Last year, on a whim, I signed up to take part in the NYC marathon. Not only was it to be my first marathon, I hadn’t done ANY running for thirty-odd years. As I started training, from the first painful, gasping steps to being able to run comfortably for two, then four, six and12 miles, I read all the running books and magazines I could find and discovered something extraordinary. Running a marathon isn’t that hard.
OK, so of course, it’s HARD. But actually, as long as you are fit enough (not superfit, just fit enough), take regular rest days during training (to avoid injury), eat sensibly (carbohydrates for energy, and protein for muscle repair), and drink enough fluids, you are capable of running a marathon. All you have to do is get to the start line uninjured, and then put one foot in front of the other until you reach the finish line. It’s more about turning up and having the determination to keep going than having any superhuman power. The two octogenarian finishers proved that (as did I, in 5hrs 17 minutes since you ask).
Writing is a hard slog too. Although it only involves putting one word in front of another, and keeping going until you get to the end, sometimes sitting down to a blank sheet of paper can feel just as daunting as running a marathon. And feeling daunted and overwhelmed more likely to send you back to bed than get you to the end of the page. Every producer who has ever sat down to write a one-sheet for an all-important pitch has probably felt that dread of starting, the fear of taking a misstep, the risk of failing.
I’ve spent years wrestling TV program ideas into commission winning written proposals but it never gets easier. However, just as in the marathon, I have developed various strategies that will get me going, keep me going and get me to the end.
When running, I put on my music and daydream or mull over ideas; before I know it, I’m approaching the end of my 6-mile run. By slipping into the ‘zone’ I’m completely absorbed, time flies and the answer to a tricky creative problem often pops unbidden into my head. Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a world leading researcher into positive psychology, defines this creative ‘flow’ as “an almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness” Creativity coach Mark McGuinness says, “When we are in flow, we are fully absorbed in whatever we are doing and find it easy to achieve peak performance. The experience is accompanied by intense feelings of pleasure and satisfaction.”
So how about if we could get into the zone and actually make writing TV pitches pleasurable? According to Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity, you need nine things to achieve a state of flow, and here I’ve applied them to writing TV treatments:
Clear goals – Your main goal is to get your program greenlit, but right now, in THIS moment, you need to write a concise, compelling one-sided proposal containing all the necessary information a buyer needs to make a decision. That’s the goal to focus on.
Immediate feedback – Working in a vacuum is difficult, so ask for feedback on your draft. Is the document logically structured, with the most important information at the top? Is the way you’ll film the show clear? The content interesting? The tone appropriate and consistent? Is the spelling and grammar correct? Is the most interesting information buried at the bottom?
Balance between skill and difficulty – Every new show concept brings new challenges, but writing a string of proposals can get boring and that’s when things get sloppy. If you are feeling a little stale, challenge yourself polish up an aspect of your writing. Perhaps your grammar is weak? Make this the pitch that has perfectly constructed sentences and elegantly placed semicolons.
Action and awareness become one – This happens when you are working completely ‘in the moment’ free from a wandering mind. Doing some creative limbering up, such as reading web sites or magazines related to your topic, finding a clever quote, or evocative photograph can help to focus your mind on what you are about to write. I usually find that in doing this something suddenly ‘clicks’ and suddenly I’m in the zone.
Distractions disappear – When you are in creative flow, your distractions automatically disappear as you become deaf to your surroundings and might even forget to eat. But you might need to fabricate a lack of distractions when you first sit down to write. Go to the bathroom, put your phone on silent and turn off your email (or lock yourself out of the internet with a downloadable application such as Freedom or Leechblock). Allocate a solid block of three to five hours – don’t interrupt your writing time with meetings, or you will waste valuable time trying to regain your flow.
No fear of failure – It’s a fact that your first draft will be terrible: full of mixed metaphors, tortured tenses and clichés that you need to edit. But it doesn’t matter. No one sees your first draft; it’s written entirely for your benefit, and the next version will be immeasurably better. This is the process you (and all creative professionals) have to endure. The only way you can fail is to be self-critical and self-censoring at an early stage and therefore fail to write anything at all.
Lack of self-consciousness – In thinking about hard about your program’s subject you are able to almost ‘become’ your idea, so that even if you hated science at school, for a short period you become as passionate as any scientist as you write your pitch about the wonders of the solar system.
Time distortion – With focussed concentration, five hours will fly by in a flash, and you will have achieved more much than you had hoped.
Activity as an end in itself – Giving yourself over to the actual process of drafting, editing and re-editing will bring creative satisfaction in itself – and as a bonus you’ll also manage to write that dreaded pitch.
Just as you must train for a marathon, try to train yourself to get into the flow each time you write. You might not always find it pleasurable, but at least you will start – and more importantly – get to the end.
Nicola Lees has developed hundreds of factual programmes for network and cable channels in the UK and USA, including the BBC, Discovery Channel, Travel Channel and TLC. She has been directly involved in originating, researching, writing or pitching more than 80 commissioned programs, including Oceans (BBC2), Moms on the Road (Travel Channel), How Not to Be Shark Bait (Discovery), Desperate Midwives (BBC3) and the BAFTA nominated Earth: Power of the Planet (BBC2/Nat Geo).
Nicola continues to develop programs on a freelance basis and has consulted for international clients. She’s also the founder and editor of TVMole.com, runs a mentoring scheme for Women in Film and Television in London and is writing her second book.