Wednesday, July 04, 2018

DON'T BE A DICK PART 2

We're barely into the second half of the year, and yet again I find myself writing about other writers' behaviour for the second time this year. Why do some people never learn? It's like they actively want their careers to crash and burn. Sigh!

Let me make this clear... if you want a long and successful writing career, don't treat people like they're something stinky you picked up on your shoe. It's that simple. The media industry is small and very well connected. Everyone talks. Everyone knows someone. And if that someone only has a bad word to say about you, then you can be sure others will hear about it. Maybe even high profile others in influential positions. It's incredibly easy to get a bad reputation and very difficult to maintain a great one.

Let me try and explain it another way. There have been plenty of times when I've approached producers at events, where they've asked me who my agent is, I've told them, and they've gone, "Oh Christina, we love her. She's brilliant!" Where they might have been initially frosty to my approach as soon as they knew Christina is my agent, they were more than happy to chat to me and agree to read my work. Christina's reputation is an instant icebreaker. Now imagine that's you. If you're open, friendly, approachable and helpful, people are only going to say lovely things about you. That's the majority of your networking already done for you right there.

How many times have you avoided watching a movie or TV show because someone you know told you it was rubbish? How many times have you told others to avoid a film you've watched and hated? It's frightening how quickly and easily a lousy reputation can spread.

One of the TV shows I want to write for is CASUALTY. So I've been chatting with a couple of legends who work on the show, and their advice has been a massive help. I've been careful not to bombard them with emails and questions, I haven't been pushy, and I've been respectful and polite in all my communications with them. I asked Jeff Povey what advice he would give to someone who wanted to write for the show and he replied the same day with a page of fantastic insights. I met Jon Sen a few years ago and have kept in touch with him, occasionally emailing him and asking what he's up to. Last month I wanted to ask him about CASUALTY and a few other things, and he kindly arranged a Skype session with me to answer my questions. Now I know they're both extremely busy (especially Jeff who must have easily written more than ten episodes of drama this year already), and they didn't have to answer my questions, but they did because I didn't make a nuisance of myself and that's the kind of people they are. They are both shining examples of how every writer should act.

Making sure you follow up on emails is a big deal for me. There's nothing worse than emailing someone and not receiving a reply. I don't care how busy you are; if you don't reply to a polite email, even in the briefest of terms, it's just rude. I can't speak for everyone, but when I don't get replies to my emails it automatically clouds my perception of those people from then on. That's why I'll always try and email people back and answer their queries, even if it's with a short and polite, "No thank you."

Remember, don't be a dick.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

BLOG REWIND: REWRITES

I'm neck deep in a rewrite at the moment, so this post, first published on the 21st May 2008, is very appropriate. I've tweaked and updated it a little. Enjoy!

Rewriting is a pain but also a necessity. It's when the majority of the work is done and where your screenplay is made or broken. There is always a danger of doing too much, losing your focus and turning your script into a mindless pile of wank, if it wasn't one already. What is needed is a little structure to those rewrites. Split them down, concentrating on different aspects of the script one at a time. By doing this, you won't get bogged down and confused as to what you're trying to do. Focusing on smaller tasks makes the entire job a lot easier. Here's how to break it down.

Draft One: The 'get it done' draft, AKA the 'vomit draft'.

You've done your outline, your treatment, polished your characters, so now it's time to write. So write. Resist the temptation to go back and edit as you go. If you need to make notes, then make them, but what is more important at this stage is getting that screenplay on the page. It doesn't have to be brilliant; it just needs to be done. When you've finished the first draft, put the screenplay in a drawer and leave it for a couple of weeks. Don't be tempted to go back to it sooner.

Draft Two: Structure.

When you come back to your rough first draft and reread what you've written, it's going to look pretty bad. Don't worry, draft two is designed to iron out any inconsistencies, any gaping holes in the plot, and to make sure that all your setups and payoffs are all there. Don't be tempted to work on anything else at this stage that'll come later.

Draft Three: Characters.

Do you know your characters? Are they believable? Do they have flaws the audience can identify with? Do they act true to their nature, or do they do things just because the plot requires them to do so? Characters need to be believable and to engage the audience. If they don't then you need to take a closer, more analytical look at them. Don't forget, even the most celebrated hero has motivations driven by his selfish desires. No one is all good, nor all bad. People are a mixture, with their individual likes, hates, fears, and desires.

Draft Four: Dialogue.

