Thursday, March 22, 2007

Adrian Mead seminar notes: Part 1

Adrian Mead impressed a lot of screenwriting bloggers with his seminar in London last Saturday. I attended a similar event in Edinburgh in February 2006 and took copious notes. For all those who haven't been able to make it to one of Adrian's excellent sessions, here's the first half of my notes. Any mistakes, errors or blunders are all my own work. I'm off to Scottish Students on Screen in Glasgow tomorrow, but I'll hopefully have time to post the second half of my notes before heading away.


The TV industry is going through drastic changes at present, particularly in the area of drama. This will change how new writers break in. But the only thing stopping you is you. TV drama is a business about people. As a writer, you are your own boss. It’s all about you being an independent business. But making a lot of money doesn’t equal success – it’s about being happy.

Why be a TV writer? 32 British films were made in 2005 with budgets of £600k or above. But the BBC commissioned 300 hours of TV drama. Other channels are also commissioning more British drama. So it’s sensible to look at writing for TV. There are many more opportunities.

People will say no to you more often than they will say yes. If you want security, write for soaps – you can earn £100k a year. TV is a world of collaboration. Everyone wants to put their hands in your [metaphorical] pants. They want to meddle with what’s private and personal to you – your work.

The urge to be a storyteller is the best reason to be a writer. Eradicate the word ‘but’ from your vocabulary – it stops you doing things you want. Write every day, no matter what, even if it’s only for five minutes. Write forwards: don’t rewrite while you’re working on your first draft. If you’re not sure about some fact, put in a placeholder and do the research after you’ve finished that first draft. Try writing in five minute bursts – that can prevent your organisational, logical left brain from taking control over your pure creative right brain.

If you’re doing a university course, get ahead – watch the films and read the set texts ahead of time; work in your holidays from college and at the weekend. If the course is a waste of your time, don’t be afraid to ask for your money back. If you’re thinking about doing a short course, ask the organisers for an email contact of somebody who’s done the course before. Then ask them how useful it was. Don’t let any course happen to you – be active, participate. Get the most out of the experience.

Commitment = success. Don’t measure your success against that of others. Instead, ask them about their journey, how they got to where they are now. Most people get their first break on long-running series.

Trying to get people to tell you what they want is very difficult. They will always say they want your voice, the thing that is unique to you. So write what you’re passionate about. Chances are it won’t get made, but it’ll get your meetings, get you in the office of people who might employ you. It’s about finding what’s unique about you and applying it to their show. Don’t second guess telly, and don’t overanalyse it.

Give your characters names, and they'll become characters.

You need to think of yourself as an air traffic controller. The planes are your many story ideas and projects. You need to have lots of short ideas flying around at altitude. A little lower down are the ideas you have developed into a 2-page outline. Closer to touchdown are ideas that have become 10-page treatments. Even lower in altitude are the treatments you have converted into cracking one-page pitch documents. Pitch documents are becoming increasingly important. These days pitch documents have to be fantastic – people are looking for any excuse to say no [even though they are looking for new writers] because they’re snowed under. Finally, the planes that are wheels down are your ideas that have been commissioned.

You need to have written a good, solid 10-page treatment before you write the single page pitch document version. The one-page pitch helps potential employers weed out the lunatics, and cuts down on their workload.

Research the person you’re pitching – find out what they’ve done recently and are working on at present – appeal to their vanity by talking positively [but genuinely] about their projects and why you like them.

Not all pitches have to be conventional story, story, story. You can vary how it’s presented to make it more interesting and stand out from the crowd – when appropriate! For example, you could write your one page pitch as a job application. That gives insight into the lead character, as well as highlighting the story situation. Choose any format you want but make it sharp, get the cogent details across. Don’t be vague – nail it! If you’re vague in a page, what will you be like over 60 or 120 pages?

Feedback and agents are two crucial things in TV drama. The biggest reason people fail is because they don’t go the hard work, the graft. Writing isn’t magic! It’s a craft, it’s about learning. Get feedback on your work before sending it to professionals. Pros don’t have time to read multiple drafts from wannabes.

Use the Power of 3 x 3: Find three positive people. Teach them how to give you feedback. Tell them to ask questions – you don’t want suggestions. Take notes, take them seriously. Don’t bite their head off! Write their questions down – but don’t answer their questions. Get three loads of feedback. Chances are, the same questions will keep coming up. Thank your feedback people, buy them a wee gift.

Do your rewrites - having studied the questions that were asked – and then put the script in the drawer for three weeks. Once three weeks have passed, get it out and rewrite it again. Then find three different people and get feedback again. Then do the whole process again – 3 times in all.

AGENTS: more important than ever. Getting an agent is chicken and egg. They’re not your agony aunt and they’re not your best friend. Even when you get an agent, you have to hustle, you have to network, make contacts. Chances are you’ll talk mostly to the agent’s assistant, not your agent.

Ring professionals up – ask for half an hour of their time, offer to buy them coffee or a pint. Flatter them – truthfully. Arrive with a list of questions. Leave them after 30 minutes, don’t outstay your welcome. Most people are incredibly generous with their time and advice.

In Part 2: Getting an agent, getting paid, getting a life.

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