Novel Writing & Editing – Script Editor Interview


script editor interviewI met Amy Reith at a cast and crew film screening.’Twas the funniest thing! No, not the film which was a drama titled “Nuclear”. Here’s what’s so funny…

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. 

THE END.

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STORYTELLING – Script Editor Interview


Interview - AmyLights, camera, action! 😂 TV script editor Amy Reith has worked with some of the greatest story minds (arguably) – in various roles – across BBC4’s, Sky One’s and Sky Atlantic’s productions…

What I really like about Amy though is that she’s a sweet and down to earth woman… I’ll let you know how we met (funny story) – in part 2 of the interview… 🙂

Meanwhile, as always, we’ll be chatting about writing and storytelling. Besides, we’ll dive into writing for TV specifically. Without further ado, if you are or aspire to be a writer of any kind or TV script editor maybe, this interview should answer at least some of your ‘how to’ questions. Let’s do this!

M: What’s your academic background? Briefly describe your career progression.

A: I attended the local comprehensive school and then went on to study at the University of Exeter – my course was ‘English and Creative Media’ – which essentially means I changed my mind halfway through the course and they had to make up a title for it!

I studied modules varying from English literature and film theory to creative writing and web design, so it was an interesting mix.

When I graduated, I moved back to my hometown, saved up for a year and then relocated to London. On reflection, it was quite a naïve move. I didn’t have a job, so just temped to pay the bills and hoped I’d eventually get some work in TV or film – thankfully, somehow, (after lots of temp admin jobs to pay the bills…) it paid off!

M: What productions have you worked on so far?

A: My first set of credits are all across documentary shows. The first company I worked for made both drama and documentary projects, so I worked as a production assistant/coordinator across their shows and visited the set of a film they were involved in – Kajaki – in Jordan. Then, I moved over into development where we had a large slate of varied projects. In terms of productions, I worked across shows like the BBC4 comedy Bucket, was in the initial writers’ room for the Sky One show Bulletproof and then worked on Sky Atlantic’s Riviera for seasons 2 and 3. I finished on that at Christmas and started on a new project in January.

M: What was your workday like at Riviera? What does a TV script editor do?

A: One of the best bits about script editing is the variety – depending on where you are in the process, no two days are the same.

Initially, you often have a writers’ room – which usually includes the executive team, story team and writers all working through the characters, themes, storylines etc. Then, once the writers go off to work on their episodes – you become their point of contact, helping them when needed with their outlines, scene-by-scenes and scripts, while also working across any production documents needed – such as writing character bios, series outlines, casting documents etc.

During the drafting process you’re on hand to read the new drafts as they come in, make your own notes, then collate them with notes from the showrunner, execs, producer and director and feed them back to the writer.

Once you get closer to filming, you spend a lot of time liasing with production staff – making sure what the writers are working on fits with the schedule, locations and budget. I’ve also spent time on tech recces, which is really useful to get a feel for the geography and layout of the locations and understand what the director is planning in terms of their blocking for each scene.

Once you’re in production, you’re usually working on the drafts of future episodes while also covering amendments to the scenes being filmed and issuing these out to the coordinator for distribution. A lot of the time you’re based in the office of the production company running the show but once it’s filming, you’re often back and forth to the production office and locations.

M: On that note, some of those are quite fancy. Reportedly, Riviera season 2 was filmed in various locations such as Monaco and Nice as well as Alpes-Maritimes in the South of France – with many recognisable landmarks in the background. 🙂

 M: What are the most and the least enjoyable bits of the script editor role?

For me, each stage has its enjoyable moments and its challenges – the initial storylining process is usually the most freeing and creative, but can also feel like it moves slower than you’d like, while the adrenaline of filming is exciting and invigorating, but often the busiest and most stressful stage of the job.

M: How many writers did you manage? What are the main challenges of creating stories with a team of writers?

A: Across both seasons of Riviera, we had five writers working on the show. I’d say in the early stages of storylining, the biggest challenge is making sure that everyone’s ideas align with the tone and voice of the show. All of the writers we worked with are brilliant in their own right, and have strong, powerful voices on the page, so helping them find the right pitch for the show so that it doesn’t feel disjointed is the initial goal. But, thankfully, they’re all total pros, so this was never a big problem!

