Saturday, February 25, 2006

On second thoughts....

Maybe this blog doesn't actually have magical properties. Maybe my agents invited me to lunch and set up a meeting is because in a recent conversations I mentioned I was bored.

Don't get me wrong. I've been busy. But busy doing the same work I've pretty much been doing for the last few years which is writing on serial dramas.

William Goldman wrote that if you are a screenwriter you should write something else as well. A novel, poetry, dirty limericks, anything. To keep your sanity and remind yourself you are a writer not a hack for hire. It reminds me of I think Hunter S Thompson's saying which I paraphrase as ' Writing is like sex, a lot more fun when you're not getting paid for it. You don't see many giggling whores'

Ah, moment of clarity - hence this blog perhaps? I hadn't thought of that!

Anyhoo, back to my agents. Most writers if you asked them if they were happy with their agents will shrug. ''Who is? They take 10% for basically bugger all. Every job I've had I've gotten on my own.''

Well in many cases that is probably right. But I actually like my agents. They've been in the business a loooooooong time. Any situation I come up against, they've already dealt with in the past. They know the producers to work for and the ones to avoid. The shows which are 'writer killers' and the shows that are rewarding.

And when I need a serious bitching session they are on the end of the phone making the right noises. I figure that alone is worth the 10% !

But for a new writer the most important thing about an agent is that they give you instant credibility. You are no longer relegated to the slush pile of unsolicited scripts in a corner of the producers office which they may or may not get back to sometime this year.

You come with the built in assurance that you must actually have some talent, or an agent wouldn't have taken you on.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying talent = getting an agent. Many talented writers can't land an agent, for many reasons. But to busy producers the knowledge that a writer is repped is a comfort.

Same as track record is a comfort. There are some shows that you will have practically no chance of getting on if you have not had at least two or three years experience writing on other shows. Repped or not. Writing for TV is a career, and like other careers, it has to be built.

Because it is not just about writing talent. It is about surviveability. Seriously.

The ability to take notes and give them what they want in a ludicrously short turnaround period. Even if they don't really know what they want. And still be quality.

The ability to change an entire story at the drop of a hat. No matter how much you loved it. Your heart and soul went into it? Tough. That actor left /died/was arrested or that location fell through.

The ability to deal with a script editor or producer who doesn't know their arse from their elbow and not have a meltdown, but shrug and get on with it.

Track record isn't so much about what you have written, but the fact that you survived it.

One of the shows I work on occassionally had a starting core of I think around 19 writers. For various reasons many of these were new to TV writing. Talented in other fields like novels and plays. But TV not so much.

Out of those 19 I think there are 5 left. And all, bar one, are the previously experienced TV writers.

Mostly the others went back to novels and plays.

TV writing isn't for everyone.

Friday, February 24, 2006


So in my previous post I wrote 'Most meetings are a pain in the arse waste of time -----Hell I've only met my agents face to face once in the last 12 months.

Today - get a call from my agents, they want to take me to lunch on Monday - and later another call that they've set up a meeting with a big prodco in, you've guessed it, Soho.

Now bearing in mind the few meetings I go to and few times I see my agents, I'm begining to think - and I may be wrong - that this blog has magical powers.

The more I think about it the more convinced I am right. I will put it to the test

National Lottery
St Pancras Hall of Residence for single Nurses.

I will expect a phone call shortly from one or all the above.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Pressing the flesh

You've sent of your pride and joy script and holy of holy's an indy prodco calls. 'English, we loved it. Would you like to come in for a chat?'


Except not really. Most meetings are a pain in the arse waste of time. I don't do many. Hell I've only met my agents face to face once in the last year.

But they've got to be done. The kind of meeting above you pretty much know it is really only a 'name to a face' jobby. If they loved the script that much they would be making option noises. But off you trudge. Because names and faces are what builds contacts. You may never see them again, but they are a contact.

Next time you send something in to them they may read it in weeks not months.

