Monday, March 27, 2006

Ten-Year Plan

Of course, no-one likes their work being rejected. Once a script hits fade out, the hope and expectation is always that someone, somewhere will recognise the obvious talent behind the words. In this case, a good script can do one of three things: act as a reliable writing sample, create the opportunity of an option/development fee or at the very least grant a meeting with the suitably impressed producer/script editor/tea boy.

However, while this ideal sounds fairly basic and straightforward, it takes time and momentum to get to the stage where your work can be favourably received and considered. In theory, anyone from a child to an old age pensioner can write a script over the weekend and get their career off the ground but in reality, it takes a lot more toil and energy to write something that will be remotely of interest to a tired and cynical script reader.

MA courses in screenwriting are all the rage now and for the most part, they offer great value and experience in producing a variety of work and in studying the craft of screenwriting. However, in my experience with the MA course in Leeds Metropolitan University, many of the students assumed automatic success or a jump start to their careers once they graduated.

Every time this assumption raised its misguided head, I tried to lay down the practicalities and realities involved in getting a writing career off the ground but you could see them dismissing the thought in their eyes as if it didn’t apply to them. One student said: “This course is so hard. We have all these projects to write. Six, seven on the go. It won’t be like this in the real world; I’ll be working on one project at a time and building my career”. I tried to tell him that the reality is you’ll be desperate to have six, seven projects on the go, and would be living on tenterhooks if you only had one project to rely on (unless it’s a guaranteed amount of eps on a soap or a handsome development fee).

The commonly referenced amount of time to ‘make it’ as a screenwriter is that it’ll take ten years to get your career up and running. Ten years seems like an awfully long time for little or no return on a screenwriting vision. But after six years of living the dream, I can understand and relate to the ten-year plan with a more experienced and appreciative eye.

For the first four years, I spent a lot of time focusing on study: reading thousands of scripts, devouring everything in my screenwriting path, immersing myself in screenplay culture. This study was combined with the hard graft of getting scripts written and forging relevant contacts to advance my career. I managed to option a couple of my scripts and this felt good but hardly reassuring for my bank balance. My break came when I was accepted on to Doctors (two years ago) and then later that year, I won the BBC Tony Doyle award.

Even with this limited success, it feels like that the experience thus far has been my apprenticeship and only now does my career start in earnest. Basically, the work and development I’m busy with now is what I wanted/expected to be doing five/six years ago. Choosing a screenwriting career is not an easy life. Overnight success takes years to accumulate. Rejection awaits your work on every submission. Confidence takes a regular battering and an energetic social life, and the income to support it, quickly goes out the window. An interest becomes an obsession and the obsession becomes the career. Or at least, that’s the plan…

Jimmy McGovern, TV writer God, is interviewed by Media Guardian (free registration required). Check out his CV and timespan at the end...


Danny Stack said...

Some unexpected problems with Blogger, hence the post x3. Will take down as soon as I can...

Dan said...

I too had this '10 year plan' thing in my head when I embarked on a writing career. I didn't have specific goals in my mind, I just expected it to take a good decade to get going. I decided not to focus on any one area, but instead try my hand at different things: radio, TV, film, print. As it turns out, two years in and I've had success with radio drama. This was a surprise not only because it shattered my 'ten year' plan eight years earlier than expected, but also because radio was something I hadn't really studied too much.

Now I've found myself with some good contacts with the Beeb and was recently asked to write a series of radio monologues for the Queen's 80th birthday. It's up to me now to build on this and seek out new opportunities.

Julian Fellows was labelled as an 'overnight success' after winning the Oscar for best original screenplay? I believe he agreed, but added it had taken him over twenty years to achieve it!

Lucy said...

The journey is part of what makes you a writer. Take it away and you're left with nothing much, really. We need this "What if?" torture I reckon: there's a part in every writer that's a little masochistic I think ; )

Also, not convinced MA's and even BA's are always the best of ideas, especially if you're going to take everything as a given: from my own experience first at uni and then out in the real world I've realised I was taught a few (albeit minor) things that were misguided at Bournemouth. I have also had a fair few scripts now from an MA (that will remain nameless) that were so appalling I was left speechless. When I queried these things I was told in no uncertain terms their lecturers had taught them it AND they believed them over me. Which is fine, but why pay me to read their screenplays? Weird...not that I'm complaining!

Fran said...

For me, blogs and posts like this are a great support. I've spent the last three years trying to learn the craft of screenwriting, reading anything I can get my hands on, attending courses when time and finances permit - and most of all writing. And writing. And writing.

I know that I'm a better writer this month than I was last month. And next month I'll be better still. What have a got out of it financially? Zero. But emotionally I've learned things about myself I would never have learned. I've met people I never would have met. And I've seen things at the cinema that I never would have seen.

In short, screenwriting has opened my eyes and emptied my bank account. I call that a bargain.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Lucy. Thanks a million.

Dom Carver said...

I'd like to pick up on something Lucy mentioned. I also did the BA in Scriptwriting for Film & TV at Bournemouth and I too felt I was misguided on a few things. I came away with total belief in my writing and my ability, but with the unrealistic target that I would sell my first screenplay and make a shed load of money; fame and fourtune beckoned.

I was a fool and I wasted three years trying to flog a feature thriller and write a feature comedy with the intention of selling that too. I was naive because I only realised later that on average 40 films are made in the UK annually. That's not even 1% of the scripts submitted to production companies each year. If I had been taught this on my BA I would have been more realistic about my chances when graduating and I would have approached my career from a different angle. I had been taught my craft and my talent had been nurtured, but I feel strongly that I was never prepared for the real world, and how to survive in a cruel and competetive market.

A closed mind is the quickest way to fail. Mine is now open and I listen to advice.

Read loads, gain contacts and work to improve yourself; that's what I've learned in the five years since graduating. No one may ever option the scripts you've written so far but a good script can open doors and get you on your way. Very rarely do you find several hundreds of thousands of pounds being spent on a script from a new writer. Being a writer is like an appreticeship, you have to start at the bottom (no matter what you think you know, or may have been taught) and you have to earn that break.

Ten years??? I don't care if it takes twenty years, or even thirty, I'm here for the long run.

Robin Kelly said...

"from my own experience first at uni and then out in the real world I've realised I was taught a few (albeit minor) things that were misguided at Bournemouth."

Lucy, could you expand on that please. What things?

Anonymous said...

The 10-year plan is a good, realistic approach. I've heard it said that "in Hollywood, no one ever fails, they just give up." What exposure I've had certainly bears that out. I have an immensely talented friend who's been living in LA for the past couple years. If he sticks it out for ten, I guarantee he'll make it. Like the rest of y'all, I too am in it for the long haul. Ten years, twenty years, whatever.

Abe Burnett

swagga1 said...

kewl comments.

Great thing about script writing is that people can tell if you're real, rather than fake.

I find that liberating, plus let's face it - you can never respect priveledge.