As some of you know – because I do tend to bang on about it – I’ve been having a Pretty Good Year in terms of writing. It’s been full of massive changes – nine months ago, my 2018 looked pretty quiet, and I was thinking maybe it was time to sit down and finally make a serious attempt at writing a novel, with only a minimal amount of hope that anyone would read it.
From there, I’ve been catapulted – via Channel 4’s extraordinary 4Screenwriting Course – into the world of TV writing. All of a sudden, I’m having meetings with fantastic production companies (‘indies’, they call them – who knew?), and I’m over the moon to have signed with my wonderful new agent, Jessica Stewart, at Independent Talent. It feels as though doors I didn’t even dare knock on a year ago are all being flung open for me at once. I’ve gone from pestering the gatekeepers for a peek through the keyhole, to them approaching me to invite me in for coffee. It is amazing and bizarre and I’m still scared of jinxing it.
And you know, it sort of feels a bit crass to post about how all of this is happening. But I wish I’d known more about this stuff a few years ago, and I don’t think secrecy around how opportunities manifest in this industry help anyone; it certainly doesn’t help increase the diversity of the people who get them. “Abi,” a writer friend said to me seriously a few weeks ago, “We’ve done so well to get here at all. The rest of them have castles.” Now, I don’t have a castle, and I don’t live in London (everyone else does. Believe me. Everyone.) But imagine how much harder for writers with more significant barriers to opportunity: writers of colour, writers from working class backgrounds, disabled writers, to name a few. So here’s a little bit about my experience so far, for whatever it’s worth, and whoever might be interested.
The 4Screenwriting course has been transformational in the way that only an incredible amount of hard work can be. Six months is not a very long time to develop and write episode one of a brand new TV drama series, especially when you’re learning everything from scratch like I was. What is a pitch document? What is a treatment, and is it the same thing as an outline? What are loglines for and why does everyone look scared of them?
My amazing script editor Gillian and shadow script editor Danielle held my hand through the steepest learning curve of my career so far, and another kindly writer on the course lent me his outline so I could copy the formatting. Producers, writers, directors and script editors came in to talk to us about everything from the creative process (“Are you a Planner or a Vomiter, darling?”), to how writers in TV get paid. I worked 18 hour days and I killed my social life and I burned through my annual leave and I got on (paid for) trains to London and Glasgow every five minutes and it was the most rewarding thing I have ever done for my writing. I can’t imagine a more practical or well-connected or supportive programme for taking writers like me and introducing them to the industry. If you are thinking of applying, for the first time or the seventh, do it.
So, from January to May, I was frantically writing to get my script ready for the end of the course. Then came the period I’m still in now – the period of Not Writing. This is particularly weird – to be having loads of exciting meetings (‘generals’, they call them, when you meet with production companies to introduce yourself), and signing with an agent and feeling more successful – still in my very small way – than I ever have before. But not actually having time for any writing.
I’ve been penning other things: pitches, emails (so many emails), lists, bios, CVs, a treatment or two… but I am not writing stories or scripts. I’m trying to keep at bay the monster that whispers my luck will run out at any moment, that I must strike now or never, that if I breathe out my progress will disappear in a puff of smoke.
My aim for the rest of this year is to breathe out. Contacts may or not get back to me, meetings may or may not go well, projects may take off soon or they may not. Despite some lovely new short story publications recently, my well of work is almost empty, for the first time in years. I can’t wait to start setting some time aside again to fill it – to stop looking at myself from an external perspective and to turn back to the page, quietly, and on my own. Because if I lose sight of that, what was any of it for?
And it is a remarkable thing to return to. Having gone without it for a few months, I feel like writing frantically again. I feel like stories are bursting out of me, on trains and during conference calls – I’m stopping in the middle of washing up to scribble them down on scraps of paper like I haven’t done for ages.
So now, back to it. Because this isn’t that essential sort of writing either, and my notebook and I have been strangers long enough.
My cabaret night, First Draft, are holding an event at Newcastle Castle on Saturday 28th July, and if you’re based in the North East you should totally come.
Have you read Lincoln in the Bardo yet? Read it, because it is The Book, I’m telling you.
Here’s a picture of my wife and I having a lovely time at the pop-up Rose Theatre in York.