It’s been an interesting few weeks since my last blog, I’ve made the final of a big Coverfly competition and passed the 18 month mark as an aspiring screenwriter. Let’s do a brief recap of my journey so far…
0-6 months – Clueless Newbie. (Warning… offensively bad writing ahead)
It is incredible to me that only eighteen months have passed since I plonked down at my breakfast bar and typed out my very first slug line. Well, I say slug line, I was not aware of slug lines, action blocks, the concept of dialogue being in the centre of the page… So my first few lines of script on day 1 were toe-curling lines of standard Microsoft Word text. Brace your core section before reading this, and be aware they are my first EVER lines of script…
This was from July 2020, day 5 of my screenwriting journey. By day 12 the writing was still crap but I had worked out a rudimentary script format that at least had the dialogue in the centre of the screen. After three weeks, I finished my script. My format was polished, my action blocks were concise and I was taking deep enjoyment from the process of creating new places, characters and dialogue and weaving them into a story. However, at this point there was still a sense of screenwriting as a temporary thing, that the moment a ‘professional’ saw my work it would be exposed as the hopeless scribblings of a deluded amateur.
But how does a new writer get their script in front of a ‘professional’? Clueless, I started googling production companies. I scoured their websites for advice on whether it was ‘cricket’ to actually send my script in to them. Invariably their website was clear. It was ‘not cricket’ to send your script in… unless it was via an agent.
So I started googling agents. I scoured their websites for advice on whether it was ’cricket’ to send a script in to them. Invariably, the answer was no. Not cricket.
But hang on then… How does a new writer get their script read? By anyone? How do I put this thing in front of anyone remotely near the industry?
I wrestled with this for a good few days. It was like the most heinous Krypton Factor puzzle of all time. I could see host Gordon Burns, all side parting and smiles, giving his soft-spoken commentary as I flailed around trying to solve the puzzle.
‘…so, yet to finish then is Phil Hamer, from Cardiff… looking a little frustrated as he moves from the production company website back to the agency website… now back to the production company website… All the other contestants have finished… You can see the concentration on his face… oh no he’s gone back to the Agency website again! Time is running out… ooh, apologies to the viewers for the language there…’
Eventually, from somewhere, the idea struck that maybe you could PAY someone to read your script. No idea where this flash came from (I had never heard of a ‘Script Consultant’), but I googled ‘Pay someone to read my script’ and a million script consultants came up. Eureka!
Being a superb Googler, within a few hours I had googled my way down to Philip Shelley as the consultant to contact. I sent off my script to Philip and, with zero confidence that it could possibly be any good, promptly forgot about it.
Screenwriting twitter is a fascinating place. You have everything from megastar Hollywood screenwriters posting red carpet selfies to shivering, penniless screenwriters posting about how it’s too cold in their studio flat to write. (Btw, my carefully worded Hot Take: The penniless screenwriters seem to tweet far more often than the successful ones…) But a conversation that often crops up on the self-hating, educative, paranoia-drenched, glorious scream-therapy island that is screenwriting twitter is ‘Should you give up your day job to pursue your dream of becoming a writer?’ Well, I haven’t and I won’t do so until I have so much paid writing work that I have to choose between doing my day job and sleeping.
A benefit to retaining your day job is you can afford to put the scripts you write in front of professionals, and they can tell you if you’re any good. So it was that my debut script came back from Mr Shelley with strong words of encouragement, even a suggestion that people in the industry would want to meet me off the back of this script. Indeed, this did happen, albeit through zoom meetings rather than actual visits to production company offices, which at least saved me hundreds of pounds in new clothes.
Anyway, this tentative new hobby had now morphed into a deep, exhilarating passion. Even without the encouragement and the zoom meetings, I was enjoying writing to such an extent that I knew I would be writing for the rest of my life whether I became successful or not.
6-12 months – Fevered dreams and Coverfly competitions
A period of steep learning. I consumed countless how-to screenwriting books and audio tapes during this period. In fact, far too many. I would go to bed and have fevered, surreal dreams about how my pet dog Sabby had an interesting catalyst but her B-story could use a little work… Or how my dear old Grandmother, long departed from this world, had no discernible break into the third act and I needed to come up with a better mid-point. ‘Gran deserves a better mid-point!’ I would howl upon waking up bolt upright in bed.
Alongside the binge-learning, I continued to write ferociously. Three hours every morning from 6am to 9am. I wrote my first feature, the tale of a trawlerman from the north of Scotland who would see traumatic events from the future but was unable to prevent them happening. This ‘gift’ led him, kicking and screaming, into a mental institution until a young TV researcher in London spotted him in grainy old TV footage essentially predicting a modern global catastrophe, and decided to investigate.
