Writing for the boxed set

Television writing is sometimes seen as a poor cousin to book writing. But the present surge in televisual storytelling makes it a potentially profitable alternative.
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 Photo Credit: Still from T​he Writers’ Room: Parks and Recreation via Sundance TV

If you managed to catch any of Jim Rash’s series The Writers’ Room, a paean to great American TV series, you might have come away imagining TV writing as the best fun in the world. Far from the lonely grind most authors endure, US TV writers work in a gang, trading jokes and topping each other’s stories in an office furnished with a whiteboard and an endless supply of Post-It notes. It all sounds so exciting.

Do we have writers’ rooms in Australia, and if so, how much creative clout can writers retain, working in a team? I talked to Australian TV writers to find out.

I asked Andrew Knight how TV writing differs from other writing. Andrew began in the 1980s when sketch comedy was rampant on TV screens and since then he has worked with everyone on everything, from SeaChange with Deborah Cox to the new series of Rake with Peter Duncan. For me, Rake is one of the best-scripted comedies of the past few years so I was curious as to how it was created.

‘TV writing is a democratic, a collaborative; not as ego-based as film writing,’ he says. ‘You learn fast because you have to push out a lot of words.

‘Novelists work with nuance. But with TV, you have to leave space for others to add their own nuance, because the actors and directors, musicians, editors, even the crew, they all contribute.’

He says that collaboration can be a challenge. ‘Sure, you need to be flexible and resilient,’ he says. ‘But it’s hit and miss whether you tell too much or too little. I’m still trying to get it right. Some producers cut the writer out. That’s the worst. All boats rise on the tide – that’s what I think.’

Diminished creative control in TV writing might cause some to hesitate. With books, it’s ultimately it’s your call, whatever your publishers might suggest. In Australia, the producer of the TV series has the last word, traditionally.

Sue Smith, of Brides of Christ and Saving Mr Banks fame, quit TV writing for the theatre after an experience where she felt she’d been cut out of the creative process. She told the SMH last year that she decided to write for theatre because ‘…dramatists get more respect.’ In her opinion, the big money involved in TV can lead to producers making safer choices, which produces bland drama.

Following the success of edgy cable drama coming out of the US, the TV production community in Australia has begun trialling the ‘showrunner’ model where the writer works as a producer as well and retains ultimate creative control. The 2015 documentary Showrunners looks into the experience of US writer/producers who are even becoming celebrities, like Lena Dunham with Girls. But Joss Whedon, showrunner of Buffy, shared that there was ‘100% burnout’ in the role, that it was ‘draining and awful’ but also that he ‘missed it dreadfully’.

In Australia, Matt Ford, the writer and creator of Hiding, a drama that premiered on the ABC this year, participated in the Scribe Initiative, an Australian version of showrunning. I asked whether tight deadlines were a feature and whether he had the last word.

‘Well, it all comes down to budget and my deadline was the tightest. I’d spent two years dicking around with the first 55 minutes and then I had to write the other seven episodes in a few months. But it was great that the production company went with the showrunner model.’

Matt went on to emphasise the difficulty of combining the skill sets of writing and producing – echoing the comments of showrunners in the documentary and Andrew Knight, who’s done his share of producing.

‘With producing it’s a thousand questions a day, and the budget is paramount. Very different from the writing process. Creatively, I had a free hand but there was some to-and-fro about the concept because of doubts whether ABC audiences would accept a protagonist who was a criminal.’

So for Australian TV writers it looks like creative control is negotiable at this point in history. For writers making the transition from book-writing it’s a big change in work process too. Benjamin Law is writing a six-part script of his comic memoir The Family Law, that will be shown on SBS next year. He describes collaboration as a huge boost to quality.

‘It’s been fantastic, working with people who made Glitch, The Slap, things like that. For three years now I’ve been the dumbest person in the room, learning from legends like [producers] Tony Ayres and Debbie Lee who are both Australian-born Chinese like me.

‘The writers’ room is great. Marieke Hardy helped us out in the beginning and I’ve had hundreds of hours of face-to-face meetings and Skype meetings about character, motivation, plotting. There’s such a high level of investment in television that you’ve got five sets of people all having a say, but somehow, we’re all on the same page.’

Is this rosy view widely shared? The Puberty Blues website shows a glimpse of an Australian writer’s room in a short extra, The Writing Process. Less frenetic than the US shows, it nevertheless describes a lengthy series of meetings as producers Imogen Banks and John Edwards encourage collaboration between the cast and key crew members as well as writers.

‘Collaboration comes from the top,’ says Emma Freeman, a director on the show. ‘We’re lucky that John and Imogen make it a safe place to be creative.’

Alice Bell, one of two main writers, agrees. ‘I really like it when actors come to you with ideas for their character because they know it in a different way from [the writers] and you can often find some interesting changes or beats through that.’

What comes through in talking to TV writers is that the collaborative process is creatively very exciting, that the cut and thrust of plotting in a group produces a script much stronger than the sum of its contributors. But what about pay? I asked Andrew Knight, who laughed. ‘My projects all got up at once,’ he said. ‘With two TV series and two films in production I’m officially insane! But if you work hard, you can make a good living in this business.’ Ben Law adds, ‘Writing for film and TV is healthily unionised, so you do get paid well. It makes a change from book-writing.

‘We’re lucky in Australia to have a robust system of funding institutions. Our TV drama is quality product compared to our size, and we need to defend that.’

So if you’re willing to take the leap into collaboration with all its pleasures and risks, to work with your favourite actors and see some part of your vision on the small screen, then TV writing could be for you. In these days of boxed sets, people are beginning to collect libraries of Australian stories too. Not a bad legacy.

Madeleine Oliver will host a discussion panel featuring TV writers for the Spectrum Now festival next March.

Th​is article first appeared in the October/November 2015 issue of Newswrite, the magazine for the NSW Writers’ Centre. For more information about the magazine and membership, visit Newswrite.
Madeleine Oliver
About the Author
Madeleine Oliver is a writer and principal of Dark and Stormy Night which provides ​storytelling services and writing & editing classes.