Wednesday, 29 April 2009

The Continuing Drama

As the world and her husband will already know - the BBC Writers' Academy 2009 is open for submissions. It's a great opportunity, and the eight places per year are hotly contested; but, it's only open to those who have previously been paid for their work (full details of entry requirements, as well as much other useful info, is available via the BBC Writers' Room blog).

The way it works as I understand it (and these things could well be liable to change, so don't take my word for it) is thus: to enter, one needs to provide evidence of a professional commission, a sample screenplay as an example of one's work, and a completed application form (which includes a few '500 words or less questions' to answer just like any other big corporation's application forms). A long-list of applicants is invited to a second round of workshop-style interviews, then a shortlist is invited back for a more traditional interview, before the final eight are chosen.

No one outside the Academy knows quite which criteria are used to judge. No doubt it's important to perform well on an application form and in an interview. But, like any other big corporation's application process, there may well be people more 'in the frame' than others because of their progress in writing (for any medium) to date. All those submissions have got to be set against one's track record. So: 'write well and get noticed' would seem to be the best advice. Which is useful, as it's the same advice required to get any other screenwriting gig, not just the Academy.

I've been doing my best to write well and get noticed, as ever, but I'm not exactly holding my breath this year. My work is good enough, but I don't feel I've proved myself sufficiently in 'der industry' yet. Having got peer feedback on my TV drama pilot script 'Life Support' recently, I'm now reworking it for possible use as a sample script for the Academy. But I'm still undecided about whether to enter or not, even now with the deadline fast approaching (May 5th is the final date for submissions).

I'm lucky/unlucky enough to have a day job that pays well; all things being okay, there will be a new member of the Perry family arriving just before the Academy starts in September; and, there's a worldwide recession. It may not be the best time to be taking up a trainee position which then leads to work by commission (and that's what it is: a job, a fantastic job, but a job nonetheless and it should be considered as such). Yes, I am suffering the usual permie person's anxiety/wish fulfillment fantasy about going freelance. I probably wouldn't get it, but I don't want to get it and then have to turn it down.

Now, most people are probably wondering why I'm worrying about this stuff now. And they are probably thinking 'Nothing ventured...' and 'It doesn't cost anything to enter'. But this is not true, alas. It costs you time. To be prepared for the Academy, a person needs to be watching all those shows. Now, that's 375 minutes per week as as starter, and it's not passive viewing, it's study: working out the format, the structure, the character arcs, what's happening, what's not happening, and why. Getting hold of scripts and series bibles would also be useful, if you can.

On top of that, there's anything else you might be wanting to watch on TV that helps put the Continuing Drama shows into context (it's probably good to have a wide and current experience of other BBC drama productions, and continuing dramas on other channels minimum). Then, there's reading the trades to keep up with industry goings-on, and doing your own writing to hone your talents and get towards that magic 10,000 hours. Then there's the day job, if you have one, and the family commitments you might have. And – you know – eating and sleep, and all those other things that fill up the day. It is a killing schedule. I know – I've done it twice now in 2007 and 2008, and neither time did I feel I'd done it justice.

So, it's not exactly free to enter. But all that research will undoubtedly make you a better writer, so it's never wasted. But maybe there are better ways to use this knowledge, rather than going for the Academy. The training is of a very high standard, and you're paid to do it. But there are many other routes that other people have taken to get their work on TV. Of course, they're still open to you if you apply and don't get in. And there's no guarantee the academy will run indefinitely. This could be the last one, for all I know. As you can tell, I've gone back and forth about this one. I remain undecided for now.

For different takes on this subject, check out some of the screenwriters on my blog roll, who have gone through the selection process to different stages, and have written about it: Paul Campbell, Danny Stack, Michelle Lipton, Piers Beckley to name but four.

And - good luck!

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

The Eighty:Twenty Rule

I was reminded of this rule when talking down the pub with some writers the other day, and I thought it would make a nice blog post. It's popular in many disciplines; I first heard it at the day job, but it is just as applicable to screenwriting. It is this: in any endeavour - if we assume that infinite time or infinite resources are not at your disposal - 20 percent of the stuff you want to do will never get done. Simple as that.

