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!

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