The Future Of TV

When I’m not writing novels under my pseudonym James Wilde, most of my current work under my own name is screenwriting for TV, developing shows for both the UK and the US. I have several currently in different stages of development (more on these projects soon).

The nature of the industry is changing so fast you can almost feel the land moving under your feet.  Terrestrial broadcasters – the BBC, ITV, NBC, ABC – are in steep decline.  They’re fighting to get eyes on screens and talent to make their shows.  Streaming providers are winning.  Netflix, Prime, soon Disney and Apple, with a whole lot more in the pipeline.

It’s a great time to be a screenwriter.

Netflix has just taken over a massive new building on the lot of Sunset Bronson Studios on Sunset Boulevard.  If you want to get a sense of how they’re changing things up, this piece in Wired is a great read.

On January 7, 2018, Netflix had its biggest ever day of streaming, with users collectively watching 350 million hours of TV shows and movies. (Netflix puts this down in part to an increase in viewers around holiday periods.) It’s planning on spending $8bn on its video content in 2018; by comparison, Fox spent the same amount in 2017 on non-sports content.

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One Simple Rule To Sell Your Writing

Writing for a living is filled with many amazing moments. Seeing your book on the shelves. Your name in the credits of a film or TV show. Cash in the bank account. Paid! For doing something you love so much you’d do it for free. What a world to live in.

There are hard times too. Those rejections. They never stop, even when you’re a professional. Sometimes you feel like that’s all there is.

Some people make it even harder for themselves by not applying brutal logic to what they’re doing.

Pop quiz. What’s the essential nature of a publishing company? Most people say publishing books. They’d be wrong. The essential nature of a publishing company is the same as every other business: making a profit for shareholders. Publishing books is just the way they’ve chosen to do it.

It’s the same answer for film and TV production companies, and for agents. It’s a simple notion, but for many writers it comes as a revelation. They spend their lives immersed in art so that in the end that’s all they can see.

RULE # 3: If you want to get paid, remember it’s a business.

Ram that idea deep into your mind: everybody who might buy your work wants to make a profit for their shareholders, and allow all the editors and commissioners to keep their jobs and put food on the tables for their loved ones. They’re not going to turn down an opportunity to do that. They’re just not. And you need to run that rule over everything you do: will this idea connect with enough people for the publisher/TV/film company to make money out of it?

Here’s the thing: nobody in the creative industries cares about you. Nobody cares if you live or die. Nobody needs to publish your work – they’ll get along just fine with all the thousands of other ideas that cross their desk every year. They don’t have to give you a chance. They don’t need to try ‘new stuff’. They don’t need to push back boundaries. The publishing or film and TV industries don’t owe you a living. They don’t need to change their business practices, however much you rant about ‘gatekeepers’, because: You. Don’t. Matter.  Your art doesn’t matter. Your great, world-changing idea doesn’t matter.

But persuade them that your idea can reach an audience and make a profit for their shareholders and they’ll be all over you. Because that’s their business.

Writers hate to hear this. They absolutely hate it. They think it puts them on a par with, you know, people who do actual jobs. Money is grubby. Writing for cash makes you a hack.

(The truth is, they’re just patsies for big business. There’s nothing the sharp-suited sharks like more than creative people saying I do this for art…while they do the profit.

Do both.

In fact, you owe it to every other writer to try to get cash. The more you perpetuate the idea that art is it’s own reward, the easier you make it for business predators to depress earnings across the industries.)

Then those whining writers disappear down the rabbit hole of reasons why their work isn’t getting bought. Most people find it psychologically hard to accept that their genius is being rejected – there has to be some explanation, some massive failure in the system. So here’s a little psychological salve: in the end there’s really only one reason. The people doing the buying don’t think they can get good returns on their investment.

That’s quite liberating, in a way. Seeing it as all about cold cash means it’s not about you personally and that it’s simply about finding the idea and style that convinces.

How you change perceptions of the commerciality of broader cultural issues is a totally separate post. Why did Marvel break with long-standing movie tradition that only a predominantly all-white cast finds an audience? Black Panther blew that one out of the water. The short answer there is that it’s not down to the individual writer or director or producer. Society itself does the heavy lifting to change minds on the earnings potential of creators, subjects and markets. What we’re focusing on here is what the individual can do.

If you have only one idea, you’re not a writer. All writers have multiple ideas so they can sift and discard and then decide which one they want to devote the hours of their life to. So the first thing you need to consider if you want to make a living out of writing is, can someone make money out of this? Is it a pale copy of something else? If so, people will always buy the original. Does it have themes and subjects that reach into the lives of a majority of people?  If yes, there’s an audience.  If it’s niche appeal, there’s likely no audience. Is it original? If yes, then people like to invest in new experiences, new information or a new way of seeing. Is it so original that you can’t explain it to friends without spending ages setting up the context? Your idea won’t reach people if it needs a rulebook.

