#006 Emily Reader

“The best dialogue is dripping with subtext, not exposition.”

Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #006 with Emily Reader.

Emily has been busy building the foundation for a successful career ahead. Topical comedy credits, self-produced audio plays, competition shortlists, proactive networking, and even the occasional improvised cello soundtrack!

When did you start writing?

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. It’s always been my primary outlet. For years, it was poetry, then prose at university. I always considered myself one of those people with ‘a novel in them.’ I only discovered my real passion for script writing the summer before my final year of university.

That summer, I had noticed that the more I wrote stories, the more dialogue-heavy they became. I decided to write a scrap of script as a kind of writing exercise, to see what happened if my stories became entirely dialogue-focused. I was amazed at how fun I found it. I could explore my characters so quickly and really let them spark off each other. And jokes were so much easier to write! I’d previously considered myself the kind of person who could only be funny in conversation; this opened up a whole new avenue of possibility.

That scrap of script became a short play which I submitted on a whim to my university. I was absolutely shocked when they accepted it, and practically giddy when I got to audition actors and hear them turn my ideas into a performance. I couldn’t believe they were taking my words as seriously as any professional writer’s. Seeing my play performed on stage (and hearing the audience laugh at my jokes) was unlike any feeling I had encountered before. It was honestly euphoric. I knew from that point onwards that I was hooked.

Are you a full-time writer?

I’m one year out of university and I’ve spent practically the entire time writing. I’ve treated it as a kind of post-uni, work-focused gap year, building a foundation for a career before I jump into the working world.

It has been incredibly lucky timing really, considering the lockdown. If I’d made different plans, I’m sure they would have been completely wrecked. But the job hunt has now begun and I know that from this point onwards, it’s going to be much harder to balance writing and a day job. I’m just glad I’ve got a bank of scripts now and some credits to my name!

“Networking options are definitely limited right now, but it’s still possible to make new contacts.”

What projects have you been working on recently?

I’m currently finishing up a pilot and treatment for a television series of my own devising. It’s actually the least comic of the scripts I’ve written, but I feel like it has really benefitted from all the projects that came before it.

It will be the third script sent to an agent I’ve been talking to, an incredibly generous woman who has given me feedback each time I’ve given her a piece. The fact she is still engaging with me is a massive antidote to imposter syndrome; I’ve sent a lot of emails to a lot of agents with far less success.

On top of that, I am a slave to BBC Writers’ Room, and enter every competition I can find. I think I’m up to about eighty submissions in the past year. It’s a good lesson in dealing with rejection and seeing how competitive the industry is, I can tell you! It’s not all doom and gloom, though; I’ve made a few shortlists and had a monologue produced by Ragged Foil Productions.

It sounds like you’ve found a really good industry contact. How did it happen and what advice do you have for people who are looking to build their own networks?

I won’t lie to you: finding an agent who is happy to read my work was a slog, and there’s no guarantee that anything will come from it beyond the feedback I’ve received so far. I found a database of agencies and emailed every relevant agent who accepts unsolicited scripts. I made sure to tailor the emails to each agent, looking at their list of clients to make sure I was the right fit.

All in all, I emailed about fifty agents (including associate agents). A few got back to me saying they’re not taking clients, a few replied saying they would read my script (and still haven’t six months later) and many didn’t reply at all. Only one agent so far has actually read my script! It’s a crazy industry to navigate as a newcomer, especially when you’re not well connected. It’s even harder in a pandemic because you can’t network face-to-face.

Apart from emailing like mad, the way I’ve been networking in lockdown is through Twitter and attending online workshops. The connections I’ve made through both have got me brilliant advice, access to competitions, a script request from an agency, and even this very interview! I love following writers and hearing what the community is up to, but I also follow every creative professional I can find who worked on projects that inspire me. Networking options are definitely limited right now, but it’s still possible to make new contacts.

You’ve managed to develop a thick skin pretty quickly. What tips do you have for coping with rejection?

There are a few things I like to keep in mind whenever I receive a rejection, especially when they’re completely generic, or the judges don’t get back to you at all.

Firstly, most writing competitions receive hundreds, if not thousands, of submissions. So even if your work is solid gold, you could be contending with a whole mountain of gold. Odds aside, it may also be that your writing is great, but not what a particular competition is looking for. Or your style might not be suited to that specific judge’s taste. Basically, don’t take it personally! Just keep submitting. That way, you keep giving yourself a chance to succeed.

I also think it’s really important to appreciate every success, big or small. Sometimes I’ve made shortlists, and initially felt disappointed that I didn’t reach the stage where my writing actually got produced (or paid for). Then I do the maths and realise that I was in the top 8% of writers out of hundreds, which is still amazing. Similarly, a rejection email with thoughtful feedback is a piece of free advice from an industry professional who believes you have potential if you follow their pointers. How brilliant is that?

Earlier this year, you adapted your stage play, Rumours into a radio play. Can you tell us about the process?

Rumours is actually derived from the short play that first got me into script writing.

Rumours artwork

The summer after university, I expanded it into a full-length script to enter into competitions. It was repeatedly rejected, and I began to get tired of it. Combine rejections with a lockdown, and you get a pretty despondent writer! Luckily, my family came up with a solution: instead of waiting around for someone to open a door for me, they suggested I could open the door myself.

