Monthly Archives: November 2015

Thanks but no thanks: how writers deal with rejection (June 2015)

It was 10.30am and Dave had been typing the number seven into Excel for the past three hours. He was wondering if his fingers or the keyboard would be the first to break, when an email arrived: “Thank you for sending us your script. We appreciate the time it took you to write it and contact us. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to take your work any further.”

Dave felt the familiar thud in his chest. He didn’t need to read the rest. He knew what was coming from the word “unfortunately”. At first he was angry. Why did no one appreciate his office-based sitcom ‘Dave Goes to Work’ quite like he did? Then he was sad, as if his script was a friend who had just died. Then he hated his script and wished it had never been born. Then he parcel taped over all of the keys on his keyboard, except for number seven, and vowed never to write again.

If you recently received an email from the BBC Writersroom informing you that your script wasn’t selected for this year’s Comedy Script Room, you may be experiencing similar emotions. Of course, you may be fine – in which case, great – but if you’re not, this is a blog for you (and, if he can get the tape off his keyboard enough to access Outlook Express, for Dave too).

Virtually every well-known writer has a story about their work being rejected early on in their careers. “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try,” said Sylvia Plath. “Often you have to fail as a writer before you write that bestselling novel or ground-breaking memoir,” said J. K. Rowling. There’s also the tradition of writers defiantly wallpapering their bathrooms with ‘thanks but no thanks’ letters (or, these days, emails?).

However, it’s probably easier to come up with inspirational quotes about perseverance when it’s paid off for you than when it seems to be having no effect at all. If you’ve got a bathroom full of rejection letters that only you know or care about you may feel, like Dave, that the time has come to call it a day – in which case here’s another blog I wrote: ‘Should writers ever give up?’. Everyone has to decide for themselves how they spend their time, but if you enjoy writing, why not continue doing it? If, however, you are writing to escape your office job, pay off your debts or become famous, there may be more effective ways of achieving these things.

Having spent time writing and sending out rejection letters in the past, I’ve seen how these can vary. Some contain useful information; others are brief and to the point. Some aren’t really rejections at all – for instance they ask the writer to submit more work or let them know they have been longlisted in a competition (or, in the case of the BBC Writersroom, say if a script got to a second or third round, or a full read). Sometimes, they contain a few lines of feedback; other times, a full report.

I asked writers to send me a selection of the rejection letters and emails they had received from film, TV and theatre companies, agents and competitions, and got back some interesting examples. Like scripts, the standard varied enormously – from the inspirational to the generic. Strangely, many of the letters used almost exactly the same phrases. Here’s a summary of a few of these and how they might be interpreted:

“We are not in a position to take on any more clients/ develop any more writers”
A polite no, although in my experience this would probably change if the right script or writer came along.

“Keep in touch/ Send next play”
They like your work, even though they don’t want to do anything with it at the moment. This is a very positive kind of rejection – and not really a rejection at all.

“It’s not quite right for us at this time”
Ambiguous. Will things change with time? I’m inclined to think not, but you never know.

“Evaluating scripts is very subjective”
Yes! In my experience, there are just opinions, a general consensus, and a lot of shouting in the middle.

“The standard was higher than usual”
Sometimes people say this because they think it’s what you want to hear. But sometimes – as with this year’s Comedy Script Room– it’s true.

“Keep writing!”
Are they trying to sell you a writing course? Or some feedback? Or their new book? If not, this is the most enthusiastic rejection letter ever.

“No thanks!”
Just two words long: the shortest rejection letter ever? (Actually, a comp slip, sent from Private Eye to me, aged 10).

“Our funding has been cut, so we can’t accept unsolicited scripts/ send you feedback”
Almost certainly true. Unfortunately places that used to have resources for reading scripts now have less.

“We wish you all the best with your future endeavours”
I first saw this phrase in 2001 and suspect it’s been around for decades – but it means well.

“Good luck!”
Not the hollow words it might at first seem – but an acknowledgement that success as a writer is due to luck as well as talent.

A few writers I spoke to also mentioned techniques they have developed to avoid feeling too demoralised if their scripts were rejected (let me know if you have any others). These included:

• Sending scripts to more than one place, so there is never a time when there isn’t a chance one will get somewhere
• Writing because they wanted to write, rather than to win things/ pay for stuff/ quit their day job
• Making the rest of their life so enjoyable that script rejections didn’t really matter (“Hey, at least I’m spending the summer in Barbados!”)
• Concentrating on learning from any feedback and their ultimate goal
• Thinking of something new and imaginative to do with rejection letters (and, failing that, wallpapering their bathrooms with them)
• Doing some more writing (writer and producer Robin Bell wrote about this, after his script was rejected by the Red Planet Prize)

You might be surprised to hear that a few weeks later (and after reading a motivational book by Olympic athletes) Dave was feeling much better – so much better that he decided to write a blog about ‘How to deal with rejection as a writer’. But a quick Google search revealed that someone else had done that already. He briefly contemplated suing them for copyright infringement, but then remembered Everything Has Been Said Before (including ‘Everything Has Been Said Before’).

