Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Good Story On The Boil

If you thought temperatures soared when Kelly Lefever presented, they hit boiling point on August 31.

Okay, I admit it. I can’t help myself. I love a pun.

Gareth Calverley, writer-producer of Boilermaker, made his first ever guest presentation to an industry group and we are honoured he chose the Line by Line meeting as the place to do it.

Since my blog about Kelly Lefever’s presentation turned into more of a practical advice piece (and thank goodness she was so generous with the information she shared), this time I’m stepping back from trying to relay words of wisdom exactly as they were imparted. Kelly’s advice stirred things inside – how to fit writing into producing? So it’s Gareth’s comments about collaboration that I want to focus on in this blog as he has me got me thinking quite a lot.

Gareth began his presentation with a description of his role as showrunner of Small Time Gangster – that it’s fifty percent about being a writer and fifty percent about being a producer. He’s the ideas man. If boilermaker is the production team that makes it, then Gareth is the guy who invented fire. He is where the raw thought begins. A concept. A character. A story. An audience. A network’s tastes. An original and very cool idea.

Of course Gareth doesn’t lay claim to such brilliance. He says that all happens when Joss King takes the idea - in that jotted-down, very raw form - and crafts it into something tangible. Gareth doesn’t believe in being too prescriptive and lets the writer take it to the first stage. Even so, collaboration for them starts at that early stage.

At the first Line by Line session, participants shared their raw thoughts, presented as ‘1 premise, 5 themes and 5 loglines’. We saw first-hand how valuable it is to collaborate at that point, to know what things might trip us up and which themes are strong, contain what we want to say about the world and should be explored.

Let me take you back to April, when Chas and I met for a drink to chat about the germ of an idea that became Line by Line. We were inspired in part by a ScreenHub article published earlier this year which saw Stephen Cleary questioning the methods of development used in this country and proposed the idea that if creative people - writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, actors etc – could get together to work on ideas, the pace of development would accelerate and the formation of the idea would be more thoroughly critiqued and explored before the first draft even began. (Apologies to Stephen if my explanation has butchered his real intentions for being a part of ScreenLab in South Australia). This is what we wanted for Line by Line. A place where people could collaborate and set goals so that good work could happen.

Lately, Chas and I have wondered whether our eight sessions spread over four months has achieved all this. Chas has a first draft feature script under his belt so he has met his goal early, of course a monumental achievement. He also laments not collaborating sooner than the first draft stage to iron out the problems that now present themselves.

My feeling has been that we need to be collaborating more aggressively on more content and this feeling was supported by some of Gareth’s comments the other night, particularly his thoughts about quantity of ideas.

Not forsaking quality, Gareth urged us to develop lots of ideas. It took him about eight fully-fleshed out TV concepts - six of which he had the opportunity to present year-after-year to broadcaster decision makers and year-after-year see rejected - until finally, success.

This tells me that you can’t give up. There are not many one-hit wonders out there. Good on you if you happen to be one. But for the rest of us, it’s going to take some time.

Even if your concept is a fit for the network, what you have may not be what they want right at that moment, exasperating but reality. In Gareth’s case, one of his ideas nearly made it only to be cut off at the pass when the network instead spent the money on something else that came their way.

So it seems one must be passionate but not precious to achieve in this arty business. And not just at the point of presentation and rejection but maybe way back when that idea first came to you and you chose to share it.

But it also tells me that you need to always be writing, and - the part of writing that is of interest to the Line by Line experiment – collaborating.

Gareth points out that you must know your strengths and weaknesses. For him, ideas come easily. But the challenge is getting it made. So that’s a quick test he can apply to an idea – if he can’t get it made he won’t do it. He knows what can be made (he talks to the networks about what they want before pitching a show) - that is a strength of his. Gareth admits that although he enjoys being a writer, Joss has more experience and therefore is the stronger writer, so the pair use that strength to their advantage. Therefore, collaboration takes many forms and isn’t just about being able to share your work with one another.

Gareth and Joss choose to draft and redraft. They resist the urge to hand in the first attempt. Only when the work is the very best that both can possibly do - when they cannot possibly write another word - do they show their draft to a trusted group of people.

Gareth’s tendency to redraft scripts comes from his experience with Jonathan M. Schiff who readily discards outlines and expects your best writing.

Gareth is the first to admit that being a writer is hard. Relationships will see you through so stick together. Like others who have spoken to our group, Gareth says we’re fortunate to have each other to bounce ideas off and turn to for support.

With just a few weeks left til the end of Line by Line – which really just means a few weeks left to finish my treatment – I am left thinking about how to progress. Which parts of my concept need tending, which parts need to be shown to this group and which should be discarded and re-worked? I was wondering that maybe I have too much on the boil, but now maybe it’s just enough for me to handle.

So Liners, what have you got on the boil?


