So you want to write for television or film? Then you need advice from an experienced and successful screenwriter.
Philip Gladwin is that man! Phil has been a screenwriter for over 25 years , writing for such high profiles TV shows as ‘Casualty’, ‘The Bill’, ‘Holby City’ and many more BBC and ITV shows.
You can find a goldmine of information on Philip Gladwin’s own site, Screenwriting Goldmine but he’s dropped in to answer some of our questions about how to get into the world of writing for television:
Can you tell us how you got into writing for TV.
An old university friend got me an interview at the BBC Drama department for a script reading job. That’s the job where you sit in a room for 6 months with a never diminishing pile of scripts sent in by the general public. My job was to read those scripts, write a short summary of their story, write a more general report, and either reject them or, if I thought they had some quality, pass them on up the department to people who had the power to actually do something with them. That was wonderful training on taking apart stories. For the next five years I worked as a script editor for the BBC, for ITV, and for an indie called World Productions. One day I looked around, realised I had enough contacts to sink a battle ship, enough theoretical knowledge of screenwriting theory to get me into MIT, and if I couldn’t write a saleable script by now I’d better change careers. So I resigned, without a commission to go to, and luckily, very luckily, picked one up a couple of weeks later, and never looked back.
Do you need any particular qualifications to become a screenwriter?
Nothing formal at all. Many of the top writers in the UK are people who left the educational system early. What’s far, far more important is having a broad life experience. If I had the choice between spending three years in the police force, being a paramedic, or doing a Screenwriting BA, I leave the formal degree till last every time.
Jobs on the long running drama series and the soaps work like this. Shows like Doctors, Emmerdale, Eastenders, Holby, Casualty, etc. If you find your feet on one of those shows you will get asked back regularly and you can make a very nice living out of that.
How should a writer go about trying to get their work commissioned?
Very complex question, of course. The odds of a new writer getting their original TV show made are very long indeed. It does happen, but basing your future on that is like basing your future on winning the lottery. Much, much better to concentrate on setting your imagination free, writing two amazing spec scripts, and then using those as levers to get into meetings about writing more regular shows. Established agents will be very unlikely to read your work unless you come with a recommendation from someone they know and trust like a producer, and producers will be very unlikely to read your work unless you come with a recommendation from someone like an agent.
I’ve heard of people having success approaching the assistants of established agents. They will be building their list, and so will be hungry for new writers.
While you’re doing that I’d also recommend a slightly parallel strategy of trying to get a couple of good plays on in some of theatres in London, or getting a couple of radio plays produced on Radio 4. It’s a lot easier to have your work produced in those places because the financial risk to the producer is considerably lower.
If you can show that you’ve had a couple of radio plays and a stage play produced, and maybe even had some good reviews, then that makes it all the more likely television agents and producers people will take a longer look at you when you write to them.
There are other schemes that are well worth investigating. “Coming Up” on Channel 4 and the Channel 4 Screenwriting Competition are both dedicated to developing new writers. Getting on either is fiercely competitive, but it can be done. The Writers Room at the BBC is swamped, but they are good people, they will look at your work, and they will get back to you with their thoughts. Every year they find some good new writers and pass them on up into the system. Finally, if you’re writing spec movie scripts, why not try a few of the biggest US Script Competitions – like The Nicholl, The Sundance, Disney’s competition, The Page Competition – they all seem to have helped writers on their way.
But in general there are no magic bullets. It’s basically a process of getting out there, getting your face known, meeting as many people as you can, slowly building your portfolio and your profile.
Anything is possible. An agent makes it much, much easier to get attention when you are starting off, but having one absolutely isn’t essential, and, to be honest, throughout your career you should never just sit back and rely on your agent to find you work. You should always be out there, connecting, meeting and talking to people in the industry looking for leads.
How do you deal with the rejections?
I remember when I started it genuinely used to hurt. Now if I’m honest I barely notice most of the time.
Occasionally, when you really love a project, you’ve gone some way through development with it, and THEN it gets turned down, that can break your heart temporarily. But you always just bounce back. It’s simple really, the urge to write goes far too deep, is far too strong to be defeated by what anyone else thinks of your work.
What advice would you give to aspiring screenwriters?
Write, every day if possible. The more you write the more your writing muscles develop. The only way to learn some aspects of writing is to try them out.
Beyond that, you need to read as many screenwriting books as you can. Read them until you feel you have heard it all. Watch movies twice – once for fun, the second time with the DVD remote, a pad and a pen. Write down notes of how the story progresses to see how the movie is constructed under the surface. Follow each character through the story to see what it looks like from their point of view. (I heard this advice years ago, and thought it was clearly rubbish – what writer would ever do that? I promise you, if you’re a working screenwriter you do it all the time.
Read as many screenplays as you can find. This is crucial. Would you try to be a novelist without having hovered up tons of novels? It’s the same for screenwriting. It astonishes me how many writers write a couple of screenplays before they have ever seen a professionally written script. They are available widely on the internet, you should have read literally hundreds of them.
Finally, be prepared for the long haul. Writing is very hard. Selling your writing is very. very hard. You may be lucky, and have a natural understanding, and be in and working and selling your stuff very, very quickly. More likely you’re going to need to set aside a good few years before you can say you gave it a fair crack.
Thank you, Phil. If you want more information in this subject then check out Phil’s website, Screenwriting Goldmine. And if you found this article useful please share it with the buttons below.