Once you get into the scripting process, it’s not really a challenge, but one of the most important things I do early on is work out how each writer works. Some people like to discuss their episode then go away and work independently until they’re ready to deliver. Some will discuss it, go away and then touch base sporadically until the deadline, while some like to keep a more regular contact, batting questions and ideas back and forth. My job is to be on hand for them – so I can adjust to any rhythm once I know what they prefer.

M: What part of writing/storytelling can be, and which one cannot be taught?

A: I think there’s elements of the craft that can be taught – from the basic stuff like learning how to use Final Draft and the correct layout to knowing how to write a scene-by-scene etc, but I believe a lot of writing and storytelling comes from instinct.

Just getting a feeling for what works, what doesn’t, what excites you and the people you’re working with. Millions of books have been written about storytelling – and most of them completely contradict each other.

I don’t think there’s one format that should be adhered to, and we’re lucky enough that in the current TV market, people are getting braver about diverting from previous structures imposed on shows.

M: What are the main lessons you’ve learned while working on TV productions (i.e. on storytelling e.g. how to weave a good  story, etc.)? 

A: Working in development and as a script editor has, I think, been the absolute best place to learn story and structure. Personally, with my own writing, I’ve always found the precise intricacies of plotting – the logic, the pacing etc. – the hardest part, so having had the opportunity to work with some really brilliant story minds has been invaluable. You quickly learn what works, what doesn’t, what is overused and what feels original.

Also, just watching how different people work – whether it be executive producers, story producers, fellow script editors or writers. I find it fascinating to see the way everyone’s ideas develop and the methods they use for structuring a story.

In TV, I find there’s an interesting balance between creativity and the actual craft of making a show. The former is essential, but when you are constantly working to deadlines, schedules and notes from varying quarters, it’s also about finding a way to get the scripts ready to shoot without compromising on the creativity.

M: What advice would you give to people who want to write for TV? Where should they begin?

A: Having asked this question many times, I know how frustrating it is when people just say ‘write’ – as if just writing your own material will suddenly get it seen and get you a job. It usually makes me irrationally angry to hear it, but I’m going to become what I hate, because I do recommend writing as much as you can in your spare time – not because it will get you work – but because it really is a case of the more you write, the better you become.

Everyone’s route into writing for TV is different – some come from editorial, some juggle writing with directing/producing, a lot are playwrights who move across. For me though, I think working as part of a story/editorial team is invaluable experience – so the first step to this is to become a researcher/assistant script editor. As far as I know, long running dramas in the UK usually hire people on 6-month fixed contracts, so advertise quite regularly for roles like this. Similarly working in development is also really useful as you work across a large slate of projects, so see ideas and shows at their inception, and get to work with a varied set of writers.

M: How do you recognise a writer’s style? How can one find/understand their unique voice?

A: I always love chatting with writers for the first time and finding out what they’re interested in. Often, people who write lots of episodes of TV can adapt their voice and tone for the show they’re working on, they’ve become pros at it, but diving in and finding out what they really are interested in is fascinating.

I mean, usually people always seem to want to write much darker things than they’re currently working on (take from that what you will…!) You can, often, tell quickly whether people skew towards wanting to find the heart of a piece, or the action and excitement, the comedy or the tragedy.

M: How does one know which area of writing to pursue?

A: I think the best thing to do is try everything – try writing a novel,try poetry, try screenwriting or writing a play, try articles, reviews, find what works and what doesn’t and don’t feel like you have to settle for just one thing.

M: What makes a good writer?

A: There’s so many different answers to this question, but I think at the heart of it, it’s about connecting with what you’re writing.

Whether you’re writing a novel that inspires escapism, a specific genre of TV show, a gritty, realistic film or something more avant-garde, if you’re not getting something back from writing – enjoyment, catharsis, or anything else, then it’s hard to get something on the page that people will associate with.

To be continued…✍🏽