Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #002 with Joanne Lau.
Joanne is a Canadian-Chinese writer living in the UK and is absolutely KILLING it. She’s had success with basically every writing competition going (including the BBC Writersroom and BAFTA Rocliffe), writes regularly for TV, radio and stage, and somehow also manages to be an actual scientist.
When did you start writing?
I’ve always been writing in some form or other. I blame middle child syndrome. Growing up, conversations in my family were like feeding time at Jurassic Park – my sisters and I being the velociraptors and my parents’ attention being the dangling cow. Being “the quiet one” I rarely got a bite of cow. I suppose writing was my sneaky way around that. It’s like breaking out of the enclosure and snacking on the tasty public instead, if you will.
I’m always blown away by the people who manage to hold down a steady job in addition to their work as a writer. You’re a neuroscientist in cancer research… HOW are you making this work?!
Ha! It’s so not working! I’m recklessly dancing with complete mental and physical burnout in the pale moonlight and am sure I’ve aged 10 years in the past 3, but I’m super grateful because it means at least I’m getting writing work.
If you’re curious though, when I have a writing deadline (or three), the secret formula is:
1) Go into the lab and silently resent anyone who asks you to do anything for them.
2) Stay late at your desk writing until you start creeping out the night security guards.
3) Commute home in the dark through London feeling like the woman in the cold open of every police procedural.
4) Eat a microwave meal and write in bed until you doze off.
5) Have your tiny bladder wake you at 3AM and continue writing until you doze back off (or not).
Don’t worry. When I don’t have a deadline, I descend into a depraved slothfulness that is glorious.
I’m also fortunately just a lowly lab tech, so no one cares much what I do as long as I get my job done, but I’ve basically screwed over my science career in order to pursue writing and I’m TERRIFIED that writing won’t work out after all, and in 20 years my current boss will retire and I’ll just be that old overpaid out-of-date lab tech no one wants to hire, going around to all the PhD students like, “Hey kids! Anyone need old Jojo here to run a PCR? No? I can pipette with my mouth! Wanna see?”
When did you sign with your agent and how did it happen?
This is going to sound like the “before” story on an episode of Queer Eye, but essentially, after a solid round of rejections from agents my very first year writing I just felt so discouraged I gave up trying. After that, I’d get approached maybe once or twice a year after a competition or something and it’d get my hopes up and I’d send them things, and they’d then just reject or ghost me, which only made me more scared to approach other agents. I did YEARS of this.
It wasn’t until I was on the Yellow Earth Professional Writers Programme (my Fab Five in this Queer Eye metaphor) that I was forced to try again. They put on a reading at the end of the programme and made us invite industry folk, so I dutifully emailed people. Never in a million years did I think anyone would show up, and to be fair, my agent didn’t, but she did offer to read my play. She liked it enough to ask for more of my stuff to read, and really responded to a sitcom I’d written whilst in the BBC Writersroom Comedy Room. I was talking to a few other agencies, but she was so warm and responsive in her emails that I was half-smitten already when I went in for the meeting.
Well, my post makeover “after” reveal is that it’s been just over a year with Louisa at Blake Friedmann and it has been life changing. Seriously. I used to meet all these writers who were like, “Why do you need an agent? I get all my work on my own!” I don’t know what those people were talking about because my agent has opened so many more doors for me. I have zero regrets.
Cue Queer Eye theme song, warm hugs, laughs, and cheersing with delicious-looking cocktails all round!
Not only were you a BAFTA Rocliffe Drama winner but you also made it into the BBC Writersroom Comedy Room (amongst loads of other prizes and awards). These are THE goals for many new writers. What advice can you give for people who plan to submit for the next intake?
I still need to pinch myself that those things actually happened. I’m so grateful for them and in my dark 3AM moments when I fear I’ll be that old lab tech mouth pipetting for a small white wine from the students union bar, I have to remind myself of them so I don’t feel like a total delusional failure.
You don’t know the crippling self-doubt I feel, especially when I assume I’m the “box-ticker” in the room and only there because I’m BAME and female. The readers for both were blind to gender, age, ethnicity, etc. and just liked what I wrote. It’s probably silly, but just having the knowledge of that is so reassuring when I’m feeling insecure.
Hm… I’d say the only commonality is that both scripts started with an idea that made me feel something in my cold, dead heart. Like, you know how sometimes you enter a competition because it’s there, you can make the deadline, and it’s free entry (or affordable anyway), so you write something that looks like a script, and sounds like a script, but it doesn’t make you feel anything? Don’t send that version in. Wait for that inspiration or excitement or gut reaction, then try to convey that feeling on the page. OK, that sounded a bit abstract and barf-worthy, but really, the main feeling I had while working on both those scripts was, “This is so messed up and wrong… *girly giggles* I love it.” I never said it was a particularly warm or healthy feeling you’re supposed to feel.
You’ve been involved in a number of writing workshops. What tips do you have for anyone who finds themselves invited to one of these rooms for the first time?
I’m still shy and not very confident in these things thanks to my upbringing (re: me being a beta velociraptor). Because of this, I’ve basically asked every writer I ever meet for tips. These two come to mind:
One comedy writer said to try an improv class because it helps with jumping in and building off ideas. I don’t know if this is true because I haven’t yet had the time to take an improv class, but it sounds so logical, I’m convinced he’s right. I’m also a wee bit of an SNL nerd and a fan of Comedy Bang Bang and a lot of the greats came up through improv. Why wouldn’t you do improv? Go do improv! I know I will! …eventually.
