Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Career advice for budding writers

In answer to questions sent my a friend writing a book:

1 - Your working life seems to be based on being pro-active and innovative; how much of that approach is natural to you and how much did you have to work to achieve it?

The creative arts are competitive and often you have to go out and fight for work. In my case I've created work when there's none seemingly to be had. For example when most of the comics I'd been working for ceased to exist and work was drying up, I tried to do a comic books pin-off of the tv series Gladiators. I spoke to LWT and found what terms they'd ask for a licensed comic, then I spoke to a publisher I'd worked for before, contacted writers and artists, and brought the project together. Okay, it flopped after two issues and lost me money, but that's the sort of thing you have to do.

In another instance, when comics had again gone through a boom & bust cycle, I started producing the annual Comic Festival, something I'd never done before but that kept me in touch with my artform and the business until things looked up again.

2 - Looking at the unique ways you've got yourself out there - comic art masterclass, Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre etc - can you talk us through the process that turns these very individual ideas into income?

The mechanisms of most businesses are very simple. Make something you can sell, sell lots of them, and you're rich. In the creative arts you have the choice of waiting until someone in a position of power recognises how good you are and pays you to do it (eg a publisher or a broadcaster), or alternatively do it yourself. I have done a lot of both. In comics I have always made my money through the patronage of a publisher, be it DC Thomson and the Beano, or Marvel comics or whoever. I've convinced them I was good enough, made whatever changes or compromises they've demanded, and taken the money.

In comedy one tends to begin by making ones own work. Either by playing for free until you're good enough to get a paid gig, or staging your own shows. In the case of the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre I have to invest in my own shows, eg putting a show on at the Edinburgh Fringe which can cost £6000 so has to sell a lot of tickets to break even, but then I can get theatres to book my appearances later in the year and make guaranteed money that way. In comics I have tried self-publishing, which is increasingly popular and has made fortunes for some, but not yet for me.

3 - Are there any ideas, or attempts to develop ideas that finished unsuccessfully and taught you important lessons?

The best laid plans of mice & men gang aft aglae. There are some people out there who can turn creative ideas into money, and succeed every time. I've not met any of them. Most people I know have, at some point or other, had a flop. In comedy I took a sketch show called The Sitcom Trials up to the Edinburgh Fringe for three years, and every time it lost money (though it did get a short TV series, which was a great result). It was a well thought-through show, a genius format, and looked on paper like a surefire success. But it never was. Then, as a spin-off from that show, I started doing a little comedy act with some sock puppets with silly voices. That, The Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre, has become the most successful comedy show I've ever been involved in and doubles its profits at Edinburgh every year. But on paper it probably still looks like a daft idea. Sometimes you just can't tell what will work. (Google the quote "in Hollywood, nobody knows anything")

4 - What strategies in terms of getting and keeping the employment you want have been most useful to you over the years?

Expect the unexpected, and remember the creative arts are probably the most consistently unreliable way of earning a living there has ever been. There is a quantum jump between being the poorest person in the room and the richest. I know a great many comic artists, stand up comedians, actors, writers, sculptors etc who have been in both positions at some point or the other. And it is not always the most talented who ends up the richest.

5 - What are the best elements of working so much on your own terms?

I have a degree of creative freedom that is envied by loads of people. And most of what I do is actually great fun while you're doing it. I get paid to make people laugh, which is fantastic. On the other side of the coin, boring accountants have big houses. You have a choice.

6 - And the worst elements of the same thing?

Did I mention the unreliability? By the end of the 1990s every comic I had ever worked for had ceased to exist. I phoned up one of my former editors to ask if there was any work going and he wasn't even in comics publishing any more, he was selling orthopaedic furniture. I worked for Marvel comics, the biggest comics publishers in the world, just as they filed for bankruptcy. I got the break of doing my first weekly strip for the second biggest music newspaper in the UK, Sounds. I was in the final issue of Sounds. I got my first big break in the brilliant British humour comic Oink. I was in the final issue of Oink. I went up in everyone's estimation when one of my strips made it into the legendary Brit comic Warrior. I was, as you possibly saw coming, in the final issue of Warrior. I really was hoping to be in the final issue of The Beano, and you never know, that could still happen.

The consolation is that, now there's a recession on, nobody has a secure job. Well hello everybody else, and welcome to the level of security freelance entertainers have always had.

7 - When you meet aspiring comic artists, comedy scriptwriters and the like, what advice do you give them?

If they're very young and don't realise they can do whatever they want for a living, I like to keep them excited about the infinite possibilities that are out there. If they're a bit older and in danger of stealing my work cos they're too talented I try and depress them so much they go into civil service.

8 - In terms of your Sitcom Trials, how much of the eventual success of any writer is down to talent, and how much down to working to achieve success?

In comedy writing you do actually have to be funny, that's hard to get away without. But hard work, perseverance, learning the ropes, making and exploiting the contacts, getting the breaks then not blowing them, these are all vital things on the road to success.

9 - If the teenage Kevin encountered your present day self, what would each one say to the other (feel free to draw this and send in a jpg if it makes the point more clearly than mere words).

Teenage me would be very disappointed with old me. He really thought I'd be living in a Manhattan penthouse making millions as a film director. Old me would tell teenage me to shut up and shave.

Hope that helps, all the best

Kev F

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