This fortnight I’m doing something I haven’t done before – recycling an old newsletter. So this is an adapted / extended version of a newsletter I sent out in 2018, which I’d completely forgotten I’d written – before a writer told me that her agent had sent a copy of it to her! So I figured if I’d forgotten writing it, you’ve probably forgotten reading it!
It is about GENERAL MEETINGS. And this is something I am particularly thinking about at the moment as I organise the upcoming Channel 4 screenwriting course drinks evening to which we invite people from the industry to meet the writers from the course – but in this case writers from the last three years of the course as we haven’t been able to hold this event since summer 2019 because of the pandemic.
I have got such an amazing response from the industry, from production companies and literary agents wanting to meet these 36 brilliant writers. So it has made me think about the implications of this for the writers – specifically that they are going to be invited (I hope) to a lot of general meetings in the next few months.
The much-discussed GENERAL MEETING is something of a gateway into the industry (once you have managed the tricky task of getting your script in front of the people that matter – but that’s a whole other newsletter).
Like many of the other often-discussed aspects of the industry, writers seem to have a lot of questions about general meetings – what you should expect from them, how you should prepare for them, what the person you’re meeting will be looking for from you, etc. This newsletter is an attempt to demystify these meetings and is aimed in particular at the 12 4screenwriting writers from 2022! But I hope it will be of broader interest to screenwriters more generally.
Once you've written 2 or 3 outstanding spec scripts and people in the industry are starting to take notice of you, you will get a lot of meetings and you need to be ready to take advantage of what these meetings offer.
If a producer / script editor / development executive gets in touch and offers to meet up for a cup of tea and a chat, for a 'general' meeting - this is NOT just about a cup of tea and a chat.
No script editor is going to want to meet up with you unless they genuinely like your writing and are keen to work with you. So take these meetings seriously. Understand that a busy script editor / development executive isn’t going to initiate a meeting with you unless they’re seriously impressed by your writing and genuinely want to work with you. These meetings have the potential to be the start of a 20 year working relationship with that particular development executive. So much of your career is about developing working relationships with those people who ‘get’ you as a writer, the people who like you and your work and will continue to champion you for years if not decades. I can’t over-estimate how important these industry ‘champions’ will be to you as a writer.
This initial meeting will be to sound you out - to make sure you and they are roughly on the same wave-length, that you come across as professional and conscientious but, most importantly, they want to know what ideas you might like to write about, and to see if there's any common ground between your interests and theirs – and importantly within the sort of story areas the people who run that indie / production company are interested in making. So don't rock up waiting to be impressed. You need to have done your homework, researched the person you're meeting and the company they work for (and even the companies this script editor used to work for) and have constructive, engaged opinions about the shows made by the company you're going to see - this doesn't necessarily mean you have to be glowingly positive about every show they've ever made. But come with constructive, engaged opinions about the TV they have been involved in working on.
For a script editor / producer these meetings aren't casual social events to pass the time. If they want to meet you, they have already made a significant commitment to you as a writer - and you need to make the most of these opportunities. Us Brits like to downplay things and you have to be adept at reading the sub-text of what is said.
Clearly the most important thing as a writer are your scripts. But once people have read and liked your scripts, there are so many other aspects to the work.
So much of it is about working relationships. In particular, when you’re working on a greenlit show with deadlines that are non-negotiable, the pressure to deliver can be quite intense (although let’s keep perspective, this isn’t life and death, it’s just television). Even on 4screenwriting, on which writers have 5 months to go from initial one sentence pitch to at least 2nd draft script, the pressure can feel quite intense – and much of what the course is about is seeing how writers cope with this, whether they thrive or not in a collaborative environment, working with script editors who are often asking difficult and demanding questions of their stories.
The bottom line is the people who are going to hire you not only need to believe you’re a talented writer, they also need to know that you’re hard-working (ie you’ve done your research, you know about who you’re meeting, the company they work for, the shows they have produced, other writers they have worked with, etc) that you’re genuinely interested in (even obsessed by) the process of creating stories for television, that you watch a lot and enjoy talking about it, that your opinions about dramatic writing and TV stories are constructive, engaged and enthusiastic. NB This doesn’t mean, I think, that you have to be 100% positive about everything on TV. We all learn a lot from the shows we think don’t work as well as the ones that do – as long as your critiques come from a place of enthusiasm rather than bitterness and general negativity!
You need to come across as someone who genuinely loves television and storytelling. Think about your favourite writers and favourite shows. Keep lists, study the way the industry works, where opportunities lie and how things are changing (TV and film are in a constant state of flux!)
Above all, we all want to work with people who we get on with. This certainly doesn’t mean you have to become bosom buddies with the people you work with. But being generally courteous and communicative counts for so much. And I’m occasionally surprised by writers who don’t follow the normal courtesies of any industry – replying graciously (or replying at all) to emails, responding to notes constructively – even (or particularly) if you don’t agree with those notes. Any script editor worth their salt will welcome a constructively combative debate about story and script notes. What we find less easy to deal with is a lack of response; or writers who say they agree with all the notes in a meeting but then don’t actually address them in the new draft of the script.