Could you identify your characters by their speech alone? Everyone speaks differently. Go to a public place and listen to people having conversations, what they say, how they interact with others. This exercise will help you individualise each characters' speech. Avoid writing regional accents phonetically, it makes them hard to read and will put readers off. And don't forget people are not always kind to each other, including friends and family.

Draft Five: Imagery.

Look for repeated words in your action description and find new ones to replace them. Look at your action description. Could it be shorter, more direct? Is it flat and dull? Could it be punchier? This is the draft that could make a lot of difference to your script, so take your time with this one, even if you have to spend several days searching for just the right word to describe something. Remember screenwriting is all about imagery; TV and film are a visual medium. Make your scenes stand out in the mind of the reader.

Draft Six: Restructure.

Would your script benefit from telling it in a different way or order? Take Memento for instance, an excellent film told backwards. The film could work both forwards and backwards but it adds an extra level of poignancy to it by being shown in reverse. Look at your script and decide if a liner plot is the best for your story. To be honest, I'm always sure about the way I want to write a script when I start, but it never hurts to take a second look.

Draft Seven: Conflict.

Conflict is the essential part of a story. If you have no conflict, then all you have is a script to go to sleep by. Look at each scene, is there conflict, even if it's between friends. Don't forget there are different levels of conflict, you don't need two people beating the crap out of each other in every scene. Conflict comes from different goals, from different points of view clashing. You should already know what each of your characters wants in each scene; this is the moment to make the most of it.

Draft Eight: The Opening Pages.

The first five to ten pages are critical. These are the pages a reader will look at and decide if it's worth investing further in. If they don't like what they see they won't read any further. So make sure your opening pages contain a great hook and are the best they can be. It's worth spending a bit of time on these pages to get them right.

Draft Nine: Back To Your Characters.

Yep, more character work. Make sure each of your characters' arcs are believable and satisfying to the reader. They can have either an upbeat, or a downbeat arc, or a bittersweet one. Remember, they have to be satisfying to the reader.

Draft Ten: Proof Read.

As I always say to my wife, "I'm a writer, I never professed to be able to spell. That's why they invented spell checkers." I'm a crap speller, so I give all my work to my wife to check over. If you're spelling and grammar is as awful as mine hand your work over to someone you trust and give them a big red pen. Red is such a lovely colour.

That's it... or is it? Well no, now's the time to send your screenplay out to others for their opinions. Once you've got that feedback you can start the rewrite process again. Remember, writing is all about rewriting.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

FREE IS NOT AN OPTION

I was going to write a report about the BBC TV Writers' Festival this week but have instead decided to explore a profoundly important subject raised during the Meet The Drama Commissioners session.

When it came to questions at the end of the session a writer broached the topic of working for free. The Drama Commissioners - Piers Wenger (BBC), Victoria Fea (ITV) and Anna Hargreaves (Sky) - appeared entirely oblivious that it was even a problem and were insistent that all writers that came to them received payment for their work. That writer then went on to ask the audience who is now or has ever been asked to work for free. Every writer in the room, including myself, put their hand up. It was a watershed moment.

The Commissioners seemed genuinely shocked to discover that writers were being asked to work for free by Indies. Piers suggested that when Indies are set up, they have several hundred thousand pounds available for this very purpose and writers should never feel pressured into working for free. The Commissioners really couldn't believe that (a) it was happening and (b) it was so rife. It was a very sobering moment for them and us.

Now I have in the past advocated working for free to help further your career.  I want to clarify what I've said because I believe the two situations are entirely separate. When you are starting out as a writer to help get your name out there, you can offer to help producers by reading screenplays for free. If there's a young, upcoming director who is looking to make a short film it is perfectly acceptable to offer them your screenplay in exchange for a credit and copy of the finished film. These examples cost very little of your time but go a long way toward showing your willingness to collaborate, your skills and your reliability.

What isn't acceptable is the practice of Indies telling a writer they like their work and then asking them to write either a treatment or a pilot episode before they will consider it. Writers, especially new writers, then feel obliged to do so because they want their work to be picked up and their career to progress. They feel under pressure and are worried that if they refuse, they will appear awkward and that the interest in their project will be dropped.

This work is not to be confused with writing spec screenplays where a writer writes a pilot episode of their own making and then sends it out to directors, producers and Indies in the hope someone will be interested in it enough to at the very least option it. What we are talking about here is taking a pitch to an Indie and then being asked to complete extra work unpaid to get the project ready for shopping around. This is wrong! Writers have bills to pay like everyone else and should be paid for everything they do, including any prep work to get a project ready to pitch to broadcasters.

