Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Outsiders

I mean the new ITV show starring Nigel Harman which is airing shortly.

I really, really want to like this show. It should have everything I've been bleating on about to the point of annoyance in previous posts. High concept action packed drama.

A gang of freelance spies getting involved in International high jinks.

What's not to like?

Okay I have a couple of reservations. No disrespect to Nigel Harman but I can't help thinking Ross Kemp. Another EastEnder lured to ITV for inappropriate vehicles.

And Mersey TV aren't exactly known for high concept, action packed dramas.

But that aside, and the leaked memo expressing disappointment from the controller of ITV and my agent telling me the advance screening was met with general indifference, I really, really want to like this show.

I want, need and crave to the point of addiction something that makes we want to sit down and watch. Especially on ITV because I've long since ceased to cast an eye over their listings when skimming the Radio Times.

If the pilot gets decent ratings they hope to spin a series. Please God make it watchable. Don't make it the usual 'five pages' of navel gazing angst just when you need someone to burst in with a gun.

Please God, don't make it someone bursting in with a gun just when you need five pages of navel gazing angst.

In other words, please God, make it good.

You see, the problem is, that if this pilot goes belly up, the way the industry works is that from then on, every time you go in to pitch your high concept action packed drama the powers that be will suck their teeth and say ' Hmmmm, The Outsiders?'

Personally I'm ignoring the negative word. I really, really want to like this show. Have I said that already?

Monday, September 25, 2006

My Brain Hurts

I started writing about 10 am. It's now just after 3.30pm. I've had about 4 x 20 minute breaks during the course and now I'm knocking off. Maybe I'll get back to it later this evening. Maybe I won't.

Is that a good days work?

Protestant work ethic wise probably not. A little over four hours work in a day? Curse you to hell you slacker.

But there is a huge difference between writing and typing. Typing is when you sit at the computer and force out x number of pages at x words per minute. Writing is when you you focus all your attention on getting great pages down.

I'd rather write 5 great pages in a day than type 20. Great to me anyway. I mean pages I'm going to look at tomorow and not have an overwhelming urge to immediately re-write them, thus taking valuable time and energy away from the next great five pages.

Actually I wrote seven, but who's counting?

The point is, that to me, those were valuable pages. They helped me define character and story. Yes I thought I had a good handle on both before I started. But these pages helped me go deeper. Enhancing both without disrupting pace and tone.

And that takes work. And is tiring. Just as much digging coal or being Tony Blair's spin doctor. I mean it.

Whether that took me 4 hours or 12 hours is irrelevant. As a writer you know when to stop. You know when you've hit that wall and and everything else is downhill. You're just digging holes for yourself that have to be fixed tomorrow.

Write smart.

Spend more time thinking than typing. Thinking is hard. Typing is easy.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Change of Plans

I had expected to be away today for a commisioning meeting but it's been postponed until next week.

And I'm pretty glad about that. I've hit my stride with the spec for Project X and the pages are begining to flow. By the time the commission comes around I should have a decent first draft done. As I usually leave a first draft to stew for a few days this means I won't be pissed off at the commission for taking me away from what I really want to do.

That tends to be the split that most pro writers have to deal with. What you have to do and what you want to do. That is, if you really want to make a living at this game.
I doubt that anyone ever feels as excited about a commission they have taken on as something of their own that they are just itching to write. Don't get me wrong, I love a commission and if the phone hasn't rung for several weeks I start crapping myself.

It's the same for the pre-pro. You can love your day job but writing is your passion.