I adapted the script for audio, got it recorded remotely, taught myself how to edit, and added my own sound effects. When I posted it online, I was expecting only friends and family to tune in, but I’ve had listeners from all over the world. It taught me to stop waiting around for opportunities to present themselves, especially when you’re stuck at home.

“In many ways, the first draft of a script is a kind of improvisation in itself.”

You’re a member of Hivemind Improv. What’s that been like and would you recommend that all comedy writers join their local improv group?

My journey into improv is long and nepotistic. I used to watch my brother in the Cambridge Impronauts when I was still at school, then continued to watch him when he founded his own group, Hivemind.

Years of being in the audience gave me a good instinct for the craft so when an opportunity came up to be the lighting technician for their Edinburgh Fringe shows, I found myself surprisingly qualified for the job.

Knowing when to end a scene with a blackout has actually taught me a lot about comic timing. It is so much better to make your point and move on than to drag a moment out, especially when the actors are riding on the seat of their pants! I’ve also learned a lot about rapid joke-making, which comes in handy when you’re writing for shows like Newsjack. It’s better to turn off the judgemental voice in your brain and just go for it, even if the idea is a little wacky, than to freeze and do nothing. You get the most original ideas that way.

It’s definitely worth seeing at least one improv show (especially long form) or trying out a workshop. It really reframes the process of making stories. And in many ways, the first draft of a script is a kind of improvisation in itself.

If you come and see Hivemind once the lockdown is lifted, you might even spot me improvising a soundtrack on the cello…!

Newsjack is one of the best ways for new comedy writers to get noticed. What lessons have you learnt from successfully submitting?

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to just keep trying. Last series, I submitted the maximum amount of jokes each week, every week, and improved simply by regularly coming up with content. I would also recommend going to the show recordings. You get to see what kind of jokes make it to that final stage and which ones have that special something to keep them in the edit. The more you can understand the specific brand of humour Newsjack is going for, the more you can tailor your submissions. If you’re lucky, you might even get to hear your joke performed.

Do you have a process when it comes to submitting to Newsjack? How do you know when a story has potential?

Having submitted for two seasons now, I’ve definitely developed a routine. I start by reading online news outlets for stories. If anything catches my inspiration in any way, I make a note of it. I try to avoid the most obvious headline stories because I know more people will write about them. Newsjack tends to be light on science and technology, so I make a special effort to find pieces that fit that category.

Step two is mind mapping. I kid you not, I will literally make a mind map with a story in the centre and my ideas sticking out in all directions. The ideas tend to be puns, relevant imagery, allegories and ‘what if?’ scenarios. For example, what if paintings were quarantined like people? What snail imagery would make a snappy pun? I try to keep spit balling beyond the obvious first thoughts I have. The longer you think about this stuff, the weirder it tends to get, and Newsjack definitely loves an unusual concept.

I try to have an excess of stories and ideas so I can cut out the ones that don’t seem to be progressing anywhere, whilst still submitting the maximum amount of material. Once I’ve got a bunch of first drafts, I like to sleep on them. The more time I give myself to mull over the concepts, the higher the quality of my writing tends to be.

I also find it can help to read out the jokes to friends and family. It’s incredibly embarrassing, but it’s also the quickest way to see if your content is actually funny.

“The most important thing is to believe that you’re good enough.”

What’s your number one tip for writing dialogue?

For me, good dialogue is about what your character doesn’t say as much as the lines you write for them. In real conversation, a huge proportion of meaning is implied and assumed. The best dialogue is dripping with subtext, not exposition. If you can deliver information without explicitly saying it, you’re winning.

Can you recommend any books or scripts that every writer should read?

BBC Writers’ Room has a massive collection of scripts. I find it really useful to read scripts of shows I know well, to see how the writing compares to the final product, as well asscripts I don’t know at all, to see how well I can picture the scenes myself.

What are your current writing goals?

Goal number one right now is getting an agent. The writing industry is a complex and interconnected world and I’d love a navigator to help me steer the right course. Other than that, I just want to keep writing and submitting.

I’ve developed a solid routine this year and I want to maintain it, even when I have less time (or a second wave kicks us all in the arse again). The ultimate goal is to get one of my television scripts made, but I know that will be easier said than done.

What are the things that nobody tells people when they’re starting out as a writer but really should?

As lame as it sounds, the most important thing is to believe that you’re good enough. Then someone else might believe it too. Also, grab every opportunity that presents itself. If nothing does, make the opportunities yourself.

What’s the worst part of being a writer?

The crippling self doubt, of course!

When you do a regular job, you send in an application, get an interview, get hired, and do the tasks that are assigned to you. There’s a clear path, affirmed by an external source. With writing, you kind of have to hire yourself. No one tells you what to do, or when you’re done, or even tells you you’re good enough to be a writer in the first place. You have to back yourself and hope that the path you’re forging will get you where you need to go.

What makes you laugh more than anything else?

My brothers. I grew up in a hysterically funny family, and I know for certain that my desire to make people laugh comes from them.

You can follow Emily on Twitter, connect on LinkedIn and visit her website.

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