Tag Archives: new writers

What Writers Can Learn from 4Screenwriting by Xandria Horton

One of the things that I love about Script Angel is its focus on opportunities for new writers, so the blog seemed an obvious place to summarise my recent experience as a Shadow Script Editor on Channel 4’s talent initiative 4Screenwriting – with some thoughts other writers can take from it.

4sw logoWhat is 4Screenwriting and why is it brilliant?

4Screenwriting is a broadcaster-affiliated talent scheme run by highly experienced script editor Philip Shelley, currently in its 4th year. For each year’s twelve selected writers, they are given six months to take an idea through two drafts of a commercial hour (46’) script, creating the first episode of a series or serial (ideally with Channel 4 in mind). The course also has a script editor training element; allowing shadow script editors a chance to develop their skills by working to industry-proven script editors.

The writers get a “sandbox” version of a script commission, with a small amount of funding, set deadlines and opportunities for notes from their script editor team at each stage – as close as you can get to a real script commission, without the production element.

Once the course is completed, writers can use their spec script as a calling card in the industry, creating a buzz with literary agents and production companies who are keen to be across talent coming through and hopefully resulting in meetings that further their careers. Success stories are numerous, most recently with alumni Anna Symon and Cat Jones, who have both gone on to write for primetime TV series.

So, with insights from me and my excellent fellow shadow script editors Carissa Hope Lynch, Harriet Davis and Joe Williams, I’ve pooled some tips writers can take from our 4Screenwriting experience:

Working with the professionals

The scheme introduces writers to the process of working with a script editor, which can be strange for writers used to working alone. It also introduces to writers the concept of the dreaded deadline!

What can you learn from this?: whilst you may have in place trusted feedback-givers, there’s really nothing like the impartial and constructive notes you will get from a good script editor or industry-proven consultant. In terms of meeting deadlines, it’s important that you make all and any writing deadlines you agree to. However, if something happens that is beyond your control, the best way to handle it is:

1/ to flag this as soon as possible to the appropriate person;

2/ tell them realistically what you can deliver and when; if one element is more urgent than the others, can you prioritise this and deliver within the original time frame?;

3/ agree a new deadline and move heaven and Earth to make it!

Network a.k.a. ‘it’s good to talk’

The scheme provides opportunities for writers to talk to others at similar points in their career, which can be greatly useful, both personally and professionally.

What can you learn from this?: Meet with your writer peers! Find or start a writer’s group on Meetup (they are all around the country) or attend events such as The London Screenwriter’s Festival or BAFTA Rocliffe and seek out friendly faces in the opportunities to mingle.

What’s in a TV idea?

Unsurprisingly, some ideas will only really reveal whether they will work in a series or serial format – if at all – after some exploration, so some writers had to use backup ideas or go back to the drawing board to find the right idea to progress to script stage.

What can you learn from this?: If you want to work in the industry, it’s essential you’re across British output; it’s as simple as that. Whilst it won’t ensure that every idea you come up with is a bona fide TV idea, you’ll get industry knowledge as to who is making what, and watching TV widely (UK, US, internationally) will develop your instincts on which stories intrinsically work in a TV format and which may be more suited to film or theatre. Even if it’s just the opening episode of every new series, it’s really useful to watch TV as broadly as you can.

Also, if you’re ever in a pitching situation (e.g. pitching to a producer for an episode commission on an existing series or pitching to a production company your own series ideas), however married you are to your favourite idea, it’s always useful to have a couple you’ve worked up a little as well in your back pocket, just in case you need them!

Writing to act breaks – a punctuation metaphor

For 4Screenwriting the brief was a script that would fit within a Channel 4 schedule, rather than a BBC full hour slot, so it was a new experience for many writers to write to ‘act breaks’.

What can you learn from this?: how this works this will vary depending on your story (and your broadcaster). However, we came up with a useful way of thinking about the shape of the story with act breaks:

If your story is a paragraph and each scene is a sentence, how you utilise punctuation is a great metaphor of writing to act breaks; ending those sentences before a break to ensure that the viewers’ interest is piqued. What’s the screenwriting equivalent of scene ending with a ‘?’, an ‘!’ or a ‘…’?

