Saturday, November 28, 2009

Scotland Writes Nov. 26th Q&A notes

Drove from Edinburgh to Glasgow on Thursday for the BBC Scotland Writes Q&A session with Anne Mensah [AM hereafter] at Pacific Quay. Starting to think Pacific Quay is Glasgow's Bermuda Triangle. Everytime I go near it, something goes awry - car crashes, trains run late, pedestrian overpasses get closed, or massive tailbacks on the M8. This time: massive tailbacks, driving rain, general carnage.

Anyway, on to some notes from the session. Script editor George Aza-Selinger welcomed everyone [about 60 people attended, it was a full house] and introduced Anne Mensah, who's Head of Drama at BBC Scotland and [since April 2009] Head of Independents. She introduced a showreel of BBC Scotland TV drama projects, past and present, before talking about her department, how it works, etc.

Ideas submitted via agents or production companies are read by a script editor. If they like it, the project gets passed to AM. Her department holds bi-weekly development meetings to discuss new and current projects. If she likes an idea, a treatment will be commissioned. Notes, rewrites and more notes follow. All going well, a script commission will follow. More notes, more rewrites, etc.

AM can pay for all the script development needs of a networked [i.e. broadcast across the UK, not just by BBC Scotland] project. But to get commissioned for transmission requires approval from London - Controller of Drama Commissioning Ben Stephenson, and the relevant channel controller. [This is known as the two tick system.] Scotland-only commissions don't require two ticks.

AM admitted personal tastes played a significant part in what gets commissioned, it's not an exact science. [She also stressed the audience should take everything she said with a pinch of salt, not treat her comment as commandments.] She cares far more about the quality of a writer's work than their ability to pitch a story. Concentrate on your story, not potential slots or channels.

AM warned writers to beware letting bad notes ruin a script. Instead, use the note to identify the underlying problem in your script and invent your own solution. Your TV drama ideas need to have an intrinsic point of view, something to say. Use research to find the emotional truth of your story. Content is not original, it's how you tell the story, your voice that makes it unique.

AM advocated playwrighting as a way of getting attention from BBC drama. In Scotland the script editors make it a point to see as many professionally staged plays by new talent as possible. Alternatively, go to workshops and introduce yourself to script edtiors, find someone will to read your work. They need to find new talent, they want to champion the next great writer.

Everything submitted via an agent or a production company gets reads. If you don't have access to either of these avenues, don't send scripts cold to the BBC Scotland drama department, it'll get bumped to the writersroom in London. Befriend a script editor who agrees to read your original sample, you could avoid that. Contest like Scotland Writes are another way to get attention.

AM revealed the BBC Scotland continuing drama series River City is looking for two new writers per series. They'll be mentored by an experienced writer, to guide them the process of scripting an episode. Producer Morag Bain chipped in that she was keeping a beady eye on the Scotland Writes competition, in search of potential candidates for the mentoring scheme.

As mentioned in my previous blog post, it was announced that 150 entries had been received for the Scotland Writes TV drama contest. The winner gets £1500, while £500 goes to the runner-up and twenty people will get a workshop with AM's team. She would like to run the contest every year, but the one-day workshop costs a lot to stage. Winners will be announced mid-December.

AM's presentation was peppered with clips from dramas by first-time TV writers, such as Gregory Bruke's forthcoming Scottish Single and the powerful one-off Fiona's Story by Kate Gabriel. For contrast, she also showed very early work by BAFTA-winning scribes to demonstrate that everybody starts somewhere and writers only get better through hard work and experience.

After all of that, the gathered throng retired to the lobby of BBC Scotland HQ at Pacific Quay for free drinks and crisps. I was driving, so it was strictly orange juice for me. Nattered to various BBC folk, and had a few words with AM [she recalled my script from among the Red Planet Prize finalists, which was nice]. An illuminating night - well worth the vile journey!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Scotland Writes gets 150 entries

Went to the Scotland Writes session at Pacific Quay in Glasgow last night. BBC Scotland Head of Drama Anne Mensah talked eloquently and candidly about what the BBC's looking for, opportunities for writers and ways to get on the radar of her department. With any luck I'll blog my notes more fully this weekend, but the headline above tells you an illuminating fact that emerged last night.

BBC Scotland ran a competition inviting aspiring TV drama writers [from absolute beginners up to those with less than two hours of broadcast credits] to submit a 60-page pilot script for an original series or serial. No entry fee, three months writing time, a perfect opportunity to make your mark. I guessed 100-200 people would enter, and about 150 people did. Results are due next month.

The winner gets £1500 and development opportunities with the TV drama department at BBC Scotland. One runner-up gets £500, and 20 people will be invited in for a one-day workshop. The odds of a cash prize are long, but I always felt anyone who entered had a decent shot of making the workshop. Turns out the odds are 1 in 7.5 - and probably far better for anyone with some training.

