Thursday, February 01, 2007

Hard Labour

Sidney Sheldon, who died yesterday, was one of the most prolific and successful novelists of his time. His books might not have been everyone’s cup of tea (they certainly weren’t mine) but his skill was undeniable.

Translated into 51 languages, he sold a whopping 300,000,000 copies of what were often disparagingly referred to as ‘pot-boilers.’

But he was a diligent craftsman at his trade and well deserved his success. Less well-known were his contributions to the film and television media.

After failing to get a number of his short stories published, he contemplated suicide, a feeling often shared my many as they regard their collection of rejection slips. His father talked him out of it and he got himself a job as an usher in a cinema. Being forced to watch repeatedly some of the offerings, he decided that he could do better and turned his hand to that most difficult of all written media, screenplay writing.

The difficulties don’t become apparent until you try it for yourself. I know, I’ve tried!

The problem is that unlike a book, which is a one man band affair, a movie or television programme are more like a 124 man band affair.

A playwright concerns himself with dialogue, a few stage directions and appeasing the director’s ego.

In film making, dependent at the stage that the writer is involved, it becomes more like the rowdy board meeting of a desperate company trying to stave off bankruptcy. It takes a remarkably determined author to emerge unscathed.

But Sidney did – and some of his work, if hardly in the style of Ibsen – became as well-known as his later novels. His early movies were practically invisible Grade B efforts but latterly he wrote and co-authored some far more substantial efforts, the movie of ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ being one of the more successful. On television, ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ was a lightweight but thoroughly enjoyable series.

But any prospective and aspiring author should take note that his success did not come by sitting around awaiting for inspiration to strike. Even up to the last years of his life he regularly put in a nine hour working day.

It’s perspiration, not inspiration, that turns out best-sellers.


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