Monday, March 24, 2008

It IS all very, very scary.

From the last post's comment thread, Anonymous writes:

I've finished writing a script, and am a bit unsure what to do now. I have no experience in the industry at all, but want to get it sent off and... I was wondering if you could give me some advice.

Further research reveals:

It's a sitcom for television; I've written 3 episodes in full and have ideas for 3 more with my friend. Essentially, we don't have any contacts or experience at all, and so feel a bit lost and confused. For example, we don't know what sort of tone our covering letters should have, or how the whole thing works. Do we send it to as many production companies as we can find, or what? It all seems very, very scary...

Hmm. With my MANY YEARS OF EXPERIENCE AT THE TOP OF THIS INDUSTRY (/Sugar), I think probably two things to do straight away:

1. Write a brief outline, about half a page, saying what kind of thing it is you've written (half hour sitcom in this case), what's it's about, who the main characters are and roughly where the stories will be going (turns out I've written a thing about this here, hurrah).

The bad news is, I don't know how many production companies read anything that hasn't been sent to them by an agent. And if they do read unsolicited material, it won't be until they've got all their proper work done. So send it to them by all means, but don't expect an answer for a long long time.

The good news is, the BBC do have a mechanism for reading unsolicited scripts, via the Writer's Room website. The ratio of readers to scripts is pretty low, so again, it may take a while to get a response, but in time, a response is what you should get. So while you're waiting for that to happen, you need to get on with:

2. Find an agent. Look at the credits of shows you like, see who the writers are, google their names, find out who their agents are. Send your script with a brief, polite covering letter including the quick outline mentioned earlier (my own agent Matt Connell wrote a useful list of things agents are looking for in scripts here).

Once you've got an agent, he'll do all the sending to production companies for you, and they'll read it and get back much more quickly. But in the meantime, for god's sake start writing something else. Because there's every chance someone, an agent. production company reader, or person from the BBC will read it, love it, and already have or know of something very similar in production. So practically the best case scenario is that they'll ask 'What else have you got?' And 'Errrrrr' is not an acceptable answer.

Added to which, an agent wants someone who's in it for the long haul. They want to be constantly sending out outlines, looking at new material, finding interesting new ways for you to bring them in money.

And added to that, you can very quickly go mad waiting to hear back from production companies, and agents, only to find two years has gone by, and your script is hopelessly out of date anyway. So by the time someone does get back to you, make sure you've got something new to show them.

The 'what else have you got' question, by the way, is why I wouldn't write the first three episodes of anything, if I hadn't got a solid commitment from a broadcaster or production company. Just write the first script in full, because if it turns out you have to make biggish changes in that one, the knock-on effects could mean throwing the next two already-written scripts out of the window. As an example, the protagonist of the last sitcom script I wrote began as an unstoppable hitman, but by the third draft worked in a record shop specialising in obscure Scandinavian electronica. I mean I still could have had a lot of killing in the next two episodes, it just would have been harder to justify. Although possibly funnier. Hmm.

And all that said, the fact that I recently got my final cheque for the 'unstoppable hitman who turns into a clerk working a record shop specialising in obscure Scandinavian electronica' sitcom pilot with no other comment - no 'we liked this but' or 'ooh not sure', or even a kindly 'go away, you're shit', just... nothing, suggests I am THE WORST PERSON ON EARTH to proffer advice on getting your sitcom made. So if you work in a production company, or the bbc, or are an agent, and think I have just written a load of old useless toss, do please leave a comment below. If you're from Channel 4, a simple cheque will suffice.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Many years ago I wrote the full SIX (count 'em!) half hour episodes of a quirky sitcom for teens with fantasy bits. I won't do that again. Though the BBC did have the good manners to return my mountain of paper two years later saying it had got lost in 'the labyrinth of internal bureaucracy'. I imagined the feverish tug o' wars that were taking place between various producers desperate for my material rather than it sitting forlornly on a bowed shelf somewhere. That's how INSANELY optimistic you have to be starting out...

Alex

Jayne said...

Working for a publisher, most of the stuff I get is just genuinely insane. Or sad. I receive at least 10 unsoliciteds a week from people who want to "allow" me to publish their children's book - usually submitted handwritten (and illustrated in felt tip pen).

And you'd be amazed how many use green ink...

Anonymous said...

Jayne, the nutters always use green ink. Personally, I use invisible ink so nobody can steal my ideas. But seriously, James is right - keep writing, don't wait for replies. Eventually (and I mean EVENTUALLY) good writing gets noticed...

Alex

james henry said...

Ooh I like the idea of illustrating in felt tip - I'm currently on the 11th draft of my kid's book, and am thinking this might just be the finishing touch it needs...

Rick said...

I'm nicking the polished bits from my inane insurance job to try to sell stuff; 'Proven quotas of sketch writing targets met' (I've managed to enter a few competitions), 'The most exciting development in the sketch mileau since Beyond the Fringe' (Quoting myself, but using a pseudonym as my vocabulary isn't that big) and 'Versatile sketches seen all over Britain' (Cardiff, Swansea and Falmouth).

I'd hire me...

Jayne said...

James - go for it. Some of the felt tips should be running out though. And don't forget to write your covering letter in a nice mixture of upper and lower case on notepaper with puppies or kittens on it.

Surefire winner! I guarantee you'll never have to do a 12th draft...

William said...

when colouring in, I find a top tip is to stay within the lines, as this makes you look proper grown up.