Why I Choose To Listen to John Cleese

I’ve neglected several of my blogs recently having been caught up in the ongoing drama of the US Presidential Election which has more plots and twists than Dallas, Eastenders, and Dynasty put together. They say a writer should always make time to read, yet while I love to read, often I am too tired when I am in the midst of redrafting, or in my case rewriting.

I chanced upon a YouTube clip of John Cleese discussing the writing process of Fawlty Towers due to the recent and sad death of Andrew Sachs (Manuel) and what he said gave me faith. What he said made more sense in a couple of minutes than all the books and blog posts that tell you how to be a good writer. If you don’t know, Fawlty Towers was a classic British comedy in the 1970s, so successful that it has inspired many of the contemporary comedy shows today. An American version was attempted but failed, but that maybe because of the writing and not necessarily the acting. There were only two series, and a total of 12 episodes, yet many people can quote lines from the show, or know of the characters. The success lay in the quality of the writing and the plots that John Cleese and his then wife Connie Booth developed.

Cleese stated that each script would take at least six weeks to write and redraft, as they wanted it to be perfect, and that they had to get the plot right before they could begin to add dialogue.  A plot would take a couple of weeks to write for each episode, and he admits if he had to write it faster they wouldn’t have been as good.  With a good character background established, it enabled the characters to develop and also the interactions between them. In a comedy show that lasted 30 minutes that was no easy task. These days, taking so long to write a script would be unheard of, but maybe that’s why so many shows fail?

I’m not a fan on NaNoWriMo, as while it encourages people to write or get started, it misses the point of quality, and those important redrafts. I’ve found myself redrafting the same chapter in a day, and then I just have to leave it until the next day. Then I read it and wonder what was I thinking, and thank goodness I was rewriting it. There are way too many guides on how to write, and reading them can demotivate and make you feel as if you have failed before you have even begun. All this pressure to write so many words per day, how many characters to use, and those silly e-books on how to write a novel and a month. I don’t read them, because with that time spent I could write a couple of good chapters, or a couple of blog posts (such as now!). I actually do write a couple of thousand of words per day generally, which includes blog posts, drafts, and some new ideas, but unless a piece has been redrafted, it’s never complete.

I tend to read interviews instead of my favorite writers, be it a script or a novel and prefer their insight. Joss Whedon and Quentin Tarantino both use notebooks and write longhand, and although I write blog posts on my laptop, nearly everything starts off in a notebook and it has to be black ink. Blue ink just upsets me, and I’m not sure why, but it looks wrong. Those who scoff at me at using paper and pen, well, let them. There is no wrong or right, but what the writer is comfortable with is more important.

Television shows these days have 20 or more episodes per season, but few shows have consistent quality. Many shows have writing teams that churn out scripts, plots don’t always overlap, and characters are inconsistent. No wonder viewers lose interest and the show gets canceled. I lost the plot with Downtown Abbey, Revenge, and Supernatural at one point. When the writing becomes too contrived, it loses the edge, and all those shows had such promise. It takes time to create good quality scripts and work, and Fawlty Towers is indicative of this. Indeed, C.S. Lewis rewrote The Magician’s Nephew so many times, until the final draft was published five years later. I would rather listen to, and take the advice of those whose works inspire me, and the scripts and dialogue of Fawltly Towers were impeccable—that’s the standard I aspire to. Quality over speed and quantity always wins in the long run.

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