Wednesday, January 17, 2007

How I Got Started

Just the kind of information I vainly searched for when I was starting out, when all I could find was interviews with writers in the Paris Review, and I never really saw myself in the Hemingway/Faulkner/Parker league. And I write it once and don't need to again, which is very appealing, as 'how did you get started?' is the second question at social gatherings. The first being 'what have you written?', the answer usually greeted with 'never seen it, don't want television much.' So where are the 6 or 7 million who do watch these ruddy shows, then?


I always wanted to be a writer, mainly because the lifestyle seemed so appealing - peer respect, lots of time spent in cafes and libraries, nice bags etc.* - but never bothered to take the first and most essential step, which is actually writing something**. Except for a few stories on a creative writing module at college, which didn't do much more than give me THE FEAR, which paralysed my soul whenever I attempted to write a story - 'yes, but what does it mean?' - and put me off writers groups for life.

Flash swiftly forward past street theatre and community arts and fireworks and stuff, to a short story competition in Woman's Own.

Yes really.

I reckoned that most entries would be bloody rotten rubbish, and if I didn't get a positive response from that I should take it as confirmation that my silly writer dreams should remain in the foetid pipe where they were so firmly wedged. I didn't win, but I did get a nice letter saying how much they'd liked my story, along with three romantic novellas as a runners up prize.

What more positive omen could you get? A writer I would be, by god!

I read somewhere that it takes ten years for someone to get really good at anything, so gave myself ten years. I also read that radio was where everyone started, so wrote a radio play, which wasn't made, but which introduced me to a producer at Radio Scotland who did make the next one I wrote, which was transmitted on Radio 4. A writer by god I was!

I imagined the next step would be red carpets and interviews on review shows, but the next step was Radio 4 not commissioning any new drama for 18 months because they had such a backlog to transmit.

Mm. Ah. And my Enterprise Allowance year*** was running out.

I went to a 3 session screenwriting night class at an Arts Centre in Glasgow, where the guy who was supposed to run it couldn't make it for one night, and was replaced by Paul Pender, a BBC script editor disenchanted with the corporation, TV, and Tory Britain, who told our tiny group of freaks, therapy-seekers****, and wastrels to forget about the UK entirely, it was a dead loss getting anything decent on, and just write for Hollywood.

So I did.

And so did he, and went on to write and produce Evelyn, amongst other stuff.

And I wrote lots of scripts, and they were really not very good at all. However, I knew they weren't very good, which had two benefits; I could see I needed to improve, and I didn't send them out to anyone, and so didn't poison any wells.

I wrote more. And I got better.

I entered various short film competitions run by Scottish Screen, and had a few meetings with people who all made encouraging noises, went on a couple of junkets
and 'training' schemes*****, got to know a few people, and with the assistance of some cash from Scottish Screen, got a place on the first North by Northwest******, a very unusual for the time screenwriter's training programme that brought USC gurus to Europe for three weeks over six months to help editors and writers develop viable scripts.

And on that programme I wrote a good feature script.

From the short story comp to here took about eight years of working in a corner shop and office temping.

Self-belief or sheer bloody mindedness must have been a factor.

The script got me an agent, Big H, and was optioned. Big H got me meetings, the script and meetings got me a commission for a treatment to adapt a crime novel for STV, and the script and contacts in Scottish Screen got me a gig on Tube Tales.

The STV crime treatment went down very well, but the project got gazumped. However, the developing producer there, writer/teacher/editor/producer/all round guru and fantastic man Philip Palmer, persuaded the Head of Drama that moribund Taggart needed an injection of youthful energy (not that I was youthful any more; the picture rots in the attic), and so got Danny McCahon, another writer who'd been encouraged by Scottish Screen, and I gigs on that.
And that Taggart got me another Taggart. Which, along with the feature script, got me Rebus. Which helped me get The Bill...

...And so it goes, my industry connections broadening and developing all the time - my first editor on Taggart went on to produce Life on Mars (and I had to turn down the first series, having signed up for a Lynley - one of life's little regrets...), editors from The Bill moved to the BBC and introduced me to the Lynley people, the company responsible for Rebus produced Afterlife, and on...

The feature script, the last spec script I wrote, now long buried in the British feature development swamp*******, still works as a calling card.

What next?

which goes to show how deluded people who would like to be writers but haven't done any yet really are.

**probably because I feared that it would be rubbish and prove my ambition sadly misplaced. I suspect I was one of those 'but of course, what I really want to do is write' twats.

*** an odd sort of jobseekers scheme created to get the unemployment figures down, where you could set up a business for a year and get an income equivalent to the dole. Must have sustained thousands of people in the arts community at the time. Sadly defunct.

****amongst whom was someone who became one of my best friends and plays a significant later role. Not one of the freaks, I should point out. The freaks included a lovely man who wrote using green ink on maths exercise books. Oddly enough, he had the best idea for a project, but I doubt it got further than the scabby room where we met.

*****The screenwriting education system/industry was nothing like the shiny machine it has since become, and mainly consisted of seasoned pros saying 'not quite good enough, but do keep trying, you're doing very well'.

******Created by that same friend I met at the Arts Centre in Glasgow, who didn't write in green ink, but did go on to do mysterious stuff in film finance which I don't quite understand, but which never fails to impress me. So I had an in - plus a bloody good idea, and enough craft by that time to make the resulting script work well

*******don't make me go back, Wayne, not the swamp, I cain't stand it, the flies, the stench, the black sucking mud...