Category Archives: Writing

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 

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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 

Seven ways to become a Hollywood screenwriter

In 2001, I was lucky enough to go and study at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Televisionin Westwood, Los Angeles. The campus, which was bigger than most towns I’d been to at the time, was like Oxford University reimagined by Universal Studios. Here, Baz Luhrmann or Jodie Foster stopping by to do a guest lecture was as much to be expected as vending machines selling mini-doughnuts and never-ending flavours of iced tea. With a spectacular alumni list, it was also a place where writing and selling a Hollywood screenplay didn’t seem an unrealistic or even especially ambitious aim, just something that everyone was doing. As my friend Valerie drove me around the city in her truck, the feeling of optimism seemed to stretch from one end of Sunset Boulevard to the other.

Sound great? I certainly thought so. But, as a writer living in the UK, how exactly do you get to LA if you haven’t got a Green Card and you’re not on a university exchange scheme? I decided to find out, by speaking to UK writer Matt Jones, who has worked on TV shows both in the UK and the US; Melissa Iqbal and Sam Baron, the two British winners of this year’s Academy Nicholl Fellowship; and agent Ed Hughes, who looks after a number of UK screenwriters working on movies in the US. Here are a few of their thoughts on the different ways you can ‘break into’ America:

1. Get work as a UK writer – and use it to propel yourself into the US

When Matt Jones started his TV career, as a storyliner on Coronation Street in the late 1990s, he never dreamed he’d end up in a Writers Room in LA. And yet, just over ten years later this is where he found himself, working on a “sweary, violent, undercover cop show” called Rogue. But it might have never happened if he hadn’t asked Russell T Davies if, as a favour, he could write a practice report on a script Davies was working on at the time – one that turned out to be Queer as Folk. Matt’s notes went down so well he was offered a job as a script editor on the series. More script editing work followed, on Linda Green and Clocking Off. “I’ve always been very lucky in my career,” Matt says, “I’ve worked for very talented writers.”

It was through script editing that Matt got his first UK writing commission. He was working on a new series, Love in the 21st Century, when the final episode fell through at the last minute. Producer Nicola Shindler said to him, “Matt, you’ve written things. Go home and write this half hour script by Monday.” And that’s what he did. Next he wrote for Children’s Ward, wrote and produced his own original single drama, Now You See Her, and produced Shameless. “I wrote in the evenings on shows and then produced in the daytime,” he says, “It was crazy.”

But it was as a producer rather than a writer that Matt ended up working in New York and Toronto for a year, on the American version of Skins. At around the same time he was commissioned by UK producer Brian Elsley to write a script about four gay best friends based upon his childhood. It didn’t get commissioned in the end, but became his ‘calling card’ script. “Off the back of [that script] I got a job as a writer in America on Rogue, and so I was in a Writers Room in Los Angeles for 10 months,” Matt explains, “It was a British Canadian co-production, so they needed British writers. And one of the production companies knew me from working in Toronto on Skins.”

Matt thinks that the UK writers who have found work in the US “most successfully are the ones who have established themselves very strongly in the UK first.” However, getting commissioned here isn’t the only way to attract American producers’ interests.

2. Win a writing competition Americans have heard of

Two of the four winners of this year’s Academy Nicholl Fellowship – basically the Oscars for new writers – are British: Melissa Iqbal, and Sam Baron. When I speak to them they are about to head off to Hollywood for an awards ceremony which, I like to imagine, will be a cocktail of glitter, diamonds and emotions – or, at the very least, provide good opportunities for networking.

I ask Melissa whether she thinks it will lead to more writing opportunities in America. “I think it’s a fantastic way to break into America,” she says, “The Nicholl Fellowship is really well respected, especially in the US, so there’s been a lot of interest in [my] script, which is fantastic. It’s a great way to get your name out there.”

Sam agrees: “Just being shortlisted was incredible, but winning was mind-blowing. [It] opens lots of doors in the US. As soon as you get shortlisted, you wake up to find hundreds of emails from producers, agents and managers all congratulating you and wanting to read your script and meet you.”

