This blog is 5 years old today. Yep, my first post here was on Thursday 5th June, 2003, and if you'd told me back then that in 5 years I'd have a writing career, a movie, a Doctor Who episode, and get to speak to Harlan Ellison, I'd have laughed in your face. Then I'd have punched you in the face for giving me false hope. Then I'd have begged you for a writing job, anything at all.
Look at me back then, with my youthful optimism, and my 106 page spec film script. 106 pages! No wonder it was too ponderous, it only needed to be 95 or so. I was just about to start the 9th draft of Severance, which still had no ending, and actually said the words "I think I know how to fix it". Luckily for my sanity, I had no idea how many more drafts lay ahead, including the 12th draft that had to be abandoned, so I could start again from the 11th. Oh, that was a bad day.
Danny, the filthy swine, has tagged me with his "writing revelations" thingy, and it got me thinking, which is always dangerous. I've learned a lot since I started writing professionally, particularly in the past couple of years. So I thought I'd use this 5th blog-birthday post to summarise what I've picked up along the way. But I'm just getting started - I have so much more to learn, about writing, about myself, about everything. I've come really far, and am a much better writer than I was when I started, but in the great scheme of things, I'm still a beginner. So feel free to ask questions if you feel I've left something out, or want anything clarified. Quick update: Simon has posted his own list, and bloody marvellous it is too, particularly the first one, which I thoroughly agree with.
Bearing all that in mind, here's what I've learned so far, and what I wish I'd known 5 years ago:
-- Every day you're writing, you'll learn something new, and get better. You'll look back on stuff you wrote a year ago, and wonder what the hell you were thinking.
-- It can always, always, ALWAYS be shorter. Screen time is 50 times as long as page time. I don't mean the one minute per page rule. I mean that a 5 page scene which feels fine on the page will drag on screen like a dying whale trying to pull itself along a gravel road. Trim it back, get in and out of the scene quickly, and move it along.
-- Reviews don't make one bit of difference. You can get the best reviews in the world, but nobody will see the finished product. Or you can get 100% awful reviews, but be the number one smash of the year. Makes no difference. You have to just do your best work, and hope that people find it.
-- They need you more than you need them. Movie and TV companies need writers, they need stories, they need scripts. They can't do anything without you. You generate your own scripts, you create stuff from nothing, out of your head. It all comes from you. Yes, the finished product is a collaboration. But you can't collaborate on a fucking blank page. Without a script, there is nothing. So you don't have to agree with everything they say, you're allowed to discuss it. You won't be kicked out for disagreeing.
-- When you walk in that room, you *must* radiate confidence. If you're terrified, fake it. They need to know that you can do the job, that you're going to deliver. You need to give the impression that everything's under control. Basically, you are saying: "Hey, relax, dude! I'm a professional! I can do this for you, no hassle. Now that I'm here, everything's going to be okay." If you're too nervous, and undercut everything you say, they won't think their money is in safe hands. If you have an idea, stand by it, say it clearly and confidently. Don't say "this is probably shit, but it's just an idea, we don't have to do this", etc. Say "how about this", or "what if we did this". If you really think it's a shit idea, don't say it.
-- Sometimes a producer will ask you to do an outline for a film, for free. Use your judgement. Do you know and trust them implicitly? Have a really good feeling about them? Has someone else vouched for them? Do they have credits? If the outline is needed to get things moving, then it might be worth a go. But if so, they can at least give you a one page contract or letter of intent, which states that you get to write the script later with some sort of payment (to be agreed). If they won't do that - and it costs them nothing - then what's in it for you? You can bet your arse that the "outline" will go through 5 or 6 drafts, and end up being 10 pages or more. You'll be doing all that work for free, with no guarantee of anything after it. A letter of intent costs them nothing. And it protects you - if they don't use you for the script, they can't use your outline. If they get arsy about it when you bring it up, then tell them you can't afford to spend time doing work for no money unless you know there's a script commission in it later on. If they're still arsy about it, tell them to fuck off, because they obviously have no respect for you, your time, or your work.