Fuller notes to follow this weekend, all being equal. Onwards!

Friday, November 20, 2009

2001: A Who Odyssey - utterly ****ing genius

Fire up the kindle: eight of my novels go digital

A few years back I wrote a bunch of books based on characters and concepts from iconic British comic 2000AD. [They were published by Games Workshop's Black Flame imprint, under license.] There were two Judge Dredd novels, three featuring Russian rogue Nikolai Dante, and a trilogy about vampires stalking the battlefields of WWII that was inspired by quirky serial Fiends of the Eastern Front.

Black Flame shut down in 2006, and the book rights slowly reverted to Rebellion, the company that owns 2000AD. Now all eight of those novels have been re-issued in digital format for the Kindle e-reader. [Sold by, the Kindle has been a massive factor in popularising digital books across the Atlantic. How long before Apple leaps into the fray with a dedicated i-Reader tablet?]

Alas, I don't get any royalties on Kindle sales of these books, having signed away my rights for a flat fee. [It was work, I needed the money and they weren't my characters.] So there's no financial gain for me in pimping the Kindle editions, but I'm glad to see them back in circulation. No writer enjoys seeing their work vanish, you want to stay in print. Whether that's via ink or pixels doesn't matter.

The two Dredd novels I'm not so fussed about. The first, Bad Moon Rising, was required to prove myself to Black Flame, while the second [Kingdom of the Blind] is far from my best work. The Dante novels are among my favourites of all the books I've written, pure romps that sold terribly at the time. Perhaps they can find a more appreciative audience on the Kindle? Anything's possible, I guess.

My Fiends of the Eastern Front trilogy was a big success for Black Flame, among the best selling of the 2000AD range. Vampires + Nazis = equals sales, especially in the US. A Black Flame assistant editor inadvertently told me American sales were fives times those in the UK, despite the books focusing on the Eastern Front conflict between Axis and Communist forces [no Americans involved].

The first book in the trilogy, Operation Vampyr, is good but I felt weighed down by all the research I'd done to achieve the military verisimilitude. For me the trilogy came alive with the second volume, The Blood Red Army. This moved from the perspective of German soldiers to the Russian fighters' point of view. It also switched to first person narrative, a breakthrough moment in the series.

The final novel in the trilogy, Twilight of the Dead, brought together everyone who'd survived up to that point for a last, apocalyptic battle in the dying days of WWII. For the trilogy I wrote close to quarter of a million words, extending the Fiends concept far beyond the original strip, a rather slight and lurid 44-page thrill-ride. Felt like I'd made it my own, in some ways.

The trilogy was such a success, Black Flame commissioned me to start a new set of novels translating the WWII vampires concept to the Pacific front. US fighters battle Japanese vampires, the so-called yellow peril take on a deadly new meaning. I wrote the first book, Fiends of the Rising Sun, and it was published in 2006. Plans were afoot for further volumes, an epic in the works.

But Games Workshop chose to shut down Black Flame and I never got the chance to finish what I'd started. Fiends of the Rising Sun is the only one of my 2000AD Black Flame novels that hasn't been re-issued via the Kindle - yet. There's been vague talk of continuing the Pacific front series, if e-books proved a success for Rebellion's publishing imprint, Abaddon. Time will tell, as ever.

Monday, November 16, 2009

And so I'm back [but not from outer space]

Phew. Been an action-packed couple of weeks, hence the lack of blog posting. After an unhappy month of travails I now have a shiny, new and fully functioning Mac with a ludicrously big screen. Yet to figure out 90% of the things it can do, but email and all my old programmes work so that'll do for now. No doubt I'll discover more soon.

The week before last was a crazed runaround, doing a thousand things at once before going holiday. Had the pleasure of hosting a masterclass session with James Moran at what's now called ESSaMA - the Edinburgh Skillset Screen and Media Academy. Back when I was studying screenwriting there, it was just Screen Academy Scotland. [Perhaps they realised somebody else was using the acronym SAS.]

James was a delight - funny, informative, telling lots of truths without naming too many names. Hopefully his session will have been an eye-opener for those present starting on their journey as screenwriters. Plenty of my creative writing MA students came along too, and stayed around to chat afterwards. All in all, our first joint masterclass with ESSaMA was a rousing success.

Next day it was up before dawn to catch a flight to New York for a city break in the Big Apple. Rather than check into a hotel, spent four nights in a studio apartment near the Flatiron building, rented via the website. Wonderfully central location on Lexington Avenue, pretty much walking distance from everything south of Central Park with the subway only a block away. Aces.

Trip was blessed with incredible weather - glorious sunshine all but the last day, autumnal yet warm and welcoming. The only other time I'd been in New York was a week after New Year's, when the temperature never got up to zero and a foot of snow covered every surface - bitterly cold, in short. The contrast couldn't haven't been more stark, and this trip couldn't have been better timed.

