Eager or hopelessly naive? – My Writing Diary, Ten Years On, Wednesday 6th September 2006

I was at the London Screenwriters’ Festival last weekend, and it was delightful to meet so many writers, young and old, starting out on their writing careers. Their optimism, energy and determination made me feel very old invigorated me… and they reminded me of myself ten years ago. My script, Waiting For Eddie, had a producer in Dean Fisher, a director in Jon Wright, and we were waiting for news on our submission to London Film’s inaugural Microwave film scheme…

 

Wednesday 6th September, 2006

A most excellent day. Dean called to confirm that we’re through to the final stage of the Microwave scheme! A week of intensive script development awaits me in October and, with any luck, we’ll start production.

Told my agent and she was very excited. She also let slip that Working Title have agreed to read The Last Time Machine – they’ll reject it, of course, but it’ll be interesting to hear what they say.

I also bought my Apple MacBook today. It’s gorgeous, though I’ve spent most of the evening trying to figure out how it works.

 

Cos you can’t be a writer unless you have a MacBook, people!* And Final Draft. Can’t call yourself a screenwriter unless you have Final Draft!**

Before you go rushing off to IMDb, I should warn you that (spoiler alert) neither Waiting For Eddie or The Last Time Machine were made into films, so all that talk of ‘Going into production’ was fuelled by the same kind of optimism, energy and determination those new writers had at the London SWF. Okay, you might call it hopeless naivety, and some days that’s all you’ve got, but when someone else shows interest in your work I would encourage every writer to enjoy and revel in the moment… then put it aside and get on with writing the next thing. Because, even if it your script is picked up and made into a movie, they’ll want something new right away, and if they don’t, you’ll need something new for the next round of crashing disappointments submissions.

Keep writing!

 

*Not true.

**Even less true.

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Coping With A Non-Ringing Phone – My Writing Diary, Ten Years On, 21st June 2006

It’s been about a month since my last 2006 diary entry. Why? Because when you’re a writer, and especially when you’re starting out, there are long periods where precisely sod-all happens. The phone doesn’t ring, your agent seems to have disappeared off the face of the planet, you’re beginning to think that pitch/script/treatment you sent out two weeks ago has ended up in a development exec’s junk folder, and because you’re cursed with an imagination you begin to imagine a future where you’re stopping strangers in the street offering to knock-up series bibles for food.

So, how do you cope with these lulls? First of all you have to stop thinking that your career is in the hands of other people, that some magical career fairy will appear in a puff of smoke dispensing commissions and making you a showrunner overnight. Yes, you might be lucky enough to have an agent, but you can’t sit back, twiddling your thumbs hoping that he or she will call to announce out of the blue that you’re writing Star Wars IX.

I try and do two things every day:

I write every day, seven days a week. Even if it’s only a few words, they’re words that weren’t there yesterday.

And I try and do a little business every day. Because this is a business. I try and create work by making contact with people in the industry, reminding them that I’m here, letting them know what I’m up to and what I want.

By creating and touting for work, you can vastly increase the odds of actually getting work, and when the odds are stacked against you the way they are in this business, that’s no bad thing at all. Of course, there’s a fine line between being pushy and assertive, cockiness and confidence, and being able to discern the difference between these is a skill in itself. And you can’t afford to sound too desperate either… I still don’t think I’ve mastered that one.

The following diary entry came after I nudged a producer called Dean Fisher, a splendid chap who had optioned my script Waiting For Eddie and took it to Cannes as part of slate he was developing. I had marked his return on my calendar, and dropped him an eager “How did it go?” email the day after…

Wednesday 14th June, 2006

Got an reply from Dean at Scanner Rhodes – Cannes went well, plenty of promises on funding, but he needs people to put their money where their mouths are. He mentioned a new Film London project called Microwave: you get £100k to make a movie in London (plus all sorts of facilities and services for free). He’s thinking of putting Waiting For Eddie up for this. Sounds good to me, and I’ve asked my agent for advice.

Wednesday 21st June, 2006

Received an email from Dean today; he’s definitely entering ‘Waiting For Eddie’ in the Film London Microwave scheme and, even better, he’s meeting a director next week with a view to getting him on board. His name is Jon Wright and if his website/showreel is anything to go by he is perfect for the job. His short films are nothing short of brilliant; they look great, are well written (he wrote them himself) and they have terrific sound design. Apparently he’s keen to work with Dean, so hopefully this could be very fruitful.

