An English Writer In Los Angeles!

Well, my trip is over, and it’s time to share the results of my experiences! What’s it really like to be a British writer on your first trip to LA? Here are a few thoughts…

LA is probably an easier town to live in than to visit. What I mean by that is: if you live here, then unless you suddenly produce the hottest spec in town, you’re probably only taking a couple of meetings a week. But if you’re visiting, you’re trying to pack in as many as possible, and that’s going to give you an inaccurate view of how hard it is to get around and how stressful the general atmosphere of the city is.

So bear in mind that what you’re experiencing isn’t necessarily how things are for everyone else. Don’t try to pack in too much unnecessary stuff like sightseeing – enjoy your trip, sure, but remember there’ll be plenty of time to see the sights when you’re a famous writer living in the Hollywood Hills!

LA does have public transport (though people will look shocked if you tell them you’re using it!) It’s even cheap – twenty dollars for a weekly pass on the basic bus network and the Metro (excluding some local or express services). What it will cost you is time. You can get anywhere, including the big studio lots in Burbank and elsewhere, by bus – the question is, will you have enough time between meetings? Basically, if you’re not driving, you’re going to need to use cabs to keep to your schedule, so carry several cab numbers and plenty of cash.

If you are driving, you have the advantage, but even so, time will be against you. Freeway congestion seems to spring up at random, and the speed limit on major routes through town can be as low as 25 mph. Plan meticulously!

The meeting culture is a little different to the UK. Over here, where the TV industry is scattered round the country and writers often live some distance from London, meetings are confirmed at least a week beforehand. In LA, where writers live in and around the city and execs’ schedules are constantly in flux, meetings are only arranged a few days in advance, confirmed the day before, and changes of time on the day are entirely possible. If you’re used to having everything set in stone a week beforehand, that’s disconcerting at first, but you’ll soon settle into it.

Everyone does everything. The traditional barriers between film and television are breaking down, and every company wants to generate all kinds of content. We’re seeing some of that in the UK, but as you’d expect, LA is way ahead of the curve on this. Be prepared to pitch any project at any meeting. And also have a few books, short stories etc that you’d be interested in adapting. Everyone loves pre-existing material!

Prepare for anything. You’ll need sun screen, decent sunglasses, lip balm and a good moisturiser, as well as a plentiful supply of bottled water. But LA is a desert city, and nights are chilly, especially this time of year. If your meeting is in Santa Monica or Venice, remember that ocean breeze and take an extra layer (especially if you don’t have a warm car to get back into).

If by some miracle you get to the vicinity of your meeting early, and decide to get out of the heat, you’re going to have to go further to find a coffee shop than you would in London. It’s not uncommon for several blocks of LA to be offices or housing, with no shops or cafes, especially off the main routes. It’s worth keeping an eye out for somewhere as you approach the building, so you have a place to circle back to. Again, it’s all about the planning!

And lastly – and mostly importantly to a British writer – yes, you really can get a decent cup of tea in LA!

I’m A Success, Get Me Out Of Here!

As much as it offends my English sense of modesty to admit it, I seem to be a bit of a success now. Certainly I’m not paying the bills by working in a supermarket any more, and that’s pretty much the definition of being a successful writer, right?
Now, I’m not complaining… Well, all right, I’m a writer, we do nothing but complain! However, I love my job and wouldn’t change it for the world. But what’s interested me over the last year or so is how much actually getting to do what you want changes how you do what you want. And I’ve been noticing a few things.
Something always has to be ’your day job’. Once, I was working the tills at a certain supermarket, and going home to work on Wolfblood evenings and weekends. So writing Wolfblood was the thing I really wanted to be doing. Now I am doing it… And suddenly the other projects I’m trusting to get off the ground seem a lot more exciting and attractive than doing yet another draft of episode five!
Part of that is the attraction of the new, of course. The only script that’s ever perfect is the one you’re just about to start writing, so that’s the one that seems the most fun. But also, to an extent, Wolfblood is my day job now. I love every second of it, but it’s somehow not quite the same experience.
There’s more to writing a TV series than just writing a TV series. There are public appearances, invitations to speak to students or at festivals, meetings, visits to the set, possibilities of spin-offs and merchandise to be dealt with, and of course, endless questions on the blog and on Twitter. Writing the show only takes about six months of the year, but non-writing stuff devours a surprising amount of the rest…
It’s harder to impose your own deadlines once you’ve got used to having them imposed for you. On Wolfblood, of course, when outlines and drafts are handed in is dictated by the production schedule – and there’s always a script editor eagerly awaiting the episode you know you should be working on. But it’s fatally easy to get used to that, and to think of any day when you don’t have an externally-imposed deadline as a potential day off!
Writing anything that isn’t Wolfblood is… odd. Working on a TV series, you’re constantly handing in versions of your work and getting feedback. Reactions are immediate and honest. Ideas are shaped collaboratively. And then you return to something you’re writing on spec, and there’s just you. No feedback, no one to share ideas with, no one to remind you not to blow the budget. It feels a bit weird – and frankly, rather scary…
In other words, however much of a “success” you become, you always go back to square one for the next project. That new idea doesn’t come pre-approved, there’s no one to force you to work on it, and there’s no one rooting for it but you.
And surely that’s a good thing?

