Former TV writer Venita Coelho's book Soap discusses a career in Indian television and also serves as a handbook for beginners who want to make a career behind the camera.
The author has worked with all the top channels in the capacity of producer, writer and director for over a decade and has laid bare both the joys and frustrations of her eventful tenure (for Coelho's interview, click here).
We bring you an excerpt from Chapter Seven, Writers' Special:
Are you the Real Thing? How do you know you are a writer?
It is crucial to ask that question, since the industry is overrun with people whose fall-back option is writing. Failed actors, directors and producers all promptly become writers. But the ability to string two sentences together does not a writer make. I have asked several writers of my acquaintance why they write. The various replies are:
'Because if I don't write I get cranky.'
'It's what I do best. I feel natural when I'm writing.'
'I love it. I want to do it. I'm engaged, absorbed, hooked by writing.'
'I love telling stories. I like getting the stories out of my head and onto paper.'
'There's so much to learn and absorb in the world. And I do that when I write. All of it flows onto paper.'
If you really are a writer, what's the best you can hope to do in this industry? Can you ever be a star?
The star writers all belong to film. Among the biggest stars ever was, of course, the Salim-Javed duo, and stories of the clout they wielded are legendary. They would warn a producer that he was not to change a word of a script they had written. Since their names were enough to raise finance, the producer wouldn't dare. Not only were they powerful, they also refused to take things lying down. At the start of their career, when a producer did not give them the billing they asked for, Salim borrowed a friend's car and drove around Bombay with a ladder and a pot of paint. He climbed every hoarding for the particular film he could find and repainted the credits to his satisfaction. Chutzpah and talent! It made them a formidable team and a household name.
Star writers in television, however, are rarely known outside of the television fraternity. Do they roll out the red carpet for TV writers? Are there flashbulbs and press interviews? Rarely. It is rare for the writer to even be invited to the media launch of the show he has created with so much involvement.
The respect of your peers, and the satisfaction of a story that people have responded to, is about all you can hope for. So you had better be a genuine writer. For someone who is truly a writer, that is satisfaction enough.
Some very harmful beliefs
Where does this bad behaviour that writers indulge in come from? It comes from some harmful myths and beliefs that every writer secretly carries in his heart. These are what cripple him or allow him to justify to himself what is completely outrageous, unprofessional behaviour. See if any of these make you stop with a jolt of recognition. And start worrying!
Creativity is special divine inspiration: This is a most persuasive belief. Also, a crippling one that stands between any attempt to being a professional. Of course, being creative is special. But to put creativity on a pedestal, with a halo and a glow around it, is to do a great disservice to the working writer. It is to believe that a mere writer has no control over the process. He has to wait for a random divine act to take him over. This goes hand in hand with the next belief.
Creativity cannot be on tap: Excuse me? That is exactly what you are aiming for as a professional writer -- a flow of creativity every time you sit down to write. And craft enough to produce something of high standard, even if the creativity does not switch on.
I suggest you buy a book called The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. It includes a series of creative exercises that actually teach you that creativity is as natural as walking. That there should be no need to switch on the flow -- you should be standing waist deep in it at all times.
Do not put the title 'Professional' before writer if you have not figured out how to write a script of a decent standard even when you are barren, bereft of the slightest flicker of inspiration.
A writer is somehow above the deadline: I have come across numerous writers who secretly think that it will be all right. That everyone will forgive a missed deadline if the script is really good. So it doesn't matter if the phone calls are getting more and more hysterical and the deadline is five days past.
No, it is not okay. On an average, a one-day shoot involves one creative director, two executive producers, one production manager, one director, three assistant directors, one cameraman, two assistant cameramen, 20 light men, seven attendants, five spot boys, eight actors and 20 extras. When you do not deliver on time, you are disrespecting and wasting the time of over 70 people.
Keep the deadline. If you can't, don't promise to. If you're trying to and failing, call and tell them honestly. At least they can make a back-up emergency plan.
Writing for money is a bit sordid: I find that a small shift in perspective can help nip this in the bud. Stop thinking of yourself as a special creative person who unfortunately has to work in a materialistic world. Think of yourself as a professional who is lucky enough to be working in a creative field. This goes hand in hand with the most harmful belief of them all.
The Myth of the Starving Writer: It goes like this -- the true artist is above money. The true artist will always be found struggling and penniless. Money corrupts the artistic soul. If you are being paid very well you are selling out.
This is one of the most harmful myths that any writer can believe. It stops them from putting a decent valuation on their efforts, bargaining, asking for contracts, following up on payments... having anything at all to do with filthy lucre. It leaves them sitting ducks for exploitation.
You don't have to be a writer starving in a garret in order to be a good one. You can buy yourself that car and still be awesome. Consider the money as your reward for being so good at your work. Did Gulzar lose his ability to write because he bought himself a bungalow on Pali Hill?
Excerpted from Soap (Rs 299) by Venita Coelho, with the permission of HarperCollins Publishers India.