Pitching*

Shall we do it? Shall we talk about pitching?

*Disclaimer: I have never knowingly pitched.

Which doesn’t mean to say that I’ve never pitched. It just means I haven’t done it knowingly. I’ve been in plenty of situations where a pitch might normally required, but I wasn’t sitting there thinking  Right then, get my pitching hat on. I’ve also done plenty of written pitches, some of which were even successful. I didn’t really think of those as pitches either. I seem to remember deciding early on that I was never going to pitch, never ever ever – partly on a political level because a good pitch didn’t necessarily mean a good script, and also because I just didn’t fancy having to do it. I’m not a salesperson, I’m a writer, and all that jazz. Pitching was some nasty Hollywood invention, designed to make producers’ lives easier while humiliating the fuck out of desperate writers. No thanks. Among theatre-writers, pitching is a bit of a dirty word and not something we want to encourage. Imagine having to pitch your play to a theatre. Ewww.

Except we do pitch. Obviously. We just don’t call it that. We tend to call it Having a chat about a few ideas. Or Just give me a brief outline. Or Have you got any thoughts about such-and-such? Or even Put forward a one-page proposal of your ideas, if you want to get formal about it. Yep – it’s pitching alright.

At workshops, I’ve met writers who are terrified at the thought of pitching. Just the word itself can reduce them to a sweaty panic, their bodies suddenly tense and hard, hands clenched. Forget about pitching, I’ll tell them. Just tell me the story. And relax.

You see, we put pitching outside ourselves. We reckon it’s a skill, a sales skill, something that you’re either born with or not, all bluster and confidence. Well yes, it’s a skill and it’s something you can work on and improve – but most writers don’t score very highly in the realms of bluster and confidence. In fact, we’d go as far as saying that writers that are good at those sorts of things aren’t real writers, they’re not true artists, they’re hacks. And we don’t want to be hacks, we don’t want to be one of those wankers who talks the talk but can’t walk it. So we push it even further from ourselves; it’s a skill we don’t have and don’t want, frankly, because we are artists, dammit.

And then we find ourselves having to pitch.

Ouch.

I recently read a post by Chela Davison, Fuck the Elevator Speech, aimed at people trying to promote their own business, but I reckon the principles still apply. It’s not necessarily about making sure you’ve got down the precise 30 words to sell your project, or that you’ve rehearsed the spiel enough times in your head. It’s about relationships and stories. Knowing who we are, what our strengths are, knowing what story we want to tell. Getting to know who the other person is, what they want, what you can give to them. A successful project depends on three things: the right idea, the right people, the right time. If one of those is out of alignment, it’s not going to work. That big idea you have? It’s not going to be right for everybody. That producer you just met? Turns out she’s already done a play about bats and the economy, who’d have thought? A good pitch is as much about listening as it is about talking. You have passions, so does the other person. Find out where they intersect. The idea that you went in with might not be the idea you come out with.

Get used to talking about your ideas. Practise while you’re stuck in traffic, or washing up. Not just the story, but the inspiration behind it. What’s driving you forward? What’s getting you excited or angry, what’s leaving you speechless? Create a manifesto before you create a pitch. Your story isn’t just about a girl who meets a boy who happens to be a werewolf. It’s about that feeling you get when you wake up suddenly at 4 am and the world feels so massive. It’s about seeing your son’s shoulder blade and the sheer disbelief that anything could be so perfect. It’s about seeing David Cameron on TV and wanting to shake him, wanting to punch him in the face because he doesn’t know what it’s like to be Ed, who just killed himself because he couldn’t deal with the stress of having no money any more. The magic phrase, as ever; What I really want to say is…

Personal connection to the work is good. Passion is excellent. Why does this story matter, and why should you be the one to tell it? You need belief to drive a pitch. Belief in yourself and belief in the story. It’s going to be a lot harder to pitch with conviction about something you don’t care about, something you’re taking on to pay the bills or because you think it’ll lead to something better in the long run. Rather than rehearsing a mediocre pitch of a lacklustre idea, go back and find the gold. Re-think the idea until it shines for you. Because you’re not a shyster. You’re not a confidence trickster. You’re not trying to scam anyone, get someone to buy into a shitty idea. You’ve got something you believe in.

There’s a new wave of female entrepeneurs creating products and services that they’re passionate about, a lot of which revolves around forms of personal coaching. They’ll talk about creating the right business, finding the right clients, getting their message out into the world, financial and spiritual abundance. Some of it is inspiring, some of it comes across as shiny bullshit, or at times a virtual pyramid sales scheme. It might not seem to have much relevance to writers, but I’ve managed to learn from a few of them. The basic message is this: if you have something to say that will make a difference to other people, then they will want to hear it. If you can demonstrate your ability to make a difference to their lives, they will be willing to pay for it. Your work will not be for everybody, and so you need to connect with the right people. As a writer, you’re also a business – I know that feels dirty, but go with it – if you want people to give you money for what you do, then you have to sell your work and yourself. Find your audience. Find your people. They’re waiting to hear from you.

Why do you want to write? If that’s some kind of self-satisfying ego-thing, then you and I are pretty much done at this point. But if it’s because you seem to have some kind of ability and your writing seems to speak to people in some way, then we’ve got a starting point. If you believe that there are stories which need to be told, important stories, if you believe that make people laugh or cry or feel alive, dammit, then we’re getting somewhere. If you believe that you can tell stories in a way that helps us all to understand what it means to be alive, that can teach us, inspire us and move us, stories that ask big questions while entertaining us at the same time – then why wouldn’t you want to share that with the world?

Pitching is merely the act of finding the right people to help get your ideas out into the world. It’s your job to make the actual writing as good as it could possibly be, and it’s your job to find ways of getting that writing out there. It doesn’t mean that you should cling too tightly to your ideas, either; not all of them will come to fruition. Right idea, right people, right time, remember? Otherwise you’re all going to be wasting a lot of time and energy, as well as the heartbreak of another completed script that doesn’t go anywhere. The reality is that it’s never going to be you and Sonia Friedman or Stephen Spielberg stuck between floors in a lift together, doing the elevator pitch. The reality is a lot more mundane: you’re gradually getting to know more people in the business, you’re gradually raising your game, you’re gradually getting a shot at bigger opportunities, you’re gradually getting better at pitching. Ultimately pitching is asking a question; is this the right story for the right people at the right time? It’s just telling that story, with belief and enthusiasm. You’re a writer. You’re a storyteller. Tell your story.

