Wednesday, March 25, 2020

WORKING FROM HOME - COVID-19 EDITION

Originally posted Wednesday, August 03, 2016 - updated today, Wednesday, March 25, 2020


WORKING AROUND THE KIDS/PARTNERS AND SCHOOL HOLIDAYS COVID-19

At a recent writers' event (back in 2016), I was chatting with the then lead writer on a continuing drama who was telling me he and his wife had just had a baby. "How the hell do you get any writing done when you have kids?" he asked as he yawned so hard his jaw nearly dislocated.

We're already on day 3 of lockdown and I'm surviving... it can be done. Working from home with the kids on holiday is bad enough - with them getting under your feet, asking for snacks every five minutes, begging you to take them up the park, screaming at the top of their eardrum-shattering little voices a millimetre from your face demanding attention, moaning that they're bored and constantly trying to kill or maim each other - without taking into account these exceptional circumstances we now find ourselves in.

You're not allowed to tie your children up and stick them in a dark cupboard until school starts again, sell them to gipsies or even use chloroform to keep them quiet... I know, I've checked... apparently, the police and social services get a little cross with you if you try. So with those options restricted I've had to adapt my writing style over the years to ensure I can get my work done, keep the kids occupied and happy, and retain my sanity. Here's how I do it.

Goals! What, sticking one in the back of the net for your team? No... just as your characters have goals in your screenplays, you have to have goals in order to survive these testing times without running the risk of a mental breakdown or murdering your entire family. That's goals for you as well as for your spawn. And there's only one rule... we'll come to that in a second.

First things first. As a responsible parent, I will constantly monitor my children, check what they're up to and that they're safe. Dumping them in front of the TV with a bag of sugar is not good parenting. They might have school work to get on with but that doesn't mean they don't still have to be monitored. The kids are meant to be having fun learning. And yes, that means you are going to have o figure out the intricacies of quantum physics to help them with their work. They're not really interested if you have a deadline. They are not an inconvenience. They are a privilege. They are your responsibility and you have to ensure they are safe, entertained and educated at all times. So... to the rule!

The Rule: My boys know if I'm in my office working, or I'm on my laptop, I am not to be disturbed... under any circumstances... unless it's an emergency, or they've accidentally set fire to the dog. Of course, the one rule is not really a rule as it's going to be broken a billion times a day anyway, but as long as the children KNOW and UNDERSTAND the rule, they are aware they run the risk of encountering SHOUTY Daddy if they interrupt me. You also have to be aware and accept that even with this rule you are going to be disturbed, but hopefully, it will only be for important things and less often. The rule is there to help make things a little easier.

Goals For You:

  • Set yourself writing targets, smaller ones than you would normally, so they are easier to achieve. When my boys were younger I aimed to write in five-minute sprints when they suddenly went quiet. Now they're older I can write for longer periods.
  • Set times for lunch and dinner and stick to them. Routine is a great help.
  • Aim to spend quality time with them for at least two hours a day, either helping them with their school work or enjoying a quick kickabout in the back garden. Whatever you decide to do, make it an adventure... kids love adventure.
  • Stay off your phone - there's only bad news on it anyway - and actively enjoy this time with your kids. They'll enjoy it too and then they'll be more likely to leave you alone while you writing.
  • Prepare to be flexible and try and change your routine. Work in your office one day, in the back garden on your laptop the next.
  • Get your kids to help you prepare lunch, engage them and then sit down and eat with them. Talk to them while you do. Ask them what they would like to do in the afternoon, or the next day and what they enjoyed doing that morning.
  • Take 10 minutes for yourself after lunch. Find a quiet corner - if you can - and sit in peace and quiet. It will make a difference.

Goals For Them:

  • Set up a points system. Give them a point for good behaviour and take away a point for bad behaviour. I start every day by giving them ten points each and then taking off points for bad behaviour during the day. At the end of the day if they've had more positive days than negative ones they get to spend an hour on the Xbox.
  • Give them tasks to do during the lockdown. At the moment I'm giving my boys one task a day they have to complete before they go to bed. It will keep them occupided, show them the responsibility that goes into running a house and will help you get everything done.
  • Ration their TV and games devices to two hours a day. I find one hour in the afternoon and one hour in the evening sufficient. If they know how long they have it avoids arguments. Make a big issue of how you're such a great parent when you give them an extra half an hour because they've been really good that day.

