Tag Archives: screenwriting career

Screenwriter Interview – Daisy Coulam

Daisy Coulam is a British screenwriter who has written for ‘EastEnders’ and ‘Casualty’ (BBC) and last year wrote the new hit ITV show ‘Grantchester’. Here she shares with Script Angel’s Hayley McKenzie her screenwriting journey.

Hayley: Huge congratulations on the success of your drama Grantchester (ITV) which has been recommissioned for a second series. Can you tell me a bit about the project and its journey from idea to production?

daisy coulam - screenwriter interviewDaisy: Thank you! Diederick Santer and Dom Treadwell-Collins who were working at Lovely Day approached me with the book. I knew Diederick from EastEnders days and he thought I’d like the sad gentleness of James Runcie’s writing and characters. He was totally right. I read the book in 2 hours on a train journey and fell in love with Sidney, Geordie, Amanda, Leonard, Mrs M and Dickens.

We expanded a couple of ideas in the book to make serial strands – like Sidney’s wartime past and his love triangle with Amanda and Hildegard. But basically the blue print of the series was all there in the novel.

It took 2 years from acquiring the book to getting the commission. I was on honeymoon when I heard that we’d got the green light. My husband and I celebrated with beers in the middle of the Costa Rican rainforest which was pretty surreal…

HM: Have you always written stories? When did you realise that you wanted to be a screenwriter and that it could be a career?

DC: I used to write stories when I was little – they were always pretty ropey and I never finished a single one of them. I was a procrastinator even then… I’ve always loved films and TV and reading though so maybe that set me in good stead.

I never considered writing as a career until I became a script editor in my twenties. I loved working with writers and it seemed such an appealing way of life. Being freelance, having control over your own working day etc.

I applied for the BBC Writers Academy using a script I’d re-written at The Bill (ITV). I never considered that I’d get on the course – there was so much competition and I didn’t feel like a ‘real writer’ – but when I did, it was like everything clicked into place.

HM: What was the first script you finished and what made you write it?

DC: I have a confession to make – I’ve never written my own spec script. The first script I wrote properly was my EastEnders commission via the Writers Academy. What made me write it? Fear of being sacked! To be honest, that fuels every script I ever write – I’m not sure the anxiety of being hoisted off a project ever goes away.

HM: How did you get people in the industry to notice your writing?

DC: I worked my way up from the inside – first as a runner then a script editor and storyliner. There are a multitude of ways in to writing but this route worked for me. You learn so much working on a production and you meet a lot of lovely people (people like you Hayley!). These people then go on to work on other shows and before you know it, you’ve got yourself a network. Without having to do one of those scary networking events where you get nervously drunk and can’t remember what you’ve said.

I was lucky. I had friends who trusted that, even when my first drafts were dodgy, it would all work out. I think writers need that space to make mistakes. Because – let’s face it – no one writes a perfect first draft.

If you do, I salute you – you’re my hero!

HM: How did you get an agent?

DC: My way of getting an agent was a little topsy-turvy. I didn’t find one until I’d finished the  BBC Writers Academy. Bianca Lawson who worked at Casualty at the time put me in touch with Hugo Young at Independent. He’s a dude and has been my agent ever since.

My advice about agents would be – don’t worry about it too much at first. I know that’s easy to say but there seems to be this horrible Catch 22 – you can’t get a job without an agent – you can’t get an agent without a professional piece of work.

Try and be relaxed about it – focus on writing something you’re proud of. The agent will follow…

HM: Emerging writers often feel that if they could just get their first screenwriting credit then the work will start flooding in and they’ll be able to sit back and pick the opportunities. Is it really like that?

DC: Yes and no. There’s no doubt about it, once you get a credit on IMDB  people sit up and take notice.

But that’s not to say you can take your foot off the pedal. ‘You’re only as good as your last script’ is horribly accurate. In my experience, you have to keep proving yourself script after script.

There will be bumps along the road – I’ve been sacked – most writers I know have at some point. It’s an ego-bruising experience. But you have to learn from it, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back to work.