 

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How Autism made me a better writer

Online I talk a lot about writing. In the real world I also talk a fair deal about autism, given that I have a child on the spectrum. Recently I found myself talking to someone about coping with having a high-functioning autistic child, how the problem is amplified; you’re not only having to deal with your child’s behavioural issues but with other people’s reactions to your child’s behavioural issues. I let on that while trying to calm a highly-strung, overwhelmed, tantrumming child, I’ve been told by complete strangers that I’m not fit to be a mother.

“How do you deal with that?” she asked me. I shrugged.

“I guess I’ve grown thicker skin.”

Thicker skin. It’s one of the qualities you need as a writer too. Until that point I’d seen having an autistic child as a major drawback for anyone considering a writing career, but for some reason saying it loud made me question the ways in which learning to cope with autism has actually helped me as a writer.

1. Thicker skin. Repeating myself here, but then having to cope with repetitive behaviours is another major autism trait. You have to deal with a lot, both from your child and from a wider world whose population still seems to believe that autism looks like Dustin Hoffman in Rainman. Or who just don’t care, I’m not sure. Whether it’s dealing with the ninth screaming tantrum of the day (and it ain’t even breakfast yet) or the fact that the screaming tantrum is taking place in Sainsburys and the crowd you’ve drawn around you look a lot like a lynch mob; you will inevitably reach a point where it’s water off a duck’s back. It has to be. Hiding in the corner, crying, is no longer an option. This comes in very handy when someone is taking a red pen to your script, or telling you it’s weak, on-the-nose or they read something very similar last week. It’s not a catastrophe. It’s not even about you. Pick yourself up, brush yourself down and carry on. Deal with it.

2. Cracking open. In direct contradiction to growing a thicker skin, you’ll also need to crack open, reveal your deepest vulnerabilities, your failings, your weaknesses. The discovery that your child is imperfect, is deemed flawed and undesirable by the so-called perfect world in which we live – it can hurt. A lot. Watching your child getting rejected over and over, even by people you thought you were close to – it hurts. Being tired of getting yelled at, waking and dreading what the day will bring – it hurts too. There’s a lot of hurt involved. There’s a lot that you have to acknowledge, to yourself and to others; you get honest, fast. You become more aware of vulnerability in yourself and in others. You get used to having your heart broken, not only by harshness and pain but also by beauty; the small moments of contentment that might otherwise be overlooked. I have curled into a ball on the kitchen floor and howled, and I have gently squeezed a small hand placed in mine as we sat watching television together. This openness, this ability to put yourself into pain, into joy, into quietness or chaos, this habit of putting yourself into the path of the storm emotionally again and again – it’s going to help you write.

3. Imperfection. You can’t believe you’re perfect. Not for a second. You have no doubt about your constant failings, whether that’s your child blaming you for buying the wrong type of cheese, or a total stranger berating you on the train. Both of which have actually happened. If I hadn’t had an ASD child, I might have been able to believe I was a good mother. I might even have been a bit smug about baking fairy cakes with my offspring and going for healthy walks together. Fat chance. I’m rubbish, evidently. So when somebody likes a script I’ve written, that’s a really big deal. And when somebody points out that it could be improved, I’m already on it. If you are a script editor or dramaturg, director or actor, I will listen to you, make careful notes and then go away and make it better. I’m constantly looking to see how I can make it better, because I know all too well that I’m not perfect and so neither is my writing. If you want to make your writing better - don’t believe it’s perfect to start with.

4. Juggling fussy. Kids are damn fussy. Autistic kids take fussy and run with it. Control freak doesn’t come close. Likes and dislikes change on an hourly basis, and that’s before we mention the number of allergies, intolerances, special diets and peculiar addictions. If you think it’s hard trying to juggle ten different opinions on how to write your script while handling ten different personality clashes, divas and dictators, then just try a week’s worth of planning, shopping and cooking for autistic kid + sibling. You will develop the negotiation skills of the leader of the UN. You probably should become the next leader of the UN. You rock.

5. Editing. Diagnosis and the ensuing merry-go-round of endless appointments and professionals in the ultimately futile quest of gaining some kind of support for your child will lead to you telling your story over and over, filling in the forms, answering their questions. Telling other people, answering their questions, hearing their stories. You start to learn to edit it down, focus on the key moments, work out what the other person needs to hear. While we’re at it, you learn to deal with the frustration of having to fill out  and return a 20 page form (I’m not joking) in advance of an appointment, then realising the Professional hasn’t actually read any of it. If there’s anything to be read in advance of a workshop or meeting, I will have read it, trust me. I’m not going to do that to you.

6. Sanity. Questioning of. There will be times when you question your sanity. Undoubtedly. Whether as the parent of an autistic child, or as a writer. There will be times when it gets so hard you’ll ask yourself Why the hell am I doing this? Because you really thought that parenting would be more fun than this, and you thought writing would be more fun than this too. And if you had a choice at that point, you might give up. As a writer, you could give up – but giving up probably won’t make you any happier. Once you’ve been bitten by the writing bug, it’s hard to lay it to rest. You might decide to keep writing as a hobby rather than a profession, but truth be told most writers want to make it in the big wide world. As a parent, you don’t get to give up. Ever. So you learn to just stick at it. No matter how hard, how crazy, you keep going, sane or not. Take a look at the odds; it’s insane to think you can make it as a writer. Are you going to let that put you off?

