Monday, 7 September 2009

CBBC Residential (Part One)

Matt Sinclair was one of only 8 writers to gain a coveted place on the CBBC residential later this month. This is his story so far…

As most of you know, it all started with the competition. From that, 19 writers were chosen to participate in the day long Masterclass, before which we had to complete a 2 page writing exercise. We were then whittled down to 12 writers, and then finally 8 writers were chosen to attend the residential.

I didn’t want to blog about the masterclass at the time because we were still waiting to hear who had got through to the residential – and yes I didn’t want to jinx it! I’m relieved the wait is over now and if anyone is interested, here are a couple of things that may have contributed to me getting this far (although, until I’m actually sitting there, I’ll still think it is a terrible admin error…)

I did a course. An MA Screenwriting, which I’m still paying the career development loan off for. You need people who know what they’re doing to show you how to do it too. When I started out writing, I was short-listed for a Thames TV drama competition. I think I made the final 30 out of 500 entries. Based on that, I thought I could write. I couldn’t. I’d just got lucky with good characters based on real people and a simple structure. Everything I wrote after that was poor, until I did the MA. I think I wasted 3 years doing that. I failed to get onto the MA first time round and they advised me to do some short courses. So I did one a Screenwriters’ Workshop on The Hero’s Journey (where I met Jez for the first time although he says he can’t remember me) and an Arvon Course which was like an epiphany. After that doing the MA was like having a light switched on in my brain, being taught by writers and working with 25+ people who all want to write. It was one day a week for 2 years and I didn’t want the days to end (possibly why we stayed in the pub until closing every week). That MA was the best thing I’ve ever done. I learnt how to analyse scripts, write reports, give and take objective feedback – all of which are just as important as the writing itself. If I could go back in time to that initial competition, I’d tell myself: do a course, you’re really not as good as you think you are.

I gave up my job. I knew redundancy might be on the cards for over a year so I had a while to plan, work out how much I needed each month and how long I could write for without needing to work. Having done the MA and worked so hard, I just wasn’t getting anywhere with my writing. My job was enjoyable but demanding and it was very hard to switch-off and switch-on to writing. Writing full time, meant that I could devote 4 weeks to the CBBC entry – about 20 days full time. I’m positive that if I were still in my job, I wouldn’t have written anything as good, or maybe anything at all…

I went to the CBBC Writersroom Q&A. It was really important to hear from successful children's writer Elly Brewer and Head of CBBC Drama Steven Andrew. I really connected with what they were looking for. But at the same time I know people often cannot make these events, even if they want to. But take heart, a lot of the writers at the masterclass hadn’t been to it either.

Research. I started watching CBBC straight away (and still am), I have a few mates who have kids in the 9-12 age group and asked them what their kids watched and why. I also went to the children’s books section of Waterstones and had a look at what fiction was out there. I also asked a few kids what they watched. This was a little bit dodgy, but I made sure their parents were around and made a point of asking their permission and explaining why I was doing it. They ALL watched The Simpsons and liked shows that had funny characters. The 5 kids I asked really informed my work. Unfortunately, the next 2 parents I asked said ‘no’ I couldn’t talk to their kids and one kept giving me dirty looks and making me feel uncomfortable… so I left.

I’m in a writer’s group. We get together roughly 4 times a year and read/report on each other’s work. We also do each other reports on an ad-hoc basis all the time. This meant I got quality feedback on my work really quickly and, because we all did the MA together, we have a shared language of analysis. So when someone comments on ‘tone,’ for example, we all know what they mean. It also meant that when I had to complete the 2 page exercise, I got feedback within 24 hours and was able to complete the exercise in 2 days. I have no idea if the BBC were counting the turn around time as a factor, but I figured it can’t hurt to produce something good, quickly. I owe my writer's group pretty much everything really.

Attitude. OK, this isn’t a contributing factor, but once I’d sent the entry, I filed it away in my brain in the mental cabinet marked ‘done’ and carried on with the project I was previously working on. You have to treat writing as a job, finish it, and get on with the next one. Understandably disappointed writers were putting stuff like they were being treated with contempt on the CBBC blog. You cannot be that precious about either your work or your attitude, because if you are, no one will ever want to work with you.

My Girlfriend. Your partner, husband, wife, best mate, Mum, Dad, whoever. Someone close to you to give you that extra support when you really need it. She supported me over my decision to take redundancy, was happy to accommodate my stress as I drove back from Galstonbury very, very fast so that I could get to the job centre, sign on, get home, make the changes to the script and send it the next day. (This was at 4am with no sleep since Blur.) She also reads my work and gives me a non MA angle which is always insightful and wrote a report on my 2 page exercise after we’d had a massive row about money and mortgages and weren’t speaking. (Although a cynic might say that’s just emotional leverage to make me apologise first!) Don’t take these people for granted, you’d struggle without them.

The Masterclass. There’s been coverage of the day elsewhere but to be honest, it left me a bit deflated. I was hoping for some kind of interview where I could impress them with all the points above but it was group work and discussion and I’m very much an introvert. The cynic in me also thought that it would be a numbers game: there’d be a loony, a big mouth egoist who dominates everything, someone who got lucky and is out of their depth etc… Maybe then I’d have a better chance of making it to the next stage. Unfortunately, the other short listed writers were all really strong! We all had to pitch our ideas and the quality was outstanding. I went to pieces and delivered the worst pitch of the group and started to think that in fact I was the big mouthed, egoist who clearly got lucky…

In the afternoon, we broke into smaller groups and got feedback on our scripts from key BBC people, like Kate Rowland. Being able to discuss your work is a big factor in writing and I got some valuable insight from her. We then had 2 days to re-write if we wished and then send in again, to be considered for the next stage. Some of the writers were unsure about making any changes at this stage. My view is: if the head of new writing tells you your script title doesn’t really work and the inciting incident needs to come forward from page 10 to at least page 5, you go home, switch on the computer and come up with a new title and bring the inciting incident forward to page 3.

After sending the final copy, that was it, lots of waiting, gnashing of teeth and wailing until I found out I’d made the final 8. Like I say, I still won’t believe it until I’m sitting there…

Cheers Matt! Great stuff.

All being well Matt will do a follow up to this post after he's attended the residential. So come back then to find out whether his participation was indeed a clerical error! :-)

For a list of the other writers who made it, click here. Congrats again to Felicity and also Alice, who started the MA with me and Matt but who jumped ship when LA came calling!


Paul McIntyre said...

Matt - very well done for getting through to the final 8 - a great achievement which it seems you deserve - very dedicated and an inspiration to us all.

Best of luck on the residential.

Janice Okoh said...


Lovely post. I hope you enjoy the residential.

Anonymous said...

I still think it was the fist-bump that did it. Well done Matt.