Jan 26th & 27th was the 1st weekend of this year’s CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE and, as ever, we had some brilliant guest speakers coming into Channel 4 to impart their wisdom to this year’s 12 writers. We had a great mix of writers (mainly) but also a director, producers, script editors, literary agents. Here is a selection of some of the instructive and inspiring things they said –
THE WRITER’S WORKING LIFE
It’s good to have time to think. But it’s also good to have tight deadlines that motivate you to get work done. Don’t be a perfectionist, it’s probably already better than you think it is.
Never believe it’s real until it’s being shot. Assume it’s never gonna happen.
When working on other people’s shows – watch the show, know its characters and tone, ask to see previous scripts, be collaborative in the room and share ideas, take the opportunity to be a chameleon by showing you can ape the style of the showrunner, and be ready to be over-written. Be generous, as you are serving their vision.
Sometimes it’s healthy to make it artificially hard for yourself during the writing process, so when the “bin fire” of production starts you’re acclimatized to the stress.
Insecurity and arrogance is the odd mixture of a writer, this can sometimes be hard to manage – both for themselves and others.
In TV, writers are still the primary creative unit. However, they are often badly treated.
Remember: It is no longer mandatory for artists to be tossers of any sort.
As a writer you have a responsibility to find yourself in every story you tell.
If you have a deadline, keep it. If you can’t keep it, then be honest with your editor before the deadline so that they can manage expectations around it.
Really choose your production company well – research it, find out who its people are and what they’ve done. This is your due diligence for every meeting. Find those people that get you and bring out the best in you – and then hang on to them. Almost all your work throughout your career will be generated by your relationships with people.
If you have a project in development with a production company and it becomes apparent that they don’t get it, then run down the clock and go find your people.
A script is not literature. If it doesn’t get made, it doesn’t exist.
Writing episodes for a continuing drama series can be a great way to hone your craft and acquire the same vocabulary as those whose job it is to provide notes on your work.
Just like working in a writers’ room, working on continuing drama is a collaborative experience that teaches you to write in a pre-existing tone or style, telling stories in a voice that is not your own.
It’s not uncommon to get “note rage”. You have to step away, take a breath, then go back. You never do all the notes as written, but you always address them in your own way. Even if you don’t agree with the specifics of a note, it is usually flagging something that isn’t working (even if it’s not for the reason the note-giver thinks). You should interrogate the notes you get and it’s good to push back. But choose your battles. It takes a while to learn to pitch your rage appropriately.
Writing doesn’t stop once production begins. Working in the edit to reshape an episode or find its rhythm was a revelation, sometimes small cuts can totally change the energy of a scene, sometimes new material needs to be written to smooth out these cuts.
Working on a continuing drama series can very quickly give you a grounding in screen storytelling and teach you how to work in a machine while retaining part of yourself. Finding the tone of that machine without losing your voice is a valuable skill.
All you can ever do is try to tell the kind of stories you would want to watch.
A lot of the best writers see the world in a slightly different way which is both recognizable and original. As a producer, your job is to harness that difference rather than bash a square peg into a round hole.
Working on something you’re not passionate about really does show on the page.
If you are lucky enough to have different production companies bidding over a script, ask yourself which company’s work do you like best? Who gets it? Who has the best ideas on where to take it?
It feels mad when you’re just starting out saying “no” to people. But it’s important to be aware of your time and think about what you can do realistically.
As a professional screenwriter there are so many different levels and varieties of experience out there – story rooms, writing episodes on series, developing your own projects.
As a writer-for-hire, you need to choose your shows carefully. With which one do you think you could have the most fun? Ensure you can buy into it, but at the same time it’s not your baby so you can be objective. But if you commit to too much, or shows you’re not passionate about, you might end up having to say “no” to better projects and more interesting opportunities.
Read as many scripts as you can, for example – pdfs on the BBC Writers Room or Simply Scripts.
SVODs and British broadcasters have different approaches – the SVODs are quicker, more business-like and less interested in development; the broadcasters are slower but more hands-on.
Working on any kind of show, you have to be flexible and able to address lots of notes and sometimes make significant story changes. This is true in prep, while shooting and in post. You are utilized all the way up to the end.
I like to read scripts from some of my favourite shows.
As you go into production, you need to learn not to be precious as things always change in shooting and edit. It can be a tricky time as you will need to be on-call for tweaks and amends.
I like to watch the rushes to see what works for the actors, what they have difficulties with. Sometimes you forget that the end goal is for your work to be read aloud.
It’s good to have writer friends with whom to share advice and commiserate. But keep your bad experiences off Twitter!
Life as a writer is hard. There are very few good screenwriters. A lot of the scripts I work on (as a producer) don’t end up being good enough and that’s why they don’t get made. But if you write something good, it’s not hard to break into the industry.
On average, I’d say the ratio is 1:10 in terms of shows in development to shows that get made.
Being collaborative is very important, but you do not have to agree with everything and it’s fine to push back on notes. People respect writers with strong feelings, but don’t push back as a knee-jerk reaction. Often your collaborators will be very experienced, and their opinions will be worth listening to. But if anyone tells you they have story rules you must follow, it’s bullshit.
Your script editor is possibly the most important person you work with. Be upfront about your insecurities, state how you like to work, be collaborative, take criticism and recognize a good idea when it is offered. In return they will offer a forensic knowledge of the script which is incredibly helpful for scheduling, continuity, and amends as production nears.
The relationship with your script editor is incredibly important. So, if it’s not working, get another one. But when it does work, you can form an intimate and creative unit – which can sometimes be thrilling but can sometimes risk losing objectivity. So, as a script editor, you need to remember you work for the show, rather than the writer. Your responsibility is to the work.
The skill of giving a note is that it should never be prescriptive. The skill of taking a note is listening to what is underneath it.
To get your head around the dynamics of an adaptation, it’s a good exercise to watch the finished adaptation alongside reading the source novel.
When adapting a novel, you have to be respectful of the source material, but you also bring your own agenda to it.
The next newsletter will be on March 8th and will be Part 2 of this feedback from the Channel 4 screenwriting course 1st weekend – with thoughts on literary agents, the writing process, the spec script, writers rooms & more!
All the best
February 22nd 2019