Sunday, October 19, 2008

The writing song meme

I was tagged by Dom and Sheikspear with the following challenge: What song, to you, represents writing or what it means to be a writer?

As soon as I heard about this particular meme, I knew instantly which song I would go for. It's not technically about writing, or what it means to be a writer, but it had a big effect on me at a very important time, and says something about the whole idea of breaking in. Writing is a lot of hard work, and if you want to get into the business, you have to really push yourself, work hard, and make it happen. Nobody is going to do it for you. You have to write, write, and keep writing, then keep rewriting, over and over. It's not easy. But if you don't get off your arse and work at it, it'll never happen for you.

You may or may not know (or care) that my first produced work was a short film called Cheap Rate Gravity. The Sci-Fi Channel here had a competition a few years back, called Sci Fi Shorts - you entered a 10 minute short film script, and if it won, they made it into an actual short film. I didn't win the first year. At that time, I was going through a bit of a bad patch, writing-wise, and was beginning to think that I'd never make it, that the whole thing was a pipe dream. I actually stopped writing completely, for a good 6 months or so, felt like I was completely wasting my time and just fooling myself.

That first year of the competition, I wrote a ten page script, but didn't enter it, as I thought it was shit. So I binned it, wrote something else, sent it in, and it didn't win. The second year, it got to about 2 weeks away from the deadline, and I had nothing. But I knew that if I didn't enter *something*, I'd hate myself - and wouldn't be able to complain that they were ignoring my obvious genius. So I pulled out the script I hadn't entered the previous year, tidied it up, thought it wasn't too bad, and sent it in. Weeks, months later, I'd forgotten all about it. Then I got a phone call one day at work to tell me it had been shortlisted. Madness. Terry Gilliam was one of the judges for the finalists, so I thought, hey, at least Terry Gilliam will read my script - even if I don't win, I can say that one of the world's greatest ever directors read something I wrote. That script was Cheap Rate Gravity, and it won.

They made the short, I went on set, watched respectable actors like Phyllis Logan being hoisted up on wires by the guy who did the wire work for the Superman movies, and watched movie magic being made right before my eyes. It got released in selected cinemas in front of The Bourne Identity, Reign of Fire, and Final Destination 2. I watched it in the cinema several times, and thought, this is it, this is the fucking coolest feeling in the world. They didn't actually tell me it had been released, by the way - my mate phoned me up and said he'd seen it at his local cinema. I tried phoning the short film people, but couldn't get anyone on the phone. Oh well, I thought, they're probably busy.

There was supposed to be an industry screening of the finished short, with lots of invited agents and producers and other movie types, and the people behind the short said that I'd probably get an agent out of it. I was stunned. I thought this would be a flash in the pan, that I'd go back to my life with some interesting stories, but that would be it. Getting an agent meant that it was entirely possible to get another thing made. And then another. And then, maybe, one day, earn a living from it. I could break into the writing business. For real. Winning the competition was a validation, it meant that maybe I had something after all. At that point, one of the actors (thank you again, you know who you are) recommended me to their agent. This particular agency said yeah, sure, send in your stuff, we'd love to read it. I sent in The School, and something else. They sent me a standard, two-line rejection letter. Not for us, not what we're looking for (see, it's not who you know). Ha ha ha, fuck you, that other agency, I kept your letter and sometimes I get it out and look at it and laugh, and then I look at the massive, framed Severance poster above my writing desk, then laugh again.

So I waited for the industry screening. And waited. After a couple of months, the short film people stopped returning my calls completely, always in a meeting, always out, always busy. Should I keep waiting? Why wouldn't they help me out? Should I try and do something myself? But what? I wasn't sure what the right thing to do was. At that point, all I wanted was a bit of advice. Maybe I should wait for the screening? It was supposed to happen in November. Then late November. Then December, definitely. Then the New Year, definitely no question. It'd be easier to wait for that, and meet agents there, wouldn't it? Would anyone be interested in me and my stuff, after one short film?

As I dithered, wondering what to do, I listened to some songs on a playlist, recent stuff that I was enjoying. One in particular, I must have heard 20 times already, so it wasn't a surprise or anything. But it came up while I was thinking about all this writing and agency stuff. And as I listened to the lyrics, I realised that nobody was going to do anything for me - why should they? - so I had to do it for myself. You can't expect anyone to hand you a career, just because you've had a tiny bit of success. It was a valuable lesson. I had a small window of opportunity, a tiny chance to actually break in and get moving. If I left it too long, that would be it.

