Scotland Writes – Notes

I’m slightly on the edge because the cat has been pacing around the sofa all day and occasionally swiping his paw under it.  At first I thought he had lost one of his toys, but just as I was about to reach under the sofa to retrieve it for him it occurred to me that instead of a harmless plastic ball, I might find myself gripping a half chewed mouse. Bleugh!

I later discovered that there is nothing half-chewed under the sofa at all. Whatever is under there, it is most definitely alive. I heard scrabbling coming from behind the sofa and thought it was the cat going crazy again, until I went into the kitchen and saw him lolling on the kitchen floor. Uh oh.

So if this post stops abruptly, mid sentence, it is because a mouse – or something worse (remember, I haven’t caught a glimpse of this thing yet)- has leapt out from behind the sofa and I’ve had to run to lock myself in the bedroom.

Anyway, here is what you came for, information from the Scotland Writes launch:

BBC Scotland, in conjunction with BBC Writersroom, will be organising various screenwriting events over the coming year. These will include BBC Scotland Open Days (August 2009, February and May 2010), Writersroom Road Shows (September 2009 in Glasgow, Dundee and Inverness) and Writing Masterclasses (no dates as yet but planned classes are: Writing for Continuing Dramas, Writing for TV, Writing for Film,  Writing for Radio and TV and  Writing for Stage and Screen).

The Scotland Writes Competition, deadline 2nd November 2009, is for 60 minute pilot episodes by new writers which reflect contemporary Scotland. The first prize is £1500, there will be £500 for the runner up and up to 20 finalists will attend a one day workshop in writing for television.

There was a question and answer session with Kate Rowland, Annie Griffin, Ann McManus and Gregory Burke. This is the gist of it:

Q: What got you writing?

AG: Seeing Pina Bausch performing in London when I was 22 inspired me as an artist.

AM: My dad was an amateur poet. I responded to a Learn How to Write in 24 hours ad in the Guardian and learned about structure, creating a body of work…

GB: I was almost 30 and earning £20 a week as dishwasher in a hotel. My girlfriend threatened to leave me if I didn’t do something else.

Q: Can you talk us through the development of one idea?

AG: With The Book Group I wanted something I could write about without doing a lot of research. I had just moved to Glasgow and was thinking of starting a book group there to meet new people. Channel 4 hated the idea but that really wound me up. If someone says, “That’s not a good idea”, that makes you work twice as hard. I wrote an episode, which they didn’t like but they liked the series treatment as someone died from taking heroin in the 3rd episode. They commissioned the series.

Q: What are you looking for in a script from a new writer?

AM: Voice. Every character has to have a different voice. Bold characters.

GB: Comedy has got to be funny, the script has to establish the world quickly.  Truth. You have to believe what the writer is trying to say. You need to buy that the writer knows that world. Spot on dialogue, genuine voice.

AG: Different characters speaking differently. You need to be able to look at a line and say, “Ah, that’s a so-and-so line.” A big mistake that occurs in scripts is the the women are underwritten, even by women writers. You never see women working on screen, unless they are nurses. You never see them engaging with their environment or clashing with other people. You don’t need to write autobiographically, I would even encourage you not to. Do your research instead.

Q: What do we need on telly in Scotland?

AG: The thrust of Scotland Writes is to get writers to feed ideas into BBC drama and BBC comedy. People are so focused on feature films but there are more opportunities in TV.

AM: Put yourself in the shoes of the drama commissioner. Don’t expect that you have a right to be heard. These people sift through hundreds of scripts. Have an individual voice but be prepared to negotiate.

Q: What is the balance between long running drama series, short serials and one-off episodes on TV?

KR: The priority is long running series, across all networks.

AM: A three part series is a lot of work and it’s hard to get the audience coming back. With longer series at a fixed time you get an audience of 5 million coming back every week. That’s how you get money.

Q: How involved are you in a project after it’s written?

GB: With my first TV show I was interested to know how the process worked but I was just getting in the way on set. At that stage (with the shooting script) there is not much room for change.

KR: In the UK many writers are now producing their own work.

Q: Are you worried about successful Scottish writers being lured away to London or the States?

AM: I had to leave Scotland when High Road was axed. I went to Manchester to do Coronation Street and then to London.

GB: If you want to work on certain shows you do have to move but if you produce scripts that are very good and have e-mail access you can work anywhere, even the outer Hebrides.

AM: If you want to go to Canada or LA don’t ever think you can’t because you’re Scottish, because you can. Anything’s possible.

Q: What’s the role of the agent in your career?

GB: My agent advised me to stick to theatre until TV companies came to me to ask for something in my voice – and they did. The danger with starting in TV too soon is that you end up on the TV treadmill unable to get off and to write want you want again. I have now written a one-off TV drama that was my own creation, story and voice. That was the long game.

Q: What success have you had at finding new voices through the Writersroom?

KR: Mark Catley, lead writer on Casualty, and Mike Bartlett came through unsolicited scripts. If we didn’t have that success, we should be shut down.

Q: How do you consider the audience when writing a script?

AM: You have to write for yourself and what entertains you. There’s nothing worse than a lot of old people writing for young people. Sometimes there will be a bandwagon created by success; don’t jump on it. Write what you want, not for a particular demographic.

GB: Write for yourself. Write for the medium of television rather than for the audience.

Q: Are commissioners wary of new writers?

AM: BBC Scotland is very open. They desire new voices. They will read scripts and give feedback.

AG: Scotland Writes gives you direct access to commissioners through their competition. If you go through production companies they will want something similar to what has already been done before. The first thing you want is to get something on air.

KR: Television is competitive. It costs a lot of money. Commissioners want proof you can do it.

AM: Keep coming back and bug them.

KR: Yes. Bug them.

Speaking of bugs…no sign of the creature lurking behind the sofa yet, but there is a spider in the bathroom which has provided me with my dose of the heebie-jeebies for the day. I’m off to bed now before I encounter any more creatures with more than the standard two legs. That includes my cat, who has been locked out in the garden so that I don’t wake up tomorrow to find mouse intestines trailed across the living room carpet.

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7 thoughts on “Scotland Writes – Notes

  1. Brilliant!!
    Great stuff. Thanks for that Helen. I guess I need to get on with my hour-long pilot now (I’m choosing to read “reflects contemporary Scotland” in a very broad sense!).

  2. Yeah, I think you can portray contemporary Scotland in any way you like in your script, as long you make it believable for the audience. Like Gregory Burke was saying, the audience needs to buy that you know that world.

  3. Although I don’t aspire to write for Television, good interview. Thanks.

    I’m very concerned about what’s under your sofa. I think there’s a suspense story lurking there.

  4. Thanks Debs and Cathryn! Yes, I was writing as fast as I could but I still didn’t catch everything. Miss Read (link under blogs I follow) also posted her notes on the Scotland Writes event and she has a few points there that I didn’t manage to jot down.
    I’m also very concerned about the Thing under my sofa, especially now that it has gone silent. I’m going to have to start moving furniture to see if there is a rotting rodent carcass somewhere. Yuck!

  5. Pingback: Scotland Writes and BBC Television Drama « My Writing Life

  6. Pingback: BBC Writersroom Roadshow – Dundee 2009 « My Writing Life

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