That's not to say you don't approach a commission with the same attention and concentration as you would your own original material. Quite the opposite. It is probably more difficult to get someone elses format right than it is your own. In fact, I'd say it is the release from that constraint that makes writing your own material such a pleasure. You can go where you want with characters you've created. You're not going to get notes back with ''Jim wouldn't talk like that' or 'Forty episodes ago Kevin slept with her daughter so the dynamic here doesn't work'

Anyway, I've 'felt' myself in to Project X. It took a while but I think it's there now. So as I'm on a bit of a roll with it I better keep going.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Sounds Like Sense

As said by the head of CBS

“What we've come to learn is, it is all about the writer,” says Nina Tassler, President, CBS Entertainment. “We're aggressively developing projects year round. We tell writers, 'Bring us your passion projects; bring us the project that excites you.' So, if they bring us something that's serialized, if they bring something that is closed-ended, if they bring something that is unorthodox and unusual, it doesn't matter. If we at the network respond to the quality of the storytelling, and it's a great opportunity for us, we're going to move forward on it. We don't preclude development of any one form over another. The point is: it's about the writer's vision. How does he or she best feel the story is serviced.”

And now the reality as far as the UK is concerned.

There are around 7 people who control everything you see on your TV screens. They also have a massive influence on what is even being developed, never mind made.

And that is the problem. In the US they develop like crazy. The networks maybe make thirty or forty pilots a year, to see what sticks. Because sometimes you just don't know what you really have until cast and crew and director get something on film and you can see the chemistry and potential.

Here, yeah, a bit of development, but very little makes it past script stage. As a rule 'if it's made it's shown' If it sucks, man are we in shit because we have nothing but repeats to replace it and if we stick on a repeat in primetime against the other networks we're going to get creamed'

So the gang of seven give the nod to job keeping projects . The ones that'll get a pretty respectable audience. Not great but not job losing.

Who can blame them really. No one wants to be known as The Guy Who Sank ITV, for example. Though I think the former head of Network Centre definitely launched a few torpedoes.

But the result is bland insipid programming. Yes there are exceptions and yes I've often heard it said that there is plenty of crap on US TV.


At least not after the ratings come through.

Okay, I know the reality is that there simply isn't enough money here to throw stuff at the wall and keep what sticks. So what's the answer? Apart from sack the lot and get people in there who understand the audience they so hope to attract. The ABC1's rather than your Granny and Grandad.

I don't mean bring in the sandal tapping Guardian reader or the Hot Shot Ad man. But something in between. Someone who understands that entertaining drama consists of good stories well told.
That schedules shouldn't be swamped by 'issue' based drama.
That Sarah Lancashire and Caroline Quentin don't have to be in everything.
That putting 'Heart' in the title doesn't necessarily give it any.
That if you want to attract a big audience you have to take a risk.
That having your head up your arse and calling 5 million viewers a success simply isn't good enough.

That making someone who can actually write an arbitter of what might be considered a good story well told?

Yeah fat chance!

The Cut Price Writer

Following on from my musings on the writers lack of power. Here's an interesting little tidbit that came to me the other day. Apparently a 'well known' PACT member recently paid a writer £4500 for an hour of Prime Time drama on a Network series.

Just over HALF the WG minimum. And what's worse- the writer actually accepted it.

Assuming this is true, and it came from a very good source, why did this PACT member do this? Because they can.

Why did the writer accept it? I'm assuming because he was desperate for a credit , any credit at whatever price.

Do some prodco's play on this? Definitely.

Is it likely to raise the bar on writing standards? I doubt it. The series was shite by the way.

Would you do it?

I'm guessing if you're an unrepped uncredited writer, you'd bite their hand off. But without a word of a lie, if this story proves to stand up 100% then no way on God's green earth will I EVER again touch that prodco with a bargepole. And no way will any other established writer.

It's not just that they have apparently totally disregarded the PACT/WGA Minimum Basic Agreement, they have totally devalued the talent, skill, time and craft required to write an hour of drama.

If you want writing to be a case of who can low-ball the most then you're going to end up with more crap on TV than is there already. It's hard enough earning a living and still doing a good job, imagine what kind of shite is going to get written when writers have to work three or four shows just to make ends meet?

This particular prodco doesn't have a good rep with writers as it is. That's why I'm not surprised to hear this. But they manage to get quite a lot on TV. I'm guessing because they low-ball the networks on budgets. But I bet their producers fee doesn't take a hit. Just us poor Schmoes.

