Wednesday, November 13, 2019

WRITING FOR CONTINUING DRAMA

The blog is back! After an eight-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!