-- If a producer wants you to write a script, but "there's no money", walk away. Just walk away. Never, ever write a script for someone for free. There must be a minimum payment, and there must be a contract guaranteeing you the full fee when the financing falls into place. Any producer worth their salt can at least offer you a few hundred quid as an advance, even if it's an ultra low budget film. "Oh, but we can't pay anyone until we get fully financed, once the script is done then we'll get our budget. I can't pay anything right now." Come on, not even one hundred? A hundred quid? Surely they can spare that? Unless they're destitute, they can go to the fucking cashpoint and draw out five twenties, for Christ's sake. It's a meaningless, token amount, but it's a sign of respect and good faith. You're spending your time and effort doing all the work for them. If they're not willing to commit the bare minimum, tell them to fuck off. Then go and spend the time writing your own spec. If you're not getting paid anyway, you may as well do your own stuff.
-- There are a lot of dodgy people out there. You can usually smell them. If you think that someone is full of shit, or trying to pull a fast one, they probably are.
-- Most TV and film people are perfectly fine, though. And most of them are making it up as they go along, just as much as you are. So don't be scared of them.
-- If you can find smart people to work with, then do so. Learn everything you can from them. Working with the people who make Doctor Who and Torchwood has been an education in TV writing, because they're so scarily clever and talented. It's made me a better writer, sharpened up my skills, and got me into Olympic shape. It was like getting an intense writing masterclass, for free - better than free, they paid me to do it. The fools!
-- Given the choice between two equally talented people to work with, go for the one who you're happy spending several months in a room with. Again, the Doctor Who and Torchwood team are a shining example of this. There's no need for them to be so nice, they haven't got time to be, but they are, and that makes all the difference. And that's why people want to work with them - they're good at what they do, and great to work with. Life's too short to work with wankers.
-- The above rule goes double for you. Doesn't matter how good you are, if you're a nightmare to work with, then people won't want to work with you. You don't have to fellate everyone, but turn up on time, be polite and approachable, and don't be a dick. You would be amazed how many people don't bother with such trifles. There are some utter cocks out there, time wasting, useless fuckwits, both in front of and behind the camera. And when their names are mentioned in meetings, everyone rolls their eyes, and says "no thanks". I've seen two separate people state flat out that they would never, *ever*, under any circumstances, work with a certain person. To the point where they'd walk off the show if that certain person was hired. And that certain person is incredibly talented. But they're a twat. They still get work, but lots of people won't ever work with them. Don't be that person.
-- Unless you've gone in specifically to pitch something, never pitch an idea during a meeting. If they mention their giant robot project, and you've got a brilliant giant robot idea at home, don't pitch it to them there and then. You won't be ready, and you'll forget something, stumble over it, and look like a mumbling idiot. Mention that you have something along those lines, and can come back to pitch it or send them the outline. Then go home and work it out properly.
-- Don't assume the person in the meeting will know who you are, or what you've come in for. If you've gone to pitch something, and sent them an outline, they won't have read the outline or know what the hell is going on. I spent time working on a pitch document with a production company, then when we went in for the follow up meeting with the exec at the TV channel, it suddenly became obvious that he hadn't read the thing. He was *supposed* to have read it. That was the whole point, so we could then answer his follow-up questions. But he immediately asked a question that was answered in the FIRST PARAGRAPH of the pitch document. We glanced at each other, answered his question, and then spent much of the meeting answering things that were already in the document. It was very bizarre. And didn't fill us with confidence that he'd be a good exec to work with. Luckily, he left the company soon after, which I'm sure was nothing to do with our document. It was actually to do with the drugs and dead bodies I planted in his house.
-- Always over-prepare for meetings. Even if they've got a one page pitch they want you to write the script for, and are getting you in so they can explain it to you in detail. Because you'll walk in, ready to hear them pitch the full thing to you, and they'll say "So, what do you make of it? Where do you see it going? How would you approach it?" And you'll look like an idiot. Sure, they should have told you that's what the meeting was. But you should have over-prepared. Read the thing several times, make as many notes as you can - what would you do with it, how do you see the overall series, where would it go, what's the finale, what are three good, solid episode ideas? If it's a movie, work out what sort of movie you want to do, how it starts, the rough storyline, and at least 3 big scenes you want to get in there. That way you will always have more material than they'll ask for - you'll feel confident, prepared, and there's nothing they can ask that you won't have an answer for. And look at it from their point of view - they only have an idea, but now a confident writer has just walked in, overflowing with ideas, knows the material inside out, and will be able to generate a series/movie out of their one page concept. Like I said a few paragraphs back, they need to know that you're a professional, that you will get the job done, that their money is safe.
