'How to Write for Screen': #1 report from the London Book Fair 2017

26/04/2017

The London Book Fair’s Author HQ was the venue for a seminar entitled 'How to Write for Screen', giving writers advice on how to perfect their scripts and get them noticed by the industry, and about which projects and work to take on.

The seminar was led by Farah Abushwesha, producer, bestselling author and founder of the BAFTA Rocliffe New Writing Showcase, a competition for TV drama and comedy scripts. Script extracts selected for the competition are performed by a professional cast to an audience of producers, executives, directors and literary agents, aiming to give a platform to emerging writing talent.

"Never wait for permission to be a screenwriter. The industry isn’t inaccessible; it’s just that there is no single pathway in.”

Abushwesha was in conversation with Ben Weiner, writer for children’s media, who won the competition in 2016 and went on to showcase his work to influential members of the film and television industries.

Abushwesha opened the seminar by advising that the best way for a writer to become successful in the industry is to not commit to developing just one idea or one script, but commit to an entire career in script-writing. This way, the overall standard of their work will improve and they will eventually find the right audience for their style. She said: “Writing is a craft and writers have to continue to practice their craft. To do this they need to get out into the industry and face rejection but continue to persevere despite this. It’s all about finding the right audience for your ideas. Never wait for permission to be a screen-writer. The industry isn’t inaccessible; it’s just that there is no single pathway in.”

Abushwesha went on to say that a writer should never worry about having an idea stolen, as the success of a script centres on how the idea is narrated, and this can only be achieved by the writer.

“A writer should read one hundred scripts before starting to write..."

Perfecting a script
Abushwesha highlighted that many writers tend to show their first scripts to family and friends for feedback. She warned that close relatives aren’t impartial and won’t always give accurate advice. However, she suggested asking such friends and family to read the script and mark the places with a cross where the plot might be confusing. This will enable the writer to go back and re-write those areas, making the storyline clearer for the audience.  

Weiner added that the central idea is, of course, crucial, but the writer’s will-power is what makes the script the best it can be, and this is what will eventually make things happen. He advised: “A writer should read one hundred scripts before starting to write, so as to understand what good script-writing is and what makes a good script.”

Weiner highlighted the excellent resources in the BBC Writers’ Room, where writers can listen to and read scripts. He also advised that taking online script-writing courses can help hone skills. Abushwesha said that before submitting a script to a producer, the work should be the best you can make it, as producers won’t read a script more than once – a writer only gets one chance. She said: “If you think a script might not be accepted then leave it and go back to it later, approach it as a new script - changing and adding ideas. When you have finished this process – then it will be ready to submit to a producer.”

"You have to find new doorways and rejection is part of the industry. It’s a business and it isn’t personal.”

Gaining experience writing in different forms 
Abushwesha and Weiner went on to explore different forms that screenwriting can take, and highlighted that undertaking a variety of experiences will help writers get their work noticed. Abushwesha suggested that a great way to practice writing short films is by taking six stills with a phone and then using the images to form the plot of the short film. This method is simple to use and helps stimulate creativity. Weiner also advised that writing monologues for podcasts is a great way to acquire experience as is getting experience writing documentary films.
 
Getting your script noticed
Abushwesha emphasized the importance of networking in the industry as a method of getting a script noticed. She advised that meeting people at writers’ events and getting to know members of BAFTA is a great way to familiarize yourself with the important people in the industry who might read your script. She mentioned that events are held at The BBC Writers’ Room for networking and learning.

Advice about taking on projects
Once a project has been taken on, Weiner stated that a writer’s core concept and idea should not have to change. Writers should always be open to feedback and to make the work the best it can be there has to be collaboration with directors, producers and actors, but the writer should always maintain their central idea. If the idea starts to change beyond recognition and it is no longer the writer’s project then it might be time to re-think things.

Abushwesha advised that she uses a three-fold approach to decide whether a project is worth taking on. Firstly, she considers whether the project is quick and won’t drag on; secondly whether it is well-paid; and finally whether she will make connections and get the credit. If she can tick at least two of these boxes then a project is worth considering. She said: “You have to reasses each year how you want to spend your time – you might have to go through a period of saying no to work. It seems like you are closing doors but in fact you could be opening them to other stepping stones. You have to find new doorways and rejection is part of the industry. It’s a business and it isn’t personal.”
 
Final tips for screen-writers
Abushwesha and Weiner concluded the seminar with some final tips for screen-writers: “Always be polite but be persistent. Try whenever possible to make connections with people in the industry as your work is more likely to be read by the people you already know instead of approaching people cold. Finally, follow the money when choosing who to pitch to, and above all – don’t be afraid to ask to be paid!”


In the ALCS September 2016 Distribution, 30% of the money paid out went to audio-visual authors. Maybe you have a screen-writer friend for whom we could be holding secondary royalties? Search for royalties on our website.

Report by Judith Spevock in the communications team at ALCS