TV Writer Turns Novelist…

“…Looking for less interference and fewer turkeys.”

And if that doesn’t sum it all up, what does?

Will Smith was a writer and co-star of the most popular and most excellent BBC series THE THICK OF IT. Now he tells us about his life-changing decision. Not as big a deal as, say, Bruce Jenner’s, but still:

Not the U.S.'s Will Smith. So it goes.
Not the U.S.’s Will Smith. So it goes.

by Will Smith

I could never claim that I was driven to switch from television screenwriting to writing novels by the limitations of the TV storytelling palette. After all, we live in the era of the trinity of Davids – Chase, Simon and Milch – and their titanic achievements (The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood). That said, although this level of excellence is attainable, few apart from the US cable showrunners are allowed to reach for it. This wasn’t always the case, but I sadly doubt a contemporary Edge of Darkness would feature an extended dialogue-free scene where a father slowly explores the contents of his murdered daughter’s room, finds a Geiger counter and a gun, and determines from the counter’s reading of a lock of her hair that she had been exposed to high levels of radiation. Nowadays that would be INT. EMMA’S BEDROOM. NIGHT. Ronald approaches a forensic detective. RONALD: What have you found? DETECTIVE: A gun, and high levels of radiation.

The UK’s closest equivalents to the US showrunners are Steven Moffat andArmando Iannucci. Few others are allowed to go off and wrangle a team of writers, with only the lightest of touches from the higher echelons. Even Moffat had to re-pilot Sherlock, although the fact that the BBC allowed him to do this shows the respect and faith they (rightly) accord him. I’m on a far lower rung, and so for me, part of the appeal of novel writing is that the chain from author to reader is short and simple – agent, editor, proofreader, shop/website.

In TV, the script will have to be signed off by producers, executive producers, genre commissioners and channel commissioners, and that’s still only a starting point; the director and actors (once they’ve been approved) will then have their say. None of this is necessarily bad; any writer will welcome informed opinions that improve their work. But the longer the chain of opinions that have to be taken into account, the more the danger of weak links. Hence the (possibly apocryphal) tale of the executive whose main note on the script of The Manchester Passion was “more jeopardy for Jesus?”

Apocryphal or not, it’s the sort of thing that does happen. My personal low point was working on an entertainment show where the producers booked a live turkey for 4 July. Neither the host nor the guests were American, but no matter, we were asked to “write some ad libs in case the turkey clucks”. I pointed out that turkeys were associated with Thanksgiving and had nothing to do with 4 July. An exec retorted that it was America’s national bird. I responded (correctly) that this was the bald eagle, but was told testily: “I’m sorry, Will, but we’ve booked the turkey.”

Shortly after working with that turkey (who I discovered was on a higher rate than the writers), I was lucky enough to be hired by Iannucci, and have spent most of the past 10 years sheltering from interference under his umbrella on Time Trumpet, The Thick of It and Veep. These are team-written shows, the writing staff on Veep currently numbering 14.

As a teenager, I worshipped John Cleese and Stephen Fry and dreamed of being part of a writing or performing troupe. But I also revered Charlotte Brontë andGeorge Eliot, so in tandem with forging a career as a standup, occasional actor and comedy writer, I’ve also been trying to write novels. This is the first one to pass a publisher’s muster, in part I think because the setting – Jersey, where I grew up – meant that the veracity I prize in screenwriting and fiction came more easily. Working with Armando has resulted in countless blessings, chief among them learning that it’s OK to have blank patches in your canvas. He’ll know where he wants to begin, and where he wants to end, and he’ll trust himself to fill in the gaps. But he’ll never allow those gaps to be filled with padding; each scene has to move the story on, something I rigorously tried to apply to my chapters. I’m not sure whether I approached the plotting as I would the arc of a TV drama. Perhaps anyway the outstanding TV dramas of our time borrow their plotting structure from novels.

Certainly, I want the reader to be drawn in as they would be by a box set. I’ll end with a bid for Pseud’s Corner: I find Anna Karenina to be more of a page-turner than any airport thriller, and I Claudius as addictive as Breaking Bad. The trick for any writer is to absent yourself from the finished work; the plot should feel propelled by the characters rather than the writer. And the writer should never have to write fake ad-libs for possible interruptions from a recalcitrant fowl.

Will Smith’s novel Mainlander is published by 4th Estate.