Interview: Adrian Reynolds

Adrian Reynolds kindly agreed to meet me in one of Nottingham’s many cafes. Adrian is a script-writer, freelancer and coach, and font of knowledge for anyone thinking of ‘going freelance’. Although I had planned questions in advance, our talk lead away from the rigid structure of a question/answer interview – becoming a chat between two people with a passion for writing and publishing.

We begin talking about a book Adrian brought with him, ‘A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling’ by Andrea Phillips. (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Creators-Guide-Transmedia-Storytelling-ebook/dp/B0088NGVJK/ref=tmm_kin_title_0)

I’m particularly interested in projects across different media. I’m part of a collective called ‘Storia’ with producer Gael Mclaughlin and artist Andrew Tudor. (Storia-creative.com) It’s about creating work you can own and control. Sometimes you don’t own your own work.

I’ve written for Doctors, its a medical drama, with its own cast of characters, setting and overall plots. There were 400 writers on the show when I wrote for it. Let’s say each writer submits 12 ideas a year, that’s 4800 ideas, so there’s not much chance of your concept getting picked, and it’s always on someone else’s terms. It can be an institutional madness, with gatekeepers at every turn – and they’re not always sane and kind.

There are hoops you have to jump through. To give you an example, I wrote a story idea my script editor liked. It involved a woman who seemed to be seeing ghosts, although it’s actually a real world phenomenon where a vibrational frequency in your surroundings causes hallucinations. There was a one hour meeting with the script editor, episode director and series producer– serious and well paid people – debating the theology of Doctors, and whether or not there is an afterlife in the programme. And, because Doctors and other medical dramas like Holby City link together, they had to discuss the implications for those shows too – even though it was not a real ghost!

On another occasion, I wrote an episode with a gay couple. They liked the idea, and while Doctors is a gay-friendly show, there had already been two episodes in the week my episode was set to run  with gay relationships at the core, so I was asked to change this to a straight relationship. Not a big deal on this occasion, but an indication of how your creative ideas have to jump through hoops.

What does a freelance career mean to you? How did yours begin?

Will do anything, any time, anywhere as The Goodies said… well, not quite everything. I do turn down work too.

I started off in London, working full-time as a copywriter at an ad agency. After that, I ended up in Nottingham, and always found myself drifting back to writing. I came across the Sandfield Community Drama Centre. Jon Wood was a writing tutor there with a background in TIE (Theatre In Education) and it just so happened that he wrote the first play I saw when I was seven.

There were writers and actors there, but they didn’t seem to mingle much. I didn’t think it was a huge leap for me to actually work with the actors. That was how Probably A Robbery happened. It was about a pirate radio station operating at a 24/7 garage. I turned it into a film treatment without quite knowing what one was, entered it into a competition in The Times. I was about 30 at the time, and my treatment won. I found myself sitting across the table from Tim Bevan, who produced Four Weddings And A Funeral – the most powerful man in British film.

How did you become your own boss?

I went to San Francisco for three weeks. When I got back I was completely broke – I HAD to support myself. That’s how I got into freelancing work. It took a dramatic gesture to signal change.

Sometimes economics and politics get in the way. Dennis Palmer asked me to get involved in a play about dyslexia, and its emotional effect in a family. We had the chance to showcase In Your Head to an audience including big local names in education. We were excited, and people loved the show. The only problem was that it raised the question of what was happening to help people with dyslexia. The answer? Nothing. So there was no way that the council would fund a play to schools about dyslexia when they weren’t actually addressing the issue.

In the beginning of a freelance career 75% of your time is spent marketing. I used to command about £45/hour, this is now down to about £30 because of the impact of the internet, which means you’re in competition with people worldwide. Some of them are good writers who can work for less because of exchange rates. Others are people who think they can write because their keyboards have letters on them, and there’s work out there for pretty much everyone if you’ll accept low enough pay.I also have a network of contacts for some proper copywriting work with ad agencies and designers. Copywriting gives you real-world deadlines. I use Elance and People per hour to search for jobs, and have a good reputation on those sites which means some clients approach me directly knowing they’ll get quality work.

What does your average working day look like? Compared to previous jobs?

I don’t write every day. I don’t like the dogma of 1000 words a day. However, I am writing a series of 1000 word children’s short stories for a job from Elance. The guy said he regretted the fact I was more money than anyone else, but knew he had to pick me because he loved my sample pieces. I write jobs in variable chunks of time, and every day is different. Those particular stories take me about 75 minutes, because I know the voice of them and the rough shape of the story.

How did you get involved in coaching writers?

I was selected to do a UK Film Council course on teaching scriptwriting, which I love doing. That led to me being involved with filmmakers and writers, and I really enjoy supporting them.

