Monday, August 29, 2011

My incredibly long journey to NOT writing River City

In August 2011 I delivered the first draft of my first commissioned script for River City, a weekly sixty-minute drama on BBC1 in Scotland. All being well, my episode was scheduled to broadcast on Tuesday January 17, 2012 - that didn't happen. Alas, my writing didn't match the expectations of River City and another scribe was allocated that particular episode. Out of historical interest, here is the original blog I posted after submitting my first draft - marvel at the hubris...

Getting to this point has been an incredibly long journey, full of raised hopes and dashed dreams. Plenty of times I despaired of ever reaching where I am right now. Here’s a blog post about all the steps on the way. Warning: this is not brief or pithy.

2006: In February that year I went to a seminar run by Edinburgh writer-director Adrian Mead. By chance I sat next to Louise Ironside, who’d just been taken on as a writer by the BBC Scotland continuing drama series River City. I nabbed her contact details and got in touch in the following week, asking how she’d gotten on the show.

The procedure seemed straight-forward. Watch the show for at least six weeks, then write a two page critique. Submit that to the script office with a sample of your writing. In 2005 a bunch of likely candidates had been selected from the pile of unsolicited, unagented submissions to attend a weekend workshop about the show. Louise went this route and impressed enough to earn a live commission. She aced that, and one script led to another.

I followed the procedure, submitting my critique and a sample by the end of March. [The sample was a ten-page short film script, the first thing I wrote for my MA. At that point I was still in the first year of two on the course, as a part-timer.] Then, I waited. Little did I realise this would be my default setting with River City for the next five and a half years!

Fast forward to August: I hadn’t heard anything but the show’s then executive produce, Sandra MacIver, was a guest speaker at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. I went along, listened carefully, and introduced myself after. She was sorry to hear about the lack of response, and suggested I submit an updated critique. So I did.

September: producer Amanda Verlaque invited a bunch of writers to try out for the show over successive weekends, including me. We were emailed storyline documents for half an episode and given three days over a weekend to turn these into script pages. River City was 30 minutes per episode at the time, so we were writing 14 minutes. Deadline was midday Monday, come hell or high water, with the promise of feedback within a week.

I did my best and submitted the results on Monday morning. Got an acknowledgement by email immediately, promise of feedback to follow. End of that week, I got an apologetic email – feedback was coming, but might be another week. And that was the last I heard without chasing the production office for an answer. Every month I’d get them a nudge.
Sometimes I got an apologetic response, mostly I heard nothing back at all. Round Christmas I gave up hope altogether and stopped watching the show. Why bother, right?

2007: I had an meeting with Sandra in May, trekking out to the Dumbarton studios where River City is filmed to talk about the possibilities of shadowing someone in the storyline or script editing department. Sandra was very welcoming, gave me 45 minutes of her time – but it all came to naught. Couple of months later I got a gentle ‘sorry, no’ email.

Fast forward to September: Twelve months on from being promised feedback within a week, I received a polite rejection letter. I checked round the other people I knew who’d taken the trial, they were all getting the same letter. A guy called Danny Spring was given the job of welcoming everyone to Dumpsville, population: us. I left it a few days, then phoned him to ask for further feedback. He was full of apologies, but my writing from a year earlier had been merely competent. [To my utter mortification, he’d also dug out the original writing sample from March 2006!]

I pointed out I’d finished my screenwriting MA in the meantime, had a play on Radio 4, won an international screenwriting prize, taken workshops in storylining and script editing. In short, I’d been working hard to better my craft skills and writing. Any chance he’d read work more up to date than a script written over a weekend 12 months earlier? Danny was kind enough to agree, so I sent him in my pilot script Families At War. Three months later Danny left River City and I was back to square one. Again. Sigh.

2008: I hadn’t let the grass grow under my feet, writing a successful trial script for another BBC continuing drama series called Doctors. A few days after getting the news I was now approved for submitting story of the day pitches to Doctors, I got a letter from River City. A new arrival in the script department had found Families At War and wrote to tell me all the things that were wrong with it. River City would not be taking on any new writers for at least a year, but I was welcome to have another try then. I wrote back, politely thanking them for the feedback.

