Thursday, September 14, 2006

Why pursue script editing as well as an MA?

Got an email last night from someone who reads the blog [hi Tony!] and asked me some interesting questions. Being the shameless recycler of material that I am, here are edited version of the questions, and my typically verbose and self-regarding answers. For those who don't read this outpouring of opinions and observations regularly, I've just applied for the TAPS short course on TV script editing, but I'm also halfway through a screenwriting MA at Screen Academy Scotland in Edinburgh...

Q: Given that you’re already on an MA I just wondered why you felt it was worth the extra time and expense to take an additional short course in script editing. Doesn’t the MA give you enough background or information as to what a script editor does or how to assess story and structure? I was rather surprised to read that you wanted to take the TAPS course to be honest, and it makes me wonder about the virtue of doing an MA…

A: I suspect no two MA courses are alike. The tutors are different, the emphasis on what to teach is different, the intake of students brings their own dynamic to the course. For example, one of our tutors is a producer and documentary maker, so we had a module on the business of screen project development with a lot of examples and emphasis placed upon documentaries. Personally, I don’t get that jazzed by docs, but others found that emphasis fascinating – each to their own. Certainly, I did learn a lot about the business side of film and TV making.

I get the impression that many screenwriting MAs focus more on films and short films than on TV. Doing the first year of the course has made me think I want to write for TV much more than for film. Writers in TV get more respect and more control, especially if they pursue the executive producer/showrunner paradigm. Film writers might get paid first, but unless they also direct payment seems to be the only category where they come first. I could resort to a crude sexual metaphor at this point, but I’ll let you fill in the blanks – so to speak.

The Napier screenwriting MA is trying to cover a number of bases, including film, TV and writing for interactive. This is problematic, because there’s always the danger of not devoting sufficient time to all three different areas. Yes, there’s a lot of blurring between film and TV, whereas writing for interactive requires another bunch of skills and mental presets. I think if Napier offered a TV screenwriting MA, I would have chosen that ahead of the more generic MA I’m doing. Alas, it didn’t. The course I have started hasn't spent any time on script editing skills yet, so I’m looking to TAPS to plug that gap. I enjoy working with other writers and helping them make their scripts better. I did a lot of that when I was a comics editing.

Hell, on 2000 AD I was editing up to 1600 pages of script a year. I was commissioning the writers, choosing the artists and other craftsmen to bring those scripts to life. I was rewriting the scripts t achieve a 2000 AD house style where necessary. If I wasn’t getting the stories I wanted, I would create characters and plot before farming these out to writers. Looking back at it, the job was a lot like that of a showrunner, but with less emphasis on my writing. I hadn’t created 2000 AD or most of the characters inside it, I was merely the latest in a long line of editors, so I didn’t have the total possession of the core concepts that Pat Mills had on the early days of 2000 AD, or someone like J Michael Straczynski had on Babylon 5.

Another element of working on 2000 AD I enjoyed was finding and nurturing new writers. That’s part of the job of script editors on some TV shows, and it’s something I miss from my time as a comics editors. No doubt my mother’s teacher genes are rising to the surface, but I get a sense of pride and achievement from seeing writers [and artists] I helped break into the comics industry going on to do outstanding work and building a career from their creative talents.

Q: I’m currently comparing the TAPS course with the Script Factory’s Script Reading course. Have you seen this? In many ways the Script Reading course appeal to me more as it seems to be much more hands on – you have to work at home prior to each course day. The two days are a few weeks apart to give you time to prepare a report which will then be discussed in class. You might be interested in the details. It seems to be more devoted to assessing script and story than covering the relationships between script editor and producer etc.

A: I’ve looked at a lot of courses online. I’m not that interested in becoming a script reader. I think it’s a valuable role, and something which I’ve done in other fields [such as vetting submissions to novel publishers] – but there’s a limit how far you can go with reading and writing reports. I guess it’s good for pointing up problems in your own writing and establishing industry contacts – there are several script readers who blog that are also making their way as writers. But the emphasis is again more on film than TV, though that may merely be my impression of the situation, rather than reality.

