Here's the second half of my notes from the Adrian Mead TV writing seminar I attended last year. All errors and mistakes below are my own...
GETTING AN AGENT
Ring up the agency. Have a script beside the phone of what you’re going to say. Have a recommendation or a referral from a professional and mention this to the agent. Ask them: How do you like to be approached? Almost always you’ll be asked for a 1-page letter, saying who you are and what you’ve done – this is a weeding out tool for them. In your letter say you would like to submit some samples of your work – but don’t tell them about the work’s content. Leave the script samples to speak for themselves. Leave it a week after sending your one-page letter, then call them as a follow-up.
If they give you the go-ahead to submit, you should send them three pieces of work:
1. a short script of up to 10 minutes – a gem of a script, polished to death
2. a script for a 30-minute drama
3. a 60-page TV pilot script or 120-page screenplay
Ideally you want an agent that specialises in the area you want to work in. The agent will invite you in for a chat. Tell them you really want to do is learn the craft and understand the business. There’s no contract with an agent. Agents take all the pain out of the business of the business. They keep their ears open – but it’s up to you to hustle. Half of Adrian’s work he gets himself.Agents will do a lot but you’ve got to do a lot too. It doesn’t matter where you reside once you have an agent.
Writing for TV isn’t a part-time job once you’re getting paid to do it. TV is a big moving machine. Screenplays are not designed to be read for pleasure – they’re a working document. Indies: target the companies that make the shows you want to write e.g., Kudos for Life on Mars, Spooks, Hustle. If you enjoy a show, research who made it – get the knowledge. Try and get a referral to your target company, as these days direct approaches to TV companies from wannabes will fail.
People can get very fixated on the project they’re working on at that moment.
How are new writers found? These days you have to have some sort of a track record.
Levels of importance at which new scripts are assessed:
1. It comes from a really good agent or producer
2. A personal referral from a writer they know and like
3. You have won prizes, awards or had good reviews – if you have prestige.
The short film route is still useful. The BBC Talent Pool at Queen Margaret Drive could be useful. Find a mentor or a patron, but do the graft and learn your craft first.
REJECTION: It’s not personal, they’re rejecting the work, not you – that could be for one of a thousand different reasons. Keep a folder of good reviews handy, as an antidote for when you get a rejection.
THE FOUR KINDS OF TV DRAMA
SINGLES: Hard to get this gig, especially for newcomers. They’re often producer-led and issue-led. Usually they’re written by big name writers, with big budgets and 90 minutes in length. Stephen Poliakoff, that kind of thing.
SERIALS: six parts, sometimes only four. Tend to be one big story told over several episodes e.g. The Lost Prince, The Virgin Queen. Normally these are non-returning.
SERIES: These used to be cyclical, now many of them are weekly [e.g. Holby City]. Returning series are loved by broadcasters. Create one of these and you’re made. If you’re in that position, don’t write the whole bloody thing! Write the first script, a paragraph for each of the subsequent episodes, short character biographies [a third to half a page each] and a half page pitch of the show’s premise. You don’t want to write all the episodes when it’s still just a pitch – a lot of work that could be wasted.
SOAPS: These are good jobs for money and security. River City is the Scottish soap. Storyliners plot the story. You have to love soaps to write soaps.
Singles and serials are often adaptations of books.
It used to be you needed to have A, B & C plots. These days show's expect 6-8 storylines in a single episode. With these multi-strand scripts, you need to set all of them up in the first 5-10 pages. That’s particularly important in pilot scripts. Pilot scripts are really tough, a nightmare to write, but very important.
When you first get an agent, they’ll send you out to meet the world. These meetings are all about do the people you’re meeting want to work with you. They’re sounding you out. At meetings, show enthusiasm – not cynicism.
Do the hellos [always shake hands firmly, look people in the eyes], then ask them the crucial question: HOW LONG DO WE HAVE? This establishes the parameters of the meeting, sets time limits, shows your professionalism. Old fashioned manners are good. After a meeting, send a simple thank you card by post [not by email].
How do you write for a show you’ve never seen? Get tapes of the show – watch the title sequences, see what story ideas could be hidden inside them. Look in the background of the episodes, see the background details trigger more ideas. Think about the age of the characters – what dilemmas would people of that age face?
Movies can take years to develop but there’s time limits with TV, especially series. Delivery times are tight and crucial: once the clock’s ticking, you’ve got to deliver! On a long-running series, the deadlines are very fast. Shows send out tapes instead of series bibles now. There will be a specific split of scenes for location filming and in the studio. If you don’t know what that split is – ask! There’s a permitted number of scenes – if they don’t tell you – ask! The same applies to the permitted number of guest characters.
PAYMENT: Once contracted you’ll get 25% of your agreed fee upfront. That means they have optioned your story idea, they own it. If you arse it up, they’ll fire you and get somebody else to continue the work – that’s why payments are incremental and milestone-based. You’ll deliver a draft storyline, then the step outline [aka the scene by scene]. This states what happens, where and when [e.g. EXT/INT, LOCATION, DAY/NIGHT]. There’s no dialogue in a step outline, that’s saved for the script.
Once that’s approved, you write and deliver the first draft of your script. Now you’ll get 50% of your fee. [You may have gotten your second 25% when the step outline’s been approved, in which case you’ll get the third 25% upon first draft delivery.] If all goes well, you’ll have to write 4-5 drafts. Dialogue: keep it very real, walk about and speak it out loud, act out your dialogue.
Once your final draft has been signed off, you’ll get the last 25% of your fee – and hopefully be asked to write another script! Adrian rarely speaks to his agent and then only for 30 seconds or less.
FORMATTING: you need professional screenwriting software. Get Final Draft.
Don’t be afraid of asking questions. Don’t leave a meeting without knowing everything you need to know. Ask them what they think is their show’s genre. Know your characters. The script editor’s job is to mould your script so it fits their show. Be nice to script editors – they rise fast in the industry. They are not your mum or your best mate.
STEP OUTLINE: you need to factor in commercial break cliffhangers if you’re writing for one of the commercial channels e.g. ITV or Channel 4. This means the structure is very different to that of a BBC show. 46 minutes is an hour on ITV or Channel 4 dramas. Ask how long they expect a script to be for their show – they’ll know best. Check out The Little Book of Hollywood Clichés – very funny and useful. Reverse the cliché is a good technique to make characters more interesting and lively.
Rewrites – treat it as a learning process, no matter how inane the notes you get. Write your own notes on your script in advance, so you’ve got ammunition. You can’t win arguments – they can and will fire you if they have to [or want to]. You can walk off a project – but don’t make a habit of it. Simply say ‘I’ve lost my way with this project.’
PROFESSIONAL IS CRUCIAL.
Be shiny, bright and new. Good manners get you a long way. Give yourself brain food – go to see plans, galleries, read books. The Artist’s Way is a good book about this need to feed your creative brain. Move in other circles, don’t just be among writers. Look for the busy production companies e.g. Tiger Aspect. Certain shows have writer training programmes: try Doctors, Eastenders, The Bill. Don’t write spec scripts of existing shows. Only write a spec for an existing show if invited to do so by the show’s makers.