Friday, 30 April 2010

How it all began... 2010

Hey! And hello!!! Bet you thought I'd disappeared!

Ok, much more likely that you didn't even notice....

Right, well, I've just spent two weeks stuck under this:

In Lurgan. Lucky old me. But at least I was at home sitting in front of the fire watching lots of fab TV and eating soda farls and potato bread. So, I was a lot better off than both. Any road up, back in Rome now. The sun is shining. Life is good.

Soooooo....after the shenanigans of 2009, parts one, two, three and four (what was I thinking...?) let's get up to date with 2010.

January started off with the second BBC NI/Tinderbox 360° New Writing Festival. Which is a bit of a mouthful by anyone's standards. They had a cracking line up this year - Paul Ashton from the Writersroom, Comedy Writing by Humphrey Barlclay and Vanessa Hay, Michael Jacob from the BBC Comedy Academy, Tim Loane - Writing for TV, Hugh Costello on writing for radio, Matthew Dench on Agents, David Ireland on writing for the stage and current events.

There were the usual networking opps and the chance to get together with other writers and chinwag about writing. Last year I'd sat in the corner with a plastic cup of crap wine at these things, but this year I thought to hell with it and got stuck in. And it's weird, but you realise that chatting to some development producer about cheese n' onion crisps and neopolitan ice cream fetishes (rather than trying to push your script on to them) is actually a bit of a laugh, all the stress goes, and you find yourself suggesting that you send them a script. And they say "Course!" like your their best friend. So, lesson leaned. Networking: Good.

I've got some reports on most of the sessions so I'll bang them up here next week.

Another good thing was that I got to arrange another meeting with the radio producer there I'd been talking to at BBC NI. Last time we'd spoken she'd told me that she was taking one of my ideas to her Execs to talk through. But that had been about four months ago. We'd emailed and chatted but work, life and busy schedules had taken over and I hadn't really heard anything. It's difficult to know what to do in that situation. Which brings us on to the thorny problem of the THE FOLLOW UP.

You’ve had a meeting. They liked something. They’re taking it forward. You're gonna get a commission! You're career has just taken off!! Endless riches and power are yours!!!!! Ha-HA!!

Then they disappear.

Well, course they do. You have to be realistic about how many projects these people are juggling, managing, producing, directing, writing follow up reports on, reading, etc. They may even be trying to fit in a bit of a life too, the mad fools. And as a new writer trying to get in that door, you are not the only thing on their list. Developing those relationships with new writers is part of what they do, but only a part, whilst for you it is huge. So, you end up with this awful clingy feeling like you're back at school, desperately hoping the person you really fancy who spoke to you last week will notice you again.

Course, that could just be me.

So, what do you do? You don't want to send endless emails, saying,

"So.....??? What did they THINK?? Instant commission or what?''

On the other hand, you DO want to know. And what if, in their busy schedule it's somehow slipped, and they'll actually be really grateful of the reminder? It's always a difficult call, dependant on how well you know them, how busy they are, when the deadline is, etc. You just have to hold strong, keep you desperation and paranoia at bay and send a gentle reminder after a month or so that doesn't make it sound as if you're chastising them.

The only real way to deal with it is just to get on with other stuff, which is what you are forced to do anyway. After a week of checking emails every five minutes and eventually realizing that it's probably gonna take a while, you just get sick of it and go do something else. And all the better if that other thing is some writing. For when they come back and say "no".

Anyway, the festival allowed me to suggest we got together for an update and a month later I was back in rainy Belfast for a coffee and a chat, which was rather nice timing as the commissioning round for Radio 4 drama was coming up. I also re-sent my ideas just to make sure she had a copy at hand, which turned out to be a good idea as she then took it to her Exec and they chose a different idea to take forward this time. Except... I'd written a biographical/true life story set in the 80s.

(Or at least I was going to. This was still the one-page pitch. If BBC NI liked it enough to put it forward to the pre-offers then I had to re-write the one pager. If the commissioner liked it enough to put it into the formal offers round, then I would have to develop a two-pager. And if he still liked it enough to commission it, THEN I had to write it.)

