Monday, 19 March 2018

'This'll Be The One' or Why Writing Just One Screenplay Is Disastrous

It's a nice thought: that one magical, transcendant screenplay that'll catapult you to the top of Hollywood. A literary work to rival Kane or Butch Cassidy, and place you in the venerated pantheon of Goldman and Towne. A masterwork of drama or comedy that you worked on, nay, slaved over for years and years, perfecting every last detail. Truly, you are the cinematic Messiah...

And you know what? It's complete, utter and total bull.

No one who actually has anything resembling a career has just one good script, or worse, WAITS until they sold that one script to write more. It's like if a baker only makes more cakes after just baking one, or a dentist who only does cavities and nothing else. I, for one, am always frustrated when I see well meaning folk pop up on forums and Facebook writing groups with a script that they say they've spent 'years' on. An A for effort, yeah, but it's also obvious they haven't written anything else in that time. They put all their eggs in one basket.

Being able to generate multiple ideas and then write as many scripts (film, TV, radio, stage, short, webseries) as possible is vital to making it. Each one presents a new challenge for you to grow and improve as a storyteller. Your characters have more dimension, your structure gets tighter, your pacing faster, your dialogue sharper. It's slow, but worth the slog if you really want this bad enough. As Frank Darabont said, ''Everything is self-applied effort in life. You don't get anything easily.''

Alright then, so what can you do?
  • Write down everything. No seriously, this is not some throwaway guff from 'professionals': it's true. On paper, your phone, in a Word document, on a napkin, just write down any idea you have. Doesn't have to be deep or detailed or eve immediately obvious: something as random as ''zombie ducks invade Cardiff'' might have something in it. Always have a little ideas folder or cache handy: it may save you in a moment of the dreaded 'block'.
  • Do one pagers: again, don't worry about perfection. Just write a rough outline in three-four paragraphs, detailing the very broadest strokes of what you'd like to do with the idea. Additionally, do the logline: that super condensed, to the point version of your story can be super helpful in finding the heart of the piece.
  • Exercises: a lot of screenwriting books and websites have these - very quick, usually 5-10 minute challenges you can do to help you come up with something (also good for block-busting). Could be building a character in layers, could be a brainstorm or mind map, maybe even just write a random scene with two characters. Anything can lead to something.
  • Read non-film stuff: A trip to the library or, if you're just feeling mega-lazy, Wikipedia, can yield all sorts of possible inspiration. News, politics, history, art, science, all can plant a seed of something in your mind. Who knows, you might find great drama within the confines of American corn production.
No matter what plan you pick, just follow it through and pump out as many different projects as you can. Start something new every time you finish a draft or two of a project. With a rota, you could have few as say, four, and as many as ten or eleven new scripts/treatments by the end of a year. If you really consider yourself a storyteller, you should be turning out many different tales as often as you can.

Writing is hard. Very hard. No formula or beatsheet will change that, and if you really love it,  you'll push yourself. Getting your first script finished is a wonderful feeling. Knowing people like it: even better. However, staying married to past glories is dangerous: say your script does the round at contests and companies, and no one goes for it. What now? If you just hawk the same thing year after year, you'll look like a one-trick pony who never had anything interesting or unique to say.

I speak from cold, hard experience. Look for yourself:

You know why else this is handy? If you get a pitch meeting, you may well be in a scenario where they like your writing, but the script's just not right for them at that moment (I have). They'll ask, what else?

See how helpful this backup can be?

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Pudsey, Paul Rose and Writing A Dud (A Great Piece on Failure)

So, to help break up the recent run of beefy articles on dos and do-not dos, figured I'd signal boost one of my all time favourite musings on screenwriting: childrens TV and games journalism veteran Paul Rose, on the experience of the writing the critically reviled X-Factor tie-in, Pudsey The Dog: The Movie.

Posts like this help illuminate the flip side to screenwriting, when you write a POS. It's a sad reality of the business and something you have to willing to face if you're serious about. Rose isn't excessively bitter or childish about the whole business: he accepts it and discusses it with maturity and even a little humour.

Monday, 12 February 2018

'You want to be a Screenwriter, but you've got NO time?' Here's What To Do

I consider myself fortunate to be in a position, given my living circumstances, to be able to devote myself fully towards film and television as a career, not just the screenwriting pipe dream. I knew I wanted this career for years, and took the steps towards it. Wasn't always easy, but I believe very strongly in this.

