Wednesday, September 01, 2010

How I became a TV drama writer

Lots of bloggers have been telling the story of their inspiration for becoming screenwriters. Don't think anybody's tagged me with this meme, but it's been nagging away at my subconscious so I'm gonna take a stab at it anyway. Partly because I hate being left out of the fun, mostly because I don't know the answer.

I've been making a living from words one way or another since I left school. Did a six-month pressure cooker diploma in journalism, then straight to my first full-time job. Much as I enjoyed that [which was often], I despaired of reporting on what other people did. I wanted to be creating my own stories.

I emigrated from New Zealand to the UK and wandered into comics editing. My first creative mentor, Steve MacManus, encouraged me to pursue writing if I had ambitions. Steve had done some writing during his early days in comics, and he confessed to regret that editing had undertaken it. So I did some comics writing.

Most of it was pretty lame. Any good bits were down to the artists involved - my efforts ranged from merely mediocre to downright shite. [The Straitjacket Fits wasn't bad, thanks to wonderful Roger Langridge art. The Soul Sisters was a comedy strip without any jokes, even if Shaky Kane give it a sheen of strangeness.]

In 1993 I got the chance to write my first novel, a licensed Judge Dredd book. No years of writing and rewriting, I went straight from zero to a publishing contract. The novel was all over the shop, but Virgin Books were desperate and commissioned me to bash out another. Gradually, book by book, I got better.

Fast forward to the year 2000. Having gone freelance as a writer, I was making decent money from all manner of different work. By this point I knew plenty of people who were working screenwriters, mostly for TV. I'd been on Robert McKee's story structure, and bought some How To books - even read a few of them.

Somewhere along the way, I decided I wanted to be a screenwriter. [I blame Doctor Who for rewiring my imagination at an early age.] I knew someone who was writing for the Channel Five soap Family Affairs, a place where scribes with no TV experience could get a foot in the door. Thanks to who I knew, I too got a trial.

There was one minor problem: I'd never seen Family Affairs. Channel 5 wasn't available where I lived in Scotland. I did get someone to tape a few eps so I could see what the show was like, but otherwise I was woefully under-prepared. Just for larks, here's a scene from my Family Affairs trial script:

1. NIKKI: [CURIOUS] Why are you so happy this morning?

2. LUKE: You being here with me - having breakfast together like we’re a couple - it doesn’t seem real.

3. NIKKI: Maybe it isn’t.

4. LUKE: [HAPPY] Well, if this is a dream, I hope we never wake up.
Bleurgh! There's a lot more, just as bad, but I'll spare you the necessity of tearing out your own eyeballs. Unsurprisingly, I didn't get a gig writing for Family Affairs, on account of being utterly fucking clueless. I went back to writing comics and computer games and tie-in tomes, making good money.

Fast forward to 2002 when I got talking to a writer on the BBC daytime drama series Doctors. He encouraged me to have a go, but suggested I watch the show for a few months first [sage advice]. I did, then wrote my own version of a Doctors script and submitted it to the writer's script editor.

The results were a bit better than my Family Affairs fiasco, but I hadn't clocked the fact no British TV drama wants to read sample script for their show. Despite this, the script editor took pity and [eventually] read my effort. It was a straight rejection. Their advice: get some experience somewhere else. Anywhere else.

Fast forward to 2005. Doctor Who returns to TV in a blaze of triumph. My outrageous dream of one day writing Doctor Who for TV was one of the reasons I'd emigrated to the UK, but the BBC had cancelled the show almost the same day as I arrived in the country. Now the show was back. Time to get my arse in gear.

By this point I'd had nearly 20 novels published [including several Doctor Who tie-ins], a dozen audio dramas released [including various Doctor Who derivations] and a vast amount of comics for various countries. All of that had given me confidence in my ability to tell a story. What I needed was craft skills.

So I got myself on a two-day radio drama lab. That helped me get on the first MA in screenwriting at Screen Academy Scotland. I also did nine months of mentoring with Adrian Mead, plus courses and workshops in storylining, continuing drama writing, script editing, more radio drama - you name it, I did it.

After two years' solid retraining I had a BBC Radio 4 play to my credit, a prize-winning short film script and a couple of halfway decent TV drama pilots. It was time to have another go at fulfilling my dream of writing TV drama. I went back to Doctors and explained all the things I achieved since 2002.

That - and my writing samples - earned me a proper script trial. It went well, earning me the right submit story of the day pitches via my script editor. But it was another eighteen months before I secured my first commission, which was broadcast on BBC1 in February this year. Nothing ever happens quickly.

Looking back over all of these steps, there's not one transcendental moment that made me realise I was a screenwriter. It's been a long, gradual journey with lots of diversions and missteps along the way. The ten years I spent editing comics felt like wasted effort at the time, yet taught me a lot.

I guess the shape of any writer's career only becomes evident in retrospect. You can make choices and decisions, turn down certain jobs and actively pursue others - but there's no guarantee things will turn out how you hope or expect. Right now, I'm in the middle of the journey. Let's us where it takes us. Onwards!

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