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Welcome - The International Writers Magazine - March 05

On Ambition and Apathy

It’s 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 it’s 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 doesn’t mean they don’t 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 student’s 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. It’s an attitude thing. It doesn’t 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 eye.

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 plains.
It’s 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. It’s a given. Alright it’s 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 aren’t 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 didn’t get around to them until six months later. Guess what, he wasn’t interested. Lesson learned? If you have a fish, reel it in, don’t put it off, don’t put it down, you won’t 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. It’s about money. In the end. You write for money, not grades.
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. It’s 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. I’m kind of hoping there’s an underground movement of zestful ambition out there. But I won’t hold my breath.

We will be closed for Easter from March 15th to April 4th

© Sam North Editor March 4th 2005
editor at

PS: Buy my book, we need the money to keep Hackwriters going.

This 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

If you are looking for a good read my new book Diamonds - The Rush of '72 is available now.
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