Saturday was about settling in and getting comfortable. Up before dawn on Sunday to go on an architectural walking tour - the Flatiron, Empire State, 30 Rock, etc. Went to see the Broadway production of A Steady Rain, starring Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman. Had a walk through Central Park, basking in sunshine while people ice skated. Watched the season finale of Mad Men as it was broadcast. Class.

Monday was shopping day, particularly SoHo and the East Village. Met up with 2000AD artist Simon Fraser for lunch at Katz's Diner, sight of that infamous scene from When Harry Met Sally where Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm. Yes, the sandwiches there are that good. A real slice of old New York, the diner's closing soon so the whole block can be rebuilt. It'll return, but will never be quite the same.

Tuesday was culture day, an amazing exhibition of paintings by Kandinsky at the Guggenheim Museum. Another stroll through sun-baked Central Park, pausing to admire the Alice In Wonderful sculpture. Bizarrely, someone chose that moment to practise their bagpipes in the park. Badly. Seems I can leave Scotland to go on holiday, but I can guarantee to escape it. An odd moment.

Wednesday was packing up day. Wandered round an open air organic market in Union Square and saw Oscar-tipped Brit movie An Education at the pictures. Lovely. Then the long schlep back to Newark airport for the flight home. Only at the last did anything go wrong, as my broken seat wouldn't recline. Made for a very uncomfortable 7+ hour flight, thanks to my ever-broken tailbone.

Back home from Edinburgh, had a bath and then drove into Glasgow to talk about narrative, comics and new technology at a digital forum called Cross Creative. Can't recall what I said in my jet-lagged state, but it seemed to go alright. Back home again to collapse. Into uni next day to lead a class, do some mentoring and attempt to plot the way forwards. Quite a couple of weeks.

Today I've got some ideas to develop for Doctors and thoughts to prepare for a meeting in That Fancy London tomorrow. Happily, I'm not getting the pre-dawn flight down, so I don't have to rise at 4am to start my travels. But it will be a long day, and then I'm back teaching at Edinburgh Napier University the rest of the week. In no time that four-day city break seems a long time ago. Such is life.

Monday, November 02, 2009

New Home Office rules ban graphic novelist

Comic artist Nikhil Singh, illustrator of the acclaimed graphic novelSalem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtowers has been held in South Africa for five months - unable to attend his own book launch - due to new Home Office rules that deem him 'underqualified'.

South Africa-born Singh has been a resident of London for three years, but cannot return due to the Home Office's decision not to renew any Artists' Visas. This means international artists whose visas have expired must reapply for a Tier One Highly Skilled Worker Visa which cannot be obtained without a degree or similar proof of tertiary education.

Despite being illustrator of a graphic novel acclaimed by the Financial Times, the Sunday Express and comics legend Alan Moore, Singh was told he does not qualify for this visa because he does not have a degree. He was also made to take an English language test, despite having worked in the UK as a journalist for many years.

Unable to leave South Africa for the past five months, Singh has lost his London home and been unable to see his girlfriend of seven years as a result. He has spent more than £2,000 appealing this process, without success.

Nikhil Singh says: "This new legislature speaks poorly of a country previously renowned as an international nexus of arts and culture. The fact that so many academics and artists are being refused entry for such petty reasons only weakens England's cultural backbone. The new immigration laws have insinuated an atmosphere of creative policing that is entirely out of character with the various professions it has effected."

Paul Gravett, Director of Comica Festival and author of Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life says: "The refusal of Nikhil Singh's application for a Highly Skilled Worker Visa ... is short-sighted and prejudiced towards the graphic novel medium, and plainly ignores his exceptional merits. One look at the extraordinary craftsmanship of his contributions to the Salem Brownstone graphic novel would convince anyone Nikhil is not only 'highly skilled' but a visionary artist of international standing."

Salem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtowers launched in a sell-out Salem Spooktacular event at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London last month.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Art for Hearts charity auction

Normally I don't plug charity events on this blog unless they're to do with some form of cancer research [I've lost too many good people to the big C]. But this appeal from regular Vicious Imagery reader Ian Stacey sounds like a good cause to me...


I’m currently organising an auction to raise funds for research done by the transplant team at Great Ormond Street Hospital. This is a cause very dear to my family - our son’s life was saved by a heart transplant four weeks after birth. The auction is original art and signed digital prints by children’s illustrators. I know this is an unusual subject for your blog but we would appreciate any publicity we could get.

The ART FOR HEARTS auction features work donated by children’s illustrators such as Korky Paul, Lynne Chapman and An Vrombaut. Most of the art is original although there are also some signed digital prints and screen prints too. All proceeds will help fund research by the transplant team at GOSH. Transplanted organs do not have the same life expectancy as non-transplanted organs and the team is seeking ways to combat this.

Full details of the auction are available to view here. It will run on Ebay for a week from Monday, November 2nd.