Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #012 Emma Boucher.
Emma is a great example of being prepared to take an opportunity when it presents itself. Years of hard work paid off and she now works full-time writing for kids, She discusses writers block, revisiting childhood through her characters, misconceptions, My Petsaurus, and laughing at Tik Tok.
When did you start writing?
I had an amazing teacher in my last year of primary school, who had us writing everything from short stories to haikus. I was already a total bookworm and loved writing stories, but he really made me believe I could be a writer one day! Wherever you are Mr Greenwood – thank you!
I didn’t write scripts until I did my undergrad in Media Arts at Royal Holloway, and I realised that this was the sweet spot for me. After graduating I did various random telly jobs (tape librarian for one – the glamour!). I wasn’t feeling hugely fulfilled so I did a part time MA at Bournemouth Uni in screenwriting.
It was a bit hectic working full time and studying, but the discipline I learned of squeezing in writing wherever and whenever was invaluable! I got so much out of it, not to mention a portfolio of work – short scripts, a feature and a spec script for Life on Mars. So many amazing writers are self-taught, so I don’t think you need a professional qualification to get into the industry, but for me it really gave me the confidence to be able to push forward as a writer.
What were the programmes, books or films that inspired you as a child?
There’s far too many to list here, but top of the list would probably be Peanuts. As a kid I loved Snoopy’s boundless imagination and how he would reinvent himself over and over again! I don’t think I really knew who Billie Jean King was, but it didn’t matter because I was laughing at Snoopy putting his ears in bunches and pretending to be a tennis star! As a grown-up I still revisit Peanuts strips for inspiration!
Are you a full-time writer or do you balance alongside a day job?
I’m a full-time writer these days. After years of juggling my day job as a production manager I still have to pinch myself occasionally!
I got my first credit ten years ago, then three years later I went freelance with my day job, so I’d have more flexibility and time to write. I was incredibly lucky to have supportive managers, who let me take time off for meetings and to write. The scales eventually tipped, and writing became my day job!
It took a long time to get to that point, and at times I wondered if it was even a realistic goal, but the getting up early to write before work, the late nights, the weekends spent at my laptop, the writing on the tube whilst standing in someone’s armpit was all worth it! I’m not a bundle of energy by any means and I love a good nap – so if I can do it, I think anyone can if they put their mind to it!
What was your first credit as a writer and how did you land the job?
I was working at Turner as a localisation coordinator (another random telly job!) and I’d not long finished my masters, when I was in a meeting with Brett Davey, who was the Creative Director for the UK team at the time. I didn’t know him particularly well, but courage was with me that day, so I caught him at the end of the meeting and mentioned my writing, hoping that perhaps I might be able to write a promo or an interstitial.
A couple of months later he asked me if I’d like to write the pilot for what would become Cartoonito Tales – a live action storytelling show for pre-schoolers. I cannot tell you how excited I was! The pilot was a success, and I was sole writer for series 1 and 2. It was the loveliest show to write for – I had such fun and learnt so much! I’m forever grateful to Brett for taking a chance on an unknown kid!
You’re lead writer for the preschool series, My Petsaurus, which has recently been recommissioned by CBeebies for series 4 & 5. How did you get involved with the show?
Bumpybox reached out to me on Twitter after we’d connected on there. They had an initial concept for a show about a girl who has a pet dinosaur and wanted someone to help with development. The concept and the gorgeous design for Topsy the dinosaur had me sold right away!
I came up with some ideas for episodes and then wrote a script for one. They pitched it into CBeebies, who suggested playing around with the duration. I then wrote the two-minute script for ‘Bath Time’ off the back of that, and then we got a commission for series 1!
It’s amazing how our little show has grown. I was sole writer for series 1 & 2, but with more episodes for the later series I stepped up to lead writer with a small team of writers onboard. I loved seeing all their amazing ideas for stories! Series 4 & 5 recently wrapped filming, and I’m so excited for this latest batch of episodes!
As one of the writers who joined the Petsaurus team (along with my partner, James Bishop), I saw firsthand how passionate you are about distinctive voices. You were able to spot phrases or speech patterns that jarred with the character and gave really useful notes to point us in the right direction.
How did you adapt to that role of overseeing and collaborating with the new class of writers?