And don't forget your partner, the stress of this situation is getting to them too. Be attentive, help where you can and make sure you give them a hug when you think it's needed... even if it isn't.

These difficult times are survivable and you can get writing done with children and partners around, keep your sanity and bond with your family. Remember, children and partners are for life, not just for Easter.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

DIALOGUE

I was chatting with a fellow writer the other day and she mentioned how difficult she found writing dialogue. It was easy to empathise with her as it was an area I struggled with for years.

Great dialogue comes with practice. There are numerous ways you can learn how to write authentic dialogue and what follows is just one way. I'm not claiming it's the best, just that it worked for me and might help some of you to improve your dialogue and even your characters.


OBSERVATION:

The best way to learn most things is by observing them in progress. Dialogue is no exception. Regularly go to public places - a coffee shop or a pub are the best - get yourself a drink, sit down with a notebook and listen to people talking and make notes. Yes, I am suggesting you eavesdrop on others and record not only how they speak but the language they use and the topics they discuss. The more you can do this the greater diversity of voices you'll learn to recognise.

Listen out and take note of the following...

  1. RHYTHM OF SPEECH - How fast or slow do people speak? Do they speed up or slow down when talking about different subjects? Do they slow down or speed up during a sentence and why?
  2. VOLUME - Do they speak loudly or do they talk in hushed tones? Are there certain words they whisper or shout? What does the volume your character talks at say about them, their background and their job?
  3. PAUSES and SILENCE - Where do the pauses and the silence come and why are they used? Sometimes silences are more powerful than any words.
  4. MISSING/FAVOURITE WORDS - What words do people drop from their sentences? What words do they favour or overuse?
  5. ACCENTS - How do accents affect speech?
  6. REACTIONS - The words that are spoken are important but so are people's reactions to what is being said, how they listen or don't, how they move or don't as they speak.
  7. CONFLICT - Where does the conflict arise in the conversation and how do others react to it? Do their voices get higher or lower? Who wins the conversations or are they drawn?
  8. EMOTION - What emotions are your characters showing through their dialogue?
  9. CROSS-PURPOSES - Not the same as subtext (see below) but where characters think they are talking about the same thing but their perspectives and goals clash so they're actually talking about different things and don't realise it.
  10. SUBTEXT - What are they discussing and what are they REALLY discussing?
EXERCISE ONE:

Here's a great exercise to help you practice what you've learned above.

Take two characters from one of your screenplays and stick them in a lift/elevator together, stuck between floors so they can't escape. Then give them a topic to discuss - for example; the state of the National Health Service - and then have them talk about it for three pages. It helps if you choose characters that have different viewpoints but you don't have to do this. Two people who on paper might agree can disagree in real life. For example, they might agree on the destination but not how to get there.

Who came out on top in your exercise?

Try this with a few different characters and you'll notice you'll get different outcomes, with each new character's perceptions taking the conversation in a different direction.

EXERCISE TWO:

Now start again but remove the top-ten words related to the topic, making sure your characters aren't allowed to use them. For the above example, those words would most likely be; NHS, government, doctors, nurses, medicine, hospitals, health, illness, beds and wards. It's going to be a difficult task but it will help you think more about the words you do use and help you to avoid cliche. Your writing will become richer because of it.

EXERCISE THREE:

This exercise is harder still. Here you'll choose a second subject - let's say divorce - and you'll use the first topic to discuss the new one, without actually mentioning the new topic at all. This will help you practice SUBTEXT, possibly the most difficult skill to master concerning dialogue.

Keep practising all the above, over and over, even when your dialogue improves.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

DOCTOR WHO - a tale of two series

SEASON 11

It's fair to say I didn't like it. It's also fair to say it ruffled a lot of feathers amongst dedicated fans. There was no new theme tune and titles in the opening episode (WTF?), no new Tardis until the end of episode two, no familiar foes, no through story for the series, several of the episodes were TV copies of major sci-fi films and TV shows (Preditor, Pitch Black, Aliens and Quantum Leap amongst others) and the tone of the series was overly preachy.