The problem with agreeing to do this work is that if the Indie then sends the treatment or script the writer has written for free out to broadcasters and gets a resounding no from them, the project is dead and the writer doesn't get paid for their time and effort. They've done all of that work for nothing, and now they can't even take that project elsewhere. The Indie might have saved a few quid, but the writer is now out of pocket.

I've been guilty of working for free or a deferred payment in the past, and I'm currently writing a treatment and series bible for two separate Indies and not being paid for either. I know I shouldn't, but like other working writers I feel under pressure to do so, and I'm worried that if I say no there's the threat I'll be kicked off one project and be told 'no thank you' form the other. The possibility I might lose either or both of these opportunities is genuine and is an obvious concern to any freelancer who is between projects.

These are producers I have known for a while, get on well with, am very keen to work with and I haven't agreed to do the work for free on a whim. I decided to polish the feature treatment because one of the producers wrote the initial version and I knew the other producer has been actively pitching the project to investors and has already had a lot of interest. I'm developing the series bible with another Indie on the understanding if they don't option it, I have their permission to take it elsewhere. It was an idea I was going to develop anyway so am happy to have someone else's input while creating it. I've made a calculated risk with both. They may or may not pay off, but I genuinely believe that they will, or I wouldn't have agreed to work for free. 

However, by doing this and not insisting on payment, I am acutely aware I am adding to the problem. While writers (especially new writers) continue to work for free, the practice will still exist, and some Indies will continue to exploit writers. So as a writer I have decided, once I have completed these projects, to make a stand and in future, I will not write for free regardless of any promises or who asks. 

In an ideal world, if every broadcaster and commissioner insisted on positive proof writers had received payment for their work before they agreed to read it, it would stop the practice in its tracks. It would halt the exploitation of writers and aid talented new writers to launch their careers.

What are your thoughts?

Happy (and profitable) writing!

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

BBC CALLING

Today I'm off up to London for the annual BBC TV WRITERS' FESTIVAL organised by the BBC Writersroom. The line up this year is as always breathtaking and includes festival regular and multi-award winning Jed Mercurio and the legend that is Steven Moffat. I can't wait!

The BBC Writersroom is a great resource one often overlooked by writers. They have offered some great opportunities of late including chances of paid training with the Doctor Who script department, the Holby City, Casualty, Eastenders and Doctors shadow schemes, their drama and comedy windows and all the fantastic opportunities they offer on their webpage. I can never understand it when writers moan that the BBC ignore new writers and it's just the same old names that pop up on the credits week in week out. This isn't true.

Let's face facts when you start out as a writer you hope your work will be snatched up or you get work on existing TV shows and it can often be frustrating when it doesn't. The bottom line is, shows are looking for great writers whose work is not only at a certain level but who are also willing to collaborate and learn. Because of the tight production deadlines, producers don't have time to hand-hold inexperienced writers the work needs to be completed quickly and reliably. The reason most new writers don't get their work picked up or get work on existing shows is that their work isn't up to scratch and producers aren't confident that the writer won't struggle.

The best advice I can give is to get your head down, work hard at your writing, always seek to improve it and your screenwriting knowledge and make use of all the opportunities available to you. This way you stand the best possible chance of being picked up for a show or if you're fortunate, get a show greenlit.

So keep the BBC Writersroom open on your desktop and remember to check in every day. You don't want to miss out after all.

I'll report back on the festival next week.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

DON'T BE AFRAID TO ASK

Notes can be daunting. They don't become any less so the more experienced you become as a writer.

Your notes will either come directly from the producer or via a script editor assigned to work with you. I've worked as both a writer and a script editor and have seen the process from both sides, so I know the importance of clear communication. It taught me a lot in a very short space of time, the biggest lesson of all was knowing not to be afraid of asking questions if I was unsure about something.

 'Why the f&%k have they said that?' There will always be notes you don't quite understand or aren't able to get to grips with. Most writers don't want to appear stupid by asking what they think might be obvious and the temptation is to plod on, work your way through the notes and hope you've covered everything you've been asked to. But the simple fact is if you do get it wrong because you haven't asked for clarification then you are definitely going to look stupid and all most certainly unprofessional.

A writer I worked with as a script editor had an issue with a lack of confidence. It was her first writing gig and she was clearly nervous. The draft she had written before I come on board lacked clarity and punch. It was my job to guide, encourage and make sure she knew exactly what was expected of her. We initially had a long Skype conversation where I went through all of my notes, asked her if she understood and told her if she had any questions, no matter how absurd they might appear to her, to just ask and I would happily explain them to her until she was confident she fully understood what I was driving at. She assured me she was OK with everything and if she did have any questions she would ask.