I also had a journalist friend who said the worst thing you can do in a writers room is say nothing. It’s true! They’re paying you to be there for your ideas and contributions. It’s kind of rude to sit there in sullen silence, or in my case, just trembling like a poodle at the vet. Just think of it as being helpful.
As for my own thoughts, I’d like to say a big thank you to experienced people running writers rooms who know how to get the best out of introverts (i.e. most writers). They’ll usually know to ask the quiet person for their thoughts if the conversation’s been dominated by the louder folks, or maybe break it off into smaller groups, or throw out an exercise and go round the table to force you to speak. THANK YOU.
You’ve recently had success writing for the stage. How has the experience been compared to television work?
One thing I’ve been able to take from playwriting into screenwriting is having something to say. It sounds stupid but I used to just write a series of interesting or funny things happening, but I never had a real message I was trying to convey. I hope and would like to think that now my scripts generally have a point.
That being said I’m still writing a lot of kids stuff so maybe when I’m writing about a crime-fighting cartoon badger for 4 year olds I don’t need to make a greater statement about intersectionality and society? Or maybe that’s when it’s really important that I do???
What’s your number one tip for creating characters?
Just write thinly-veiled caricatures of all your closest friends and family. They’ll love it. Also, sugar is great for you. You should eat lots of it.
I’d say the classic – If you can swap lines between characters and not tell the difference, you’re doing it wrong.
Also, excess sugar can lead to tooth decay and type 2 diabetes.
Can you recommend any books or scripts that every writer should read?
True story: I own two dog-eared copies of How to Write a Movie in 21 Days by Viki King but I’ve never gotten through all 21 days. I think I got to Day 13 once?
It’s perfect if you’re a procrastinator like me though! I use it no matter what project – stage, film, or TV. It just gets you thinking about your project and gets you started without being overwhelmed and half the battle is getting started, isn’t it? I keep one copy in my desk at the lab, and one at home so I don’t have to keep toting it around. It’s annoyingly not available on Kindle.
Also true: I had a comedian friend forcibly march me to the book store and make me buy a copy of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I dutifully read it cover to cover but rebelliously hate-highlighted phrases like “creative moistening” just so I could repeat them to people at parties and watch them cringe. I’m probably going to hell. I will reluctantly admit I write better when I do my “morning pages” though, so maybe my “creativity” was “moistened” by the book after all? Shudder.
If you could reboot any TV series or movie from history, what would it be and how would you bring it up-to-date?
Has anyone rebooted those old Hong Kong kung-fu series from the ’80s where people fly through the air and fall down volcanoes and learn secret forgotten martial arts moves from giant chickens yet? Because they really need to. Those were awesome.
You started out as a stand up. Is this something you’d recommend for people looking to become a comedy writer?
Definitely! It’s like comedy writing boot camp with instant feedback and the harshest critics. I mean, it’s also pure torture if you’re shy and sensitive like me, but just do what I did and keep it down to two casual Edinburghs, hundreds of gigs, and let it consume 5 years of your life until you hate yourself with the burning heat of a thousand fiery suns. You’ll be fine.
If you could travel back in time what advice would you give yourself at the start of your career?
You never regret being gracious or kind.
What’s the worst part of being a writer?
That constant pressure to write more. One of my sisters is a veterinary neurologist and takes great joy in telling me how my job is less important than hers, which is fair enough IF YOU THINK GIVING FRENCH BULLDOGS MRIs ALL DAY IS IMPORTANT.
In a rare moment of empathy, she told me that she kind of understands my stress if she frames it in the context of school. In her job, every moment is like taking an exam. In my job, every moment is like studying for the exam – you can never study enough and it’s this constant pressure that hangs over you, your weekends, your holidays, and your life. I told her it’s like that except I have two full-time jobs, rent to pay, and I do actually have deadlines to meet whilst she earns 6 figures working 4 days a week and gets to play with puppies. Seriously, one time I called her and she was complaining about a litter of Dalmatian puppies being too “squirmy” during their hearing tests. Cry me an adorable river.
What makes you laugh more than anything else?
I think years of comedy writing’s broken my brain a bit. My new favourite thing is telling a terrible kids joke (current fave: the Pea Green Soup joke*) to an unsuspecting friend and watching their mix of amusement, anger, and deep personal disappointment in me radiate from their eyes in that split second after the punchline. It’s even better when the person is a serious comedy writer. They’re downright furious sometimes. It makes me all warm and fuzzy inside just thinking about it. You can only do it every so often though, because you have to lull them back into a place of safety with you, spend time and build back up their comedy trust, only to pull the rug from beneath them all over again 9 months later. It’s hard work and requires a certain psychological prowess and patience, but trust me, it’s worth it.
*This works best in the middle of a serious discussion about art, documentaries, or anything particularly cultural. Casually reference “Pea Green Soup” and then go “Hm? What’s that? Oh. You don’t know about the Pea Green Soup joke?” Pause to make a mildly judgy face, then ask your flustered, unsuspecting friend to simply answer “Pea Green Soup” out loud to the following questions:
You: What did you have for breakfast?
Them: Pea green soup.
You:What did you have for lunch?
Them: Pea green soup.
You: What did you have for dinner?
Them: Pea green soup.
You: What did you do in the bathroom?
Them: Pea green… OH, F*CK YOU, LAU!
And that’s when the magic happens.
If you REALLY enjoyed this interview, please consider being awesome and buying me a coffee.