Hey! I’m Sarah Milton and I was on the 2019 4Screenwriting course. Do you remember that year? It’s when we weren’t all drowning in hand sanitiser and could hang out in the same room as our friends. What a world!
Pandemic aside though, Philip has kindly asked me to write a guest blog. When he emailed me, he’d put together a thorough and helpful list of wonderful ideas to inspire what I could write about. However, recently I’d tweeted offering my support to any writer with questions about applying for the course (as the closing date was approaching) and found myself reflecting on what I wish someone had told me before I started… So, I came back with a pitch of writing some of those thoughts up, and well, the course must have worked because my pitch sold!
By the time this blog is published, I think many of you reading this will have received word you didn’t get on the course this year and a handful of you will have been invited to interview. I want to caveat this with the fact that I had three consecutive no’s before I got a “yes”, and that is the general consensus with everyone I’ve spoken to who’s done the course: keep going, keep applying, keep hustling! I’ve jotted some advice down specifically for you too, below.
Unlike a few of my peers in the 2019 cohort, I had never, ever written for TV before… Ever. I didn’t actually know what a treatment was when I started. The script I submitted at the end of 2018 was my first attempt at a television pilot on an illegally downloaded old version of Final Draft (Don’t tell anyone though…). I had only ever written theatre before, and thought I’d have a whack at translating one of my plays into a screen format after trawling through the BBC Writers Room’s catalogue of free scripts. Having applied 4 years in a row, it was a genuine surprise when Philip invited me to interview for 4Screenwriting. It was pure shock when the email dropped inviting me on the actual course…
The next 6 months were truly incredible. Intense, overwhelming, joyous, inspiring and a complete whirlwind. And, as I look back on them, and the journey I’ve had since, there are some things I hope are useful for me to impart… Here goes nothing:
It’s OK to ask questions – Philip invites the most incredible speakers on your first intensive weekend. Really well reputed producers, development executives and writers. It’s fascinating, exhilarating and thus exhausting, so make sure you’re well rested for it. It’s most likely that 2021’s course will start on Zoom, but usually the course takes place in Channel 4’s boardroom. This is very exciting and you feel really special when they give you your branded lanyard for the day at reception, but this also made me really hesitant to ask questions. When I didn’t understand what people meant when they said “TX dates” or “slates”, I nodded along. However, on reflection, there was actually a lot of reluctance to ask questions in the room from all of us at first! If you find yourself nodding along or anxious to ask, I implore you to just go for it rather than frantically googling on your toilet breaks – it’s very likely someone in the room has the same query and is too scared to ask as well.
Your ego will try and get in your way – Similar to my point above about fearing asking questions, your ego and desire to please will try and takeover. It will make you second guess your gut instincts, and it will try and make you write an idea that you think will please Philip, your script editor, and ultimately Channel 4. Do not fall into this trap! You’re on the course because your voice struck a chord with the script readers this year – it’s your voice that they want. Write what you want to write, not what you think the industry wants to read… And that’s a given wherever you are as a writer. Your voice and mind are your USP and I reiterate this point below, as it’s important!
It’s not all about the scripts – Treatments, outlines and pitches are like marmite. You either love them or you loathe them. I used to be the latter, because I wasn’t good at them, because I’d never done one, let alone practised. In theatre, there’s a bit more fluidity and exploration in developing work, but in TV there isn’t as much give when you’re trying to sell an idea. I’ve since grown to enjoy writing pitches much more now I’ve started getting better at them. So, start now!
It’s not a competition – At the end of the course, there’s a wonderful night of drinks where you get to meet loads of industry folk, who are also all there to meet you and your fellow writers (although, the wine measures are very generous so that may also have something to do with the attendance rate…!). But, it’s not a competition, even though it may feel like an intense version of Supermarket Sweep at first when you’re trying to say hello to, and remember*, as many people as possible. Yes, it’s an opportunity to make connections but it’s also about celebrating that you’ve finished.
*I don’t mean to brag but I actually had a great technique for this night, and if you ever find yourself at a networking event, I do recommend it. When introduced, repeat their name and production company to them to help you plant it in your brain, and then every half hour/45 minutes, pop to the loo and write down all the names and their companies you can remember on your notes’ app so you can google their email and follow up the next day! I was so thankful I did this as I got a few generals from this before getting an agent, so try it!
The course never really ends – Philip will champion you forever, and if he liked the script you submitted but you didn’t get on the course, he will remember you. He will talk about you to other writers and industry professionals casually, like a proud guardian. I’ve lost count how many writers from previous years he’s mentioned in conversation and it’s from a genuine place of care and excitement around stories and their tellers. This is usually the same with the script editor you work with too.
Philip will always happily receive an email from you post course, or a tweet that calls on his experience or expertise if you didn’t get on the course. You will also make friends and peers for life that will enrich your understanding of the industry and you will be there for each other through the rejections (which will 100% still happen FYI! Read Annalisa D’Innella’s amazing three-step process for dealing with rejection here!) and the successes.
And finally some thoughts for those who weren’t successful this year:
-Utilise the BBC Writer’s Room script library. Read, read, read as well as write: it will make your scripts better. Particularly scripts you’ve seen on screen first, whether you like them or not, so you can see how the work has translated from the page.
-Get familiar with treatments and pitches and start practising them too! It’s just a great career tool to start mastering, and will serve you on and off this course. These are harder to get hold of, but ask your writing friends to share their successful pitches/treatments and also check out Chris Lang’s (Unforgotten, ITV) generous sharing of pitches, treatments and scripts on his website. I found these so helpful last year!
-Remember, your voice is the only thing that can sell you and help you stand out in submission windows like this. Write what you want to write. Not what you can write, not what you think is palatable or popular, not what you think will impress, but what shows off you and your passion and your voice. I got onto the course with a story I am still pitching to this day. I believe in it, can talk passionately about it, I know I won’t lose faith in it and it is inherently my voice, my dialogue and my style. Stick to your guns and trust your voice.
-However brilliant this course and its reputation is, remember, it is not the be all and end all and it certainly does not determine your worth or talent as a writer – none of these programmes do! So many working writers haven’t done this course. So many working writers haven’t done a BBC writers course. So many working writers do this course and still find their preference to be theatre work. If you love writing and want to be a writer, you will do it with or without courses like these. It’s so easy to lose the faith with every rejection, and it’s so easy to think it’s never going to happen if you don’t get on one of these courses, but that simply isn’t true.
I hope that was helpful – I’m sure many writers have shared similar thoughts over the years, but sometimes you do need to hear things more than once for them to fall into place. I certainly do!
If you’re reading this after the year our industry and our world has just had, you clearly love your work and you still believe in yourself…. Hold on to that – that’s the magic. Keep writing, keep going, keep sharing your voice. It will be worth it.
Thank you so much to Sarah for this brilliant, inspiring and incredibly helpful blog.
NB We will in fact be contacting all 4screenwriting applicants this coming week (the week of Dec 16th).
I will be taking a newsletter break over Christmas and the newsletter will be back on Friday Jan 8th. I hope you all have as good and enjoyable Christmas and New Year as possible, given the circumstances. Let’s all look forward to a very different 2021 and the wonderful prospect of being in rooms with people again!
I also want to say a massive thank you to everyone like Sarah who has contributed to this newsletter this year, to everyone who subscribes to and reads these newsletters and to everyone who has got in touch with me to carry on the discussions or send me kind, positive messages. Your feedback is hugely appreciated, particularly in the last few months. I look forward to resuming the conversation in 2021,
December 11th 2020