The only power I have as a writer is to say 'piss off' to them. And that's just what I'm going to do.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Project X first pitch

Okay so I had my pitch meeting. It went better than I thought it would bearing in mind my first two pitches never even made it out the bag as her first words were 'I don't do cop shows' Yoiiiiks!

Fortunately Project X seemed to hit the spot. I left the Bible with her. It will now either die an immediate death, struggle up the chain until some one takes pity and finally smothers it with a pillow or cling on like a whelk on a rock in a North Atlantic gale.

The odds are heavily on options one and two. But since when did odds bother a writer? If you thought about them too long you wouldn't even switch on your computer. I don't do the lottery. I figure I need all my luck for the writing process. But consider this, every pro writer out there once started with nothing but an idea and a hell of a lot of hope.

Hope is what keeps the writer going. Hope he sells something. Hope he'll be commissioned. Hope his ideas don't suck. Hope he'll create something he's actually really happy with. Hope a director, actor or producer isn't going to screw it up. Hope that as a writer you may actually be appreciated.

Because make no mistake, there are plenty in the Biz who look on writers as a neccessary evil. We're the Castor oil to their indigestion. I've worked on a number of different series, and rarely do you ever lose the feeling that you are very much an expendable item. Hell they could make a call tomorrow and replace you with any number of eager fresh faces. Writers in general don't have a lot of power. It's just a fact.

Unless you come up with a sure fire winner idea and have several producers competing for it. Then you can screw 'em!

I've never been in that position. As a result I've had to settle for option agreements that I wasn't entirely happy with, like the writing fee, no guarantee on number of episodes I'd write, reversion payments etc.

One day I really would like to be able to screw 'em. That might not happen, but there is always hope.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


Big Bill Martell has an excellent post here titled Smoke and Mirrors

Yep this is an industry where the BS factors looms large in every field. From the writer or producer exaggerating their credits, contacts or heat to the actor telling you he was one of the leads in Terminator 2. As he believes the movie centered on the first cop who was killed, in his own mind he is right.

I've been caught out a couple of times by the BS factor. Once in L.A was particularly nasty.

To cut a long story short, I was in LA and my agents had blown up, so I'm not working and unrepped. Just another Joe Schmo to the busy producer or agent.
Finally I catch a break. The receptionist at A BIG AGENCY tells me they have a new agent just started, let's call him MS, and looking for talent. Send in a script.

I did. A couple of weeks later I give him a call. By this time I'm working for tips in a Reseda carwash you understand. MS says he loved the script. He wanted to hip-pocket me. Get it out to his contacts and if any interest came he would sign me.

Well that's manna from heaven to me who is doing 12 hours six days a week as the only English speaking guy in the carwash.

So the script goes to CastleRock and Paramount and .......I forget who else. I call MS at BIG AGENCY on a weekly basis for updates. It seems to be going up the chain everywhere. Things are looking good.

He calls ME at the carwash, man if those guys spoke English they would be so impressed, and tells me a company had read my script and had me in mind for a rewrite on a project. Big Bucks. Yahoooooooo!

A week later I call back. Someone at BIG AGENCY answers the phone. I ask for MS and am told 'He doesn't work here any more'
Bit of a shocker, but I politely enquire where he can be found and the phone is slammed down on me. I'm standing there with a little more than mild apprehension.

Again, long story short but I track down the prodco who MS said was thinking of hiring me for the re-write. When I phone I explain about MS and the rewrite project and that I was sorry to bother them but I couldn't get a hold of MS.

The lovely lady [called Elaine] hesitated for a second, then suggested I come in for a meeting. Wahooooooo!

But not really. She sat me down and explained that there was no re-writing project and there was something I should know about MS.

Elaine had been to a party the week before. She had met another agent from BIG AGENCY there and mentioned she knew another agent there who kept promising to send her scripts but never did. His name was MS.

