The International Writers Magazine - March 05
Its that time
of year when I try to encourage my students to enter their screenplays
into competitions. It is also that time of year when I am reminded of
the difference between British students and American or Canadian ones.
Let me explain, because it is easy to offend both or all here.
Every year I get my final year students (wherever I am teaching) to
write at the minimum, a sixty minute script (original drama for TV)
or a full-length screenplay for film. This is hard work alongside writing
dissertations, other essays and the like, but in the main I have the
kind of students who will make the effort and its fun hearing
the scripts develop week by week in my seminar/workshops. (Yes they
have to read them out in character to the group each week). In the main,
they are keen, dedicated and listen to critical comment from myself
and their peers with respect. OK sometimes they get upset, but in the
main, we achieve a consensus.
At least two scripts this year are being entered into competitions and
one has just been posted off to the BBC. Great. Do not think that these
scripts are untested either. We had casted readings of major sections
of the scripts to an audience last week and all were received well,
some more than others.
But then comes that British thing. The self-doubt about showing it to
anyone, to exposing it to the real world, the hidden wish
that now it has had audience feedback that they wished had worked a
little harder on structure, or the jokes, or editing down long speeches.
(Yes as Professor I can tell them that long speeches are a no-no in
movies, but that doesnt mean they dont want to put them
in. If they had a real script-editor in here with his or her red pen
then would cry at the ruthlessness.)
Perhaps I am doing them a disservice by not being ruthless, but this
is the problem where nurturing a students project for months requires
one type of role and making them more self-critical requires another.
Good cop - bad cop in the end requires two cops
hence I try to
encourage them to send them out there...
My former Canadian students (and that goes for American ones too) not
only expect to enter competitions, but anticipate winning them too.
Their attitude is that if I am going to bother to writer 60 minutes
of dialogue or a whole screenplay, it had better count. Its an
attitude thing. It doesnt necessarily mean the scripts are better,
but they will go to the trouble of finding out what the industry expects
(Final Draft) and what a script is worth and what might catch a producers
I do have some students here in the UK who will do that, but in the
main they are aiming for the grade they get, rather than seeking higher
Its a faultline in much of British education I feel. Students
studying the novel in creative writing programs in the USA or Canada
would expect to be writing something that would be submitted to publishers.
Its a given. Alright its tough, but I have submissions almost
every week from Creative Writing students over there looking for exposure
and just a tiny trickle here in the UK.
Perhaps it is confidence. More likely it is the academic staff discouraging
an active aspiration on the part of their students to be successful.
'They arent ready' is the expression I hear most often.
I see my role as a lecturer to give permission for students to be successful.
For them to send their written work off to publishers, producers, competitions
and even if they get rejected, at least they will know they have tried.
(Sadly we had a student who got the interest of a big producer last
year who asked for changes and she didnt get around to them until
six months later. Guess what, he wasnt interested. Lesson learned?
If you have a fish, reel it in, dont put it off, dont put
it down, you wont get a second chance).
The degree might help you get a job, but no publisher or agent or producer
gives a damn, they want to know if the story works, reads well, is spelled
correctly, has an awareness of its market niche, if they can make money
out of it.
There I said it. Its about money. In the end. You write for money,
With my second year students studying screenwriting right now (All 77
of them) I despair a little, virtually none go the movies, seemingly
have no opinions about movies, they are all there for the grade.
Somewhere in this lot are the cohorts of the final year and the students
who will attempt the big screenplay. I hope between then and now, I
can find the ones who have a passion for it. Weirdly, the UK is desperately
short of good screenwriters. (You only have to see most British movies
to know that). But equally every agent will tell you his books are full.
Its very tough to break into the industry in the UK.
So then, the difference between the UK and Canada/America is ambition.
I sincerely feel that schools are failing in passing on a taste for
success amongst their students i the UK. The apathy and inability to
debate about politics, the environment and film is astonishing, but
then again, perhaps that is Government strategy all along. It is easier
to control an apathetic society.
So then, if you have read this far and you are at University right now
and in a Creative Writing or Creative Arts Program, how is it for you?
Are you surrounded by passionate successful wannabes or zombies who
just want to pass the damn unit? Let me know. Im kind of hoping
theres an underground movement of zestful ambition out there.
But I wont hold my breath.
We will be closed
for Easter from March 15th to April 4th
© Sam North Editor March 4th 2005
editor at hackwriters.com
PS: Buy my book, we need the money to keep Hackwriters going.
month in Hackwriters:
James Skinner concludes his Diplomatic Diary from Vigo. (He is now a
paid columnist in the local paper there). James Campion (as many others
do, relates the importance of Hunter S Thompson). Sarah W in Cape Town
takes us through the effects of a fear of flying, Charlie Dickinson
discovers Anarchism might be good for you and Alan Stokes has a new
short story for us. Rev Antonio Hernandez laments the end of Star Trek.
There's an extract form Ramon Stopplenburg's book, new material from
Jessica Schneider in First Chapters and Robert Cottingham discusses
the phenonemon that is Desperate Housewives. Dan Schneider reviews
James Joyce's Dubliners and two movies, Sam reads Eleanor
Rigby and finds Douglas Coupland is back on form. Sidi Benzahra
sends a new short story Death of an immigrant and Ms Saxby goes internet
dating! There's more to come
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