LSF2010 – Day 2: If you’re not at the LSF, take a look at what you’re missing

It’s been an incredible experience to be able to have access to so many people from the industry who are at the London Screenwriters’ Festival to talk about so many aspects of it from the writers’ perspective or how the writers can approach things.

At the Why 98% of Scripts Get Rejected session, with Noelle Morris, head of drama at Kudos, and Chloe Sizer from Icon, it was very useful to know how those big companies operate when it comes to dealing with writers. Here are some highlights:

. Basically, Kudos’ policy is to only read scripts submitted by agents so they don’t read materials from unrepresented writers. At Icon, since they are mainly a distributor, they get scripts that have already been picked up by producers. Both are always looking for original things and new talent.

. At Kudos, what they want are writers with original voices. Therefore, don’t submit scripts based on what you think they want or specs of their shows. This would prevent them from actually assessing your real voice as a writer. They are also looking for skill so sometimes the writer has a strong voice but may never develop the skill… So they measure the writers’ potential against those two elements.

. Chloe says sometimes the writing is good but the script doesn’t fall withing their remit so they try to keep in touch with the writers.

. Another interesting thing. Noelle says they do read the whole script, since for them the 10 first pages don’t do the job of showing the writer’s potential. After all, you can do brilliant 10 first pages and not be able to deliver the rest of it. Makes sense…

. According to Noelle, a common mistake writers make is to miss being true to yourself, to your own voice and this is very easy to spot, since the script will end up sounding contrived and as having an “agenda”. So don’t assume what Kudos wants you to write.

. Chloe says the specs ‘market’ in the UK isn’t very healthy – more people should be more ambitious and write more specs. They can be picked up and made so don’t always only to write if you get paid.

The next session was something close to an avalanche. Excellent stuff for writers interested in using or learning more about different approaches to structure. Linda Aronson‘s lecture Writing Non-Linear Stories was about some amazing models of non-linear structures. It was a session so packed with info that it’s hard to point out the highlights, but I’ll try. Also, her new book The 21st Century Screenplay, that covers all her models, is already available from Amazon.

. A basic trick to make the non-linear structure work: If you’ll do a time jump, do it at the 2nd Act Turning Point, which is a powerfully dramatic moment in the story. Slumdog Millionaire, for instance, opens precisely at that point (the boy is being brutally tortured) than flashbacks to tell the boy’s quest.

. Non-linearity can pump up slow films and invest genres with a new twist.

. Also, if you’re jumping between time lines, always do it at cliffhangers. Sometimes, the fun of time jumps for the audience is in piecing together the clues about people and events. Jump from exciting points in the present to exciting points in the past and back.

. One interesting thing that Linda mentioned, that would be considered by some people almost as a heresy, is that you can sometimes get rid of the entire 2nd act. In a romcom, for example, the most difficult bit is to get through 2nd act in order to keep the couple apart. In Love Actually you have lots of couples and there’s no 2nd act in any of their stories (or they are concealed)! Clever.

. Another interesting note Linda made is how some films do subvert the basic principle that protagonists must be strong. In certain films, such as Scent of a Woman, Al Pacino plays the blind man, the protagonist is actually the young man who has to put up with (and ends up learning from) him. In this case, you have an “mentor antagonist” whose wisdom is born out of pain, and the protagonist has to be a weaker character. The same happens in Dead Man Walk and The Reader. So protagonists don’t have to be the strongest characters in all films.

In Writing for Soaps, Marc Pye, Danny Stack and Lisa Holdsworth took us through the joy and pain of being a writer in EastEnders or Emmerdale or Doctors. Sounded like incredibly hard work. Here’s some of their takes on the job:

. Danny says it was great to write for Doctors because you can write 60 or 70% of the episode when they like your pitch and they can also give you the serial element of that episode. However, developing ideas for Doctors is hard – it’s hard to find something that hasn’t been done before.

. If you really like a show, the best way is to find out who is the script editor and email the person – obviously, don’t send a sample script straight away but tell that person why they should be interested in what you have to show. Then if they say they’re interested, send the script.

. Writers want to get into soaps because it can be an opening door for the whole industry. Most of the great British screenwriters have written for soaps at some stage in their careers. It can be a good springboard and also a way of getting regularly commissioned. It’s also a fabulous way of getting to learn the job, the discipline required, the craft. It also teaches you how to deal with directors and actors.

. One weakness is, because soaps are shot so quickly – in certain cases an episode per day – great scripts may suffer just because there’s no time enough to get the best out of them. And usually writers get very criticised.