On a positive note, you inevitably improve as you write more. My latest scripts are miles better than my first ones. And you get tougher – the knocks hurt but not quite so much.

HM: How many projects are you actively working on at any one time?

grantchester - daisy coulam - screenwriter interviewDC: I must admit, I struggle with this. At the moment, I’m working on Grantchester Series 2. But I have three other projects on the go which have had to take a back seat for the moment. In my experience there’s a very fine line – take on too much and you burn out, take on too little and there’s a risk that in a year’s time, you’ll still have nothing off the ground.

I think you just have to work on instinct. If you’re weeping at your laptop at 10 at night whilst consuming a family pack of Jelly Babies, then you’ve probably got too much on your plate…

Learning to say no is bloody hard. But it’s absolutely necessary.

HM: Are you focused on television drama or writing for other platforms, like feature films?

DC: There’s so much going on in Television at the moment – and so many wonderful shows being produced – that I’m very happy where I am. I’d love to write a film one day but the right idea hasn’t shown itself to me yet. I’m ever hopeful that it’ll pop into my head one day fully formed…

Do you always have to write a spec script to pitch a project to a producer or are you pitching with a two-line idea or a treatment?

DC: If you can boil your idea down to two lines, then I think you’re onto a winner. If you’re itching to write the script, that’s fine. But be aware that people in those (generally terrifying!) meetings want you to be able to sell your idea succinctly.

HM: What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to someone starting out?

DC: Don’t be discouraged. You will experience knockbacks and rejections. This doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. Keep the faith – you are great!

Conversely, have the humility to realise that you’re not ALWAYS great. If someone gives you notes on a script, listen to what they say. If the notes make you angry, it’s probably because deep down you know they’re right. Or it could be that they’re wrong and haven’t read your script properly. But mostly it’s the former. Damn them…

I’ve found that sometimes it takes just one person to believe in you before everyone else follows suit. If you can find that one person – be that a producer or script editor – stay in contact with them. Not in a stalkery way. But if you have a genuine connection with someone, you never know where they’ll end up and where that will lead you.

Hayley: Thanks Daisy!

Daisy: No worries!

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New Year Writing Resolutions

The world doesn’t owe you a screenwriting career. Harsh, but true. So, like everyone before you, you’re going to have to go out there and make it for yourself. And you can. Here are my top tips for new year writing resolutions to help you on your way.

Surround yourself with your biggest cheerleaders. Dementors are great in Harry Potter but not in your life. Avoid people who don’t believe in your dreams and instead spend time with people who do.

Find support groups online and in real life. Join a local Writers Group like Stratford-upon-Avon Screenwriters or Them There Northerners. Facebook and LinkedIn have numerous screenwriting communities and on Twitter search and use #scriptchat #screenwriting #amwriting to find other people talking about writing and screenwriting.

Make time for your writing every day. I know it’s tough with so many demands on our time, but you’ve got to put the hours in. And don’t kid yourself that you need a big expanse of writing time; if you wait for that to materialise you’ll be waiting forever! Carve out small chunks of time in your normal day, whether it’s your lunch-break, in the evening or early morning, even if it’s only for half an hour. But make it part of your daily routine.

Study the craft. Whether you take classes or self-study, there is a way to develop your screenwriting skills that suits you. There are numerous M.A Screenwriting courses; Creative Skillset list their accredited courses and any internet search will throw up hundreds more. There are short courses to suit everyone, anything from several months to one-day. If you don’t want spend money on a course, you can learn a huge amount simply by watching films and tv and reading their scripts. But don’t just be a passive consumer, be an analyst; break it down, work out how the writer has crafted their characters and story structure to manipulate you emotionally. Whether you’re watching comedy or horror, thriller or drama, the job of the writer is to make the audience feel (and hopefully to think as well), so how did the script make you scared, amused, excited, frightened?

