Lessons from being a director

Seriously, listen to me here, I have such a long history of directing. I directed my first play this morning.

It was a ten-minute short written by myself and the Burton Young Writers' Group which we've worked on in a few of the monthly sessions I've led with them this year. Writing West Midlands, which runs the groups, funded the hiring of a real cast to perform the kids' work and it went tremendously.

But the other day, someone asked me if I were directing it and I just said yes.

I had to, there was nobody else who was going to do it, it was just obvious that it would be me as the group's leader. But as soon as I'd said 'yes' aloud, the voice in my head continued with the word 'oh'.

I'd been thinking of the project as a writing one and I suppose a little bit as a producing one. I've been becoming very irritating about producing lately: there's a way to argue that I produced six events over the last six weeks and yeah, yeah, enough already, shut up William. My wife Angela Gallagher has been an event producer and it thrilled me to be doing the same thing, to be able to really learn from her. It's one thing asking her every detail of what she's doing when she's doing it, it's another to be needing to put that into practice for myself.

But I didn't think about directing.

Until this week when I was one of the people casting.

So I recommend becoming a director by default and preferably at speed and even more preferably while also writing and producing. Keeps your mind off it.

And then I now also further recommend directing with as little time to spare as you can.

I had an hour today. But I knew exactly what I wanted. And this is the productivity lesson I taught myself:

If you know what you want, people will do it

If they're good, they'll also question it and improve it and grow it with you, but they are bringing their talent to what you want so just bleedin' get on with deciding it and telling them.

We changed a lot, not least because one actor had a ferociously bad day trying to get to us in time and didn't manage it. We changed oodles.

But I have never been so clear about what I wanted a production to be, not even when I've been writing scripts. And to see it work, to see talented actors do what you want and take it further, I tell you, I'm hooked.

Maybe you have to be a writer and possibly an English writer to really get this but I am used to adapting to what everyone, anyone else wants and to do it this way around felt like just getting on with it. I like getting on with things.

And I loved directing this play. Ten minutes? Young Writers' Group? Sold: it was a career highlight. Especially seeing the faces of the kids as their work was performed. I feel priviliged and happy and that I've learnt a lesson or three.

Go direct something, would you?

Having a Bad Day? Read this for free

As part of the Birmingham Independent Book Fair this weekend, I gave away a free PDF of what's proved to be the most popular section of my book, The Blank Screen. It's called Bad Days and it is meant for those times when you are seriously under water: there is fast advice to get you out of it now and then there is a lot more to help you avoid the situation in the future.

I want you to have a copy too so please feel free: here is the entire and uncut Bad Days chapter from The Blank Screen.

I think it will help you. I hope you also like it and if you do, have a look at the complete book: The Blank Screen on Amazon UK and on Amazon US.

UPDATED WITH AUDIO: The Blank Screen on BBC Radio WM today

15:48 Listen to the show here: 25 minutes, MP3 And the book we talk about is my The Blank Screen (UK edition)

12:17 GMT UPDATE I had a blast on BBC Radio WM. If the listeners who phoned in had half as good a time, then they were robbed. Audio to follow later UPDATE ENDS

Just a quick note to tell you that I'm going to be on BBC Radio WM's Adrian Goldberg show some time between 11am and noon talking about The Blank Screen book and how we writers can get going, can get off our backsides and write.

BBC Radio WM is the Corporation's local station for Birmingham and the West Midlands. I actually started my career there doing work experience in the 1980s so it's always a particular treat to be on it.

If you read this before 11am GMT then you can catch it streaming live and I'll update this with a link afterwards.

Always assuming I don't make an eejit of myself in it.

The Blank Screen book:
UK paperback
USA paperback

How to get rejected

I offer that the best thing any writer can do is get someone else to do the writing. You’re thinking they might do my blogs shorter and let you get a word in. You’re thinking Dan Brown could retain his apparently gripping stories but that you and I might be able to read beyond chapter one. (Didn’t you say you’d managed more than me?)

