Monthly Archives: July 2011

From Journalist to Sitcom Writer

In my more idle moments (i.e. all the time) I often wonder if my talents might be better directed towards writing situation comedies. I know, I’m full of my damned self. It’s just that this freelance journalism business can be disconcertingly gruelling, full of rejection and hope and uncertainty, whereas writing for television is a breeze.

So, this afternoon I was playing around with a few ideas for sitcoms. I’ll pop them down below. I better warn you though, if you’re writing a sitcom yourself and it isn’t terribly brilliant you may want to look away now as this is gonna hurt.

What Am I – A Fucking Town Planner? 35-year-old Danny Rampton is in the pub with a few friends one evening in (probably) October when one of them (Mark, possibly) asks the best way to get to a certain street on the other side of town. “What am I – a fucking town planner?” Danny responds, to much hilarity from his friends. It is the first time ever that Danny has properly made them laugh. From that moment on, Danny decides to answer every question posed to him – from his wife asking him if he’d like a cup of tea, to his boss wondering how far he has got on that report – with the same response: “What am I – a fucking town planner?” (Note to Commissioning Editors: might struggle to stretch this beyond Series One.)

Where’s My Sandwich? Set in Huddersfield. A man keeps being unable to locate his sandwich. The end of each episode sees him wondering aloud where his sandwich is, hence Where’s My Sandwich? (Note to Commissioning Editors: Potential Series Two – Have You Seen My Other Shoe?)

Acid Gran An OAP takes loads of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide everyday, much to the amusement of her friends. (Note to Commissioning Editors: If we manage to dig up some of those 1960s/70s illustrators, this could work equally well as a children’s cartoon.)

ShitCome Initially ShitCome was going to be simply titled Sitcom and was going to bleak, post-industrial and entirely joke-free. Much like anything on ITV. Then, I thought, perhaps call it ShitCom and it be about a web developer with incontinence. Finally, splendidly, I thought of ShitCome, set in Cheltenham and about a builder who suffers from premature ejaculation/no ejaculation/generally poor loads. He also has problems giving women orgasms. (Note to Commissioning Editors: Danny Wallace has expressed an interest in playing the lead role.)

Further note to Commissioning Editors: The raw ideas above are available at between $15,000-$20,000; fleshed-out forms at $30,000-$40,000; and six-part series’ with rewrites from $200,000. Please email pitchingtheworld-at-hotmail.com for further information.

The Life Yips

“Do you know what your problem is?” A friend asked (or rather wanted to tell) me one evening last week. Oh God here we go, I thought, please don’t tell me what my problem is. I know what my problem is. And it is not a problem, it is a series of problems and I have become pretty adept at hiding from them and I don’t need you adding to the list, giving me more stuff that I need to hide from.

So instead of listening to what my problem was, I looked around the bar we were sitting in and tried to work out if there was some way of letting the tables of pretty women in there know that I was a writer. I took out a pen. It did not work. Then, for no discernible reason whatsoever, I thought about a giant balloon version of Shaun Ryder just endlessly drifting through space. Three days of constant drinking can do that to a man.

“Sorry?” I said. “What was that?”

“I could tell you weren’t listening. You want things to fuck up for you. You want to deliberately make things difficult for yourself. You get yourself in these good positions, then find a way to fuck them up. It’s weird.”

For a bit I couldn’t reply. I couldn’t reply because my brain was yelling at me to blurt out “SPACEAGESHAUNRYDER!” Jesus, I thought, that’s a new one. I wonder what it could be? Tourettes? A brain tumour? Cancer of the speech?

In the end I said: “That’s the most ridiculous fucking thing anyone has ever said to me. But it’s also probably true.”

And so, a change. From now on I’m going to try to not deliberately fuck things up. But how does one start? Yesterday I started by waking at seven and meditating and reading a book. Blimey, I thought, that felt pretty good. So I did some more meditation and read some more of a book and exercised and ate a grapefruit and trimmed my armpit hair and emailed some people wondering if they wanted someone like me doing some work for them and then made a short film about Jesus and then came up with a three-month plan. The film was pretty awful. But the day was pretty good and my old pals the night terrors didn’t visit me yesterday and it’s a start.