Both Melissa and Sam point out that it’s still early days, with the winners having only been announced in October, but when it’s difficult to get anyone to read your script in the UK, let alone America, winning a prize, particularly one that is well-known over there certainly seems to help. However…

3. Don’t give up if you don’t win a writing competition Americans have heard of

Not everyone agrees on what a prize-winning script looks like. Sam says: “The thing to remember with these contests is that while they’re great if you win…you can’t take it too hard if you don’t win. The day after I won the Nicholl Fellowship, I got rejection emails from two other screenwriting contests, for the exact same draft of the script – so it’s all subjective. A handful of rejections are no reason to give up.”

Melissa almost didn’t enter the Nicholl Fellowship at all. “I’d never had much luck with screenwriting competitions in the past,” she says, “I was feeling a bit disheartened at the time, but I told myself every competition is different and has different readers, so you never know. Of course I never thought I would actually win!”

4. Get an agent with connections in America

When I first speak to screenwriters agent Ed Hughes he’s about to jet off to LA for the kind of jam-packed business trip of appointments and meetings that I like to think I’m familiar with purely from reading Julia Phillips book ‘You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again’. I ask him how he gets UK writers work in the US. “Ideally we hook them up with a US agent and/ or manager,” he says, “The US reps can then spearhead looking for US work. But we have also got clients work direct from the UK with US companies. Most often [this is] by getting their feature spec scripts optioned by US companies.”

However, as pretty much everyone knows, getting an agent isn’t easy. “A [US] agent is good, but if you’re early in your career you’ll have a hard time landing one,” says Ed, “A good manager is actually a better bet to start off with. They are more focussed on the career development side of things and tend to be more proactive than agents.”

Having a well-connected agent and/ or manager certainly sounds useful. Matt, Melissa and Sam all have one (Bethan Evans at The Agency, Tracey Hyde at Casarotto, and Amanda Davis at Curtis Brown, respectively) although at some point in their careers they didn’t and still managed to get to where they are now. There are also lots of things you can do without an agent, such as…

5. Write a spec script Americans might like – but make sure you like it too

Some scripts feel perfect for an American audience. Others feel like the writer has been so dazzled by imaginary gold dollar signs that the characters, dialogue and story have disappeared under pile of estimated earnings calculations.

Ed suggests writing “several great US-set spec [scripts]” and to “write commercial material” but also “high-quality material, of course.” Regarding what American executives are looking for, he says “[There are] probably less period drama movies in the US than the UK. More genre TV shows get made in the US as there are more outlets for that kind of thing and more of an appetite too. More sports movies get made there than here. They love a good inspirational true story sports movie… One thing executives will ask for is a strong voice or unique point-of-view. But also big ideas and concepts really appeal.”

Talking about her Nicholl Fellowship-winning script, Melissa says: “I didn’t write it for an American audience, but I do tend to write quite commercial stories and usually genre. Having said that, I took the opportunity to write something a bit different…Obviously scripts should be written with some thought to how they might be marketed, but everything else should be from the heart.”

Sam explains how he came to create his prize-winning script: “I didn’t write it with an American audience in mind – although I do love lots of American movies, particularly character-driven American indies, and I did set out to write the film I would most like to see, which is how I’m convinced all films should be written – so perhaps it happened accidentally.”

In the BBC Writersroom we often read screenplays aimed at an American audience where the characters talk in a strange, heightened movie-inspired kind of language that doesn’t exist in real life or, indeed, movies (at least, not good ones). Like a lot of British writers, something Matt struggled with – when he was writing Rogue – was getting the America characters’ voices right. “It’s easy to work out the words you need to use,” he says, “but what’s hard is to realise what the phrases are that we use that they think sound really weird. And there are lots of those.” So how did he manage to avoid them? “It was really about being in America, reading other scripts and watching the actors,” he explains.

