creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Marketing your research, Writing strategies

No laughing matter – 10 lessons in taking comedy off the page

Simon Mallory in The Heckler
Simon Mallory in The Heckler

One thing that universities rarely do well is getting students to think beyond the doctoral completion and how to sell their product. This is a problem if that ‘product’ is the result of four years of a Creative Writing PhD. I can vouch for the fact that while I had to sweat through classes in research methods, advice on pitching to an agent, writing a killer synopsis and finding a publisher were not taught. Or – even mentioned.

Perhaps there needs to be a post doc course in ‘making the research count in the real world’. Who wouldn’t sign up for that? More to the point – why isn’t it taught? Instead of lamenting the fact, I went to some experts for advice. And by experts, I mean people who have made the successful leap from theory and research to industry success.

Writers Steve Mitchell and Graeme Simsion, who both met as screenwriting students at RMIT, wrote and produced The Heckler , which recently won the “Best Ensemble Award’ at the LA Comedy Festival.

The Heckler is an out-of-body feature in the tradition of the great Ellen Barkin comedy from the early 1990s, Switch. Like that movie, The Heckler’s protagonist Steve isn’t entirely likeable or laudable. So when the self obsessed stand-up comic’s body is hijacked by a jealous heckler following an accidental death after a gig, it provides the opportunity for Steve to start literally waking up to himself and rebuilding his relationship with those around him. The movie features some wonderful twists and sight gags, and a truly sexy and romantic kiss that in the way of body swap happens between two women.

Steve Mitchell’s background is in IT. As an emerging comedy writer who has many TV credits under his belt, he jokes that he sometimes performs stand-up comedy to “prevent his self-esteem from reaching acceptable levels” (stand up obviously has much in common with sending articles to academic journals). Steve studied filmmaking at VCA and Professional Screenwriting at RMIT (where he met Graeme Simsion), and has the stand up gift of making everyone in the audience feel that he is speaking directly to them – a skill that is invaluable when promoting his movie.

Graeme Simsion is the author of the 2013 best-seller, The Rosie Project; translation rights to his book have been sold to over 35 countries, and a film of his novel is in the pipeline with Sony Pictures. When Graeme came to the screenwriting course, he already had a PhD (in Data Modelling) under his belt and says that helped him overcome any fear of writing a large project. I rather like the fact that the producer of a movie about hecklers on the comedy circuit has not one but two PhDs – Graeme received a Doctor of Communication Honoris Causa from RMIT in 2014.  Lesson # 1– doctoral skills transfer, and as a mature age student you bring skills and life experience that will help you leverage your research into industry.

I got together with Graeme and Steve at a café near RMIT to discuss creative careers, collaboration, and advice for students hoping to see their stories on the screen.

Steve Mitchell promoting The Heckler
Steve Mitchell promoting The Heckler

Graeme wanted to dispel one myth first – that creative writing students have it tough because there is no defined pathway into a career after they graduate. “There is actually no defined pathway after a commerce degree either, and I built a career as I went in IT. I had to adapt to what’s changing; the arts are not madly different.”

Steve agrees that ‘you make the path’. Lesson # 2 – don’t be too defined in your career path because it might be a long and winding road to where you want to go But that’s fine – don’t be so precious about what you want to do. As a writer, every encounter and experience is copy. Take notes.

Now this is all well and good, except if you are grinding through your doctorate and wondering what comes next, if that creative project that has to pass through the examiners will ever see the light of day in the commercial world. Here is their advice – stop looking at the end goal and the ‘Hollywood movie’ (or best selling novel) as the big dream. That, says Graeme, is a million miles away. Lesson # 3 – major success may be so far down the track, break up your goal into smaller chunks – keep revising your goal with what you learn on the way.

Ironically, The Rosie Project started out life as a screenplay, and ended up as a book when Graeme changed his goal to something he felt was more attainable. Don’t lock yourself in. “The journey is important,” said Graeme. “You have to enjoy all the little goals along the way.”