Next time one of their first choice writers for a show drops dead or goes insane they may call you. [That's pretty much what it takes for a writer to get on some shows]

So I'll have a shave, make sure the jeans aren't too stained and trudge into Soho, or White City or South Bank, or Horseferry Road - because it's nearly always Soho or White City or South Bank or Horseferry Road.

The breeze will be shot. Pleasantaries exchanged. The project will be briefly complimented. Then comes the 'but'.

The 'but' is usually along the lines of........

'We have something similar in development.'

'Though we loved the writing it's not a concept that fits our slate.'

'We love it but we don't really see a market.'

At this point you do not think 'why the fuck are you wasting my time then?' Banish that from your mind.

You continue with your infectious enthusiasm and self depricating wit - for about 30 seconds, and if in that time they haven't asked you what other ideas you have you damn well tell them. Because really that is the whole purpose of the meeting.

They want you to think of them first when your next big idea hits you. They want you to think 'hey these would be great people to work with'. They want you to go to them and not Joe Soap Productions up the road [probably above a sex shop]

In other words, much as validation is always appreciated, they are not doing you any favours, they are hoping you will do them a favour.

But you must never let them know that you know that they know that.

And here's the thing. People move on. Very quickly. Next time you see that girl who brought the coffee she might be a script editor on a network serial drama. So be nice.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Give me a break?

One of the most frequent questions asked by aspiring writers is 'How do I actually break in to the business?'

Whether it is Film or TV the answer is the same.

1] Write a really good script

2] Get it to the right people at the right time.

Number one is pretty hard. Number two is about the same. Maybe harder.

Number one relies on talent. Talent tends to be subjective. That's really down to you and you alone.

Number two relies on graft and perseverence. There are a few different paths but here is the one I followed.

I wrote a movie script. I bought 'The Writer's Handbook' and trawled through the lists of agents and producers, sometimes phoning, sometimes writing, until after about a month I had maybe half a dozen people agreeing to take a look. I waited for about four weeks, biting my nails, having no idea of the time scale I should be looking at. [Four to six weeks is about average]

Meantime I wrote another movie script. The 'Thank's but not for me' letters began to dribble in, then I got a call from an agent I had sent to. They liked it. What else did I have? I sent script number 2. They said they'd get back in a couple of weeks.

I was half way through script number three when they called. They loved my work, could we meet? Meet? I'll mow your lawn and wash your car!

Couple of days later I was in their West End offices. A quick chat, [mostly them telling me what a fabulous writer I was] a glass of chardonnay and suddenly I was a repped writer. The world was my lobster thermedor.

As I left the plush offices and met my long suffering spouse and kids I decided that hang the expense, I was going to swing for a Beefeater WITH pudding and coffee!

The next few weeks were a whirl of inactivity. Actually that's not quite true. And not really the agent's fault. See, I'd mentioned that I was only really interested in writing movies. Not TV. I did not know then, that although my agency was well known, they were not well known in the film and tv world. They had mentioned that it was quite a small department and as one of the few writers taken on I would be assured of personal attention. Sounded great through my rose coloured hearing aid.

Trouble was they didn't have the experience to say 'Don't be a fucking moron. The chances of you making a living writing movies in the UK are about the same as an incontinent snowman in summer.'

Okay a little harsh but a kick up the arse like that at that time would have saved me a good couple of years of banging my head against the wall.

The path then took a couple of huge body swerves including Los Angeles, but that is for another day! The point is, if you limit yourself to movies you may well never see anything of your work on screen.

Eventually, what happened with me was my agent [number three by this time] got me read by the editor of 'Doctors' . They liked it, we did the meeting dance. I was asked to write a trial script. That went okay. I was asked to come up with some ideas. Did so. Several ideas later one was accepted. They commissioned. I was a bought writer. Doesn't seem much in black and white but the road to that point had been rocky to say the least. Thank God I didn't know then what I know now. I might have just jacked it in. ......Well...... probably not.

