Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Trying out for River City

Last month I blogged about a Q&A session held during the Edinburgh International Film Festival aimed at scribes who want to write for BBC's Scottish soap, River City. But I neglected to mention the fact I'd been watching the show for the past six months in preparation to try out for it as a potential writer. Way back in February I attended an Adrian Mead TV drama seminar and met Louise Ironside, who writes for the show. [By a bizarre coincidence, she was one of the writers on the Island Blue drama strand for Radio 4 to which I also contributed a script - it's a very, very small world.]

During the seminar Louise made mention of the fact RC was open to new writers, so I contacted her afterwards and found out how she'd got on to the writing team. The method was exactly the same as that described by executive producer Sandra MacIver during the Q&A session: get in touch first asking if you can submit material; if they say yes, send a sample of original writing, a CV of relevant experience and a one-page critique of the show. From that people deemed to have potential are then sent a fistful of scene-by-scenes for an upcoming episode and asked to write sample script pages.

Well, I followed the playbook and submitted my original writing sample, CV and critique back in March. But a combination of circumstances [double-banking, illness, deadlines] meant I hadn't heard back one way or the other by August, so I went along to the Q&A session to hear Sandra MacIver - nothing like meeting a person to make a stronger, more lasting [and hopefully positive] impression on them. I explained my circumstances and she suggested submitting a new critique, since my old version was now five months out of date. I did as she suggested, adding a revised CV to take into account the progress I've made since March - first broadcast credit, beginning the mentoring process with Adrian Mead, etc.

Last Wednesday I got the call: would I like to write some sample scenes for River City, based on the official scene-by-scenes created for Episode 413? I'd be sent the scene-by-scenes on Friday and have until end of play Monday to submit my script pages. The real episode would be broadcast the day after the samples were due in, giving the opportunity to see first hand what the professionals had done with the material supplied to the wannabes. [Obviously, I was merely one of several scribes taking part in the same procedure.] Was I interested? Hell, yes. Happily, the call just as I was finishing THRILL-POWER OVERLOAD and before I started my Warhammer novel. Perfect timing for me, although it meant my weekend off went MIA - a small sacrifice to make in the circumstances.

The scene-by-scenes arrived by email around 10.30 on Friday morning. I was expecting a handful, half a dozen at most - we got twelve scenes to write, nearly half an episode. Since professional writers are expecting to produce a River City draft in a week, having three days to write just under half an episode was a fair approximation to real working conditions. Suck it up and get on with it, I told myself. After getting the call, I'd sat down and transcribed two recent episodes from my DVD recorder, to give msyelf a stronger sense of the show's writing. Yes, I've been watching it for six months, but there's nothing like pulling a script apart line by line, almost word by word, to give you an intrinsic sense of how characters speak and act and respond. [Whether I've the wit to grasp all those things is another matter.]

We were scenes from two strands in Episode 413: Gerry and Heather's debate about whether Gerry would accompany Heather to Australia; and a longer thread about Gina's discomfiture at living with her new husband Archie and his mum Liz. I spent Friday reading and re-reading the scene-by-scenes, making notes, studying the story beats within the scenes and trying to think how the individual characters would speak in these circumstances - the rhythms of their speech, the vocabulary, the endearments they use, how their dialogue reflects their mood and character. I also started scrawling some potential dialogue down for the first few scenes.

Saturday was knuckling down and getting into it. Biggest problem was nerves, the knowledge that this was my chance to impress, to progress my screenwriting career. Get this right and I'd hopefully be invited to a workshop for potential River City writers in the next few months. Get it wrong and I'd have fecked my chances of working on the show for the foreseeable future, barring regime change in Dumbarton. What's worse, what's more debilitating - fear of failure or the hope of success? Anyway, by the end of Saturday I'd scratched out four scenes and some notes for a few others. Nothing was coming easy, it had to be said.

Didn't help I was having a panic about what Final Draft template to use for my script pages. I knew that it was my dialogue, my grasp of story beats and my ability to turn that into great scenes that would get me noticed, not what format my script arrived in - but that doesn't stop you worrying about such amateur hour concerns. Then there was the mysterious notation T/C in the slugline for several of the scenes. What the hell does T/C mean? Time Code? Top Cat? A quick email to various screenwriters I know got me the answer to that question - T/C is Time Continuous, indicating one scene flows immediately on from the proceeding scene. [Happily, I wasn't the only person ignorant of that jargon, a fact that perversely cheered me up immensely.]

Sunday and the pressure was on. I wanted to leave Monday free for tweaking and polishing, so I had to write eight scenes on Sunday and fix the four I'd already written on Saturday. And I was leaving the house at 5pm to go to the Bic Runga concert in Edinburgh. Argh. By lunchtime I had three more scenes in hand, but was stuck in a big argument scene between Archie and Gina. Life imitated art at home as the stress got too much, but that was resolved with apologies, lunch and a double-header of the final two Veronica Mars episodes from Season Two on DVD.

After lunch I got my groove on, cranked out the remaining scenes and even did some fixing on my previous efforts - all before 5pm. Finally I was having fun with my writing, where before I'd been churning my wheels in the mud. The characters were talking in my head and inspiration seemed to be my friend once more.

Monday I spent cutting and polishing, as well as switching Final Draft template to a version used by the BBC show Doctors. I'm told River City has its own final Draft template, but the Doctors version is a decent approximation. Switching templates gave me a fresh perspective on my writing, enabling me to cut several clunky sequences and get to the gist of the story. I sent my sample scenes off around 3pm and tried to relax. Since then I've had my acknowledgement email and am now left waiting to see if I had a silk purse or a pig's ear out of the material supplied to me last Friday.

There's the hope of some feedback on my writing - always valuable, even if it's mostly bad news, because it gives you something to work on for the future - and also the possibility of an invite to the writers' workshop. Right now I've got absolutely no perspective on whether what I wrote and submitted was good, bad or indifferent. That's for others to judge, and let me know.

So, last night's episode of River City was an unusual experience. I sat and watched the story unfold, knowing about half the scenes and what would happen in them, while blissfully ignorant of the rest. It was fascinating to compare what I'd written with what had ended up on screen. Sometimes the dialogue was an exact match to mine [not that often, but it did happen a few times], but in other places the scene had gone in quite a different direction, deviating further from the scene-by-scenes that I had. I kept reminding myself that us wannabes only had one draft to get it right, not three, and no notes from which to make rewrites.

For now, I've got my fingers crossed that I've done enough to get a positive response from River City. What I submitted may have sucked like a black hole, or been merely mediocre. All I've got now is the waiting and the worrying...


Optimistic_Reader said...

Hi David, thanks for posting that - always really useful to find out what it takes to just bge in with a shot at writing for TV. Fingers crossed for you!

AndrewT said...

WEll done mate, really hope it works out. I guess I should try watching some more RC in the hope of getting to work with them.

English Dave said...

Good luck David.

Laura said...

Well done on this, that's really impressive.

Piers said...

Good luck. When are you likely to hear back from 'em?