Wednesday, July 09, 2008

How one Doctor lead me towards Doctors

I like Doctor Who. These days, that's akin to saying you're partial to breathing, or fond of sunshine - nothing unique about it. Six years ago saying you liked Doctor Who was not the national hobby it is now. Back in 2002 the show had been off air since 1989, barring a one-off TV movie. Fans wanting new Who could buy the official magazine, get licensed tie-in novels or listen to Big Finish audio dramas. Me, I did all those things, and wrote for some of them.

That year I was an official guest at America's biggest Who convention, Gallifrey in Los Angeles. Among the other guests was another Who author who also wrote for the BBC daytime medical drama series Doctors. I picked his brains about how he'd gotten into TV writing, what was expected and what was needed. He was kind enough to share the wisdom he'd gleaned, and even contacted his script editor at Doctors to say I might be submitting.

I fancied writing TV drama. I'd read half of The Writer's Journey. I'd been to Robert McKee's Story Structure seminar, thanks to the generosity of a former employer when I was a comics editor. How hard could writing for TV be, right? Ahh, the arrogance of ignorance. I had some basic storytelling skills, but no grasp of the need for craft, theme, tone, depth of characterisation or most anything else. [I know a little more now, but you never stop learning.]

So I wrote a Doctors spec script. I studied what the friendly Who author had done in his latest episode, using the two-page story of the day pitch, scene by scene document and finished script as my template. I devised a story of my own, based upon personal experience and that old chestnut, write what you know. I did my medical research, and watched lots of Doctors episodes to get a grasp on the regular cast members. Finally, I submitted my script.

Hands up who can see all the things I did wrong? First of all, in the UK you don't write spec scripts for existing shows, not unless you've been invited to do so. [I believe it's still common for new writers in the US to write spec scripts for existing shows, but you never submit them to that same show. Want to write for a cop show? You submit a spec for another cop show, not the same one.] So that was definitely mistake number one.

Secondly, I sent in my first draft. Sure, I give it a few polishes, buffed off the rougher edges, but I didn't put the script through a ruthless, stringent rewrite process. I'd had several novels published without ever needing to rewrite, my stupid brain decided, so what should I bother rewriting my TV script? Hell, I wasn't even being paid to write this. Talk about your no-brainer strategy to embrace failure. Putz.

Thirdly, I didn't get feedback from anybody else about my script. You think I'd at least have had the wit to get my friend the working TV writer to peruse my efforts, tell me if I was barking up the right tree. In an ideal world, I'd have gotten feedback from at least three people, done a rewrite and then gotten more feedback before at least a third draft. But no, I knew better. Grud forbid anyone criticize my work, I thought. Again: putz.

Lastly, my script was all about plot mechanics, all story and no heart. I kind of stumbled in the direction of creating a whisper of resonance between my A and B stories, but the series regulars had no meaningful involvement with my story of the day, no emotional stake in events. There might have been a good tale to be extracted from the mess I concocted, but I lacked to ability to find any diamonds amid the rumble and tumble of my script.

Unsurprisingly, my misguided stab at a spec script did not get the glowing reception I was expecting from Doctors. In essence, I'd done everything wrong. Months went by and nothing happened. The production team went on a national roadshow tour to encourage new writers, so I schlepped all the way from Scotland to Leicester to introduce myself to the script editor I'd targeted. I also got the working writing I did know to give the script editor a nudge for me.

More time passed, but towards the end of 2002 I got my reply. Sorry, but Doctors would not be taking me forward as a writer at that time. I felt crushed. So much time and effort, for two lines on a page. A day or two later I did one sensible thing: I phoned the script editor, politely thanked them for taking the time to read my script and asked for advice on what I should do next to achieve my dream of writing for TV. And then I shut up and listened.

The advice was all sound, sensible stuff. Go and get some experience. Try writing for radio drama, where new talents and new voices are nurtured. Think about getting some training. Learn more about the craft and skills required to break in as a TV writer.

Alas, I didn't take that advice straight away. I went back to doing what I was doing, making a comfortable living from writing that didn't challenge me. Took another three years before the itch to learn, to improve, to have another go at writing for TV or film overtook me. Finally, I took the script editor's advice to heart. Did an MA in screenwriting. Wrote for radio drama and got my first play commissioned by the BBC.

Took every course and workshop going, absorbing knowledge like a sponge - script editing, storylining, pitching, writing for continuing drama. Took up blogging, and discovered an online world of advice and support. Embraced feedback and criticism, rewriting and more rewriting. Most of all, I wrote a lot more material, stories for myself, stories I cared about, stories from the heart as well as the head. And I got a little better, bit by bit.

I'm not big on stories or anecdotes that end with a moral, but there's a nugget of wisdom buried inside that rambling tale you've just read: when a professional gives you advice, you should pay attention. They know what they're talking about. If they suggest you need more training or experience, maybe it's because you do. If they say you're not ready yet, may you're not. You can save yourself a lot of wasted time by listening and paying attention.

Here endeth the lesson. Tomorrow: what happened next.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i feel your pain; and want your wisdom. I get paid to write, but no one will pay me to write what i want to write. TV scripts. Doctor Who, sure, (although it's still more weird than trendy here in the States) but other stuff too. How do you get over that aggravation, that you write for money in other areas, but are being busted back down to the minor league for TV scripts?