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!


Saturday, 8 October 2011

Begin the Begin


It's been over a month since I last blogged and I've been on a big old learning curve working on my first TV commission. As the show won't be filmed, let alone screened, for a long time I can't give details about my episode but wanted to share some of the processes I'm going through and what I'm learning.

Work started last month when the production company got the team of writers down to London for a two day conference to work through the "big picture" for the new series. The programme has been on air for a while now but this year will see a load of new characters arriving and new stories kicking off. While a few tentative plans had already been made, a lot of information needed to be sorted out. Gathered were the writers, the producer, the script editor and the executives and together we worked out a lot of the over-arching details. It was great environment - everyone chipping in on where the show might go. While some didn't fly, it was encouraging to see a lot of my ideas taken into the mix and become part of the programme's DNA. At the end of our time we had a good sense of the way the show is going this year.

After the conference, we headed home to work on pitches for our individual episodes. We had a week to submit at least three 'story-of-the-week' ideas; single page rough outlines of adventures for our characters to face. I submitted seven (!) then met with the producer and script editor to discuss which one they wanted me to develop and was set to work turning that in to a full outline - of which I've now done five drafts in the last two weeks.

Writing the outline has been a good experience. I was encouraged in initial drafts to just explore the premise without worrying about practicalities of cast or budget. According to the producer my first version was "like a feature film" in scope (which is a note I seem to get a lot!) so I then focused on simplifying it and bringing it in to length. The next few versions were about me fitting the idea around the format of the show and the reality of the funds available - which I found challenging but totally worthwhile. Making so many changes in such a small space of time was pretty exhausting but also exhilarating; having to create and scrap and recreate large portions of the story every two days was a reminder of how creativity can work under pressure and how to be flexible with an idea while still retaining its essence.

My outline is now being sent to the executive producer at the production company for her notes. I'll then have a few days to make changes before it goes to the executive at the broadcaster. After that I'll hopefully start writing a scene by scene breakdown before moving on to scripting. There will be a few versions of this before my final draft which is due early next year.

Before all that starts though, I will be spending much of the next month writing a trail script for a soap opera which will be another big educational leap - getting my head out of kids TV land and into gritty inner city mode! Gonna be fun.

Friday, 2 September 2011

First Gig

The last few weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind - as if finishing my MA and working in Edinburgh's mental festival season wasn't enough, two other big things have happened. On August 16th I secured both an agent and my first TV script commission! I kept both things quiet for a bit as documents etc. needed signed but I also needed time to get my head around what had happened. They've (just about) sunk in now...

I've been asked to write an episode of the brilliant CBBC spy drama M.I. High! I was a fan of the show already so am delighted. I'm being represented by Lucy Fawcett at Sheil Land Associates. If you want to offer me a job she's your port of call ;)

Both occurrences are huge milestones for me on the road to making a living out of writing for TV - and things I've long dreamt of. I've always known I could write but to have someone employ me and someone working to secure me further gigs is a big boost. It's now up to me to put in the effort and make the most of these opportunities. I've in no way 'made it' - this is the start of a steep learning curve and a lot of hard (but fun!) grafting. A big thanks to everyone who's helped me get this far and wished me well.

A few folks have asked me how it all came about:

I got a call out of the blue. Unknown to me, my spec Starfall had been passed to M.I. High's producer. That script was a finalist in the 2010 Red Planet Prize which was co-run by Kudos (the indie who make M.I. High) and they were looking for new writers to join their team. While Starfall was aimed at older teens, the producer and script editor felt my style fitted with their plans. I had to send them two other examples of my work and then pop down to London for a chat before being offered the job. As a new writer without any broadcast credits I then had to have my appointment approved by the execs at Kudos and CBBC, so I had a tense few weeks waiting until it was all agreed on the 16th (which is my God-Daughter's birthday so the day was filled with much cuteness as well as excitement).

