Monday, August 14, 2006

Guest Post: Doctors

A guest post from a regular writer of Doctors.


Actually, I meant to email you some time ago because yes, I did get a shot at this year's writer's academy and I read your post from last year about it as part of my prep, so thank you for that. Not that it did me much good, as I didn't get as far as you... more on that below.


Current status - writer for Doctors for 4-5 years now, with my good friend M - we're currently writing our 22nd episode, I think, so we average 4-5 episodes a year. When they had block contracts for Doctors - basically a guarantee you will write 4 episodes in a series - we had one, which was a nice comfort blanket though the money still isn't that great and of course we only get one fee to split between two of us. Current fee for an ep for experienced writers is about £3.6k.

We really, really like writing for Doctors. A lot of other people we know who write for the show, with more experience than us elsewhere, say that it is one of the nicer shows to work for. You have a lot of freedom to tell original stories, the people are for the most part very pleasant and supportive, and generally it is a more "writer-friendly" show than many that are out there. Obviously being daytime the pressures on the production team are correspondingly less, which must help. Typically you do a scene by scene and four script drafts, or three and a polish, within a 4-5 week timeframe.

We've also done half a dozen or so episodes for a kid's show you probably didn't see called Planet Cook.

I did a solo radio play last year on Radio 4 with a local producer up here in Suffolk. Having not been that interested in radio, I really enjoyed the experience - though my producer/director had a lot to do with that, as she was very collaborative - and would be keen to do more, but have failed to get any ideas through in the last three radio drama rounds.

M and I are developing various projects jointly and separately. We became a writing team almost by accident (BBC Talent came up in 2000, or was it 2001, we didn't have time to both do entries, so we wrote half a script each, joined it together, and got short-listed. From then on we were a team, to our mild surprise, but it works very well. From then it took about 12-14 months, I think, to get our first ideas accepted on Doctors, but luckily we’ve got stories through quite regularly since then.

We acquired an agent who is very good and pro-active and who we get on very well with. She watches all our episodes and gives us feedback, which seems to be rare. She's also incredibly friendly to us (she sends our kids presents!!) and ferocious on negotiations with producers, which is a good combination. We got her through Doctors, as she phoned our script editor there and asked if there was anybody who they rated who didn't have representation.

We both have day jobs, as the money from writing just isn't enough to support two wives and two toddlers.

Writers' Academy - we suspect the Doctors team pushed quite hard to get some of their hardcore writers on to this, as there was a good sprinkling of Doctors writers there. And apparently none of us got through, but that may not be correct, or if it is, just bad luck.

Aside: There is a general sense, I think, that moving on from Doctors is harder than it should be. It's always been claimed to be the "nursery slopes" for writers, but there is certainly no easy path on from there and certainly nobody comes looking for you. As always, you have to keep knocking on doors, making contacts, politely but firmly pushing yourself forward... we've had near misses with The Bill, Casualty, EastEnders and Emmerdale. In each case we had a meeting, been asked to send in scripts as a follow-up, and then been told no thanks. Or in at least one case, heard nothing further at all.

Anyway, we went along to the Writers' Academy "workshop" last month, participated in the group discussions, did our "scenes in an hour", went away and did the first 10 pages of an EastEnders script over night... and got told thanks, but no thanks. Feedback has been a little vague but as far as we can tell we fell down on the "scenes in an hour" exercise.

That was a bit of a blow - we hoped at least to get to the interview stage - but so it goes. It's hardly news that this is a staggeringly tough business and you hear 99 no's for every one yes. At least we have Doctors, and we're proud of our work there, and we have some new leads which have come up just this week which we're exploring. Fingers crossed.

Very happy to field questions on Doctors, as it's really the only area where I can speak with any authority...


Thanks! Just what I had in mind for guest posts. Keep 'em coming friends. On any matter or subject relating to the world of scriptwriting & script reading in the UK.


Anonymous said...

Thanks to Danny and Guest for such a good post. I don’t know about other people, but I find such anecdotal stories highly inspiring. Sure, by their own admission Guest & M haven’t truly cracked it yet, but to me, an aspiring screenwriter much further down the foodchain than they are, getting a slice of the story of how they have achieved what they have so far, is great.

Some quick questions of “guest”, if I may?

How do you find balancing the day job, family and trying to build a screenwriting career? Does it make the Doctor’s deadlines much more pressured, as you’ll be writing after a full-day at work?

Thanks again


Neither Clever said...

The thing that puts me off the Doctors route is the same thing that makes it better, in some ways, to the other soaps. Last time I tried to get through the door, I had a spec episode I'd failed to finish in time for BBC Talent, but sent it to them anyway. It - and I - got through a fair number of hoops but in the end it was apparently too similar to another one already in production. So they said 'send us storylines', which is all well and good.

Except storylines are what takes me ages. Way longer than actually writing the script. And you have to punt them to the Doctors team in half dozens, without that good a hit rate, even if you've already done some episodes. So in the end, it was very frustrating and some other projects became better bets.

Do they still ask for loads of storylines, or has that changed?

Anonymous said...

Immensely useful post...

Anonymous said...

Frank - balancing the day job is tricky, but if I'm honest I'm a little luckier than most as I'm self-employed (software designer) and so I can usually juggle my time reasonably flexibly. And having two of us gives more options as well - when my son was born M was able to step in and do the bulk of the work, and I was able to return the favour when he and his wife had their little boy.

There can also be quite a lot of "dead time" when doing a script - I sent in the second draft of our current script last Monday, and haven't heard back yet (Monday night), so for the last week I've been able to catch up on other things. I may well get notes tomorrow, and that will probably be Wednesday and Thursday gone. So it could be a lot worse.

Having said that, we're currently doing three scripts back to back and that has been quite intense, not least because I've also been very busy on the software side.

M has it tougher as he's a teacher and his hours are tougher and completely lacking in flexibility. So I tend to be the point man for getting notes, etc.

I do have days when I wonder if having the "day job" means I'll never be as a good a writer I could be. And the answer is, yes, it probably does. But most days I'm OK with that. I'm also lucky in that I really enjoy my other work. But if we'd got on the Writer's Academy, for example, then I would have had some hard choices to make, as that would have been a year of intense work with very little time to do other things.

"Neither Clever" - yes, storylines are still something you have to send in some quantity, and we (according to our script ed) have one of the better batting averages of probably getting one in three or one in four through. (And we can never predict which ones.)

It is draining. And it is demoralising when you send in five which you're really pleased with and they all get knocked back, which certainly still happens to us.

Again, it helps having a partner to bat the idea off, as we tend to do storylines individually and then get the other to read it and comment. So typically we'll be saying things like "nice twist, but where's the second act", or "great characters, but the doctor's barely involved". So before we send them in we they've usually been pretty well polished. I'm sure that's helped us a lot.

You've probably heard this before, but the things you'll be told about storylines are:
- Strong guest characters. Don't worry about them being likeable, just make them interesting.
- A strong medical angle
- The doctor must be involved in resolving the story. You don't have to give complete closure, but your characters should be at a new point in their lives at the end of your story.
- As much plot as you can squeeze in. If you were telling this story in 45 minutes, would you have enough to tell?
- Ideally a twist in the tail.

Hope this helps.

- "Guest"

Anonymous said...

Thanks again for sharing your experiences and for posting the follow-up info.

Good luck with your future writing,