7. Different points of view. One of the things that autism does really well is to provide you with an alternative lens with which to see the world. Other things include memorizing every obscure fact about dinosaurs and Doctor Who, and remembering everything that was ever said to you ever, but I digress. Autism sees the world differently, sometimes frustratingly, sometimes mind-blowingly. Being the parent of an autistic child is like being ushered in through the door to a different world. It looks mostly the same as our world, but it’s different. Odd things happen there. Time moves differently. There’s a lot of velcro and acronyms and laminating and waiting rooms and lining things up. You’re on a steep learning curve to get to know the rules of this odd new world, rules at once regimented but also constantly shifting, its constitution determinedly refusing to be set down in stone. Yet simultaneously you’re still walking through the old world, the same planet that everyone else is on. And you can’t help but look at it with different eyes. You suddenly question things, and wonder why no one else does. You realize that normal is just a point of view and that there are plenty of others.

8. Getting brave. Boy do you get brave. You’re now an advocate, and you didn’t volunteer for this. Hell no. But if you want to get any kind of support for your child, if you want your child to be treated fairly, even, you’re going to have to fight for it. You’ll find yourself speaking up when everyone else in the room would rather you stayed quiet. You’ll find yourself getting dogged in the face of a brush-off. You’ll find yourself getting patronized, getting turned away, getting the shitty end of the stick over and over and having to find ways of dealing with it and working around it. As the mother* of an autistic kid, you’re going to get written off as being neurotic and over-protective whenever you try and advocate for their rights; you will find yourself having to stand up for yourself and for your child. You will get used to being in circumstances you would once have found intimidating, humiliating or downright unbearable. In other words, your fear muscle gets a good workout. Writing is scary. You’re exposing your soft and tender underbelly to the entire world, and there’s always the risk that people will laugh you out of the building. There’s always a risk of it going horribly wrong, of getting your work slammed, ripped apart by the critics. You need to get used to fear; acknowledging it, working through it, working with it, working despite it. Fear will block you every step of the way – don’t let it sabotage your hopes. You need to get your brave on.

*Interestingly, this only seems to occur to the mothers. Fathers generally aren’t seen as being neurotic or over-protective/over-involved and are much less likely to be patronized. Such is life.

9. You get a bit political. The status quo starts to look a bit shit when your child is different. Schools that blather on about tolerance and diversity suddenly start to look all Resistance is Futile! when faced with an Asperger’s kid. You realise how much our society is built on conformity, it runs through us like a stick of rock. You start to question why difference is seen as some kind of threat. You start to worry about your child’s future and concerned that so many vulnerable people are basically left to rot by an uncaring government. You begin to think that most people go about their lives like sheep, never stopping to question any of it. You start wanting to wake people up. You start writing about it.

10. Weird shit happens. Weird shit that you can use in your stories. You can’t make this stuff up. You meet an entirely different circle of people, with weird-shit stories of their own. Real life heroes and villains; the devoted volunteers at Saturday club, the vindictive yummy mummies at softplay. Other people’s three year olds say Mummy, but your kid insists on calling you Jeremy Clarkson. In public. Loudly. There’s a hell of a lot of inappropriate backchat, and once it’s stopped being mortifying, it’s hysterically funny. There’s bad stuff too, like the time you drove to Tesco’s to do the weekly shop and didn’t get any further than the car park because your kid was going batshit crazy and you hadn’t even got out of the car yet, sitting there crying helpless tears of frustration. And how that happened three weeks in a row, which is why you ended up pretending to be shopping-ninjas on a mission because that was the only way to get the job done. You get used to spinning stories off the top of your head while powering along the M5 because it turns out that the tale of the Cheesepuff who wanted to be a ballerina is the only thing that’s going to stop the all-out war in the backseat. And the only way you can get your child to wash their face, or brush their hair is by inventing characters and silly voices for the flannel, the towel, the brush, and woe betide you if you get them mixed up. Even though your child is nearly at secondary school, rather than toddler age and part of you is screaming I shouldn’t have to be doing this by now. Your life is now full of weird shit, and weird shit rocks when it comes to writing.

What challenges are you facing in life? Your Creative Friday mission is this; take a good look at how those challenges might actually help you be a better writer. What have your challenges taught you about life, people and the world that ultimately is going to make you a better artist?

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Get the Job You Really Want

Of late I’ve been carrying around a book in my bag. Not unusual in of itself, given that I never go anywhere without something to read and something to write in. But the book itself has caused a few raised eyebrows when friends have spotted me reading it. James Caan’s Get the Job You Really Want. The Dragon’s Den guru has poured his wisdom into a book so that you too can, well, get the job you really want. It’s not the kind of book I’d normally pick out to read, but I’m determined to get my head around this professional mindset malarkey, and that’s what they had sitting on the library shelf.

So then, what can we as artists take away from Mr Caan’s advice?

The main lesson for me was that I really really don’t want the kind of job he’s talking about. Just in reading about that type of corporate environment I could feel the will to live ebbing out of my body. The thought of having to jump through endless corporate hoops to impress someone so that they might hire me to sit in their office all day to do boring stuff with the aim of making them richer… that weird sound you can hear is my intestines leaping out of my guts to strangle me and end the misery.  Reading this book was a challenge, I’m telling ya.

Caan walks us through the basics – how to hunt for a job, CV skills, how to present yourself, how to land an interview, interview skills and then how to negotiate a contract and prepare for your first week in your new job. And if you want the type of job he’s talking about, it’s well worth a read. He makes clear the kind of preparation he would expect from a candidate, and that most people are woefully under-prepared when it comes to being interviewed.

Anything you do in a rushed, unplanned, disorganized, haphazard way – lack of preparation, lack of planning, lack of presentation – chances are it will result in nothing.

Lesson one: preparation. Whether that’s planning your writing project, preparing a funding application or getting ready for one of the informal chats that our industry is keen on (and for informal chat read JOB INTERVIEW) then spend a decent amount of time on it. If you’re applying to work with a theatre or company then research their previous work, get a good sense of who they are and what they do before talking to them. They are likely to ask if you’re familiar with their work and you’ll look like a prat if you haven’t done your research. Similarly, think through the kinds of questions that they are likely to ask you, even ask someone else to give you a mock interview if you need the practice. I’m shit at interviews, so feel free to learn from my mistakes.

If a job interview doesn’t go your way, don’t dwell on it. Immediately look for what you can learn from the experience. Come away stronger.