The focus was so firmly fixed on the diversity of the show and the issues it dissected and preached about in each episode, I think they forgot it was meant to be a piece of entertainment and a drama. Also, three companions made it difficult to get to know them as individuals. We spent far too much time flitting between the three in each episode, rather than spending enough quality time focused on them so they could be fully rounded, fleshed-out, interesting characters like Rose or Donna.

That's not to say season 11 wasn't without its merits. Two episodes stood out - the Rosa Park episode and Demons of the Punjab. But that wasn't enough for me, the whole series was a disappointment and it's the first series where I haven't watched every single episode. I only managed to watch 6.5 episodes before I became so disillusioned with it I couldn't carry on. I'm not even going to comment about the Christmas episode being on New Years Day.


SEASON 12

What a difference a year makes. The new series kicked off with a thrilling double episode reintroducing the Master (a real crowd pleaser) and I was beginning to get excited again. The only blip was episode three (Orphan 55) and that was really down to the rather disappointing monsters. Standing there roaring with arms stretched wide and showing your bad teeth isn't scary. They were so ineffective as a foe I was expecting the Doctor to kick the leader in the bollocks any second and it would have easily been 'game over'. And that preachy speech at the end... sigh!

But then came the episode Fugitive of the Judoon... and OMG did Chris Chibnall and Vinay Patel deliver one hell of an episode. For me, it was one of the best episodes I've ever seen, easily on a par with season 2's Doomsday. The introduction of another Doctor was an act of genius and a fabulous 'WOW' moment I'm still not quite sure I've recovered from. I was sat there stunned, staring at the TV as the credits rolled, unable to quite process what I had just watched. I was beginning to believe that the Doctor Who I've loved since a child was back.

Praxeus managed to do what most of season 11 couldn't achieve, take an important issue and make a damn good drama out of it without resorting to preaching. A very entertaining episode.

Then Chris Chibnall gave us The Timeless Children. Mr Chibnall, you bloody clever fantastic genius of a man. The episode didn't rewrite the Doctor's history, it added to it, giving it depth and colour, beautifully expanding the Doctor as a character and bringing greater meaning to all his/her past adventures. I didn't even notice the first Doctor who came to Gallifrey was a young girl... and you know something, it didn't matter because it felt right. I can't wait to see what Mr Chibnall gives us in the Revolution of the Daleks.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

VOICE

Voice is important, it defines you, makes you stand out and identifies who you are as a writer.

For those of you who don't know what I mean by 'voice' or are confused as to what the term means, 'voice' is the writers' style, the quality that makes their writing unique.

A few weeks ago a writer I know sent me their latest treatment, asking me for my opinion. The treatment was fantastic, it sang from the page with a frenetic, sweaty energy that perfectly matched the subject matter. It was one of the most powerful treatments I have ever read. And it got me thinking about my own voice and how, a few years ago, I lost it.

Your writers' 'voice' takes time to develop and that means a lot of writing. It can take months, even years to perfect, but when you have it, it really elevates your writing. I wrote a lot of crap to start with but as my confidence grew so did my writing and I found my voice while writing my script FAITH. It's no coincidence the script won an award and is still used to get me through a lot of doors.

As I began to make a name for myself and my blog audience grew, screenwriting authors and their publishers started to send me their latest screenwriting books for review. I thought it was great, getting to read all these fantastic screenwriting books for free and learning new, relatable skills. However, after time I found all those books had a negative impact on my writing. I started to overthink what I was creating, agonising over structure, plot, and character while ignoring my instincts. It was those instincts that served me well over the years and helped to develop my voice.

My writing became formulaic and bland and even I hate some of the scripts I wrote during that period. I had to learn to trust myself again, to invest in the process and to re-find my voice. Once I did, I quickly noticed the difference, people were once again taking note of my work and asking for samples.

Work hard at finding your voice, play with your writing style, experiment often and above all trust your instincts. Try not to get bogged down in the technical aspects of writing, let the words flow and have fun with them.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

2020 VISION

2019 was a great year and a fitting end to my first decade as a working writer - it started with a feature commission on #LondonBoys, continued with me acquiring a well-known actor as a writing partner, whom I've been working with on two newly resurrected ideas from my ideas vault, and finished with me completing a long-gestating project which I'm very excited about.