That 20 percent might not be possible at all, or it will be prohibitively difficult, or too costly in either time or cash to achieve; or, most likely, it might become clear as you proceed that it was never worth doing in the first place. Wisdom is the ability to identify which 20 it is before you start, and then deliver the remaining 80 without getting distracted by what might have been.

I have not yet achieved wisdom, obviously, but I keep trying. I'd never thought about the rule with regard to writing, but then I read Andrew Harrison's interview with publicist Mark Borkowski in this month's issue of Word magazine, and Mark expressed the rule in a slightly different way. (He also sets the cleaving point at 75:25, so I'm obviously more optimistic than him; but, he is in publicity...)

If I might have a little fair use quotation for truth, Mark says this: “You can never make a hundred percent of people interested in an idea. The most you can aim for is 75 per cent, and you have to keep telling your client not to bother about that other 25 per cent, because actually they don't matter. Just don't let anyone leak from the 75 into the 25. But your client will always start obsessing about the 25 per cent. Hubris takes over. 'We have to have them!' You waste your energy on people who will never love you. Not unlike life in general."

This really struck a chord with me when I read it, as I'm currently in the process of getting script notes back on a project. Whenever I do this, as I often do, I hold in my mind the 20% of people out there will never like my script, no matter how much I change it to try to please them. Obviously, if this is a commissioned piece of work and the producer is in the 20% then you've got problems; you're both making a different film. This has happened to me, and it ain't pretty.

With spec work that you're getting peer reviewed during development, you don't really know what unconscious prejudices a particular reader is going to have. So, the wisdom is the ability to identify if they're 80 or 20 based on their notes, right? Nah. I don't believe it can be done. No one's that wise. And the possibility for self delusion ('they just don't get it!') is always a risk. Maybe you could tell if you can see the whites of their eyes, but sometimes not even then. Half the time they don't even know that they will never like your script, so you're going to have trouble telling.

So, what's the solution? First, make the script as good as you can make it for yourself. There's nothing worse than getting notes, negative or positive, on a script you're realised - between sending it out and getting the feedback - that you don't even like. Don't be in your own 20 percent.

After that, get as many and as broad a range of sets of feedback as possible and cross-reference them. This means you can see the trends forming and work out where the 80:20 line is falling. For this reason, I would avoid having only other screenwriters appraise your work - a trap I've fallen into often. Every screenwriter has their own voice, and we prefer it! So, any script not written by us is automatically going to be at a disadvantage. Okay, I'm being a bit flippant here, and anyone - myself included - that has to give script notes will try their hardest to be objective and not try to rewrite your script in their own image. But writers like to write, so they may end up appraising a script that isn't what you want to make, but... something different.

Professional script readers should have more detachment, but they cost money and so must be used sparingly (unless you're rich, and if you're a screenwriter there's a lot less than 20 percent chance of that). Beyond that, it would be useful to find a genuine punter for the type of work you're writing. This is tricky unless you're going to drag someone off the street; friends and family can often pull punches so as not to offend. Luckily, I have friends and family not frightened of offending me, so I have a few trusted readers outside of the screenwriting world and all its arcane ways.

But most of all, your rewrites will take lots of work to get to the best possible script. And that's another version of the 80:20 rule: 20% percent of the work will take 80% of the effort. I think this one applies to screenwriting too. First drafts - getting 120 pages of white and black down that makes some sort of sense - they're the 20; the 80 is all that wonderful rewriting after that. And on that note, I better get back to working on my screenplay. Ta ta.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Happy Easter!

If I get a moment, I'll post again before Tuesday, and I'll be tweeting occasionally too. But if I don't see you before then, have a good Good Friday, and best wishes for the rest of the Bank Holiday weekend from Perry Towers.

To the freelancers: try and have a little time off, even if it's only a few minutes. To the permies and day jobbers: I hope you can find some spare time to get a bit of writing done on any of your days off, but don't beat yourselves up if you can't because of family, kids, eggs or films on TV. You'll still reach the magic 10,000 hours, I know it.