The next draft she handed in wasn't much of an improvement on the first. She was very close to being kicked off the project all because she hadn't asked me a single question about my notes. So we had another long Skype conversation. This time I wouldn't let her go until she had asked every single question she had bouncing around in her head. I had to push her to ask at first but the more she did the better she got at it. At the end of the conversation, I was very confident she now understood what was expected of her. She even emailed me additional questions over the course of her next rewrite.

The thing is, whoever the person is giving you notes, they are on your side. Writing is just the first step in the collaborative process. Everyone is working together to produce a piece of media they can be proud of and others can enjoy. No one is working against you, even if at times you might think that's the case. A script editor is there specifically to answer your questions and help you produce your best work. Any script editor who complains when you ask a question or a hundred of them isn't doing their job properly. Never, ever be afraid to ask and if you're still not sure ask again.

And the writer? She learned to put aside her nervousness and ask as many questions as she needed to. She eventually turned in an epic final draft and it was a delight to see her confidence skyrocket during the process.

Happy writing!

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

BLOG REWIND - PERSEVERANCE

As my fellow writers have suffered quite a bit of rejection over the last week, with the BBC Writersroom Drama and Red Planet, I thought I would repost a past blog about perseverance, first published on the 19th November 2014. Enjoy... and remember, you are not alone.

Some days it's hard to keep going when all you want to do is curl up into a ball and hide under the bed covers... but those are exactly the days you should keep going! Perseverance is the key to a successful career, without it you're writing solely for yourself.

I read a question on the interwebs the other day, from a new writer asking if he should send his script out to more than one production company at a time. Let's put it this way, you send your script out to one producer, the producer takes three months to read it and get back to you. The news isn't good, it's not for him. Then you leave things another month as you recover from the rejection, before sending your script out to another producer. That means the maximum copies of your screenplay you send out is three... in a year... that's not good, is it?

After you've done your research into which production companies best suit your screenplay, send copies out to as many as you can, then go write another script. If you receive a rejection then have two other producers in mind to send your script to the very next day. Don't keep bombarding the same producers either, send them a screenplay and if it's a no wait a month or two before sending any new work.

In essence, your work should be produced and sent out in a constant stream, stalling on this leaves you with no opportunities to create, and it's those opportunities that will keep you going. Persevere and you will be rewarded.

Happy writing!

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

BOOK REVIEW - EVERYBODY WORKS IN SALES by NIRAJ KAPUR

You're probably thinking, 'Why is Dom reviewing a sales book on his screenwriting blog?' You may even be thinking I've gone slightly mad in doing so. I can assure you I haven't. The reason I'm reviewing this book is that as a writer you HAVE to sell yourself and your work and there's some great advice in these pages that all writers should be implementing on a daily basis.

Truth be told, Niraj's book is actually less about sales than it is more about personal development. All of its lessons, if rigorously applied, can help anyone succeed regardless of the industry they work in. These are life rules everyone should know of and live by.

Niraj breaks his teachings down into twenty-seven handy little lessons, such as; Learn your craft and keep on learning every day - Don't let money rule your life - Caring - Dealing with difficult people - Adapt to change - Taking a break - Dealing with failure - Dealing with bad luck. Even with these few examples, you should already be seeing why this book could be so valuable to you.

Dealing with failure is a big part of being a writer. You'll be rejected again and again, even when you've 'made it'. Dealing with bad luck is also something you should know about and be prepared for. Bad luck happens to everyone and it can be extremely frustrating when things fail especially when they are beyond your control. Adapting to change and learning more about your craft every day is as important as being a good writer. It's all there in this book just waiting for you to pick it up and start learning how to sell yourself to others and gain an advantage over your fellow writers.

Personally, I think the most valuable lesson in Niraj's book is - Do more than what you get paid for. This links back to what I was talking about last week, about going that extra mile, proving you're better than all those other writers out there and why you should be the first choice in every producer's mind.

I did spot a few spelling mistakes in this book and the layout did cause me to become a page-blind after a while, especially when I tried to read several chapters in one sitting. It's an easier read broken down into small chunks without losing your place and it can be used as a handy reference guide you can easily dip in an out of.

Niraj kindly gives examples from his own life to back up every lesson, showing not only how these lessons can be applied but also how they work in the real world. There are even interviews in the back of the book with people who don't directly work in sales but who do use sales techniques in their daily lives. Overall, it's a solid book with a lot of valuable lessons within its pages and one definitely worth investing in.

Happy writing!