But I mean it and I wish it were something you could very readily do. Commission other writers and it will change the way you write. It will change how you see the whole process. And it will mean fully half the rejections you get won’t trouble you.

Best of all, you’ll no longer take it personally when an editor phones you up, skips all the polite stuff about how great your typing is and just comes straight in laughing about the very worst bit of your script. It’s happened to me and I admit I wish I hadn’t written that scene, whichever it was, but I laughed along with that editor because he was funny, he was right, it was a dreadful scene – and because I knew we’d fix it. I can’t remember the scene and I’m struggling to remember which script it was but I can tell you the editor: Alan Barnes at Doctor Who.

You want to write the best drama you can and that’s what he and all the Big Finish people want too. It’s not what every editor, producer or director I’ve worked for wants but usually it is. (I once had a director whose chief dramatic aim, I am certain, was to make sure he could catch his last bus home after the play. I never knew a human being could make me as angry but now, when I can instantly recall the bile but cannot draw his name to mind, I’m glad it happened. Because I wonder if I’d appreciate the directors I’ve worked with since. Ken Bentley, Nick Briggs and Barnaby Edwards at Big Finish; Polly Tisdall, Tessa Walker and Tom Saunders at the Birmingham Rep. I imagine I would, I imagine I must, but I really do because of this fella.)

This is going to sound all idealistic and happy-clappy but everyone wants the best show they can make. I found plenty of jaded people in journalism, maybe I’ve just been lucky in drama so far. But if the ideal is that this is what we want, the harsh practicality is that there is never any time to piddle about.

And this is one reason for rejections. Nobody wants to reject anyone, everyone wants the material to be great, everyone needs the material to be great right now or sooner, please. If your piece isn’t what that person or people need at this moment, they’re off looking for the one that is and you’re rejected.

I feel I’m telling you something you think is obvious and yet it keeps coming up. Rejection isn’t personal, it just feels as I it is because we’re writers and we are required to dig very deep and scrape very personally to make drama. Even though you know, intellectually, that it isn’t personal, it feels it. When it’s your innards on the page, it’s hard not to take a rejection as being a rejection of you.

So commission someone else and see what it’s like. I’m not sure how you can do that very easily, I’m afraid. But I’ve done it on magazines and quickly got to the stage where I had no ruth at all. You need this or that piece and you need it by a certain date: you don’t care who writes it, you just have these pages to fill and fill well.

It kills me to say this, as a writer, but we’re not the most reliable people. After my first month on a magazine, every deadline I ever gave anyone was a lie. It had to be. I had to have time for them to be late, I had to have time for me to cope if they failed to deliver at all and I had to have time to handle it if their writing wasn’t good enough.

You can of course argue that it was only my opinion whether their writing was good enough or not, but that was my job. And if I didn’t do it or I wasn’t good enough at it, I’d be rejected and replaced.

I found that there were a few writers who I could really rely on. I’d know they’d write well and I’d know they would deliver on time. I used them over and over again – and so would you. From the outside, it looked like I’d got myself a stable of writers and that it was a pretty closed bunch. On the inside, it was that I was trying to get a stable of writers and unfortunately it was a pretty closed group because I couldn’t find many more to add to it.

Getting into my stable was hard. I don’t say this to make out that anyone would want to, that it was in someway a special set, but genuinely, really, practically: it was hard to get in. I had this many pages to fill with this many articles and I had this long in which to do it. It was easier to hand over a feature to one of these writers I knew would do it. I could hand that off and forget about it for a few weeks. As those weeks ticked by, it became less that it was easy to hand it over to them, more that it was essential.

Taking on someone new is a risk and a risk that takes a lot of time. And this was just on a magazine: drama is so much bigger, so much more complex and so much more pressured. So taking on someone new is so much more of a risk and takes so much more time – that you don’t have.

I’ve never commissioned drama. I’m new to writing it. But because I have commissioned writers, I believe I get it. People can tell you rejection isn’t personal but I think you really only get it when you’ve been even briefly on the other side.

It doesn’t absolve you from trying to write better but it does stop you wanting to give up.

Even when a guy phones you and laughs down the line.