My agent came about through an introduction from a screenwriter friend. We emailed for a few months and got on well. She really enjoyed a number of scripts I'd sent her and we had a face to face meeting in June. As I was still undertaking my MA, she suggested waiting until I had completed my studies before she took me on as a client but offered to represent me straight away if any jobs opened up before then - which is what happened. Having got the news of M.I. High I got in touch and we firmed up our arrangement.

So here I am. I've had the first few meetings for M.I. High and begun work on that. I'll still have to juggle my writing with my day-job but I'm used to doing that so there shouldn't be a problem. It's easy to work long hours if you're enjoying yourself - which I absolutely am!

Saturday, 20 August 2011

After the End

... and breathe!

Yesterday saw me hand in my final assignment for my screenwriting MA. Two years of juggling study with a full time job are over - I'm pretty exhausted. I expected yesterday to come with a wave of elation but it didn't really hit home until about midnight - I made it! If I never write another essay in my life I'll shed no tears!

Tomorrow work starts on my next project but today is a day for taking stock. Sleep deprivation aside, the MA was a fantastic experience - a good mix of script writing assignments, academic theory and industry workshops. My writing has improved from doing the course but so has my stamina and ability to deliver multiple projects on time - which are vital skills for anyone wanting to be a screenwriter. My understanding of the film and TV industry has come on leaps and bounds and the course has given me the confidence to get myself out into the world and start trying to find work (there have been a few developments in this area but more about them in a future blog).

I've added my major project - which is the most significant component of the MA - to my CV page. It's called The Youth Movement and it' s a 2x75 minute TV drama - of which I wrote part one and did a treatment for part two. It is a dystopian thriller set in a future UK devastated by global warming. It's the most ambitious piece I've written so far, in length but also in scale and theme. It's a project I want to continue to develop and refine once I get feedback from my tutors but I am pleased with how it currently stands. I gave it my all and I think that shows.

August 2011 seemed a very long way off back in September '09 when I started out on the course. I've grown a lot since then and want to keep that up - learning and getting better as I begin to work out in the real world. Here goes...

Sunday, 31 July 2011

In Conversation

I've under two weeks until my final MA project is due. August 2011 seemed ridiculously far off when I started back in September 2009 but now its bearing down upon me. Time flies when you're having fun (and too busy to eat or sleep).

Work on it is going OK – I got my third draft done last week but still have to write up a treatment and do a polish on the script. It's been a tough old process and I don't think I could have worked any harder than I have – I've really given it my all. It's difficult when this close to something to be objective but I like it at least.

Something I've learnt from this process is the power of conversation in helping a writer work through their story. On this project I've really enjoyed chatting with friends and mentors about various drafts and working though their issues with the script. I've discovered I respond really well to conversations – that they instantly spark great solutions where I'd previously been stuck. Even in disagreeing with someones critique, new ideas seem to take shape easier for me than when I'm just sat at home on my own.

As part of these conversations I've been embracing the art of listening to suggestions. Good scripting is as much about editing and assembling ideas as it is about generating material. The funniest line in my new script was suggested by a friend. My ego doesn't like this fact but I'm OK with it – it was my choice to include it and the script is better as a result. Writing is about making creative choices and the more we have available to us the better.

Next week will see me have the final few conversations before my hand in – am looking forward to what ideas get thrown up which get this script to the stage when I can let it go (and get some rest!).

Thursday, 30 June 2011

The Calm Before the Storm

June has flown by - extra busyness at my day job and several script deadlines saw to that (also a very fun wedding and an AWESOME Bon Jovi gig - so it's not all been work!)

The first draft proper of my MA project was a few days slower in coming than I'd have liked - just the intricacies of writing a 2 part thriller tripping me up a bit. Still, it was good milestone to reach (when it came) and I now have a good basis to work from.

Since then I've been taking a slight pause - still working but at a slower pace; finishing a pitch for a new TV show (a real world pitch at that!) and working on a treatment for part #2 of my project - giving myself a pseudo-break to allow myself time to see this project with fresh eyes and gather feedback.