One can start again at 35 can’t one? Of course one can, of course I can. If not, what’s the alternative? Not make a fresh start? Carry on as I am? Try and find God and tell him that I’ve fucked this life up and can I have another one please? No, no and no.

Oh, and I’ve decided to tinker with my pitching style too, decided that whilst these jokey woe-is-me affairs have been fun – and, come on, we’ve all had a good time – it’s perhaps time to toughen them up and make them sing. And dance. My pitches from now on, then, are going to be tough cold hard steel song and dances. That sounds terrible – worse than my film. They will be something though. Something good. Just you watch.

The Writing Yips

Holidays. I´m not sure if holidays are my strongpoint; not sure if holidays are supposed to be like this. For a few days I did nothing but drink and sleep and once I´d exhausted both of those, I did nothing but analyse my life to date.

Have you ever analysed your life to date? Don´t bother, it´s scary. Of all the things you can do with your life, analysing it to date is not recommended. Someone once said that the unexamined life is not worth living, but whoever that someone was clearly hadn´t spent a week or so in Mallorca with me.

So, Mallorca. Thirteen years ago I was in this town with a girl I loved and who loved me back and I messed it all up. Last year I was in this town with a girl I loved and who loved me back and I messed that up as well. I´ve had jobs over here that I´ve messed up. And friendships. And bar tabs.

I´ve come to realise that I´ve messed a lot of things up. I sit on my balcony drinking too-warm cans of beer and chainsmoking too-nice cigarettes and I watch the happy families and happier couples and they don´t seem to have fucked anything up at all. I don´t have anyone to go to dinner with or a driving licence or a mortgage or any possessions beyond two bags of clothes that I´m fast hating and I don´t really have any work at the moment and am possibly becoming more atrophied and Octoberish by the second and and and.

And perhaps I´m not very good at this. You know, perhaps I´m not cut out to live my life very well.

That´s one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is better.

Another way of looking at it is this: I´m 35 and a professional writer and have written for some of the best publications in the world and I am drinking warm beer and smoking cigarettes on a balcony somewhere in Europe and writing in my notebook and although I´m getting divorced from my (pregnant) neuroscientist wife I´m not being a turd about it. If I´d told all that to an adolescent me, the adolescent me would have buckled, would have been so overwhelmed that he would have tried to fuck the 35-year-old me in a bin somewhere. Probably.

And I´ve got money owed to me. Not loads, but enough to go anywhere in the world – Africa, Australia, Argentina – and rent a small room and live for a month, possibly longer and earn more money. And if I´m so worried about crumbling self-esteem, self-respect, self-discipline and so on (anything to do with the self, then) I can decide to do something about it. “At the moment of commitment, the universe conspires to assist you,” someone once said, and someone else once said: “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything,” and I think – hope – that they´re both right.

Oh dear, this hasn´t been about the writing yips has it? And hasn´t it been terribly pretentious too, quoting Plato and Goethe and Marty McFly all in the same post? I did have them though recently. The writing yips, that is. Couldn´t put a word down. Terrible. Worrying, too, when your income depends exclusively on writing one word after another. Still, they´ve gone now, or are at least in the shadows. This has helped. So, you know, thanks very much for that.

On Taking Advice from Ants

I’ve been ever so slightly concerned about my recent erratic behaviour, ever so slightly concerned that over the weekend I sought (and took on board) the advice of an ant.

