Paul Abbott, the creator of Shameless, Hit & Miss and No Offence, was in France last September at the TV Festival of La Rochelle.
ILTVSW was lucky enough to seat with him and talk about writing & fear.
ILTVSW. About No Offence you said you wanted it to be funny but not to be a comedy. What do you mean by that ?
Paul Abbott. We kept making versions of it. They were very funny but it was just rude. Because it was just for the jokes. Comedy is selfconscious and we were trying to « deselfconsciousize » (laughs)… I think that’s the difference.
ILTVSW. Do you think that too many jokes are bad for the writing ?
Paul Abbott. Yeah, if they are forced. They can be. But, I don’t think the gags make a scene funny, the jokes do. The clarity of the attitude is what makes it funny. We cut loads of gags out. They made it so comedic it stopped being realistic enough to be funny. Life is much stronger than gags. I think we were trying to build the humour into the behavioural side of their nature not in the vocabulary.
You can teach people to ear people.
ILTVSW. So you spend a lot of time walking around watching people ?
Paul Abbott. Seemingly because I seem to have absorbed quite a lot. But not litteraly picking things from real life but trying to define, for example, just something you see on someone’s face on a bus… Come on write that. Write what ? Nothing happened. But write it, write what you said. Make it come out of your fingers the way you thought it. That’s tough. But you can. And I pratice all the time.
ILTVSW. You have been writing for thirty years did you get better at it ?
Paul Abbott. Scared. Always. You can always blow it. And you can’t be brave if you aren’t scared. It still terrifies me because normally by the time I seat down to write I have sold it. To deal with it I just relish it. I got really good at this. Keep feeding yourself and don’t be rude to people, to your audience. In practicing also. It is in my nature, I am coming from a big family. I wasn’t very bright, I was just the brightest one (laughs). So you learn to keep things to yourself. And keeping things to myself made me explode. Once I learned to write, it was just like burning fuel, fantastic. And the more purely burned honestly, the more fuel, because you just get better at it. At the glue. It is not the architecture of the storytelling, I think anybody can learn storytelling but you can’t teach dialogue. You can’t teach people how to ear people. And to synthesize that for someone else. It is one thing to ear something funny and it is another thing to write it down to tell it to someone else. That is the hardest part of being a good writer.
ILTVSW. There are good days and bad days… How do you deal with that ?
Paul Abbott. Sometimes I just don’t want to do it. But usually you have been paid already so you have to (laughs). I think I have written every single days since I was fifteen. In one way or another. Stories, sketches or things for me. I have had the pleasure of selling a lot of work and see my work coming back. 80 % of what writers write never get seen. I am really fortunate.
If you can cut a third you can cut a third again.
ILTVSW. Are you the kind of writer that writes a lot and throw a lot away ?
Paul Abbott. Two days ago I wrote ten pages in one day. And you go : « Wow, ten pages ! » But it’s worth five at the most. A lot of writers will keep the ten. But I think you have to cut it. Tighten your voice. If you can cut a third you can cut a third again. You just keep triming and tightening your voice. There is a melody that you are trying to communicate to the audience. I think that’s a better guidance than the words. You can smell when it’s going well. I wrote a scene the other day and I said : « Wow, it is fantastic ! » I couldn’t have look vainer. But I wasn’t saying that to anybody else. It was just me. There was nobody. And I kept saying : « Good boy, good boy ! » It was a boring scene that I kind of had to write and it is now one of my favorite scenes. I did ten full drafts of episode one for No Offence. We just didn’t get it right.
ILTVSW. How do know that you are not done ?
Paul Abbott. Because it smells wrong. It just feels wrong and you don’t trust it. So you go to ten. It is one draft too far and then you pull back. I think that is really good discipline. I write about ten versions of each scene. One way or another. I may just be changing the beginning of the entire series two. I have done something wrong and I can’t work it out it is too tighly embroidered. And I go : « What if I just take the first twenty pages off the script and see what happens there ? » It makes me feel liberated. I can see what else I can come up with. I am good at invention but I don’t think enough writers edit their own work. I need editors. I trust them with my heart. But you should edit as well before it gets to them. Otherwise they are technically the writer. If they are the one doing the selective premonition to your work. A lot of lazy writers just give you a hundred pages script and say you work it out. No YOU work it out. In America, you are not allowed to deliver long. Even with a reputation if you deliver a script which is over 120 pages your agent won’t even send it. I quite like that though. I like editing myself. I don’t like to be tolded what to do even by myself. Often my people say : « Take the keyboard of him. It is finished. It’s fine. » At some point the script has to be taken from me.
ILTVSW. When you look back do you have the feeling you could have done better work ?
Paul Abbott. Yeah. But surprisingly a lot of the work still stands up. Because if the writing is humanely honest it is timeless. But yeah, loads of things I could have done differently. You just keep learning by your own mistakes.
ILTVSW. What is honesty in the writing process ?
Paul Abbott. Give your enemy the best lines because then you have to write up to them and I think being honest. A lot of writers will tell a story about a woman who has been a victim of childbirth ta da da… as a victim of a childbirth but why don’t they try writing it as the midwife. Be the midwife. Give her the best lines. You writing your own story have to write up to her high calibre. And you surprise yourself by how true you can be without knowing it. There is a thing you can do. You write the worst thing that can ever be said about you and you put it in the voice of the worst person you would ever want to know that information. You don’t have to show this document to anybody else. Scare yourself. Put it away for a month. And write the answers back and you will learn to use fear like fuel. When you know that you have gotten really close to that it makes you crackle with excitment. You are testing what you are made of all the time. All the time. I have scared myself with some lines that some people have said. Writing up to it is like building muscles that you can’t lose. They can’t evaporate. Once you have done that you have become addicted to trying again. Not enough writers do that.
ILTVSW. Is it the reason why you are not a genre writer ?
Paul Abbott. Yeah. You can choose to write something next or it chooses you. When you do a lot of work you don’t have to decide what you are going to write next. I don’t know what it would feel like not to know what I would be writing next because I get too many ideas. I think the amount of power you put in being another person in a drama just makes you a much more decent human being. If you are showing mercy for the person you least like in a story you have to write it better. When I talked of knowing when things were right, you know, I love it when you have scared yourself a little bit and you have written back with absolute stamina. You might hate those pages in five days time. But you have taken your personal fears to use as tools for storytelling. Without the fear, you don’t get the good scene. I don’t mean I terrify myself all the time. But you have got to be respectfully scared of something. It took me a long time but I have learned to be respectfully scared of stories. Nothing is a given. I haven’t got a hobby. I am always writing.
Title : No Offence (2015 – )
Creator : Paul Abbott
Cast : Joanna Scanlan, Elaine Cassidy, Alexandra Roach
Networks : Channel 4, France 2 (France)
© 2016 ILTVSW – not to be reproduced without a prior authorization from ILTVSW
Next week in ILTVSW, the French version.