I have a couple of meetings this weekend where I'll get some reactions to draft one. From then on its a race to the finish line and my August 12th final hand in date. I'm back on schedule with the timeline I've set myself but these next six or so weeks will be hard - this project is more ambitious than anything I've attempted before; not just professionally but personally in terms of how much of myself I'm putting into the story. I'm proud not to have taken an easy option and chosen to do something that will push me but it means I'm going to be living this 24/7 for July and into August if I'm to get it done...

Which sounds bleak - but there is something massively cathartic about being so focused on getting an idea out of your head and into the world - especially an idea that is so close to your heart and which has been cooking inside you for 5 years. It might be a tough old slog but its joyous to be so close to finishing something you've lived with for so long.

Ask me if I still feel that way in a few weeks... *deep breath*... Here goes...

Monday, 30 May 2011

The Long and Winding Road...


Feels like I'm on a bit of a marathon stretch right now - what with finishing The Bright Lights and going straight into my final MA project. Add to that rewriting my short Fairground plus working on a couple of pitches for some TV companies and the amount of work between now and August 12th when I hand in my 90 minute script (+ the treatment for the next episode) is looks pretty daunting - so it helps to break things up into smaller goals.

Today I completed my initial pass at the new script - I'm not even calling it a first draft yet, there are too many bits I know need fixed for me to call it that. However, I was determined to get to this stage by the end of May and I've made it - which feels good. I now have a week to polish it up to proper 1st draft standard as I've promised my tutor a copy of it within the first week of June.

The journey from treatment to nearly-first-draft has been really interesting. My treatment had been well received and I think it makes for an exciting read. However 2 x 90 minutes is not a length I've written to before - all my previous work has been an hour or under - and so transposing the treatment into a script threw up some interesting problems. What worked in prose was wrongly paced in the screenplay and overly expositional - with condensed bursts of action and then long sections where nothing happened bar info dumping. I could see these problems emerging as I wrote but - frustrating as they were - I made myself plow on to get the whole thing down on paper before I got into tinkering with the specifics.

Now I'm at that stage, I've had a chance to see the project as a whole and I think I can see a way ahead - to a first draft anyway. After that my plan is to take a few weeks off this script to allow time to get some feedback and perspective while giving some attention to the other projects jostling for attention:

Fairground now has a director - the very talented Eva Riely who I'm delighted to be working with. Eva is on the European Engage and DigiCult schemes so its safe to safe she is going places. The film is being produced by the wonderful Lynsey Stewart and is taking shape nicely as we work to hone the project towards its shoot. It's great to be working with such good people and I'm so looking forward to seeing the film become a reality.

Also - I am due to submit a proposal for a new TV show to a couple of Indies. I pitched them an idea last month and they are keen to know more so I have to put together a document which sells the idea and briefly details the characters and the style of the programme. I've done these sorts of pitches for my writing MA but this is my first crack in the real world - I'm nervous but thankfully the development execs at both companies are good people and want to work with me to nail the format.

And after that - back to the MA project..! OK - so my 'break' is quite a busman's holiday but a change is as good as a rest. I always knew trying to break into being a screenwriter would be hard work and taking on an MA while working a full time day job doubly so - so I can't complain. Just got to keep my head down, create more bite sized goals and manage my workload. I promise come the end of the MA to take a proper weeks holiday!

ps - check out the Q&A I did this month with Cameo Curio for their 'Month of Marks' event - a really inspiring collection of reflections on creativity from folks around Edinburgh.

Monday, 25 April 2011

The Dust Settles and New Work Beckons...

The script was finished on time and submitted. There is always room to grow and improve but I'm happy with it and have had some good preliminary feedback from my tutor - just awaiting the proper marks now. The show is called The Bright Lights and is a half hour drama pilot about an underground music scene. I've started firing it off to producers and agents and will do so some more once I get a few clear days.