Fiona Leally

Buy Me a Pony

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Television Fever

Kelly Lefever was in the Line by Line hotseat on August 17 and provided both a reality check and optimism about working as a writer in TV land.

Kelly has worked in television since she was 17. On Prisoner of all things - a show I am old enough to remember playing it's first run. You could be excused for thinking she is still 17, so large is her enthusiasm for her work. When she speaks, her experience betrays her youthful exuberance. And boy what experience! She's done Neighbours, Home and Away, Blue Heelers, Always Greener, Something in the Air, All Saints, The Circuit, City Homicide...This is not a woman tainted by the bitterness of time spent working an industry that doesn't pay. She earns good money working very hard on the work she loves. We could all be so lucky. Of course luck has nothing to do with any of it.

Kelly has also written and script-edited feature films (some in development and production as she speaks). She has edited The Black Balloon and is currently producing a Rom-Com with writer Edwina Exton and funny man Tim Ferguson (yes, I am also old enough to remember him at his prime in D.A.A.S) and producer Tristram Miall (Strictly Ballroom, Looking for Alibrandi). However, writing for TV is her first love and a romance she returns to for all kinds of reasons.


Kelly challenges us to think about what we love about TV. Like a good box of chocolates, you can't stop at just one episode, such is the power of episodic storytelling. It’s highly structured for long-term satisfaction with characters you love. Whether it's via the boob tube or the box set, you keep coming back for more.



While money definitely does NOT top the list of Kelly's reasons, the idea of earning around $20,000 for 8 weeks hard work on a one hour drama script not only appealed but dropped jaws in the Line by Line audience. Television writing can be a career!

Now that I have your attention, what else is there to like?


Kelly prefers the storytelling method that TV imposes. You can structure story and deconstruct it again to make it work over a period of time. You can explore a seemingly endless array of character traits, politics and interactions with new story lines both complicating things and breathing life into the format.


In TV the writer gets to play with characters for longer periods of time. They become the writer's friends and a very big part of their life. In film, you see one portion of a character's life, such as falling in love. In TV, you can have all your characters meet and then explore falling in love, getting married, having a child, being tempted by others, making mistakes, breaking up, making up etc. If film is the first date, then TV is the relationship. The writer and the audience can return to these well known friends time after time and grow, smile and mourn with them. This is and always will the primary reason Kelly loves TV most of all. That's why I've listed this special way of working with characters as different from story or the structure of TV shows themselves.


If your idea is taken up, the fruits of labour are on air quite quickly. Turnaround for an episode from idea to edit might be just 12 weeks. Your work really can be current in TV.


TV allows you to cut your teeth on storytelling - write to a brief, a deadline, with no such a thing as an I-don't-feel-like-it-today moment. TV gives you a broad canvas with which to test your ideas.


TV Audience is potentially millions, and it's instant. Feature films require a paying audience so reach is usually lower over a longer period of time (not just cinema but the long tail DVD and video on demand options). The TV audience is prepared to stay home and watch subject matter they wouldn’t necessarily commit to leaving the house to pay to see, so you can get people to think about things they wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to.


In Australia, the person with control is the script or story producer. In a room of writers, the script producer is the top person with the vision and creative ideas, keeping a handle on where the story is heading and if necessary leading people there. In this collaborative environment, ideas about structuring episodes are thrown around by freelance writers under his or her guidance.

When the writer leaves the room he or she works alone to explore the stories discussed for the delegated episode. If you're good enough to write well for a show, you could be put on "turnaround" which is where you write a script every 4 - 10 weeks throughout the year. That’s a cracking pace!

The “turnaround” schedule for the writer begins usually with a week for the scene breakdown, 3 weeks to draft a 1 hour episode and 2 weeks for the second draft, with notes and meetings in between each stage.

The script editor, who works for the story producer, is the contact point for the writers and works to get the best out of them and make sure the in-house vision is being serviced. The script editor takes the writer’s work at each stage, and holds script meetings with the writer and other writers connected to story through their episodes. Notes from the story producer and broadcaster are presented and guide changes, new stories, new characters etc. At the end of the drafting process the writer passes on the work to the script editor who takes it from there.

Many shows, including Underbelly, are beginning to use a slightly different model with about 6 permanently employed writers who work together to plot and edit each other's work, which is becoming a trend in Australia.

Other roles include script co-ordinator or researcher - from these backgrounds, script editors are often born.

The pay for the freelance writer for the approximately 8 weeks work (ie per episode) is $20,900. A script editor earns about $2,600 to $3,750 per week and the story producer around $4,000 to $5,000, both permanently employed for the duration of the production.

Kelly’s experience writing for TV has taught her a thing or two, so she was able to answer lots of questions from our eager audience.

She suggests fixing problems at scene breakdown stage or the same problem will still be there at draft stages.