My mistakes would include completely misjudging the questions I’m likely to be asked. Recently I completely threw an interview informal chat when the first question was So, tell us about your idea. The most freaking obvious question they could possibly ask, but I wasn’t expecting it. I figured they’d read the pitch sheet and know what my idea was, and we’d probe into the themes more in depth rather than having to give them an overview. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Lesson two: practice talking about your ideas, get used to summing them up and presenting them to others.

How do you become better, if you don’t learn from the mistakes you make?

Inevitably, every single one of us is going to screw up at some point. And even if we don’t actually screw up, the competition is fierce and the odds are against us. So, don’t dwell. Learn from it and move on. Lesson three: evaluate your performance. Learn from your mistakes.

Check that, like a good grocer, your CV puts the best apples right at the front of the stall.

Lesson four: be prepared to re-write your CV for every application, making sure it’s relevant to the opportunity you’re applying to, and put the most relevant experience right up at the top. Same with a covering letter, spell it out to them why you’re perfect. Don’t make them hunt for information, but place it gift-wrapped right into their hands. Same in an interview, make sure you highlight your skills and ask leading questions if you need to, in order to point out your experience.

As an employer what I am really interested in is, “Who are you? What do you stand for? What do you bring to the table?”

When friends ask me to look over a pitch or application, inevitably my main feedback is always the same; it just needs a bit more you in it. The strength, passion, wit, and quirky world view that makes you you, that makes you exactly the right person to land the gig. Lesson five: make sure you inject a sense of yourself in everything you do. Don’t hide your personality behind a wall of formality and etiquette. You might think it sounds intellectual and professional, but too often it lacks passion.

I am always looking for a glimpse, a glint of real passion for a job. It’s a clue for me that you have the mix of enthusiasm and conviction that leads to success.

Lesson six: be passionate. Let your enthusiasm shine. Write a list of reasons why you really want the gig, why it should be yours. Own it. Feel it in your bones. Call it home to you. And sometimes that can be hard, because we’ve all been disappointed before, but you have to go on believing that it’s possible. Because if you lose your passion, the game’s over.

So there you are. If you want to hunt down a big fat corporate job then definitely go ahead and read the book. If you’re more interested in making a living as an artist, then keep a tight hold on your passion and let it enthuse everything you do.

 

 

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Creative Fridays; getting down to write

Let’s make this official; Business Mondays and Creative Fridays. So on Mondays I’ll tackle the business angle of writing/theatre, and on Fridays it’s a more creative aspect. Starting with this question, which I’m 99.9% sure was merely spam, but which I liked anyway;

I had a quick question in which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind. I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your head prior to writing. I have had trouble clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out. I do take pleasure in writing but it just
seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes tend to be wasted simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or hints?

Let’s face it, we’ve all managed to lose hours when we were supposed to be writing, but somehow found ourselves staring into space/checking Facebook/updating Twitter etc. It’s all too easy to start the day on the wrong track and then never really manage to pull it back together. Here’s what works for me;

I like to get up when the house is still quiet, generally about 5.50 am. I make myself a herbal tea, perform a few yoga stretches while meditating and then sit down and write for 90 minutes before waking my children with a smile and a full English breakfast.

Yeah, right.

Reality; I drag myself out of bed at 7.30, spend the next half hour nagging the children into getting out of bed, getting dressed and putting some cereal inside their bodies while simultaneously feeding kittens, chickens, putting a wash on, getting packed lunches together, somehow getting breakfast into me, teeth-cleaning for all involved (except the kittens and chickens,), hair-brushing, potentially putting on make-up (on a very good day,) supervising last minute homework before yelling that we’re already late, let’s go go go, all units go. Down the hill to school, let’s move it people, then the rather more sedate, puffing ascent, hopefully with the discovery that my abandoned cup of tea is still warm. Hanging out laundry, checking emails, cleaning out chicken poop, watering the polytunnel, cleaning up the kitchen, questioning whether the bathroom can go another day before I have to don my marigolds, sorting out various admin tasks like bills… by the time  I get to sit down and write it can feel like half the day has passed and my head clearly isn’t in the right place. Similar stories abound for most of us – there are relatively few writers who get to wander into their study and bolt the door on the world outside.

Life tends to be cluttered and messy, our heads cluttered and messy with it. And no, I don’t have a foolproof system for keeping track of your paperwork. Or even my paperwork. Here’s the mantra; your inbox is never empty. There will always be stuff. The trick is learning how to deal with it, learning how to create despite the clutter, learning how to carve out enough space and time to be able to write without being distracted by overdue library books and must remember to buy milk. There are no absolute rules – what works for me ain’t necessarily going to work for anybody else. It’s about knowing what works for you, and trying to kick yourself hard enough in the pants to stick to it.

Stuff that tends to work:

