to produce your best creative work.Charlie Brooker
1. Don’t be paralyzed by perfectionism when starting out
The creator of Black Mirror believes that the purpose of your first draft is to unload your ideas onto the page. This will, inevitably, not be your best work:
“Bear in mind that the first draft of anything is always TERRIBLE, basically… You just have to keep going. It’s called the puke draft, or the vomit draft, that first draft. You just have to keep going.”
So, don’t let your concern for quality in the early stages of a project stifle your efforts to produce anything at all.
2. Use deadlines
How do you motivate yourself to put ideas on the page when your impulse is to obsess over every thought? For Brooker, the answer is setting yourself a time limit, and holding yourself to it.
“To everyone who has ever emailed to ask me for advice on writing, my answer is: get a deadline. That’s all you really need. Forget about luck. Don’t fret about talent. Just pay someone larger than you to kick your knees until they fold the wrong way if you don’t hand in 800 words by five o’clock. You’ll be amazed at what comes out.”
When you set a deadline and take it seriously, perfectionism falls away and you are left with just the task at hand, and the imperative to get it done. Refinement and quality come later.
3. Avoid procrastination, by any means
In the battle to produce meaningful work, the biggest enemy is procrastination. Brooker has his own unique way to combat this urge:
“My advice at the moment would be: write standing up!… Because it’s slightly uncomfortable you don’t waste time googling stuff, basically. You just get on with it.”
Whether you’re using physical discomfort to your advantage, or just shutting away distractions, writers need to find methods that work for them to stave off the desire to get absorbed in something else.
4. Recognize that challenges lead to improvement
Edgar Wright has created a stunning roster of comedy and action films. Part of his success undoubtedly stems from his ability to frame obstacles as a learning opportunity:
“Mistakes are important things to have in your early career because you can only learn from them… My first movie that I made when I was 20, I remake it in my head all the time.”
Once you acknowledge that hardship is a chance to improve, the difficulties that might once have made you give up instead become lessons to help you grow as a writer.
5. Accept that there will be challenges at every stage in your career
Given how many films he has under his belt, you could be forgiven for thinking Wright’s days of struggle are behind him. However, he emphasizes that obstacles are something you never escape and that writers should accept this from the outset:
“Everybody fails at some point and you learn massively…The point where work gets easier, you’re being complacent, and the work suffers. [At] no point in my career have I felt like stuff has been easy to get going.”
If you embrace the challenges that face you now, knowing that this is an attitude you will always need, you will begin to develop the thick-skin and tenacity needed to turn your ideas into reality.
6. Take responsibility
Given the roadblocks on the way to writing a script or making a film, it can be easy to fall back on excuses when things don’t come together. Wright claims it is essential that we banish excuses, and put the responsibility of getting work done squarely on ourselves:
“There is nothing stopping you from making movies. You have to let go of the excuses, of the reasons why not, and just do it yourself.”
Even though his work exudes wit, cheer, and light-hearted charm, Wright’s discipline is firm and unyielding. Pushing to be self-sufficient empowers you to abandon excuses and move forward on your own terms.
7. Take your work seriously from the very start
Catapulted into the limelight for his recent biopic screenplays (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, Bohemian Rhapsody) McCarten’s earliest writing education was under a poet at Victoria University. McCarten describes how the most valuable thing his mentor gave him was the sense that his work was important:
“Throughout the course, he would just sit back and observe. He was more of a presence in the room, letting us all imagine that we were professionals… It made us serious about what we were doing and made us very serious about writing.”
Long before you make it in the industry and gain an identity as a professional, you must see yourself as a professional and approach your writing with the serious mindset of someone tackling important work.
8. Be willing to take unexpected opportunities
McCarten talks about how having the confidence to seize an opportunity with virtually no experience created a pathway for him to move forward with his creative goals:
“I turned up at an unemployment office and they said, “We have no positions for poets at the moment, but can you act?” I said yes, of course, but it was a complete lie… this threw me into the world of actors and opened a door for me to write a play.”
A willingness to explore a new direction despite minimal experience can open up opportunities that would remain closed to someone with a narrower focus.
Guillermo Del Toro
9. Have several projects in the pipeline
Despite our best efforts, there is an element of luck when it comes to which projects move forward, and which languish in the drawer. Del Toro explains that this happens even at the highest level. The key to beating the odds is to have several projects on the go:
“Well, I have written 24 screenplays, and I have made 10 movies. So, 14 movies never got made! …Early on, I learned that you need to have more than two or three projects because if one doesn’t happen or one falls through, another one will work out.”
Having several projects is essential both in the struggle to get work developed, and the psychological battle to stay busy and remain focussed despite rejection.
10. If you’re stuck, change something
It’s tempting when you reach a creative block to keep applying the same approach in the hope of breaking through. Margaret Atwood knows better. It was Atwood’s ability to overcome these blocks that gave rise to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ and she stresses the importance of changing your approach when you find yourself stuck.
“Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.”
Expecting a solution to come without making an alteration to your approach is illogical and inefficient. Tackling the problem from a new angle opens up options and will help you to escape from a mire of confusion.
Before you have experience, craft or connections you have your work ethic, and your drive to take the next step forward. We hope that these lessons from working writers help you to hone this critical skill.
Oliver Taylor is a qualified doctor and aspiring screenplay writer. He developed his interest in writing whilst completing a medical degree at Cambridge University, during which time he was president of the Footlights comedy society (alumni include Stephen Fry, David Mitchell, and Emma Thompson). He has had screenplays recognized in multiple competitions, was shortlisted for the BBC Comedy Writer’s room in 2018 and has had material broadcast in comedy radio shows on BBC Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra. You can follow Oliver on Twitter and watch his original comedy shorts on YouTube.