It means pulling out of the story, and the idea, and looking at it objectively. Which is exactly what the ones buying it will do. Do the art thinking, and the business thinking.

If you want to sell your work, all of these are questions you should ask yourself very early on in the process. There are no real surprises there.  The only really surprising thing is that a great many people think the rules of business don’t apply to something where money changes hands.

All of the glamour industries are businesses, and they operate by the rules of business.  Don’t like that, don’t work for them. Give your stuff away for free. But if you do want to get paid, you have to play by their rules. You have to accept you’re playing by their rules.  Because they won’t change.  The only choice lies with you – do it or not.

The Stories We Need To Tell Ourselves

There is a shiny red apple filled with poison and a crone with eyes like steel. There is a virginal girl as pure as snow, a sleep like death, and a kiss that wakes her into a new life of Happy Ever After.

This tale has survived from ancient times because it was always more than just entertainment. It was an instruction for living.

We’re moving into a new age now, one of unparalleled and accelerating technological change. Every aspect of our existence is being transformed. Hang around in the coffee shops and bars and you will catch murmurs of unease. Old friends are vanishing by the day. Familiar, comforting ways of doing things lost. Nowhere seems safe.

Never has there been a more important time for stories that instruct and guide and explain. A new narrative for a new age.

Read it all here, by me, on Medium.

2018 – The Year When Everything Changes

For a while there, I was thinking of changing the name of this blog to The View From The Bunker.  On a personal and professional level, 2017 was all-round great, if not one of the best for a while.  But…you know…out there in the world…

Now, stuffed full of turkey and mince pies and brimming with martini and champagne, I feel a bit more optimistic.  Still, whichever way you look at it, this year is going to be another one where Big Things Happen.  No point trying to ignore it.

Everything is connected.  Outside/inside.

On that theme, I plan to be writing a lot more here.  For a while, I’ve wanted to pass on what I’ve learned about the writing world.  How to go about making a living from novels and TV and film and journalism, say.  Because when momentous events are occurring out there, it’s also a good time to shake up your own life.  If you’ve ever wanted to walk away from the mundane world of 9-to-5, to carve out the existence you’ve always dreamed for yourself, now’s the time.

One thing the current Age of Upheaval has taught us is that time is running fast, life is short, and there’s no point counting on the status quo to see you through.  The people who win big are those who take calculated risks.  There won’t be a better time to reimagine who you are and what you do.

I’ll be talking about all that here.  Maybe you’ll pick up something that might help you.

My own work-front is looking pretty crammed.  I have three TV series in various stages of development with major broadcasters, and a movie script underway.  Can’t say any more about any of those right now.

There’s a new book out from my pseudonym, James Wilde, in July:

The paperback edition of Pendragon is out in March:

And various foreign editions all hit the shelves across the globe.  For a while, I’ve kept the “Mark Chadbourn” name just for screenwriting, but this year I’ll be publishing something under that moniker which will appeal to Age of Misrule fans.

And in the summer, I’m being inflicted on the poor students and conference visitors at the University of Oxford, talking about fantasy, Tolkien, writing and more.

Hold on tight. 2018 is going to be epic in all the right ways, if you decide to make it so.

Writing By Example: The Silence Of The Lambs

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If you want to be a writer, take a look at Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs.  Read it.  Read it another ten times, tear it apart, analyse it, and then read it again.  The book remains a masterpiece of genre writing, and it’s one I return to time and again.

If you’d rather focus your study, zoom in on just two chapters: the first two encounters between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter.  These capture everything that Harris is doing with this book, the deep themes, the sub-text.  The writing is sparse.  Descriptions are kept to a minimum, and when they do come, they seem lush by comparison.  Three lines tell you all you ever need to know about Lecter. Most of the writing here is dialogue, and dialogue without tags. But in that speech, you not only hear the distinctive voices of the two characters, you also understand their psychology, their motivations, their lives. From these two chapters, you could write your own story of Starling and Lecter because you understand them fully.

The Silence of the Lambs is Harris’ best book by far.  (I have a slowly-forming theory about The Power of the Third Book – see also, Gillian Flynn and Gone Girl. The first is the adrenaline rush. The second is refinement. The third is where everything learned is put into effect. Writers hate to repeat themselves so they change it all up for the fourth and get it all wrong again.)

The true power of this novel comes when you understand that a vast amount of the story exists away from the page, between the lines, in the motivations of the characters. The reader deciphers it unconsciously, and consciously with a little effort. That shows a writer who is the master of his work.

The campaign between FBI boss Jack Crawford and Lecter, personal, multi-layered, cruelly manipulative, is all implicit. The novel is deeply about psychology and psychoanalysis – that is clear on any surface reading. But that is also stitched into the hidden story. What is Lecter *really* doing with Starling?

Most importantly, Harris illustrates a powerful rule for writing: complex, not complicated. (Complicated is one line that ties itself in knots to seem interesting. Complex is layers set upon each other, every one influencing the rest.) The plot is simple, but the effect is powerful and haunting, even on multiple readings.