So much of the success of a writing career is predicated on your ability as a writer to communicate yourself and your ideas in person, in meetings and by email, about engaging with the industry and the people who have the potential to employ you in the industry constructively, conscientiously and generously. Remember, you will be hired by people you have met and got on with or who have received a positive reference about you, on top of the fact that they like your writing.
GENERATING STORY IDEAS
You need to go into these meetings armed with ideas that you're passionate about writing. The industry is hungry for your good ideas and if they are good, companies will commit to them and you will have to be continually creating and generating brilliant new ideas. As professional TV dramatists this is almost as important a part of your work as actually writing the scripts. It's these new ideas that are going to get you new script-writing work.
Go for ideas that don't just interest you but impact on you emotionally. Those are the stories we're all looking for - stories that address what bothers, excites, scares, terrifies, infuriates, overjoys you. What excites and enthuses you? What are your secret passions? What / who do you love (or hate? And why?) Stories that evoke an emotional response. Stories that challenge the status quo. It's not enough that your story is intellectually a good idea. It has to have emotional resonance.
Think about - why your story needs to be told now. Even (particularly) if it's a period story. What does your story tell us about the world we live in today?
Don't think that because an idea came to you easily that you should be suspicious of it. OR conversely if you have struggled working on an idea for years that that confers status on it. The opposite is more often true - the best ideas come quickly and easily.
You will feel / know when your pitch / idea is good. And it will be easy to pitch. And anyway it's not about the delivery of the pitch, it's about the quality of the idea.
But you have to put yourself in the right place (mentally and physically) to be open to these ideas. Look outward more than inward.
MAKING THE MOST OF THE OPPORTUNITIES
Sometimes the switch between no success or recognition at all in the TV drama world - and fighting off the meetings and offers - happens very quickly. The industry is quite small and producers and script editors are constantly swapping notes on who's good. If you get onto one scheme like 4screenwriting you may suddenly find you get all sorts of other offers. You need to make sure you're ready to take advantage of these opportunities when they do come along.
And if you're putting yourself out there and working hard at writing scripts, generating ideas and meeting people, and nothing is coming of it, then you need to be able to stand back and revaluate why things aren't happening for you and work out what you need to do differently.
Because there is an industry of people actively, hungrily looking for new writers, and if you're working at it but not breaking through there will be a good reason for it - but perhaps one that the potential employers are too polite / cowardly to tell you. At the same time, you need to be sure that you are receptive to constructive feedback about how you can improve your chances of success.
At a certain tipping point when you have got to know quite a few people in the industry and know who you want to work with and who you don't, these people will start coming to you with their ideas. Sometimes it's smart as a writer to be receptive to ideas that companies are bringing to you - this is an advantageous position to start from - when the company is trying to persuade you of the virtue of their ideas rather than the other way round. The company / script editor will already have an emotional / vested interest in the idea and you will be leaping on board momentum that has already been built up in-house without having to initially persuade them of the virtue of your idea. And hopefully the ideas that companies bring to you will already be informed by their knowledge of what is likely to get commissioned at that particular moment.
These documents are very hard to write. They're a completely different skill to writing a script but they're really important and as screenwriters you need to embrace the creative challenge of writing them.
What these documents aren't about is a detailed chronology of plot detail - we just want the absolute story essentials. Resist getting bogged down in plot when pitching - pitching is about the wider overview, not detailed plot chronology.
They are about expressing the uniqueness of your idea. What is utterly distinctive and exciting about your idea? Why does it need to be made - now? What is the emotional hook of your idea? Why are you not only the best writer for this project but the only writer who could write it? What is the compelling dramatic premise / narrative hook of your idea? Who are the vivid compelling characters at the heart of your story? What are the detailed visual images / tableaus / moments that articulate your idea?
These are the sorts of questions your document needs to address - and the document needs to address them in the shortest form possible. No reader wants an initial written pitch for a project to be 20 pages. Ideally they'd like it to be one page. But if you feel that you need 2-3 pages to do real justice to the idea, then that's fine. But you should write this document with real economy. There should be no repetition.
The document needs to convey not just your passion / excitement but also the tone / stylistic approach. If you're pitching a comedy, your written pitch needs to be funny. If you're pitching a thriller, it needs to be thrilling.
And the way you write it needs to convey how excited you are about the idea. But like the best scripts, all of this needs to be sub-textual. There is nothing more off-putting in these pitch documents than empty promises - assurances that the script will be funny, heart-breaking, thrilling, without any evidence of this in the document. These documents need to deliver not tease. At the same time, these documents aren't meant to be a complete package - they're just supposed to pique interest and initiate a conversation and questions about the idea.
As with your scripts, get feedback on your pitches, try them out on people, work on them and redraft them before you submit them professionally. Treat them with the focus and dedication you would a script.
Identify the essence of what is exciting and unique about your idea and keep this at the heart of your pitch. The clarity of the idea is key.
And good luck with those general meetings!
The next newsletter will be on Friday July 8th,
All the best
Friday June 24th 2022