Picture this, if you can be bothered. It’s Sunday and I’m sitting in my Nan’s back garden chainsmoking. The bulk of my chainsmoking, incidentally, takes place in pubs, but if the financial gods are against me – as they often are – then I’m forced to conduct my chainsmoking in my Nan’s back garden. This is not good. It’s mainly not good because my Nan is unaware – or gives the impression of being unaware – of my smoking and I’m forced to come up with excuses as to why I’m spending huge chunks of my time in her back garden. For a while, I pretended that I was very enthusiastic about using my telephone; I would say things like “I’ve just got to phone one of my editors” or “I’m going to call my agent. Big things are happening you know. Very big things” and off I’d go to hide and smoke. But not now. Now my phone’s bust and she knows my phone’s bust and so I’ve started saying: “Oh, I think I’m going to do some press ups in the garden” and off I go to not do press ups – in fact, to do the exact opposite of press ups – and I suspect my Nan is worried that I’ve got some sort of muscle wasting disease because the result of all these press ups is unapparent. If anything, my arms and chest are getting smaller. This is no way for a 35-year-old man to live. I don’t think I need to tell you this.

Fuck, where were we? Yes, smoking. No, ants. So, I was staring at an ant in the garden and it was crawling towards a crack in the concrete and I thought: “If that ant crawls into that bit of concrete, it means I need to get away.”

About a day later, two things occurred to me. First, that this has the makings of a book, a book about a man who bases all his decisions on the actions of small animals. It’d be like The Dice Man but watered down and, unbelievably, worse. Perhaps Danny Wallace could write it. My second thought was better. My second thought was: If a man bases his decision about going away on whether or not an ant crawls into a bit of concrete, then perhaps he needs to get away regardless of what that ant does.

So, I’m going away. To Mallorca. Tomorrow. For how long I don’t know. I just phoned up my bank to tell them that I would be away for a while and when the telephone operator asked me where I was going and for how long I didn’t want to just say Mallorca as I thought she might think I’m a bit shit, so I said: “Mallorca. For a bit. For how long I don’t know. And then I might be going to Malawi for a while.”

When I got off the phone I thought, “Well maybe I WILL go to Malawi for a while. I have a friend out there who keeps (twice) asking me to go and see him. Perhaps it’s better to take heed of my own words, the ones that come out of my own mouth, rather than the advice of an ant.”

I read something the other day and it’s the real reason I want to get away. Here it is:

It is hard work to slaughter a beast but when it is done it is done. If you are MAKING ART the labour never ends, no peace, no Sabbath, just eternal churning and cursing and worrying and fretting and there is nothing else to think of but the idiots who buy it or the insects destroying TWO DIMENSIONAL SPACE.

The capitals aren’t mine. And it’s not that I’m making art, but journalism can feel like eternal churning and cursing and worrying and fretting and I need to run away from it for a while and drink three bottles of red wine a day and take two swims a day and maybe – you never know – just relax for a bit.

 

Success! How to send the same letter to the likes of The Oldie, Your Cat, Yoga & Health, New Humanist, Prospect, Erotic Review and loads of others and get commissioned. Sort of.

So, on Tuesday evening after a gloriously upbeat supper (a Kinder Egg with a whisky chaser, if you’re at all interested) I decided to send an identical email to 50 publications. I’ve run out of steam, you see, and didn’t have the stomach to pitch actual thought-out ideas. I realise this is not good. Anyway, here’s the letter:

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To: Loads

From: Pitching the World

Subject: Belief

Dear Editorial,

I am in the process of trying to write features for all 642 magazines listed in the 2010 edition of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. Among those 642 magazines is yours. This ridiculous process began back in 2009 (for a while I called it a ‘project’ but I’ve given up on that now) after I had quit my job as a political speechwriter.

Now, if you consider my decision to quit my job as a political speechwriter and return to journalism to be a terrible one – and you’d be right to – my idea of writing for 642 magazines is even worse.

You should see me now, almost two years down the line. When I began, I was living with my neuroscientist wife in Stoke Newington. Now I’m getting divorced and live in my Nan’s dining room in Boscombe. Before I had hair, lots of it, and it wasn’t grey. Now I have little hair, and it is grey – white, even. I had money and shoes and confidence. Now, well I suppose I don’t have to spell it out, but now I have none of those things. What do I have? I have night terrors, addictions and crumbling self-esteem. Oh, and belief. I still have a sliver or two of belief.