6. Work in other areas of the UK film and television industries

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” people sometimes say – and a good way of getting to know people is by working with them. Matt had jobs as a storyliner, script editor and producer before becoming a full-time writer, which led to some great contacts in the industry, such as Russell T Davies and Nicola Shindler.

Sam has also worked in other areas of film and TV and started off “making no-budget films with my friends as a teenager”. He explains: “They often didn’t even have a script, but we had an unexpected success when one of them went viral.” After going to university, he got a job as a runner. Despite doing long production days he describes how “every evening and weekend I would write, and lots of my Nicholl script was written in the margins of tattered call sheets on set, and then carefully transcribed on the night bus home.” After two years of writing his script, along with jobs in Development at Ealing Studios and as a script reader for BBC Drama and BBC Wales “some very supportive colleagues introduced me to my agent at Curtis Brown, who started getting me meetings with lots of producers, and soon after that I won the Nicholl Fellowship.”

7. If you can, take a trip to LA

Ed regularly visits LA and thinks writers who want to work there should aim to do the same, if their circumstances allow it. “You need to be ready to get over to LA at least a couple of times a year, for maybe two weeks at a time,” he says, “LA is the main place [in the US]. There’s not much happening in New York or elsewhere.” Obviously, this won’t be possible for everyone, but sometimes writing work can take you there.

Matt moved to LA to work on Rogue, since being part of a team of writers in a Writers Room meant he needed to go into the office every day. “I think you really have to be in America to write American TV,” he says. “All of the big shows have a Writers Room…You get a weekly wage. You are employees.”

Whereas Matt works in his home office when he’s in the UK, in LA it’s very different. He talks about juggling writing an episode with other responsibilities, such as storylining and polishing other writers’ scripts: “They wouldn’t let me go home and write my [episode]. I said, ‘Look, I’m not writing the script because I’m doing 10-hour days in the Writers Room.’ [The showrunner] said ‘You’ve got four days. Go in that room and write a script.’ I said, ‘Can’t I go home?’ and he said, ‘No, I need you around.’ So I sat in an office for four days and wrote.”

While becoming a Hollywood writer might often seem exciting, glamorous and well paid, it’s not all dark sunglasses, large cheques and apartments overlooking Santa Monica Beach. Ed explains: “[American] TV is more stable business these days, for sure. On the movie side there is not much of an indie scene in the UK, whereas there is a good indie scene in the US, which means more targets to aim for and hopefully hit.” However, “competition is fierce and [in the US] TV is now filling up with movie people looking to reap the benefits of the TV world.” Does Ed think writers get treated better in the UK or the US? “I think they get a hard time wherever they are generally!”

Matt explains some of the differences between writing for American and British television: “[In the US] there’s a massive investment in the writing process. We [writers] mapped scenes out and pitched things over and over. There was much less rewriting than in Britain and consequently when we wrote our first drafts, we wrote them very quickly. I wrote mine in four days.”

However, you don’t need to go to the US to experience the American way of working as, increasingly, it’s being adopted here. Matt has recently been working on Mr Selfridge, which runs a mini-Writers Room. He says: “Gradually producers have learnt that it’s better to spend a bit more money initially so writers can spend more time with the lead writer and really feel a series and understand what it is… But you’re still undergoing the process of writing drafts, getting notes and rewriting. That’s the same whether you’re in a Writers Room or home office.”

“I think people love to be negative about both the British film industry and the whole notion of Hollywood,” says Sam, “and I’m sure they have their reasons, but I think there’s brilliant creative work happening in both places, in film and TV.” Melissa agrees. “I used to think Britain didn’t like big concepts,” she says, “This couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Unlike writers who spend many years trying to get to Hollywood, Matt never had a dream to do this. For him, living in LA and writing for a US television show was a surprising but enjoyable opportunity. It “came out of the blue,” he explains. “And it was great, it was a fantastic experience. But my first love is British television.” He’s currently working on two new pilots: one for Channel Four and one for BBC America, but he would like go back to LA in the future.

