Yesterday was my birthday and I was 42… no really! And I spent it in the company of many other aspiring writers listening to an enlightening talk at The Scottish Writers’ Centre on the submission process from Conville & Walsh agent Jo Unwin. I should point out I had not gone there to pitch – given that my novel is far from ready and on the first rewrite, which I learned should now be the first of at least three(!) – but stood up to do so anyhoo. What a scary experience! I won’t say I was nervous, but I should probably have introduced it in a Donkey from Shrek style-ee with, ‘I’m making waffles!’ You know that mantra we all should have – do one thing that scares you every day? That was mine 🙂 I babbled on about the main points of my novel – ‘porn’ ‘sex’ ‘blowing up a baked fish’ – that kind of thing. Thank God I didn’t go on to mention electrocution by pelvic toner… but I may have managed to shock regardless. In short (oh dear, there I go again) it was good fun, very interesting, a great experience and I am really grateful to have someone so busy give their time to offer advice to us newbies. I got to blow out my birthday candles (OK it was a tea light on top of the icing on my cake) with my understanding and wonderful kids when I arrived home at 9.30pm. Lovely!
And so, following on from my MUST READ Blod, Sweet & Tears post, where I talked about how to keep motivated in the face of unpublished writer destitution and how I have been lucky enough to have gathered messages of advice and encouragement from many kind professionals that have influenced and inspired me in the world of comedy – this week’s post is from British comedy writer and stand up comedian, Tony Cowards – voted by Chortle as the 46th Most Influential Comedian on Twitter.
As a stand up comedian and comedy writer people often ask me to divulge the secrets of comedy writing and it seems an obvious truism but the only way to be a writer is to write.
It’s a scientifically proven fact* that 94.7% of all people who claim to be writers actually spend their time sat drinking coffee in internet cafes or at home bashing away on their laptops (not a euphemism) telling people on Facebook, twitter or internet forums that they are writers without actually, ever writing anything of more value than a status update.
So, in no particular order please welcome to the stage Tony Cowards 7 Golden Rules of Comedy Writing;
1) Be Famous
If you are famous people will pay you to write any old rubbish. Katie Price has sold more books than almost anyone else on the planet, believe it or not this isn’t down to her amazing literary skills but because she’s almost permanently been on the cover of “Heat” magazine and the like for the last 10 years.
If you are a famous comedian then you’ll have little trouble getting your sitcom commissioned, especially if you are young, attractive and can secure that all important advertising revenue. If you aren’t famous then expect to slog away for years trying to get that, potentially, award winning show made. Unfortunately without the fame you’ll have to make it using talent and an unshakeable ability to hang in there, beating your head against the door until it opens enough for you to get your foot in it.
2) Write everyday
Writing is a skill, it needs to be worked on and practiced. Write something everyday, whether it’s jokes, one-liners, a blog, a novel or even just random thoughts, write for an hour or two everyday, keep what you’ve written and occasionally go back over it to see what can be utilised for other projects or can be edited to make it better. It supposedly takes 10,000 hours practice to become a “genius” at something, so put in those hours now and who knows, in 10 years time you might be a genius. If you don’t put in the time though you certainly won’t.
As someone who makes a (meagre) living from comedy writing I would say that the most important things to remember are the 3 P’s, “Prevarication, Postponement and Procrastination”, if you can avoid those then you have a chance of making a living as a comedy writer.
3) Turn off the radio, the TV and, especially, the Internet
Try to make sure you have a quiet area where you can write, away from all the distractions that are so present in modern life. In order to write properly you need to be concentrating fully, you can’t do this with Steve Wright chuntering away in the background or if, every 30 seconds, one of your Facebook friends is posting a video of a sneezing panda.
4) Write as much as you can and never throw anything away
The secret of writing good jokes is writing lots of jokes, most of which will be awful. Even the best gag writers in the business will have a fairly poor hit rate of good/bad gags but the more you write the more gold you’ll hit upon. Also, never throw away the rubbish, put it in a folder somewhere and look over it from time to time, especially when you are struggling for inspiration. That terrible joke you wrote about the French Prime Minister might suddenly become topical or adaptable to become a brilliant joke about the Eiffel Tower.
5) Never stare at a blank screen or piece of paper
Nothing will cause writer’s block more than the sight of a vast empty white space with no source of inspiration. Always have some ideas that you’ve previously jotted down on a notepad or on a handy Word document. If you are really stuck pick a news story and write as many jokes as you can about it or select a random article on Wikipedia and do the same.
6) Always carry a notebook or phone with you
A funny thought can strike at the most inopportune of moments and you need a method to record them as quickly as possible. Never trust your brain to remember it, every comedian and comedy writer has lost masses of brilliant jokes because they didn’t write them down straight away.
Also one of the secrets of comedy output is to maximise your raw material input, so read as much as you can about any subject there is comedy in the most unlikely of sources. Jokes are often found at the connection of two unrelated subjects, so the more you know about a vast variety of subjects the more likely you are to see the connections.
7) Get your writing out there
Whether it be tweeting, filming sketches, blogging, self-publishing or whatever, get your writing out there so people can find it. Send your jokes to comedians, greetings card companies, Christmas cracker manufacturers. Listen to the end of radio comedy programmes, pick out the names of the important people and google them to find out their email addresses so you can send them samples of your sitcom pilot. Listen out for open submission shows like “Newsjack” and send material in every week.
Try not to turn into a comedy stalker but also don’t give up easily and try not to take rejection personally. Once you get a name as a writer then it all becomes, slightly, easier, but at the start be prepared to write for anyone and anything, get as many credits as you can.
*not actually a scientifically proven fact.
You can find out more about the comedy genius that is Tony Cowards here: http://www.tonycowards.co.uk/