It was thinking about the above that gave Dave an idea for a new script: a self-referential comedy about a post-modern world in danger of eating itself. He tore the remaining strips of parcel tape off his keyboard and began frantically typing, as only someone with a story that needs telling, or a dispute with a telecoms provider, can.

Some months later, and a script reader was hunched over a script, completely gripped by what she was reading. It was a wryly observed, witty and irreverent comedy about a guy called Dave writing about another guy called Dave, who was also writing about someone else called Dave. The characters were brilliant, the structure was amazing: essentially, it was the perfect script. And it was written by a normal, everyday guy who worked in an office. His name was Steve.

Written in June 2015 for the BBC Writersroom 

What’s Funny? An Update from the BBC Writersroom Comedy Script Room (May 2015)

Dave sits typing at his computer in the dusty, corporate grey of an open-plan office staring into space. He wishes he was writing a script, but instead he’s doing something monotonous and soul destroying in Excel. For a treat he takes a sip of coffee, realising too late that it’s cold, has been there since yesterday and is covered in skin. An overhead fan whirs, which is strange, as offices haven’t had overhead fans since 1988. He bangs his head on his desk in despair. “This,” he thinks, “would make a brilliant sitcom.”

Meanwhile in the BBC Writersroom, a script reader is on page seven of a comedy about someone called Dave banging his head on a desk and is wondering how long it will take for him to knock himself out. She is feeling sad that there are so many Daves out there, having such a miserable time in so many unfulfilling jobs. So sad, she hasn’t laughed once.

Young guys in offices, young guys in flatshares, young guys playing football, older guys playing guitars, older guys moving back in with their parents, guys of all ages having a chat or crisis in the pub: these are some of the themes in the 2111 scripts sent in to this year’s BBC Writersroom comedy script room ‘sift’. Of the scripts I ‘sifted’ (i.e. read the first 10-20 pages of) some were entertaining, a handful were funny, two made me laugh aloud, a few made me cringe, and lots had potential even if this wasn’t enough for them to become part of the small number that went to get a full read.

The standard of the scripts was higher than in previous comedy sifts and, as is often the case, especially with comedy, fewer women sent us their work than men (one in four). Within the scripts we received there were many female characters, but a fair proportion were doing things like “clinging onto their fading good looks”, being “beautiful but bitchy” or simply “unattractive” (how dare they!) with the same kind of dead-eyed weariness as when I wrote about them two years ago.

However, there were also lots of cool and imaginative scripts, and less imaginative but polished scripts, and weird but interesting scripts that I knew the person sitting across the table from me would hate, but I put through anyway because, hey, I work for the BBC and someone once told me that means “being brave”. Comedy is, of course, subjective – and so is script reading, as I’ve mentioned before. But when it comes to what script readers and producers are looking for there are lots of things they agree on, at least in theory.

“Irresistible original comedy characters” are something that would make Head of BBC Radio Comedy Julia Mckenzie commission a script. She also feels dialogue should be properly “funny, and not just banter or mildly witty. It needs to make me laugh or at the very least crack a smile.” Unsurprisingly, believable characters and a strong sense of humour are things Executive Producer of BBC Comedy Richard Webb likes to find too. “This may sound glib, but you’d be amazed how many scripts don’t have any jokes in them. Comedy, famously, is meant to be funny.”

I ask Richard, what would be the one thing he would like to make before he dies? “I’d like to make a lot of things as I’m not planning on dying for a bit,” he replies, “but a big, fat mainstream hit that people aren’t snobbish about would be a good start.” Julia continues: “Writing mainstream funny stuff that has heart and some sense of underlying substance is the most difficult thing to get right, but if you can it’s magical.”

What would Julia say to people who feel that BBC Comedy is too safe? “’Is that because your sitcom about nymphomaniac zombies who share a flat has been turned down?’” she replies. “People say that Radio 4 comedy is safe, but a great deal of it would make you spit out your Werther’s Original.” Richard’s response to such criticism is similar: “I’d say you haven’t been watching it. There’s nothing safe about Inside No. 9, Nurse, Stewart Lee or W1A.”

One of the problems new writers sometimes face in consciously trying to write “a mainstream hit” is that their scripts can end up feeling cold and cynical. We often read sitcoms about flatshares that are similar to Friends, or domestic comedies inspired by shows like My Family, or stuff set in shops that’s a bit like Black Books. Sometimes they’re pretty polished, but also lacklustre – like the writer has approached them the same way I might approach assembling an Ikea chair. The end product might look like it’s supposed to, but there’s an allen key sticking out of the side.

Deliberately trying to create original or ‘unsafe’ comedy isn’t easy either. The kind of boundary-pushing stuff some writers might envision for late night on BBC2, or beyond (“my work is pretty edgy”), often ends up being shocking simply for the sake of it. In it, male characters tend to behave in unpredictable and extreme ways: for instance, sexually abusing a “beautiful but bitchy” boss, shouting racist abuse at anyone who isn’t white, or defecating loudly on a toilet floor.

