Amy’s seat was next to mine. We chitchatted for a short while. Soon, the lights went off and the cinema room became pitch dark, with occasional light flashes coming from the screen. Then, this slightly confused lady arrived… late… She was looking for a place to sit, entered our aisle, and… I thought she’d just walk on by, but instead she decided to sit… on me! Who does that! I still laugh when I think about that… Wait… having a small fit right now… Okay, I’m back. 😁
So, while she’s trying to get situated (on my lap), both Amy and Stella Nwimo, Nuclear producer who invited me to the screening, rushed to my rescue… Eventually, not without a fight, the lady resolved to abandon my seat for one that’s actually free! Aargh!
This happened last year when the world was less insane. I wonder how that personal space intruder is managing social distancing now. Not very well, I presume. 😁
Ahhhhh… So now, that I’ve got that out of my system… let’s get to the interview…
Amy is a TV script editor who’s worked for BBC4, SKY TV and various other major productions… To find out more about her journey please read part one of this interview. Here comes part two with a focus on novel writing and editing…
M: You work with TV scripts. I imagine they’re mostly about action and dialogue. What advice would you give a writer e.g. a novelist struggling in these areas?
A: This is quite a well-known strategy, but the best advice I can give on dialogue is reading it aloud. It feels weird and takes a while to get used to, but it’s incredibly helpful to get a feel for the rhythm… Action is always a difficult one to balance I think – some people can write tonnes of fascinating action that’s gripping, while others write a few lines and it can feel dry – so I think with this it’s finding what you feel comfortable with and what fits the story you’re telling.
M: You’ve written a novel. What’s your process like? How do you draft a story? Do you simply let the words spill onto a page, or do you edit as you draft?
A: I usually begin all over the place – if there’s chapters/moments that are really clear and bold in my head, I write those first... At the beginning it usually feels like there’s something I HAVE to get down on the page, so I start there, but after that I’ll try to structure more – I think about characters and write some rough bios, then I think about tent-pole moments in the story and start building up a structure until I have a broad outline.
Then I dive in properly with the writing and try to work in a more linear fashion – although when you hit writers’ block, jumping forward or backwards for a bit can be useful… It’s also useful to take some time, give it room to breathe and go back to what you’ve written days/weeks/months before with fresh eyes.
M: What aspects of novel writing do you find the most challenging?
A: I think the sheer time and size of the project is such a challenge. My finished book is over ninety thousand words, so it was a massive time commitment (and I’m a fast typer!) With screenplays the work is still difficult, intense and time consuming – but you’re ultimately going to write around 60 pages for a TV show and a maximum of 120 for a film – it’s much more focused than something that stretches over hundreds of pages.
There’s such a responsibility to build the world as well when you’re writing a novel – which is both extremely exciting but also daunting. All the readers have are your words, so you have to guide them in how you want them to read the characters, how you want them to feel the atmosphere – their imagination will take it from there – but only if you’ve done the groundwork.
M: Someone said that even the best writers need editors. Would you agree with that?
A: As someone who works as a script editor, I feel I have to say yes on this, or I’ll be out of a job! But genuinely, I think it’s very difficult for anyone, no matter how talented they are, to create in a vacuum. Characters should be questioned; plots should be stress-tested… I don’t doubt the best writers would write something that stands up against these, but the process is still massively useful.
M: When is a manuscript ready for the editorial pen? How do you know when you’ve taken it as far as you can and it’s time to ask for feedback?
A: I think this relies quite heavily on the writers’ instincts. I found often, with both my book and my screenplays, I get to a stage relatively early where I need to get someone else’s perspective on it. Often when it’s nowhere near finished. Even if it’s just a friend giving me their opinion on a chapter or opening scene rather than a proper edit, getting someone’s thoughts (even if just reassurance that you’re not going down a complete dead-end and writing nonsense!) is incredibly valuable. In terms of getting proper editorial input, I usually wait until I have run through it a few times by myself and feel as confident as I can before getting someone else to bring their thoughts to the process.
M: What makes a good editor?
A: This is a hard question as I can only speak from my own perspective, but I think the trick to editing is making it seem as if you were never there. Your work shouldn’t interrupt the voice or the intent of the piece – you’re there to support the writer rather than influence them.
M: What must an editor do or not do to prevent overriding the writer’s unique voice? What boundaries must the writer set to prevent losing their voice during the editing process?
A: I think this is all about the writer finding the right editor – a writer should be able to trust the editor to pinpoint their voice and intention and bolster that rather than work to change it beyond recognition. Similarly for an editor, they need to understand the writer’s vision and put aside their own personal tastes. I’d argue there’s a big difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ storytelling and what you as an individual ‘like’ or ‘dislike’.
M: What do you think is the one thing a good story cannot do without?
A: Heart… I’m sure many will disagree, but for me, it doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a drama, comedy, or sci/fantasy piece, if your characters are likable or even human – for me, a bit of heart grounds everything.