I’m very interested in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). It’s all about what makes the difference in your ability to get things done. Mostly, it’s the state you’re in. It’s the biggest variable in your ability to achieve. It’s all about your state and strategies, how you conduct yourself to get to your goal.

There’s a  very simple and fantastic principle called TOTE, which stands for – test, operate, test, exit. At its simplest, you ask if you’ve got what you want? If not, what can you do to take you close to having it. Rinse and repeat. It’s all about your objectives and sub-objectives, it’s great for working with client goals – writing a script, getting a film made – and useful in planning stories too. (http://inlpcenter.com/nlp-tote-model-how-to-know-if-what-your-doing-is-working/)

When I say ‘state’, I’m talking about becoming enthusiastic and confident. It makes all the difference at pitch meetings. It’s not a ‘persona’, that’s the wrong word. It implies something ‘put on’. There’s no need for self-indulgent thinking, feeling sorry for myself, hard though they are to resist sometimes. What does that stuff achieve, really? Think about your roadmaps to feeling better. Recognise sloppy or indulgent thinking. It just goes around in loops and isn’t useful. Make a choice to go somewhere useful, don’t wait.

How did you structure your business it its first years? How has this changed?

Me, structure? Well, you’re talking to someone who went to San Francico and had to support himself when he got back because he was skint. But rather than the old ‘Ready, aim, fire’ try ‘ready, fire, aim.’ You work at what you’re going to do, create something, and look at your feedback to determine how to change things next time round, rather than putting loads of effort into getting something perfect first time, which never happens. ‘Ready, fire, aim’ is very much in the spirit of the TOTE model.

I’m currently working on a genre drama serial that will go out by app. Each episode is five minutes long, in seven parts. It’s called Making Sparks, and it’s a supernatural thriller. The company behind it made a ‘proof of concept’ daily soap opera to show that the idea would work. We came up with the idea (ready), we had a go (fire), and from what we know now (aim) we’re going forwards with Making Sparks. We’re doing this over the internet, and the way we’re working with the company behind it, because it’s all app-based we know the numbers, there are no mystery accounts: app stores are very straightforward, unlike the film business.

Do you have any advice you would give to a person seeking freelance work?

Bloody mindedness and tenacity, it’s a big part of what you’re doing. Be one of those annoying arrogant people, they get results.

I was at a workshop on writing for film and tv recently run by ‘The Two Phils’ as they call themselves: a very experienced scriptwriter, and an equally capable script editor. One of them keeps a spreadsheet of all his contacts and records the last time he spoke with them. If it’s longer than three months, he gets in touch. Find your allies and do cool stuff with them. That’s what Storia is about really.

I don’t hang out with other writers. You need to meet producers, actors and collaborators. Everybody knows about stories. I asked during a conference, ‘Has the rise of Creative Writing M.A.s made a different to script quality?’. I thought I knew the answer, I just wanted to hear it: there are more competent scripts, but the number of good ones is no bigger than it ever was.

Keep afloat and do what you want- this is bloody hard! You have to be able to earn enough to support yourself. I’d suggest getting business literate, knowing your rights and see if you can offer your audience something for free – it can make a real difference.

Find yourself a niche. Pippa Hennessy for example, has a background in management and digital design, and that’s helped ensure she really knows what she’s talking about where putting e-books together is concerned. And she meets her deadlines. Think about what your role is. Don’t bother with proof-reading or study at home courses: there’s too many ads aimed at the general public to convince me it’s a viable way forward for real writers. SfPE isn’t for me, but if it helps you to have the badge of a recognised profession then fine.

What qualities does a freelancer need?

Flexibility and confidence. With In Your Head, the dyslexia play, we worked all kinds of ways. Some of it was scripted. Sometimes the actors improvised, and I helped them shape the best bits into something repeatable. Other times they asked me to write something I’d have never thought to come up with. They asked, I did. You need to have enough ego to want to do it and stand up when a scene needs defending, but drop that attitude when you’re being told something you need to listen and respond to.

Being computer-savvy will help too. Especially with emails. It’s your job to be emailing everyone, and to be that someone who gets commissioned. Don’t be mega-formal. Quickly distinguish yourself as being someone of service, but don’t be too humble. Don’t send generic emails. Send something relevant to their interests. Get a dialogue going.

I left the interview feeling a little disorientated. How much information had I absorbed over a few cups of tea? I’m determined to know more about freelancing, and have a burning desire to get a dictaphone. How many gems of wisdom had been missed out because I couldn’t write it all down fast enough?

Online haunts for Adrian Reynolds include:

http://www.writebyyourside.net

http://www.storia-creative.com

http://www.makingsparks.tv

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