But... and there is always a but... I was left feeling I could have done much, much more. So for 2020, I've decided to take chances, big chances... one in particular which I would have previously considered too risky to attempt.

For far too much of my life, I've played it safe and have taken very few risks. I've always chosen the easy option, the path of least resistance. Whether that's because I've been scared, cautious, too polite or because I didn't want to abuse other people's friendship, generosity, and kindness... I don't know.

There is a certain amount of luck with writing - being in the right place at the right time with the right project - and I've always been fascinated with finding new ways of improving my luck, convinced there is more to success than simple randomness. On Boxing Day I watched the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture: How To Get Lucky and learned that being successful is simple mathematics.

I've always known that the more opportunities you make for yourself the better chance there is of something paying off. I also know it's no good working on one project all year and then sending it out to one person at a time. But what I hadn't considered was that your chances significantly increase by being bolder with your decisions and the chances you take, that by being clever and understanding what works and what doesn't you can improve your chances of success, even when making very bold decisions.

Because of this, I've decided to send the project I've just finished to not only my agent and the handful of personal contacts at production companies as I would normally do, but I'm also going to email the script to two well-known writers I get on well with. Both of these writers have already expressed an interest in working with me so it wouldn't hurt to see if they would be interested in co-writing this idea together.

Normally I would never do this as I consider it pushy, cheeky and very rude, especially if the writer is more established than I am. I remember one year at LSWF where a female guest speaker spent most of the afternoon trying to avoid an overeager writer with no credits who insisted they work together, and as he put it 'use her contacts' to get an idea of his made. I remember how annoyed and angry she was at the writer's bare-faced cheek and disrespect and how she told everyone she met she would never work with him under any circumstances. I certainly don't want to be remembered as one of those people.

However, the How To Get Lucky lecture changed my mind about approaching well known established writers and made me realise that some risks are worth taking. It's how you go about it that matters. While being bold you still have to remain polite, pushing the boundaries of your existence while always being respectful of others and as long as I'm polite and respectful, it's a risk worth taking.

If I can get another writer interested in the idea, one with better connections than me, I will increase this projects' chances of getting made significantly. But that writer has to be someone I already have a relationship with, someone whose work fits with the project and not someone I've randomly chosen because they have a successful TV career and I don't. I have two writers in mind - one who fits this genre I've written in perfectly and another whose writing is very similar to mine. Let's see how how it goes. Nothing ventured, nothing gained after all.

So here's my vision for 2020 in all it's glory...
  1. Help move one of my features forward into production.
  2. Finish at least two new projects by year-end.
  3. Land myself an episode of a continuing drama.
  4. Get one of my own TV projects commissioned by year-end.
I hope 2020 is your year too. Be bold! Take chances! Make your own opportunities. But always remember to do so politely and with respect for others.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

WRITING FOR CONTINUING DRAMA

The blog is back! After an nine-month rest and so many kind comments from those who follow the blog, I have finally decided to resurrect it.

Having closely watched the careers of fellow writers with interest, especially those I’ve met at LSWF over the years, it is with great delight that over the last year or so I have witnessed the rise of two exceptionally talented writers in particular - Rachel Paterson and Philip Lawrence.

Being a naturally curious person, I wanted to find out more about their journeys into full-time writing for continuing drama and what they’ve learned along the way.

How did you get your first TV writing gig? 

(RP) I was lucky enough to get onto the BBC Shadow Scheme for CASUALTY. These things always feel like a huge long shot to me, and all I could do was make sure I was prepared.

When I applied for the CASUALTY Shadow Scheme, we had to apply with a spec script and an A and B story for an episode. I got up to date on all the episodes (so I didn’t pitch something that they’d done within the last year), and slaved over my A and B story summaries. By the time I got through to the interview stage, I had stories for all the characters, ideas for new characters, and I could talk about my favourite storylines, ideas for new storylines, etc. In short, I was a massive swot.

As an aside, a development producer (the supremely talented Charlie Coombes) once said to me that you can’t control whether you’re the most talented person in the room, but you can always be the best prepared – advice which continues to serve me well!

