Monday, October 26, 2009

My journey with 'Doctors'. so far

Nope, I'm not at this year's Screenwriters' Festival in Cheltenham. Wish I was, especially now the event's closer to the town centre, but commitments elsewhere precluded me attending. I've papers to mark for the creative writing MA, lectures to plan, a script to polish, and pitches to develop for Fantomen and Doctors. Instead of talking about writing, I'll actually be writing.

So, for all those people who wish they could be at SWF 09 but aren't, here's a behind the scenes peek at the long process by which I got my first TV drama screenwriting credit. Way back in 2002 I met a writer who was then a regular Doctors scribe. He encouraged me to try out for the medical drama series, promising to put a good word in for me with his script editor. Shame I wasn't ready.

I did have the good sense to watch the show, get to know the cast. Nailing the regulars is essentially on a continuing drama like Doctors. Stories of the day may be the show's bread and butter, but it's the trials and tribulations faced by the regulars that keep viewers coming back. Anyway, I made a classic blunder - I wrote a Doctors spec script and sent it in to Doctors for their consideration.

For a long time the spec script was a well worn path into US TV writing, but even there you never send a House spec script to the House script team. You send them a spec for another procedural show, to demonstrate you can write, plot and structure. [These days spec pilots are emerging as good calling cards across the Atlantic, but a good spec script still has its merits in the US system.]

Nobody wants to read a spec script for a UK show. You get invited to write a trial script, but that's a later stage in the process. First you have to impress somebody with your own, original writing. Sending a Doctors spec script to a Doctors script editor? Pure amateur hour. Unsurprisingly, it got ignored for months. But I was giving up on it, not just yet. [I'm nothing if not persistant.]

I schlepped all the way from Scotland to Leicester [not easily done in a day] for a 90-minute roadshow by the Doctors team. I introduced myself to the relevant script editor afterwards, and asked about my script. I even got the professional writer who'd first fired any interest to nag the poor script editor. Eventually, I got a response - a two line rejection letter. Not what I was hoping for.

I waited 48 hours, and phoned for more feedback. I needed more experience, come back when I'd got some. The script editor was absolutely right, but it wasn't easy to hear - especially when Doctors was [and still is, to some extent] to means by which many writers get their first experience of TV drama. If I couldn't write for Doctors, how was I supposed to get the necessary experience?

Fast forward to September 2007. I'd just finished my screenwriting MA, concentrating on TV drama. I'd also undertaken a clutch of courses to expand my skillset beyond what was taught on the course: TAPS script editing workshop; storylining for continuing drama workshop at the Script Factory; nine months being mentored by writer-director Adrian Mead; storylining workshop at the Emmerdale script department.

I'd also had a play broadcast by BBC Radio 4, a dozen audio dramas produced by Big Finish, numerous novels published and won an international screenwriting award for my short film script DANNY'S TOYS. In short, I'd gone away, got some experience and worked to improve my screenwriting craft skills. It was time for another letter to the same script editor at Doctors [fortunately, they were still there].

This time I knew better than to enclose a script. I simply asked for the chance to submit some of my original writing for consideration. The script editor replied, offering to pass this request down the food chain to an assistant - fine by me. I duly got an invitation to submit and sent in the script for my MA final project, FAMILIES AT WAR, along with a copy of DANNY'S TOYS.

They were well received and I was invited to write a trial script. The onset of Christmas meant my try-out got pushed to early 2008. [Patience and persistence are worth a lot, nothing happens quickly.] For the trial script I was given serial material from an old episode [not one I'd seen, as it happened, though I was watching the show faithfully in preparation for my trial script].

The serial contained the beats for my B and C stories, comprising about 30% of my script. My job was to blend that into a story of the day I'd invented, hopefully finding some resonance between them. For the Doctors trial script I was given ten calendar days from start to finish. Alas, none of my stockpiled A stories fit well with the supplied serial. Time to find another A story.

The trial script process is a great test of your ability to work fast and think faster. Normally each story of the day [SOTD] is developed over time. You get feedback from your script editor and it only gets to a commission if a series producer has approved it. Even then, you produce a scene by scene demonstrating how the SOTD works with supplied serial. On a trial, that's all down to you.

Despite having only ten days, I decided to follow the processes used to create a real episode. I choose my SOTD, researched the medical background and wrote it up into a two-page pitch. Next I worked on a scene by scene, integrating my SOTD with the serial material I'd been given. Only then did I dive into writing my trial script. I got that to a polished first draft, then sent it out for a quick read.

Feedback from fellow scribes helped smooth out a few lumps and bumps. One of my guest characters arrived too late in the script, but I couldn't find a good fix for that. The serial featured a regular whose voice I'd never managed to capture, but there was nothing I could do about. One final polish and off the finished script went. Happily, I didn't have to wait too long for an answer, maybe a week or three.

The news was good, my trial was enough to get a foot in the door. I'd earned the right to submit SOTD. But I was told in no uncertain terms this was just the beginning of a much longer journey. Getting an SOTD approved [a process known as being 'banked'] could take months, even years. There would be little or, more likely, no feedback on why pitches were rejected. Sheer weight of numbers precludes that.

[In a delicious irony, a newcomer at the script office BBC Scotland soap River City stumbled across FAMILIES AT WAR in their slushpile that same month. It had been submitted the previous September, around the same time I'd written to Doctor. The River City newcomer wrote me a rejection letter dissing my script. I wrote back with news of my successful Doctors trial. A nice moment.]

