Monday, June 25, 2007

Keeping the faith without benefit of guarantees

My watch stopped last night. At eighteen minutes past two in the morning the battery ran out of juice and gave up. The second hand is still flickering, still trying to fight the good fight and keep going round but it lacks the strength to carry on. I can't recall how long this battery's been going but it feels like forever. Put it this way, the original strap fell apart long before the battery gave up the ghost. [Gave up the ghost - what a bizarre expression. I wonder where that originates?] The good news is replacing a watch battery is neither expensive nor [no pun intended] time consuming. Just go to a jewellers and ask for a replacement. Or buy a new battery and fit it yourself, if you're more technically minded than me. Either way, it's the work of a minute or two and a few pounds.

Would that it were so easy to replenish the intangible faith that makes me believe I can make it was a screenwriter. Danny Stack's got a great post on his blog about the qualities required to break into the industry [talent is a given]. Patience, persistence, professional and being proactive will all help sustain you through those long, dark tea-times of the soul when you wonder why you don't give up on the dream. You've got to keep going when all you've got to show for your efforts is mounting debt and a head full of knowledge and ideas waiting for an outlet. You've got to have faith.

You've got to believe you're good enough and that, if you keeping knocking on enough doors, your chance will come. You've got to be ready when that rare chance arrives so you can make the most of it, otherwise there'll be another long wait before the next door opens. Five years ago I decided to try out for Doctors. I watched the show for several months, to get to know the characters. I got in touch with a working writer on the series and picked their brains for info. Having devised an idea for a good Doctors story, I thoroughly researched the medical background for it. Then I made a classic rookie mistake.

Rather than follow the guidelines, I decided to write a Doctors spec script and submit that to a script editor on the show. That's fine in the US, but it's frowned upon in the UK. Script editors and execs generally want a sample of original writing, so they can assess how you create characters, so they can discern whether you have something of your own to say through your writing, a voice. If you manage to prove that, you might be given a chance to write someone else's show with someone else's characters and someone else's stories, but that's British irony for you.

I went through all the steps a live Doctors script goes through: write a two-page pitch, turned that into a scene-by-scene breakdown, and finally turned that into a full script. I got it a couple of drafts, polishing as best I could with the limited skills, knowledge and craft I possessed at the time. Finally, I proudly submitted my Doctors spec script to Doctors. Unsurprisingly, I didn't get a response. I'd ignored the guidelines and my script was put on a slush pile somewhere.

But I wasn't ready to give up yet. The teams behind Doctors was staging roadshows in various English cities to encourage new writing. I lived in Scotland but spent a small fortune making a day trip to Leicester to attend one of the roadshows. Afterwards I approached the script editor to whom I'd sent my spec script. She didn't recall it, but kindly agreed to dig it out of the pile for a read. This was it, my big chance. A few weeks later, she kept her word and read my script. The two-line letter that came back felt like a crushing hammer blow. They weren't going to develop my script, I wasn't ready for Doctors.

I gave myself a couple of day to get over the disappointment, and phoned the script editor for more feedback, making sure I was polite and professional in my enquiry. She said I showed potential [yay!] but needed to get some experience elsewhere [boo!] before Doctors could take me on. She may well have made helpful suggestions like try writing for radio, or go get some professional training, but I don't remember then. By this point I was too busy plunging into the Slough of Despond [it's not far from the Reading of Regret and the Maidenhead of Miasma]. I thanked the kind script editor for her time, hung up and gave up. Twit.

It's likely I'll hear this week whether or not I've been selected for the BBC Writers' Academy introductory workshop. Just 25 wannabes are chosen from among the hundreds [potentially thousands] who applied for this scheme, so my chances are getting the call down to London are mathematically a massive longshot. But if I don't make the cut this time, I'm not giving up. I've invested too much time and energy and faith in this quest to surrender. Whenever I feel like giving up [whenever my sunshine turns to rain], I look back at what I've achieved so far on my journey.

Completed eight modules on my MA screenwriting course and gotten eight distinctions. Got my first radio play commissioned and broadcast by the BBC. Taken part in workshops, courses and lab on script editing, radio drama writing, storylining for continuing drama series, pitching for TV drama and surviving as a TV writer. Networked my arse off and done my best to help others by offering feedback on their work [because you get further helping others than just by helping yourself]. Most of all, I've learned how much I've still got to learn. Now what I need is experience, the chance to turn my skills and ideas into stories for TV.

No matter what happens with the BBC Writers' Academy, I'm not giving up. I'm keeping the faith.


Piers said...

Actually, it wouldn't have done you any good in the US either.

A spec script is never sent to the show it's written for. Two reasons, really:

One is that the creators of that show will know the characters and situations inside-out already, and are therefore likely to be more critical of the small mistakes which (as you're not on staff) will inevitably occur in your spec.

The second is that the US is a litigious society. And after a company's been burned a couple of times by lawsuits, they tend to stay clear of the obvious triggers, like reading scripts for their show from new writers.

The upshot is that you actually send your spec to a similar show, but not actually the same one. So you'd send your Law & Order spec to CSI, and vice versa. Or your Monk to Psych.

And, interestingly, this is also starting to change in the US - in the last few years, more and more showrunners are asking to see original works (pilots and such) rather than specs. Though apparently they still want to see a spec for your second piece, to prove you can write to other people's characters, the first cut seems to now be trending towards originals.

Dom Carver said...

Damn right, David. Keep going, mate. One day we'll both make it.

Paul Campbell said...

Oh, the waiting!

Me too.

Waiting, that is. For the BBC Academy.

Good luck to you and me both (and few others, but no more than 23.)