Thursday 3 November 2011, 10:53
I've been devouring the contents of the Writers' Room for years, so I'm a little intimidated to say the least at trying to add to the store of excellent knowledge that's already here. And for a good reason. It's not as if I have much experience of TV writing - in fact, I have precisely one experience of TV writing. But it was on my own show, so I've been trying to think what was perhaps different about Death in Paradise that meant that it got picked up, when all of my other stories and pitches before now weren't.
There are obviously a million factors as to why a show is or isn't commissioned, but I think there were two things that I did differently this time which made the process that little bit more likely to succeed. 1) I came up with an idea that only I could write. 2) I then gave it to someone who could make it.
Doesn't seem like much, does it? But I realise that in all of the years I've been writing, I've rarely been pitching/writing stories that only I could tell; and I've never managed to get them to a person who could then get the show made (QED, Death in Paradise is my first broadcast credit).
To take the first of these points - writing a story that only I could tell. This is of course no more than a pumped-up version of the old adage to 'write what you know', but I think it's an adage that needs a little pumping up. In fact, here's what I wish I'd been told when I was starting out screenwriting many, many years ago: find the thing that's particular about yourself - the thing, whatever it is, that only you know - that you are passionate about. The world that you know inside out, or the outlook on life that only you could have. Identify how this is special to you... and then write the arse out of it with total commitment, passion and love.
That's what I wish I'd known when I started out, because it otherwise took me well over a decade to notice that the one form of TV I watch above all others is light-hearted murder mysteries. It's the genre I most love - they're the books I've always read - and it can't be a coincidence that when I finally got a show off the ground, it was in a genre that I am absolutely passionate about. (Any more than it's entirely coincidental that the male hero of my show is a middle-aged uptight neurotic with increasingly debilitating OCD tendencies. And, while I'm here in these parentheses, being sure you're working in a genre that you already adore will be a necessary crutch during the weeks of grinding work you have ahead of you).
To put it another way, if you're an unproduced writer - as I was at the time - what I think you're trying to avoid being is entirely generic. If your idea is generic - and could be written by any number of other writers - then what's going to jolt a channel or producer out of their pre-existing apathy towards you and actually commission you to write the script?
I think that you have to pitch an idea so compellingly cut throughout with your own DNA that when they come to consider commissioning a script - or even a treatment - they can't disassociate the idea for the show from you as the person who 'gets' the idea best - and lo and behold, they won't just buy the idea, they'll have to commission you (against their better judgement) to write the script. After all, it's so specifically something that you're brilliantly knowledgeable and passionate about, who else could they get to write it? Paul? Abi? Russell T? How could they? Those writers wouldn't have your command of the material or your passion.
Then of course you've just got to write it brilliantly, but that only takes years of practice, hard work, slog, blood, sweat, tears, pain, joy and misery to master, so let's just take that as read, shall we?
And this brings me to my second point. Once you've got your brilliant idea that only you could write - or treatment or spec - what do you do with it now? Well, you sell it, of course, to whoever will buy it. Um... well yes of course, that is exactly what you must now do - and any sale of a script is better than no sale, of course that's also true - but let me take you back to 2007 to a time when my career had pretty much come to a complete standstill.
(I say 'career', but I spent most of the 2000s working as a temp secretary and freelance script reader - feverishly running up and down Oxford Street picking up scripts in my lunch break that I'd then read and write reports on while back at my office desk under the guise of doing my secretarial work).
By 2007, though, I realised that while I'd been selling the odd script - maybe at a rate of one a year - I couldn't work out why my 'career' didn't seem to be gathering any momentum. It seemed, in fact, that for every two steps I was making forwards, I would then following it with precisely two steps backwards.
It may seem a simplistic observation - and I think I was somewhat dimwitted not to have noticed sooner - but I realised I'd been thinking of the sale of a script as an end in itself - as though that was the 'prize' in and of itself (a not unreasonable assumption when the cash a script sale generated could briefly pluck me out of the clutches of the typing pool). But what I slowly began to understand was that the 'end' of a script sale shouldn't be the sale, it should be the production of the script. In effect, what I needed to do was find a producer who not only wanted to commission a script from me, but who also had the clout, drive and similar insane passion as I did to get the script produced.
My great stroke of good fortune was that I came to this realisation at about the same time that Tony Jordan was establishing his Red Planet Prize (the only script competition in the UK worth entering, IMHO - it's free and the rewards for entering are tangible, as I can attest - ahem). Tony announced he had set up his company with the express intent of finding new talent and he promised, as an established show creator, that if he found any ideas out there he loved, he'd do everything in his power to get the show made, no matter how inexperienced the writer was.
It was like a lightbulb going off in my head. I had to get to Tony - by whatever means. So I entered the competition, got into the finals and eventually got the chance to pitch my 'Copper in the Caribbean' idea to him. Luckily for me, Tony and his team loved the pitch, and now I saw for the first time what happens when you have a producer attached to your idea who has real clout and passion. No obstacles were insurmountable, no doubts were to be brooked - we were going to make the show or we were going to die trying. Now that's the sort of Producer you should be trying to find to work with.
Of course, not everyone has the good fortune to have Tony as their Exec (although, can I point out that the Red Planet prize for 2011 is launching again in the next week or so?), but the principle still holds: when you've got your perfect idea that only you could write, you must try with all your will to find that one producer out there who feels the same about the idea as you do - whether they're established or a complete newcomer - because their passion and commitment to selling the idea is arguably going to prove more important in the long run than your ability to write the idea well in the first place.
Okay, so that's me done - thanks for sticking with me for this long - but before I go, there's one last thing I feel I should say on this blog, even though it's such a dangerous idea - seditious, even and possibly the least helpful thing you'll ever hear. You won't necessarily thank me for this, but here goes:
Never give up. I was an unproduced screenwriter who had been struggling for years when it happened out of nowhere for me.
You could be next.
Robert Thorogood is the writer of BBC One's new detective drama set in the Caribbean, Death in Paradise.
Watch Death in Paradise on BBC One at 9pm on Tuesdays.
Catch up on episode 1 and 2 on BBC iPlayer.
Read a blog about working on the series from Gary Carr, who plays Det. Fidel Best, on the BBC TV blog.
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