Friday 23rd June, 2006

Good news – Jon Wright loved Waiting For Eddie! Dean’s going to enter us in the Film London thing and we should hear if we’re in by the end of July.

Yes! The first appearance in the diaries from one Mr. Jon Wright, who would turn out to be somewhat significant in my own career. A Magical Career Fairy, if you will? Or not… More on him soon…

 

Getting Paid – My Writing Diary, Ten Years On, Thursday 25th May, 2006

If you’re an aspiring screenwriter and cursed/blessed with a vivid imagination, you might get a bit carried away when fantasising about that first ever professional payment. Would it be for a life-changing sum of money? A million dollar deal that meant you could finally say sayonara to the day job and pursue your dream full time? Or would it be for about £82.73 (less tax) and take forever to arrive? Guess which one happened to me!

My script Waiting For Eddie had been optioned by a producer back in November 2005. The producer paid promptly, but whenever I asked my agent about the money I only ever got vague replies. Things were complicated by the fact that I had two agents: one for film and a literary agent. The film agent did the deal, but all the money went through the lit agent. I found a handful of mentions of it in my 2006 diaries, and I’m clearly getting a bit fed-up at this point…

Tuesday 18th April, 2006

Script agent emailed me to day and told me that the Literary Agent has had my Waiting For Eddie option money since November… It’s only £85, but it doesn’t instil me with much confidence.

Then, over a month later…

Tuesday 23rd May, 2006

I got another rejection today… Oh, and they (Literary Agent) found my cheque. It was at the bottom of an in-tray… I should get it tomorrow.

Thursday 25th May, 2006

The cheque arrived today. My first money earned from writing. I suppose I can call myself a writer now… £82.73. I don’t think I’ll be quitting the day job just yet.

Nearly six months from option to pay! Believe me, that would not happen now. I’d be on the phone with an earful of righteous indignation for someone in less than 48 hours. When you’re starting out, it’s not uncommon to be coy about getting paid, but never forget that what you do as a writer has a value. No one would be on that set if not for you and your ideas. Forget any bullshit about getting exposure, or publicity value, or an opportunity to “get on the ladder”. You have worked your butt off producing a work, and if they want to make it, they have to pay you, and pay you the going rate. If they can’t afford to pay you, then they shouldn’t be in business. No other industry puts up with this crap – try asking a baker to make you some bread for free – and yet it still goes on today: see the recent scandal over Sainsbury’s attempt to get an artist to work for free.

And just put yourself in the producer’s shoes for a minute. They have a slate of projects, including your script, which they optioned for free, and another script which they paid money for. Which one do you think will be their priority? They have to make a return on their investment, and producers hate losing money, so your little freebie won’t be getting to the top of their pile anytime soon. It’s all about being valued. Make sure you are.

I’ll leave the last word to the wonderful Harlan Ellison. This video has been doing the rounds for a few years now and it’s one of my favourites (and yes, I’m aware of the irony that, this being YouTube, Mr. Ellison probably doesn’t see a penny from this), but he sums it up better than I ever could…

By the way, I still have a day job, so clearly need to work harder at this payment malarkey myself.

 

My First Agents – My Writing Diary, Ten Years On: Sunday 14th May & Monday 15th May, 2006

I had not one but two agents at this very early stage of my writing career (that word still makes me look over my shoulder to check that no one’s sniggering at me). I met my first literary agent at a networking event at Waterstone’s Piccadilly called ‘The Film World Meets The Book World’ (I think). I can’t remember how I heard about it, but I knew that I had to go as there would be agents and film producers and people who would surely see my colossal writing genius for what it was and insist on flying me out to Hollywood to introduce me to Mr. Spielberg that very weekend… I’m nothing if not optimistic.

Like many British people I can find it difficult just introducing myself to strangers for no reason other than personal gain (or “networking” as it’s known) and like many aspiring writers I found it borderline fraudulent to introduce myself as a writer at a time when I’d only written and staged a handful of plays. But one of the most important lessons I had learned from my failed career as an actor is that no one will knock on your front door and ask if you fancy a role in the Royal Shakespeare Company… You have to go to them and let them know that you’re good and what you do could be of value to them.

And so I walked into a crowded room where everyone seemed to know each other and I knew no one.

