Sunday, 4 January 2015

Out of the Shadows

The briefest glance at the dates of my 'recent' posts will confirm that I've not updated the blog much in the last year or so. Truth is, work has been flat out and any downtime I've had has been grabbed for the purposes of a) recovering and b) enjoying the life that gets put on hold when things are crazy.

However the start of this new year has been nice and quiet so now seems like a good time to take stock. As I get older, time seems to pass ever more quickly - yet when I look back at the start of  2014, I'm not sure I fully recognise the person I was then (on a professional level - I'm still me!).

In the last twelve months I've made the leap to writing full time - something I've dreamt about for over ten years. Since then I've written three hours of TV drama for the BBC - two episodes of Holby City that broadcast in August and December 2014, and one for River City which will go out this coming spring. Both shows have been fun to work on and have asked me to come back in 2015 which'll be great. After years of trying to break in - I broke in. That's something I'm still getting my head around.

It's been a long old road to getting work produced and on air - I've spent the last five years seriously building up my experience, portfolio and contacts to the point where I was trusted to write programmes for prime time audiences. It's been very hard work but elating to see my name appearing at the start of programmes that are watched by millions of people every week.

Some of you will be somewhere on that same journey, so might find it helpful to know how I got to this point. My work on both these shows arose out of completing their respective "Shadow Schemes" and then being invited to work on the programmes for real as a result.

Shadow Schemes are one of the main routes into writing for TV in the UK. Basically a Shadow Script is a dummy run at the real thing. Programme makers invite writers they're interested in to script an episode of their show - going through the process of doing multiple drafts, deadlines, receiving notes etc - without the episode actually being produced. It's a way for the producers to try you out and for you to learn the ropes without the pressure of doing it 'for real'.

A number of programmes in the UK run shadow schemes. It tends to be the long running shows, the Continuing Dramas which need a large pool of writers, which offer them. As well as Holby City and River City, I know that Casualty, Doctors and EastEnders do them, and I'm sure other programmes do too.

To get on to a shadow scheme depends on how the individual shows run them - some do open submissions (most will require you to have an agent, though I believe Doctors doesn't) while others are by invitation only. Best to keep an eye on sites like the BBC Writersroom for any openings and the rules of applying.

From speaking to folks who have done other schemes, most seem to work in broadly the same manner - certainly the two I did took very similar approaches. Some shows will pay you a small fee to do a shadow script, while others expect you to do the scheme for free, but neither options will pay enough to allow you to work full time on them, so you'll need to do them in your spare time.

Just getting onto a scheme can take some time - I had my first meeting with BBC Scotland three years before I was asked to write my River City trial, and it took nine months from my first meeting with BBC Productions in London until I was interviewed for the Holby one. The folks who run these schemes really care about bringing in new talent but they are also busy people who have their hands full making the actual shows! Quite rightly, you are not their highest priority - so often communications and details can take a while to firm up. Patience and tenacity are definitely required!

If taken on to a scheme, you are asked to work from the same story-document (the lose outline long running shows give writers so their ep fits in with the ongoing storylines) as an established writer on the show did for an episode that was produced recently - so as you are working from the same basis as you would if this was a full commission.

After being given your story document - you're then expected to write up a fuller outline where you lay out how you envision the episode working. The format of this will differ from show to show (it might be a full scene by scene or a bullet note beatsheet) but the intent is the same - to allow you to present your take on the story to the production.

From this, you'll get notes from them on what they like / don't like in your outline then after you've addressed those issues - you'll be sent to write a first draft. The teams running these schemes understand that you are working for free / nearly free and doing so in your spare time but they also need to know that you can write to tight deadlines - so you'll only have very slightly longer than a writer on a real episode would to turn your draft in: for example if a show would give you two weeks for a first draft on a real commission, you might get seventeen days on a shadow - so you'll need to be able to give time to it.

After notes - you'll be asked to do a second draft, again at a pace pretty close to the reality of doing a real script. Some schemes will only ask you to do two drafts, while others will ask you to repeat the process for up to six (which is normal when doing a script for real). Either way - you'll need to go through the process of doing drafts and getting notes a number of times.