GraemeSimsion. Photo credit James Penlidis
Graeme Simsion. Photo credit James Penlidis

This attitude is necessary in surviving – and thriving – in the creative industry. Just last week it was announced that Jennifer Lawrence, who was to play Rosie in The Rosie Project, had to pull out of the movie. The director Richard Linklater then followed. Graeme’s response to media was that he was disappointed “that the deal with Ms Lawrence didn’t happen” but he was getting on with writing his next book. Lesson #4 – don’t lose sight of the work, and don’t measure yourself against massive goals. Anything could happen.

The Heckler is a movie that came to the screen via networking. The sort of networking within an academic cohort that we so often overlook because as doctoral students we are focused on word counts, deadlines and completion. But your academic cohort are your network, and you need to put the effort in to meet them and work with them.

Not surprisingly, Graeme and Steve gravitated to each other during their course as they both put in the time and effort above and beyond what was expected. They instantly recognized each other as kindred spirits – ex IT, ambitious, mature age – and immediately partnered up to help each other with writing and editing. Steve was Graeme’s writing buddy from the inception of The Rosie Project, back when it was The Klara Project, and Graeme is credited as an editor and producer on The Heckler.

Lesson #5 – working within your cohort and finding the people among them who have similar ambitions and experience is important. Find writing partners, writing groups, academic reading groups – but make sure these are with people of a similar level of experience and energy. You don’t want to carry a dead weight.

But what about external networking? You know – making contacts in industry, pressing the flesh, finding out who can help you get a job inside or outside academia? How does that work?

Steve laughs. “You shouldn’t work the room when you are starting out. What do you have to offer? It’s not about what someone in power can offer you – it’s what you can offer them.”

Steve Mitchell (right) at the opening night of The Heckler.
A dream realised – Steve Mitchell (right) at the opening night of The Heckler.

Well, what can you offer? Look at it this way – you are smart, ambitious, and want to get ahead. Offer your time, and your hard work. Contribute to joint projects, volunteer. I volunteered my communications and journalism expertise to promote and support an academic conference as soon as I completed my doctorate – a way of getting to know those in the industry and also supporting the academics who supported me in one way or another during those four years of study. Lesson # 6– when it comes to networking, put in, help out, be humble and learn. No one will help you unless you offer to help first. Your efforts will be recognised as will your attitude.

While having a movie such as The Heckler, or a book published, is a major achievement, those in the creative arts need smaller calling cards to alert people to their ability to manage a project to completion. Do you have one? Lesson #7 – get a calling card. Make something and put it in the public eye so people can see what you can do. Send your stories to smaller literary journals. Publish a poem. Start your own blog – get your writing out there.

Graeme put in money as The Heckler’s producer, but he only did so because he knew Steve had the runs on the board as a writer and director. Steve received development funding from Film Victoria for his AWGIE-nominated feature ‘The Non-Believers’ and he wrote and directed ‘The Unusual Suspects’, which was a finalist at the 2012’s Tropfest Film Festival. Lesson #8 – submit your writing, put it out there for grants and festivals and awards. As someone reminded me when I was wavering about whether to put in the time and effort pitching for a project I didn’t think I’d get – opportunity involves being there to begin with.

By now, it should be clear that as funny and uplifting as The Heckler is for someone sitting in the audience, the path to the screening has been a long, arduous and unpaid one for the writer. That didn’t change once Graeme was on board as producer. “The last thing I want to do is give someone money for a salary,” Graeme said. “Writers are going into the ultimate capitalist world and people expect them to work for nothing. This is where courses get it wrong by telling students to go and get grants. It’s not about grants – you can’t write a book or film in three weeks or three months, you can’t write it while on a retreat, if you can’t do it without a grant, chances are you can’t do it.”

The length of time that Steve worked – unpaid – on The Heckler before Graeme came on board as producer was three years. Lesson #9 – be prepared to put in many long years of unpaid labor before you get your break. Even The Heckler’s final sound mix and mastering was achieved via crowdfunding with a Pozible campaign to raise the required $20,000.