Keeping The Main Thing The Main Thing

There’s a story you sometimes hear among Christians, about a famous preacher who was asked about the ‘main thing’ for a Christian to concentrate on. Peace? Love? Hope? Faith? The preacher smiled and said, “The main thing to think about is keeping the main thing the main thing.”

And strangely enough, that applies to writing too.

Any working screenwriter is busy keeping a lot of balls in the air, and attending to a lot of career-related activities: meetings, self-promotion, attending talks and seminars on writing, returning favours to people who’ve helped you, mentoring and advising younger writers. Oh, and, er, writing a blog…

Once you have a show in production, there are a million and one other things you either need or want to keep an eye on too. And they’re all so tempting. A set visit, a lecture, a writers’ social event or a speed-networking evening feel much more like significant, effective work than sitting at your laptop does.

And yes, they’re important. They’re necessary.

But none of them are the main thing. The main thing is writing, and you need to keep it the main thing.

If you’re not writing every day, coming up with new ideas every week, finishing a new script every two to three months, then you’ve lost track of the main thing…

Screenwriting Career Lessons From… David Bowie?

I was watching ‘David Bowie night’ on factual and arts channel BBC4 last night, which kicked off with a fantastic documentary on how Bowie created his Ziggy Stardust persona. And I realized pretty quickly there were a lot of lessons here for screenwriters, or indeed anyone in a creative career.

It takes time.  Bowie had been in the business for more than a decade when Ziggy made him a superstar. Space Oddity had been a huge hit for him, but a few years later, he was genuinely worried he was going to be a one hit wonder. The old saying  “It takes ten years to become an overnight success” were never truer than in the arts…

Nothing you try is wasted.  During those ten years, Bowie had released hard rock, folk, comedy novelty records, every type of music that existed then and probably some that didn’t. His follow-up to Space Oddity was a long-haired, guitar-led folk album. He even spent time ‘inventing’ a new rock star, a good-looking lad who would mime to Bowie’s vocals. But everything he ever did or saw or liked, right down to his background in mime and experimental dance, eventually fed into Ziggy.

Every great artist steals, urm, I mean ‘homages’.  Bowie was a magpie, stealing looks from pop culture and Japanese theatre, music elements from jazz and 1940’s film scores, and lyric fragments from existing songs. Challenged on this, he said  “Yes, but I know what to steal.”  What he also knew was how to use what he stole as a jumping-off point, something to twist and distort and change into something utterly new. That’s the difference between theft and genius.

Innovate and succeed.  Bowie basically invented the idea of the rock ‘stage show’ – elaborate costumes, theatrical lighting, dance, mime, spectacle. Before him, musicians essentially turned up, played the songs, and left. That made the Ziggy Stardust tour unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. Which could have backfired, and sometimes did – indeed, in the American Mid-West, he was playing huge arenas with a couple of hundred in the audience –  but to the right audience, it was utterly compelling.

Why?  Because of the most important lesson we can learn here –

His art genuinely spoke to a generation. The evening closed with the film version of the final Ziggy Stardust concert. Watching Bowie sing Rock And Roll Suicide  as the closing number – watching him sing “You’re not alone”, to a young, alienated, disenfranchised audience, in an era before feminism or gay rights had fully taken hold – is electrifying.  The song was transfigured by the audience’s response to it (in the same way a cinema audience interacts with a movie), and the audience were changed by the song.

Whatever medium you work in, if you have something empowering, humane, compassionate and life-changing to say, you can’t not succeed.