Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Hanging your metaphorical arse out the window a bit

Finished the rough first draft of my new spec script late on Monday. Been writing it off and on in bursts for several weeks, wrapped round other work. As always, the last day proved the most productive in terms of page count, simply because the last few pages pay-off the many, many plot elements and character revelations set up earlier.

Yesterday I spent reading the whole thing back in one seating, with the dialogue out loud to ensure it could actually be spoken. Making up the script as I went along for corrections, tweaks and improvements. Applying the Roden test [named after David Roden from the BBC], where you put a mark on the script whenever tempted to look elsewhere.

Then it was time for tweaking, polishing and finessing a fine of the minor points and problems, adding clarifications or simply streamlining the narrative. Cut a scene from very late in the script and relocated another to smooth the narrative. Retro-fitted a moment into an early scene that had a nice pay-off later. Stuff like that, really.

And now the script is out being read by a range of people with different opinions, experiences and expertise. By this time next week I should have a broad spectrum of feedback to consider. Are the opening scenes too off-putting? Does the three-stranded plot narrative work, or should I consider ditching one of the three protagonists?

Sending a new script out to be read feels very exposed, like hanging your arse out the window and inviting people to pass judgement. It's an absolutely necessary step in the process, but you can't help feeling a little bit exposed. [Is this the moment the world realises you're a fraud, you can't help but wonder.] Needs must, I guess.

When it comes to feedback, every opinion is valid. Even if you wildly disagree with the note, it will tend to highlight an underlying issue that needs consideration. If the majority of readers come back with the same note, you know it's a significant problem. If only one or two people highlight an issue, it may be less vexing.

Once all the feedback's in and contemplated, the rewriting begins. I've no doubt there are scenes that need expanding or cutting altogether. Character dialogue that wobbles all over the place, and characterisation in need to sharpening. I'd like to think the plot works well, but structural choices are all up grabs. No point being precious.

My goal's to make the next draft the best it can be. Does each scene advance the plot or reveal character? Better yet, does it do both at the same time? Do characters have distinctive voices? Does their dialogue crackle, pop and snap along? Have I made the most of visual storytelling, or could more dialogue be replaced with reaction shots?

Then there's tone, a massive challenge for any writer. I've striven for a mix of comedy and drama, mixing lighter moments with more serious sequences. Hopefully the readers will empathise with the three main characters, want to know more about them, want to see what happens to them next. Hopefully. Time - and feedback - will tell.

In case you're wondering, the script's for a returning drama police procedural series. I opted for a template episode rather than a pilot that sets up the premise. Reading this script should offer a sense of the show's narrative format, the sort of stories the series would tell, the way the characters will interact with each other.

I used a new character joining a pre-existing team to introduce the set-up to the reader while keeping exposition to a bare minimum. It might be a familiar device, but it works if deployed well [fingers crossed]. And there's a tip of the hat to two of my favourite TV dramas, The Cops and Hill Street Blues, because I couldn't resist it.

Once the next draft is done, I plan to submit it as my sample for the BBC Writers' Academy. Hundreds apply every year for only eight places, so any application faces long odds. But the quality of your writing sample is crucial to put you in the running for a place in the workshop stage, where some two dozen people are summoned to London.

Obviously, I hope to make it that far in the process but simple maths tells you not to hold your breath. With fewer opportunities elsewhere for emerging scribes, the Writers' Academy looms ever larger on the landscape. You can build a very successful career without it, but the academy is like adding rocket fuel to your ambitions.

Let's assume I don't make the academy. The good news is I have a new spec pilot to be deployed as my calling card script, once it's been torn apart, rewritten and polished to gleaming. I don't expect the series I've created will ever get made, but the script shows what I'm capable of writing right now - and that's very useful. Onwards!

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