“Yes, but is it funny?” BBC Development Producer Simon Nelson asked, after one of my colleagues had read a sitcom featuring one of the above. “No,” she replied, “It’s just offensive.” And yet, offensive comedy can be really effective, particularly if there’s a point behind it. And even if there isn’t, sometimes it makes us laugh anyway, although as we might then feel obliged to point out “not necessarily in a good way”. But still, we’re laughing.

I talk to stand-up comedian Stephen Carlin about the difference between confrontational and mainstream comedy. “There’s a tendency [for comedy producers and writers] to try and give people what they want,” he says. “But if you set out to be either risky or safe that’s possibly the wrong thing to do. It’s better to concentrate on just writing something good.”

If you want to make me laugh, it’s actually quite easy: I realised a while ago that every comedy character I love is pompous, delusional and sees themselves completely differently to the way they actually are. On the radio I like Clare in the Community; on TV I like Siobhan Sharpe in W1A, but there are also lots of others. You might like different things – for instance, characters such as Dave, the ‘little man’ struggling against an unfair and oppressive work/ life balance. Perhaps you’re wondering what happened to him. Was he given a ‘no’ verdict at ten pages? Did the BBC script reader pass him to another BBC script reader for a full read? Did she secretly place him under a cake on Richard or Julia’s desk?

I wish I could tell you, but I’m afraid there are lots of Daves in lots of scripts and they have a tendency to blur into one giant blob of melancholy, despair and biscuit crumbs. Most don’t get past 10 or 20 pages in the BBC Writersroom comedy sifts – but, then again, neither do most characters. However, there’s no reason why Dave couldn’t be an interesting, funny and, indeed, topical figure if he found the right writer. In the meantime, I hope he can get a well-paid, satisfying day job he enjoys and have a proper cup of hot, freshly made coffee. Everyone deserves that.

Written in May 2015 for the BBC Writersroom 

Prisoners of Pompeii (May 2015)

Somehow we had ended up in the cemetery. It was the last thing I wanted to see – as well as the painted house, the sauna, the dog mosaic, the brothel with sex graffiti, and the room full of broken pots. Just a few more things on the map! Only now it was dark, the tombstones, as tall as houses, were looming over out heads, and we couldn’t get out.

“Gates close at 7.30pm,” a sign had said in Italian, but the only Italian we knew was “ciao” (hello) and “ciao” (goodbye), so we hadn’t seen that. As the sky turned to black, Pompeii, a skeletal city immortalised in ash, opened its burnt-out eyes, and we realised something: we were the only people still here.

We ran past the graves, along the bubbling stone of never-ending streets – which a few hours earlier had been drenched in the hot, dripping sun. The cold, quiet city glowed, blue-grey in the moonlight. Gone was the chitter-chatter of tourists and the pseudo-military guards keeping fascinating artefacts and tormented spirits behind well-bolted doors. Now the real residents were in charge.

Face-after-face on the tombs – the carved alter egos of the dead, their unblinking eyes watching us stumble; finally able to make their presence felt after the souvenir hunters, ice-creams and selfie sticks had been spat out. As we sped past people’s former homes and possessions, down the now deserted paths of daily lives, under untrimmed trees and bushes, bats flew in front of our faces, swooping and screaming: “Go back, go back”.

In the shadows, the map faded from sight. It had shown us what the guided tours hadn’t; that there were miles of streets no one was looking at; whole houses and temples not deemed worthy of a pithy description; palatial mansions almost completely intact; an amphitheatre empty, too far away for most people to walk to – or just not as quite big as the Colosseum. And then there was the cemetery.

Nobody comes to Pompeii to see an actual cemetery. The dead people they are interested in aren’t buried in the ground; they are covered in plaster, their faces curled into horrific grimaces, illuminated by the continual flash of cameras on their glass box prisons. Bodies destined to be forever incarcerated, highlighted on the map with a big red star. Maybe one day you’ll go and stare at them. But perhaps afterwards you’ll visit the real Pompeii, like we did.

Crackling stone; the stretched fingers of backstreets; gardens once played in, now quiet and still; small pots where food was served hot and spicy, now cold and empty, the paraphernalia of daily life made special by the way its owners died. The bats, the rats and the bugs are the only life here now, along with us – and whatever else lurks around the corner.

Eventually: a small metal turnstile. And a man. A man! Apologies. We didn’t realise the time…. We thought we’d got locked in…We didn’t know where to go…He shrugs: “This is Italy. You go where you like.” Apparently it happens a lot; people getting lost. They – we – are all the same. None of us can read a map. But at least he was there to save us. “A pleasant surprise, yes?”

And yet, as we leave and go back to the train, to a world of tourists, tickets and timetables, we can’t help but be disappointed. Holidaymakers chat loudly, while locals chat louder. We miss Pompeii and cold silky quiet of those who once walked its streets. Next time, we must try and stay longer. Next time, we must stay all night.

Finalist in the Bradt/ Independent on Sunday Travel Writing Awards