Finally, both Graeme and Steve have a piece of advice for writers who feel pressured to build a social media presence in order to sell their work. Lesson #10 – work on your writing rather than your social media profile, and get the product as good as it can be. It’s ready to go once you are proud of it.

Steve agrees, “even with all the years I spent on The Heckler, once we committed to the shoot we did two more tighter drafts and made it as good as it could be, because once it is made, it is forever, and while the act of movie making has never been easier, making people care has never been harder.”

Graeme agrees. “In the end, your best promotion is word of mouth. Don’t worry about the critics.”

The Heckler is screening at selected venues around Australiawhere to see the movie

The Heckler is also available to download on iTunes.

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Academic Study, Brand Identity, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Early Career Reseacher, Marketing, PhD completion, Post Doctoral Study, publishing the novel, writing workshops

Show Me The Story: Creating Your Doctoral Narrative

2013-09-12 14.18.06

Once you have your doctorate, don’t imagine the progress reports stop. Don’t think you can say goodbye to explaining what your research means, or why it is important and whether anyone should care. In fact, once you graduate, the demands for you to sell your doctoral story have never been greater. Now you have your doctorate, you are expected to deliver your story about your research in razor sharp, fully focused, bite sized pitches. To everyone.

Some great advice I received shortly after graduating was to start practicing my story. Not the story of what I wrote about – but the story of me; my doctoral research, my journey – both what I did and what I planned to do. I had to curate myself.

In short, you have to be able to sell yourself. “Let everyone know who you are, that’s no easy thing,” I was warned. My mentor is a fellow doctoral traveller, fast tracked on those research only spheres, and I took frantic notes over lunch, as if I was back in a research study methods class early on in the PhD.

I was reminded of the need to be able to tell the story of my work again when I listened to a consummate performer and terrific writer Graeme Simsion at The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. Simsion is the Melbourne author of the bestselling novel ‘Asperger’s romcom’ The Rosie Project. 

The Rosie Project 9781922079770

I have the good fortune to live in Melbourne, a UNESCO City of Literature, and to work at RMIT University literally one block from the Wheeler Centre for Books and Writing (my second home), where I regularly attend lunchtime and evening writer’s talks and events, and many weekends every year honing my craft at writing workshops and meeting with my regular writing cohort.

Like so many who have enjoyed Graeme Simsion’s romantic Asperger comedy The Rosie Project, including Bill Gates who called it “profound” I had marvelled at Simsion’s clean and sparse style and economical use of language, as well as pace. But I also know many who know Graeme (it’s a small writing world in Melbourne, and indeed Australia) so I also know the dedication that goes into perfecting his craft, and in writing a sequel of his successful first novel. All the more reason to appreciate his work and also enjoy listening to him speak – in particular, on the value of stories.

The Rosie Effect 9781922182104

Take heart, fellow doctoral students in creative writing. When someone challenges you on why you are doing something so ‘nebulous’ and not a doctorate in say communications or public relations, reply, as I do “because I believe in the value of stories”.

In fact, post doctorate, I work in strategic communications where I use my doctoral skills daily – and use the power of the narrative to shape communications. It’s a gift to be able to tell a story, but a craft to spin a yarn across all mediums.

In his talk, Graeme Simsion stood and spoke, engaged with the audience – a full house of adoring fans, and said loud and clear “I have found the value of stories”.

Interestingly, while Graeme said he was inspired to write the character of geneticist Don Tillman in The Rosie Project by a friend’s story (an IT wiz with Aspergers), he didn’t want to write his story.

How do you go about taking a real person and turning it into a character? One way is to create a character and then place them in not the same situation as the real person, but an exaggerated one – raise the stakes, throw everything at the character. And don’t worry about going with the comedy if that seems to be the way the character is dictating the story.

“If you are lucky enough to be gifted a character who makes good comedy, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” said Graeme – who learnt this gem from Australian comedy writer Tim Ferguson, whose motto is “make them laugh, make them cry, make them think.”

