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Joz Norris


Tape 117: Internal Instincts, External Briefs

  • Tape 117: Internal Instincts, External Briefs

Hail, friend! Well met! (I didn’t receive a single piece of negative feedback in response to my opening last week’s newsletter with the phrase “Well met!”, so I intend to continue doing it for at least another week, until I think of a different phrase I could use. If you strongly object to my continued use of “Well met!”, please reply to this email with “RE: Objection To Continued Use Of “Well Met”” in the subject line, and please let me know your suggestion for an alternative. Thank you all for your continued feedback and support).

It’s time for another writing-themed newsletter this week, as I’ve not done one of those in a while! I always enjoy hearing your responses to these ones as it often means getting glimpses of what the other writers out there are working on, and how their ideas chime with mine, so if there’s a writing project of your own you’d like to update me on, feel free to let me know, or dive into the chat if you want to discuss it publicly with other readers!

Internal Instincts, External Briefs

During this year of shifting my focus away from live comedy and towards scripted narrative comedy, one of the things I’ve been trying to do is renegotiate my relationship with external briefs. Prior to this year, my relationship with external briefs has been complicated and knotty at best. Perhaps you’re like me. (Actually, I know for a fact that literally every single one of you reading this is like me in many, many ways – stomach, lungs, hair, etc etc, but you know what I mean). When a TV channel or production company or whoever puts out a brief to outline what they’re looking for, I find it’s all too easy for my response as a writer/creative to fall into one of the following two camps:

  1. The brief is my enemy. Briefs are nonsense. They say they want x, but the truth is, if something really good lands on their desk, they’ll be interested in that. I’ll keep following my own instincts towards an idea I authentically connect with, otherwise I’ll be working cynically and my heart won’t really be in it.”
  2. The brief is my boss. If this is what they want, then this is exactly what I will write.”

The problem with number 1 is that you risk investing a huge amount of time, energy and soul into something that could very easily be met with the response “This isn’t the thing we said we were looking for.” The problem with number 2 is that actually, a lot of the points in number 1 are accurate. If you cynically write something purely in order to meet an external brief, the chances are it won’t have the spark of authenticity or originality to it. It will ring hollow, and it’ll be competing with countless other projects that responded to the brief and do feel authentic and original. It’ll be hurled out of the window immediately (this is what I assume commissioners do with ideas they don’t like. Their gardens are littered with bad ideas, because they make good fertiliser).

In previous years I’ve never quite worked out how to solve this conundrum. I think I’ve ummed and ahhed on it and largely stayed closer to number 1 (the brief is my enemy) than number 2 (the brief is my boss), and sometimes I’ve had bits of success and other times I’ve ended up pitching projects that just haven’t gone anywhere – such is life. But this year, on two different projects, I tried a different approach. That approach was to consciously shift my thinking towards the new idea:

The brief is my collaborator.

As the years have gone by, I’ve got infinitely better at collaborating than I used to be. At one point, if someone gave a note I disagreed with on a show or a script or a project I was working on, I usually took it as an opportunity to dig in my heels. “They must not understand it,” I would tell myself. “So I’ve got to go all-in on what I want in order to convince them that I’m right.” Gradually, I’ve learned the important lesson that the sheer existence of a note is a sign that I’m wrong about something. Taking a note doesn’t have to mean agreeing with exactly what the person giving it is suggesting – it may well be that they have the wrong solution to the problem. But the sheer fact that something isn’t coming across as I intend is a sign that something want isn’t working, and I might therefore need to rethink what I want. These days, I find the best approach to collaboration is to simply pass an idea back and forth between you, exploring how it moulds in response to what each person brings to it. There’s a mutual understanding that nothing anybody says is either inherently right or inherently wrong, but you can let the influence of each person’s idea shape the project itself until it takes a form that both of you are really excited about, that it could never have taken if either of you had insisted that your vision for it was correct.

A set of briefs, because I have now written the word so many times I’m having trouble keeping track of what it even means. I think this picture is what I’m talking about.

This year I’ve been experimenting with bringing that same approach to the writing and developing of scripted projects – what if I viewed it less as a case of “me vs them,” of my having to make a choice between either writing the thing I want or writing the thing the commissioners say they want, and instead viewed it as more of a collaborative relationship? What if I viewed the existence of a brief as being like a note from a collaborator – a piece of information that I can remould or remodel my idea in response to, rather than being something I either had to follow to the letter, or disregard entirely. (It seems odd to me now, writing this, how obvious this sounds – of course we should always be looking for that middle-ground between the things that authentically interest us and the things our customers say they’re looking for, rather than having to make a cynical, binary choice between one or the other. But actively changing my attitude to that idea this year has produced really surprising results so far, so I wonder if this will prove a useful and interesting lesson for any of you guys too.)

