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Mike Bartlett: Q&A

The Town writer Bartlett on why raw talent isn't quite enough, how to turn rejection into something good and why writers should look beyond themselves for motivation.

Published 25 April 2013.

What first inspired you to become a writer?

When I was young I used to watch a lot of television, and writing for me was connected to the ability to imagine and create worlds. It was always fiction that I loved the most, everything from sitcom to serious drama. And I think even as a child I knew that someone had sat down and written it. Then I started acting in school plays and found I could be part of the team who made it, which was even better.

How did you break into the industry?

I’ve worked in theatre since I was in my early twenties. I started as a director before focusing mostly on writing. After I’d had a number of plays on, in theatre and on the radio, I was approached by Simon Curtis, a theatre and television director, to work on an idea of Big Talk, that became The Town.

How important is networking? Is raw talent enough?

The writing has to come first. An hour spent getting better at writing is worth days hanging around at parties or bars – or even going to meetings. I really believe that. Because a fantastic, well-made script will serve the industry and the audience, and cost a lot less money. It will justify everyone’s investment. Raw talent isn’t enough, but I think honed talent, combined with practice and craft is what matters. It’s what I’m trying to do all the time, practice to get better.

 

"An hour spent getting better at writing is worth days hanging around at parties or bars – or even going to meetings."

 

What qualities does a writer need to succeed?

A reason to write that isn’t just money or self-expression. It doesn’t have to want to change the world necessarily (although why not!?), but I think you have to have an ambition for the work to reach out to people and make some kind of difference. With that drive you can overcome the inevitable rejection you encounter, and also put in the hours of practice and work.

Which part of writing The Town did you find the most challenging, and how did you overcome it?

The idea of the project was to make something a bit edgy and strange to go out at 9pm on ITV. As I hadn’t written television before, it was the combination of telling the story I wanted whilst at the same time trying to hold the attention of such a large audience, that was most challenging. That balance took a lot of work, and I learnt a huge amount along the way.

What have you learnt about writing so far that you wish you’d known at the start?

When I started I spent a long time worrying about other people, and competition – as it was emphasized to me very early on how many people were trying to be writers. I wish I’d just focused on getting better as a writer – as really that’s the only thing within your power.

What single piece of advice would you give to someone trying to break into screenwriting and get noticed?

There are actually a lot of people paid simply to look for really fantastic scripts and ideas – in all the major theatres, radio, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky. So it’s a matter of starting to write scripts that are so good they will have to notice. The better you are, the greater your chances will be. So the advice is probably to practice – write as much as you can, and when you think it’s deserves to be read and made, send it to everyone.

Mike Bartlett is nominated in the 2013 BAFTA TV Craft Awards Break-through Talent category for his role as Writer on The Town.

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