I’d stopped watching River City altogether by this point. It underwent internal regime change, moving from two 30-minute episodes to a single 60-minute episode a week, not without hitting a few bumps along the way. I dipped into watching the show occasionally, but with limited enthusiasm. Get your heart broken often enough, you try to stop caring.

2009: Fast forward once more, this time to November. The BBC Scotland drama department had its first open opportunity for what felt like years, a scheme called Scotland Writes. A winner and runner-up got cash prizes, another 20 people got a one-day workshop with the drama department. There was talk of a River City shadow scheme as well for those who got short-listed. I entered – and didn’t make the cut. Such is life.

BBC Scotland’s then-head of drama Anne Mensah had an open Q and A session at Pacific Quay as part of the Scotland Writes initiative, and I went along to introduce myself. To my surprise, she recognised my name from having been a judge for the Red Planet Prize [Families At War was a finalist in the contest that year]. She suggested I talk to River City’s then current executive producer, Morag Bain, about writing for the show.

In fact, I’d already talked to Morag that evening. She said the show was definitely running a shadow scheme soon but I was too late to get on that. Sigh.

2010: Fast forward yet again to February. My first ep of Doctors was broadcast on BBC1. I’d been busy watching River City for the past three months. Striking while the iron was hot, I emailed Morag, citing my first broadcast credit on Doctors. Any chance of River City giving me another look now that Doctors had given me some added legitimacy?

Morag got straight back, said I’d been on her radar a while [news to me!] and passed my details to one of her producers, Jonathan Phillips. I sent in my samples, and waited...

Fast forward to April: all change [again] at River City. By now I knew the drill. When an ongoing series [or a small nation] undergoes regime change, all new business gets put to the bottom of the priority pile. Everyone’s figuring out how things work, so they don’t have time for those knocking on the door from outside.

Fast forward to October and another Adrian Mead seminar. Yes, in a delightful piece of symmetry, I’m right back where I started. This time I went along specifically to meet one of River City’s regular writers, Rob Fraser. Could he suggest who I should be targeting at the show? Rob kindly pointed me at a script editor who’d been at the show all the years I’d been trying to find a way in.

Remember that massive, week-long snowstorm that brought much of the country to a standstill in December 2010? That happened the day I was due to meet the series script editor in Glasgow. After so many years trying to get a foot in the door, I was determined to get to my meeting, even if it meant re-enacting large chunks of The Day After Tomorrow while driving in a Toyota Yaris on roads that best resembled the Cresta Run.

Amazingly, we both made it to the meeting and had a lovely chat in the BBC canteen. The script editor would see what she could do, but could make me no promises. None the less, I went home happy [just as well, the journey back took another three hours]. After so long and so many near misses, this felt like some sort of progress.

By this point I had two eps of Doctors under my belt, another imminent, a London agent, another BBC radio play for the BBC, and was scripting five eps of Nina and the Neurons for CBeebies Scotland. In short, I’d been busy paying my dues and learning my craft.

2011: Fast forward to July, and a meeting with River City’s producer Graeme Gordon and series script editor Ciara Conway. In view of my credits and experience, there was no need for me to complete a shadow script. But they did want reassurance I could write for the show before risking a straight commission. So I did a trial scene by scene, working from story documents for an imminent ep. Playing with live ammo, you might call it.

Fast forward to August. Five and a half years after I starting this incredibly long and frequently strange journey, I have just signed contracts to write an episode of the sixty minute BBC Scotland drama River City. Feels like it has taken me forever to reach this point. Four words keep ringing in my head: don’t fuck it up. Don’t Fuck. It. Up. [Alas, I fucked it up.]

So, what lessons – if any – can be extracted from all of these experiences?

TIMING IS EVERYTHING. That’s not just about submitting at the moment when they happen to have an opening. Unless you’ve got someone on the inside, you’ll probably never know if it’s that moment. No, this is about not submitting before you’re ready. My 2006 try-out was competent at best. I was able to turn storylines into script efficiently enough, but lacked the boldness to transform the stories, make them my own, transmute base metal into golden dialogue and scintillating transitions.