I started submitting SOTD pitches to Doctors, getting a few of them on the series producer's reading pile - but none were cutting the mustard. My handler in the script department took pity, getting me an invitation to the July 2008 Doctors mini-academy, a shadow scheme whereby eight writers spent five days in Birmingham learning how to better write for the show. This culminates in solo pitches.

There were no guarantees we would get a commission from these pitches, but it would help introduce us to the production team and might improve our chances in future. A golden opportunity, I was chuffed to bits. I resolved to have twelve brilliant ideas ready and select the best three for pitching. In the end I only managed nine before heading south to Birmingham, some stronger than others.

The mini-academy was a great experience, and a big boost for my confidence. Come the final morning I was pitching to the assistant who'd shepherded me through the system, the script editor who'd suffered my 2002 efforts and a producer. I pitched my best two ideas first, and got lots of positive comments. Feeling bullish, I pushed my luck with a third idea with the working title A PILL FOR EVERY ILL.

It was less developed than the others, needed more work done on it. As a consequence it got pulled apart, but there were some positive noises too. I decided to put that one on the back burner and concentrate on my two favourites. Once home, I rushed to submit full SOTD pitches for those two, confident at least one of them would hit the target. [The series producer had other ideas. Such is life.]

In September I submitted A PILL FOR EVERY ILL as a formal SOTD pitch. This featured tow regulars on the series clashing about how best to treat a patient, divided by their different medical ideologies - one old school, one more New Age. But cast changes had overtaken my pitch, the New Age character was leaving the show. Time for a rethink and a massive rewrite. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle.

Submitted a revised version of PILL in October 2008, swapping out one regular for another but keeping the essentials of my story intact. Still not quite there, more tweaks needed. The final version of my SOTD got added to the series producer's reading pile in November 2008. By this point my two favourites had been rejected and several other pitches were falling by the wayside.

Fast forward to February 2009: still no word on PILL, but more SOTD pitches get read and rejected. One year on from my successful trial, and I don't feel much closer to getting that elusive first pitch banked. Feeling a bit down, especially as others from the mini-academy are celebrating their first commissions. Tell myself patience and persistence will win the day - eventually.

June 2009: email from my champion inside the production office, who's now a fully fledged script editor. Good news, PILL has been banked. There's no guarantee that will lead to a full commission [and no money until that happens], but it's a step forward. My SOTD was on the reading pile for seven months, an indication of how much material the production team must wade through to fill 230 eps a year.

August 2009: get a phone call, PILL has been plucked from the story bank and paired with serial material for what will be Episode 199 of Doctors Series XI - am I up for writing a scene by scene? You bet. Do I mind shifting the action from one location to another? Not at all. Can I rewrite my SOTD so it's an entirely different doctor? Gulp! Yes, absolutely, of course I can. I've got a week to deliver.

This is it, the last stage at which I can fail and end up with nothing. I submit my effort a day earlier, and nervous waiting begins. I fully expect to asked for a rewrite of my scene by scene, the chances of nailing it first time - especially with so many changed elements from the original SOTD - seem remote. This is the moment of truth, where I could attain my first TV drama writing credit.

A week later I get my call, and the news is good. I've got to cut a fistful of scenes and there's plenty of nips and tucks to be made - but no need to revise my scene by scene. It's straight to script, a formal commission. Can I deliver my first draft within a week? I wheedle an extra day because I'll be spending the original deadline running a workshop at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

But I didn't need that extra time, and deliver my first draft a day ahead of the original deadline. More anxious waiting. Lots of notes come back, but nothing major. Seems I've captured the regulars well, even two semi-regular characters who hadn't been cast yet. My response gets delayed as I'm away on a residential course for two days, but I still manage to deliver my second draft early.

Further drafts follow, honing and refining, but the bulk of my script remains exactly as it was in the original draft. I caught most of the target first time of asking, which makes everyones job that bit easier thereafter. Deliver my final draft before the end of September, by which point the director is about to start prep for the block of three eps that includes A PILL FOR EVERY ILL.

One month on and filming is complete. Post-production may already be underway. The end results of all that effort are due for broadcast on Wednesday, February 10th, 2010 - almost exactly two years on from my successful trial script. I was warned it could be a long journey to my first commission, and so it proved. Let's hope the journey to my second commission is a little less lengthy...


Anonymous said...

Glad to know I'm not the only one who didn't make Cheltenham.

A really interesting article on breaking in, thanks for this.

Tom Murphy said...

Hi David - thanks a lot for such a thorough breakdown of the process

Chuck said...

Absolutely wonderful piece. It really gives me an idea of an aspiring writer is up against. Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed recount of how you did it.

Anonymous said...

wow! Simply reading your account got my adrenaline going. I'm pleased you made it.

Sofluid said...

Hi David!

What a wonderful account of your experiences - thank you for being so detailed and honest. It's a fascinating process!

I'm currently working on an original screenplay (a revised version of my Ustinov script) to send to the BBC as a sample of my writing with an intention to be considered for Doctors, so I really appreciate your insight into the whole process.

Looking forward to watching your episode next year! :)

Well done you :)

Lucy V said...

Bloody hell, that's a long post. I'll read it when I'm back from THE SCREENWRITERS' FESTIVAL, arf

(Oh come on, I never go anywhere normally!!!)

Tom said...

Well done David. Great, detailed account. Pleased you got there in the end. Hope the second commission is hot on its heels.