  • The earlier you can start writing, the better. The more stuff that happens in between you waking up and you writing, the more distracted you’re going to be.
  • For this reason, avoid switching on the TV with your breakfast and be careful about radio. You’re trying to create a little protective creative bubble around yourself until you’ve actually managed to do some writing today. Breakfast TV or politicians being grilled on the Today show are merely sharp pins that are going to burst your bubble.
  • Getting as much stuff done as you can the night before. In terms of housework, admin, shirts to iron and packed lunches to make, try and get on top of it before you go to bed so it’s not all sitting there waiting to grab your attention when you should be writing.
  • Being really fucking disciplined about it. Sorry, but there it is. I recently read someone urging that the first hour of every work day should be dedicated to creating.  Excellent advice. Try and stick to it. You get far more done if you write first, then tackle the other stuff later.
  • Don’t check emails before you write. Or Facebook, or Twitter, or anything else. You will be sucked into a social media vortex, or will set aside your creative brain in order to respond to your inbox. Don’t do it. Tackle emails after your first burst of intensive writing.
  • Mint tea rather than any other hot caffeinated beverages. Let’s assume you’ve already had your emergency morning cuppa, I’m not going to ask you to give that up. But when it comes to sitting down to write, pour some boiling water over 5 or 6 mint leaves and let it infuse. It really helps to wake up the brain and has a clarifying effect.
  • The brain-dump. Similar to Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, but less prosaic. And frankly, who has the time to write 3 pages long-hand first thing in the morning? However, when we come to write, our heads are usually full of stuff. Stuff which gets in the way. You need to clear the decks so that you can get on with writing something far more interesting than must remember to take chicken out of freezer. So – take a writing implement (this really is best done long-hand) and paper, preferably a journal and get it all out of your head before you start. It will look like this; Jesus why am I so tired this morning? I really need more sleep. Can’t believe I forgot to post that sodding letter again. Kids were playing up last minute. Must remember to cancel that direct debit…  None of it is exciting, or even interesting, but it’s cluttering up your head and you need to make space, so shove it all down on paper instead. If you don’t, your panicked little neurons will insist on trying to remember it all, right when you’re supposed to be in the middle of Scene 2.
  • Environment and rituals. What works for you works for you. Do you need music, or silence? Would it help to light a candle to focus your mind? Where do you work best, sprawled on your bed, sitting upright at the kitchen table, under a tree in the garden?
  • Know thyself. You know your good habits and your bad ones. Do not tell yourself I’ll just do five minutes on Plants V Zombies as a warm-up before I start. You are, in essence, lying to yourself, even if you really really mean it. Do more of what works and less of what doesn’t, it’s that simple. And if you know you can’t be trusted not to get distracted online first thing, then write longhand.
  • Get enough sleep. Ultimately you need to build sustainable writing habits. Being someone who tells yourself that your best writing time is between 2 and 4 am, just isn’t going to help you in the long run. Stop writing for at least an hour before you go to bed or your brain will be too busy to sleep. Turn the laptop off for that last hour and unwind. Tired and fuzzy are not the best states of mind for good writing.
  • Just do it. Don’t sit there waiting for the perfect sentence, just get something down. You can always change it later. Even if your brain is cringing with how terrible it sounds, a page with words on is far easier to edit and improve than a blank screen. So just get going, write something, anything to get the ball rolling and you might just surprise yourself. This might sound trite, but it’s stunningly important. Put. Words. Down. On. The. Page.
  • Keep an ideas book/file. Whether an actual journal that you scribble in, or a Word doc, Scrivener or Evernote, if you think you have the seed of a good idea then make a note of it. Often in the middle of one project we’ll get the sudden flash of inspiration about the next one – just jot down a few keywords so that you don’t forget it, then come back to it later. Don’t get distracted from your original project by the next bright shiny idea, but don’t have half of your brain caught up with trying not to forget it either. Make a note and carry on. Then the next time you’re stuck for what to write, you can read through your ideas book for inspiration.

 

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Getting down to business

So then, the business of show. Let’s get down to it.

I’m going to assume that, like me, you know nothing. Your head is full of characters and stories and maybe even costume designs, but business? Nada.

Where to start?

For me, the wealth of information available online has been life-changing. There’s a hell of a lot out there, but I’m only going to point you towards stuff that I’ve personally been helped by. So while a  lot of people swear by Seth Godin and Chris Guillebeau, I’ve not really spent much time on their websites. I’m throwing their names in at this point as I’m aware that the sites I’ve used might not be to everyone’s taste. The point is – the information is out there, so find a business guru who works for you.

I’m also going to throw in a disclaimer at this point. While there is plenty of info out there, there are also countless people doing their utmost to part you from your hard-earned. Coaching is a huge industry – some of the coaches available are indeed excellent, but there’s a drive towards continually increasing your prices and pushing for more. It can feel a bit like a pyramid sales scheme – you pay me lots of money and I’ll teach you how to coach people online, then you set yourself up as a coach and teach other people, who then coach other people and so on ad infinitum. Except that my coaching rates are going to double by this Friday so SIGN UP NOW and THIS IS THE ONLY TIME THAT THIS LEVEL OF TRAINING WILL BE AVAILABLE AT THESE PRICES!!! etc etc. There’s also a mythical beast called pricing, and another called value, and many great claims are made as to how much their training is worth. Book before this date and get this amazing bonus, worth $4999 thrown in for free. That kind of thing. It’s worth remembering that the value here is entirely self-defined.

So we’re going into this with our eyes wide open, and we’re aware that we’re approaching this as artists wanting to grow our business savvy rather than would-be coaches intent on world domination. Good. Because some of the training on offer is seriously expensive, and while I’ve paid to access some of the courses on offer, most of them have now increased their prices to a level that I just couldn’t afford if I wanted to do it now. This is the aspect of online training that I question – because in essence, you’re paying twice as much money for exactly the same content, or for the claim that there’s now so much additional content that the prices have had to go up – but let’s not forget that the pricing and value are entirely arbitrary and self-defined and seems to depend mainly on the coach in question deciding that they’re worth it. My advice is to figure out the areas in which you need to develop your skills, eg marketing yourself and your work, and seek out as much free training as possible. Generally when you subscribe to someone’s site, you’ll receive emails with a heads-up about free webinars, podcasts etc, many of which are well worth checking out. Just do your best to ignore the sales pitch, unless you have plenty of money to spare.

Got that? Okay. Disclaimer over. Let’s get down to it.

One of the first business gurus I discovered was Leonie Dawson, or Goddess Leonie as she was known back then. She herself will cheerfully admit that she’s not for everyone, and I’m thinking that if you have testicles you’re probably going to want to skip this one. What I found most helpful was the discovery that you can be a total rainbow-unicorn-sparkly hippy and yet still build a highly profitable business. That you can talk about concepts like money and marketing and still have integrity and authenticity. And that it’s okay to want to make money, there’s no piety in being poor. If like me you grew up in a strongly religious household, that’s a biggie. Check out this article to try her out, her blog or freebies here.

Denise Duffield-Thomas rocked my little world when I first discovered her site, LuckyBitch.com. She’s very strong about facing and beating your money blocks – identifying the emotional obstacles that are preventing us from moving forward. There are several free resources on her site, including one of her books and audio recordings. She also talks about the Law of Attraction, but in a sensible and grounded way, showing that how you think and talk about money and success has a huge impact on the level of money and success you can achieve. If, for example, you’re constantly saying that it’s impossible to make a living as a playwright, then it will be impossible for you to make a living as a playwright. You just can’t do it if that’s your basic belief.