REGIME CHANGE WILL HAPPEN. All continuing and returning drama series undergo some sort of regime change every few years. If you’re not already in the room when that happens, you may be as well to hang back for a while. Yes, this could be the golden opportunity to get a foot in the door while everyone’s looking the other way. But it could also be the worst of times to join the show. New leaders like to impose their stamp on how things are done. Let the dust settle before you dive in.

VALIDATE YOURSELF AS A WRITER. You cannot depend on the approval of others for all of your emotional well-being as a writer. That is asking to get your [metaphorical] teeth kicked in on a regular basis. You will be miserable most of the time because writers get rejections all the time. You have to validate your own worth as a writer. How? By constantly striving to do better, challenging yourself. By learning and, most of all, by writing. Otherwise you’ll become a right moody bastard. Fact.

DON’T TAKEN REJECTION PERSONALLY. I got rejected again and again by various people within BBC Scotland, but I got over it. Most of the times, I wasn’t ready. Other times, they didn’t like my writing. Tough. If luck is where opportunity meets preparation, it’s your job as a writer to be ready when an opportunity does arise. Keep learning, keep improving, keep going. They aren’t rejecting you, they’ve rejected whatever piece of writing you submitted. It happens. Stop whining. Move on.

SUCCESS IS THE BEST REVENGE. When you do get rejected [and you will], turn that negative energy into a desire to be even better – and to prove them wrong. Look for other opportunities. Don’t give up too easily. As a wise man once said, brick walls lets us prove how badly we want things. I didn’t crack River City until after I’d proven myself at Doctors. One success leads to another. So make it happen.

POSTSCRIPT: While nearly all professional TV writers will face reversals at some point in their career, what happened at River City was made all the more gutting by the epic journey that preceded it. But this helped demonstrate the continuing drama was not what I needed to be writing. Just wish I happened spent quite so long chasing the wrong dream! Live and learn...


Phill Barron said...

Blimey, David - that's proper persistence, that is. Well done you!

claireduffy said...

Wow - a really inspiring story. Thanks for sharing it, and congratulations!

Denise Watson said...

Fantasic news!!! And very much deserved. Thanks for sharing your very insightful insights, yet again. It's so brilliant to hear when one of us breaks through and actually gets where we want to be. Well done, David, enjoy the feeling (then get on with Draft2!) d xx

DanielB said...

Now that really is persistence. I am suitably awed. I thought my road to getting a children's novel accepted had been hard enough, until I read that! Well done.

Helen Smith said...

Well done, David - it sounds like it's all coming together. Here's to more commissions.

Proudhuff said...

Inspiring persistence, and the lessons learnt most useful.

Matt said...

Interesting stuff, David.

Cheers for an illuminating post.

Matt Badham

Anonymous said...

Hi David, I'm currently a new recruit to Screen Academy Scotland, and I've been tracking your progress for a while. Well done on everything you have achieved so far. I'm sure you will continue to flourish with your writing. I'm just about to sit down and read Danny's Toys as a recommendation from James Mavor.

Cheers, Robert


Hope you enjoy the SAS experience, Robert. I sometimes do a guest lecture there, so might see you there one day...

Anonymous said...

Hello David,

I found your story amazing to read. Being a writer is one of the hardest jobs in this industry. If you are a camera man, people won't you to pick up that camera without waving money at you. As a writer there is a lot of 'do it for free...then we'll talk...maybe'.

I graduated from the NFTS in Script Development, following YEARS of writing pitches, developing scripts , redrafting on request and eventually getting no where. I was interviewed to be a script editor, storyliner and storyeditor for Eastenders, BabyCow, Holby City and Waterloo Road.

Nothing. Ever. Happened.

For me, it feels like 5 years of 'almost made it!' moments. Your mental and emotional health takes a beating.

BUT, we shall prevail and when it is done, we can afford to eat again. Good luck to you.

Kim MacAskill