As well as meeting deadlines, how you respond to notes is key in the process - as a writer trying to break into the industry you'll be used to writing your own spec-scripts solely to your own tastes and passions. If you are going to work on existing shows however, it's really important that you can fit in with the tone and style of that production. You might be the best writer in the world but if you can't adjust your work and take suggestions on-board, then you are not going to be employed on an exiting programme. That doesn't mean you have to meekly say yes to every change that's asked of you (people like it if you question / push back a little) but it does mean you must be willing to take criticism & make changes based on the bosses suggestions - otherwise you aren't much use to them!

Doing a shadow scheme will take up to three or four months. There's the time it takes you to write the piece but also you'll need to bear in mind that the people you are working for may have to put you on pause if more pressing issues take up their time with actual episodes that are being shot. But they will get back to you - and your patience in dealing with any delays will endear you to the show!

It's worth stating that undertaking a shadow script for a programme does not guarantee you work on the show at the end of it. It's an audition - a try out - not a promise of employment. But you will not have got on to the scheme if the people running it don't think you have the potential to come on board. My experience has been that the shows running them want new writers and want you to do well - so if you get the opportunity, grab it and give it your very best shot. Be confident with the material and show you can take notes and criticism well. I wish you all the best!

Hope that's of some use to folks!

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Dead Air

Hey - sorry for the lack of updates. This has been for good reasons rather than bad!

I've recently completed an episode of Holby City for BBC One (which was a brilliant experience) and am now deep into working on two other TV scripts that I can't talk about just yet. I guess being too busy to blog is a good problem to have but sorry to let it go so quiet. In general it's best to keep up with me on Twitter but I promise to write a proper post soon about my experience on Holby how that all came about!

In the meantime - he's an interview I did with All Media Scotland last month about how I got started screen writing, hope it's useful to folks!

Cheers - Chris

Friday, 13 September 2013

Border Queen


So... I had the privilege recently of being involved with a really exciting indie TV project. Border Queen is the brain child of award winning writer/directors Stefano Nurra and Fabio Paladini who filmed the pilot in Edinburgh back in the summer. It was produced by my mate (and super producer) Anita Norfolk.

 The first proper trailer has just gone live and it's looking mighty, mighty fine.

My role on the project was as Script Editor - I came on board just as pre-production was ramping up to work with Stefano and Fabio - giving them an outside perspective & advice on the current draft & helping them get the final script together for the shoot. As English was their second language, a lot of my work was about getting the dialogue to sound suitably British and then helping them work through the story to make the most of their vision. Was a joy to work with such talented guys on such a clever and bold project & think the trailer is looking great.

The project was self funded; done on a very small budget but looks like it cost ten times what they had to spend. They are running a Mobcaster campaign to help them raise the funds for the final push through post-production. If the show looks like it's your kind of thing, or if you just like supporting emerging talent, do consider pledging something to the appeal.

You can keep up with the project here:



In Between Days...

Hey folks,

Sorry for another long blog silence -

Given the nature of film and TV production, I've perhaps been too quick in the past to share about all that I'm involved with - only for things to get cancelled / deals to fall apart before projects can get off the ground (which is a regular occurrence in this world!). So... I'm being a bit more cautious and keeping schtum for now about exactly what I'm doing but hope to be able to blog about my current work once it's all further along. 

But in the vaguest terms: I've had try outs for two BBC continuing dramas - one of which is still ongoing and one of which has led to a commission on the show. Things are yet to be signed but am due to start later in the autumn. I'm planning to blog about the process of going through a trial for TV once I'm done with them both.

I'm also developing a low budget feature film and a new TV series for a couple of producers - which is exciting. Both are long cherished ideas so it's fun to be able to run with them.

Anyway - just wanted to check in and say hi!


Friday, 22 February 2013

Cloud Atlas

So I'm heading to the cinema tonight to see a film that I wrote part of! Ok, so it's a small part but all the same am pretty stoked...

