Tuesday 25 October 2011

The Business of Getting an Agent

I was listening to the UK Scriptwriters' Podcast the other day and was interested in their discussion about agents. It was very interesting and I recommend downloading it and having a listen. I realised this is something I'd never mentioned on this blog before. So, briefly, here are a few thoughts on agents with sitcom specifically in mind.

How I Got An Agent
Firstly, I got an agent via a very odd route. I was a temp at the agency, filling in for someone and typing letters. I was writing bits and pieces for radio shows and a bit of TV (Smack the Pony and Rory Bremner) and had, unwittingly, built up a CV that was interesting to an agent. When they asked if I, as a writer, wanted representation, I was genuinely surprised and agreed pretty much on the spot.

The reason I was so happy to get an agent was not primarily because it made me look and feel like a proper writer (although it did), but because I hate talking about money and asking for more of it. I am quite capable of getting angry about not being paid properly (see here) but when confronted with the issue face-to-face, I immediately say everything's fine and that I don't really need the money right now. I'll say anything to make that conversation end.

Having an agent was brilliant because I had someone on my side who would ask for more money, chase it up and pore over contracts - and understand them. An agent, then, is a wonderful ally in a lonely business; someone who is looking out for your interests. And I've stuck with the same agent for my whole career as I like being represented by her - and I like the way she operates on my behalf. Sometimes people can use their agents to be unpleasant and unreasonable so that they themselves don't have to be, hiding behind them to get more money in a rather nasty way. I'm not into that at all - and want my agent to be my genuine representative in discussions about money, rights and conditions.

Why do you want an agent?

For those trying to break into the industry, it's worth asking yourself why you want an agent. I understand that it's very hard to get a novel published without an agent. Publishers, it seems, now use agents to sift manuscripts and do not take unsolicited work. I couldn't comment on movies and drama.

But sitcom and comedy generally doesn't work like that. Agents are not the key to getting work or getting noticed. If you want to break into the industry, there are plenty of routes. Write for open-door shows on Radio 4 (eg Newsjack) or television. Send sketches to producers who make sketch shows. Put on comedy shows, make them good and then put them on in Edinburgh, and try and get them noticed. Write a really good sitcom script - and keep rewriting it until you're really happy with it, and then send it to producer who makes programmes you like. If the production company says they don't accept unsolicited scripts, I would ignore that. But don't plague them with calls either. In short, write funny and show it to people.

You'll notice an agent doesn't feature in any of the above. And the fact is that if you're a really good comedy writer, it is only a matter of time before you will succeed. Good sitcom scripts are rare. If you write a good one, you will get meetings and some interest, although it make take ages to come anything. When it does, an agent will be a great help, in terms of taking care of money and contracts. They will also be much easier to get by that stage. They may also be able to set up introductions to new producers or contacts. But pinning your hopes on getting an agent as the 'way in' is misguided when it comes to writing comedy for TV and radio.

Finding You Work
Some agents get their writers short-term jobs on panel games and entertainment shows - mine doesn't, but then I've never asked her to because I'm hopeless at that sort of comedy writing. I'm a narrative guy. And my agent understands that and is always on the look-out for opportunities in that area. And that's what an agent will do for you - help you. But they don't make or break you. You and your jokes will do that.

That's my take on agents. I'd be very interested to hear the views of others.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Scripts are Like a Flowing River

The other day, without thinking, I described the script of a show to a producer as being like a flowing river. I’m not ensure what – or who – possessed me to say such a pompous thing, but I’ve been thinking about what I meant ever since. (That’s pretty much my modus operandi – speak first, ask questions later). But I think I meant that a script is a moving, flowing thing.

The Block of Ice
A script is not a big impenetrable block of ice, or glacier, that cannot be altered or change. This is an easy trap to fall into . When you lock yourself away to finally write that darned script, you can emerge some days or weeks later, squinting in the natural light, clutching something that is, in your considered, unbiased opinion ‘perfect’.

It isn’t.

Even Hemingway said ‘the first draft of anything is shit’. Hemingway said that. Not a hack writer who cranked out prose by the yard. Hemingway. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 1954. First drafts are shit.

This is a really important lesson to learn. Your first draft isn’t very good. Yours and mine. With experience, your first drafts tend to get incrementally better. I like to think my first draft now, having been writing professionally for twelve-ish years, is equivalent to a second draft ten years ago. No great achievement as my second drafts ten years were also atrocious.

But one can be seduced by this improvement. Writers do tend to get better and better as they get older (especially novelists). The trick is to do just as many drafts as you did when you were starting out, but this way, you end up with better drafts all the way along the long – and the quality of your work improves.

Sometimes you read or watch the work of a highly successful pro and you wonder whether they felt their first draft was already pretty good and therefore the script didn’t get the love and attention it needed. This can easily happen when writers become executive producers of their own show, or become very powerful. Lines are left unedited. Gaps that need jokes go unfilled. Sequels are very very long and baggy. The quality declines, even though the writer is better and more experienced than they were twenty years earlier.