Agent took her aside and asked if she was sure his name was MS. She confirmed it. They had been talking on the phone for almost a year.

Agent told her MS was not an agent. He was the receptionist! I guess they fired his ass after that.
That dipshit wasted the best part of six months of my life.

Couple of UK examples. No name no pack drill for obvious reasons.

A couple of years ago an American guy turned up here claiming to be a writer on E.R. He got a few meetings pitched a few ideas, and low and behold one was bought. This went fine until the first script was delivered. It wasn't exactly what you might consider E.R standard. In fact it was crap.

By this time other writers had been hired for other episodes and the juggernaut was on it's way.
One of those writers was an avid E.R fan and knew the name of every writer on the show. He knew our guy wasn't one of them. He tipped off the producer, who by this time was tearing his hair out trying to get American guy's scripts to work. Yankee Doodle wasn't so Dandy after that.

I believe the show is now several series in. He is not a writer for obvious reasons. His career here as a writer is shot. But he'll still get a fat juicy format fee.

Another tale about a BAFTA winning writer. This is as told me by the producer of the show which got a Bafta. Although this writer got the credit for the script - it was actually a page one re-write by a script Doctor. Hardly one word of the original writer's script remained in the final draft.
The original writer turned up for the Bafta award. As he was entitled. It was his name on the credits. He expressed a degree of feeling guilty, but shit - It's a BAFTA man. That's going on my CV.

BS happens all the time. But on balance I think it backfires more than it works.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


So now I better start preparing for my Pitch meeting tomorrow.

I have a shockingly bad memory, and right now I can't even remember the names of the main characters in two of the projects I'll be pitching. Saying 'And then ...ummmm...thingy does this' does not go down well.

I've got three to Pitch. Maybe four if an idea fermenting away comes to fruition by tomorrow.

It is difficult to keep up the same level of enthusiasm over three or four pitches. But I prefer to go in well armed. If you go in with only one or two the chances are you won't get past the first sentence on each before you hear either '' Can I stop you there, we're not looking for that type of project' or 'We already have something similar in development'

It then becomes a very quick meeting.

I did mean to concentrate on the fermenting idea today but I got a call for an urgent few pages on an episode of something I wrote a couple of months ago. They are about to shoot it and decided it was running short. I'm more in a writing than thinking mood today so I latched onto it. God I'm a lazy sod. That may well come back to bite me in the arse when my three existing pitches are shot down in flames.

One is actually a project which was optioned last year. The option expires this month and they aren't going to do anything with it so it is fair game. But I haven't looked at it since and need to get some face time with it.

The other two are a high concept cop show and a horror. Tough sells at the best of times. But hey, isn't everything. You begin to feel like the hapless screenwriter in Sunset Boulevard 'Everything I write is either too original or not original enough'

But that's the job. You have to go in there believing these projects are fantastic even if you are straight from another meeting where they were greeted like a visit from the pox doctor.

A lot of projects on TV now were kicked out the door in several places before they found a home. Some have been doing the rounds for years.

It only takes one yes.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Project X Update

So the Bible has been agreed and it's ready to go.

Except it's not going anywhere. Not yet anyway.

My previous project has just gone out top another five or six prodcos, that makes around fourteen or fifteen altogether and covers most everyone with a decent chance of getting something made or offering work on their own current projects.

So far I've heard from ONE, yes ONE of those prodco's with a fairly generic pass. But the Summer is slow. Always is. With that in mind my agents have suggested that sending another project to those prodcos before I hear back on the first one might be 'distracting' to them

In some circumstances I'd say 'Bollocks, get it out there for Christ's sake. It's doing no good gathering dust on your desk'.

But not in this case. I agree with them. For several reasons.

Their reason is pretty good. If only to avoid the perception that I'm spewing out brain farts left right and centre. But there is more.

Many of the prodcos my previous project went to have either never read my original work before, or read it so long ago that the same personel are no longer there. If they like what they see they may well invite me in for a meeting. If they were very interested in the project they would already have been making option noises, so this is in effect a pitch meeting. 'What else have you got?'

