It’s an odd new world I’ve entered in the last couple of years, that of the novelist. I’m still a novice. For all the conflicting advice I read about how to write fiction, there’s one accepted truth throughout the community which is this:
There are only two types of novelist: the ‘plotter’ and the ‘pantser’. As in, you either prepare, or you just dive in and write by the seat of your pants.
What? In the world of comedy writing there are loads of types and you can be more than one of them.
What kind of writer are you? What do you do well? What are you not so good at? How could you improve? Writing advice blogs often tell you to ‘identify your weaknesses’ and ‘play to your strengths’, but these are not always obvious. I’ve been thinking one way to help me discover what these are is to look at the various writers I’ve worked with over the years, and see where I recognise aspects of myself, for better or worse.
If you have a team of writers, or work with a partner, it’s great to have a splurger. Once you’ve divvied out the work, in the time it takes you to nip out for a coffee, come back to boot up your laptop, and create your new blank document, Splurger has completed their half of the script. If you’re lucky, they’ve done a great job. And if you’re even luckier, you may be…
Tinkerer gets that extra ‘er’ at the end because there’s nothing they like more than to spend 20 minutes looking at that definition and thinking “what is the more accurate description, ‘tinker’ or ‘tinkerer’? ‘Tinkerer’ isn’t really a word, is it, but it explains in a funnier way what I do.” And it’s true. However funny you think your script is, the best tinkerer will move a comma or a word in the sentence and increase its funniness by several percentage points.
The Office Worker
The Office Worker probably came into the business a few years later than the rest of us. They spent several years in their previous lives sitting at a desk, surrounded by people expecting a specific workload to be completed by the end of the day. They may have mucked around at break times, but they’re used to spending most of the day with their head down, being professional. Unlike the rest of us, who drifted into comedy writing precisely because we found that level of discipline almost impossible.
‘No Shit Monitor’
I’m grateful to top producer Steve Doherty for reminding me of this character. The late Debbie Barham was by her own admission incapable of telling which jokes worked and which didn’t. I spent many hours subediting her eight minute sketches down to two, which simply involved removing three quarters of the jokes which were average, bad or awful, and leaving behind only the gems.
Some writers will really annoy you – not least because they point up a truth you had already kind of thought of, but hoped no one else would notice. One of the best producers I’ve ever worked with (also a top writer), prefaced every conversation with ‘Sorry to be Mr Logic here…’ and sometimes we would watch in pain as our brilliant sketch unravelled like a poorly made woolly jumper. But he was always right, and the best sketches stood up strongest against Mr Logic’s stern scrutiny.
Seat Of The Pants
All writers are guilty of a certain level of procrastination. If you notice a writer you follow on Twitter being more present online than usual, it’s a fair bet they are coming close to a deadline. Having gained a modicum of ability as a splurger in my years as a journalist, without a boss in the room hovering over me, my ability to produce the work required in the smallest amount of time available before the deadline has increased over the years.
I mentioned in a recent podcast Dennis Norden’s explanation for why so many comedy writers work in pairs: ‘one to type, one to stare out the window.’ At different times I have been both of these, and there’s no doubt who is the more irritating of the two. Especially with my ‘seat of the pants’ background, watching a writing partner observe the fascinating behaviour of demented squirrels attempting to break in to the bird feeder while I’m trying to finish the script, can send me over the edge. Turning away from the stymied squirrel, the daydreamer says something that answers the questions we’ve been asking all day and in that one perfect moment buys themselves another day of free window staring.
At almost every level of writing except the top, this is the worst person to be around. When you’re starting out, coming up with ideas in a room full of strangers, this person has a thousand ways of saying ‘no’. I always urge people starting out to follow the only rule of improv, which is to banish the word ‘no’ and replace it with the response to every suggestion of ‘yes, and’.
But at some stage you’re going to meet a blocker who understands the reality of making comedy – 99 per cent of everything gets rejected at some point, and when blocker says ‘no’, the chances are they have enough experience of getting your work past the next person up the chain to know what’s going to work and what isn’t.
I’m terrible at this. I can think of a number of occasions where I’ve said ‘no’ and been proved wrong. I’m not sure how I can fix this personal problem: I should probably spend more time working with blockers, and think more creatively about how to persuade them to say yes.
Think you’ve got a filthy mind? I always thought I was a pretty smutty kind of guy in my stand-up days. Then I started working with comedy writers. Because I’d always had an outlet for my knob gags on stage, I didn’t feel the need to stink out the room with my innuendo, but soon found I was in a minority. A room full of comedy writers is invariably a cauldron of filth. And there’s usually one writer who, whatever the audience, can smuggle a couple of big juicy ones into any script.
I love smartarse jokes. Frasier and The Simpsons are full of them. It’s a win-win for comedy writers, especially the very clever ones, they get to show off how clever they are, while satirising the smartarse characters for being such elitists.
This is my favourite role at the moment. It’s the way I’ve developed when writing with a partner, to stop myself from being a blocker. Instead of saying ‘yes and’ when my whole body is urging my brain to say ‘no’, when I really can’t see an idea working I’ll ask the other person questions. “How do you imagine that character when they’re chatting in the pub with the others?” “Why wouldn’t that character just walk away?” “How will there be jeopardy in that plot?” I get to pretend to be Jeremy Paxman and the partner gets to do all the hard work.
That’s my starting list. I’m looking forward to running this past my writer friends and coming up with a whole bunch more. I’ve left out The Pedant, mainly because there are so many of them, and all degrees of pedantry, are, I think, covered by Blockers, Tinkerers and Mr Logic. No doubt there’s a pedant among you who’ll disagree.
Do you recognise yourself in that list? Why not occasionally try and be like one or more of these characters? Fancy a splurge for twenty minutes? Or force yourself to work non-stop for an hour like the Office Worker. Or take the last thing you wrote and challenge every word, forensically, for logic and humour.
What kind of writer are you? Hopefully this guide will help make your answer “a better one.”