Nearly 15 years after I was in America, I feel the same. And so, as Melissa and Sam head off to Hollywood for their awards ceremony and Ed rattles through his “crazy schedule” of meetings there, I start planning ways I too can step out of a plane at LAX into the world’s most glamorous car park. “Dear UCLA, you know you said ‘if ever I want to come back…?’” Dear Nicholl Fellowship, do you ever use British script readers…?” “Dear Valerie, do you still have the truck…?”

Written for the BBC Writersroom 

To read more about my time in LA, going to film school and living in a housing cooperative click here 

My trip to UCLA, California

When I was 21 I was pretty sure that I would win an Oscar, probably by the time I was 25. This never happened. However, it does still sometimes lead to conversations with people I haven’t seen for a while where they – having also half-bought into my dreams and the idea that someone, even if it’s not them, is ‘Following their Heart’ – tentatively ask whether I’m “still writing”. And I tell them about the things I write, usually starting with stuff for newspapers and elsewhere, or my blogs for the BBC Writersroom, because I know they’ll find these the most exciting, before moving on to copywriting (“I’m basically Peggy from Mad Men”), script reading (“I’ve written over 5000 reports, you know…”) and this blog (“No, I don’t get paid, but I can write about whatever I like and that is worth more than money – isn’t it?”).

“But are you still writing scripts?” is what they really want to know. And I’ll eventually have to tell them, no – when I failed to instantly win an Oscar in my early-twenties, I got demoralised and stopped. If they look upset by that, like I’ve mis-sold them payment protection insurance or something, I’ll explain that there are other things that you can do with your life that aren’t scriptwriting – and that, in my experience, these are often more enjoyable than sitting alone in an empty room and staring at a blank screen. Sometimes they will agree and it will be like I’ve freed them from the millstone of aspiration hanging around their neck. At other times they will look bereft, as if by shattering my own dreams I’ve inadvertently done the same to theirs. “But you went to Hollywood?” they’ll say, desperate for any evidence that I’ve achieved the kind of success that they and my younger self had hoped for. Yes, I’ll say, and to cheer them up I’ll tell them a bit about what happened there:

When I was at university in Bournemouth (which, having grown up in a small village in North Yorkshire, might as well have been Ibiza), there was a competition to go and study screenwriting at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television in in Los Angeles. Even though I was pretty sure I would become a rich and famous scriptwriter, almost certainly by the end of the year, I thought, “If I want to win an Oscar I should probably go to the place that makes the things.” And so I wrote a TV drama about unemployed people in Scarborough, which, against the odds, won – the trip to UCLA that is, not an Oscar, strangely.

And so, in 2001, 10 days after the attack on the World Trade Center (a place I was previously only dimly aware of), I took my new laptop, trainers, passport and swimming costume on our first ever trip in an aeroplane. It was exciting, scary and took what seemed like three weeks to get anywhere. While my mother had given me a step-by-step list of instructions on ‘what to do at the airport’, everything after I stepped out of LAX and into a taxi was unknown.

UCLA is located in a part of Los Angeles called Westwood. It was here that I had arranged to stay, in the University Cooperative Housing Association (known as ‘The Co-op’). Having only a vague idea of what a housing cooperative was, I was hoping for a cross between something from Beverly Hills 90210 and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Instead, I was dropped off outside what appeared to be a multi-storey car park. “I’m looking for the housing cooperative,” I said to a sullen man behind a desk. “You’re here,” he replied. Dear god, I thought, but I was tired and fell asleep on a bare mattress in the tiny room I was shown to. It was only when I woke up that I noticed how closely that the place resembled a prison cell – and that my roommates had arrived.

Sharing a room for three months with two other people you’ve never met before perhaps isn’t for everyone, but the roommates I was lucky enough to get turned out to be great. And apart from having to do a four-hour work shift sweeping leaves in the driveway once a week (which I decided was preferable to working in the industrial-sized kitchen or cleaning bathrooms), life in The Co-op was actually great fun. The students (and odd non-student) staying there were from places ranging from India to Germany to Hawaii, there was endless food (including a quite spectacular breakfast buffet which could be eaten on a roof terrace overlooking the city), cinema nights and lots of staying up late, drinking wine and trying to play an old piano. Yes, the place could have done with a good clean, but it was like nowhere else I’d ever been and cost only $500 a month – including four meals a day!

