This fortnight I’m delighted to share with you a piece by screenwriter CELIA MORGAN, who was on the 2020 Channel 4 screenwriting course.
Celia said, ‘I first felt the need to explain who I am and how I got here. So I ended up just doing that – with tips and advice based on my experience smattered in along the way. I’ve found that people really enjoy hearing that I made a career change later in life (I didn’t think mid thirties counted as later in life – thought I was still young – but apparently it does) and especially to hear that it actually worked out. So I’ve just written about what happened and how. Hope it’s ok.’
As you’ll see, it’s very much more than OK – it’s an incredibly helpful, interesting insight into how she navigated her way to becoming a professional screenwriter.
‘At the time that I’m writing this, I’m an agented writer with six script commissions and two development deals under my belt. That all happened over the last 18 months, but has been 15 years in the making. There is no single route to becoming a career TV writer, but I thought it might be useful to tell you about how it happened for me. Not as a guide, but maybe as inspiration to keep striving toward what you love, even if the path is long and bumpy.
At the time that I applied for the 4Screenwriting 2020 course, I had completed a Masters in Writing for Stage & Broadcast in 2006, then worked a few years writing content for dating websites, moved on to create TV subtitles for four years, catalogued BBC News content for about two years, spent a short stint as a runner on Newsnight, planned continuity links for a broadcaster for a couple more years, then got a coordinator role in development at the BBC. After a long slog of moving around the giant machine of television, in varied and often low paying jobs, I decided to leave London, find affordable rent and pack it all in, firm in the knowledge that just being a part of the industry was never going to give me any special access to a career in writing for TV.
One thing that remained true throughout that journey was that writing competitions have always been a great way for new writers to gain recognition in the industry. So I wrote a few terrible plays (having never wanted to be a playwright, but knowing it was the primary route into TV when I started out) that, rightly, made no headway on the theatre submission circuit. I eventually started getting long and shortlisted for competitions, but ran out of steam and stopped writing entirely (unless you count a weird blog of poetry and tuba playing – but let’s not count the blog).
I never really stopped being a writer though, despite giving up on trying to make a career out of it, because I loved telling stories. I loved entertaining friends with tales of the latest stupidness situations that I’d gotten myself into. I love to make people laugh and I’ve always found that I make the most meaningful relationships when I’m conveying emotion in a pure and sensitive way. I knew that if I applied this to my writing and started to put myself on the page – not just what I thought the industry was looking for – then I’d be able to write a decent script.
The next step, after quitting my job, was to take a short course at the NFTS Scotland in pilot writing. I initially rejected the idea of this course because I simply could not afford it and hated the fact that my economic status ruled me out of access to something that could be so useful to my career. There were, however, bursaries available and I was encouraged to apply by the warm and lovely team there, and gained a place. The course was incredibly useful for a number of reasons, but one of the biggest was the access to peer critique. Each day we read out new pages of our scripts and discussed them immediately after. If you are unable to do such a course, but have access to a peer group of writers, I would highly recommend doing this as it enables you to quickly hone your craft. First of all, you don’t want to embarrass yourself in front of your peers so you try to impress with every page, second of all, the ability to instantly see how your words connect (or don’t connect) in the way that you intend saves you a lot of time on redrafts.
With this completed script, I started submitting to competitions and became a joint winner on the Triforce Writerslam and gained a place on the 4Screenwriting 2020 Course. When I think about this script, compared to the previously longlisted/shortlisted scripts earlier in my career, I believe that this one resonated with readers so much more because it was the first time I put my authentic self on the page. I know this sounds cheesy, and I hated hearing writers say things like this when I was sat there not cutting through in competitions, but this was the first time I stopped writing what I thought I was supposed to write and instead wrote about what passionately meant something to me. I can say, honestly, that it wasn’t the most technically refined script you’ll ever read, but it told the reader exactly who I am and what I care about, and there’s only one me, so it felt fresh and unique (so I’ve been told).
The next part of my journey was getting an agent. This felt relatively easy because I was now on their radar, but in truth, my agent was the only agent that spoke to me at the competition finale event. There were others there, but they weren’t interested in me, even after being announced a winner, so it was a quick lesson in the fact that winning offers no guarantees. After doing some research on the agency and a meeting with the agent that was interested, I was fortunate to find that we were a great fit. The relationship between client and agent is a personal one, so even if all of those in the room that night had wanted to speak to me, I believe I still would have signed with my current agent. From hearing my work and requesting further samples, he knew that we had a shared vision of the type of work we want to put out in the industry and he knew that he had the right contacts to benefit my career progression. So it worked. If you are in the position of looking for/getting an agent, I would strongly recommend finding a personal match to your needs, not just someone you’ve heard is good, or your friend signed with, or has a higher profile than others. Take the time to ensure you are suited to each other.
The 4Screenwriting course itself was a brilliantly warm and nurturing experience. Here, I had the opportunity to push the boundaries and write a much more ambitious script than my first one. It was scary, but this was the perfect environment to take that risk as you have people by your side (and on your side) every step of the way. As a result, I had my second spec script ready to showcase a broader range of what I am capable of in my writing. Off the back of this I have had meetings with execs from some of the biggest indies in the business, more still are being requested, and I’ve had expressions of interest about rooms on a variety of projects and shows coming up in the pipeline.
I’ll finish with a little bit about those commissions that I mentioned at the top and how they came about. My first two commissions happened off the back of both networking and the competition wins. Someone that I had previously connected with heard about the wins and put me in contact with script editors looking for new writers – I interviewed, got invited to story conferences, contributed ideas, then gained a commission on the two shows.
The third and fourth commissions came directly through my agent. The companies contacted him looking for new writers, requested my sample scripts, and then requested to meet/interview me. One interview actually didn’t go well for the project originally intended, but they really liked me and felt that I would be a good fit for something else they were working on and commissioned me for that instead. The other interview landed me the chance to write a shadow script on a continuing drama. That went well, so I was next invited to contribute to short-term and long-term story conferences, pitch storylines, and now I am working on my episode commission.
The fifth and sixth commissions came off the back of recommendations from the second and third. I had proven my ability on those projects and got offered more work as a result – with those offers all coming through and being negotiated by my agent.
My agent receives many requests to read my work, sometimes for consideration onto new writing schemes, other times for consideration to write in rooms on existing or upcoming shows. Many times I’ll meet with execs and they’ll decide that, actually, I’m not what they are looking for, or they’ll simply read my sample and decide not to meet with me at all. Rejection is a huge part of the process, but if you keep learning through every project and stay passionate about the stories you tell, something else always tends to come along.
I wasn’t sure that I’d ever be sat here speaking as a full time television writer, and I’ve had some major blows to my confidence along the way, but I always wanted to keep learning and keep telling stories, so I did. There will never be any guarantee that you’ll get work or make a long-term career, but if it’s important to you, and you are able to, then you owe it to yourself to try.
My Quick Tips: Watch lots of TV and film. Listen to podcasts. Know what’s popular on TV. Read books. Network. Go outside and meet non-industry people. Listen to people. Visit places. Have hobbies. Have an open mind. Be a nice person.’
A huge thank you to Celia for her generosity in taking the time to write this and for allowing me to share it with you. (Celia is @paperpartybag on Twitter).
The next newsletter will be on Friday May 14th.
April 30th 2021