But as I listened to this song on this particular occasion, it really struck a chord. I felt a real urgency, something started gnawing away at my insides. There wasn't much time, and I'd have to start sorting my life out. It really got to me, in a way it hadn't before. The song was "Lose Yourself", by Eminem:

Whether you like his music or not, the man knows about pulling yourself up by the scruff of the neck, and working hard to become a success. He wasn't just handed everything on a plate, he made it happen for himself. And now it felt like he was telling me the same thing. "You better lose yourself in the music, the moment you own it you better never let it go, you only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow, cause opportunity comes once in a lifetime" - "you can do anything you set your mind to" - get a fucking move on, basically. And at that time, it couldn't have been more relevant to me. Although, obviously, I wasn't a struggling rapper living in a mobile home. But you know what I mean.

So I got to work. I played that song over and over and over as I figured out my plan, as loud as I could stand in the headphones, Eminem barking and snarling at me to keep going, don't fuck up this chance, you can do this. I finished all 6 episodes of The School. Wrote several drafts of Mirror, a horror film script. Scoured the web for up to date agency addresses, using a second hand copy of the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook as a guide. Drew up a list of agencies that might take me on, that had clients who wrote scripts similar to mine. Composed a query letter, printed out the scripts, emailed someone at the first agency to ask where to send film and TV scripts (thank you Michelle, for the friendly, helpful reply, you rock), then packaged them all up and took them in by hand to drop them off at their reception desk (didn't want to risk them getting lost in the post). That was a Friday. On the Monday morning, an agent called Jago phoned me up and asked me to come in for a meeting. And the rest you know.

Now, I probably would have come to that same decision to approach agencies myself. Although I might have waited until January for the supposed screening. Or I might have waited longer. And if I'd never heard that song, I'd probably still have got an agent. But I wouldn't have got off my arse with the same urgency, maybe wouldn't have taken my work in on that particular day, maybe it would have slipped through the net. I might have got a different agent. One who might not have been as good. One who might have picked a different idea from the seven I presented to him one day, the paragraph that eventually became Severance. Who knows? What I do know is, I'm incredibly happy with the way things went, and now have my dream job. It's not *all* thanks to Mr Marshall Mathers. But he definitely deserves a a sincere thank you. So: thank you. For inspiring me to get off my arse and grab the opportunity that I had. I still play the song now, when I need a boost, to remind myself of that time and how far I've come. It still works.

So there you go. The song doesn't really represent writing, but I think it has something to say about making your own luck, and working for what you want. Nobody's going to do it for you, nobody owes you anything, it's your life, so stop making excuses, and get on with it.

If I hadn't, I'd still be waiting for that industry screening, waiting to be handed a career on a plate, and expecting everyone else to do the work for me...


Chuck said...

"Nobody’s going to do it for you." But here you are, you silly man, propping us wannabe's up with the furious conviction of a true ass kicker.

Thank you for the inspiration.

Dim said...

Yes, yes, yes! You've inspired me! I'm off to rent a mobile home and become a rap star!

Le Mc said...

I LOVE reading your blog. You give the best advice about writing--and by best, I mean realistic but also encouraging, you've been there, you've done that, you know what it's like--and I find it quite helpful in many ways. Keep up the good work.

Dave said...

Like Jo Whiley's Changing Tracks except this is really useful and amusing - in the right way!

Thanks James.

Anonymous said...

Aww, that was really inspirational! Thamnks James!

"Ha ha ha, fuck you, that other agency, I kept your letter and sometimes I get it out and look at it and laugh, and then I look at the massive, framed Severance poster above my writing desk, then laugh again."

LOL that made me burst out laughing!! :')

Charl :)

Dom Carver said...

Nice one, James. That motivated me.

BaaBaaDoodle said...

Inspiring post, James. Thank you. Now I'll have to come up with a song.

Oh, in case anyone is interested, I just found out that the US SciFi Channel is running Crusoe this Friday, 7-9pm. That's in the old SJA/DW slot. So if you missed in on NBC you can catch it there. Not sure about subsequent epis, though. I haven't planned my viewing ahead more than a week :).


Well, James, you sure know how to answer a me-me!

Sion Smith said...

Tell you what.. all those screenwriting books pimped around the writing blogs? Get out the matches. The game is over and James wins.

And with a nifty soundtrack too.

Kevin Lehane said...

I am mortified to only now learn of this "Writers and Artists Yearbook".


Great post. One of the advantages this blog has over many of the others is it's funny. May you continue to blog for a long time, James.

I'll continue to read. But now I must order my copy of this "bible for scribes". Shesh.

Salina said...

This was a strangely inspiring and slightly ass-kicking post. Thanks.

Also... this made me think of you:

Anonymous said...

*Punches air*


Funnily enough, that is the song I tend to flick to when I'm in a "bleugh, can't be bothered with anything in the world ever" mood. It tends to force me into studying.
Which I kinda should be doing now... whoah boy.

Anonymous said...

Jumps out of seat and applauds. Yay!

Anonymous said...

I have tagged you for the procrastination meme. There is no way of avoiding it now - unless you avoid it.