So I finally found some time to sit down and transcribe my interview with John Collee from earlier in the year, and it's proved to be equally as enlightening in written form as it was in audio. If you'd like to read it in full, please go here, otherwise the best of his advice is highlighted below:
As I see it, you start off with a global idea of what the story is, this is how it will start, this is how it will become complicated, this is how it will finally conclude. And then, as you think about it and research it and talk about it, you gradually build it out from the middle outwards, so that all of these areas become more and more complex, and so you finally build up to a detailed synopsis of the film or the novel.
As you know I’m a big believer in using real life experience. When people talk about writer’s block they’re often talking about just having running out of things to say, things they know, things they care about, things they have research. And so you’ve got to do two things simultaneously as a novelist or a screenwriter: one is to be planning your story, and the other is to be loading up your mind with all the elements that would go into that story. There are often parallels in your own life and your own experience and other times you’ve just got to go off on your own and research, and so you’ve got to be doing both of these things at once.
On the differences between types of writing
Unlike a novel, which is completely immersive for a long period - you know, you become, when you’re writing a novel, a little bit like a heroin addict, in that you’ve got your real life going on in parallel to this fantasy life that you’re sort of, living in, thinking about the book almost continuously, cos you really do have to create this whole fictional world. And with a screenplay, because it’s shorter, and because screenwriting is basically more collaborative, it’s more of a social kind of writing job. And so, having tried journalism, which is very short term and you know, constant voracious appetite of the newspaper and magazine to get the next article, and having tried novel writing which is very long term, where as I say, you can disappear into your own fantasy world, screenwriting is a kind of nice mix between the two: you’re working with other people, you’re constantly discussing the story, refining it.
On his screenwriting process
My own system is just to, first of all write everything on a card, and you sort of stick up all the cards on a cork board and then tell each other the story, backwards and forwards through all these events in the story until finally we get a plot that we like. Then I’d write out more detail about each of these component sequences. I always think that films are made up of three-minute blocks that you can sort of tell as little short stories, events in the film. So from the cards I go and write out each of these sort of blocks as a sequence, and then I’d read it to Peter and we’d discuss each sequence. Then I went off and wrote these pages of sequences into the final script. And then Peter would rework the stuff that I’d written, and backwards and forwards.
The other thing that’s bizarre in writing is that you can spend a month or two month with a script and not make it better, and you can completely turn it around in a couple of days. So that’s a very bizarre thing, you know, you’ve got to get, I mean, changing from medicine to writing you’ve got to get rid of the Calvinist notion that the number of hours you spend on the job is somehow the worth of your work, cos it doesn’t work like that.
On the profession of screenwriting
And the truth is, you can usually find something of virtue in almost anything that you do. Weird projects come up and you think I’ll never be able to relate to this, but then you do a little bit of reading around it and think, oh yes, I can connect to that.
When they sign you up, you say, how long it’ll take to write the draft and I’ll say three months, and out of that, at least six weeks to work out the storyline and do a lot of the research, and then – really you can write a draft in two or three weeks, and then to sort of distill it down, work out where the problems are, rebuild it again, so yeah. To get a readable first draft, it usually takes about three months.
On choosing a project to work on
So when you have a story which is both a thriller and a meditation on something that’s important to you, I think those are the kind of projects which you should ideally always work on. And if you don’t know the story, you need to work hard on that, and if you don’t know the meaning of the story then you need to work especially hard on that, because it’s only when you find meaning or theme to the story that obsesses you, and is important to you, that anything really good will come out.
On giving advice to new writers
I would say do something that is not just writing, so get some experience of life, I would say. I would also say, understand that part of the job of being a writer is being a kind of a teacher of philosophy, I think that’s what the job really is. We write stories for a reason, and the reason we write stories is to express a kind of a philosophical or political theme that’s important to us and important to the world. Unless you’re doing that you’re just basically manufacturing entertainment, and there’s no real point of that, there’s so much entertainment out there already. So if you’re going to write something meaningful, if you’re going to be a writer, then write something meaningful. And if you want to write something meaningful, you probably want to have a meaningful life first.