The big budget adaptation of Cloud Atlas is released in the UK today. Part of it was filmed in Scotland back in 2011 and the filmmakers put out a shout for local writers and directors to submit ideas for extra scenes they wanted to include in the movie. I came up with an idea for my pal Anita to make, which she pitched to the director Tom Tykwer (who made the film alongside The Wachowski's). He loved it and gave us a budget to go and shoot the 60 second scene. We had a hoot pulling it together and were stoked to learn it was accepted for the movie.

Here's a screen cap of our clip (top left corner).

And here's one of my name in the credits.

Was great to work on such a high profile production and to have a director like Tom run with our idea. Am so proud of the crew that helped us achieve the scene. I've yet to see the finished film so can't wait to see all our work on the big screen this evening!

(Thanks to Duncan Cowles for the screen caps)

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Bleated New Year post!

I started writing this blog post just before New Year but it got postponed by work, which given that it's a post about postponing posting due to work is somewhat apt. However I have an unofficial rule that it's still OK to wish people Happy New Year until the end of January so this still counts!

I've recently had a couple of people ask what I'd been up to lately. Eagle eyed viewers will notice this blog went a little quiet in 2012 (no posts at all!). Sorry about that - I had a very busy, and pretty tough year. 2012 was my first full year working in the TV industry and was a steep learning curve - one with some great highs and a few lows, as I learnt to navigate my way around a sector that no one can really train you for. I'm coming into 2013 with a lot of gained wisdom but also with a few bruises too.

Much of the year was spent building relationships with producers at broadcasters and independent productions companies - having meetings to pitch them ideas and see if there is anything they'd like to work with me on. Lots of hours spent on trains/planes to London but good fun and I met some fascinating people. There's been quite a bit of interest in a few of my ideas and so much of my time this year has been spent on turning them into pitch documents - I've written up seven of these in total that have been winging their way round old London town. Some have been passed on, some are still being considered and some others have been picked up and taken to the next stage...

The highlights of the year were that my thriller Maybury and my relationship drama The Youth Movement both went "into development". That's where a company works with you to shape the story in more detail in order to try and sell them to the different broadcasters. Both are still currently moving forward and I've had a great time working on them with some lovely people who really care about the story worlds.

Another highlight was writing a (very!) small part of a big budget movie. The adaptation of Cloud Atlas shot in Scotland last year and the filmmakers put out a shout for local writers and directors to provide additional material for them to cut into film. I wrote a small scene for them which my friend Anita directed at the end of 2011 but we didn't know until this summer if we'd made the cut or not - which we did! The film's already been out in the US but not been released over here yet so I've not seen it but am looking forward to catching my work, even briefly, in the cinema soon.

2012 also saw me start pitching for work on more existing shows - including a well known cop show and soap opera. Sadly I missed out on them to writers with more experience but it was good to be in the running and get on the radars of the people in charge. I was also in the running for a place on a REALLY EXCITING show that I would have loved to work on, only for the programme to get cancelled! Oh well! C'est la vie!

More recently I've been beginning to work in the world of continuing drama - I was long listed for the BBC's Writers Academy last year and as of January am currently writing a trial script for Holby City. After I complete that I'm doing trials on two soap operas which I'm looking forward to getting my teeth into. It's great to get an insight into how these productions run, they are big old machines but run by people that really care about them and who look after their writers.

So... that's me. Sorry for the radio silence - just had too much on to really stop and reflect. I shall endeavour to improve on my blogging average in 2013!

So with 2 hours and 14 mintes to spare... Happy New Year!

Friday, 30 December 2011

2011 - The Thick Of It

*Clicks send and breathes out *

It's been a while since I blogged. That's because I've been buuuuuusy - juggling writing duties with working a desk job as usual. So... what's been up? Well, the outline for my M.I. High episode was well received by the executive at the production company but required a couple of more drafts to iron out a few kinks and get my ideas to fit within the format of the show.