Danielle Laporte. I would marry this woman. Her writing is achingly cool yet chock-full of passion and depth. Advice on writing, creating and living. Her Firestarter sessions (audio book here) and Desire Map are well worth diving into. She’s all about motivating the inner fire and letting money and work spill out from that place. Identifying how you want to feel, how you want to live and then starting from there.

Marie Forleo. One of the internet’s big hitters in terms of entrepeneurship. Her annual B-school is often mentioned in glowing terms as the best grounding in how to build an online business. It’s a massive investment though. However she has a lot of free content and training available, and releases a video on YouTube/MarieTV every Tuesday; subscribe to have it delivered to your inbox. Try this one for size.

These are the main sites that I’ve used. While on the surface it might seem that there isn’t much relevance, the truth is that if you want to write as a career then you’re going to have to approach it with an entrepeneurial spirit. You are your own product, and you’re going to have to learn how to create work that you can sell – and to sell the idea of yourself as an artist. One of the key things I’ve learned from the above sites is to reconsider my approach to marketing – while initially I cringed at the thought of having to write copy or having to promote my own show, now it’s something that I can face with a modicum of integrity and without the mortifying embarrassment about sounding like I’m blowing my own trumpet. I’m still working on my attitudes to money (and a lot of the time it’s possible to interchange creativity or success whenever money is mentioned) but I’m getting over the belief that it’s morally superior to be poor. Let’s call that a myth put about by the rich. In truth, money in the right hands can do a lot of good, and one of the things that inspires me about a lot of the new breed of online entrepeneurs is the notion of enlightened entrepeneurship and of using your money as a force for good. So dip your toe in the water, or dive right in and see what you can learn – if you find any gems then hit the comments.

 

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Re-awakening the Ecological Imagination

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Um… not my title as you can probably tell, but the name of a course I signed up for at Schumacher College, back when money was still an option. The first weekend was spent with Martin Shaw, storyteller and wilderness facilitator, and John Gouldthorpe, who describes himself as archetypal psychology student and teacher, romantic, and recovering Hillmaniac, so that’s what I’ll go with too. To hear Gouldthorpe talking about Hillman, try this podcast.

Schumacher college is part of the Dartington Hall estate in Devon – if you’ve not been to that part of the world then leave your home right now and head down there.

2014-05-17 20.10.38Before the course began I’ll admit I was a little anxious. I knew nothing about Hillman. What if it all went over my head? What if everyone else was bearded and macho and happy to sit out in the rain all day, while I sat there freezing, confused and utterly miserable? Yes, these were actual thoughts. Also – where am I going to get my lunch? And will I be struggling to cope with a compost loo while trying to empty my Mooncup? Which inevitably led into a mental discourse on the patriarchy and how the hell can women ever achieve equality if the toilet facilities aren’t up to scratch? And that wilderness initiation rites are all very well if you’re a man and can pee standing up in the woods and don’t have to worry about stuff like you know – actually bleeding for four days a month, but don’t ask me to do it because hey – I’ve given birth, twice, and having your vagina ripped open, twice, is enough of an initiation rite for one lifetime, let me tell you. Yeah, my mind could really do with an off-switch at times.

2014-05-17 17.34.51But then I got there and discovered I was staying in a gorgeous Arts & Crafts style house, with the magnificent Sybil, and the weather was beautiful, and the place was stunning…

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So I relaxed a bit and went with loving it rather than worrying. Which tends to work a lot better as a life strategy.

2014-05-16 18.06.11We covered a lot of ground in a day and a half. Insights from Hillman’s work combining with the telling of the Grimm’s tale of The Two Brothers, a long, twisting story involving gold-crappers, lions, dragons and bears and an exhausted little hare.

2014-05-17 17.13.29It was a weekend that fed both the brain and the soul, insights and images filling the room and spilling out into the woods outside.

2014-05-17 17.10.23There’s no hope of doing the course justice in the space of a blog, and some of it I might try to unpick in a later post, but for now some of the highlights and lingering thoughts include Joyce’s notion of aesthetic arrest and the importance of feeding the soul.

2014-05-16 18.44.37The notion of stories as wild horses just over the hill (Bukowski?) – to be trailed, rather than hunted or tracked.

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Myth is the power of a place to speak. If you spend long enough in a place, it will speak to you.2014-05-17 17.15.24Dartington definitely spoke to me. Such a beautiful, inspiring place. I’m looking forward to returning for the second part of the course in the Autumn, even though I’m not looking forward to paying off the remaining balance.

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Three things to take away for now; one – the importance of continuing to take workshops and courses to develop your craft but equally to inspire you and reinvigorate your practice. Two – the necessity of feeding the soul/creative well/Muse with places that uplift and inspire. Three – if you’ve ever dreamed of having your own little writing hut then I’ve found some definite contenders…

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Bryony Lavery

Just had word from the Literary team at Manchester’s Royal Exchange theatre that playwright Bryony Lavery will be taking part in a live Q&A tomorrow lunchtime (Wed 2nd July) 12.30 – 1.30. Bryony is one of my favourite playwrights so I’m already running a zillion questions through my head and trying to pick just one. It’s part of the run-up to 2015′s Bruntwood prize – already?! – so in their words;

whether you have a finished play or have yet put pen to paper, Bryony will be here to offer advice and help you get ready for the 2015 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting

For more info and to leave a question in advance click here.

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Building a Business Mindset

We’re Creatives, right? We do creative stuff and have creative thoughts and some of us even demonstrate our creativeness by wafting around wearing turquoise kaftans with a peacock feather trim. Oh. Just me? Point is, we don’t do numbers. We can’t be expected to understand Maths. We certainly don’t concern ourselves with the tawdry concerns of Business. We are artists and above all that and our minds are set on greater things.

And this is why we’re all destined to starve in a garrett.

Art doesn’t operate in a vacuum. At least, you can make all the Art you want, whether paintings, plays, or the Great American novel, as long as you weren’t hoping to make a living from it. If the painting is destined to hang on your wall, the novel’s distribution limited to immediate friends and family, the play more of an idea on paper rather than an actual performance, then you can do what you want. If you want your painting to hang in a gallery, your novel to be published, your play to be produced then you’re going to have to pay a little bit more attention. Take a deep breath. Here goes:

Art is a business.