Eventually, and I have no real recollection how, I found myself talking to a very nice lady who ran a well-established literary agency, primarily for children’s books. I had no real desire to be a children’s author (at the time), but happily chatted with her and pitched my first play to her, which had a teen protagonist. She thought it would make an excellent children’s book and asked to read it. She was also intrigued that I worked in publishing and we discovered that we had a few mutual friends. I made it very clear that I wanted to be a screenwriter first and foremost and she said that was fine and that she would hook me up with a film agent, too.

Which is how I ended up with two agents. This all came together in the autumn of 2003, so I had been with them both for a couple of years at this point and had been trying, unsuccessfully, to pursue the children’s author career. I had written a couple of books that got some very nice rejections from publishers, and the pleasant lady who ran the agency had since passed me on to one of her junior associates. To be honest, the junior associate and I did not get on. She pulled strange faces when talking about my work, and seemed to treat me like a nuisance if I ever got in touch.

The film agent, however, was terrific. She was very encouraging and wanted to get me work and I was kicking myself for faffing about with the books for so long, and so in 2006 I made sure I would have a spec script for her to show around town. Few spec scripts sell, so I was determined not to worry about budget or anything that might seem small or too kitchen-sink-British. I wanted to write a commercial Hollywood movie that would get me noticed by commercial Hollywood people, and I came up with an idea called The Last Time Machine, which was epic stuff with time travel, dinosaurs, Roman Legions, the Luftwaffe and the end of the known universe  (I write more about this project and how it was doomed here).

By May 2006 I had finished a polished draft (written in Microsoft Word, hence my note that it needed formatting!), my script agent had read it, and we were set to meet for lunch on the Monday, and here are my diary entries for that time:

Sunday 14th May, 2006

Had a quick read-through of The Last Time Machine script in prep for tomorrow’s meeting. Made a few minor notations. I’m proud of it, just a shame it’ll never get made.

Monday 15th May, 2006

Had lunch with my agent today. She loved ‘The Last Time Machine’ and has a whole list of people she’s going to send it to. I just need to format it finally and she’ll send it off. She said a very nice thing: she’d wondered if she’d been having too good a day when she read LTM because she had so few notes. She really couldn’t find anything wrong with it. I explained that this was my first truly original script without the baggage of having previously been a play. We talked about other movies I could write – she’d love to see me write a horror movie – and my career. I asked about the teams that write for the likes of Spooks and Hustle. She’d rather establish me as a feature film writer first (her words – there’s something a little bit unreal about all this… at least until I earn some money from it or see my name on the big screen).

I wasn’t so aware of it back then, but she was doing the things that a good agent should aways do: she was encouraging, she was critical, but in a positive way, and she was talking about my future and the direction of my career. The horror movie thing is interesting, as horror features are often the best way for a commercial writer to get a film made: they can be produced for a low budget and can be very profitable, thus giving your career a great start. The very next thing I wrote was a horror film and it very nearly got made, introduced me to some very influential folk, and definitely took me up a notch.

The junior associate literary agent also had some ideas about my career, but they didn’t tally with the direction I wanted to go in and so it was an uncomfortable relationship. Like dating someone you know isn’t right for you, but you’re so desperate to cling on to a girlfriend/boyfriend that you’ll put up with the unhappiness, but we all know that can never end well. If you’re dreading an email or a phone call from your agent then something is seriously wrong.

I stayed with the literary agent until they eventually dropped me in 2010, but it became an increasingly distant relationship. I wanted to make films, and 2006 would be the year where this once-fantastic dream very nearly became a reality…

 

 

Ten Years On: My writing diary – Tuesday 18th to Thursday 20th April 2006

The first script of mine that ever got any serious industry attention, and made me any kind of money, was a ghost story called WAITING FOR EDDIE. I’d originally written it as a one-act play which I had staged at the Leatherhead Drama Festival the previous year.

The premise is that Eddie has been killed by his girlfriend Sam and comes back as a ghost to torment her and find out why she murdered him. Meanwhile, poor Sam is coming to terms with having committed such a terrible crime, and then not only does she have to deal with her boyfriend’s ghost, but has to put up with his ex suddenly turning up on her doorstep.

It was a nicely twisted black comedy on the stage, and I thought it would translate well onto film, and my script agent got it into the hands of a producer called Dean Fisher whose company Scanner-Rhodes optioned it for the princely sum of £100 (£85 to me after agent’s commission). My first ever money earned as a screenwriter… eventually. As you’ll see from my snarky note below, the cheque took some time getting to me, apparently lingering at the bottom of an agent’s in-tray for several months.

