Some Must Have Prizes

So it’s competition time!  That is to say, the Red Planet Prize has winnowed all those pilot scripts down to a few hundred semi-finalists, and all over Britain, writers are frantically polishing up their magnum opus, ready to send in the full script with fingers crossed…

Of course, that leaves a lot of writers who didn’t make it this year muttering darkly into their coffee about how it’s all rigged, and only the judges’ friends get through, and all those other manifestations of paranoia that you’ll find among any gathering of writers.

It surprises me how many writers deeply distrust competitions, prizes and training schemes of all kinds.  Of course, there is the occasional ‘opportunity’ of dubious value.  They’re usually easy to spot, thanks to the steep entry fee and vague rewards, often a promise that your script will be ‘read by’  unspecified ‘top Hollywood executives’.  But there are still many, many reputable competitions and training schemes all over the world – and here in Britain, we have a number of fantastic opportunities run by channels and production companies who are genuinely interested in finding new writers.

Why am I banging on about this?  Well, I promised to say a few words about how my upcoming TV series, Wolfblood, came to be commissioned – and it all came about through an open call for children’s scripts coordinated by BBC Writers’ Room.

A few months earlier, I was in a charity shop, browsing the bookshelves for something to read.  Maybe I was a little sleepy, not paying enough attention, but somehow my focus slipped from the first half of one book’s title to the second half of another book, joining together words to make a completely new title… Wolfblood.

And immediately, I knew what this story was about.  An ordinary girl from a family of beings with extraordinary abilities, who lived hidden among ‘normal’ humans.  She thinks she’s okay with hiding what she is, until another of her kind turns up, someone with very different views, and everything has to change…

There must have been some very puzzled expressions in that charity shop as I went hurtling out in search of paper and pen to scribble down my brilliant idea!

So when the Writer’s Room, central gateway for new writers and unagented submissions to the BBC, announced an open call for new scripts, I had my characters.  Then came the writing – and yes, that first draft was very different to what you’ll see on screen later this year.  In retrospect, I’d crammed way too much plot and incident into an opening episode.  Though now I come to think of it, that did give a strong sense of the world and the kind of stories that could be told in it.  Maybe overdoing it a bit doesn’t hurt as much as you’d think…

But amazingly, the phone call came – first, I was through to the long-list, and invited to a one-day workshop in London, and then I made the finalists.  Eight of us were whisked away to Kent for several days of intensive workshops, talks, pitching sessions and briefings on the specific demands of children’s television.

None of us had any real experience in writing for children, and the guidance we received there, both in general terms and on our specific scripts, was fantastic.  Children don’t necessarily process story in the same way that adults do – for a start, they’ve seen less television, so they don’t have the experience of narrative that would help them follow complex stories.  On the plus side, though, what seems like a cliché to an adult might be novel to them!

The kinds of stories that really resonate with children are very different to those that work for adults, too.  Children hate moral ambiguity.  The good guys need to be good and the bad guys bad.  Evil is punished and kindness rewarded. A central character can grapple with a difficult decision, of course, but their decision must ultimately support and uphold the central elements of children’s lives –  family, friendship, kindness and loyalty.

And then there was the rewriting, and we returned our final drafts to the BBC, and waited…

In common with most BBC schemes, there was no promise of a commission at the end of the process – realistically, how can there be, when no one can be sure what kind of scripts will be submitted, how they’ll fit with existing shows, or how much development work they’ll need?  But in this case, one other writer’s script went into development, and Wolfblood was put forward for that year’s commissioning round – and commissioned.

And then, of course, the real work began…

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