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Sunday, 10 November 2013

Writing for series TV: Virtual WFC 2013

Stephen Gallaghaer (moderator), David Pirie, Brian Clemens, Richard Christian Matheson, and Robert Shearman discuss their paths into TV, the collaboration, and the effect on their writing.

31 October - 3 November was the World Fantasy Convention 2013 in Brighton, filled with very good writers saying interesting things to each other about writerly topics. For those who missed it, this series is your own virtual WFC 2013.
The moderator apologises that the panel's only female member has twisted her ankle, leaving them "without gender parity". An audience member comments that one woman was hardly "gender parity". One wonders whether the resulting all-male all-white line-up offers the first clue on how to write for series TV - "You don't have to be white and male to work here... but it helps." The convention's refusal to have a gender-parity policy is a black spot on an otherwise brilliant event, but no-one wants to "spoil things" by talking about it too much, though the disparity points clearly to systemic discrimination within the genre. (Please note that systemic discrimination operates within a system, not due to individual intent.) Juliet McKenna writes well about this on the Fantasy Book Cafe site and Bronwen Clune in the Guardian offers four steps to avoid all-male panels. Adrian Tchaikovsky has a good rundown of Gender and Genre on his blog. On the organisers' behalf, it's worth noting that there's also a paucity of women in screenwriting, as explored in this report to the UK Council.

With novels, one can write a book (or several) and submit it to an agent who'll submit it to a publisher. Each step has its own difficulties, but at least the trajectory is clear. But how do people get into screenwriting?
     When Clemens submitted his first script, they responded, "Obviously you can write - but this will take 90 cameras to make!" Taking the hint, he wrote his next piece about two men in a railway carriage, which was his entrance point. "There's no mystique to writing," he says. "It's arse to chair and pen to paper. And that's got me through lots of writer's blocks."
     Pirie didn't start as a screenwriter. He wrote a novel, then sold the script, then sold a single play. It was a completely different world then, he says, and selling single plays was still possible whereas now they're an endangered species. UK television had been a completely closed shop, then it opened up to newcomers, but now it seems to have closed down again.
     Shearman came to screenwriting from the theatre. The first TV job he was offered was a "shit com" - a sit-com for people who're quite stupid. If he did that well, he was told, he'd be allowed something better. He turned it down and was offered a job at Carlton. Coming from the theatre world, he was accustomed to the writers being treated with reverence, to being called "sir", but there was none of that in TV. When Russell T Davies wanted to revive Doctor Who, he sought out people who'd admit to being Doctor Who fans as the only people who might agree to take part, and Shearman was one of those. He only wrote one episode, because he wanted to do other stuff in between, and since then has been writing books. He's working on a series at the moment, but that's still under wraps.
     Gallagher notes that the UK doesn't seem to have a culture of screenwriters making a living from it. In the US, says Matheson, screenwriters may have several projects on the go at once and cultivate show runners to keep the series going while their own attention is elsewhere. This creates opportunity lower down the scale for aspirant screenwriters. Nonetheless, "Everyone I know who got into television got in sideways," he says.
     Clemens advises anyone wanting to write for the screen to become a real screen buff: if you wawnt to be a screenwriter, look at the best films and watch them again and again. He describes how he'll watch his favourites dozens of times, even rewatching them when they pop up on TV despite having the DVD in his shelves. Those favourites used to be American films, but he's now watching a lot of foreign films, especially French films. He's not precious: "I'm a professional writer; I'll write whatever you want me to write." He also doesn't fret too much about research: "I never research, really, I research afterwards, because I'm writing for the layman." He gives the example of quantum mechanics: his own rough grasp of it will carry him through the first draft and then he'll check his facts afterwards. He doesn't want to go into inaccessible detail: he wants to use the same understanding that most people have to carry the story.

Screenwriting is collaborative, of course, and one of the key relationships is with the script editor. Pirie shrugs: you get good and bad ones. It's a collaborative process, but generally speaking they don't have too much clout. Gallagher comments that sometimes in the UK it feels as if the script editor is there to stop you bothering the producer. In the US, the writer is more involved in the production choices, including casting, and after that experience, he rebels a bit against script editors. Shearman says that on Doctor Who, the script editor had almost no creative function, because Russell T Davies fulfilled that role as well as being executive producer. He found that set-up worked well: at least you don't get new drafts overturned by the producer after a full day's work between the screenwriter and script editor.
     The quality of your writing and your reliability are paramount. "If your writing consistently comes through and is functional on a budget level, they want to keep you," says Sherman. The real superstar executive producers are serious writers. Gallaghaer's mentor Roy Huggins, for example, began as a novelist.

An audience member asks if the new possibilities brought by CGI change the nature and number of plots: does the old saw about only 5 or 7 plots still apply? Clemens feels that CGI "takes the magic away and diminishes the reality," but specifies this is his personal view and preference. Shearman says that it's hugely opened what you can do, you have this huge canvas of possibility - but people feel compelled to fill that entire canvas. Just because you can expand so far doesn't mean you always have to. Gallaghaer simplifies the 5 or 7 plots down to just 2: "the fish out of water or the odd couple", the character against their environment or one character against another. When you're writing a story, he says, sometimes it's easy to forget the germ at the heart of it, and if you can reduce it that, it clarifies your plot.
    Someone else asks how different screenwriting is to writing in other formats. For Matheson, the biggest difference is brevity: for a good script, you have to be very brief on your language. "It migrates into your writing style and I become more succinct." Shearman says he writes for the theatre as a kind of therapy, "cos in the theatre, they call you sir." Pirie looks to another kind of freedom: the joy in novel-writing, he says, is to rediscover complete control, and characters do what you tell them.
     Gallaghaer concludes that what we have here is "Four control freaks who work in a business where they have to concede they're not in control."

Next talk in the Virtual WFC: Sir Terry Pratchett in conversation and the question he has never, ever, in all his career, been asked before. It's a good 'un.

The virtual conference is created from my own rapid scribblings at the panels and talks and paraphrased - all as accurate as possible, but if you take exception to anything or I've got any details wrong, contact me. Direct quotations are my transcription of someone's exact words as best as I can.

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