Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Looking back at my writing over the past ten years #1

I started this blog soon after starting an MA in screenwriting at Screen Academy Scotland, part of Edinburgh Napier University [which was then just called Napier University]. Tutor Mark Grindle suggested we kept a journal of our progress through the course, to chart our learning and record the experience. I opted for a blog - this blog.

Ten years ago I was writing a lot, all of it founded in other people's creations, characters and worlds. I'd more than a dozen novels published with more coming - all tie-ins to licensed properties. I flirted with writing for computer games, enjoyed more success scripting comics and audio dramas, and used my journalism skills for non-fiction books.

But nearly all of it was reactive, and little of it felt like my own. I had long aspired to write for TV, but my attempts were stillborn. I knew I could tell a compelling story, but clearly lacked the skills to crack broadcast drama. Fortuitously, Napier was about to launch its screenwriting MA, so I decided to apply in the hope of retraining myself.

I got on the course as a part-time student. There were bursaries available, but as Foreign Scum™I wasn't eligible for such assistance which meant self-funding. That meant a lot of sacrifices, especially as I had to turn down work to study. My income plummeted, my expenses skyrocketed - but I avoided loading myself with student debt, at least.

I learned a lot from the MA, but also reached to grab whatever knowledge I could find - workshops on script editing and storylining, plus nine months of being mentored in TV writing [a massive thank you to the Scottish Book Trust for that opportunity]. I didn't write enough on the course and wish it pushed us more, but I made breakthroughs.

Thanks to pre-course efforts and the encouragement of producer David Ian Neville, I secured my first broadcast commission writing a 15-minute play for BBC Radio 4 in 2006. The other breakthrough came when a project I've developed on the MA called Danny's Toys won Short Film Screenplay prize at the 2007 Page Awards in Los Angeles.

Those two events - coupled with my final project script Families at War - got me a trial at the BBC TV continuing drama series Doctors. My efforts were good enough that I was asked in 2008 to pitch story of the day ideas, working with lovely Caroline Brittain, then a script editor. I set aside most other areas to focus on screenwriting.

It took two years to get my first episode on screen [not uncommon, I was forewarned]. In that time I became represented by Katie Williams [then of Blake Friedmann, now at The Agency]. I got my second radio play commission from the BBC, and a rewritten version of my script Families at War was a finalist in the Red Planet Prize.

Meanwhile, a new focus emerged for my professional life: teaching. In the autumn of 2008 I saw a job advertised at Edinburgh Napier. The university was preparing to launch a Creative Writing MA programme and wanted tutors with expertise in genre fiction, screenwriting and digital media. It was like they had designed the job for me.

I swithered about whether to apply, not convinced I wanted to devote half my week to non-writing activities. My mother had been a teacher and it seemed a rewarded but all-consuming profession. I got shortlisted and was remarkably laid back at interview, simply because I wasn't sure I wanted the job. I got offered it two hours later.

That was the end of 2008. I was skint, still hadn't gotten a TV commission at that point and uncertain how I could sustain myself as a screenwriter. I knew it would take years to build a self-supporting career, even assuming everything fell into place. So I took the job. It was only 17.5 hours, I still had the rest of my week to write, right?

Ahh, how naive. Teaching has occupied into much more than 17.5 hours a week. But the experience has been massively rewarding, and I have learned a lot from it [probably more than the students at times]. No doubt my career would have been different if I wasn't teaching, but it is the pathway I choose so I refuse to regret that choice.

Looking back, it's curious to see the opportunities I pursued and the one I let it slip away. I did next to nothing with my open invitation to badger Red Planet with ideas, preferring to pursue more broadcast commissions with Doctors. There have been other moments I could have chased, but held back through timidity or lack of hunger.

One thing is clear to me: I write best to commission, or the strong likelihood of a commission. My blood is not fired by open invitations to pitch whatever in the vague hope of someone maybe being interested. That makes me less suited to unspecified development opportunities. I respond well to constraint, to the focus of a deadline.

Give me a set of parameters and a narrowing window of opportunity, chances are I will rise to the occasion. Give me an infinite canvas and a free invite to pitch whatever whenever, chances are I will drift away. It's probably why I wrote so much for licensed properties with short deadlines - I need the rush, the barriers, the thrill of the thrill.

I guess that makes me ill suited for some openings and well armed for others. It certainly explains why I have spent years and years not writing a novel entirely of my own devising, despite having bookshelves groaning with reference tomes and a clear sense of what to write. But I have a plan to overcome that reticence in 2016.

Next time on Vicious Imagery: what happened after I got my first broadcast commission.

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