The TAPS course more specifically targets an area I’d like to pursue. It’s also only two days, as against the two years I’m devoting to doing a screenwriting MA part-time. If I get on the TAPS [that could be a big if for all I know] and discover it’s not for me, I’ll only have spent a few days and a few hundred quid doing so. My MA is more than £3000 in course fees. Then there’s the books I’ve bought for it [several hundred pounds], transport costs for the 60 miles round trip to college [between £600 and £1000 over the two years at a minimum] and the lost earnings. During my first nine months on the MA course my earnings were £11,000 less than during the preceding nine months. Put simply, it’s costing me an arm and a leg, and I’m not certain the expense is worth it thus far. Perhaps my attitude will have changed by this time next year – perhaps not.

But the MA course is not simply about money. It’s get a greater value for me, providing validation as a working writer, my first experience of university life [while turning 40], numerous networking opportunities and other intangible benefits. Best of all, it’s made me get serous about my writing and focus on building a career, not simply drifting from one piece of hackwork to the next. The fact I am spending so much time, energy and cold, hard cash on the course requires me to make it worth my while as much as I can, even if the course itself isn’t achieving what I want it to do.

Q: I’m still balancing the virtues of doing a series of targeted short writing courses against doing a two year masters. An MA is very expensive so it’s got to deliver, yet all of them seem to be lacking in some way! What do you think of the Napier course now? I remember you posted some rather negative views on it a while back.

A: It sounds to me like you might be better off pursuing short courses in the meantime, to get a flavour of what’s out there. An MA is a much better commitment than I realised going in and, given the choice again, I might well do things differently now. My attitude to the Napier course hasn’t changed much since May, simply because I haven’t been doing the course over the past four months. The part-timers got sent away for 19 weeks while the full-timers did their major module. Aside from a single one-on-one tutorial, that’s pretty much been the extent of my contact with Napier since May. I’ve got a couple of weeks until it all starts again. Hopefully some of the teething troubles from the first year have been ironed out.


Optimistic_Reader said...

Thanks for posting this David, will be interesting to see if your views of the MA course change in the second year.

I've done the Script Factory reading course and I'd recommend it. On the course, I was advised that most script editors start off as script readers - there is a similar skill set there so it's a natural progression. However, I think script editing for film and script editing for TV is quite different and the latter involves a certain aspect of production. That's why I'm considering the TAPS Script Editing course even though I've already done a reading course.

TonyB said...

Nice to see my email stimulated a blog entry!

David, I now understand why you want to do the Script Editing course, given that this area is not sufficiently covered in your MA. Perhaps you could suggest it as a module in year 2?

Thanks to OR for the recommendation for the Script Factory course.

I think the issue of Screenwriting MAs will run and run and so it should. The subject area has obviously been targeted by cash hungry universities as a good source of revenue. The subject is now 'sexy' in the way that Creative Writing was about ten years ago, with MAs springing up all over the place.

It's important that universities deliver a viable product for the thousands of pounds they want to charge. Three thousand pounds for the degree is actually at the lowest price level. Most are upwards of five grand, e.g. London City: six grand, De Montfort: five grand, Bournemouth: five thousand two hundred, and this is not including travel and subsistence.

In addition to the cost of the actual degree is the loss of earnings - frightening!

I share David's preference for TV writing and I think it's odd that there is only one MA which is solely dedicated to that area (De Montfort). There should certainly be more, given that TV is the only area which can pay an inexperienced writer on programmes such as Doctors, and it's TV that offers a whole range of drama opportunities and some semblance of a career path.

Regarding short courses, in fact I did one earlier in the year at London City, which focused on TV writing and was an excellent introduction. I shall certainly do one or two more whilst I consider an MA.