Many thanks again to the input from my fellow shadow script editors on this article; to the very brilliant and experienced script editor I worked to, Jamie Hewitt; to the three brilliant writers I was lucky to work with; and of course to Philip, for tirelessly working to make the course go as smoothly as it does each year. If you ever see him at a 4Screenwriting networking event, he won’t miss a moment to connect a writer to agents and production companies that might be useful to them. 4Screenwriting is a brilliant experience for writers and script editors coming through – long may it continue!



Breaking Into Hollywood (from the UK)

Lots of UK writers have been asking me recently about breaking into Hollywood so here’s my advice.

Pretty much the same advice applies whether you’re breaking into your home market or a foreign market and my top tip for both is DO YOUR HOMEWORK!   Just as I’d expect a writer applying to write on ‘Holby City’ or ‘Coronation Street’ to watch the show and know it well, so you have to know the market you’re trying to crack, whatever and wherever it is.

If you’re a UK writer wanting to write UK films you’d be researching UK film production companies, right? So, do the same thing for Los Angeles. Learn which production companies and studios make what films. If you’re into the UK market you’d get Broadcast and Moviescope.  For the US market there are loads of great magazines and websites to help you keep track of who’s making what – try Deadline Hollywood, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter.   There are also subscription sites like TrackingBTracking Board, DoneDealPro, ItsOnTheGrid and Screen International.

If you want L.A representation, find out who represents the Hollywood writers whose films you love. The websites that track film script sales always mention who represents the writer so you can build up a picture of the L.A literary agent scene pretty quickly.

Although you can certainly make approaches to Hollywood from the UK, in her ScriptChat Q&A, Los Angeles literary manager Jenny Frankfurt also recommends getting out to L.A and networking in person.  One great way to do this is through the Hollywood Field Trip.  It’s a bit pricey but the feedback from those writers that have been is that it was money incredibly well invested in their careers. Right now the guys have got 2 spots remaining on their October trip and are offering £200 off the price. Do get in touch with them if you’re interested.

If Hollywood is the market you want to write for then you should GO FOR IT – good luck and I’ll see you there!


Practise Makes Perfect

Watching the extraordinary achievements of the Olympic and Paralympic athletes this summer made me appreciate more than ever that if you want to be successful at something, you’ve got to knuckle down and practise.

For screenwriters of course that means practising your writing by simply writing – LOTS! But it also means studying your craft; analysing successful screenplays, reading books on screenwriting or attending seminars and talks by others who’ve analysed thousands of movies and screenplays. It means identifying areas of your craft that you’re not as strong on (story structure or character or dialogue) and finding techniques to help you get better at those elements.

But great writing alone rarely enables you to succeed and there are other aspects to being a successful writer that you’ll need to master. Perhaps you’re lousy at networking or pitching. If you hate pitching (and I know a LOT of writers who do) then practising is vital if you’re to get good at it – at the very least you want to be comfortable enough doing it that you don’t turn into a blubbering wreck when an Executive asks you about your new movie idea.  And who knows, you might discover you’ve got a real knack for it and find yourself desperate to go to a huge pitch festival and get on that stage to pitch with the best of them.

In an industry built so heavily on personal recommendation, networking is another aspect of the job that lots of writers dread. As with pitching, it requires practice so my advice is to get out there and get doing it!

The forthcoming London Screenwriters’ Festival is a great place to learn tips on your craft, practise your pitching and your networking.  I’ll be speaking there and, of course, networking too so come and say hello.  Don’t forget that if you use Discount Code ‘SCRIPTANGEL2012’ you can save £22 off the ticket price.  Let me know if you’re going and I hope to see you there.

Be honest with yourself, identify those areas that you’re really not so great at, and put the work in to get better at them. With hard graft in the right areas you’ve got a great chance of making it as a successful screenwriter.  Good luck!