After that, I had a period of waiting while it was sent off to the BBC for their notes - during which I took my first proper week of holiday in over a year and the first break since finishing my MA. Needless to say I got ill. It always happens - I have a high exhaustion threshold but when I slow down all my deferred sicknesses hit at once. I'll spare you the details but it was grim - my poor wife had to listen to me hallucinate for two days, and two months on I'm only just getting back to strength. There's a lesson there about sustainable lifestyles and one I'd really like to put into practice but sadly can't see happening for a while...

Between drafts on the outline, my agent set me up some meetings with the development heads of some London TV companies. A big part of being a TV writer is meeting up with such folks - in the hope they will want to buy one of your ideas or offer you a slot on one of the shows they are currently making. I really enjoyed scooting about the city - adapting different ideas depending on the tastes of those I talked with. A couple of people wanted me to write up some pitches for them which is a good sign so I've been crafting those between M.I. High work - which has been great and hopefully might lead to some offers of work in the new year. I have another few days of meetings planned for early 2012 as well so it'll be all go on that front.

Anyway, once the BBC got back to me I was given the OK to move onto my Scene by Scene - a breakdown of my story that this is like a blue print for the script - laying out the content of the scenes you want to include and a brief description of what would happen in each. I'd never been asked to write one before and my brain kept wanting to rush ahead and write loads of dialogue and action but that's not the purpose of the exercise; a SxS is to show that you can bring the story in to time/budget and alert the producers to any of your ideas that are unpractical or too expensive - as well as any story problems that got missed at the outlining stage. I've just completed my scene by scene which will be sent on to the execs at Kudos and CBBC in early Jan when they are back in the office and, hopefully, I'll be able to begin the script later in the month.

So... having hit that milestone on the second last day of the year, tonight seemed like a good time to take stock of 2011. It's been a crazy year - tough but better than I could have hoped. This time last year I was still doing my screenwriting MA - dreaming of finishing well and preparing myself to make the most of being a finalist in the Red Planet Prize. I was ready to spend a couple of years trying to secure an agent and get my first script commissioned so to be where I am just now is hard to get my head around. I have a long way to go until I have anything like a "career" as a writer but am in a better place than I could have imagined twelve months ago

I want to be honest with you about how hard life has been living on next to no money doing and 60 hour weeks for the past four years in order to get here, but not for a second do I want to complain. Yes, my successes this year have been down to hard work and taking opportunities but also down to good people having invested in me and being willing to take a risk on a new guy and I'm very grateful to the staff at Screen Academy Scotland and Kudos/Red Planet for giving me such a great start in things. 2012 will be about completing my M.I. High script and trying to secure more commissions so I can begin to build a future out of this.

Some highlights of 2011...

* Red Planet mentoring sessions. Attending workshops with Tony Jordan and development meetings with the execs of both companies - nerve wracking but amazing.
* Writing two scripts I'm really proud of, The Bright Lights and The Youth Movement, on my MA which have opened some great doors for me.
* Meeting and signing with my brilliant agent - I feel very looked after.
* Being offered my first TV writing credit for M.I. High - a dream come true. Storylining the series with the writing team and working with a really supportive producer and script editor have exceeded my expectations . Best job ever.
* Developing my short Fairground with a great director and producer.
* Being asked to write a trial script for River City - sadly the dates didn't work out but I've been asked to approach them when I'm freer so am looking forward to that.
* Graduating from my screenwriting MA with distinction.
* Writing and producing a (very) short film that I might just have some news about in the new year.
* Great times with mentors, family, friends and work pals. Realising more and more what really matters in life is time with people you love.

Somethings that have been tough in 2011 / could go better in 2012

* Not seeing enough of family and friends.
* Unemployment in my family - things have been quite tough for us.
* Illness and exhaustion - a big hope for 2012 is being able to live at a better pace.
* Not spending enough time on other creative pursuits - need to write more songs and rock out with muso friends more!

Anyway - I should get off home. Have a wonderful New Year celebration and a great 2012!