This is Part 2 of the notes from the guest speakers talks at the 1st weekend of the Channel 4 screenwriting course in January.
THE WRITING PROCESS
If beat sheets don’t come naturally to you, then get used to faking it.
In your first draft you should aim to get it all out, get what it is on the page, the heart of it. This is the key responsibility of the writer and script editor. Your second draft will constitute the heavy-lifting of honing, re-shaping and improving. Subsequent drafts should be more about fiddling with the edges, with tweaks and amends.
Expensive adjectives often get cut in shooting scripts.
The process of TV writing starts publicly with pitching (which most writers hate and find difficult but is essential as it is the communication of a complex idea in its most simplified form). Then the process becomes intensely private and lonely. Before becoming extremely public again. These transitions are difficult as everyone has an opinion about what should happen in your work.
It’s important to learn structure, and then unlearn it.
Stories are about people. You have to find the beating heart and pull those threads into a wild brave form.
It’s a good idea to cut things that make it too easy for your characters.
I hate exposition. Can’t bear it. I try everything to strip it out in the edit. That’s my bugbear, when you’re telling people things, or the plot is overlaid instead of being derived from character. It can cause problems on set with actors if they don’t feel it is real, their instinct is to resist it and then you need to change things on the fly.
When characters are worn and flawed is when it really works. When plot is like a breath.
The thing that I’ve learnt from editing is that a lot of dialogue always gets cut, no matter how much you love it. I often encourage writers to cut unnecessary dialogue. Sometimes things work well on the page but don’t fit with the visual tone of a piece.
Be careful when taking a note. Don’t do so unquestioningly and lose the good stuff. Gauge whether you’re at the revolution or evolution stage.
There’s no such thing as a bad note. You don’t have to accept all notes though. You can challenge them, but you must have a reason why. Even if you don’t agree, they are signalling that something is wrong. If someone is asking a question of your script, listen to it, but you don’t have to agree with the answer.
WHAT ARE DRAMA COMMISSIONERS LOOKING FOR?
In relationship-based shows, finding a hooky pitch is one of the hardest things in TV.
I suspect that long-form big story dramas told in shorter episodes will be a coming trend as telecommunication companies around the world are looking to commission new dramas.
There is so much demand for content now, that there is a lot of interest in new writers. There are many more places nowadays that want dramas for younger audiences. With the amount of drama out there, a good clear grabby concept that differentiates itself from the rest is vital.
There is no science to the commissioning process. Commissioning Editors develop relationships with writers and producers but usually they don’t know what they want until they see it. They then help develop it to suit their channel and lobby for it with the head of the channel – arguing both on grounds of commercial viability and taste. Once commissioned, the Commissioning Editor will work like an uncredited Executive Producer giving notes at every stage.
Meetings are very important – go with a) ideas and b) an open mind and see where the conversation takes you. Is there chemistry and rapport? It’s so important to be able to talk and communicate well to cement relationships.
At meetings have ideas ready, it would be weird as a new writer if you came to a meeting without ideas to pitch. Sometimes people don’t want you to pitch. If the production company likes you and resonates with you, they might invite you to pitch. If they don’t, it’s fine to ask if they want you to pitch or ask what kind of thing they are looking for and then follow it up after you’ve thought about it.
When meeting producers or broadcasters, it’s always helpful to have ideas. But not so fully-formed an idea that they don’t feel they could have any input.
Meetings in the UK tend to be more relaxed than those in the US, often it is just a general chat. But it’s good to clarify at the beginning if you have any ideas that you are working on. Don’t forget to ask about them – do your homework and discuss their shows. You’re both trying to work out if you’re the kind of people they want to work with! If they mention they are playing with an idea, you could offer to send them a short pitch doc as follow-up from the meeting.
Increasingly the UK is adopting the American writers’ room model. But the British version is still a work-in-progress. By comparison we do not pay as much and nor are our writers as empowered.
Writers’ rooms can be great, but in this country we’re still working out how to do them properly. Not all writers’ rooms are created equal. You have to judge where you are and what you can get out of it – is it a good opportunity for you? On the one hand, collaboration can be fun, on the other, you will have your ideas harvested for little pay or credit.
Choosing an agent is about chemistry, like finding a therapist. Go with your gut. It’s better to have an agent than not. But it’s awful to have one you don’t get on with. So be choosy and shop around. Do they get your work? Do they understand your ambition? Do they care about your well-being? It’s okay to ask other writers with an agent what they think of them.
I said ‘yes’ to the first agent that approached me. But the relationship just wasn’t productive and so I ended up moving agents which was horrible. Production companies read work from agents they respect and not from those they don’t. A good agent will do a lot of the work for you, but you also must put in the hours – at networking events and being prepared when you go in for meetings with producers.
Don’t waste your time chasing agents, put your energy into your craft and at the right time an agent will come to you. When that “right time” is, is different for every writer. Every writer has their own journey.
If you’re determined to approach an agent, then do your research – use Google, imdb, the agent’s website, even call the agent’s assistant and inquire about what kind of people they work with and the type of writers they might be looking for. If you approach an agent yourself, you should be respectful and knowledgeable – say you think you might be a good fit because they represent X, Y & Z. A little bit of research goes a long way.
The relationship with an agent can be intense – both lovely and horrible at times. It can be exhausting and amazing. Therefore you need to trust them.
Your agent is there to read first drafts before they are first drafts. To give an opinion on what it is or should be or if there’s already similar work out there.
As an agent you’ve got to show your writers all the opportunities open to them and advise them what to do. But, ultimately, it’s the writer’s decision how much work to take on or whether to say “no”.
If an agent thinks a production company does good work and will treat their clients well, that would drive the decision to try and match producer and talent to see if they can grow and develop from there.
The Writers Guild of Great Britain (WGGB) offer free advice for un-agented writers.
If you haven’t got an agent, don’t worry. Take your time and choose who’s right for you. You’re allowed to take your time and make a decision.
Agents are really, really important. The most common way a production company is introduced to new writers is through agents. You should put a lot of energy into work that will get you an agent.
If you write well, an agent will want you. If an agent rejects you, you might not be good enough yet. So keep writing.
THE ‘SPEC’ SCRIPT
Your spec script is really important. If possible have more than one so you can show off your range. If not, then write one that contains both comedy and drama.
It’s healthy to have more than one spec script and/or idea in development, because then you’ll be less heart-broken when one project founders.
If producers don’t see you as a particular type of writer, but you think they’re wrong, then it’s not a bad idea to write a spec script that puts you in the light you want to be seen in.
Your calling card script is probably the most important thing you will ever write – even if it never gets made.
If you can write funny, try and write funny. If you are a new writer who can make a reader laugh, they won’t care about your lack of experience.
Choose your spec script carefully. Don’t write a comedy script if you don’t want a career in comedy. The kind of show you want to make should be your calling card script.
A huge thank you to the excellent Ray McBride for writing up these notes!
Finally a brief reminder that the deadline for TRIBUTE podcast series 2 – a series of dramatic audio monologues under the umbrella title, ‘LOVE – FIRST CONNECTION’, is midnight on March 17th. I won’t be accepting any scripts after then. To all of you who have already submitted a script or who are going to – thank you so much.
The next newsletter will be on Friday March 22nd.
All the best
March 8th 2019