Develop your screenwriting skills. The old adage ‘writing is rewriting’ really is true. So to make sure your rewriting is improving the script and you’re not just going round in circles, find people whose feedback you trust. That might be through peer review or via a paid-for script feedback like those on offer at Script Angel. If you go for peer review, make sure the person giving you feedback is at least as good a screenwriter as you, and preferably much better! If you opt for a script consultant, make sure they’ve got industry experience reading for well respected production companies and contests or have script edited professionally. Good feedback should offer practical solutions to the problems and weaknesses it identifies and should resonate with you as the right direction in which to take your project. Great feedback will inspire you to write the next draft.

Get your writing out there. No-one will know about your great script unless you make it visible to them, so do whatever you can to get your script as widely read as possible. Research the best screenwriting contests and target those offering what you most need, be that cash prizes or getting finalists’ scripts read by producers. The industry is looking for new writing talent and they’re looking to agents and the well respected contests as their filters. Target producers making the kind of films that your screenplay could become. I know the vast majority of production companies won’t take unsolicited material, but there are a handful that do and if they don’t, then get your script solicited by querying them. Don’t be a stalker but do be smart and tenacious in making yourself and your script visible to the industry.

Be true to yourself. Yes you should understand the market, but honestly, there’s an audience for just about every kind of film and therefore a place for every kind of screenplay. Of course there are more opportunities in some genres than in others but you don’t need to write a low-budget gangster thriller just because lots of them get made if that isn’t your cup of tea. Don’t write what you think others want to read. Write for yourself. Every successful screenwriter I’ve worked with has caught the attention of the industry with the script they were most passionate about. It might not be the thing that actually gets made but if it’s utterly compelling it will get you noticed.

Don’t give up. Anything is possible and as Lucy Hay wrote recently, ‘why not me?’. Someone is going to be the next big screenwriting talent to make a splash, so why shouldn’t it be you? The professional screenwriters I’ve worked with and interviewed for the Script Angel blog (Chris Lunt, Tripper Clancy, Robin Mukherjee, Jamie Crichton) all wrote on spec for years before their dreams of a screenwriting career became a reality. They didn’t give up, and neither should you.

Script Angel in the City of Angels

Last weekend was the Screenwriters World Conference in L.A. It was a great opportunity for me and the 100s of writers attending to hear directly from the screenwriters, managers, agents and producers working in Hollywood today.

screenwriters world conference pic

There were many fabulous sessions on the craft of screenwriting; writing the spec, writing for tv, writing the micro-budget film, writing web series, writing subtext, writing the emotional core, writing compelling characters, writing horror. Whatever your screenwriting interest, there was someone with experience in that specialism there to help you get to grips with it.

What struck me was that not just the delegates but the speakers too were incredibly well-read on the craft of screenwriting. There was a strong sense that becoming a great screenwriter is about learning your craft. Most of the people I met, whether aspiring delegates or experienced speakers, have read a huge number books on screenwriting and continue to want to study the craft in order to become more skilled at it. It was not so much being a slave to a set of screenwriting rules but rather having as many tools in your arsenal as possible to help you tell the story you want to tell. I might have read 20+ screenwriting books and been a professional script editor for over ten years but I certainly came away with a big new list of screenwriting must-reads. TOP TIP: Learn your craft by reading screenwriting books, watching films/tv and reading scripts.

As well as honing their craft the delegates also had the chance to hear how to develop their screenwriting career. Certainly, the question that I get asked the most is; how do I get my writing noticed?  I know from experience the frustration that new writers feel on trying to ‘break in’ to an industry that looks like a closed shop. Of course it’s not, and new writers are getting noticed, getting repped, getting meetings and getting gigs all the time.  For me, the sessions on establishing a screenwriting career were of particular interest so that I can better help my writing clients to develop their screenwriting career in UK and the US in both film and television. TOP TIP: Learn who’s who by reading the trades.

My writing clients have had great success and got representation following wins or finalist placings in the prestigious screenwriting contests like the Nicholl Fellowship, but I was keen to hear whether the big managers and agents really take notice of contests. I made sure to attend the session on Getting An Agent with Jake Wagner of Benderspink, Josh Dove of Haven Entertainment, Zac Frognowski of Grandview and moderated by Script Mag Editor Jeanne Bowerman. Since none of these guys take unsolicited approaches, how do they find new writing talent? The answer was recommendations from colleagues, contest placings and other filter platforms like The Black List. TOP TIP: Learn who is getting deals for their writers by reading the trades.