My feedback from the producer and Exec was that they liked the themes and ideas, but could I write a modern version? Which meant no true life story about quite famous person, no 80s context (which was crucial to the way this guy's life played out) and err.... a completely different story. So of course I said,

"Yeah, fine! I'll do that! No problem! Where do you want it?"

The reasoning was that the Afternoon Play doesn't really do biographies or historical. At least, not from new writers. They have enough of that and want contemporary stories. Which is fair enough. They gave me a week to come up with the new idea.

So, off I went and re-thought the whole thing, did some research, developed a new story with the same themes and arena, and sent a new one pager off to the producer.

And waited....

Meanwhile, I'd also arranged a second meeting over on the mainland with the other radio producer who'd been waiting on my re-write of Francesca and Giorgio. Well, waiting is probably not exactly correct. She probably couldn't have cared less. But I'd done the re-write and sent it off to her, along with some ideas. We met and she was absolutely lovely and encouraging and informative. The reallly mad thing was that, having this meeting so soon after the other one, I was struck by how they both said exactly the same things about what works and what doesn't in terms of commissioning for Radio 4. With that in mind, we also discussed F & G. She still liked it but wasn't sure it was something the commissioner would go for (again, it was set in the past, had lots of flashbacks and some other stuff that wasn't usually commissioned). Also, she felt that after the re-write it still wasn't quite there. I had to agree with her. There was something not quite chiming with it. It had been my second script, and I'd learnt so much since then, that fixing it was taking more time and effort than starting something completely new. And to be honest, from my point of view, that little script had done so much for me - getting me these meetings and interest, getting me interest from Fair City too - that I really felt it had done its job and I was ready to leave it.

So we discussed my other ideas. Another thing I learnt that day was that (and this is quite complicated, so bear with me):

Two internal producers from two different geographical parts of BBC radio can't put the same writer in to the offers round for the same slot, even if it is with different projects.

Got that?

Ok, read it again.



Remember, that is for internal producers. Independents may be able to do what they want. Oh, and new writers can only be put up for the Afternoon slot, not Woman's Hour or anything else. So, having two producers that you're talking to doesn't necessarily double your chances. With two offer rounds a year, that means that, as a new writer, you only really get one shot with one idea for each round. Oh, and the September round is really only to fill in the gaps. The main slot is March. So, that's kinda one chance with one idea per year.

And radio's supposed to be "a good way in"....

And yet, it is! I got two producers talking to me in a relatively short amount of time. And if I can do it, anyone can. So, go for it!

The upshot of our meeting was that we'd keep in touch and I'd send her some ideas over the summer and maybe we'd put something in for the September round.

So, I went home to wait for the news from BBC NI on how my new idea had gone down. Would it be going into the offers round and under the eyes of the commissioner?

The news came a few weeks later.... and it was good! The drama dept had had their meeting and my idea was one of the ones chosen to go forward to the pre-offers round. Excellent!! The commissioner would be looking at it, they'd have a meeting within the month, and I'd know if it was going to the next stage - the formal offers round.

Oooh, the waiting....

In the meantime, I also managed to get Fair City working again for me to watch, so that was back on! I got in touch with the script editor, told her the good news, and she advised me to get up to speed over a couple of months and come back to do the trial. Weh-hey!

That's it for now. Next time.... what the commissioner thought....

Friday, 16 April 2010

How it started: 2009 - The End...

Right, so let's get this 2009 business over with, eh?

After the ups, downs and maybes of the year so far, I got a nice bit of news. I'd sent my radio play to Writersroom (I was certainly getting my money's worth out of that script...) and I got a letter back from them with lots of nice comments and feedback, along with an invite to send in another script. It was the first thing I'd sent them so I was pretty chuffed.

And then the producer from BBC NI got back to me. She'd liked the script too. She didn't think, however, that it was right for them, but she did like my writing and would I like to come and meet her and find out more about all things radio? Course I would!

I thought it would be better to go along with a few ideas, so I took some things that I'd had knocking around in my head for a while and put them down on paper as one page pitches (or at least what I thought were one page pitches. They were probably just a mess of ideas thrown together haphazardly on a page), sent them off for some feedback, and clutched them in my hand as I headed off for my meeting.