After describing myself in such thrilling detail it seems a little ridiculous to say that I’d like to write for you. But I would. I’m in a hole you see, and it’s a hole I’d like to get out of. Are you farming work out to freelancers at the moment? I’ve written hundreds of pieces over the years for the Guardian, the Independent, Square Mile, Square Meal, the British Journalism Review, Business Destinations and plenty more. I reckon I could write a nice feature for you. Or a mini-feature. Or an opinion piece. Anything really. A paragraph? Do you need any paragraphs writing?

What are my chances? Slim? None? Reasonable? Please leave me alone?

Splendid clippings available on request.

I look forward to hearing from you.

With best wishes,

Pitching the World

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Now, that’s not the sort of letter established or prospective journalists should be sending out. Go on a course called How to be a Journalist and you will be told to do the opposite of what I’ve done in that letter. For a start, it isn’t in any way tailored. I’ve sent it to generic email addresses (editorial@wherever.com) and haven’t addressed anyone specifically, simply plumping for “Dear Editorial”. This, apparently, is not good. I’ve no clear ideas of what I want to be writing about – in fact no idea at all. I point out that I don’t have shoes, money, confidence and that I live in my Nan’s dining room. I say that I have night terrors and addicti – fuck it, you’ve read the letter already, you don’t need me going over it again. You get the point, I hope, that perhaps it’s not a very good way of trying to go about getting work.

Well – and perhaps one or two of you have seen this coming – you’d be wrong. Check this out, my first reply and from the Senior and Online Editor of Prospect, one of the finest magazines in the world:

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To: Pitching the World

From: Mary Fitzgerald

Subject: Belief

Hello Steve,

What an undertaking. I can’t promise we can help, but let’s try.

A few questions: how many of the 642 have you written for thus far? Does online count? Is there anything in particular you’d like to pitch? And do you think there’s anything you’d be able to fashion into an item for our diary section?

Very best,

Mary

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Well. Well well well. That’s probably a one-off though you turd, I thought to myself, an anomaly. Yeah? Well anomalise this:

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From: Caspar Melville, Editor New Humanist

To: Pitching the World

Subject: Belief

Well Steve what can I say? If I say no I’m dooming your project to failure, if I say yes I’m fuelling your self-delusion and making it more likely that you will write a book about it all and get rich and famous and find a new wife and be able to afford a Rooney-style weave-on.

So it’s a dilemma. You can evidently write and are funny.. so find something relevant to New Humanist- work that pitch babee

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And then this:

From: Jamie Melville

To: Pitching the World

Subject: Belief

Hi Steve

Thanks for your letter.

Sadly we are no longer commissioning new writers for paid work. We do accept some unpaid submissions, however. Having said this I’m not sure how keen you are to write articles about sex, gender (rather than party) politics and erotica, gratis, for the doubtful kudos of being published in ER.

Try us in a couple of years, when the recession may be almost over and writing for our esteemed organ might just be a little more remunerative.

Kind regards,

Jamie

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And this, from the Oldie this morning:

Dear Steve,
We do accept freelance submissions for Modern Life, Olden Life, Rants and World’s Worst Dumps, as well as features. Please do send submissions to jeremylewis@theoldie.co.uk and note that we do not commission, all articles are done on spec.
Very best wishes,
Claire

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And I’ve also been commissioned by Yoga & Health to write a piece on meditation (can someone please tell me something about meditation), and encouraged to pitch Your Cat with ideas and have even began some sort of correspondence with the people hanging out over at Practical Boat Owner.

The lesson? The lesson is do what you feel, fuck around, be honest and everything will be okay.

Here’s a reply from a Christian magazine:

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From: Russ Bravo

To: Pitching the World

Subject: Belief

Sorry, Steven – I’d like to help but …

1 I have practically no budget for freelance articles
2 I do respond better to pitches that know who the editor is, and what our magazine is about – blanket e-mails aren’t great, really

3 Looking at your blog, I’m not sure your style is exactly nailed on for a middle aged readership of committed Christians

Hope you get some joy elsewhere though

all the best

Russ Bravo

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