I wrote a one hour drama about a man consigned to strict isolation by his diabetes and asthma during the first wave of the pandemic. Unfortunately, his wife had taken the kids and left him just before lockdown on account of a drunken kiss, and now he was powerless to react as his family and his career slowly slipped from his grasp.
I discovered Coverfly. What a strange thing, this Coverfly…
With its ‘YOUR SCRIPT IS TOP 37%!… TOP 25%… TOP 12%’ it guilefully encourages you to continue entering the same script into competition after competition… I see writers tweeting gleefully about how their script is now in the top 3% in drama and then you see they’ve entered it into 50 competitions to get there. That must be, what, three thousand pounds of entry fees? This cannot be healthy.
So obviously I started hurling my scripts into these competitions. The Milwaukee Film Festival? Entered. The Botswana International Short Script Festival? Entered. After entering the Venezuela Broadcasting Corporation TV Sitcom competition I checked my bank balance and decided to be more selective. Apart from the fact that producers in Milwaukee or Venezuela are unlikely to engage with an animated comedy family from Pontypridd, I was skint.
By now I had entered 15 competitions and reached not a single quarter-final. 15 consecutive failures. Hmmm, perhaps I’m not on the right path after all.
12-18 months – Passion projects and competition inroads.
The last six months have been spent writing two features that are close to my heart. One is about a young man in a forgotten South Wales valleys community (many valleys communities are now thriving, finally rising from the ashes of Thatchers brutality… But some have seemingly been sentenced to ‘managed decline’). In the most deprived of these communities, the choice for those with lower academic interest can come down to sport or drugs. On the one hand, the warm embrace of the rugby community where you learn respect, discipline, empathy and healthy lifestyle habits. On the other, the cold oblivion of the drug trade. My story is about this conflict, how the two worlds push and pull against each other and how a young person’s future can be shaped (or even ended) by which side wins out.
My other feature is about a frazzled single mum who finds a Schwarzschild wormhole to a distant planet in her airing cupboard. But underneath it’s about hyper-capitalism and how its gruesome tentacles extend down into working class communities and wreak havoc.
I haven’t sent these features out into the world yet, not to consultants nor into competitions. They are both finished, but I need to show patience and let them ‘settle’.
You know when you’ve just written your first ever script, and I mean your very first dreadfully formatted, unedited mess of words? And you metaphorically rip it out of the typewriter and race into the living room clutching this thing like it’s the most important script since the dead sea scrolls and give it to your poor girlfriend to read, even though you have done ZERO drafting or editing and it’s just awful? But you’re so excited to have simply written a script that you have to show someone?
Well, I think us new writers can remain guilty of this impatience for a long time. The exhilaration of simply finishing a script and doing the spellcheck overpowers us and we slam it out to a script consultant and ten competitions before we’ve really sat back to analyse whether it is ‘cooked’. I even see (usually young) screenwriters on Twitter exclaiming ‘I’ve just finished my first scene!!! Anyone want a read??’ Or, occasionally, ‘Just finished my first page… HERE IT IS!!!’.
And of course, often this single scene or single page is absolutely unremarkable. And no-one comments or likes their tweet. And you can feel the poor young writer curling up into a ball as the day goes on and the tumbleweed rolls.
I’m 44 but I was guilty of this last year. I finished an entire 105 page feature script about a haunted school in 14 days (!!) and breathlessly sent it off to an established industry professional. Her very first question in our zoom meeting? ‘Um… How long did it take you to write this?’.
My toes are still curled up to this day.
So I have learned my lesson. My single-mum/Schwarzschild wormhole story was originally finished ages ago, but I let it settle for two weeks and a lovely new theme emerged from it like scent from an old cork-topped perfume bottle. So I rewrote a few scenes and gave it another week breathing space. Sure enough a simple plot device emerged, courtesy of my clever fiancée, (tweaking the protagonists Dad from supermarket shelf stacker to factory worker) which tightened up the story 20%. The ‘me’ of twelve months ago would have slammed this script off to a reader weeks ago. But the patience I have gained is a little marker of my maturation as a writer. And this should be our aim, constant tiny improvements to our process until we reach a standard where important people actually pay us to write stuff.
In terms of competitions, in November my lockdown drama brought my first ever placement, a dizzying quarter final which you can read about here. And now my debut script (which has slowly grown from that unformatted mess at the top of this article) has reached the final of a big Coverfly competition! Just reaching the semi-finals had blown the hat clean off my head cartoon-style, especially seeing that 50 of the 70 other semi-finalists were from L.A… That’s in America!! So when the email came through that I had reached the final 13 I’m told that I keeled over backwards like a felled redwood.
Alas, the overall win was not to be, but reaching the final 13 of a global, Coverfly-platformed competition has provided me with an enormous shot of confidence. It has also hinted that, 18 months into my journey as an Aspiring Screenwriter, I might just be on the right path after all.
Speak to you soon folks!