At the start of the year, I kept hearing in development meetings that people wanted “feelgood” stuff that wasn’t overtly “challenging.” My kneejerk reaction to this was that this meant people were looking for broad, traditional family sitcoms, which is a kind of thing I don’t watch much of and don’t have much experience of writing. I wasn’t sure how to shape a story in response to this prompt because it didn’t seem to align naturally with my own instincts as a writer. I didn’t know how to just sit down and cynically, joylessly start trying to write a broad family sitcom following a formula I didn’t understand. The old me might therefore have arbitrarily decided that this wasn’t a brief for me – I should keep working on whatever other ideas I had and hope that they might land with the right person further down the line. But instead, the longer I sat with this note, the more I started reflecting on a simple question – just what are the things that make us feel good, not as viewers but as people? And gradually a story emerged that actively explored those things. I wrote it up into a script that’s had the best feedback of any script I’ve written, and has so far been longlisted for two writing awards/competitions. It’s currently in talks with some people I really admire, and I’m so excited by where it’s going. I would never have stumbled across it if I hadn’t changed my approach to external briefs.

More recently, Miranda and I worked up a new sitcom idea for a radio pitch and, while it’s not my place to go into as much detail about the creative thinking behind it considering it’s a shared project, it was again the product of changing our relationship to the external brief, of listening to the note behind the note and coming up with a story idea that responded to that rather than just superficially doing exactly what they said they wanted, or insisting on doing what we wanted. Once again, changing my approach to a brief and viewing it as a collaborative relationship between creator and commissioner, rather than as an arbitrary obstacle I could either selfishly disregard or cynically exploit, produced better results than any of my previous approaches to this problem.

What do you guys think? What’s your usual response to a creative brief as a writer? Do you just write the things you want to write, and wait until that happens to be the thing that other people are looking to buy? Do you respond to external briefs to the letter, and never let one go past without trying to respond to it directly? Or do you think there’s progress to be made in following this hybrid approach, where you try to move the needles of what interests you and what people are looking for closer together in order to arrive at what feels more like a natural collaboration? I’d love to hear how these thoughts connect with your own writing projects if you’d like to share them with me!

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – I’m going to plug my new website, because I’m really proud of it. I’m not a big fan of social media, and of having to spread myself across way too many platforms, and having to let my creativity be dictated by the formats each platform’s algorithm prefers. The thing I’ve always really wanted to do on the internet is to have a single place where I can host and archive my more authored long-form projects, but my web design skills are piss-poor so I’ve never been able to make that place look very nice. But now the amazing James Hingley has put together something I’m really proud of! Feel free to head on over and dig into my past projects if you’re interested to see more of my work.

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – I’ve been rewatching Mum this week, which is one of the best sitcoms ever made. It frequently makes me cry my eyes out, but it’s also painfully funny. The scene where Derek, Michael and Jason stand round a barbecue and feel compelled to discuss their favourite sexual position is so funny.

Book Of The Week – I’m still reading 21 Lessons For The 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s brilliant. Maybe I’ll share some thoughts on it next week if I’ve finished it by then.

Album Of The Week – Nonagon Infinity by King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to listen to these guys. They are exactly my kind of thing. This album is just one very intense guitar riff that goes through a couple of loose variations and then repeats infinitely, because the end of the album loops back to the beginning. It’s ridiculously over-the-top and dumb and self-indulgent, but I’m pretty sure these guys are in on the joke and have a sense of humour, because their latest album is called PetroDragonic Apocalypse.

Film Of The Week – Not seen any films this week, but hoping to catch A Haunting In Venice and Dumb Money this weekend. Dumb Money looks great fun. A Haunting In Venice will be rubbish, but a good guilty pleasure.

That’s all for this week! As ever, let me know what you thought, and if you enjoyed the newsletter enough to send it to a friend or encourage others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it! Take care of yourselves until next time, and all the best,

Joz xx

PS I’m doing a work-in-progress at the Pleasance in Islington next Thursday and Friday. Come along if you like!

PPS I went to see the penthouse suite of the Isokon Building for the London Open House Festival and I think it’s my dream house. Does anyone know how I can live there?

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