And Another Opportunity for Screenwriters…

…but only if you are Scottish or live in Scotland, sorry!

Scotland: Write Here Write Now is looking for the opening 10-15 pages of a contemporary comedy drama or sitcom. Deadline is 26th March.


BBC Writersroom Roadshow – Dundee 2009

Can you get a hernia from coughing too much? I have come down with a stinking cold and my cough mixture is only offering temporary relief. It tastes foul, too. I wish I were a kid again and medicine tasted like banana milkshake or strawberry Ribena. I am constantly too hot or too cold and my veering body temperature seems to be completely independent of whether or not the central heating is on. As I walked shivering through the streets of Dundee yesterday to go to the BBC Writersroom Roadshow, I had no idea if the abundance of people in t-shirts was due to uncharacteristically warm weather or to the hardy nature of Dundonians.

The roadshow kicked off with George Aza-Selinger telling us a little bit about the Scotland Writes competition. After that, Paul Ashton ran through some advice on what the BBC Writersroom is looking for in the first ten pages of a script.

I’ve already blogged about the Scotland Writes launch event and the Edinburgh Screenwriters meeting where we heard more about the competition so there’s not a lot of new information to add to that. Regarding the synopsis, they are looking for “a two page summary, just to give you that chance to add in information at this stage that we don’t know yet from reading the first ten pages.” You don’t need an episode or character breakdown in your synopsis – “If you need to describe the characters outside the script then the script isn’t really working”. You do need to say what the story is about and why you are telling it – “People need to know the whole feel of the story rather than the details.” About the impending postal strikes: “We will blog about it on our website and let you know. You can always send us an e-mail if you want to know your script has arrived.”

Now for the BBC Writersroom Guide to the First Ten Pages:

  • Start the story on page one, grab the reader’s attention straight away. Don’t preface, set-up or introduce story or characters.
  • Format is incredibly important. Master the format and make it your own. Watch drama, see how the stories are structured. “Too many people try to subvert the format before they’ve mastered it.”
  • Direct the action and the story. Write what an actor can show. Don’t direct the camera.
  • Know your world and story, genre and tone. There should be a focused way in to your story, “don’t try to set up too many storylines at the beginning.”
  • “Character is the most important thing.” Characters have to be compelling on an emotional level. Avoid cliche, subvert stereotypes. “Come up with people you want to spend time with. You don’t have to like or admire them, you just have to want to see what they are going to do next.” Your characters have to make the reader sweat, cry, laugh and cringe. “We spend a lot of time reading scripts that are really well crafted, well turned, but it doesn’t make you feel anything.”
  • There are only a finite number of stories so you need to have a fresh, unique perspective.
  • Good dialogue expresses character.” Don’t write on the nose, use subtext.
  • “You need that desire to tell a story – that’s got to be there or you can’t do great writing.”
  • “We need a sense, when we get to the end of a script, that the ending is inevitable but not predictable.”
  • Be yourself. “We’re looking for writers; we’re looking for people.”

Further advice on creating your best possible first ten pages can be found on the BBC Writersroom Website.

Scotland Writes and BBC Television Drama

Last night I went to an Edinburgh Screenwriters meeting where the guest speaker was George Aza-Selinger, a  TV drama script editor at the BBC. He talked to us about Scotland Writes and about submitting material to the BBC.

The first point of contact for new writers is the BBC Writersroom. They will read the first ten pages of all scripts submitted to them. If you are submitting a script via a production company or an agent it can go through BBC e-commissioning.

There are two common mistakes that people make when sending scripts to the Writersroom: failure to get into the drama right from page 1 and sending a script that is not suitable for the BBC channels.

George Aza-Selinger says, “You really need to hook the audience from the top and then keep hooking them throughout.” If you don’t have your viewers gripped right from the beginning they will turn off the TV or change the channel.

He gave us a brief summary of the TV drama slots available across the four BBC channels. You can read about the requirements of each slot here. George Aza-Selinger told us that BBC3 “is really interesting, seen as a clean slate and being concentrated on at BBC Scotland” which made me think that it might be good to bear the drama content of BBC3 in mind when writing my script for Scotland Writes. He did warn us, however, “don’t write too self-consciously for the slots. Let the story tell itself. Think about the characters.” After you have got the story and characters down you can think about which slot your script is most suited for and do the rewriting with that in mind.

While the Writersroom is a great starting point for new writers, George Aza-Selinger pointed out that “it is really difficult to get your own original drama on BBC.” He suggested increasing your chances by writing for long-running drama series such as Doctors or River City first, or writing for radio. “There’s a lot more opportunity to come in at grassroots level in radio.” If writing for radio appeals, check out this excellent post from Michelle Lipton on the Radio 4 Commissioning Process.

Although the Scotland Writes initiative is funded by the BBC Writersroom, the guidelines for sending scripts into the Scotland Writes competition are more specific than the Writersroom guidelines. The writer must have been born or be living in Scotland. The script must be a 60 minute pilot episode for a series or serial and must reflect contemporary Scotland. George Aza-Selinger strongly advised basing the script in Scotland rather than having a Scottish character in another country. The Scotland Writes judges will be looking for “authenticity of voice.” They don’t want scripts where “the writer is trying too hard or the characters aren’t quite right or it is too much like something else on TV.” We were told not to worry about budget when writing our scripts. “If the script is strong enough it might be possible to raise the money for it. Or you could go back to the characters and find a way to rewrite keeping the good bits and losing the expense.”

To enter the Scotland Writes competition you need to send your pilot script and two page summary of the series, along with your application form, to the BBC by 2nd November 2009 .

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.

Scotland Writes

I moved back to Scotland in January after 3-and-a-bit years abroad. I never intended to stay here, I was just stopping by en route to London. Then I became aware of all the great opportunities for writers in Scotland and have been absolutely blown away. There was Screen Lab in February, Radio Lab is coming up, there is the Dundee Literary Festival this month and the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, both offering workshops for writers.  It’s just far too exciting here for me to be able to leave now.

The most recent event to come to my attention is the launch of Scotland Writes on Thursday 25th June in Edinburgh. It is a FREE event (but you have to book a place) giving screenwriters based in Scotland the opportunity to take part in a question and answer session with Kate Rowland, Creative Director of New Writing at the BBC, and to be inspired by a panel of film and television industry professionals.

If you are in or around Edinburgh next Thursday, it might be worth looking into. I’ve booked my place, so if you can’t make it, you can read my notes here afterwards.