The Writing Life
As an experienced screenwriter/novelist, I’m often struck by the myriad differences between writing for publication and writing for TV. Creating a book means working in your dressing gown for a year (at least) then plucking up the courage to press ‘send’ and wait for feedback from your agent and publisher. I’m not seeking to minimise the amount of sheer graft involved in writing a book, or the need to edit ruthlessly, then rewrite rewrite rewrite until you’re happy with the manuscript (or at least not borderline suicidal, convinced you must destroy your MacBook before anyone discovers that a gang of marauding orangutans has been jumping up and down on your keyboard). But unless you’ve messed up badly, your agent and publisher will offer helpful suggestions to make your work better. Most of these you will incorporate into the manuscript (if you have any sense) before pressing ‘send’ again then waiting for others to work their magic on the cover, marketing etc, so your book can see the light of day.
But when you write TV drama, the dressing gown has to go. The moment you decide to pitch an idea for an original show of your own, like my ITV thriller The Stepfather, or maybe a story for episode of a long-running series like The Inspector Lynley Mysteries or Holby City, you immediately come face to face with three bazillion people whose raison d’etre is to help you shape the idea and bring it to the screen. Script editors. Producers. Directors. Commissioners. Unless you’re particularly brave, it’s best not to meet these folk while wearing pyjamas. But ask ten different people what they think of any idea and you’ll get ten different opinions—some helpful, some less so—but all well-intentioned and, crucially, all different.
Let’s call our producer Fred. If Fred likes your pitch, you might be commissioned to write a treatment—a document detailing the characters and story. You won’t get paid much but it’s a crucial first step in progressing the idea, thinking it through in detail, making sure it has ‘legs’. Fred will give you feedback, helping you take the idea to the next level. This can take a long time, shuttling the treatment back and forth for weeks, often months. And the project may well fall at this first hurdle. Perhaps the next person in the chain doesn’t ‘get’ its potential, or perhaps there’s something similar in the pipeline (it’s not called ‘development hell’ for nothing). Either way, the treatment is often as far as an idea goes, no matter how experienced or distinguished the writer. Treatments cost producers very little, scripts cost more, sometimes enabling writers to eat actual food. But green-lighting a film or TV series for production—with a director and actors and sets and locations and wardrobe and lighting and transport and catering and all the rest of the circus involved in mobilising a small army to make something for the screen—that costs a fortune: many hundreds of thousands per TV hour; millions in the case of a movie. So it’s not surprising that saying ‘yes’ to going into production makes people nervous. It’s a big deal.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s say Fred wants to take your treatment to the next level, and the next person in the chain also likes it and is prepared to put a few more quid your way, you will then be commissioned to ‘go to script’, ie, write the first episode. So you write said script (dressing gown optional). This takes weeks or, more likely, months. Once again, you press ‘send’, hope you haven’t messed up too badly and wait for feedback. And now the fun begins. Because there is always feedback. Lots of it. From many, many people. No screenwriter has ever had a first draft accepted for production. (Well, only one, and we don’t like him very much.)
After weeks or months of solitary work work work, what you want to hear from Fred is, ‘this is the best script ever’. What you actually hear is, ‘I think you might possibly be onto something’. (You think I might possibly be onto something? Gee, thanks.) But now the fun really begins because once Fred has given you his suggestions, which you incorporate into the next draft (and the next and the next), he then shows the new draft of the script to the next person in the chain. Who has more suggestions for the next draft. As does the next person. And the next. And the next…
Once I’d signed with my terrific screenwriting agent, Julia Kreitman at The Agency, my first spec script sold quickly. A revenge comedy about a bigamist, it was called Double Bill and took twelve years to get made. I lost count of the number of drafts. This is not unusual but may account for the wild-eyed stares and drooling common among screenwriters
If you get lucky and work harder than you’ve ever worked (both factors are crucial), you may finally get a green light, which generally means going into pre-production, with a commission to write the rest of the scripts in the series. I’m not sure of the exact ratio of scripts written to scripts produced, but a recent survey of professional screenwriters put it at somewhere close to a bazillion to one.
But then (oh joy!) comes the day when you hear dialogue written by you tripping off the tongues of actors. Really good actors. And suddenly it’s all worthwhile. All those months and years in your dressing gown, all those cups of coffee, all those sleepless nights.
I vividly recall the read-through of one of my scripts for BBC1’s Mrs Bradley Mysteries. Sitting around a huge, horseshoe-shaped table at BBC TV Centre with, among others, Diana Rigg, Neil Dudgeon and David Tennant—and listening, thrilled, as these brilliant actors brought to life for the first time dialogue written by what can only be described as me. It was one of the writing life’s rare ‘champagne days’—and a reminder that, unlike a book, a script is merely a blueprint, the piece of work that means everyone else in the cast and crew can get to work, bringing it to life. Without a script, there is nothing, zilch, nada.
Then comes the actual filming, where the screenwriter is generally as welcome as a pork chop at a barmitzvah. Fair enough: we’ve done our bit and no one likes to see a grown man weeping because a line isn’t delivered exactly as it sounded in his head months earlier. And filming is, of course, followed by the magic of editing and post-production, readying the show—the work of dozens, scores, perhaps hundreds of people—for transmission via the magic tellybox to millions of people.
But then I wrote a book. A very different experience. It was my first. Just me and the MacBook, alone in a room for over a year, assisted by helpful input from my literary agent, Caroline Michel at Peters, Fraser & Dunlop, and publisher Joel Richardson at Bonnier Publishing’s Twenty7books—both super-smart.
Without Trace is the first in a series of psychological thrillers featuring Morgan Vine, a single mother and investigative journalist who specialises in miscarriages of justice. Who knows? Maybe one day Fred will call and ask me to adapt it for TV. In which case I guess I’ll have to ditch the dressing gown.
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© 2015 Simon Booker
Simon Booker writes prime-time drama for BBC1 and ITV. His crime novels Without Trace and Kill Me Twice are published by Bonnier Zaffre.