Ouch. Sorry. I know that’s going to sting. But we’re going to have to face up to it. You can be the most talented writer on the planet, but unless you write in a format that the big boys think they can sell, you’re not going to get anywhere. No matter how mind-blowing that Great American novel of yours, it won’t get published unless the publisher believes they can sell it to lots and lots of people. In theatre terms, no matter how much the producer/Artistic Director like you and your play, they can’t produce it unless they know they can sell enough tickets to make it worthwhile. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written the most beautiful, heart-breaking yet funny, bang-on-the-zeitgeist, ground-breaking, post-modern rom-com/sci-fi/musical on the planet, if the Artistic Director knows that the audience would prefer an Alan Ayckbourn revival then you’re wasting your time. But please do send me a ticket if you ever get it produced. I’m going to repeat myself here; the Artistic Director/producer in question might love your work, might love you, but they won’t produce your play unless they know they can sell tickets. It’s worth repeating the point – it’s the bottom-line financial reality underpinning the theatre scene. And whereas arts subsidies have previously helped to cushion the risk of taking on new and alternative artists, the grim fact is that most theatres are currently operating on a Must Not Lose Money mandate. It’s getting harder to be new. It’s getting harder to be different. And yet conversely it’s also getting harder to be conventional, in other words to write plays that require actors, directors, sets, scripts and all that kind of jazz rather than being a dramaturg in a devised process, or being a maker. Nowt wrong with being a dramaturg or a maker, but if you’re dead set on getting your play produced, the one you sat down and wrote over several months, the one with characters and story and setting, then you’re facing an uphill struggle. At this point, you kinda need to put your Artist hat down, alongside your writerly quill and inks, and start thinking like an entrepeneur.

In other words, you’ve got to learn how to shift product.

Yes, I feel slightly nauseous too. However, shifting product is essentially what happens whenever a theatre sells a ticket to a show. Theatres have marketing departments, or at least one frazzled Artistic director/caretaker/bar-tender/emergency technician/ticket-seller/wearer of many hats frantically running around trying to put together the brochure for next season, print off flyers and spend a lot of time on social media trying to persuade people to skip the X-factor and come and see a show. So it helps a lot if you create a product that they can happily shift. Let’s not jog too far down the road of trying to second-guess what they want, everyone in theatre, film and TV spends a lot of time telling writers not to second-guess. It’s not possible, often for the reason that they’re not even sure what they want but they’re hoping they’ll know it when they see it. However, they know what they don’t want so it’s worth taking the time to read their guidelines thoroughly before submitting. Preferably, before even writing it in the first place. I used to believe that pitching was the work of Satan, and at times I still do, but I can see the sense in discovering that an idea is a non-starter before you spend several months writing it. For the same reason it’s also worth taking a look at their past productions before sending them your First World War rock-opera, just to check whether they did anything similar last season. Coz – darn it – a ridiculously large portion of the time, it turns out they just did. Finding the right idea for the right people at the right time is dependent on both talent and luck, and your career will depend upon it.

Still the right idea/people/time combo is just for starters. If any of us are serious about building a career rather than a hobby, we need to start boosting our business acumen. I realised a while back that my creative skills far outshone my business sense, and have been taking steps to improve my know-how. Some of those steps have been worthwhile. Others less so. But if you’re willing to join me on the journey into sustainable-writing-careership (not sure that there needs to be a ship on the end of that, but I was definitely a pirate in a previous life, so it’s staying) then let’s brush down our inner pinstriped suits and start thinking entrepeneurially. I’ll be running through a few of the things that have helped – or not – and hopefully we can all take a step closer towards making that elusive living from writing.

 

 

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Solstice

2014-06-20 23.22.52I’ve had a dream, for as long as I can remember. Unusually, it has nothing to do with writing. But ever since I was a child, I’ve wanted to touch the stones at Stonehenge. Imagine my disappointment, when as an adult I visited the site for the first time and discovered that punters weren’t allowed anywhere near the stones, let alone touch them. But every year I’d catch a glimpse of the local news reporting the summer solstice festivities, with the crowd apparently getting up close and personal with the monument, led by the druids – or as we like to call them, the Gandalf parade. With Stonehenge and the solstice so inextricably linked, I’ve wanted to attend the solstice festivities for ages, but somehow it never happened. There was always a reason – I’d forget the solstice was approaching, I wouldn’t make plans for it, I was busy, I had kids… Beneath the reasons were probably some fears lurking – what if I was turned away from the site for some reason? No, you’re not on the list. We know you’re not a real druid. Begone, thou counterfeit Gandalf. What if I got there and it somehow went wrong – it was too cold, it was raining, I was bored and fed up? What if, what if? Or perhaps it all just felt too big, too out of the ordinary, too difficult to organise?

2014-06-21 04.51.03The reality is that for the last twenty years, I’ve lived no more than 90mins drive from Stonehenge. 90 minutes. Imagine that. There’s people who’d love to go to Stonehenge who live in Iowa, Andalucia, Capetown. I’m 90 minutes away. The reality is that I’ve had access to transport for much of that time, whether my own car or someone else’s – or hell, even a train to nearby Salisbury. The reality is that all it took was a decision to do it – to jump into the car on Friday night with kids, warm layers, snacks and blankets and a quick glance at Google maps. So much so that I can’t really think why it hasn’t happened before. Laziness? Apathy? Wanting someone else to organise it all for me?

In truth there were some challenging moments. You can’t drastically interrupt the daily routine of an autistic kid without having challenging moments. In fact, you can’t take 2 kids to a field to ostensibly sit up all night amongst 35,000 other people without there being a few challenging moments. The discovery of The Biggest Traffic Jam ever and the fear that the car parks were full and we’d be turned back at the gates (thank you Spire FM for the tantrum that followed that completely fictional announcement.) The 2am tantrum in which said autistic kid swore volubly and threatened to hike back through the crowd, alone, to go back to the car. Realising it was cold and only going to get colder and there was no chance of me sleeping and there were another 3 hours left to go. The 4 am tantrum in which the now heavily asleep child refused to get up off the ground despite the risk of being crushed by the 35,000 revellers pressing in to get a glimpse of the sun. But along with it came the joys – finally laying my hand on one of the Bluestones, seeing the delight on the kids’ faces as they did the same; the kindness of strangers who helped me out when I had to run after said tantrumming child; looking up at the stars and realising that I’d actually managed to do it, to get to Stonehenge for the solstice; watching the kids curl up together under the quilt and fall asleep, just like our new kittens. Standing in a massive crowd as the sky got lighter and the sun finally shone through the stones, knowing that this was a primal celebration, something that our far distant ancestors had done. Although they probably didn’t have portaloos or iphones.