So, a script is not a block of ice. It has to be pulled around, to ebb and flow at its own pace and find its way from the source to the ocean.

The immaculate script you produced in dimly lit isolation often doesn't seem so clever in the cold light of day. After a little while, plot inconsistencies come to the surface, motives seem muddle, and the set-pieces aren’t as funny as you remember – and turn out to have been done by David Croft thirty years ago, better.

Recently, I’ve just burned through four drafts of a script in less than a month. I thought draft 1 was very clever. But it wasn’t really. It was a perfectably respectable start to the process – like an undercoat on the wall before the proper paint goes on – but it only got good on Draft 3. But if the script is produced (it's just a pilot script for now), I’m sure the script will change significantly several times – once after its been cast and we work out where the jokes really are, then again during rehearsal, followed by tweaks, nips and tucks all the way through shooting, one or two of which might quite big difference to the story, plot or tone.

The Splurging Spray

Given that the script never seems to be finished, the writer can make a different mistake, in which they have no real confidence in any draft at all, starting with the first. Maybe they lock themselves away and produce that draft, but rather than clutching it with ill-advised certainty, they toss it to the producer with a shrug, saying ‘the show should be this sort of thing’. If the script is written with this approach, the temptation is to see the first draft as a splurging spray, some of which may hit the target, but most of which will not. This is a bad way of writing.

Given that most writers are highly strung and care passionately about every single word on the page, this is a less common problem, but it can happen. The first draft is written quickly, or in fits and starts, and then offered around with excuses like ‘I can’t make the ending work, but the beginning’s not right either, so when that’s fixed, I’ll do a new ending’. The obvious – and correct – response to this is ‘So fix the beginning, then the ending and show that to me when you’re done’.

I have mentioned this before – here. It can come about in those starting out because of lack of confidence, when ultimately the writer needs to just ‘man up’ and write what they think is funny to the best of their ability. But it can happen in more seasoned professionals too. All the lines are essentially placeholders, because the real lines, real jokes, real script will emerge in further drafts – and rehearsal. This approach is a high risk strategy, and is either cowardly, hubristic or lazy. The draft you are writing now is the most important draft. And if has to be perfect. And then you'll have to do it again.

Herein lies the dilemma of the writer – to write as if the first draft is the final one, firm in the knowledge that it will probably change beyond recognition, except, in my experience, it is surprising how much of the first draft survives. The first formation or phrasing of a joke you think of is often the best. Little routines sometimes tumble out right first time. Some set-pieces and exchanges can sail through untouched. But then other parts of the script (usually the beginning and the end) are sweated over and endless rewritten. It can be hard, gruelling, exhausting work. But it’s not done down a coal-mine or slum. It’s usually done with a Macbook, Spotify and some hot coffee, so it’s really not that bad.

The script is, ultimately, a flowing river. It can change course with some effort if need be. Changes cause ripples and waves, but it can cope with them. The script is not a babbling brook that easily changes course, or a spray that mostly misses the target. Nor a block of ice that can only be chipped at. Or cracked and broken.

By the way, Jason Arnopp has written a lovely blog post here about the freedom of Draft Zero. I've often done Drafts Zeros and can testify that they are a Good Thing.

Thursday 6 October 2011

Stand Up and Deliver by Andy Kind

Let's be honest. There aren't all that many books out there about comedy - certainly not British comedy. So when one comes along, it's always worth a look. Andy Kind has written a nice one called 'Stand Up and Deliver'. Not a blindingly original title, I guess, but it does the job. It's about his first year doing stand-up comedy and appears to be a brutally honest account of that year, the euphoric highs, and the chronic lows.

Again, let's keep it transparent. I know Andy a bit, although I've never seen him do stand-up. But here's the thing. I read the book and it made me laugh. Out loud. Quite often. This is a good thing, and therefore a good book. The book isn't a Stewart-Lee-style skewering of the comedy industry and the huge flaws within the stand-up circuit, new act nights and all that stuff. Andy deals with all these things in a very jokey way, with loads of gags thrown in. Like all these things, some hit, some miss. But the hit rate is pretty high. It made me think Andy could cut it in a writers room, gagging up scripts and throwing ideas in. Maybe he's more suited to that than stand-up. But not having seen his stand-up, I couldn't say.

The only other thing that me be bothersome for some is that Andy is a Christian, and is honest about that in his book. The book's publisher is a Christian company. None of this concerned me as I'm a fellow God-botherer. To leave it out, though, would be less than honest of him, and the book is nothing if not honest.

Overall, the book is well-worth a look, especially if you're dabbling in stand-up or live comedy performance. You can get hold of it and read other reviews over here.