There was also something called ‘bump’, which involved everyone swapping rooms. Those who had been there longest got first choice of a few so-called ‘penthouse’ apartments, while the rest of us scrabbled over any remaining private bathrooms in an atmosphere somewhere between moving house and attending a baseball match. It was the evening of ‘bump’ that I realised the whole place was not only inhabited by students but run by them – and finally discovered that this is what a housing cooperative actually was (you can read more from people who have stayed in my one, here).

A short walk down Landfair Avenue, through an underpass everyone at The Co-op recommended I only attempt brandishing a full can of pepper spray, and there was UCLA – the most spectacularly kitsch university ever. It’s full of faux historical buildings, like Oxford reimagined by Steven Spielberg. The first time I walked through it cheerleaders were practicing marching, a band was playing, the sun had never seemed so bright and I was half-expecting John Travolta from Grease to strut by drinking a bottle of Snapple. Here Bruin-wear (the kit of the university sports team) was the equivalent of a school uniform, and since attending a course costs a small fortune there were endless swanky gyms, outdoor pools and restaurants on campus to help everyone feel they’re getting their money’s worth.

So what about screenwriting? Oh yeah, between having a great time in The Co-op and trying not to step in the fermenting food pouring down my street (because everyone had so much of it), I did actually do some. Screenwriting students at UCLA are expected to write a finished feature film every quarter (term). They can also take classes in all kinds of other things – from script reading to producing to film criticism. One of the best things I learnt is how useful it is to watch a good film twice; once for enjoyment and once to really understand how it works. Then there were guest lectures from people I loved, such as Baz Luhrmann, as well as test screenings of films from the studios before they were released. And everyone seemed to be making these films – actually making them, rather than just saying they wanted to, or they might do, or they could have done. Whether they really were, I’m not sure, but it almost didn’t matter. It felt like the Hollywood dream was happening and just being in a place where everyone fed into it was exciting enough in itself.

I stood outside weekly film premieres in Westwood, watched DVDs in Beverly Hills, stayed in a motel in Hollywood and walked along the beach where Alfred Hitchcock filmed The Birds. But all too soon it was time for me to get rid of the giant picture of a sunset I’d found by a bin, abandon the comfy desk chair a girl I met at a baseball match had given me, cancel my overpriced phone contract with Verizon and come home. Even though I was only in LA for three months, everyone was so kind and welcoming – not at all cold and anonymous in the way I’ve since heard people describe the city – it felt like I lived there. The stuff I remember most about my trip wasn’t to do with scripts at all – it was life at The Co-op, being in a new country, meeting people and travelling to interesting places. And while I had managed to write a feature film script there – about a teenage disco dancer from Wakefield – when I got home people didn’t like it as much as the one that had got me to LA in the first place. But perhaps that was because I was having too much fun for writing. However, I did get an Oscar – a plastic one with my name sellotaped on it, bought from a gift shop outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

Enthusiasm, Brent Forrester and the 344 bus

“Sally Stott is more enthusiastic than experienced… and probably isn’t being paid very much.” This is what someone who is very experienced and not especially enthusiastic said about me when I first started reviewing theatre plays (although despite his concern about my supposed lack of income, he didn’t object to me buying him a drink). Years previously, I had failed to get a job as a literary assistant in a big agency. Why? Because, as I overheard the interviewer later say, I was “too enthusiastic.” It was, after all, “only a job.”

As time passed, I inevitably got more jobs and more experience, as pretty much everyone who lives and works in a city for a certain amount of time does. However, while I like getting paid to do cool stuff as much as anyone else, I intend to never become more experienced than I am enthusiastic. Even if I end up with so many interesting and well-paid jobs that I have to increase my levels of optimism to a point where no one can bear to be in the same room as me, I will strive to maintain this imbalance – because if you can’t be increasingly passionate about whatever it is that you spend most of your life doing, what can you be?

