I ‘fell into’ writing at ArtsEd. drama school as I couldn’t find any Black, northern monologues to perform, so I wrote my own. With the encouragement of my teacher I turned this monologue into a play, which I was offered a commission from the Talawa Theatre to re-draft. So when I graduated I accidentally had a writing career which ran concurrently with my acting one. I started writing with roles for myself in mind, but over the years I also began to write pieces solely for other actors. Although still a playwright, recently more of my focus has been on screenwriting and I’m currently under commission by the BBC to write a second episode of one of my sitcoms. Acting is extremely collaborative whereas the stereotypical image of a writer is of a depressed middle-aged man alone in a hotel room with a typewriter and a bottle of scotch. In reality not only are typewriters now more out of fashion than Harvey Weinstein, modern-day writers are more likely to be pyjama-clad slackers surrounded by takeaway boxes and most importantly (for this article) writing is a much more collaborative process than one may think. Whereas playwriting is usually done alone, screenwriting, especially in comedy, is often done in teams. There are pros and cons to both solo and team writing.
In my Yorkshire adolescence I ran cross-country and played basketball and football for school. I was better at cross-country, but enjoyed team sports more because I felt less pressure and could share in the victories and defeats. In cross-country, if I lost it was all on me. Similarly when you get a script rejected that you’re the sole author of, it feels just like losing at cross-country, there’s no one to share your pain. Successes with a co-writer are not necessarily more enjoyable, but they’re definitely different. When I’ve had sitcoms optioned with co-writers such as Ben Syder or Ryan James, we have been able to celebrate together, but it seems rather arrogant to make a big fuss about solo success.
I find solo writing simpler for a variety of reasons. Firstly I can be more selfish and am my own boss. I can work where I want and at antisocial hours. When I’m co-writing it’s not practical to do it at 2am, and there’s the tricky negotiation of where to work. You can never find somewhere equidistant between your two homes. It’s all about compromise, for example alternating whose house you write at and/or having the host supply the food, as a free meal definitely takes away some of the bitter taste of having to travel to someone’s house and lose valuable hours in bed. Breaks are also difficult in team writing. When writing solo, I take a break when tired or hungry. But when writing with someone else I’m more reluctant to take a break for fear of ruining the other person’s flow and so often have to power through when I’m not feeling at my most productive.
Writing with someone else is more fun though. For a play we were starring in and co-writing for director Rikki Beadle-Blair, Ben Syder (another actor-writer) and I made each other double-over laughing when riffing a scene about a Jamaican man in a taxi, which didn’t even make the playreading. Sometimes team writing can be too much fun as I get distracted and spend hours talking about football, instead of actually writing. However, I think comedy particularly lends itself to team writing because you’re essentially just trying to entertain the other person and make them laugh.
In collaboration, if we’re in the room together, I’m usually the typist. As the typer you can type your lines straight down as you think of them, but I tend to speak my lines out loud regardless, even if writing alone. Here’s an example of how the co-writing process can work, with a script I co-wrote with my friend Ryan. Ryan and Jonny (the characters) are removals men about to do their first job. Ryan (the writer) would feed me a line for Ryan (the character — confused yet?). Ryan feeds the line, ‘We can’t just walk in wearing gangster clothes.’ I’d type it down and then type and speak a response, ‘You’re the one wearing the gangster earring. In the gay ear.’ Ryan the writer would get momentarily offended at this casual homophobia and then he would smile and respond with, ‘It’s not the gay ear if you’re gay Jonny.’ I type this down and add the top-up joke for Ryan’s character, ‘Both my ears are gay.’ In 60 seconds we now have:
RYAN We can’t just walk in wearing gangster clothes. JONNY You’re the one wearing the earring. In the gay ear. RYAN It’s not the gay ear if you’re gay Jonny. Both my ears are gay.
Then we continue with the scene.
Collaboration can also be done remotely. Although I miss bouncing ideas off of the other person in the same room, it can be the best of both worlds. You can write to your own schedules, but then you have someone to check over and improve your draft afterwards, making your joint script tighter and tighter, as you email it back and forth.
Collaborating is great when the team bring different strengths, experiences and perspectives — for example if one is good at structure and another at dialogue. Or, for a script Ben and I worked on we drew on Ben’s legal background and my music background as a hip-hop artist. With Ryan, he’s a White gay Bristolian and I’m a straight, Black Yorkshireman. This not only offers two different worldviews, but also if we create characters that are versions of ourselves, it produces a lot of comedy conflict. One of the most depressing things when writing characters based on yourselves is when commissions ask, ‘These two are so different, why are they friends?’ Or even worse, ‘These guys are monsters, why do we like them?’ However another good thing about team writing is if, after a difficult question in a meeting, I find myself lost for words hopefully my writing partner can bail me out. The thing I find best, but also most frustrating, about collaborating is discussing and debating the work. This can be frustrating and time consuming; however, alone I find I sometimes go too easy on myself, but good co-writers will keep me in check by questioning things, and I’ll do the same to them.
I find collaboration cleanest when I sit down with someone and we come up with an idea together. I don’t like to collaborate with other writers after I’ve written a draft, as I feel it waters down my voice. However, I would be more than willing to set up writers’ rooms for my projects once they’re off the ground. Writers’ rooms are where you have multiple writers in a room working on the same project. I’ve been in a few, such as for Radio 4’s Newsjack and Cartoon Network’s The Amazing World of Gumball, and they’re quite competitive environments. There’s pressure to have the funniest ideas and lines and I think the competition leads to a good standard of work. Part of the skill of being good in writers’ rooms is being able to sell your ideas, so part of the day becomes like a pitching session. When it comes to the actual writing in a writers’ room, I find I have to adapt my technique because I write by talking my lines out loud. In your bedroom this is fine, but it becomes too distracting to do in a room full of writers. So in writers’ rooms I have to write in my head more and silently mouth my lines, although I’m sure this isn’t always as silent as I think.
I’m happy to write solo, but for the right project collaboration with a co-writer can be great. However one must be prepared to compromise and have long discussions with the co-writer, and be disciplined and make sure those discussions are not about football, or arguments over whose house to write at next time.