. A question prompted an interesting response: can writing for a ‘template’ damage your voice as a writer? The answer is, if you don’t concentrate and be careful to avoid that, yes it can.

. Unanimous opinion: the Writers’ Academy is incredibly tough. You may get into the scheme then get 4 commissions, you’ll work like crazy, but after that you’re on your own. Another unanimous opinion: if you’re going to write for soaps, forget about writing your own stuff. You won’t.

. What commissioners want are different takes on ideas and/or characters, the twist on characters, the passion on the page, in your voice.

Moving on to Writing for Younger Audiences, with Danny Stack, Gale Renard, Andy Briggs and Chris Hill. Fantastic session, lively and interactive. They covered a lot of ground and talked about writing for tv shows, animation, cartoons, novels. Some highlights:

. Writing for teens and children can be incredibly intense because everything is incredibly intense when you’re a teenager or a child. So, having been there, you know what it feels like wanting things badly ot not knowing yet that you can fail – we can all remember it.

. Children are the toughest and most ruthless audience ever! They are very fast at picking things up, much faster than adults. They are with you all the time – even ahead of you. They are more sophisticated and have hours and hours of storytelling experience so they know pretty quickly if the story is lame.

. Careful: nothing will date more a show than having slangs that are no longer being used by teens…

. According to Danny, there’s potentially more money in kids writing than in soap writing. Chris agrees and he reminds us that teens are the highest consumers. The way they consume may be changing but still, they are top consumers. When thinking about writing for kids or teens, think cross-media.

. In terms of what’s acceptable or not sometimes writers will be told not to put in the show what it’s called “imitable behaviour” – things children will see and perhaps do, like sticking something into a socket or food wasting or not wearing a life vest. However, bashing somebody’s head with a racket is acceptable…

. There’s an emerging interest for family/kids stories now – high concept ideas that can even be done in CGI. So if you have one, a good sample, it’s time to send it out.

. Explore different media: write for online, a novel, a show – the more diverse your writing, the better your chances, according to Andy. Remember that lots of books are turned into films.

. What people look for is the quality of your writing. Networking is crucial, make contacts and keep in touch with them.

The last session of the day was Julian Friedmann and Tim Claugue‘s Self-Agenting. Julian gave us a perspective on how to do things yourself and Tim Claugue showcased himself as a successful writer/ filmmaker who never had an agent. Here are some interesting points made by them:

. Agents don’t want clients who are socio-phobics – they want clients who network, who learn about the industry. The writing obviously matters – it actually matters more than projects when it comes to choosing a client.

. So do your networking, meet other writers, share information. Set up a writers’ group, share your stories with them, read their stories. Share the costs of trade information, for instance, a subscription of Broadcast is very expensive but has vital information about the tv industry.

. Knowing about what’s happening in the industry is crucial and will tell you who is working for who and doing what. For instance, a new head of drama is likely to be interesting in bringing new stuff to their slate and this might be a very good opportunity to send them a script.

. Be prepared for endless rejections. Remember, most successful writers get more rejections than deals.

. You must have a strategy to submit things: you have to know to whom you’ll submit to and what you’ll submit. It’s very hard out there, the industry is saturated. Make multiple submissions even if the agency or production company tells you they won’t read things that have been submitted to other people. Just do it. Don’t waste time sending things only to one person. Be prepared to persevere.

. Have a portfolio of diverse samples of writing. But make sure that sample is your best possible writing – have your stuff read by professional script readers and only send stuff out that are actually good, otherwise you may miss that one only chance. You should be writing, according to Julian, 3 to 5 scripts a year. He also pointed out that it’s more important to read scripts than to watch movies.

. Diversify your writing. Write for different media. Write in different formats. Write for different genres. Being able to do that makes you a lot more attractive as a client.

. Tim showed a film he made to showcase himself, which was pretty smart. His rationale makes sense – to stand out from the crowd, he uses visuals to talk about himself as a filmmaker. He makes a good point as well: our creativity should not end or be restricted to the scripts – they should also be used when communicating with people.

. Tim thinks, differently from Julian, that being good at one thing and having a style is better than doing lots of different things. Identify your strength and improve it then you can tell people about it. Don’t put yourself in a reactive position, make your work so good people come to you to become part of your projects.

There’s so much more to this and the other sessions – not to mention the ones I couldn’t attend. If you are not part of this event, you’re really missing great stuff.

Check the highlights of Day 1 and Day 3.

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