I’ve worked with some amazing head writers over the years. I tried to emulate some of the things they did – like giving positive feedback and praise in amongst the requests for changes, and letting the writers have time and space, where possible, to come up with their own creative solutions for problems. I tried to give context on why we needed to change something, so hopefully it didn’t ever feel arbitrary! I wanted to create a supportive and collaborative relationship with the writers, so they felt good about their work and excited about the project.
Is writers block ever an issue for you and if so, how do you deal with it?
I think the sneaky little so-and-so gets us all from time to time! I saw Tony Gilroy do a lecture about screenwriting at the BFI, where he talked about the ‘abyss on the other side of the desk’. It always stuck with me that this big Hollywood writer also has days where it just ain’t happening! His tip was to keep showing up for work every day, and eventually you’ll work through it. Definitely something I do too. If that’s not working then I like to switch gears – work on another project, go for walk, or even do the dishes, just something to get me thinking differently. I’m a great believer in my subconscious working away behind the scenes!
I think sometimes fear plays a part of writers’ block – fear of getting it wrong or messing up something good – and realising this takes away some of its power. You have to believe in yourself! There’s a Richard Wilbur quote which I love – ‘As a queen sits down, knowing that a chair will be there, or a general raises his hand and is given the field-glasses, step off assuredly into the blank of your mind. Something will come to you.’
What’s your number one tip for creating characters?
It’s really important that all your characters have distinct voices. One way of telling is if you took away the names in your script would you still know who’s talking? Eavesdropping on other people’s conversations is a great way to pick up on interesting turns of phrase or rhythms of speech. I live in South London, and I love hearing all the different voices when I’m out and about.
Can you recommend any books or scripts that every writer should read?
John Yorke’s ‘Into the Woods’ is the BEST book on structure.
I also recommend watching the BAFTA guru screenwriting masterclasses, they’re available free online. The Tony Gilroy talk I mentioned is up there. Nick Hornby’s talk is great too, and especially interesting if you’re working on an adaptation.
What are your current writing goals?
I adore writing for preschool TV, but recently I’ve been writing on a show for 6-9 year-olds and it’s been really fun writing for a slightly older age group. Each episode has a bespoke song and I’ve discovered that I really enjoy writing lyrics that rhyme! I’d like to get to do more of that. I’ve also written a couple of picture books that I’d love to see published. I’m working on a preschool series idea too. It’d be an absolute dream to head up the writing team on my own show one day!
How has writing your picture books differed from writing for TV?
I really enjoy shifting gear and writing prose. One of my picture books is all in rhyme so that was a really fun challenge! I went to an exhibition at the House of Illustration of Quentin Blake’s work. There was a quote about how he enjoyed stories that gave space for his imagination to run wild to create the illustrations. That’s something that really stuck with me while I was writing, and I enjoyed thinking about how the illustrator could add another layer and dimension to my stories – much like storyboard artists and animators do for scripts!
If you could travel back in time what advice would you give yourself at the start of your career?
Don’t undervalue yourself or your work. If someone wants you to write a script for free, think long and hard about it. Sometimes it’s worth it, but often it’s not.
What’s the best part of writing for kids?
I get to revisit all the best moments of my childhood and put them into my stories! I grew up near the Gower in South Wales, and we’d spend our summers playing on the beach come rain or shine. I wrote an episode of Wanda and Alien called ‘Sea, Sea, You Can’t Get Me’, which is a game we used to play as kids where we’d taunt the waves and then run away. My little sister was always too slow and would get soaked, so this is what happened to Alien! I also love getting to tap into that sense of wonder that little kids have – it keeps me young at heart!
What’s the biggest misconception that people have about writing for preschool?
That it’s easy – I wish it was!
Writing for young kids requires succinctness, pacing, humour and heart. Just like adults, kids will switch off if they’re not interested or entertained!
What makes you laugh more than anything else?
At the moment Tik Tok – don’t judge me!
I downloaded it at the start of lockdown, and honestly it got me through! It’s packed with super talented creators making really smart and funny content. I love how fast they can react to current events and trends, in a way that traditional media sometimes struggles with. It’s a very fun and silly diversion from the real world, which I think is something we all need at the moment!
Want to receive the latest interview in your inbox each week? Sign up to the one-email-a-week (promise) newsletter here.
If you REALLY enjoyed this interview, please consider being awesome and buying me a coffee.