Anyway, having got through the interview I was invited onto a three-day residential with eight other writers, and we were all given various writing tasks. After that, I was one of four who was offered a shadow script. Before I started writing, I asked them to send me five of their favourite scripts from the last year, and I tried to analyse what those scripts had in common and what made them brilliant. And the rest is history!

(PL) Focus and persistence. My writing career had been at the forefront of my mind for four years before the first commission. Writing specs, watching TV (especially continuing drama – I’d decided that was probably the best route in for me) and networking. Anything that wasn’t getting me where I needed to go was stripped out as much as I could. I was working part-time, getting up early.

And persistence. There are a lot of knockbacks in this business, you have to accept that, absorb the hurt and learn from them. And when people say “no” or “not yet” you have to be totally graceful and accept that. Some things may delay you but you have to believe that you WILL get there.
In direct, practical terms it was a case of writing to people, building a relationship, expressing a genuine passion for/ knowledge of their show and hoping they’d ask me to write a trial script for them. I did trials for Doctors and EastEnders (both awesome shows, both very different) and Enders commissioned me first. 
It’s not what you know but who you know. Where do you think the truth lies?

(RP) Telly is a hob-nobby industry that operates largely on a who-you-know basis, but while there are shades of nepotism I feel that most execs and development producers are open to newcomers. In fact, they actively seek them out. Writers do have to get to know people in order to attract an agent and get work, but that doesn’t mean you have to be born with a little black book of TV contacts stapled to your umbilical cord. It does mean that you have to go out and meet people, make friends, help others where you can – and for that, being near London definitely helps.

The other side of the coin is that I could have a direct line to every exec in town, but if my spec script is shoddy then it’s not going to do me much good. I hear over and over again that execs are looking for new writers with a strong voice and lots of original ideas. I think we also need the craft skills and work ethic to deliver on those ideas.

There are loads of events that are open to the public where new writers can make a start on building their network – while also brushing up on their industry knowledge and craft skills. Shooting people, Triforce, BFI events, and the London Screenwriters Festival, plus WFTV and the Underwire Festival for women… all great places to start.

(PL) Definitely somewhere in the middle. You’ve got to know your craft, you have to be able to deliver the goods, on time and respond effectively to notes. 
In terms of writing for an existing show like a continuing drama, you have to know that show too – it’s characters, their histories, their speech patterns, the precinct of the show, it’s rhythm. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to learn that – watch the thing and love it. If you’re starting now loads of eps are online and Wikipedia will fill in some of the character biog gaps.
But ‘who you know’ is vital. This is an industry that’s built on relationships. Now you can either think of that as a barrier or as a pathway. When I started out, I knew absolutely nobody. London Screenwriters Festival was a great place to start, making friends with people at different levels who then introduce you to other people and vice versa. Before long you have a network that’s connecting you to the right people.
Twitter is also great for that. I’m not as bold as some about connecting on there. The late great Robin Bell was an absolute master at it – I was in awe of the friends he made there. Twitter was THE reason I got my gig writing for web series Cops & Monsters and I’ve heard of other writers getting some major commissions just through their friends on Twitter.
The tools are at your fingertips. No one these days should think of ‘who you know’ as a closed shop. Remember the industry is hungry for new writers. No one’s keeping you out.

Who has been the single biggest influence on your career to date and why?

(RP) For me, “the single biggest” is an impossible question to answer. Screenwriting is an odd job – a career of a thousand cuts. In one sense it’s a performance career in which you have to be laser-focused. But in another sense, the way in which we progress (particularly at the beginning) is meandering and involves a lot of chance meetings and recommendations. 
The people who made the most difference at the very beginning weren’t high flying execs, but fellow writers I’d befriended in the tea queue at various writing events, who went on to be development producers and script editors. As an example, quite early on, a script editor friend of mine recommended me to my current agent. It goes without saying, my agent is brilliant – and without his support, I definitely wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. More recently, I was also recommended for a huge job by a development exec who I’d met four years ago, back when he was a reader, and we’d just stayed in touch. Then, of course, there are the producers who hired me for CASUALTY.

Since getting my first development gig, there’ve been lots of people with whom I’ve worked on one project, who have then put me forward for others – and it kind of snowballed into a full-time job. I take referrals seriously. If someone sticks their neck out for me, I always want to live up to their recommendation.