And she was lovely. The idea of meeting a producer is slightly scary (or very scary... or terrifying) but it's easy to forget that they're people just like you and me and want to find a good idea just as much as you do. And they want to have a good time while they're looking, so being pleasant and having a bit of a laugh is just as important as being professional and selling yourself.

Anyway, we had a right old yarn about how the whole process works for radio, and what producers are looking for. I've already blogged about this here on the lovely Michelle Lipton's blog, if you want to know a bit more about that. Michelle also has some very interesting posts on her blog about writing for radio here and here. If you haven't already, read them immediately. Invaluable stuff.

Anyway, on a more personal note, we also discussed my ideas and the producer took one idea that she thought the commissioner might like and said that she'd take it to her Execs and let me know. Result! Whether they went for it would be another thing. I was just chuffed that she considered me worthy of presenting to them. Like I was a writer or something.

And then it was off to the Screenwriters Festival. A right romp around Cheltenham Ladies College, meeting up with old mates from Sharpshooters and elsewhere. I also got the chance to take part in the Speed Dating sessions for Agents. IWe were basically assigned three agents and we had five minutes to talk/pitch to each of them, before a bell rang and we had to move on. There were about 20 agents and producers/datees and about 50 writer/daters. It was kinda... scary.

But it was great fun and good experience at the same time. As a writer still looking for that first commission, I'm not really bothered about agents just yet. I just don't think you have a lot to offer them as an uncommissioned writer. Get a gig, then ask them to represent you. Approaching them with a shiny new contract and a fee for them to negotiate just seems a much more attractive proposition to me.

But I was still scared.

I'd prepared my spiel - a bit of background, writing history and successes so far (obviously that was the short bit!) and what I was working on. And for anyone who ever finds themselves in a similar position... boy, was I glad that I'd got that down before I got into the room. All those people and that bell going off and everyone launching into their pitches at the same time made it all very high pressure. I'd have never been able to go in there and wing it. Having said that, I soon realised after my first pitch that my spiel was far too long and far too personal history heavy. I'd had to cram my writing interests into the end and we hadn't had time to chat! The bell rang and it was change chairs time!

I then had about ten seconds between agent 1 and agent 2 to re-write my speech in my head and start all over again. That one went a little bit better and we had a bit of a chat. Not great though. Bell! Re-write speech in 5 seconds and off we go again. By the third go, I was much more relaxed and confident. We had a bit of a chat and a laugh and she asked to see a script. Result!

I walked out of the room with a sore head but happy. It was great experience and well done to the Festival for providing it. And the lesson learned? Be prepared! And be prepared to change whatever you have prepared!

And that's it for 2009. A post or two on 2010 will bring us up to date on those radio opps and the return of Fair City!

Monday, 12 April 2010

How it started… 2009: Fair City

Hello there!

Right, so better get this "How it all started..." business over with. So, what happened next?

Well, the people from Fair City got back in touch. They'd read my scripts and liked them. Did I want to do a try out of some scenes? Did I ever!

They sent out the ep breakdowns for four episodes (a weeks worth) and asked me to pick any 4 scenes from one episode and write them up. I had a week.

Different soaps break down their episodes in different ways. Some have a description of the A story for that episode, then the B story, the C, etc, They tell you who will be available and which locations, and then it is then pretty much up to you how you decide to write the episode, in what order or scenes, how they might link together, etc.

Others give you a scene-by-scene breakdown of the episode, who's in it and where it takes place, and you then have to flesh that out. This is how it's done with Fair City. Which sounds easier, doesn't it? And maybe it is. Difficult to stand out in a try-out writing exercise though, don't you think?

There were two things the script editor had impressed on me before starting. First...


These shows are about the characters, the relationships between them and... Actually, that's it. The only way you can write for these shows is if you know the characters, can capture their voices and know what the relationships between them are and have been in the past. They have very little time to give feedback on the drafts of scripts and can't waste it telling you that your scene doesn't work because you have X and Y talking about babies and you've made no reference to the fact that X killed Y's baby last year. Or had Y's baby. Or IS Y's baby. Know the show, know the characters.

