Letters From America: Me And My Big Mouth

originally sent on the 18th February, 2004

So there I was in a comedy club last Wednesday that’s run by a

And I’ve been talking for years about wanting to try my hand at stand-up
comedy. And another friend of mine who used to be a professional standup is
in the area this week. And I’d had a couple of Martinis.

You can see where this leads.

So if my name gets pulled out of the open-mike hat tomorrow evening (that’s
about one chance in five) then at some point between 6am-8am Zulu Time on
the 19th February I shall be dying on stage.

If you’re awake, think of me.


Letters from America: How to Write for Television

originally sent 14 Feb 2004

Well, the first script is finished, so I thought I’d update everyone on what I’ve discovered about how the TV & Film business works in LA.

Over here they just call it “The Industry”.

I’m concentrating on TV, so I need a minimum of two spec scripts for current TV series, preferably three. My completed spec is for a show called “The Dead Zone”, based on the Stephen King novel.

Spec stands for speculative – no-one’s going to pay me for these, they’re simply a sample of my writing ability. Proof that I can string words together in an effective and entertaining way. I need as many scripts as possible to show my range.

You never send a spec script to the show it’s for. There are a couple of reasons for this.

1) The showrunner and writing staff know their own show inside out. They’re more likely to pick up on any minor inconsistencies in plotting or characterisation.
2) Mostly, they’re not allowed to.

Let me expand on 2) for a moment. America’s quite a litigious place. Let’s say that I’ve sent in a script to someone and they reject it because it’s written on toilet paper in crayon, doesn’t feature any of the main characters, and is a crossover with EastEnders. Later on another writer sends in a script with a similar plot (but without the rubbish bits). This one, they make. If I then sue the company saying “They stole my idea!”, they’ve got – at the least – an expensive court action.

So no-one reads scripts for their own shows that aren’t pre-vetted by an agent (which proves at least that the writer is a professional) in order to prevent the litigation question ever arising.

What you do is this: you write your spec scripts, then send them to other shows in the same genre. So my “Enterprise” spec can be sent to the producers of “Battlestar Galactica” or “Stargate”. But not to “Enterprise”.

Once I have several spec scripts, I can start sending them out to various shows.

*If* they like the writing, then I’ll be invited to pitch them ideas for stories that I think would make good episodes for their show.
*If* they like a story idea (and they don’t already have a similar show in the works), then I’ll get commissioned to write a story outline.
*If* they like the story outline then I get a chance to write a script for the show (also for money).
*If* they like the script, and they like me, I may be offered a job on the show.
*If* they have the cash. And all the writers’ slots for the year haven’t already been filled.

That’s a lot of ifs.

Staffing season here runs from March to June. Which is quite handy, because that’s when my money runs out.

So I need to get another two scripts done by the end of March, at which point I start marketing the hell out of myself to shows I want to write for.

So it’s still a journey of a thousand miles. But I’ve taken the first step.

Letters from America: I have a new favourite cancelled television show.

originally sent 4th February 2004

Max Headroom.

And now Keen Eddie.

Keen Eddie was a mid-season pickup for Fox last year. That means thirteen episodes. Seven were aired before it was cancelled. It’s also been shown in the UK. (Sky One in a graveyard slot, for those that are interested. Sunday afternoon. Filler material.) All 13 episodes are now being shown on Bravo in the US.

I’m starting to pick up trends over here now. Tapping the zeitgeist, getting into the groove. And based on what I’ve seen, there’s no way that Keen Eddie could have succeeded.

Like the other shows I mentioned, it’s just a little too quirky, a little too ahead of the curve to have been picked up. Eddie’s a New York cop who moves to London to…


It doesn’t matter. It’s a fish out of water programme, and you don’t need to know more than that.

Particularly interesting is the direction and cinematography. The show was shot in the UK, but in a US TV style. It’s a little odd to see suburban semis and council estates shot like New York tenements and LA condos, but if you can get over the shock, there’s a lot to enjoy in seeing a different visual look for London. There’s not another show based in the UK that frames its shots like this, and I think that’s a real shame.