I’ve also had a lot of support from writing mentors – people who’ve helped me develop my craft. I don’t have a formal screenwriting qualification but thanks to events and programs run by the people at LSF and WFTV, new screenwriters can learn from some of the best TV writers in the world.

(PL) There have been a few people that have made introductions or helped me out and opened doors. I hope I’m in a position at some point where I can do that for others. 
I’m not going to name names, I don’t think that’d be fair to them but if pushed there is one person who has helped me in the biggest way. They used to write a lot for EastEnders, knew my work, knew where my passions lie and basically emailed the producer at the time saying they should hire me. I’m sure that helped me get in the door and I’ll always be grateful to that person.

Describe your first day working on a continuing drama series.

(RP) My first day was a ‘fleshing out’/pitching day on CASUALTY with my script editor. Again, I’d got all my pencils in a row for that meeting, so although I was almost choked by nerves, I was at least prepared. I came in with my episode roughly beaten out, plus an idea for a crazy stunt that was quite complicated and expensive. I was a brand new writer, so it would have been really easy for them say no to the stunt, but my script editor went backwards and forwards between various people to try and get the elements approved, and in the end she came back, sat down and said, “right, you’ve got your stunt.” From that point, I really felt very supported. I knew everyone wanted to make the best episode we could. They showed a huge amount of faith in me, for which I’ll always be grateful.

(PL) It was exhilarating. I’d already been to the studios at Elstree several times for various interviews and meetings but here I was actually working there and sitting with other people whose names I knew from the credits. I was a bit nervous. But I’d been told by some friendly writers what to expect, so wasn’t overly daunted.
One of the biggest thrills for me that day was meeting Kate Oates. She has such an open, giving personality. It really helped give the room a collaborative vibe. I felt very welcomed. When it came to my turn, everyone went around the table and introduced themselves.
My ep was a couple of weeks in so I was able to see what the other writers did before it was my turn. I’m pleased to say my ideas weren’t entirely shot down. There was a spot of lunch, where I nodded across the BBC bar to Danny Dyer, then back to hear the rest of the writers discuss their eps before rushing home to hone that scene breakdown and start the script. I may have ended the day with a glass of prosecco with some friends. You’ve got to celebrate every success as it comes, right?

When you joined CASUALTY and EASTENDERS respectively, did another more experienced writer take you under their wing and what was their most valuable piece of advice?

(RP) In that first development session, there was one other writer present for about half the day. He was a veteran to the show - and really supportive and friendly. We’ve kept in touch and he’s offered me lots of advice on everything from story arcs to pay. Likewise, the lead writer was lovely – she sat and had lunch with me during a story conference, and really put me at my ease. In terms of the best advice, both of them said if you’ve got a problem with the serial or you’re not clear on why XYZ note has been given, DON’T stoically (read: bitterly) beaver away alone and submit something that only half works. Pick up the phone to your script editor, because they will be very happy to help you iron out any issues. At CASUALTY, I have found this to be 100% true. Continuing drama is a high-pressure job, in which the script editors are our greatest allies. Plus they are brilliant at getting the best out of their writers. IMHO, script editors and development producers are the unsung heroes of telly.

(PL) When I got my first commission I messaged a couple of writers I knew, who I also knew were working on the same block (again, naming no names). They were incredibly supportive, told me what to expect and how to behave. One of them was there on the day and definitely took me under his wing. Two biggest bits of advice were: 
1) You deserve to be there. If you’re in that room, they already know you’re good enough so don’t worry that you’ve got something to prove. Just get on with it to the best of your ability.
2) Be humble. No one likes an arrogant twat. I guess this is the flipside of imposter syndrome. Acknowledge that you’re part of a very talented ensemble and be respectful and appreciative of the people you’re working with.

Continuing verses single drama, what are the pros and cons?

(RP) The most obvious pro of continuing drama is that if you’re writing an episode, it will definitely get made! Continuing drama is also a great opportunity to write for a huge audience (around three or four million for CASUALTY, even more so for others), where you can get your stories and your ideas out there into the world, and gain some valuable craft and production experience. I’ve told stories about therapeutic cannabis use, climate change, police ethics, addiction, domestic violence – and I’ve only written five episodes! Plus these shows are beloved of millions. I’ve met some brilliant people working on CDS and learned a huge amount that will hopefully stand me in good stead for the future.