2014-06-21 05.50.14One long-standing dream, one spontaneous decision to go for it, one determination to deal with whatever challenges were thrown up along the way. And then, just getting on and doing it instead of being a bit mediocre and making excuses.

We all have our comfort zones. We all become trapped in the rhythms of daily life to some extent, so busy dealing with the day-to-day that we forget to look out and see what else there might be. Which is why it becomes so important to find ways of celebrating – keeping the festivals, finding ways of setting certain days apart from the mundane background. Injecting a bit of magic into the ordinary days – because this is what you will ultimately remember – the days you broke out of the mould, not the days you kept strictly to schedule.

As artists, one of our jobs is to look at the familiar with new eyes, to find new ways of telling a story or of expressing ourselves. How can we do this if we don’t mess with our own programming occasionally? Taking time out to smell the roses, or the coffee, to try something a little different…

2014-06-21 05.09.00And at the same time, we all have dreams. Too often those dreams are a vague hope, something that we want to happen for us in the future, preferably gift-wrapped and dropped into our laps. The hope that someone will recognise our genius, our uniqueness, our merit, and make it happen for us.

The truth is that nobody else is going to do it for us. And if we don’t take steps to make it happen, then life will pass us by in a blur of ordinary days. So find the magic, make some of those days gold, and take the steps you need to take to start bringing those dreams a little closer. Some of them just need one small decision – a decision to seize the day and get on with it. Get out there. Live. Dream. Do.

And if your dream involves seeing in the Solstice at Stonehenge, take a thermos of tea and a very warm jumper.

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Taking Issue – how it went.

There’s a huge amount of workshops and courses for writers. Far more workshops and courses than there are paid opportunities. In fact, there’s a whole industry out there dedicated to teaching writers how to be writers, despite the fact that most of those writers are probably not going to get anywhere with it, the numbers are just too stacked up against them. So it can be hard to know whether or not to book a place, whether paying for a few hours in a room with someone talking at you is going to make an actual difference or not. Trust me, I’ve been on several that didn’t. I’ve always had the maxim that if I learn one thing on a workshop that helps to improve my writing, then it’s been worthwhile. But from my current financial viewpoint I need to learn a hell of a lot more than one thing to make it worth my while at the moment.

Although I wanted to book a place on David Lane’s workshop on writing political theatre, I initially found it hard to justify doing so. I knew I wanted to, I knew I’d get a lot out of it having taken several of his workshops before. But looking at the fact that no one is getting commissioned at the moment, no one is making a living from this game, and the fact that I’ve got absolutely no viable income right now, going on a workshop suddenly felt like an indulgence I couldn’t afford.

Thankfully I changed my mind.

Sometimes we get an idea, and it’s just too big. So complicated that we can’t see around it to work out its shape and size. It’s enormous and difficult and we’re not entirely sure what it is or whether it’s possible. The only thing we’re sure about is that our brains don’t seem large enough to get our heads around it. There’s a bit of this idea and a bit of that idea, and maybe they should be entirely separate plays, but somehow they seem to be connected… you just don’t know how to approach it, how to begin to tackle it. Rather like trying to tame Medusa’s deadly snake tresses into a neat little librarian-style bun – every time you start thinking about it, the idea threatens to bite your hand off. That’s where I’ve been at with my Big Political Play Idea, wrestling with Medusa. Granted, my hair looks similar to Medusa’s even on a good hair day, so you’d think I’d be used to it.

David got us thinking about our own political evolution, the moments in our lives that had shaped our political consciousness, as well as the topical issues we felt a burning desire to address. Group brainstorming sessions fed into more structured exercises looking at our own topics. This structured approach, challenging at times because it’s forcing you to use your brain dammit, provided an approach in to thinking about your ideas, ways in to thinking about the play as a whole rather than forever wafting around in a woolly sea of vague possibilities. Hmm. Can seas be woolly? Not sure if that’s going to hold. We sometimes write in order to understand, to explore our own feelings about an issue, to unpick a knot in our own psyche, but if we don’t have clarity of thought by the end of the process then the result will be confused. There’s been times when I’ve been set a writing exercise and baulked, finding it a little bit too much like homework, a little too challenging to be comfortable. Of course, the harder the exercise, the more I’ve got out of it. So by now I’ve learned to trust David’s instincts as a teacher, and knuckle down and get on with it, just trusting that the process will inform my writing in some way. By the final exercise I’d found a way of exploring my ideas and was able to go with it, knowing that this intellectual phase was necessary before I began trying to think about characters, dialogue etc. Jumping straight into writing would have proved a huge mistake, but being pushed into making my thoughts more concrete was exactly what I needed.

One of the best things about being a writer is when you get to jam with other writers, wielding paper and pen instead of strumming your guitars. Inevitably someone will say something that sparks you, that provides the missing link to the problem you’ve been staring at for weeks.  So much so that it’s a pity that most writing happens at home, alone. We can all learn so much from each other. The combination of input from other writers and guidance towards structuring my own thinking meant that I had a sudden Eureka moment with my own idea and knew what the way forward was going to be. The two disparate strands suddenly coalesced and I had a framework from which I could hang the whole thing. I probably should add that I was several A4 pages in at this point, it wasn’t an instant lightbulb moment – but that’s one of the joys of a good workshop, time and space to explore your ideas more thoroughly. To educate means to draw out what is already inherent in the student, as opposed to trying to cram in facts, something the current Minister for Education doesn’t seem to understand. I’m thinking Mr Gove needs to go on one of David’s workshops.

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