Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #015 with Salim Allybokus.
With a skill for writing dark humour, Salim has been steadily making a name for himself as a writer to watch. Leaving behind a career in Criminal Defence, he is now a graduate of the BBC Writersroom and also featured on the New Talent Hotlist.
When did you start writing?
My first love was writing music and I had dreams of headlining Glastonbury, but as I got older my disappointment needed another outlet, so I began writing scripts.
You previously practiced in Criminal Law. Are you now a full time writer or do you balance with a day job?
I left Criminal Defence a few years ago in pursuit of something more creative and less harrowing. I think there’s always an element of being a full time writer even when it isn’t your ‘day job’. However, I now balance my bill-paying copywriting with my dream-chasing scriptwriting by scribbling in the evening, on weekends or at spare moments during the day.
It can be tricky to maintain discipline when something isn’t your main source of income, so I try to set my own deadlines and targets. Working from home means I don’t really have to switch from formal work clothes to the more creative dressing-gown attire, so I’m always ready to write.
What was your first credit as a writer?
A short sketch for Beano Toons called ‘Evil Deputy Headmaster’.
That’s an incredible first credit! What was it was like working with one of the most famous comedy brands in the UK?
As my first commission, it was a brilliant experience.
I’d never previously imagined writing anything for children, so having to adapt my style for a specific audience, within the confines of a 2 minute sketch, was a great challenge.
The opportunity to pitch came via the BBC Writersroom. I sent about 10 ideas to Beano Toons and they picked a few that they liked with the story that became ‘Evil Deputy Headmaster’ being the one that was eventually made.
Beano Toons were great to work with; they were very supportive; their notes were extremely helpful, and as a new writer, it was an important insight into how a project evolves from idea to execution.
When did you sign with an agent and how did that happen?
I signed with my first agent after my Radio 3 commission in 2017. Things didn’t really work out and we parted. After that I focussed solely on building my writing portfolio and trying to establish my own networks.
Shortly after, I was sent my first option agreement for a TV script. At that point, I felt it was best to try and find an agent to help negotiate this on my behalf. Therefore, I contacted an agent who’d previously been very encouraging about my writing and has been brilliant ever since.
There are a lot of new writers who are very focussed on finding an agent, when realistically, they may not be ready for one. It’s also possible to get far and have success without one.
From your experience, what is the real role of a good agent?
It’s all about the writing. The priority is to have a script that’s good enough to be circulated. In the early days, I’d say that a good script editor or fellow writers/creatives who can effectively critique your writing are the most important relationships to form. You want to be in a position where you’re approaching decision-makers with scripts that do justice to yourself and your ability.
I think it’s always important to build relationships with people in the industry and this is something you can do with or without an agent. As writers, in our insular little worlds, it’s vital to find people we can share ideas with. A good agent doesn’t just facilitate meetings or negotiate contracts but can nurture your creativity and help you to distinguish the great ideas from the bad ones. It’s important to sign with an agent that will champion your writing, but for a new writer it’s especially crucial to know that the agent believes in your potential and will be patient enough to back it.
When I originally reached out to you we were discussing the small strides we make as writers and the progress we miss amongst all of the rejection and unanswered emails.
How do you motivate yourself to keep going as a writer?
I try to separate the end result from the actual joy of writing.
I think there’s always value in the scripts that no one ever reads, or the shows that never get made, whether it’s honing your craft or the creative buzz of expressing yourself. And if the whole creative process is to find some sort of truth, I think everyone learns something about themselves from rejection, whether it’s the drive to continue or to be bitter, jealous and vindictive. It’s all pretty inspiring.
You’re a graduate of BBC Writersroom Comedy Room (2016). What was your submission and how was the experience?
My submission was a 60 minute dark comedy-drama. As a new writer with very few contacts in the industry, it was a great way to meet producers and fellow writers, whilst also learning more about the craft of writing and the commissioning process.
Having never really considered radio or children’s comedy as an avenue for my writing, the Writersroom provided a brilliant insight into the scope of the industry and the potential opportunities.
Are you still in touch with the other writers from the intake?
Yes, we still speak occasionally.
Writersroom is a HUGE goal for writers. What advice do you have for people to make their competition submissions stand out from the crowd?