Writers block. For television, you just have to get over it. One way to get over the block is to know your story and characters well. You cannot make a character get to a story point that he or she would not naturally get to. When the plot point is crucial, think about what character is needed to get you there. Otherwise, go back to the character - what is he or she telling you they want you to do? Well drawn characters will dictate story to you, not the other way around.

Kelly is a big fan of short docs. Story beats in short form, the start and finish and plot points, and understanding how the story is structured will all help form the piece of work.

When you get stuck, think about where you story starts, the end objective, what are the obstacles, what are the pillars, the big scenes? Think about the 6 or 7 in your head. Go back to the pillars, the big moments and see if they work for the narrative. If you're lost in trying to work out a road map for your film, sometimes getting down those big "pillars" can help.

TV is all about character, it's why people tune in. As a writer you need to have something to say and ensure that those characters you are working with will get you to where you need to be, because if not you need to rethink them.

In Kelly's experience, 98 percent of films she reads have the same problems. The writer doesn't know the story they're trying to tell, what they're trying to say or why. And/or the writer doesn't know the characters (which includes knowing their wants and needs, where they came from and what has happened to them before we even meet them that makes them who they are, in other words, what makes them tick). Both require going back to the beginning and really thinking about the answers to those questions. So while looking at the big pillars, the big moments helps with structure, this is very different to knowing what you film is about and the characters who will take you on the journey.

Two types of film (Kelly elaborating on a Cleary theory question raised by a LbL member):

-When a character begins with wants and needs that are well balanced, the drama must come from external sources. External conflict. Therefore it’s a plot driven scenario, it's not an internal character journey that drives it. So these are the action and genre films where the plot or external events drive the characters.

- But when the character begins with the balance of wants and needs completely out of whack, the character needs to learn that what he wants isn't what he needs – therefore the character is taken on a big inner journey to learn. So these are the more character based films.

On the differences between writing for TV and Film:

‘Show, don't tell’ applies more to film.

Don't make concept too big or complicated for film, there just isn’t the time to fully explore. TV manages multiple narratives and multiple characters more efficiently.

Dialogue is king in TV. This is because of domestic distractions for the audience and the size of the screen, so more information is conveyed, even repeated, through dialogue.

And for film you have to think differently about market.

Otherwise, managing the story is very similar, structurally.

The biggest pieces of advice from Kelly came for those wanting to break into TV writing as a career.


Advice 1. Join Australian Writers Guild (AWG) to meet writers who are generous with their time, learn about the industry. Kelly has been involved in the guild for 17 years (currently sitting in a Vice President role) and in the AWGIES judging.

Advice 2. Target shows and producers you are interested in and are of the quality you admire (they want to work with passionate people who love TV).

Advice 3. Crucially, watch and know the show you are applying for.

Advice 4. Ask to sit and observe how the process works by attending a meeting - don't need to provide input because most of what you say probably won't work for a variety of reasons. But if you have an idea, and it seems like a pertinent time to bring it up and you're not breaking the flow, then do it! Yet another skill for the writer to develop is knowing when to talk and when to listen.

Advice 5. Read lots of TV scripts, guild has some and its library is getting bigger. You learn from reading bad writing as well as good, which applies to scripts across the board.

Advice 6. Meet people and behave professionally, don't wait til you get drunk to be noticed. Sometimes intimacy of industry makes it seem personal when it really is professional so reputation is everything. This includes being careful who you add as a Facebook friend if your status updates are, shall we say, unsavoury.

Advice 7. Ask a show if you can do a submission, which is writing a script on spec. Most shows don't accept spec scripts but will ask writers to have a go. But it must be better than the professional writers you are competing against. Also, short films and webisodes are coming in as calling cards.

Advice 8. Networking is not a pitch opportunity for a project. Networking allows you to meet like-minded people - some you might even like to work with in future and others will exchange nuggets of wisdom with you. If you meet someone you connect with, and they're interested in what you are writing, offer to send a one page synopsis and follow through. When networking or writing to industry people, don’t rubbish other TV shows or films. Let your documents speak for themselves.

Advice 9. Improve the quality of your writing. That means WRITE WRITE WRITE. The more you write the better you'll become. Writing courses are creating a better craftsperson but the writer must have that x factor too. Entry level jobs don't always allow you to show that x factor but the hard work will pay off if you are good at what you do.

By the end of the feverish session, Kelly had most of considering how television might be included in our plans. She got us thinking about what format really suits the story we are trying to tell. And best of all, she gave us hope that one day it might be our work up on the big or small screen.

We thank you Kelly for generously spending your time with us – and even more time with me applying your wonderful editing skills to ensure this blog is accurate.

If you haven’t got the writing fever yet, get into it, there are only 3 more weeks until the last session of Line by Line!


Fiona Leally

Buy Me a Pony