“You love everything,” people sometimes say when I like something that they don’t. “You hate everything,” I sometimes say when they dislike something I love. While they might feel that I am too free with my praise, I sometimes suspect they are too sparing with theirs; that their emotions have been dulled by years of trying to find what’s wrong with things rather than what’s right. It’s easy to dismiss enthusiasm as naïve and childish while applauding criticism – however unfounded – as the mature and adult response, one based on thought and analysis rather than low-brow emotions. And yet, emotions are a large part of what both art and life are all about.

In the UK, it sometimes seems like being cynical rather than enthusiastic is the default position. There is a driver on the 344 bus, which (when I’m not cycling) takes me from Battersea to Central London, who says “hello” to every person who boards. This may not seem unusual to anyone who lives in the north of England – where both he and I are from – but in London it’s pretty rare. You can see it on the confused faces of the passengers. “Please do not be alarmed that you have a cheerful and polite bus driver,” he said a week last Friday to the bewildered top deck, “You can write about it in your diaries.” Or blogs.

Later that same day, I go to a talk by American screenwriter Brent Forrester, organised by the BBC Writersroom for comedy writers and producers – and gate crashed by some of us script readers – where he talks about the importance of “relentless positivity.” It’s something he sees as invaluable for generating ideas when writing as part of a team, which he has done a lot of, having worked as a writer and showrunner (someone who leads the group writing process) on The Simpsons and the American version of The Office. He explains that while it’s useful to ultimately decide which characters and stories have potential and which don’t, “an over-developed critical mind can end up permanently destroying ideas.”

Brent has just returned from running a four-day residential for BBC Comedy writers where they have been working in small groups to come up with ideas for new shows. He observes that sometimes British writers can put one another down and sees this as a “cultural thing” that doesn’t help team writing. He later talks about how he has experienced working in “cold, quiet and serious environments” and how this doesn’t lead to creativity. He also highlights how executives who sit in on writers’ meetings create a formal mood that isn’t conducive to developing good work in a relaxed atmosphere (this causes a few uncomfortable glances around the room).

While the people left the 344 bus on Friday looking happier than when they got on, we script readers left Brent’s talk feeling more inspired and upbeat. “Great question,” we spent the afternoon saying to anyone who asked anything – great or otherwise – in our basement reading room, in the same way Brent had to everyone who put their hand up in his post-talk Q&A.

American people have a reputation for being constantly positive and while it’s something that’s easy to sneer at, it’s also pleasant to be around and – if Brent’s dazzling writing career and cheerful persona are anything to go by – leads to a successful and happy life. He is a hugely experienced writer, but it was his infectious energy that everyone was talking about for the rest of the day, rather than his CV. Having worked on numerous great shows, I imagine if someone said he was more enthusiastic than experienced he’d take it as the compliment it clearly is.

Should writers ever give up?

“Never give up” is the kind of thing you often hear people say, whether it’s Sylvester Stallone in Rocky Balboa, Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness or someone who likes your script but not enough to actually produce it. However, in real life, unlike the movies, when things don’t go to plan no subtle background music kicks in to emphasise that in half an hour’s time you will bounce back and achieve your dreams.

As a writer, you’re often left to get on with never-giving-up on your own, perhaps accompanied by the odd screenwriting book, which will also tell you to never give up – partly because its writer wants you to buy another book called Never Give Up on Buying Books About Never Giving Up.

I have a collection of scriptwriting books from the 1960s to the 1990s. I often wonder what happened to all the writers who used to own them. Did they never give up? One of the books Writing for the BBC (by Norman Longmate) had nine re-prints over 30-odd years. Thousands of people must have owned a copy. They can’t all have got commissions: if they had, there would be so many dramas, comedies and short stories on the BBC that there wouldn’t be room for anything else. Either these writers stopped writing or they continued with little or no recognition, perhaps for the whole of their lives. Is that sad? Or inspiring? Or a bit of both?