Secondly, getting the voice of the characters right is what will convince them you might be able to write for the show. Plenty of people have written very funny/tragic/moving scenes with great/poetic/smart/hilarious dialogue, but they hadn't got the voices of the particular characters. So, no go. Another way of saying know the show, know the characters.

So, I was ready. I studied those four episodes, the breakdowns, calculating and balancing which I felt I could write best, which were most interesting, dramtic, fun. Should I write four scenes with different characters to show diversity? The same characters and storyline in four scenes to show I could follow and develop it well and really nail those voices? Four consecutive scenes to show how I could cleverly link them together? And hey, before all of that, which episode?? Oh, that was the difficult bit. Choosing the scenes. Having deliberated over that a day or two, I was ready. I chose my scenes and decided to get up the next day and do my first drafts.

And woke up three days later.

I got the flu. A bad one. Had me completely flat out in bed, dribbling into my pillow and having feverish dreams about Fair City plots.

By the time I pulled myself out of bed, still feeling rough, I had to decide. Do the whole thing in a day? Or admit defeat, tell them what happened and hope that they'd give me another go?

I opted for the second. Tough call, but I didn't want to mess up my chances. And the fact was, even if I was out of bed after three days, I still felt rough as hell. I was in no mood to write anything. So, I send a nice email. Thank goodness they were very understanding and said that I could have another go in the next round, which was in January. Phew!

Except that RTE stopped transmitting Fair City on their RTE Player about a month later and I no longer had a way of watching it. And they had no idea when they'd get it back. No way to watch the show meant no KNOW THE SHOW, KNOW THE CHARACTERS. Arrrrgh!

So near, so far... blah, blah.

Okay, so my little Fair City story doesn't have a great ending. Yet. But it didn't end there....

See you next time!

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Easter Script Frenzy fallout...

Right, well Easter was a bit of a washout in terms of Script Frenzy and writing.

Too much chocolate, not enough writing.

Still life, friends and family came first. They do sometimes.

What I did is lots of re-writing of those first 12, though. It was important stuff, but I'm not going forward.

Must do better...

I still feel as if I haven't quite worked out some of what drives my protag towards her goal (for she is, indeed, a she). I know what she has to learn, and how she has to learn it, and when. I've got the plot, the events, turning points, set pieces, blah, blah, blah. I'm just not sure if what I have as her reason for going on this adventure is enough. In that, if she learns everything she should by the end of they story, then she won't want the goal she set out to achieve at the beginning. But she kinda needs to, story-wise. Otherwise we don't have the big finish. She just walks away, which is not very satisfying for the audience. Now, that's fine if she makes that discovery as she carries out the final task. The prize isn't the prize any more and we love our hero for realizing that and being a better person, etc. But, if she already knows that before getting to the final task? Why even go through with it? She's doing it for herself. She'd just get there and say, "Hey, I'm not that person any more. These things don't matter to me." Great. Our hero's a better person. We love her.

And Act 3 is 2 minutes. With no conflict.

On the other hand, if I change her outward motivation at the beginning of the story, adding something in with much higher stakes, it could drive the story through much better in terms of her goal. She has to get the prize for external reasons. No matter what she learns, she still has to go through with it. Great. Big finish. The problem is, that will give her less choice at the end. If she has to follow the story/goal through, whether she wants the goal anymore or not, then she doesn't get to choose, when what she chooses is what defines the change she has made on the journey. So, maybe we don't love her the same.

I always have this issue. It's logline stuff basically. What does your character want and why? What's stopping them? What's it ABOUT??? That's what I always come back to when I'm writing. That's what I have to solve.

So, I'm faffing about re-writing.

Or I'm processing all this info, ready to charge forward when a spectacularly good idea has presented itself.

You decide.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Happy Easter...

Have a look at this from the talented Mr Kieran Dogherty and friends...

Feel free to comment and recommend to anyone you know, ensuring them a commission, fantastically amazing careers and riches beyond their dreams.


Script Frenzy...

As the little box at the side tells you, I spent yesterday "reaquainting" myself with the script and the beatsheet, etc. (I wrote the first 12 pages in December and last fiddled around with them in Feb, so it's been a while). Sounds like an excuse for not doing any new writing, but it was really useful in terms of getting my back into it. Honest! I'm gonna do some more re-writing today and hopefully will add some new pages too.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

How it all started… 2009 – Part 2

Right, so where were we?

