Training Schemes For Writers

Over the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to attend a lot of workshops, training schemes, development programs and all kinds of similar opportunities aimed at increasing the number of good writers and good scripts available to the British film and television industries.

Some of those schemes have been excellent. After all, Wolfblood was commissioned because of one of them (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/writersroom/posts/Wolfblood for more on that).

And some of them have been… not so good. Of course, no one can ever tell you which opportunity you should follow at this stage in your career, but I thought I’d throw together a few thoughts how to decide which opportunities to consider and which are less useful.

Commissioning opportunities: is there a chance of a script commission, or an option on your existing script, at the end of the opportunity? After all, you’re here to get scripts commissioned and made, not just written. And opportunities that offer a chance of a commission are often run by major producers or public funding bodies – BBC, Red Planet Prize, BFI schemes, etc – which means you’re not only in with a chance of money and a completed, filmed piece of work, you’re making contacts at the highest level.

Who’s running the course?  Do they work in the industry, or do they make their living running workshops and events? Workshops run by people who work solely teaching and mentoring, often funded by public bodies, are fantastic if you’re a ‘baby writer’ with no training or experience – but if you have a few scripts under your belt, and particularly if some have been produced, you’re probably just going to end up going over the same ground. After a certain point, you’re not attending a workshop to be taught, you’re here to win a commission – or to network, so make sure you’re with the right people (see below).

As a sidebar to that: it’s really tempting to attend workshops and courses with big-name guest speakers. I know, I’ve done it. And frequently, they have some interesting things to say. But don’t mistake this for an opportunity to pitch to or befriend big names. Whatever the organisers tell you, the big-name speaker did not come here to find a new script or a new writer to mentor. It’s a speaking engagement, a chance to give back to young writers and put some easy money in their pocket. If you do meet them in the bar, buy them a drink, tell them how much you enjoyed their talk, and then leave them alone…

Who’s going on the course?  Is it all other writers, or are there producers and directors too? The one and only writer attending an event full of producers has a captive audience for their pitches, and no competition!

What’s the skill level of other participants? This is the hardest thing to judge – no one’s going to want to tell you in advance – and often you won’t know until you’re in the room. I once attended a multi-stage script development workshop, with writers eliminated after each ’round’. On arrival for the first stage, I found 70% of participants were final-year university students – all of whom were eliminated in the first round. Were the organisers fair to set them up again established writers ? Well, maybe, as a learning process  – all experience is good experience when you’re young – but…

How much is it going to cost?  Increasingly, the financial costs of publicly-funded programs are hidden in a complex process of paying out and claiming back. Thanks to the rules of public funding, many programs refund your travel expenses and hotel rooms, but ask you to pay a fee of several hundred pounds to participate. Others only refund train fares up to a certain amount – or pay for hotel rooms during a workshop, but not the night before an early start –  which means additional costs if you’re travelling a long distance.

Cost should never be your primary concern – you have to spend money to make money – but it’s perfectly okay to decide that what you’d get out of a particular program isn’t worth the financial costs.

And finally, the one it’s easiest to forget: am I so busy attending events that I’m not actually doing any writing…?

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