Don’t Denigrate Mainstream Drama Writers – Peter Bowker

Here’s the brilliant, insipring speech that Peter Bowker gave to open this year’s BBC TV Writers’ Festival:

Before I begin, before we begin what I hope will be two days of discovery and support and inspiration, I want to name the elephant in the room. When I’m faced with a room full of hungry, ambitious writers who are starting to make an impact with their work I am reminded of a Frank Skinner gag. He said that he never liked presenting the ‘Best Newcomer Award’  because he hated the part of him that wanted them to be shit.

Now I have got that out of the way I think we can proceed in the spirit of false bonhomie and solidarity and that such gatherings demand …

First I would like to show some clips. (Clips shown as follows : Z Cars, Rising Damp, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads,  Brass, Coronation Street,  London’s Burning,  Minder,  Auf Weidersein Pet,  Soldier, Soldier and  Beiderbecke Affair.)

I chose those particular clips because I wanted to celebrate ambition in a strand of British drama I regard as every bit as significant and valuable as the social realist tradition that began with Cathy Come Home, continued through Boys From the Blackstuff, Hillsborough and Bloody Sunday, and thrives today in the work of Tony Marchant and Neil McKay to name but two.

I am not in any way denigrating this tradition, not least because Tony Marchant is involved in this very conference and he’s bigger and younger than me, although I have more hair.  In part, I am talking about ambition in mainstream drama in response to an article written by Mark Lawson last year in which he highlighted what he saw as wrong with British television drama. Amongst other things, was the fact that I had somehow strayed from the true path by attempting to write a medical series.

“It seems almost obligatory for UK drama series to involve either cops or docs: even Peter Bowker, one of our most original writers, has succumbed to the surgical-procedural with Monroe.”  Buried in this back handed complement was, I think, a common attitude: That writing genre or mainstream drama is automatically evidence of a lack of ambition.

So when Kate Rowland and Danny Brocklehurst tricked me into Chairing this event for the price of a pint of lager I decided it would be worth briefly bearing witness to the existence of genuine ambition in television works that form a parallel, maybe less celebrated tradition.

How brave, for instance, is the clip from Rising Damp. The conversation between Richard Beckinsdale and Don Warrington on Rigbsy’s couch about the fact that Richard Beckinsdale’s character has never had a black friend before and doesn’t have the language to express that to his black friend. A masterclass in how to use the unsayable in order to say everything. And it’s funny.

In the Likely Lads how poignant and real is Terry’s despairing line to Bob that if he goes down to London he might “catch the tail end” of the permissive society?  ‘Brass’ was deconstructing costume drama as far back as 1983. A masterful example of a drama that existed both as a comedic parody of the form and a compelling drama in its own right. Mad Men eat your heart out. You aren’t the first drama to have your cake and eat it.

These mainstream shows were dealing with race, class, social mobility, gender politics, family dynamic, and, in the case of Minder, deconstructing the values of the 1980s with an astonishingly forensic satire. In the case of Brass and the under-rated Lost in Austen, two comedy dramas take on the subject of storytelling itself.

Coronation Street, at its best, portrays the raw humour of family emotions with wit and dialogue that is on a par with Alan Ackybourn and Alan Bennett. Sally Wainwright’s Braithwaites dramatised the false hope of the lottery culture and Lucy Gannon’s Soldier, Soldier dealt with the politics of masculinity and class in a 9pm Monday night ITV show watched by millions.

I am making what may be considered grandiose claims for these dramas because I feel their popularity and humour has served to mask the ambition that sits at the heart of them. In fact, I would claim that Alan Plater and Jack Rosenthal are the two most influential television writers of the Golden generation that produced Alan Bleasdale, Troy Kennedy Martin and Dennis Potter.

I would argue that the latter three are such one-offs that although we have much to learn from them in terms of boldness, we have more to learn from Plater, Rosenthal and Clement and Le Frenais, about the template for returning series which, whatever anybody tells you, remains the absolute bedrock of television drama.

Alan Plater’s ‘Beiderbecke Affair’ was, on the surface, a gentle Sunday night caper serial about a man obsessed with the first great white jazz trumpet player, Bix Beiderbecke. But what Alan Plater managed to achieve over six hours on ITV in 1985 was a celebration of an alternative Britain. A Britain where teachers – one generation on from their working class forebears – struggled with good humour to educate working class children in a large Leeds comprehensive known as San Quentin High. Where the Police were befuddled by local allotment holders, where the Big Society was already at work, and it was called solidarity. Where the establishment was slyly undermined by those who knew that they were despised by Thatcherism. It is a masterpiece in its celebration of ordinary people who rebel in small ways against the dominant values of the age. A celebration of the drop outs and the non-achievers, and whisper it, public servants.