Others, however, don't get the itch like that: some may get the 'writing bug' later in life, some when they're knee-deep in another career. Some even get it when they're tangled up in others commitments, like caring for the sick or elderly, or raising children. You just don't have the luxury of time to devote to pricey courses or really beefy screenwriting tomes and workshops that are often the first go-tos of many wannabes. You can't get away to network at festivals and fancy screenings, or live near major productions hubs.

What are you to do? How can you get rolling, get better at writing and still live your regular life? Is there any help? Is there anything cheap or even free?

Well, I have a few pointers.
  • Via BBC Writersroom and FutureLearn, the University fo East Anglia offers a free, online (so no travel expenses, debts or schedule changes needed) screenwriting course. This offers you a starting point if you're entirely green or haven't written in forever.
  • Books to read? Again, bearing in mind time and budget, there are two instant recommends: first, Save The Cat! The Last Book On Screenwriting You'll Ever Need by Blake Snyder. Disney scribe Snyder famously created a durable 'beat sheet' to help one structure and plot out a movie that would be A) commercial and B) keep the interest of cynical readers and jaded audiences. It's an easy, concise and often amusing read that offers help on other elements too, such as pitching, loglines, outlines and even networking (though don't worry about that right now). Second, and one tailor-made for you-of-so-so-little-free-time, is The Coffee Break Screenwriter by Pilar Alessandra. Part manual, part writing course, veteran consultant Alessandra teaches how you can build a screenplay in ten minutes exercises. That's right: just ten quick and easy minutes. Can fit that in between school runs and Nana's medication, right?
  • On the note of books, another good investment will be either Your Screenplay Sucks: 100 Ways to Make It Great by William M. Akers or How Not To Write A Screenplay: 101 Common Mistakes by Denny Martin Flinn. These are masterclasses in rookie blunders that can destroy your chances of a career. It's really not funny how a few typos or characters with rhyming names have ended many dreams. Don't let 'teh' screw you over.
  • Of course, you have to read real scripts to know good from crap. Good news is they're free, plentiful and downloadable. Here's where:
  • How about advice and tutorials? Bang2Write, run by veteran consultant Lucy V. Hay, is your one-stop shop. It's filled with great articles and lists on just about every facet of screenwriting you could want to know, told in Hay's humourous and snappy style.
  • Got a Facebook account? The site has tons of filmmaking groups, filled with a never-ending supply of fellow writers who are happy to help, talk and even read your stuff (if you ask nicely and properly pitch it). It's really as easy as typing in film or screenwriter and BOOM: off you go. Added bonus: a way to network without leaving the house.
And well, hope those help. At this point, don't worry too much about the wider market or machinery of film & TV: get comfortable writing and developing a proper work ethic. Give yourself the space and time to write material, make mistakes and learn from said mistakes. Your first draft will suck: all first drafts do. Rewriting is the only way to make it better.

Even with these shortcuts, screenwriting is the long game. Patience is a must, and frankly, if you can devote a small chunk of time out of your schedule to it, then you may have what it takes to eventually make it. All the books and classes won't make a difference if you don't have the willpower to do it.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Screenwriting Advice for BA Students... From a Masters Grad (Part Six: Why it's okay to fail)

And now, in the homestretch, let me put on the brakes and give you some sage words. Words that I've come to appreciate after my experiences, and words which I didn't fully get until I lived them:

Making mistakes is not the problem: NOT learning from them is.

You're a new screenwriter, still finding your voice and what genres you are genuinely the best at. You'll make mistakes, no matter what you do. You'll write flaccid dialogue or wonky structure or poor characters. You'll make something too big for your level, both in industry terms and your own writing experience, and you'll make something too small, that has no appeal or story engine.

And you know what? It's okay.

No really, not setting you up: it's alright to make mistakes and write crap. It's not the end of the world if your first or second script suck the big one and make no sense: you're still learning. Getting to the end of a draft is a victory: do you know how many people can't even make it to page 30? Being able to do a complete rewrite is another victory: how many people stupidly think their first draft is perfect?

However, these small victories will mean nothing if you can't exercise, arguably, the most important tool in your writing arsenal: critical thinking. Learn and understand why something isn't working, and then develop ways to fix it. How can you make this line of bad dialogue sing? How can you make this boring character interesting? How can you make this moment of tension even bigger? Trial and error, that's how. It's slow, it's tedious, but worth every second.

You know that else? Projects can collapse on you: talent will back out, money gets lost or overspent, scripts will not work out etc.. Just this past year, I had a fantasy feature and a sci-fi short die on me. Last year, staffing on two webseries. You take it in, have a deep breath and, if you really want this career, soldier on. Again, learn from it.

