"Never give up" is the kind of thing you often hear people say, whether it’s Sylvester Stallone in Rocky Balboa, Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness or someone who likes your script but not enough to actually produce it. However, in real life, unlike the movies, when things don’t go to plan no subtle background music kicks in to emphasise that in half an hour’s time you will bounce back and achieve your dreams.

As a writer, you’re often left to get on with never-giving-up on your own, perhaps accompanied by the odd screenwriting book, which will also tell you to never give up – partly because its writer wants you to buy another book called Never Give Up on Buying Books About Never Giving Up.

I have a collection of scriptwriting books from the 1960s to the 1990s. I often wonder what happened to all the writers who used to own them. Did they never give up? One of the books (Writing for the BBC), by Norman Longmate had nine re-prints over 30-odd years. Thousands of people must have owned a copy. They can’t all have got commissions: if they had, there would be so many dramas, comedies and short stories on the BBC that there wouldn’t be room for anything else. Either these writers stopped writing or they continued with little or no recognition, perhaps for the whole of their lives. Is that sad? Or inspiring? Or a bit of both?

J K Rowling

There are lots of stories about famous writers and artists who were initially rejected but persevered and went on to become very successful: Stephen King, JK Rowling, Walt Disney, The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Madonna are just a few. Jarvis Cocker was singing about waiting for his life to take off, back in 1992 after over a decade of being in Pulp. It wasn’t until 1995 that the band had a number one album. It would clearly have been a mistake for him to have given up, but of course it’s easy to say that with hindsight.

Damon Albarn and Jarvis Cocker in 1995

"Never give up, never surrender," characters in the comedy Galaxy Quest say whenever they face a seemingly impossible situation, as if a go-getter attitude alone can break down locked doors or blow up enemy spacecraft. However, in real life persevering against the odds can seem like a never-ending and not particularly fruitful process. David Ferguson sums it up brilliantly in an article for The Onion. "Find the thing you’re most passionate about, then do it on nights and weekends for the rest of your life," it begins, continuing: "…pursue those dreams when you only have enough energy to change out of your work clothes and make yourself a half-assed dinner before passing out."

A while ago I asked agent Jean Kitson about whether writers should ever give up. She said this: "The absolute worst that can happen is that you’ll spend a chunk of your time doing something creative that you love, and for a lot of people it may never go any further than that. But if you don’t consider your writing a waste of time in itself, if it’s feeding a need in you, then it is not wasted."

After entering the Alfred Bradley Award on three previous occasions, Ian Townsend finally managed to win its special Writersroom prize this year. I asked what had stopped him from giving up. "I always believed I was a writer," he says, "it’s not just something I do, it’s who I am. I was determined to prove a lot of people wrong – and also a few people right! – and demonstrate what I was capable of." Having things he wanted to say, rather than entering competitions for the sake of it – as he had in the past – also helped. "It focused my writing," he says, as did getting feedback on his work. "Many people told me I could write, but it wasn’t until somebody told me what was wrong with my writing that I took a chance and grew, as did my confidence and self-belief."

Ian Townsend - winner, special Writersroom Prize for the Alfred Bradley Bursary Award

I imagine that most people who write scripts want to see them produced but, as Ian points out, getting a commission isn’t the only way to achieve this. "I self-produced and put on my own plays for years," he explains. However, his journey hasn’t been easy. "I will be honest, the last two years have been a real struggle financially," he says. "There have been low times of giving up and thinking 'what the hell am I doing?'" Like most writers, he has sometimes doubted himself and his work. "I have stopped before," he says, "then something has sparked me into life – an idea, a story, a glimpse of success – and then I’m off again." Would he have carried on forever, even if he hadn’t been recognised by an organisation such as the BBC Writersroom? "I love writing," he says, "In short, probably!"

Although it obviously helps, you don’t have to be produced, paid or even read to keep writing, if that’s what you enjoy doing. People might reject you but they can’t stop you. After not getting past the initial round of a recent Writersroom sift, new writer Emma commented: "I’m delighted! It’s my first ever rejection slip; in my mind, that’s an important milestone. It means I finished something. It means I submitted it. It means I exposed myself to scrutiny. It’s an achievement! I’m over the moon, and it’s inspired me to crack on with my next one…"

Hollywood sign

Perhaps the reason why there are so many films about heroes fighting to achieve their dreams is that their stories are far more appealing than ones about people giving up. Lots of Hollywood blockbusters would have us believe that you can have anything you want if only you work hard enough for it. Maybe that's why writers, who perhaps battle with rejection more than the rest of us, keep creating them. "Do, or do not," George Lucas has Yoda say in The Empire Strikes Back. "There is no try."

Sally blogs about theatre, film, TV and other stuff here

Follow her on Twitter @sallystott

Comments

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  • Comment number 25. Posted by mhepton

    on 26 Apr 2014 06:48

    agree with brian t , the site is good for advice and the opportunities page, layout advice and many other things. As a way to get work filmed or made, the chances are slim. I really think its more a question of who you know, eg met a BBC producer at friends dinner.

    Perhaps the answer is for the BBC to make a "producers pitch" TV show where we can turn up
    and give our five cents worth or Producers Dine With Me ..writers invited to dine with different producers every night.

    Come to think of it there not bad ideas..oh erm...better do a quick (C).