I'll be able to tell them about Project X. Live! One on One. Much better than yet another spec Bible.

Also I've had several options before with just a Bible. Few prodcos are willing to shell out for a script though without network backing. And network backing is harder to get without a script to show them. Catch 22.

Project X is a little out of left field, so in this case I'd feel more comfortable with a script attached to it. Putting the Bible going out on hold gives me time to write it.

I've got a meeting with a big prodco this week. Quite frankly I've been in and out of this big prodco like a pimp's dick and nothing has ever come to fruition. But this is with a former script editor on a show I worked on. She's now a producer at big prodco and has always been a champion of my work.

I've got two projects to pitch her and another fermenting as we speak. They may fly, they may not. But you never know.

Shower, shave, haircut and onwards!

Friday, September 08, 2006

More Seepage

Yep. Another day gone.

The reason for procrastination this time? My agents called to say they'd read the Bible for 'Project X' and thought it was ready to go.

They also said that they didn't get a lot of humour from the Bible.

That doesn't really bother me. The script is the place where the humour can appear, a suggestion in the Bible that there WILL be humour is good enough for me. The bones of the Bible are mainly concerned with premise, story and character.

But see my previous blog. This is the project where I am struggling with tone on the spec. And the response from my agents got me looking again at what I'd written so far.

The extra day of procrastination has enabled me to see something very important.

It isn't so much to do with tone as THE SCRIPT IS SHIT.

Harsh but true.

Having gotten used to writing on commission over the years I've forgotten to use all the tools of the spec writer. Or rather, ignored them in favour of the ' Serial Pro' style of perfunctory description of action and character, with an eye to giving the hard pressed executive producer on serial drama what they need. A shootable script with no 'greenies' and the minimum of flowery, time consuming language in the action. It does what it says on the tin.

And it doesn't work in a spec.

I guess I'm dense. Something was gnawing at me for days before I realised what it was. THE SCRIPT IS SHIT.

Yeah you could shoot it. No there are no greenies [ budget busting FX or expensive one-off scenes with hordes of extras...etc]

But this isn't a production draft. This is a selling draft. And that's what I failed to realise when I was writing it. Unless you are absolutely at the top of the tree where you can practically pitch your shopping list and be commissioned, your spec is fighting for recognition in a pile of others.

I need to get back to the style of writing that got me work in the first place. Heart in every line.
Writing so that the jaded script editor wants to keep reading rather than has to and sleeps well at night so long as it ticked the boxes.

A good number of years ago a well known agent told me that if you want to write in different genres then 'perception' was an obstacle you had to overcome. He meant 'perception' by those with the ability to produce your stuff and was talking about a well known comedy writer who had written a drama.

I'm not sure that's true. Granted there are a lot of idiots in the biz but if you write a great spec in whatever genre, anyone who dismisses that because of their perception of your writing background shouldn't really be in the business

I wouldn't let that 'perception' thing bother you. Paul Abbot can write Corrie, and Shameless and State of Play. Fairly diverse I think you'd agree? It's all about the writing.

I haven't written [or rather half-written] a great spec for Project X.
But now I know I haven't, I'm working on it. And now I know what was really gnawing at me I feel pretty good.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Tone Deaf

So I've spent the last couple of days procrastinating. It's something most writers have a flair for but a field in which I think I have a particular gift.

What was it this time that led to two days of 'seepage' as I like to call it?

That ugly little four letter word ''Tone''.

I'm in the middle of writing a spec for a series where the Bible pitches it as being 'darkly humourous'.

Having read what I've written so far I can see a fair degree of dark but not a whole hell of a lot of humour.

That tells me one of two things. Either

a] I'm not very funny


b] Maybe the project doesn't really lend itself to humour. Or, more to the point, my gut doesn't want to write it as humour.

Clearly it can't be a] as obviously I am a certified rib tickler. My store of Knock Knock jokes is legendary.