You know the one mistake that is genuinely inexcusable? Being an arrogant tit.

I've remarked on it before, but I'll say it once more for those suffering from selective reading (a common malady on the internet): 
If you're a pain, no one will work with you.

You're a no-name at the bottom of the heap, untested and unproven: you DON'T get to act all big and tough, telling people more experienced than you that they're wrong. If you can't be bothered to write a decent logline, or a comprehensible synopsis, or even just being able to state what your project's about, why oh why, do you think ANYONE will treat you with respect?

In what fairytale la-la-land do you think you can get thousands, nay, millions, of pounds/dollars invested in you with poorly spelled, generic, bland and whiney proposals and scripts? Really, I'd love to know: it'd make my life a whole lot easier.

Just look at this joker from a Facebook screenwriting group (he's asking for an actor, but I've seen countless wannabe writers do the same thing). When I tried to point out that his presentation was uninformative and unprofessional, look what he wrote in response (top comment):

I am sick and tired of seeing lazy pitches like this on FB, as well as forums like reddit, Stage32 and Amazon Studios. I am fed up with this missplaced sense of entitlement and bad attitude towards your peers. If you think, even for one second, that the industry owes YOU something, you're out of your mind. If you think you can just waltz onto a forum or Facebook group and DEMAND things, like exec emails or producers' cash, you're also nuts. And if, and this is arguably the worst yet, get snippy and defensive when people try to HELP you, then please, do society a favour and check yourself in.

Harsh? Yes, but necessary: it's such a basic mistake that, by avoiding, you already put yourself light years ahead of the competition, just like with basic proof reading and saying 'thank you'. Everything about being a screenwriter is in the details. Take it from Joe Carnahan:

And with that, we've arrived at the end of our strange little journey. I really hope you found this series of use and will, at least, be spared a few headaches. Like I said before, I can't give you miracle cures or cheats: I can only tell you what I've learnt and am still learning. I'm still a student of the medium, and I'm well aware that there will be ups and downs along the way. There will be producers I don't impress, or scripts I can't finish, or series I can't get involved with, but you know what? I'll still keep going, because I know I've got the tenacity and hunger to want it that bad, and to work that hard.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Screenwriting Advice for BA Students... From a Masters Grad (Part Five: Actual Writing Work and Agents)

And now, we finally talk about being paid to write scripts. Yes, a series all about screenwriting, and it's just now that we finally talk about actually making any sort of living at it.

Ah well, save the best for next-to-last, right?

As mentioned at the beginning, you don't need an agent to walk up to a producer or development person and pitch your idea. Procedure is much the same as the work experience discussion last time: find the relevant email, compose a short pitch and logline, and then send it off. Agents really exist to help with contracts, payment and get you past the 'unsolicited' material bit, but they do not get you work. You do. You still have to network and talk to people and pitch and all the rest of it. That will never change.

Also, note what I said above: I said pitch your idea, not guarantee a read or development or actually getting made. The reality of the industry is most of your money, and by proxy, most of your career, will come from development, rather than actual production and release. Indeed, that show or film you want to make will more likely serve as a calling card to work on a similar project that the company or producer is making: your period drama pilot may open the door to work on a series like Versailles or Gunpowder, or a crime spec onto Midsommer Murders or Father Brown.