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  • Comment number 24. Posted by Developmentbelle

    on 25 Apr 2014 11:39

    Here it is, people: there's a wonderful thing called the Internet! You can write a blog, self-publish your own stories and books (as one EL James did...) - and that includes cartoons; you can shoot a film on an iPhone and upload it to Youtube or Vimeo. With social media, it's perfectly possible to bypass traditional routes and get your work out there. Stop crying into your beer and start surfing...

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  • Comment number 23. Posted by Brian T

    on 24 Apr 2014 23:13

    Surely the whole point of writers' room is that it should judge submissions purely on the quality of the writing. It should not matter if somebody has proactively got a previous play to the fringe or not.The truth is that people (readers) are afraid of trusting their judgement and so it's easier for them to deal with writers with a track record, because if it all goes tits up, they can say 'well s/he did have a track record'. The question is: how does a writer get a track record? The answer, in my opinion, is a mixture of talent, luck and, very importantly, who you know. It is my opinion that sending work to the writers room is basically a waste of time and that the whole enterprise, is, by and large, a window dressing exercise, a way for the BBC to claim that it is always seeking out new talent.

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  • Comment number 22. Posted by Alex King

    on 24 Apr 2014 15:41

    On the subject of should writers ever give up. Well the answer is clearly Yes, No and Maybe.

    Those who send scripts into the BBC or anywhere, will be a jolly eclectic bunch of people. Some will be hard core writers who do it for a living, some in-between and others like me, who've written two scripts as a mild distraction from life.

    Over the course of the year from behind the colourful confectionary curtain, Writers Room readers will peruse a mix of good, bad and down right ugly scripts. Those writers who get rejected will either see some improvements they can make to their scripts and tweak away, or perhaps decide to get out there and push their scripts by some other means; or just have a hissy fit and stop listening to Radio 4.

    There's nothing wrong with having a desire to be a writer, or surreptitiously claiming to be one. But whether your about to send in your hundredth script, or your third, we all know that as they say with the lottery, "You got to be in it, to win it."

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  • Comment number 21. Posted by tempt44

    on 24 Apr 2014 11:13

    I often wonder why so many people want to be writers. When I began, before home computers and laptops where everywhere, there were less writers. Sometimes I think our means to produce has actually created more people who fancy trying their hand at writing. My life has come full circle and returned to the world of words. It isn't an easy one and my heart sinks when I see certain writers encouraged over others because their face fits. I know this is a cynical, or possibly paranoid, view but I'm not the only one who has felt like that. But do I give up? Never. I've had enough encouragement to know that I've got 'something' but really it is beyond just that. I think it is the joy of starting a fresh new idea that comes from that amazing creative house that is in all our heads. Never give up!

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  • Comment number 20. Posted by FountainJoe

    on 23 Apr 2014 15:46

    19.

    Hey Chris, not particularly you as I've seen various comments from people around that subject.

    For what it's worth, my opinion is that WR specifically keeps putting up blogs from working writers and nearly all of them in some way talk about how they were proactive, did something at the fringe, tried to get a short off the ground etc. Seeing as these are the writers getting work the message to me is 'go out there and make something happen rather than simply waiting for us to email you.' Like you say, doing that actually makes you a better writer as you're working with other people and getting feedback and audience response.

    Hopefully that experience will improve your script that you're sending to the WR and other places.

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  • Comment number 19. Posted by Chris Neville-Smith

    on 23 Apr 2014 14:54

    17. FountainJoe, I know perfectly well you're referring to me, and as I've made it clear repeatedly, this is a problem throughout script rooms in particular, not just BBC Writersroom. Writersroom is slightly better than most on this front - Sally and Abigail I do believe are genuinely supportive of that approach - but most of mentions of self-production seem to be incidental. Usually the mentions I read in author profiles seem more interested in bigging up the latest golden boy than advice for others on how to get started.

    Still, I can easily be proven wrong on that front - they just just need to write something that encourages aspiring writers to get started that way which is whole-hearted, proactive, and non-incidental - in fact, I'd say that should have just as much emphasis on how to write a script in the first place. And I would LOVE to be proven wrong on this point.

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  • Comment number 18. Posted by Jackie Bedford

    on 23 Apr 2014 11:19

    I've attended various courses with Euroscript and one of the more incisive comments from the lecturer was that it isn't the best writers that succeed in having their work on TV or the screen.....it's the most persistent.

    I've done some cold calling of directors who aren't invariably pleased to hear from me. It makes me feel like a brush salesman or as if I'm selling double glazing.

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  • Comment number 17. Posted by FountainJoe

    on 23 Apr 2014 10:10

    And another thing...

    There have been a number of comments on the recent WR blogs about how the WR only promotes the submit-rejection-submit-hope for success-rejection model of MAKING IT. Given that many of the blogs the WR commissions with working writers show they cut their teeth on fringe theatre, short films etc, couldn't that mean the WR is trying to tell us something? That those that make progress don't just do the submit-rejection route.

    If these blogs are meant to be a debate and inspire writers then there's your inspiration.

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  • Comment number 16. Posted by FountainJoe

    on 23 Apr 2014 09:57

    We seem to get carried away with the idea of MAKING IT, which is what, getting a contract and a cheque? If you get a commission, you've still go to write the next one and the next one and the next one...

    Before asking the question should you give up it's perhaps more important to ask why do you write in the first place? Are you writing to get a commission and a bag of cash, or cos you like the idea of 'being a writer' (met a few of those) or to escape the day job, or cos you have something to say/problem to work out/trying to understand the world/love telling stories?

    Maybe if you come to an understanding about why you want/need to write then you'll work out whether you should keep going.

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