If continuing drama is the ‘quick win’ (kindly note: irony), being hired to write an episode of someone else’s original drama is the next step, and getting an original series greenlit is a long game. For me, I think the main pro of creating an original series is that it would be chock-full of the bonkers ideas that I’ve been brewing for years, and steeped in my taste. It will be the drama that I’d like to watch. Plus the financial rewards are much greater! On the cons side, getting an idea optioned is only the first hurdle, and the reality is the majority of shows that get optioned don’t get made. I have a senior development exec friend who says that for every ten good ideas that are pitched to him, he’ll option one, and for every ten ideas on his slate, he’ll get one made. That’s 1 in 100 good ideas. Yikes! I don’t think the odds are necessarily that long, but it does go to show – there’s a very high bar for writers wanting to develop their own original work. I’ve got a lot of projects on the go at various stages of development and I am absolutely passionate about each one I’m working on – but I’m in it with my eyes open. There’s a certain amount of ruthlessness required to weed out the not-so-strong ideas, to make sure I’m only pitching the ones I think I can absolutely nail, and which could compete with my favourite shows on telly.

(PL) I haven’t been asked to write a single drama YET! I guess one of the obvious advantages of a single-authored drama is that it’s YOUR story, it’s totally you, everything you want to say. There’s an element of that to Casualty or Doctors whereas something like EastEnders is all handed to you. You still have to find yourself within that ep and make it your own but you’re telling someone else’s story ultimately.
One of the pros is that you’re working on a ready-made format with existing very rich characters so all the set-up’s been done for you. It’s an absolute privilege to be playing in someone else’s sandbox. Plus there’s the timescale - my first commission was in October, by March it was on telly – whereas an original piece can be years in the making.

Can you explain the development process of writing an episode for EASTENDERS and CASUALTY, from conception through to broadcast?

(RP) The process at CASUALTY changes every so often, but in broad brush strokes: the writers are sent a serial document, which outlines the stories for the regular characters for each episode. I might chat through the serial for my episode with my script editor and pitch a few patient-story ideas over the phone, before firing a few ideas over in an email. These are sent round by the team and they’ll either pick one of them or tell me to go back to the drawing board - often because they’ve got a baby/pregnant woman/refugee/goldfish wrangler (actual reason given) in the previous episode. Once they’ve selected a pitch, I submit a page or so on my patient stories and how they relate to the serial. Once that’s been approved I go down to Cardiff and work on the episode for a day with the Script Editor and either the Script Producer, the Story Producer or the Series Producer, before presenting it to the production team. Then I’d go away and write a scene by scene outline of the episode (10-ish days), on which I’d get notes. And then after that, I’ve probably got around another 14 days to write the first draft. I’ll always try and get the scene by scene done a bit earlier so I can have more time on the script.

On CASUALTY we do six drafts (1, 2, 3, Medical, Production, Shooting Script), and we get notes on each draft. As well as editorial notes, we’ll get notes from the story team, from the medics, from scheduling, and from production. In addition to editorial notes, we need to make sure that scripts are written according to specific ratios: 30% of the action needs to take place on location, 20% in one studio (all filmed in week 1), and 50% in another studio (filmed in week 2). We have to take into account actor availability – some actors will only be available during week 1 or week 2 according to their appearances in other episodes. I have a friend that describes writing continuing drama as like writing in a straitjacket – and while CDS is no bughouse, it’s certainly a lot to get your head around. It gets easier!

In theory, once I’ve sent the shooting script I’m off the hook, but in reality, last-minute production changes can mean I’m still writing right up to the wire. On my most recent episode, we had two actors who became unavailable in the last week of filming so I was rewriting scenes on the Thursday that were due to be filmed on the Friday. This could be stressful, but my experience at CASUALTY has been that everyone displays superhuman levels of grace under fire.

Once my episode is in the can, I get on with writing the next one while the editor gets busy – until around three months later, I finally get to watch my episode on TV!