But before any of that, having some independently produced material can also be handy: It shows you write well enough to have people want to make it, as well as have initiative. Sometimes, it can even serve as a demo of a bigger project (think Whiplash), or be a way to build your own brand with some other successes. So, what can you do?
  • Short films: Classic staple. Doubt I need to say much on them. If you didn't make many connections at uni, don't worry: Facebook has tons of filmmaking groups, filled with a never-ending supply of producers and directors looking for short scripts. It's as easy as typing in film or screenwriter and BOOM: a goldmine.
  • Webseries: Good if you have an eye for TV and want to show you can write a returnable/long running project. Plus, if you have a pilot idea, this can also act as a road test. Facebook and Screenwriting Staffing also put these gigs up in droves.
  • Plays: Loads of small theatres and festivals offer opportunities and competitions for material, some even doing full plays. Agents and other talent scouts attend, so it's a good way to get spotted and network. BBC Writersroom and London Playwrights' Blog are great sources for who has an open slot.
  • Radio and podcasts: The audience is smaller than film or TV, but the advantadge: lower costs, allowing more risks to be taken. Yes, you can just pitch straight to a producer on radio, and maybe get your work on BBC Radio 4, without any sort of 'unsolicited' hullabaloo. Welcome to Nightvale and Homecoming, meanwhile, are proof of how much narrative podcasts have become a force of their own, and not something to overlook.
  • Screenwriting contests and competitions: You pay a fee, and your film or TV script will be entered into a competition, with the prizes running from big fat cheques, to meetings with producers and agents. Even just placing highly can be a useful sales hook. Just like everything thus far, however, Be A Discerning Shopper: Check the prizes, credentials of the judges, fee prices, how long they've been running and if they've had any major success stories. did a great piece on the best ones.
  • In addition, writing news scripts, adverts and other types of commercial, short-form content (known as copywriters) are also a common way to earn your keep as a new writer.
One I did not mention was Amazon Studios: you might've heard the Big A has a system of reading unsolicited scripts. A couple of years ago, I would have said give them a go, but nothing from their unsolicited slate has been greenlit in forever, since they started working with represented writers. The only thing of worth, the forum, has since been shut so, really, there's no point going there.

Now, let's say you do make it: you get a read, they like it and then the follow-up meeting goes well (once again, civility with just a touch of energy and healthy, non-creepy mania, is king). Sometimes, you may get your work greenlit, and suddenly, your movie or pilot is being made. In which case, congratulations! You've now got that rags to riches story that every student screenwriter dreams of.

However, moreso in TV than film, this will likely not be the case and, instead, the company will pay you some money for development, and then offer you a job on something they're working on (a commission) that is similar to what you pitched them. This can be rewrites on a film (an assignment) or work as a staff writer on a TV series. Rule here is don't be a snob: any paid work is good work, even if the premise doesn't seem like the most groundbreaking or original thing ever. You may laugh, but soaps, daytime television and kids TV are all the classic stomping grounds of new writers, so keep a good watch on them.

The mantra goes that it takes 'ten years' to make it in the business, and sadly, that's often not far from the truth (it's the one I'm living with right now). However, this does not mean 'ten years' till you get paid, or meet people, or get meetings or even get an agent: it just means you get into a good position to really advance your career, with some decent credits under your belt.

So, I've talked reading material, job prospects, networking and your first gigs. What else is there I could cover? How about some home truths, including one which is almost never addressed, but can make all the difference.

Join me for the sixth and final part when I talk about getting it wrong, and why that's not the end.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Happy 2018 - New Year's update and future plans (10/1/2018)

Hello everyone! Hope everybody enjoyed Christmas and getting smashed on New Years'.
Now back to work adn, for me, new horizons.

Since my last update, a fair bit has happened: I'm two months off from graduating my MA in Screenwriting, courtesy of the lovely folks at Met Film School. It's been quite a ride, but I'm very glad I did it. I now feel light years ahead of where I was as both a creator and industry professional. How much so? Well, now I'm reading for Lime Pictures (Hollyoaks, Evermore) and hope to have a few more things set up in the near future (can't say what yet. Don't want to jinx it).

On the writing front, I'm working through another draft of my Spanish Civil War feature, Sapphire Butterfly. It's been quite a challenge, as period romances are not my usually go-to, but the experience has been very rewarding. It's given me a newfound appreciation for the primacy of character in screen stories and the importance of having subplots to balance and develop your story.

Other projects include a recently complete superhero series for kids, which I've sent off (again, can't say more than that), as well as working on a new draft of a kids swashbuckler set in 1840s Spain, and brainstorming more TV ideas. I've also got two kids features in the works, one a sports dramaedy, the other a dark fantasy set around the time of the Civil War, but it's still too early to say more than that.

As for this blog, I'll continue the transition towards writing and screenwriting focused content, with more entries in my 'BA Students' series coming very soon, as well as some one-offs that I've really wanted to do for some time (including one geared towards people with packed schedules).

So, cross your fingers and toes for my sorry sake, because 2018 will prove to be a most.... interesting year.


Monday, 1 January 2018

Screenwriting Advice for BA Students... From a Masters Grad (Part Four: Jobs and Networking)

Alright, I'll not beat around the bush: No, you're not likely to get your first paying gig in film and TV, if not just gig period, writing a script. Unless you have a Cousin Joel at Warners, or Uncle Mark at the BBC, you'll likely have to find another way. Sad, but true.

