Monday, March 31, 2008

The Torchwood writing process: Part 1

This is the first of what will be several posts about the whole Torchwood process. The posts will cover different stages, and will appear now and again until I get to the end of the story. Warning - there will be many, many large spoilers for my episode, so if you haven't seen it, try and see it before reading these, or some things won't make much sense. Onwards!

The Torchwood writing process, Part 1: The first meetings, getting the job, and developing the idea

After months of me begging, pleading, crying, making threats, and offering him horrendous "services", my agent managed to get me a meeting with the Torchwood script editor and producer. At the time, my samples of work were Severance and the first draft of Curfew, and I think also Body Count, the Fairly Secret TV Pilot Script that I've now decided to name to make things easier. Body Count was my only paid TV work at the time - a production company had an idea for a series, came to me, and we developed the world and characters. I then fleshed out some outlines, and wrote the pilot script. It was still in development then, and is being shopped around at the moment.

Work samples are what your agent sends to people to convince them to hire you. My first year, all I had was The School, which got me lots of meetings, and still gets me meetings now. Then for a while, it was Severance. December 2006 (when I got the TW meeting), it was the three mentioned above - two film scripts and one TV pilot. I mention this only so you can see what worked for me, you might break in with one TV script or something else entirely. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

So. I finally had a meeting with them, on the 5th December 2006. General meet and greet, no guarantees, no idea what to expect. Would they ask me for ideas? Discuss the series? Offer me a job? I had no idea. In these situations, it's always best to over-prepare. I re-watched some of the episodes (I'd already been watching, as a fan, but wanted them fresh in my mind), and made as many notes as I could for myself - what did I like, what didn't I like, what worked best for me, what I'd like to see more of, and so on. And because I didn't know if I was expected to bring anything to the table immediately, I came up with 3 ideas for episodes, just in case they asked (they didn't, but you never know).

The meeting went very well, and they asked me to email any episode thoughts to the script editor so they could see if they fit the show. And then I left - *without* pitching them the 3 ideas in person. This is important. I had an "in", they'd asked me to email, so I had time to develop the ideas a bit further - if I'd suddenly blurted out my ideas there and then, it could have gone all sorts of wrong. Quit while you're ahead, leave them with a good impression, get out of the room before you fuck it up. Yes, I learned this by fucking up meetings in the past - sometimes as I was just leaving, I would remember an idea that they might like. In my desperation to get work, I'd pitch it, badly ("so then he goes - oh, wait, did I mention he's in a helicopter? well, he is, and then he goes to get his brother - oh, his brother has been kidnapped, I forgot to say that" etc), they'd nod and smile, and I'd never hear from them again. So stay calm, don't give them anything they don't ask for, and when the meeting is over, It Is Over, so leave quickly.

Back at home, I went over the three ideas, and developed one a bit further than the others, because it had more potential. At the time, all I had was "what if you thought you were a normal human, but were really an alien? and the alien part of you was doing terrible things, but you had no idea?" That was it, my core idea. So that needed to be teased out into a proper story. Which means sitting down and asking yourself questions, trying to answer them. If she's an alien, why is she disguised as a human? Why doesn't she know herself? If it's that secret, then the alien must be up to no good, so she's here to attack, or invade. By herself? Or with others? There must be others, she's a sleeper agent, part of a cell, they're here to invade, but first they're going to gather information. If the alien part of her does this terrible thing, then it has to be something really mysterious, to get Torchwood involved. Then they'll find out she's an alien, and all that that involves. But what do they do with her? Do they tell her? What then? And so on. I sent all three ideas in, and waited.

They all liked the sleeper agent one best, and another meeting was set up with them, including Chris Chibnall this time. Before the meeting, I was asked to think about how Torchwood would investigate this, and what they would uncover along the way. So before I went, I worked out the entire storyline, writing up a full page of everything that happens. Again, over-prepare, and you won't run out of things to say... I got in, met everyone, including, very briefly, Russell and Julie who were on their way to a Doctor Who meeting. Hands were shaken, laughter was, er, laughed, and I stared up at Russell and tried to work out if he was 10 or merely 9 feet tall (he's very, very tall). And then I got into the big room, with 4 or 5 people who wanted to hear what I had to say. I felt incredibly small and terrified, like I was a big fraud, some kid in grown up clothing pretending to be a writer.

We started with general chitchat, discussed the show itself, other shows we liked, stuff I'd written, and had a good old geeky chat. "So," they said. "Have you got any thoughts about how the story might play out?" I coughed, and said that I'd actually worked it all out, and could tell them the whole thing if they wanted. They nodded encouragingly, so I told them the entire storyline, bit by bit, from memory (I'd scribbled notes for myself, and made sure I had the whole story fixed in my brain). It took 5 or 10 minutes, but felt like I was talking for hours and hours. When I finished, they were all pleased that the story made sense, and offered some suggestions to tighten parts of it up. After that, they asked if I could write up the story I told them into an outline over the break (it was now the 18th December), and that was it. I got home, and my agent was on the phone, saying they'd just called to confirm they wanted to commission an episode script from me. I was in!