Dean was one of my early mentors in the world of film. He’s very adept at producing low-budget movies that have a targeted market, with international appeal, that make money for their investors through EIS schemes, a crucial business initiative for any independent filmmaker. He felt that WAITING FOR EDDIE could work as a low-budget horror, and his enthusiasm and encouragement got me through many a rewrite and improved the script immensely, moving it on from its stage roots and making it properly cinematic.

There’s some light editing here, and some names have been redacted to protect the innocent (mainly my agents), and for the first time in these diaries you’ll see mentions of my wife Claire (who starred as Sam in the original stage production) and my friend and fellow writer Steve Mayhew…

Tuesday 18th April, 2006

Script agent emailed me today and told me that my book agent has had my WAITING FOR EDDIE money since November… it’s only £85, but it doesn’t instil me with much confidence.

Wednesday 19th April, 2006

Got an email from Dean Fisher at Scanner Rhodes to tell me that he’s taking WFE to Cannes to find funding. That’s bloody script’s better travelled than me!

Thursday 20th April, 2006

I had a proper read of the Scanner-Rhodes business plan. It’s incredibly thorough. 56 pages long and minutely detailed (down to the £120 they’re going to spend on stationery), but the basic gist is; invest in four films over five years, then the company will be wound-up and everyone gets their money. But, for me, the most exciting and important bit was the production timetable. If everything goes to plan WAITING FOR EDDIE will be in cinemas Summer 2008!

I can already see the trailer and Claire is picking out a frock for the premiere. But, in an email exchange with Steve, we decided the best thing would be to enjoy this moment and then file it all away in a big box marked ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’

Well, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that it’s still in that box, gathering dust in the attic of my mind with a bunch of other unmade scripts. But my script had been optioned! I had earned some money (eventually)! And for the first time I felt like I could actually call myself a writer. I know that getting paid for writing shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of writing, but it did put a smile on my face and a skip in my step.

And the process of developing that script over the next year or so taught me an incredible amount and put me in touch with some amazing people, not least a film director who had some very cool short films to his name and was hoping to make his breakthrough feature debut… Mr. Jon Wright.

Stay tuned for another thrilling instalment…!

Ten Years On: My writing diary – Saturday 15th April 2006

I started keeping a diary ten years ago this month! It was partly to help me sleep at nights (I had a theory that putting the day’s events on paper would help… which it does… a bit) and partly to keep track of writing projects I’d submitted.

I mention two projects. A play called BAN THIS FILTH! which I had staged at my local theatre and thought I could adapt for radio, and a children’s book called MORRIS MINOR AND THE ABOMINABLE CHALET OF DOOM.

This was at an exciting but uncertain time for me. I had two agents – one for books, one for scripts – but was still struggling to figure out what kind of writer I was (something I’m still trying to work out, to be honest), hence the identity crisis.

There’s some light editing here, and some names have been changed or redacted to protect the innocent.

SATURDAY 15th APRIL, 2006

Two – count ’em – two! rejection letters in the post this morning. The first was for a pitch I sent to BBC radio for ‘Ban This Filth’. Fair enough. I only have the fuzziest memory of sending the pitch, so I’m not too fussed about that one (although… the shite they have on the radio sometimes…).

The second one was the real gutter. <A MAJOR PUBLISHER> said no to ‘Morris’. It was a pleasant enough rejection (‘We liked it… however…’ – I’m going to put those words on my bloody gravestone) but my agent is comparing me to Jeremy Strong (too young!) so anyone reading it is prepped for a completely different kind of book. Mind you, the rejecting editor did use words like ‘crazy’ and ‘zanier’ (is that even a word?), so I reckon I’ve had a lucky escape.

I’m not entirely sure my agent likes me, either… the rejection letter was forwarded with a blank compliment slip… No ‘Chin up… there’s plenty more fish in the sea!’ Nothing. It’s almost like an ‘I told you so’ from them. Someone needs to work on their people skills.

Ah, rejection. I like to think I cope with it a little better these days. For me, there are four stages to rejection: furious anger, blind denial, dismal depression, then a calm acceptance. I try to skip straight to the final stage if possible.

Needless to say, I’m no longer with that agent (stay tuned for the diary entry when they drop me!). And, despite my bitter accusatory tone, it’s not a fault of theirs that it wasn’t working. We were just wrong for each other. They had a fixed idea of what kind of writer I was, and I didn’t have the first clue. No wonder there was a clash. Finding your voice is one of the most important things for a writer. I clearly had some way to go…