The good news: there is no one route. Everybody's way in is different, meaning there isn't a right or wrong way to start in the business. The bad news: that lack of structure puts all the onus on you and your initiative to get anywhere. No one comes to you: YOU go to people. Also, doing a lot of unpaid work is the norm, so don't be quick to give up the day job just yet.

So, what are your ports of call (as said, a number of these are also covered in Stack and Clague's book)?
  • Being a script reader: one of the most common methods of attack, you help a production company wade the tsunami of screenplays and decide what ones are actually worth the head honchos' time. Usually in the form of a three+ page report, you grade the piece on several criteria, such as character, structure, dialogue and commercial prospects, write up a synopsis that summarises the whole script. With that you offer a page worth of comments on the positive and negatives, and whether or not it should be taken further for development.
  • Being a runner/low level position at a production company: like the reader, you'll be starting at the bottom, helping to do odd jobs around the office and make the tea.But again, you'll meet people.
  • Join a training scheme: certain companies and broadcasters like the BBC do offer training schemes to help get you involved on series and in departments, usually in an on-set/technical capacity. Be sure to check on their websites every couple of weeks if new ones come up.
  • Being a teacher: Again, another common pathway is to get involved in the teaching of creative media at the college/university level, as well as on special film programs and workshops for schools. You'll be able to pay bills, enjoy certain benefits afforded the teaching profession such as set hours and, thanks to school holidays, have nice big chunks that you can devote solely to other pursuits.
  • By the way, CVs? Keep it simple, keep it single column, two pages max, and tie every piece of information into the position you're applying: generic do-all CVs will not work (and forget about the 'Interests' section: no one cares if you like swimming or Chinese food). Lucy Hay talks about it here better than I can.
Say you pick the first two: Much like pitching your idea, introducing yourself to production companies and asking for the privellege of giving them free labour (remember, ask not what they can do for you, but what you can do for them) is a skill of its own. A short email, giving a brief account of you, your ambitions and your relevant experience, as well as why this specific company, followed by a quick ask to do, say, two weeks free work, can help. (How to reach them? IMDB Pro.)

Alternately, just ask to have a five minute meeting with someone in development about career advice, as a graduating/graduate student. You'd be surprised how generous people can be with their time, as well as how useful being a student is: you're still in school, so you're not trying to sell them anything. You're just a wide-eyed kid with big dreams. They can relate, and if they like you, they may even offer you some work experience, or possibly even a read of your script.
Now, onto the N-Word.
The Non-Tarantino one.

Yes, YOU have to go and meet people. YOU have to acually talk to people before they can read your script and maybe, MAYBE, give you a job. YOU have to make people want to be around you. Go to festivals (like London Screenwriters), media conferences, screenings, talks and lectures: anywhere makers and movers will be, so must you. Research who they are beforehand, so that when you introduce yourself, you can point to something they've made and can say you admire. Nobody can resist a compliment, and thus, that snowballs into a chat, a conversation and, possibly, an exchange of numbers and/or emails.

You must, also, not be:
  • Clingy 
  • Annoying 
  • Impatient
  • Whiny 
  • Unclean
  • Demanding
Nothing cheeses off a producer like someone with no concept of patience or personal space or, just as bad, an obvious salesman. Britain, unlike the States, is not terribly fond of aggressive pitchers: people like to actually talk and hold interesting conversations about stuff that isn't just your idea.

Just like anywhere else in life, treat others as you would want to be treated yourself. Be polite, be understanding and, here's the big one, LISTEN. The art of shutting your mouth, letting others talk and actually absorbing what they are saying is such a rare quality that I think the dodo is a more populated species than people with this skill. And yet, just like making sure to say please and thank you to people, it makes all the difference in endearing you to someone.

After you are done, cordially thank them and send a follow-up email a few days later, thanking them for their time and that you hope that you can stay in touch. Afterwards, stay in touch every 3 or so months. Ideally, when you have a new project or piece of work or major news to share with them. Remember, treat others as you would want to be treated: you wouldn't want your time wasted with monotony or trivial nonsense, so don't waste theirs if you have nothing to show.

A last tip: to stay informed of who is making what and where, subscribe to the trade magazines: Deadline, Hollywood Reporter, Screen International (for film) and Broadcast (for TV) come out regularly and for an efficient fee. Occassionally browsing on IMDB is not good enough: you have to have a steady flow of reliable, well sourced information, if you want to stand any chance.

Okay, so let's say you've met someone and they want to read your script. What now?
Join me in Part five, where I talk about actually writing for a living, and those mystical, mythical beings known as ''Agents''.