-- Sometimes you will over-prepare, but the meeting will be cancelled, and the whole project shelved. This has happened to me twice. For one, I bought a DVD and a book the day before the meeting, watched the DVD, read the book in a day (I'd read it before, but wanted it fresh in my mind), and made a page of notes for myself. I really wanted the job. The thing died, but I was more sorry to lose out on the job than to have wasted my time. Besides, it was good practice, and if the thing pops up again, I'll be ready for it.
-- Meetings, handshakes, "definite" commitments - none of it means anything. Until you sign that contract, until they film your script, until you're sitting in front of the cinema screen or TV set watching the damn thing, NOTHING is definite. You can have a brilliant meeting where they say they desperately want you to do their giant robot script, then never hear from them again. This happens ALL THE TIME. Sometimes they're bullshitting, usually they've just hit a stumbling block, or have been sacked, or the project dies, or they find a better, more exciting writer to work on it. They just won't bother letting you know that you're not their best friend anymore. Why would they? They gain nothing from it. And they don't care about you. To boil it down to numbers, 9 out of 10 things probably won't happen. Unless they all happen at once, and then you'll have to turn half of them down.
-- If you want to build a career, be treated like a human being, and enjoy what you do, then break into TV. If you want to feel like a piece of shit on someone's shoe, break into movies. If you really want to get a movie made, write the thing, make sure it's great, then try to sell it. But have another job while you're waiting, because it takes forever. I sold a movie, had it made, and it was a big success, even got released in America. For a year after I sold it, I tried getting other movies off the ground, and had no work at all. Things were so slow, I had to keep working at my dayjob to pay the rent. And that's a success story. Now I'm working in TV, I am writing full time, and have lots of work. And I'm very, very happy. I'm working on my own film projects on the side, but not rushing them. When they're ready, I'll send them out. With certain conditions attached. If those conditions aren't accepted, they can't have the film scripts, and I'll offer them around somewhere else. If they don't sell, they don't sell, and I'll have more writing samples to show people. Update from 2011: See the above thing about working with smart, nice people? I now have 2 more movies on the go, one has just finished filming. I may have more in the pipeline. All because of smart, nice people who are a pleasure to work with. And I've been treated incredibly well. The 2008 me was slightly bitter about the bad movie experiences... But everything else (don't wait, have other jobs on the go) still holds.
-- Bizarrely, the more you say no, or that you're too busy, the more they want you. It's some sort of Jedi mind trick. They think that if you're too busy, then you must be important and writing on lots of important shows. Which means they *have* to get you on theirs. Again, they need you more than you need them. Everything you do, everywhere you go, you must look like you're thinking: I don't need this. I have lots of other stuff to do. Not in an arrogant way. In a realistic way. I genuinely have a lot of work on. So I am picking and choosing what I do, very carefully. And sometimes, I'm just too busy. But the busier I get, the more work I get offered. It drives people crazy. They hate to think they might be missing out on something.
-- On every movie and TV show, there comes a moment when a location is lost, a prop won't work, or it's raining - something out of their control that means the scene can't be done as written. You'll have to make something up to replace it, or try and fudge it. Because you don't have time to second guess yourself, this can sometimes result in a moment of genius. Unless it results in you just going "errrrr", and falling over in a panic.
-- Most people - including your family and friends - will never quite understand exactly what you do. Until Severance had posters on buses, many people I know didn't get the fact that it was an actual film, in cinemas, showing everywhere. They'd keep asking: "So, where can we see it? Will there be a DVD copy? Will it be on at a certain cinema? Will they show it on TV?" But it goes deeper than that. When I got into TV writing, someone asked me, absolutely seriously: "So, when you've written the script, who writes the dialogue? Do you pass it on to the dialogue person?" The dialogue person?? What the fuck? Update from 2011: I still get asked things like that. "Do you describe everything that happens in the movie, or do you just put a rough idea of the storyline down?" I think most people assume that movies and TV shows are made by special, magical elves, and when someone says they "wrote" a movie, they really mean they simply had an idea ("man falls in love with giant robot") and told it to the magical elves, who then went off to make it out of fairy dust and unicorn shit.