Nobody talks about these issues in Plater’s gentle, slow paced, funny, serial but it nevertheless skewered the values of the day just as effectively as Blackstuff’s Yosser Hughes. I would argue that it is actually more subversive in that nobody saw it coming. I am not saying that television wouldn’t be poorer without the anguished headbutt of Yosser Hughes or the open wounds of Dennis Potter’s Philip Marlowe but that there is a neglected mainstream tradition where the ambition is all the greater for being more subtly deployed.

All are a prime example of the kind of ambition I am choosing to celebrate here. The mainstream drama with a depth of feeling and a point of view.

Which brings me back to  Z Cars. The black and white clip at the beginning. Z Cars is everything that is most commonly criticised about television drama. It’s genre, it’s high volume, it’s cheaply made. It’s storylines and sets sometimes creak . And it’s a masterpiece. It shows what is possible.  I would argue therefore that not only does Z Cars remain the single most significant British television drama, but it demonstrates most eloquently that ambition is not to be confused with scale, or adventurous form, or plot or even setting. It demonstrates that ambition in television drama is fundamentally about character and characterisation.

That is how a drama becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Everything is secondary to character. It is as evident in Paul Abbot’s ‘Reckless’,  as it is in Toby Whithouse’s Being Human. It is as evident in Debbie Horsfield’s ‘Riff Raff Element’ as it is in Jack Thorne’s ‘This is England’.  It is as evident in Heidi Thomas’ ‘Call the Midwife’ as it is in Billy Ivory’s ‘Common as Muck’.

I think that drama has to be about something, and I think an audience can tell pretty quickly if it isn’t. I have seen enough prestigious shows that are about nothing at all, and episodes of Coronation Street that are about everything that is important in the world to know that ambition is not the preserve of the shows which receive the critical acclaim and the high budgets.

In short, the main ambition of any drama should be that it is about something and that it knows what it is about and that the characters should carry those ideas through their action and dialogue. A statement of the bleeding obvious but then I’m not being paid for this, so if you want genuine profundity I refer you to my DVD collection which can be bought on the way out.

Screenwriting Contests – Advice

I regularly update a round-up of screenwriting competitions and the very wise James Cary (aka SitcomGeek) added some cautionary advice.

He makes a really good point that the deadline of a writing competition can be both a blessing and a curse. While it might incentivize a new writer to finally finish the script that might otherwise languish incomplete for years, it is also in danger of encouraging them to send off a script before it is ready.  You only get one chance to impress so make it count. Make sure your script is REALLY ready.

My advice is to see writing competitions as just a part of your overall strategy to further your writing career. Some competitions may be better suited to you than others. Moviebytes have a great system of rating US competitions and while we don’t have anything quite like that in the UK, you can ask around (Twitter, Facebook, etc) and find out what experiences others have had who may have submitted to the competition in previous years.

The other great way to judge a competition is by its judges. This element, far more than any cash prize, is where the real value lies in submitting to some writing competitions.  You may be desperate to get your script into the hands of a particular executive at a particular production company or studio because you are sure your script is right up their street BUT they don’t take unsolicited submissions BUT said executive is on the judging panel of an open writing competition. If your script is good enough, it will end up being read by them and you’ve brought yourself to the attention of someone who might genuinely be able to progress your career.

As with every other element of breaking into screenwriting (approaching production companies, getting an agent) make sure you DO YOUR HOMEWORK! The rest is down to the brilliance of your writing and your determination.

I’ve written a script, what next? Part One – Theatre

That’s the question I’m most often asked by writers just starting out.  Here are my top tips:

1) Put it away.  Let it gather dust for a few weeks, then take it out, brush it off and get your red pen ready.  Do that several times until you can’t make it any better yourself (or you’re going barmy, whichever comes first).

