At the end of January we had three days on zoom with a number of industry guests for the 1st ‘weekend’ of the 2021 CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE. This is an opportunity for the writers and script editors to learn more about TV drama – both the craft and the industry – from some of the people making the best work – writers, producers, script editors, a literary agent, a director…
Below are some quotes and thoughts from the three days that I hope will be helpful and inspiring. They are a slightly random selection of quotes that I hope you will useful and interestingly provocative. Please realise that these were said by a lot of different people – so there may be contradictions and inconsistencies – but I hope they will still prove interesting.
This covers less than half of the sessions so I will return to this at a later date.
(NB Huge thanks to Tamar Saphra for writing up the notes of the sessions)
Different cultures / practices of UK vs US writers rooms – question of role of script editor, how the writing cultures in both industries is so different. In USA, being a writer is a full-time staff job. You cannot work on more than one project at once. You’re contracted to one show and it is ‘a job’ with a pension and healthcare etc.
In the UK, being a writer is much more about ‘having something to say’ and a viewpoint on the word, than it is about being a company guy or gal.
What the US system does, is you start off as a writer’s assistant, then become a staff writer, then associate producer…etc. It is a career path. It’s getting a promotion.
Because in UK we’re focused on ‘voice’ means that some but not all writers don’t necessarily have the ‘craft’ of story structure, especially as many come from theatre and structure is a different thing in theatre. (Which is often where script editors – a role that doesn’t exist in the US – come into their own in the UK)
Rewriting in the edit. Charting character arcs over the series as a whole.
Character is story.
‘All art is political’, and we’re living through the biggest crisis of our lifetimes, even after that we’ll live in a period of extreme austerity.
We’re therefore losing swathes of writers who were just at the point of reaching security (financially).
You’ll be amazed at how many people in TV act as if it isn’t political.
We know that people make good art when there’s strong, state-support in place.
There are ways you have power, even as people entering this system
Please join a union! Give yourself the best possible backing that you can. Make that a part of your working environment.
Join or form a writer’s groups. Share work and critiques, based around shared political values, or even just a space for insight and solidarity. It can be really lonely and we need each other.
It’s a collaborative job- remember this. Be part of the team, even if you’re the creative lead. Think about what that leadership means.
Don’t underestimate your power.Think about what jobs you want. If you have the power to say no, say no.
eg if you’re an able-bodied writer and you’re offered a role as a writer for a series with a lead character who is disabled, you can say no – give them a list of brilliant disabled writers that you know.
How do you sustain a career?
A trap that happens, is that you may have a voice that others don’t have and that’s what people really respond to, but often the ups and downs aren’t related to how good your writing is – a way to mitigate this, is to constantly improve your own work and not just rely solely on this idea of having a ‘unique’ voice. Trust that you have it, and hone your craft.
Know that you trust whoever you’re working with editorially. This trust takes time to build up.
Main two things that stop people progressing are fear and ego.
Constantly be prepared to improve and improve and deepen and deepen.
And then, conversely, really understand what you want to say and notice when a note is working against that – try to understand it, but don’t let it throw you.
How careful do you have to be about being pigeonholed?
It’s hard, because you need to make a living off your writing.
Most professional experience writing is worth it at this point – if you get the chance to write on Holby, write on Holby. That’s a good training ground.
Your spec script is a really good way to avoid this – if you get stuck somewhere, your spec script being your ‘voice’ can stop you getting stuck somewhere.
As writers, you have to go on writing spec scripts. Often writer’s trajectory stalls because they’ve not written a spec script and they’ve been working on everyone’s shows. Don’t let your only spec script be 5 years old.
Question about ‘General’ meetings – what kinds of questions are you asked?
It can be quite awkward, but they’ve likely already read your script, they’ll ask about that.
They’ll ask you what you like to watch, make sure to have some things to say here
Look up what the company has done, find a show that they’ve made that you like
They ask about your interests, talk about your interests in the world in general as well as in TV/scripts/arts. Books, comics, social justice, twitter…this can be a great way to connect and work out if you get on.
If you don’t feel comfortable pitching then, you can say that and that you’ll send them something later.
‘Script editors need to be creative, writers need to be technical.’ Cross-fertilisation of skills.
We are all portals for ideas. All the ideas exist, are out there – we just need to be in a state where we are receptive to them.
Don’t tell us things we have already seen.
Make every word count in dialogue and directions. No padding. No ‘What?!’ ‘What do you mean?!’ Why?!’
What you don’t show is as important as what you do show. The power of significant action happening off-screen.
Storytelling is about choices – what you show and what you don’t show.
Hone your instinct for those key story moments.
Screenwriters are ‘madman, carpenter, architect and judge.’
‘Writing for a TV show that is going to get made, you learn so much. eg soaps, continuing series – but don’t stay too long.
You’ll gain so much from talking to all the writers, and helping each other and talking about your work so far and where you want to go.
Writing is lonely – you need a network to moan and celebrate with!
Thank you very much to Tamar for writing these notes and to all of our brilliant, generous guest speakers.
The next newsletter will be on Friday March 5th.
All the best
February 19th 2021