There are lots of stories about famous writers and artists who were initially rejected but persevered and went on to become very successful: Stephen King, JK Rowling, Walt Disney, The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Madonna are just a few. Jarvis Cocker was singing about waiting for his life to take off, back in 1992 after over a decade of being in Pulp. It wasn’t until 1995 that the band had a number one album. It would clearly have been a mistake for him to have given up, but of course it’s easy to say that with hindsight.

Never give up, never surrender,” characters in the comedy Galaxy Quest say whenever they face a seemingly impossible situation, as if a go-getter attitude alone can break down locked doors or blow up enemy spacecraft. However, in real life persevering against the odds can seem like a never-ending and not particularly fruitful process. David Ferguson sums it up brilliantly in an article for The Onion. “Find the thing you’re most passionate about, then do it on nights and weekends for the rest of your life,” it begins, continuing: “…pursue those dreams when you only have enough energy to change out of your work clothes and make yourself a half-assed dinner before passing out.”

A while ago I asked agent Jean Kitson about whether writers should ever give up. She said this: “The absolute worst that can happen is that you’ll spend a chunk of your time doing something creative that you love, and for a lot of people it may never go any further than that. But if you don’t consider your writing a waste of time in itself, if it’s feeding a need in you, then it is not wasted.”

After entering the Alfred Bradley Award on three previous occasions, Ian Townsend finally managed to win its special Writersroom prize this year. I asked what had stopped him from giving up. “I always believed I was a writer,” he says, “it’s not just something I do, it’s who I am. I was determined to prove a lot of people wrong – and also a few people right! – and demonstrate what I was capable of.” Having things he wanted to say, rather than entering competitions for the sake of it – as he had in the past – also helped. “It focused my writing,” he says, as did getting feedback on his work. “Many people told me I could write, but it wasn’t until somebody told me what was wrong with my writing that I took a chance and grew, as did my confidence and self-belief.”

I imagine that most people who write scripts want to see them produced but, as Ian points out, getting a commission isn’t the only way to achieve this. “I self-produced and put on my own plays for years,” he explains. However, his journey hasn’t been easy. “I will be honest, the last two years have been a real struggle financially,” he says. “There have been low times of giving up and thinking ‘what the hell am I doing?'” Like most writers, he has sometimes doubted himself and his work. “I have stopped before,” he says, “then something has sparked me into life – an idea, a story, a glimpse of success – and then I’m off again.” Would he have carried on forever, even if he hadn’t been recognised by an organisation such as the BBC Writersroom? “I love writing,” he says, “In short, probably!”

Although it obviously helps, you don’t have to be produced, paid or even read to keep writing, if that’s what you enjoy doing. People might reject you but they can’t stop you. After not getting past the initial round of a recent Writersroom sift, a new writer called Emma commented: “I’m delighted! It’s my first ever rejection slip; in my mind, that’s an important milestone. It means I finished something. It means I submitted it. It means I exposed myself to scrutiny. It’s an achievement! I’m over the moon, and it’s inspired me to crack on with my next one…”

Perhaps the reason why there are so many films about heroes fighting to achieve their dreams is that their stories are far more appealing than ones about people giving up. Lots of Hollywood blockbusters would have us believe that you can have anything you want if only you work hard enough for it. Maybe that’s why writers, who perhaps battle with rejection more than the rest of us, keep creating them. “Do, or do not,” George Lucas has Yoda say in The Empire Strikes Back. “There is no try.”

Written for BBC Writersroom

 

 

 

What qualifies us to be script readers?

People are often asking what qualifies us to read their scripts. Why are we script readers for the BBC Writersroom and not you, or someone else? Have we been to university? Do we have nine GCSEs at grade A-C? Are we all ‘failed’ writers? If you’ve just received a “sorry you’re not progressing any further” email from the Script Room, I can imagine we might come across as a malevolent force, not unlike Sauron from Lord of the Rings, standing between you and your dreams of a red-carpeted shire.