-- As soon as you have any success at all, everyone will suddenly think you have The Magic Secret. Your opinion will be taken more seriously. People will ask you to read their writing. *Tons* of people. They'll think that you have some sort of special ability to look at it and proclaim "Make the dead rabbit into a giant robot", which will magically make it 1000 times better, and sell for squillions of pounds. I appreciate the vote of confidence, I really do, but I honestly don't know any more than you do. I have a talent for writing, and managed to sell something. I worked my arse off to get to this position, but I am still the same person. Although if you're asking? It never hurts to add a giant robot.
-- However, the above doesn't apply to execs and the like. They *know* you don't have The Magic Secret. They just hope you're clever enough to come up with the goods, constantly, quickly, no matter what. If they don't like what you've done, they'll tell you. And you will never, ever be able to predict their reaction.
-- No matter what you write, some people will hate it. Not just dislike it - *hate* it. Best thing you've ever written? Someone out there fucking despises it already, they just don't know it yet. Lots of someones. You can't please everyone, so just do your best work and make sure you're happy with it.
-- As well as not pleasing everyone, you'll have to face something very odd: lots of people will say stupid, personal shit about you, make stuff up, or slag you off on message boards. And it starts as soon as you get anything made. When I won the Sci Fi Shorts competition, I was briefly interviewed about it on TV, I was so excited and grateful. The next day, someone on a message board said I looked "smug". Wow, sorry for being happy! And it never ends. I've seen all sorts of weird shit. And you will get it too, no matter how reasonable you are. But when it comes down to it, you have to think: fuck them. Fuck them all in the ear. Don't respond to it, don't start explaining yourself, just laugh at them. Sure, you will probably respond to some of them. The urge can get too strong, sometimes I can't help myself. But we're not at school anymore, so people saying stupid shit has no effect on the real world, or on what other people think of you. And if you're one of the people saying stupid, personal shit - you are more than welcome to pick apart the scripts all you want, I put the work out there and am happy to get any praise or criticism as long people watch it, but fuck off with the other shit. Or come to me in person, say it to my face, and see what happens, fucker. Update from 2011: Dear Me From 2009: please re-read this paragraph, several times, then punch yourself in the face and don't reply to ANYONE. Kthxbye.
-- Yes, most people/companies will probably only read the first ten pages or so. Yes, this is unfair. Tough shit. Get over it. No, "the system" is not trying to keep you out, or crush aspiring writers, or give jobs to the chosen few. "The system" is desperate for a good script. But "the system" has a million of the fuckers to read, and most of them will be utter shite. "The system" is tired, busy, stressed, and if the first ten pages are crap, then there's no need to read further. In some cases, you can tell from the first page. Sometimes even from the title or "wacky" tagline. If you're ever in a production company, see if you can have a quick look at their slushpile - I guarantee you, you'll be cringing after one page. If you want them to read past the first ten pages, write a good script. If it's a good script, the first ten pages will be good. It's really simple. Imagine you're watching a new TV series, first episode. You switch it on, and the first 10 minutes are so gutwrenchingly poor, it hurts to watch. When the first ad break comes, do you stick it out? "Ah, yes, but you see, the way my script is constructed, you have to evaluate the entire thing to understand it properly, and--" No. Tough shit. Get over it. Are you going to visit the house of every single viewer while they're watching it, to explain why it's so brilliant? Or that "it *really* kicks off in episode 4"? Nobody cares about your feelings, they care about good scripts. I'm not saying that the first ten pages have to make perfect sense, and be fully set up and explained. They just have to be good. If the first ten pages aren't good, they won't keep reading, and won't discover the amazingly clever construction of your story. So make it good. Simple as that.
-- Ultimately, the only thing that matters is a good script. Fuck screenwriting books written by people who've never written a script in their lives, filled with diagrams about inciting incidents and detailed analyses of *completed* movies instead of scripts. You don't need any special qualifications, nobody will ask you for a CV, you don't need a driving licence or a passport or a special book or a special hat or anything. When that script lands on the desk of an agent or producer or whoever, they will turn to page 1, and start reading. All they want is a good script. Nothing else matters. So go and write one.