 

The crucial thing for Graeme was that he didn’t set out to deliver a message, but to tell a story. As I was listening to this, I reflected on the doctorate in creative writing, where we are compelled to both tell a story (with the novel) AND deliver a message (with the exegesis). This is one of the hardest things for the candidate because the brain is going “exposition, exposition” for half the required work, and “show, don’t tell” for the other half of the doctorate. One has to deal with writing time and focus, and always the need to refrain from adding the message we are learning from our research into the novel, instead of letting the novel tell the story.

Graeme said “if you write a story that has your values, you might succeed”. And I think that’s the key – to go so deep into your research, and know it so well, that it comes out in your writing in an organic way. This is a far cry from “I am going to get a scholarship and take four years from other work and write my novel – oh, and I’ll throw together that pesky exegesis to keep the examiners happy.” I think to be really successful at both sides of the creative doctorate, you have to pursue both research and writing with equal passion. And that’s not easy.

Of course, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. Oh – they are? Point taken, well then, even more writers would be doing the creative writing doctorate than they are already!

The other thing that Graeme said is that he doesn’t want to get too influenced by other people’s portrayals of fictional characters ‘on the spectrum’. So he doesn’t watch Big Bang Theory. No Sheldon Cooper for Graeme, lest he be swayed by that approach. Many writers say the same thing – though in some ways it’s counter intuitive with academic research. We endlessly swot over other academic’s papers, for instance. And the worst thing that could happen if you are writing an academic paper about fictional characters with Aspergers in TV sitcoms is not to have watched The Big Bang Theory – or read other papers on the topic. How often as a doctoral candidate did I hear “We don’t care what you think, you stand on other people’s shoulders – and what does your academic guru think?” In creative writing, however, your voice should be unique.

 

Graeme’s view is that there are a range of people in real life with Aspergers, just like, for instance, knowing one person who is gay doesn’t provide you with an understanding of every gay person on the planet. “We need to be able to see a range of people in fiction, not stereotypes,” he said.

Graeme has a successful background in IT, which proves that you can’t stereotype writers – no working in a bookshop or living off writing grants and a bit of sessional teaching but rather a career that taught him that “there are craft things you learn when you take on a new discipline.”

I admire this methodical approach, and perhaps that’s the sweet spot where STEM and the creative arts meet. I was so intrigued by Graeme’s logical breakdown of turning a screenplay into a novel that I pass these suggestions of Graeme’s onto you. Remember, a novel allows the reader deep into the inner world of the character, especially if it is a novel in first person, as is the Rosie Project. How do you translate this inner world into a screenplay?

“Sometimes you don’t,” admitted Graeme. “A book is a book and some things a book does better. You can always go to that book and get into the inner world.” One of the reasons people have buddies in films said Graeme, is so they can externalise their thoughts and their inner world.

But there are tricks, said Graeme. Such as the voice over. This is either liked or loathed. I was reminded of watching Blade Runner again recently, with a friend who had never seen it, and her son, who studied it at school. Even though we watched the Director’s Cut, I still had the 1982 Theatrical Release in my head, expecting Rick Deckard’s (contentious) voice over as Replicant Roy Batty dies.

The 21 year old, who had never seen this version, looked at me in amazement. “Why would anyone think the audience needed a voice over?” he asked. A film does some things, and as Graeme Simsion said, “A book is a book and some things a book does better.”

Why indeed. The death scene with just the close up on Deckard’s face is far more poetic, filled with longing – for life. Is the voice over needed? The beauty of films that we fill in the internal monologue through music, cinematography, and acting.

However, when we are telling the story of our doctorate, we cannot assume anything as we are selling our research to a varied group of people. We may not have a captive audience, the lighting and sound may be bad and we have not had time to develop our characters. It could be a short ten minute interview for a coveted academic job, and we are one of many vying for the post. In that case, go for the obvious, sum it up, make it snappy. Give them the Deckard voice over in the Blade Runner Theatrical release. “I didn’t know how long we had together – who does?”

Yes, give it to them, curate yourself with a little story. Practice on your friends.  Like any story, the story of your doctorate gets easier with the telling.