The show’s very stylised. You could think that’s good or bad. Me, I love being transported into a space where strange things happen that are completely normal to the characters. After all, isn’t that what happens in Law & Order every week?

And talking of the characters, they are self-consciously coolstrange (think Buffy or West Wing) but nonetheless lovable (ditto). And if you can deal with this, the show repays a lot. If you’re not, that’s cool. As I say, it’s not easy to get into unless you’re willing to suspend your disbelief.

But it does make me wonder: Alias has scenarios equally as far-fetched all of the cancelled shows I’ve mentioned, and a visual style equally strong. Why does one succeed and the others fail?

I’ll let you know when I figure it out.


Letters From America: Things I Have Learned In California

Originally posted 22nd Jan 2004

– An undrinkable beer exists, and its name is Bud Dry
– A kerb painted red is the US equivalent of a double yellow line
– Everyone in Los Angeles is working on a screenplay or is in a band
– Parking on a red-painted kerb will cost you sixty-five dollars
– A microwave is considered essential kitchen equipment; a refrigerator is not
– You need a minimum of two completed screenplays to get an agent
– If you are caught in an earthquake, stand in a doorway
– The light on a cloudless day here is more beautiful than you can imagine
– The English accent trick doesn’t work – they’re used to it
– Equipping an apartment from scratch is more expensive than you think
– Installing Mandrake 9.2 on your computer can destroy a cheap CD drive
– Dell computers have excellent customer service, and cheap CD drives
– An RF lead in your apartment is not necessarily connected to an aerial on the roof
– Redcurrant bagels work surprisingly well for mopping up savoury sauce
– Don’t get a haircut from someone who doesn’t speak English very well
– Mullets are back in
– C&C Music Factory’s “Things that make you go hmmm” was recorded before the advent of DNA testing
– Big Refrigerators Are Good
– Few people in California can spell. When a bank can’t spell “Withdrawals”, that’s a warning sign
– Mess is the equivalent of an animal pissing against a wall. It marks your territory

Letters from America: Late in the night.

I finally cracked my problem with the Enterprise plot breakdown
last night.

It was a matter of reconciling inner and outer conflict, as
recommended in all the best screenwriting books.

Only once T’pol is able to come to terms with the fact that she’s
metaphorically gay can she work out how to destroy the monster
that sucks peoples’ brains out through their eyeballs. Then her
mum shoots it.

I feel much better now that’s sorted.

letters from america

Letters from America: Introduction

Gah. Haven’t posted a thing on the blog for a couple of weeks. This must stop.

Lest Stuart Perry decide that it’s Karma Payback Time and swing by for a drive-by commenting, I have a new plan.


As popularised by Danny Stack, the plan is a simple one. Should I not have anything interesting to write about, or be stuck behind a rapidly approaching deadline, or just be having too much fun elsewhere to write a full blog post, I’ll reprint stuff I’ve written before.

Odds are that it’ll be new to you though.

I spent most of a year living the dream in Los Angeles. I had some redundancy money, enough to support me comfortably for six months, and had decided that it was time to shit or get off the pot and spend some time trying to make it as a writer.

Having done the sums, I calculated the cost-of-living for LA versus London.

They were the same.

So I got a visa, and off I went.

I took with me the following:

  • A backpack half-filled with clothes and half-filled with screenwriting books
  • A toothbrush
  • My wallet
  • Nothing else

And I had a hostel on Hollywood Boulevard booked for the first week after I arrived.

I was in Los Angeles for most of a year. And every few weeks, I’d email how it was going to whoever had asked to be kept updated.

So, that’s the background. Next time I’m feeling lazy or overworked, expect to see a reprint of the emails I sent instead of an introduction.

Because as a way of not having to write a blog entry, this one would have to be counted as a bit of a failure.