While sifting hundreds of scripts over the past few weeks and trying to decide what makes a good scriptwriter, I’ve also been thinking about what makes a good script reader. In the comments section of a recent Writersroom blog some of you were doing the same, posting feedback on the feedback one of us readers had written (sadly, not me).

In a world where everyone sees themselves as an expert, whether they’re phoning in to a TV talent show, writing a theatre review or arguing about films in the pub (all of which I do), what makes one person’s opinion better than another’s? Is it that a television producer, newspaper editor or the BBC’s Creative Director of New Writing, Kate Rowland, trusts it? Is a good opinion one that reflects the majority of other people’s? If so, what about Vincent van Gogh? He, along with many others, was only properly recognised after his death.

When he was working in the Writersroom, Paul Ashton used to describe script reading as “making subjective decisions based upon objective criteria”.  For instance, most people would agree that interesting characters, strong dialogue and a compelling story are desirable things to have in a script – so much so that they have become clichés, regularly wheeled out in seminars, feedback letters and How to Write Your First Blockbuster books.

However, objectively providing examples of the above characters, dialogue and stories is a lot trickier. While many people (including The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw) loved the Coen brothers’ new film Inside Llewyn Davis, I found it slow and indulgent to a point where I’d quite happily never see another dark-haired, guitar playing bloke with a cat ever again – and that includes my boyfriend.  Does this make me a bad script reader? Does it mean I could be that person who rejected the Coen brothers?

No, thinks my colleague Eric*. We were having a debate in the last Script Room and he rightly pointed out that we readers are a lot more generous assessing scripts from new writers than we are when we talk about produced films. He felt that since we are purely looking for potential in the Writersroom, this meant we could be more objective.

“Potential”, is a word that the Writersroom’s new Development Producer Abigail Gonda also used when we readers reported back on our annual test script. She wanted, she said afterwards, to see if we could spot it. Interestingly, while a few of us gave the script different verdicts, the majority said it was a “yes” and virtually everyone agreed on what aspects worked or didn’t. Maybe we are robots or clones after all! Or maybe there was simply a general consensus – and that’s the best you’re going to get from “subjective decisions based upon objective criteria.”

“Script readers are typically highly educated,” says Creative Skillset’s description of us. They also point out: “The work is not always well paid [but] is a useful entry route into Script Editing and Script Development.”

All of us in the Writersroom are already (when we’re not script reading) doing the jobs we want to do, whether this is writing, script editing, performing, directing or other things. Amongst us are individuals who regularly write for the BBC, have created their own series and even starred in an Oscar-nominated film. We don’t need a foot in the door. We’ve already got two feet, two hands, a body and a head well beyond the reception area. However, since script reading isn’t well paid, a lot of people see it as an entry level job – which is perhaps the reason writers are sometimes suspicious about whether we’re qualified enough.

So, if we don’t get paid very much and we’re not hatching a plan to break into the Director-General’s office and tip him off his chair, why are we reading scripts in the first place?  One of my colleagues, Caroline*, said this: “On sift days, our lunchtime conversations pretty much always revolve around what films, TV or theatre everyone has seen recently and what was good or bad about them. It’s clear how passionate everyone in the room is about great drama.”

When I ask Caroline what else “qualifies” her to be a script reader she points out that she has “thousands” of script reports on her computer. Mine is the same. All of us have been reading scripts for years; some of us decades. We enjoy scripts, talking to each other about them, or things related to them, and discovering good ones. Perhaps this is what qualifies us the most – along with an ability to stay open to potential even if it’s 3pm and we’ve overdosed on custard creams.

Over the years, I’ve read on other script reading panels and have rarely met readers as qualified, experienced and careful with writers’ work as those in the Writersroom. Working with and talking to them inspires me to be better at everything I do, whether this is script reading or anything else. That’s why they have to remain anonymous. If they didn’t Hollywood, Channel 4 or the Coen brothers might come along and snaffle them up!

*Eric and Caroline are pseudonyms.

Written for BBC Writersroom