Alex: One of the hardest skills for a writer is learning how to accept and use criticism. What do you try to keep in mind when you’re getting feedback from above? From below? From other disciplines? How do you get and use feedback?
Jon: The key thing for me about feedback is not to listen to people’s advice, but to try to understand their problems. I mean, sometimes people have good advice, and good ideas, and you should take those, but usually all feedback is an emotional reaction to something, and you have to unpick what that something was before you can deal with it. “I found the story slow” is often code for “I didn’t like the main character”, that kind of thing.
And I try not to be too precious about anything I write. Years ago, I remember hearing an interview with Tony Gilroy, the writer/director of Michael Clayton, a pretty good movie from about 15 years ago. He’d written screenplays before and the interview asked, did you take on the directing role because you were sick of people changing your scripts? And his response was, “changing the script doesn’t matter; as a writer you’re always looking to trade up.”
I love that. Forget the bullshit idea that you’re a genius creating masterworks; or that your truth is the one worth telling; or that there’s a perfect sentence out there… you lay out the thing as best you can, and then you look for ways to trade up, and you keep doing that, until you can’t face it anymore, and then you’re done.
Alex: The auteur theory has done so much damage to filmmaking. You can’t make a film in Canada without federal and provincial support, and in Quebec, the people that hand out the provincial support prefer to give their money to writer-directors. But a film gains a lot from having a writer and director who want the same result but don’t necessarily agree how to do it. If you don’t agree, often you come up with a third solution which is fresher and better.
Jon: I love working collaboratively; it’s one of my favourite things about inkle, and my partnership with Joseph as been so creatively beneficial to my writing, despite the fact he’s not especially interested in writing!
Alex: I think to be a successful writer, you either need to find out which of the things that you love writing are the ones that other people really want you to write; or you need to learn to love writing the things you have to write. That sounds unartistic, but it’s not. When I began as a writer, I loved writing action, and not that interested in creating dramatic moments. I kind of live for dramatic writing now, and it seems to be one of the things people like about what I do.
Jon: When I was younger I would have spat and fumed at the idea of writing things which “aren’t me” - other people can do that, so what’s the point? Then after ten years of no one reading anything I wrote, I think I came around to the idea that maybe I’d be happy to write anything, really. Now, I quite like spinning whatever I need to write into a me-ish version of it. But more than anything, I’ve realised that I’m still very much learning, and always will be. I still don’t feel like a “competent” writer, even though I know rationally that I’ve completed quite a lot of projects by this point. I find that quite reassuring, to be honest: I’m never going to feel like I know what I’m doing, so I can stop worrying about it.
Alex: You’ve hired some fantastic writers for your games, e.g. Meg Jayanth on 80 Days. What do you look for in hiring a writer, and how do you go about finding that?
Jon: I’m honestly not sure, but I’m certainly very happy with our hit rate so far. I’ve done three collaborations - with Meg Jayanth on 80 Days, Graham Roberston on Sorcery! 4, and Katherine Neil on Over the Alps. In each case, going in, I was absolutely certain that my fellow writer was going to be perfect for the game, and in each case they were better than I’d hoped.
I think I go into hiring a writer with a strong sense of what their strengths are and what kind of brief they’ll enjoy: what will allow them to shine. That said, though, they’re good writers and highly professional, and would turn out great performances over a wide range of projects, and I can’t really take credit for that.
Otherwise, I knew them as humans before knowing them as writers, and they were all empathetic, and intelligent and widely read. I think also they were people who I could communicate with easily - now I come to write that down, I wonder if that isn’t really the main point, actually.
Alex: Had you run into them at conferences? Or university? Or in the creative community at large?
Jon: Different places - I met Meg at an industry meet up in the earliest days of inkle, then happened to work with her again on a freelance design gig; I met Katherine through Jennifer Schneidereit who runs Nyamnyam; I met Graham on a writer’s course that I co-led with David Varela. Networks, I suppose, but all professional ones. God, I hate COVID.