The last week also saw me submit my final academic essay for the MA, which was enjoyable but hard going. It's been a massive relief to reach the end of the taught part of the course. It's been a great experience but two years of working 6 day weeks by studying alongside a full time job has taken it's toll and it'll be nice to live at a better pace for a while.

The course isn't done yet - just the classes section. I now have just over 3 months to write my final project: episode one of a two part 90 minute TV story. I'll also have to write a treatment for episode two. I've got 70% of the story worked out but have a lot of work in front of me and need to get cracking. I don't want to get into the specifics of the plot just yet but it's a tale I'm looking forward to telling. My last two projects were very domestic in scope and this is a lot more high-concept so it'll make a nice change and give me a chance to show off my range.

Before that however, I've had some interest from a producer about another TV idea so am taking the next two weeks to do some development work on that. It's an notion that's been ticking away at the back of my head for a few years now and in starting to write stuff down I'm realising I know my story better than I thought - which is exciting.

So as we move from Spring towards the Summer I'm facing a solid block of just writing away on my own, sorting ideas out and getting scripts done - which feels like bliss. I'll still be working my day job full time but I won't have the pressure of uni hand-ins. Trying to break into screenwriting is hard work and you have to really love it in order to maintain the amount of energy and enthusiasm needed. It's tough going but there really isn't anything I'd rather be doing :)

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Re: Writing

Hey - sorry for the radio silence. Have had a crazy 7 weeks without much space to blog. Multiple script drafts, two development trips to London, a large essay and the possibility of redundancy from my day-job have kept me plenty busy!

Last time I wrote I was plowing through the first draft of my latest project - a half hour TV pilot being written as part of my screenwriting MA. Since then I've completed three full drafts. As predicted, the process has been one of constantly stripping things back and refocusing to bring the story in on length and in the best shape possible.

My initial 'vomit draft' (where I just bash things out without censoring myself) came in at 42 pages. A rough rule of thumb is that a correctly formatted screenplay should equal about one page per minute. Though the rule isn't air-tight, my script was well over and I needed to cut at least 10 pages - almost a quarter of the script - which was pretty daunting.

On completing a draft its hard to see beyond the elation of having finished something - so making any cuts or changes can seem like impossible demands. But after a few days working on other projects, I was able to come back to it with fresh eyes. With some distance it was obvious numerous sections were too long, overly complex or just not needed and I was able to cut 7 pages without losing anything essential, and in one case I substantially re-wrote a subplot that was initially dull into something much more satisfying.

This became my official first draft which I sent out to my fellow MA screenwriters and our tutor to get their feedback. Asking people to read your work, especially when it is in a raw state, and then to give you honest feedback is not easy but is something every writer needs to get used to. We get too close to our own 'babies' and unable to see where things don't make sense or could be clearer. Sometimes the bits we think are the most interesting are the dullest and vice versa. My group were great with me - very encouraging about what was working and offering lots of helpful suggestions to make it better.

I then had 9 days to complete my second draft based on their notes and my own reflections. I finished that yesterday and am currently really happy with it. I've got it to a healthy length (30.5 pages) and the whole thing has a lot more energy and drive - something that was missing from the last version.

I've now got a few days to wait to get some more feedback (during which time I need to read and make notes on my fellow writers' projects). Depending on how well my changes are received, I will then move on to a 'polish draft' - brushing up every stage direction, line and moment to make them the best they can be before my deadline on the 1st of April.

From pitch to final draft I will have had less than 3 months to complete this script but this is a realistic timescale - often TV drama requires even shorter turn-arounds so this has been good training and I've enjoyed it immensely.

I know a lot of people who never complete a project because they get frightened by it not being "perfect" straight away. I think what this process shows is the importance of drafting; accepting that earlier versions will be flawed but seeing them through in order to have a good starting point from which to build the next version, then the next, then the next until its a good as you can make it.

Anyway, I have four scripts to read so best get on!

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

First Draft Blues

I'm deep in the middle of scripting just now.