Several years later, I'm still at it. Moved on to prime time dramas. Got a couple of series in development, in the mix for various shows - movies in the offing - and still wondering every month if the phone is going to ring.

So, talent is not enough of itself. You have to get your work read. Getting an agent can shortcut a lot of the problems. There are probably less than a dozen agencies repping 95% of working writers. Every prodco knows every agent, and repped writers tend to get read before unrepped ones. Though some working writers don't even bother with agents. The biz is so small that it isn't hard to keep track of who's doing what. Personally I like the comfort of someone watching my back and negotiating fees. But I know writers making a good living without an agent. But if you are approaching existing shows, bear in mind the major difference between UK and US tv. UK outfits prefer to read original material. Not specced scripts of their or any other show.

Write, phone, seek out, attend industry seminars, whatever it takes to get your foot in the door with someone willing to read your work. When that door has opened a crack it is then up to you to force yourself through it with a combination of talent, hard work and luck.

Good luck. Good writing.

Monday, February 20, 2006

How to lose a job

Mainly a post to see if I can do it! But also something dear to the writer's heart. Getting canned!

It happens, in fact it is an occupational hazzard. The main reasons tend to be -

1] A new exec arrives and there is a general cull as they bring in their own favourite writers

2] Deadlines are routinely missed [Deadlines are King]

3] You 'don't get it' [ or as I prefer to call it 'they don't get you]

4] You slept with the producer's daughter and/or wife

I'm guilty of two of these, but unfortunately not the fourth.

The first time I got canned was early on in my career. I'd written about a dozen eps of a 'certain soap'. A new exec producer came on board. I was initially a little concerned but the outgoing producer assured me I was fine. I'd be getting a letter in the next few days confirming this. Lo and behold the letter arrived. I was gushingly welcomed to the team. Given a grand an ep pay rise. I bought red meat for the weekend. High cotton!

Then I never heard another word. The phone just stopped ringing. Now, being naturally a worrier, I was a little suspicious at the old producers leaving party when the new exec seemed to be avoiding eye contact with me. But then, I know the hump back and body piercings can be a little off putting. Just my imagination I thought. Okay I only said one word to her the whole night but I'm pretty sure 'Hello' has no known negative connotations.

Much later, I found out that the new exec had brought on a number of writers from her last show. There wasn't a slot for me as it was pretty much a case of last in first out.

Of course they never directly came out and said this. Rejection by silence is a practiced art the business over. You can't blame them. It's a very small world. The writer you piss off might be the same one that has a brilliant idea in a couple of years that everyone is desperate to get their hands on- and guess who won't be producing it?

The second time I got canned a new exec producer arrived. Having just delivered the third draft of an ep my agent got a call to say they didn't think it was 'working out'.

Guess what? It was the same exec producer as above!

So I've had my number 1 and number 3

But I'm thinking maybe it was number four and I just don't know it?

Am I bitter? Not in the least. Shit happens. Shrug and move on. Just make sure you have as many irons in the fire as possible. Maintaining a career is hard work. Breaking in is only the first step.

Good luck. Good writing.

Who can say..........

.....if this will be useful or not. I've earned a crust from this game for a number of years, done the big network shows, the soaps, have a couple of things of my own in development with networks and film prodco's.

I guess the fact that I've survived as a full time writer gives me a certain amount of knowledge, but not necessarily talent!

I'll check out this blog as often as I can and will try to answer any questions anyone has. I well remember what a mystery the business was to me when I first started and how some timely advice would have saved me a lot of leg work and misconceptions.

I'd also hope other working screenwriters will join in and bitch. [ The collective noun is 'a bitch of writers' ]


As I'm fairly computer illiterate, don't expect any bells and whistles on the site. I'm surprised I even managed to set it up. But I hope it might become a valuable resource for writers at whatever level, even if just another means to procrastinate!

Good luck. Good writing.