Wednesday 11 September 2013, 12:43
Not the subtlest blog title I’ve ever thought up. As some of you may have noticed in recent announcements, I am leaving the BBC for pastures new after a number of years bringing writers through to a lasting relationship at the BBC. It’s also goodbye from Hannah Rodger, who will be going to CBBC to develop that lasting relationship with the talent that is coming through. Michelle Brooks will be taking over from Hannah, a new Development Producer will be taking the reins in November, and in the meantime everyone here is working very hard on initiatives that will be announced in the coming weeks – esubmissions, the website ‘lab’, the next Script Room, and more. So watch this space.
It seemed fitting to write a final blog in my final week; and it still seems to be the case that some writers have a not-quite-accurate sense of what we do, how we do it, why we do it, and how things really work. So here are a few popular myths I’d like to explore:
That writersoom is only for first-time writers. Anyone in the UK can send in their work at some point or other, and writersroom expends a lot of energy working with writers who are emerging, emerged or simply not very new at all.
That all we do is read unsolicited scripts and run the website. We do a VAST amount more – a stream of schemes, projects and partnerships with departments across the BBC and with external partners to find, develop and produce writers. Oh, and the TV Drama Writer’s Festival. Some of these things don’t get advertised as such, because they are high-level, professional, targeted opportunities for writers. The way to be considered for them is to impress us so much with your work via Script Room or any other given talent search that we will then feel compelled to put such opportunities in front of you. But just because you don’t know about it publicly, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
That we look for scripts to produce and that we look for certain genres or topics at any one time. It’s our job to find writers over and above ideas to make. Which doesn’t mean to say we won’t promote anything brilliant we find if we think someone at the BBC will be interested in developing it. And unsolicited/spec scripts can and do get made. But rarely. And it’s all about the writer in the first instance.
That we show scripts we are rejecting to BBC departments/colleagues without writers knowing. This NEVER, EVER happens. Literally.
That getting feedback is a rejection. Over 90% of scripts don't get comments, so feedback should be seen as a palpable measure of success.
That our readers are [delete as appropriate]: work experience trainees; lacking any actual experience in the industry; too young; too old We NEVER use work experience trainees or people without tangible, considerable industry experience. At a glance, some of the TV credits of current/recent readers includes: Miranda, Bluestone 42, Utopia, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, Skins, Fresh Meat, Coming Up, EastEnders, Emmerdale, Casualty, Holby City, Waterloo Road, The Bill, Half Moon Investigations, Doctors, River City, Sadie J. And that’s just some of the TV. We don’t care (and don’t ask) how old they are, only that they have experience - though you’d be hard pushed to have amassed the kind of experience listed above without having a few arduous years under your belt.
That we only put writers on BBC soaps. We’re looking for writers with original voices for any platform, any network, and any opportunity that comes up – which could be a soap, but frequently and predominantly is not. (Though as Jimmy McGovern once replied when asked about the value of writing on soaps: you should be so lucky)
That there is some sort of 'blacklist' of writers that exists at the BBC. Well, if there is then it is so top secret that I’ve never seen or heard of it.
That most of our opportunities are for writers based in London. I can’t recall there ever being something only for London writers, and we try to spread events across the UK in so far as a very small team can manage.
That the opportunities listed on our website are run by us and are our responsibility. Sometimes they are, and it will be clearly stated that they are. Otherwise, we put up opportunities that as far as we are aware are free for writers to enter, and are being run by some kind of established organisation or company with a genuine interest in writers and new writing. But if it isn’t clearly stated as being run by us, then we don’t get involved in how they are run.
That we have a separate Writersroom North team. It is all one team - that speaks regularly.
That there is such a thing as a "BBC staff writing job". If only. In fact, BBC Radio Comedy has had staff writers at times over the years, a high-level gig that has gone to such luminaries as Douglas Adams. Some writers on high-volume drama and comedy shows become core or ‘contract’ writers, which means they are so good/wanted that they have a deal with that show. But no-one has a ‘job’ as staff writer. And the gigs described above are for those writers that everyone wants to work with.
That no-one has ever really been produced as a consequence of the work of writersroom. The oldest chestnut is the hardest to dispel for some reason. See here for the truth.
You might genuinely be surprised at just how many myths and misconceptions persist. I’m not sure why that is. I think ultimately, perhaps, some writers hear what they want to hear because the truth can be difficult and uncomfortable – that being a writer is hard, that writing well is hard, that getting a break is hard, that being successful is hard. And this is understandable. These are all hard, all difficult things that all writers face on a daily basis. I don’t know of any great writers who have ‘had it easy’ (or go on to have it easy at any point in their career). I know plenty of great writers who work very hard to make the most of the luck and opportunities that cross their path. So here’s an extra popular myth to add to the ones above:
That if we like your script, then commissions will quickly come pouring in and you can relax.
The truth is that someone liking your script is usually the start of what can be a long, complex, frustrating road towards making a living out of writing. Writersroom does everything it can to help writers along that road, and writersroom does it very well. But you are the captains of your own ship, and you have to take the ultimate responsibility for how you steer it – and for what it looks like. No-one can ultimately, consistently make you a better writer but you. You can’t relax.
And following on, I think perhaps the biggest myth of them all – not just pertaining to writersroom, but to scriptwriting universally – is the one that I can’t and won’t shy away from here:
That there is some kind of short-cut, some kind of easy way around the difficulties, some kind of magical handbook with all the answers in neat bullet-pointed form.
The truth is that writing well is difficult. Always. It is meant to be difficult. There is no short-cut, no easy way around, no handy answers that always (or often, or even sometimes) work. There is talent, voice, intelligence, application, persistence, and honing your skills again and again and again ad infinitum. There is no idyllic time and place in a writer’s career where commissions stream in, finished scripts fall more or less fully formed out of the writer’s head, and everyone just loves the finished thing without any reservations. The reality is just not like that. And it would be a lie to suggest that it could be.
But. And this is an important but. If you have that talent and voice and intelligence, and are ready and willing to embrace the difficulty, to presume it will be hard, to be your own harshest critic, to roll with the punches, to persist when everyone is saying no (and yet listen to feedback even when your instinct is to reject it), to value your strengths but acknowledge your weaknesses. If you can do these things, then you will be armed and ready to set out on that long road, to keep going, to improve, to hurdle any obstacles – and to grab with both hands any opportunity that comes your way. If you think you can do these things, then from the perspective of writersroom and the BBC (or Creative England, or Channel 4’s Coming Up, or the new writing theatres, or anyone else who works with talent), you are exactly the kind of person they want to hear from.
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