Oh yeah, I was waiting to hear back from the radio producers. God, isn't waiting the hardest thing? You try so hard not to think about it, and... well, I fail miserably.

When I'd sent the script, I hadn't really expected anyone to say they'd want to produce it. There were some difficult technical issues with it and… well, to be honest, for now I see all my scripts solely as spec scripts. I just try to write something that will (hopefully) show off my writing, get me some interest and the chance of a meeting. I just don't see it in terms of trying to get a producer to go out on a limb for a new writer, produce what I've written, give me a series, or a one-off drama commission, etc. To me, that way madness lies. In TV drama, it just doesn't happen very often. Much more likely is to get the chance to write for another show. Even in radio, I just wanted a chance to meet them and find out how it really worked. But that's just me. I'm sure plenty will disagree. Anyway, I just knew that in getting my work to a couple of producers, a door had opened. What my script had to do is keep it open. So, the long wait…

In the meantime…

Remember the TAPS Continuing Drama Course I'd done in 2008? Well, one of the things they really impressed on us was that those shows are constantly on the lookout for writers. With most of them on 4 or 5 times a week, they positively EAT UP writers. So, if you're good, and you know the show really well, and you really like the characters, and you want to write for it, they will use you. It's not good enough to think of it as just a way in, cause they'll find you out… The other thing they were very insistent on as that you should get your work to them asap. If they don't know you, they can't employ you. When a few of us pointed out that they don't read unsolicited scripts, we got a rather long-suffering roll of the eyes for our trouble.

"So? Find out who the script editors are, get a name, preferably the head script editor, call the office, and ask to speak to them. Be nice. Be polite. Explain who you are. And then ask them if you can send them your script. They wont say "no" to you on the phone. At that point, you aren't unsolicited."

So. Simple. Now, you may be thinking, "They don't know who the hell I am. They'll tell me to go away." Well, I was. And maybe they will. What they were trying to instill in us was (look! Bullet points!):

  • Don't sit at home waiting for your career to happen.
  • You can and should make your own breaks. It's your career. Your responsibility.
  • People (in general) are not ogres. They're like you and me. Just doing different jobs. And they want to find new and good writers. That's their job.
  • You ARE NOT powerless. Get on the phone.

And that last point is the most important and, I think, the most difficult for us to get our heads around at times. But that's what I took home with me, and the thing I've tried to put into practice since then. It's not just about writing. It's about getting out there and making it happen.

So, back at home I decided to do something about it. But who to contact? Well, the state broadcaster (RTE) in Ireland has its own soap, Fair City. Set in Dublin and broadcast four times a week, it's like an Irish EastEnders. With different accents. So, I found out who was in charge, and rang them.

Actually, no, I didn't. I completely chickened out. I spoke to a mate from TAPS and he said he was going to email them with stuff. So, I said I'd wait and see what they said to him and then get in touch myself. I am the bravest of the brave. The pep talk obviously wasn't quite kicking in just yet…

That was in late 2008. They got back in touch in mid-2009, said they were looking for new writers and here was the Script Editor to contact as a new writer. Fab! So, I sent off my stuff. And waited…

In the meantime, the second radio producer a friend had put me in touch with got back in touch. She said she liked the play and my writing a lot and gave me some great, great feedback – some positive, some negative, but all very insightful. Difficult to put right, but I couldn't deny she was on the button with a lot of it. She also asked a bit more about me, asked to read something else even if it wasn't radio, and offered to read a re-write of the play. Great! Door stays open! Job done. Now, I just had to re-write it… And did that mean that she was potentially interested in producing it…? I got back in touch, sent her another script and promised to keep in touch. My first proper, proper contact! Hooray!!

And now I'd better get back to some work… So, I'll leave the final bit of 2009 for another time. Got that Script Frenzy deadline, don't you know… How's everyone doing with theirs?


Oh, when I said they eat up writers, I didn't mean literally. Obviously. That'd be gross.

So, you can come out from behind the sofa now.

No really, come out. It's fine.

Oh, suit yourself then…