2010 was spent chasing opportunities, doing a lot of pitches / treatments and performing rewrites on pre-existing scripts but, apart from a few shorts, I haven't written a first draft of anything since late 2009 so it feels good (and a little scary) to be here again. After writing a good treatment through January I am now 2/3 of the way through a 30 minute drama script for my MA that I am hoping will be a good calling card to help me break into TV drama.

But first drafts are funny things; in order to get through them you have to accept that they will not match up to your expectations; that they'll be too 'on the nose', overly complicated, lacking in subtext or just plain dull. The refinement that makes a script good comes later - in honing your scrappy draft into something beautiful - but in order to do that you need to just bash out, an often very ugly, first go at things which you can rework and rework and rework until it sings (at least, that's how I do things - maybe you have a different way of working? If so would love to hear about it.)

Problem is that when I come to do a first draft I've usually just come off the back of a seventeenth draft of something else and my brain rebels at having to write bald functional dialogue and clunky scenes that move people about like chess pieces yet this stuff is essential in working out what the story is about and the best way to tell it. Treatments are great for sorting out the plot but, for me, the flow of the story only comes when these elements are tested out in an actual script. Once I get that stuff down I can see what to cut and then begin the fun of emphasising subtext and subtlety. As well as wanting to help other writers, I'm writing this blog as much to remind myself that after the tough slog of the first draft will come the creativity and fun of the second and third - where the script begins to fulfill the potential that made me want to write it in the first place.

I'm hoping to finish the first draft this week - it'll be about 10 pages too long and have too many characters and scenes but that's not the point - a version will exist from which I can make something good. After that I will have to park it for a few weeks to focus on the more academic aspects of my MA, after which I should be able to return to it with fresh eyes to discover that all this 'first draft angst' will have been worth it!

Monday, 3 January 2011

2010 in retrospect / 2011 anticipation

Like most creative folks who don't yet make their living from their art I can get very down on myself - constantly thinking 'I'm not working hard enough, must do more, must do more'. The end of one year and the start of another is a good time to take stock and look back over the achievements of the past while. Having had a chance to draw breath I realised I'd been a lot more productive in 2010 than I thought. In the last 12 months I have:

* Written a 20 minute short horror film.
* Written a 15 minute sitcom pilot (co-written with the brilliant Ross Howie).
* Done two redrafts of a 10 minute short film, which is due to be shot later this year.
* Developed and plotted a well received interactive project.
* Produced and edited a short film that will be doing the festival circuit in 2011 (covered by The Guardian).
* Written three redrafts of a 60 minute pilot (which was a runner up in the 2010 Red Planet Prize).
* Undertaken two weeks of work experience with the TV drama department of BBC Scotland.
* Developed 5 radio drama ideas for the BBC.
* Developed another 5 radio drama ideas for the BBC (!)
* Worked up two synopsis of a 45 minute play for a radio Producer.
* Written 3 comedy sketches for a competition.
* Plotted my 90 minute final project for my screenwriting MA.
* Written a 10 minute screen adaptation of a short story by Ian Rankin (for

All of this while working a full time job, volunteering at a community project and undertaking an MA (with all the academic essays and hand-ins that incurs) - phew!

If I've learnt anything from all this taking stock it's a) I should go easier on myself and b) I'm doing as much as I possibly can to move my writing from being something I do in my spare time to being my career. I want to keep up this workload in 2011, while at the same time making sure I don't burn out - I want to be in this for the long haul.

At this point 2011 has some really exciting things in it:

* Mentoring sessions with Red Planet and Kudos.
* Writing a 30 minute drama as part of my MA.
* Writing a 90 minute drama as part of my MA.
* Lots of essays and networking.

Those things alone will see me busy until August but I am hoping to find space to keep knocking on the doors of the radio drama world and begin to look at finding an agent. 2010 has been a year of moving closer to the goal of becoming a working writer, I'm hoping 2011 sees that plan becoming ever more concrete.

Best get on with it! Back to the writing...