Your Four-Step Guide To Getting Your TV Series Made #screenwriting

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So, this is BTS #2. Whenever I’m out doing talks, or at conventions, I’m usually collared by someone asking for tips on how to get a TV idea made (and, really, if it was that easy do you think I’d be showing the secret handshake to everyone?)  The conversation usually starts with, they’ve got an absolutely amazing idea that would make a brilliant TV series and everyone will jump the moment they hear it etc etc

Most TV writers I know are a hard-bitten, cynical bunch and for good reason. But there is some advice worth dishing out for those people who really want to be screenwriters (at this point I’m excluding the woman at the last talk who said she had a great idea but didn’t have time to write it so could she just tell someone…)

So here you go, a measly four steps to getting your own TV series made.  Four simple steps to earning hundreds of thousands of pound (UK)/millions of dollars (US).  Easy, right?

1. Get Trusted 

What, not come up with a great idea?  No.  Let’s talk a little about basic human psychology.  Whenever someone in TV hires you (and in books, comics, music, and everywhere really), they’re putting their job on the line.  The job that keeps their partner with a roof over their head or feeds and clothes their undoubtedly beautiful children.  In TV, that usually means giving you anything from a few thousand pounds to earmarking millions if a TV series gets made.  If you screw up, if you miss your deadlines, if your scripts suddenly become ordure, if the series flops so badly TV critics are pointing and mocking, that person who commissioned you will be asked some tough questions by the powers above them.  They might even lose their jobs.  So, as anyone would, they mitigate against this.  They say, “But the writer was an Oscar/BAFTA winning screenwriter.  Anyone would have hired them!”

Which is one reason why you tend to see familiar names at the top of your favourite shows.  If you want to cut the risk factor, hire a seasoned professional, someone who has proven they can take the pressure and do the job.  Not just the job, but an amazing job.  A safe pair of hands.

How do you get trusted?  That’s a topic for a whole ‘nother post.  But briefly, get lots and lots of credits.  In the UK, write for a soap, get taken on as a writer on another series, write a movie, in the US, get hired for the writers’ room on a show.  Build your brand.  Publish novels, comics (these actually mean a lot less than you might think – different skill-sets, but they show you at least understand Story).  Basically, find some cover for the people who might hire you so they can keep their jobs.

2. Write A Jaw-Dropping Spec Script

What, still no amazing idea?  Your spec script is your calling card.  You’ve read this on every screenwriting advice site.  You know this.  It has to be a script that is so good, some producer could imagine going straight to screen with it.  It has to be the equal of the work done by those seasoned, highly-feted writers you know and love.  If it’s not, the producer will simply revert to those other writers.  The people in charge of the money need to know you can do the job.  And, as is the theme of the 21st century, good is not good enough.  It has to be the best.  One tip: aim to write four spec scripts a year.  Keep them flowing out there, circulating, so someone, somewhere is always reading your material.  There’s a tsunami of writers waiting to break in.  Attention spans last days.  Even writers with lots of credits can get forgotten.  You have to keep stepping up and throwing a punch to show you can do it.

3. Have An Amazing Idea

Finally!  But it has to be a particular kind of idea.  Too far ahead of the curve and people will be afraid to touch it.  (See #1, about people trying to keep their jobs.)  But it needs to be fresh.  A novel take in an area people understand, so you don’t have to do lots of explaining before you get to the core of your genius idea.  In a nutshell: new, but not too new.  The TV industry is not burdened with gamblers.  (There are numerous exceptions to this, of course.  The ground-breakers are the ones everyone remembers, and producers will always say they want ground-breakers until someone, somewhere says they don’t.  Break a bit of ground, until you’re in a position to dig up a whole field.)

4. Build Your Family

The TV industry, like publishing, like music, is all about relationships.  This, too, ties in to #1.  Human nature – people like to work with people they like, and people they trust.  Nobody likes to work with a dick, or an incompetent.  Take meetings, get on with people, chat, go for drinks.  I’d say ‘network’ but that’s too cynical.  Just be a nice guy and get on with people and you’ll find a lot of barriers melt away.  Neil Gaiman once said, “Be good, be fast, be likeable. Any two out of three will do.  Any less, won’t.”  That’s decent advice.  So, make as many contacts as you can.  It’s the easiest way to get your work read.  If you’re one of those writers who likes to sit in their room and send their scripts out by raven, trembling at the thought of human interaction, sorry, you’re doomed.

See how easy it is?  This has been a longer bit of bloggage than intended.  I’ll get into detail on some of these points at a later date.  If you want me to pick up on anything specific in the future, leave it in the comments.

In the meantime, I just want to remind you that I have a knockdown special offer running on my ebook of my supernatural thriller The Eternal, for the next seven days.  Buy it now before the inevitable movie adaptation:

Here’s the UK link

Here’s the US and world link