(PL) From the writer’s point of view, you’re sent what’s called a story document. This has detailed synopses of each episode in the block (usually about 4 or 5 weeks’ worth) so you know what’s happening leading up to and after your ep. You’re also assigned your script editor.
Each episode is arranged in story strands, A being the main plot and usually the ‘duff duff’ cliffhanger, B, C and so on. You’re also sent any research needed for the eps.
Writers work in different ways but at that point I list out the beats of the ep then pull the different strands together into a list of scenes, seeing where possible crosses in location can be – eg can these two scenes play simultaneously in the caff? 
Next comes the commissioning meeting (as I mentioned earlier) where all the writers, producers, script editors, storyliners, researchers and schedulers come together. Each writer takes their turn to discuss their ep(s), talk about their ideas and ask any questions. Personally, I love the commissioning day. Writing can be a lonely business so this is a great chance to touch base with everyone.
Then the hard work really begins. Timings vary depending on where you are in the block (so far I’ve been in every week bar week 4) but you usually have nearly two weeks to do your first draft. A few days later you get notes and then another week or so for draft two. There are two more drafts with diminishing turnaround times as, in theory, most of the heavy lifting has been done by then. Then probably some final tweaks as it goes into the studio.
Your script editor is your friend in this process. They are great people juggling several scripts at different stages and fielding notes from all over down to you.
There are often a lot of notes – however awesome your draft is – and sometimes there are curveballs when a new storyline has been created further up the chain and needs to be seeded into earlier eps, or if a cast member suddenly isn’t available. You have to be flexible, prepared for anything and meet everything with grace and gusto. It’s never personal, it’s all about the show.

It used to be suggested that you had to have a strong social media presence to further your writing career, do you think this is still the case and if so what advantages do you think it brings?

(RP) My instinct is to say that writers don’t need a strong online profile – but of course, I don’t know how much more successful I’d be if I had one! I think some writers are brilliant at making connections online and capitalising on them. Personally I use social media to stay in touch with my friends and my writing network, but otherwise I find it to be a bit of a timesuck. I have two primary school-age kids, and more work than I can do in 8 hours a day so I need to avoid distractions. Freedom.to and the StayFocussed apps are my friends!  

(PL) It certainly doesn’t hurt. I think it depends on how you use it. If you’re making your own projects and have something to promote then I’d say it’s essential.
As a back-up (or a precursor) to real-life contacts, I think it’s really useful. I’ve been recognised at networking things from my twitter profile and there are a bunch of script editors and writers that I feel I already ‘know’ from their interactions on social media.
It ought to be treated as an extension of your own persona though, people will judge you by it so you have to be professional. I always try to be positive, upbeat and supportive in person so that’s the image I try to project online.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

PLEASE HOLD...

It's mid-February and this will be my first blog of the year... and sadly it will also likely be my last. After thirteen years of documenting my journey as a screenwriter, I've decided to hang up my blog, my Twitter account and my Facebook page to focus on my writing.

The last few weeks I've had my head buried in a commissioned rewrite of a feature film due to shoot later this year. It left me with very little time for anything else and I came to realise that even if I did carry on with my blog I wouldn't be able to devote the time to it to do it justice.

After thirteen years it's also very difficult to come up with new content every Wednesday without rehashing old information and I'd rather not waffle on and bore you all to death. Besides, I no longer believe you need to maintain multiple social media accounts to have a successful screenwriting career. It's better to stay in touch with people via old fashioned email or by picking up the phone and actually talking to someone. It's more personal after all.

In recent months I've also become disillusioned with social media, especially Twitter. It's no longer the place that allows writers to pass on what they've learned to those following behind, or be supportive of like-minded people and happily share with and encouraged others. It has unfortunately devolved into a hotbed of hatred and has birthed a culture of people who prefer to shout down and ridicule those people whose opinions differ from theirs. It's not something I wish to be associated with.

I want to thank you all for your years of loyalty. It's been a pleasure and an honour to see you grow as writers and hear your success stories, and to know my posts have helped you along the way.

I won't be gone completely. You may see me around now and then, popping up to tell you what I'm working on and what I've loved on TV or in the cinema and who has inspired me and why, but the regular blogs and other social media output are being put on hold.

Happy writing!