2) Ask an expert.  Get the opinion of someone else, family and friends don’t count, unless they’re experienced writers, directors, producers or script editors.  If you don’t know anyone in the industry, then have a look online at some of the experienced industry professionals offering script feedback (Script Angel and others).  Don’t be lured in by the one with the jazziest website or the lowest rates, but do your homework.

Who will actually read your script, what’s their name?  Look them up on IMDB to check they’ve got the credits they claim to have. What length of report will you get for your money?  Some may claim to give you a 4 page report but what you actually get are a couple of pages of synopsis (you already know what’s in your script so that’s a waste of money) and only a page or so of useful feedback.  Beware of lazy ‘reader’ reports which are generic, littering their reports with phrases like ‘naturalistic dialogue’ (or lack of), characters needing better delineation.  That’s fine if it is followed by tangible examples of what you could do to change it.  You could ask to see a sample report from several and compare them.

Ideally your script editor should be keen to keep working with you, helping you to develop as a writer.  Drop them a line and ask for a chat to see if you actually get on with them. Most good editors are approachable and helpful and don’t hide behind anonymity.

3) Rewrite. The feedback should be constructive, giving you ideas on how to make your script better (not just telling you what doesn’t work) but it will also be critical and that’s hard to take.  Develop a thick skin, remember the criticism is of the work and not you.  Take heart from the fact that the very best writers at the very top of their game still get notes. Now take your precious script, and your feedback, and rewrite your script to the very best of your ability.

4) Get it out there.  Many people think that the next step is to get an agent – after all, you can’t get your work produced until you’ve got an agent can you? Well, actually, for most writers it’s the other way around. As you’ll see from Michelle Lipton’s Q&A with agents, most of them are interested in writers who are already getting their work out there, not writers who have just written one spec script.

So, you want to get it noticed, but how?  There are three main ways that spring to mind – theatre, screenwriting competitions and production companies accepting unsolicited scripts.  I’m going to concentrate in this blog on the first of those, theatre.

Most of the successful applicants for the BBC Writers’ Academy are already writing for theatre and radio, so ignore these media at your peril.  Writing for theatre is a fantastic way to develop as a writer, and there are many theatre production companies dedicated to putting on the work of new writers.  They get exciting new talent, you get your work professionally produced – it’s a win-win situation.

Here is a list of theatres and theatre production companies specialising in new writing.

Paines Plough, London

Bush Theatre, London

Hampstead Theatre, London

Royal Court Theatre, London

Theatre Royal Stratford East, London

Soho Theatre, London

Finborough Theatre, London

Theatre503, London

Zeitgeist Theatre, London*

Tamasha Theatre Company, London (specialising in new British Asian writing)*

Talawa Theatre Company, London (specialising in Black British writing)

Kali Theatre, London (specialising in new writing from South Asian women)

Out of Joint (touring theatre company for new writing)

Sphinx Theatre Company (touring new writing, specialising in strong roles for women)

Clean Break (new writing commissions on women whose lives have been affected by the criminal justice system)

New Venture Theatre, Brighton

The Nuffield Theatre, Southampton*

Warehouse Theatre, Croydon

Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch

Watford Palace Theatre

Bristol Old Vic

Show of Strength Theatre Company, Bristol

Barbican Theatre, Plymouth

Northcott Theatre, Exeter

New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa

Sherman Theatre, Cardiff (joining forces with Sgript Cymru to create a new organisation ‘Contemporary Theatre & New Writing Company)*

Everyman Theatre, Liverpool

Royal Exchange, Manchester

Rocket Theatre, Manchester

Contact Theatre, Manchester*

Northern Gap, Derbyshire

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme

Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Red Ladder Theatre Company, Leeds*

Theatre in the Mill, Bradford*

West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Hull Truck Theatre

Live Theatre, Newcastle*

Druid, Galway*

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

That’s just the ones I know of.  If you know of any others, please let me know via my Script Angel website and I’ll update this list.  Those marked with * have been added since the list was originally published on 30th July 2009.

In later posts I’ll look at screenwriting competitions, where to send your unsolicited script and how to get an agent.