But - I was an "overcommission", one of the extra scripts which are commissioned just in case two are similar, or something goes wrong, or a writer's head explodes halfway through their first outline, etc. No guarantees that my script would make it into the show (and I wouldn't know for certain until February or March 2007). They didn't have all the scripts in yet, so many of them, like mine, were still just potentials. It added to the pressure a bit, but I was more concerned about doing a good job for my first, proper TV commission.

It would be my first TV credit, so I wanted to make sure it was perfect - this could lead to more work, from them, from other people, and could get my career back up and running. Severance had been released in August, but I'd had a 6 month period around that, leading up to December, where I had no work at all. I thought I'd start to get offers, once I'd had a movie released, but things were completely dead. By December, it was time to do the revisions on the first draft of Curfew, but that was a movie - you never know if a movie will get made, or get pulled, anything can go wrong right up until the release date. So Torchwood was the most solid thing I had going at the time. Obviously, I worked my arse off on that outline, and handed it over in January.

In the next part, I'll go through how the outline developed, and the scripting process. Be patient though, these take ages to do...

23 comments:

Kimota said...

I love this article. Strong articles on the true day to day workings of a pro writer are a fantastic insight for the rest of us still trying to get that first meeting.

Great stuff.

Lee Whiteside said...

Thanks for the first part. It's always good to hear how things happen and we're looking forward to the rest of them.

Maybe you'll reveal some hidden fact about Torchwood, like the pterydactal's name...

Lee

Lina said...

You're making me dream big dreams. Oddly enough that is >exactly< what I needed right now. So thanks :). This is all quite awesome and interesting. Hopefully it won't disappear like certain convention reports. *innocent whistling* I'm prodding Tosh to send you those photos, btw. And if that doesn't sound shady I don't know what does.

Lee, not sure if you were kidding, but the pterodactyl is Myfanwy. Like the Welsh love poem, lol.

Oli said...

Ah! I've been waiting for this article since you announced you got the gig on Torchwood, and it did not disappoint. Looking forward to the rest. Cheers!

Lucy said...

Really Oli? 'Cos it seemed like another bunch of press releases to me...

KIDDING! ; )

Martin Fisher said...

Hi James,

Interesting insight into the process. This is something I want to experience and go through myself one day. I've outlined a couple of large 110 episode series, just because I can. Plus a 6 episode series and an 18 episode series. Hopefully one or two of them will play out later in the future.

I have found recently that unless, by some miricle someones already made something with you, agents aren't interested in looking at material. So I've been feeling the frustration.

I'm doing comic books at the moment. Got a few stories published incliding a graphic novel and a new digital mini-series. You should try comics, they're great fun to do.

Many thanks, Martin :O)

Simon Moore said...

Thank for doing these James, really interesting stuff. Look forward to reading the rest at some point in the hopefully not too distant future.

BaaBaaDoodle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BaaBaaDoodle said...

Thanks so much for this series. Sometimes it seems like a tight circle of artists involved in TW and DW, like Six Degrees of RTD or something. To know it's possible to "break in" through persistence and talent is encouraging.

One question: in your head at least, do you first think of the story more as a novel or short story and then pare it down into script form, or do you start out thinking of it as a script from the start?

2:12 PM

Robin Kelly said...

Thanks for doing that, James, I look forward to the rest.

Zulu42 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zulu42 said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to write this blog! As a huge TW/DW fan, I find it very interesting to learn first hand about what went into writing a TW script.

Happy Nit Picking,
Zulu 42

"In These Stones Horizons Sing
Creating Truth Like Glass from the Furnace of Inspiration" -- Millenium Center quote

Anonymous said...

Phew - writing!


¬DavidM

Zulu42 said...

Nice Spork.

funnyerik9 said...

Thank you so much for this! As an aspiring professional writer, this is of great value to me. It is much appreciated!

-Erik

cen-evans said...

Hi Mr. James,

*grins* This was incredibly interesting. I really want to write professionally in the future, so this post was very meaningful for me. I can't wait to read the rest! *looks thoughtful* Should I take notes, do you think?
~Cen

Hannah B said...

Cheers James!

dwlt said...

This is great, thanks for sharing! Looking forward to the rest of the series.

-David

Ruth Newman said...

I have the Radio Times with your cover on it! And it says "James Moran" in big letters inside!

At the risk of embarrassing myself by admitting I downloaded a Heatworld app on Facebook, I'd like quote one of their webpages: "But the second episode is a classic – set in Pompeii, the day before Vesuvius is due to erupt and it's one of the most spectacular Who stories ever. As well as being funny and moving." (http://www.heatworld.com/Article/5021/David+Tennant/Forget+what+you+might+have+heard+%e2%80%93+Catherine+Tate+rocks+in+Doctor+Who!)

Nice one!

BaaBaaDoodle said...

Congrats on the great reviews of your DW4 ep, James. I can't wait to see it!

annaonthemoon said...

Thanks for writing all this up, it's really insightful! I can't wait to read the rest.

BaaBaaDoodle said...

Oh yay, now it's less that one week till Volcano Day!

Peter Pan said...

Thanks for this James.
Its really nice to hear this kind of thing in a real persons words ... with the personal stuff and everything included ... 'fucks' 'buggers' and all.
Top dude, you really are.