Of course not all screenwriting contests are equal but they definitely see the most prestigious contests as a kind of vetting process. Jake makes sure he and his team take a look at all the finalists of contests like Script Pipeline. In addition, the Nicholls circulate the loglines and contact details of their quarter-finalists to the industry so if you do well in the big screenwriting contests your work is getting seen by people you couldn’t otherwise get access to. TOP TIP: Research the contests that give their finalists great exposure.

Many producers, agents and managers also attend pitching sessions like the one held at SWC, as well as at other prestigious events like Story Expo, The Great American Pitchfest, and the London Screenwriters’ Festival. Pitching at events like these can get you read-requests and, if they like what they read, that all-important general meeting and the start of a working relationship. TOP TIP: Attend pitching events to start meeting and building relationships with managers, agents and producers.

The big take-away for me was that yes, it’s tough but it is also possible to make it. If you hone your craft, write killer material and develop a strategy for your career then becoming a professional screenwriter is within your reach.

Investing In Your Screenwriting Career

We’ve all heard that it takes 10,000 of practice to become a virtuoso piano player or tennis champ. While the hours might be debatable there is little doubt about the principle behind it; to get better at something you have to actually do it, a LOT! Are you really investing enough of your time in your screenwriting to make the progress you want?

notepad and paperHere are some of the best ways to invest in yourself as a screenwriter:

1) Join A Writing Group (locally or online)

Pros: It’s probably free, you can use it to make commitments about how much writing you’ll do in between get-togethers and get your group to hold you to it, great for peer review of each other’s scripts.

Cons: You might be in a group of writers with less experience than you so might feel you’re not learning very much.

Tips: Be open to meeting new people.

2) Take A Class or Course

Pros: You can find courses running a few weekends or a year or more, it encourages you to make a time and financial commitment so you’re more likely to put the work in, good courses set homework which further encourages you to get the writing done.

Cons: Although many courses offer some feedback on what you’ve written, the time pressures on course leaders means the feedback can be very limited, teaching can be a bit generalised.

Tips: Figure out what you want to get out of the course and then find one that best suits your needs.

3) Go On A Writing Retreat

Pros: It forces you to invest a chunk of uninterrupted time you might struggle to achieve any other way, being in a different environment encourages new ways of thinking so you don’t keep repeating thought patterns, improving your chances of producing something new and different, chance to meet other writers.

Cons: It is essentially a holiday so it’s a relatively pricey way of getting quite a short chunk of writing time.

Tips: Decide what’s most important to you (location, retreat leader, feedback opportunities) and then research what’s out there.

4) Attend A Screenwriting ConferenceLondon Screenwriters’ Festival, Screenwriters World Conference (L.A or New York), Great American Pitch Fest

Pros: Most have great pitching opportunities, committing to it gives you a deadline to polish work you can pitch there, intensive, immersive, chance to meet lots of other writers and hear from industry experts.

Cons: Might feel a bit pricey for a few days, though LSF has a payment plan to spread the cost.

Tips: Commit early then plan a schedule to get work ready, building in time to get feedback on your scripts / pitches and rewrite accordingly before you go.

5) Get Professional Feedback On Your Script

Pros: Notes should inspire a constructive rewrite, screenwriting advice is tailored to you and your writing strengths and weaknesses.

Cons: Can be pricey and quality of feedback ranges enormously.

Tips: Get recommendations from fellow writers and check out the credentials of those offering feedback.

6) Find A Mentor / Coach

Pros: A good mentor will give you personalised script feedback on a portfolio of work, set goals and deadlines with you, offer support and advice, they are interested in helping you develop as a screenwriter.

Cons: Pricey, you need to put the writing in to make it worth your time and money.

Tips: Make sure you give yourself enough time every week to do the writing so your mentor regularly has work to respond to.