So it must be the latter. But note the 'Maybe', which is the cause of the procrastination. Because writing a comedy/drama is chuffing hard. And maybe I've just been too damned lazy in the writing.

A comedy/drama needs to effortlessly slip from comedy to.......well.....drama, as well as combine the two at appropriate moments. That takes careful pacing and characterisation. And maybe I've been writing under deadlines for so long that that I'm adhering too much to the old writer's adage 'Don't get it right, get it written'

As an adage goes that's not a bad adage. And it is very tempting for me to bang on, get the thing done and then take a look at it.

But I know that if I've screwed up the tone, the rewrite work will be truly brutal. I don't like brutal. I like a solid first draft that needs tweaking.

I don't have another commission for a couple of weeks and so rather than rush to the finish line on the spec I think I'll take some 'seepage' time. I need to decide exactly what level of humour I want and then look at pace and structure and character and story and see if they all lend themselves to the tone I really want to write.

I may decide I want to write it completely straight, or I may have a Eureka moment and hit on the exact formula. Either way I know there is no point in banging pages out until I figure it out.
Sometimes procrastination is your friend.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Hard Times

With my soon to be ex-wife seemingly requiring large quantities of mullah my four month sabbatical from writing for more than one show at a time must come to an end.

It's been a very pleasurable experience excercising writing muscles that have been dormant for some time. I've put together bibles for two new projects, written a new spec, am half way through a second and have outlines for two more new projects.

But school fees and maintenance beckon, so it's back to the grind. Time to get on the phone to the senior editors of some of the long runners and say 'Hey, I'm back!'

I wish.

Times have changed. On most long running dramas now the core writers are on blocks and guarantees. That takes out the majority of available episodes for non-core freelancers. Factor in the new BBC writers academy where the participants get priority on available episodes of Doctors, Holby, EastEnders and Casualty - and there ain't a whole lot left for little old me! Cheers for that Mr Yorke!

If you thought it was hard breaking in before, man, it sure ain't any easier now.

But.......persevere. It's always been tough and always will. Keep writing those specs, but remember those specs serve equally well with indie companies where quite frankly I think you have a better chance of breaking in anyway. It's where the majority of non-soap drama is being made for a start.

Anyway, back to my bank balance. So what do I do? I've been out of the loop for a few months. I've got a spec out there but haven't had any meaningful feedback in what....6 weeks? Unfortunately that is not a lot of time in this business. If any work were to be generated from that [or even a sale] you are talking potentially months down the line. It's just that kind of business. And it's why core writers on a series tend to hang on to that series like grim death. It's a cold tough world out there in the spec game.

So why do we do it?

It has to be down to love or stupidity. Probably a bit of both. But here's a cheering thought that keeps me going. All it takes is ONE person to say yes to your project. It's kinda like in 'Goodfellas', you become a made man. You jump off the recurring drama merry-go-round and get to do the stuff you really want to do. That is a huge bonus in itself, but as a kicker you also get the green stuff too.

My last 'quote' for an hour of short run drama was 17k. Let's say my last project gets optioned for 3k and my quote is now 20k [probably not but it makes the maths easier]. So If I write 3 episodes of the six that's 63k.

Only it's a bit more than that because I would get 115% of the writing fee again on principal photography with most producers. So that's another 69k.

Only it's a bit more because I'd get a format fee of around 10% of every other writer's fee on the project. So that's another 12k

Only it's a bit more because I'd also get a format fee on all foreign sales.

Only it's a bit more because I'd also get repeat fees.

Only it's a bit more because I'd also get 5.something % of DVD sales.

Only it's a bit more because.........well you get the picture. The bottom line is that my idea and 3 episodes is worth a minimum of 150k if ONE person says yes. It's pretty hard to earn that kind of money per annum on recurring drama. Not impossible. But pretty damn hard.

So compared to recurring drama the money is better. The creative input and satisfaction is considerably more, and you're not stuck with the same people and politics year in year out.

I guess that's why we want to do it.