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First, read this…
Let’s call it Exhibit A in the case for the prosecution. I wrote it in January 2011, and, I think we can all agree, it’s a fine example of the ‘mediocre sketch with vaguely interesting premise’ genre.
Now watch this:
You see? You see? And that, my friends, was put up on the Internet back in 2009.
Conclusive evidence, if any were needed, that the writing staff of That Mitchell And Webb Look are compulsive thieves who have developed time travel. The only feasibly explanation for this is that they roam the timestreams like multidimensional magpies, purloining comedic gems wherever they go.
Or, alternatively, it was a pretty obvious idea. And one that shows exactly why a lot of new writers spend far too long worrying about people stealing their ideas.
When two people have the same idea, it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone stole it. And, in this case, it’s not just the idea, the execution is fairly similar: the setup is the same, both have a gag about crystals, and the patient ends up dead. Mine doesn’t have the second-scene coda which gives some nice context, but they’re similar enough that I felt an irrational pang of anger when I saw the Mitchell & Webb clip.
But I knew that was all it was, an irrational response. It took about four seconds for me to realise and fully accept that writers sometimes have the same ideas, especially comedy writers addressing the same topic.
I often think when I see the efforts people go to to send themselves scripts by registered post, register things with the Library of Congress, and only conditionally let producers see some of what they have written after they’ve signed an NDA, that this energy could have been better used, well, writing.
No one wants to steal your scripts.
No one reputable wants to steal your scripts. For the amount of hassle and legal trouble that will be caused if they do, it’s cheaper just to buy your script. That way, you’ll also be likely to offer them your next script. If someone thinks your writing is good, they will want to make it, and they will want to make other things you write (or at least be offered them, which is unlikely if you are embroiled in a legal dispute over ownership of a previous script).
Many people won’t read unsolicited scripts now because they worry about being accused of plagiarism in the future. Rather than protecting themselves, new writers are reducing the number of people who are willing to read what they’ve written.
Are there unscrupulous people focused on short-term gain in the movie and TV businesses? Almost certainly. Moreso in films, where anyone with a mobile phone and a table at a decent restaurant can call themselves a producer. But these people are very few and far between, and they are usually too busy ‘setting up deals’ to actually make a film in which they rip off someone’s idea. There are easier ways of getting someone to work for nothing than theft. Usually you can just ask them: “Will you work for nothing, giving up all rights to your work?”
However, most people are hard-working, creative, and desperate to turn good scripts into good programmes or movies. Without exception, the people I have worked with have had one goal: making the best things they can make with the resources they have.
Your ideas are not all that important.
Ideas are ten a penny. Everyone has an idea for a film. Everyone can have ideas. You don’t need a writer to come up with ideas.
You need a writer to write a film.
The idea has very little relevance to how good a film is going to be. Just look at all the straight-to-DVD ripoffs that come out every time there is a huge hit at the cinema. The ones with a business model that depends on the confusion of the buying public. “Avatard? Didn’t that get pretty good reviews?”
Look at Deep Impact and Armageddon; Volcano and Dante’s Peak; Antz and A Bug’s Life. (What? I watched a lot of films in the 90s. What?) The fact that the premise is similar doesn’t make these films equally successful, either commercially or as films.
It’s all in the execution.
And sometimes even that comes out quite similarly. See above.
Time spent worrying about who is stealing your work is time you’re not spending working. If, contrary to all logic, there is someone out there desperate to steal the work of new writers and to pass it off as their own, paying money to ‘register’ your script won’t stop them doing it (In the UK, you hold the copyright on something you have written as soon as it is written. You do not need to register it).
In order to succeed you need to leave your house, meet people, and, most importantly, let them read your work. To paraphrase Cory Doctorow, obscurity is a greater threat than being ripped off. You can’t protect yourself against everything. Especially not time-travelling thieves in the pay of two of Britain’s best-loved contemporary sketch performers. More’s the pity…
About three years ago I thought it would be funny to write a blog called Having A Poo With… In each entry I would parody the thoughts of a famous person as they went to the toilet. To do a poo.
It would show off my keen ear for language that was ripe for parody (it didn’t); it would be a regular and hilarious addition to people’s inboxes (it wasn’t); and be an excuse for a lot of jokes about bums (it was). The whole thing was prompted by an image of Will Self describing the “proleptic, anti-peristaltic turtle’s head” of a stool that was proving difficult to shift from his duodenum. This would show that Craig Brown…
Needless to say, I got bored after doing one entry. It sits there, alone in a corner of the Internet, unloved, leaking misery and loneliness into the ether. As it should be.
I was reminded of this when seeing another piece of advice to young writers in which they were sternly admonished to finish those things they started. That that was what separated the professionals from the rest of you. We finish what we start. We don’t leave abandoned half-drafts all over our hard drives. We don’t start without a plan, we know where we’re going, we finish what we start.
Balls. Unalloyed donkey-balls.
Whilst it is undoubtedly true that you can never get anything made (or published) unless you finish it, I think that there’s another risk just as great as starting something you never finish. And that’s never starting the thing at all.
Whereas in the past I would have happily ploughed in to a new idea whenever it occurred to me; now I have pinboards, charts mapping out act breaks, the will to muscle on through bits of writing that might not be working the way I’d hoped, and a huge pile of projects that I haven’t ever started because I’m not happy that I’ve got a complete grasp of them yet. Before writing was my job I would have played with these ideas, tried writing them. Now that seems irresponsible unless I know how they are going to turn out.
So they sit there.
And I look at them and think that if I’d taken that first moment when the idea seemed so brilliant and written everything that enthused me about it then, then I would have at least have a bit of them written. At least a bit I could look at, decide whether there was anything in it and carry on with. A bit that would have the fire in that initially excited me. Rather than a bunch of denatured plans for incomplete ideas.
Sometimes we have to play. Sometimes we have to just follow what excites us. Sometimes we have to fail.
We have to do the bit we think is excellent to realise that we don’t want to do the rest of it.
Which is why I’m glad i wrote the one entry on Having A Poo With… It’s a testament to doing something incompletely, but still having something that you like at the end of it. Its one entry is short, but still funny, and written. It’s there.
As opposed to all the well-worked through, not-quite ideas I have planned. So whilst it’s great advice to young writers to learn to finish the things you start, I wonder whether it might not be just as important to start things you have no idea how, or even if, you are ever going to finish.
That one entry? Having A Poo With… Charlie Brooker. Here it is:
Have you ever noticed how tawdry and awful doing a shit is? No, really. It is.
You sit there with your trousers around your rotten ankles, waiting for death, and straining so hard you look like Popeye wanking himself into a stupor, as he lies alone in bed imagining Olive Oyl being savagely bummed by Bluto. Who’s dressed as a clown.
Not only do you grunt and squeal like a piglet drowning in a bathtub full of razorblades and gin, but you’re actually squeezing actual human turds through your foetid ring-piece. You disgusting cock. Get some fucking dignity.
You’d almost feel sorry for yourself if you weren’t as despicable as the rest of the human sodding race. We should all have our heads replaced with bums, so that instead of going around having opinions, we could just spoot noxious clouds of toxic guff in each others’ bum-faces. Like cocks.
As if that weren’t bad enough, you’re then expected to wipe your own arse like some sort of idiot slave with nothing better to do than to smear actual shit around a piece of semi-absorbent paper. The shame of this makes you leak hot twat-tears into the uncaring toilet bowl.
The only thing that makes the process half bearable is the knowledge that the whole degrading process is at least confirmation that you’re still alive, and taking up precious space on this rubbish planet. For now.