In a competitive field, originality always stands out. I got the impression that they are very open to a range of ideas, and with ‘comedy’ being so subjective, there’s a great opportunity to submit something unconventional.
As well as BBC Writersroom, are there any pathways you’d recommend for new writers, particularly those from under represented groups or backgrounds?
The BBC’s annual Felix Dexter Bursary scheme is very helpful.
You were also included on the BBC’s New Talent Hot List (2017). Did you find it helped to increase your industry exposure?
I was surprised to be included. I don’t know if it increased exposure, but when trying to make any inroads at all, it’s a short statement that at least validates trying to make those inroads.
You’ve recently secured your first script option. Congratulations! What can you tell us about that and how incredible did it feel?
Thanks. It was a script that had been sent to a few places, but it eventually struck a chord with the right producers. It was very exciting to sign the contract and slightly surreal to meet other people who shared my enthusiasm for the script.
I think the goal is always to build an idea or script you’ve written alone into something wider, where people other than yourself are invested.
What advice do you have for writers who have what they feel is a strong script but have no idea where to take it?
Identify the producers or production companies who create the type of TV or films that you’d like to make. Finding that key producer who might potentially champion your writing can make all the difference, even if they’re not initially in a position to make the script you’re pitching.
Let’s say a writer has found a suitable producer or production company, how should they introduce themselves?
Keep things brief.
If a producer is going to read your epic masterpiece, then a short email is an act of mercy. It’s best to send an introductory email explaining why you’re a fan of that particular production company or producer and a logline of the project you’d potentially like them to read.
Briefly outline any credits or writing achievements that might set you apart from other writers. I wouldn’t send any writing samples in that initial email; it’s actually to your advantage to try and distil your big idea into a short logline that entices them to email back.
The idea of pitching can be quite daunting. What tips do you have for holding your nerve and clearly expressing an idea?
It can be daunting, but a writer knows their script better than anyone else and so a pitch is always a great opportunity. Of course, knowing your script better than anyone else can lead to overcomplicating your chance to sell an idea. Therefore, I think it’s important to always return to the initial concept that drove you to write the script in the first place. That initial idea is likely to be the selling point of your script and the way to find some clarity amidst all the things you want to say.
When I pitched to Sky, it wasn’t just important to know my script, but the type of shows they were looking for and then to adapt my pitch accordingly. So knowing your audience and emphasising certain parts of your script to align with their needs should help.
What was that like you tell us how you approached the scripting?
It was amazing to be chosen. Working with a script editor and producer was a great learning experience, while ultimately seeing the actor actually speak the words I’d written was incredible.
My idea was to juxtapose the violence of boxing with the gentle chimes of Brahms’ ‘Lullaby’. The approach was to know the character and then to try and inhabit his headspace.
My first draft had changed significantly by the final draft, while Kayvan’s brilliant interpretation was slightly different in places to how I initially imagined it. Therefore, it was very valuable early lesson on ‘killing your darlings’ and the collaborative nature of the creative process.
On the subject of music, do you have a go to playlist when you’re writing?
No, I’m distracted by everything, even silence.
Your work has been categorised as ‘psychological horror’ and ‘dystopian political satire’. Do you naturally approach projects from an edgy/dark perspective?
I just write about the things that interest me. I do think dark comedy is where the most fun can be had with the genre, and it’s always exciting to try and find comedy in places where there seemingly isn’t any.
What’s your top tip for creating characters?
My favourite comedies usually involve people in situations that contradict their personalities. So when I create characters, I try to keep those contradictions in mind.
What are your current writing goals?
Well, I always aim to write a better script than the previous one and to keep learning as much as I can about the craft and the industry. It’s always an ambition to see something made, and that’s a continuous goal.
Following your experience writing for Beano Toons, would you be interested in writing for children again? How did you find the process differed from writing for an adult audience?
I’m always open to writing for any audience. Although there may have been some restrictions on the content, there’s also a real flexibility to writing for children, especially animated material- the more far-fetched, the better. While animated sketches don’t place too many limits on the imagination, they still require the discipline of telling a short story with a punchline. Therefore, the structure was actually very similar to an adult sketch and posed many of the same challenges.
What’s the worst thing about being a writer?
The terror of reading back the draft that had filled me with so much excitement only hours earlier. Once you’ve won the battle with yourself to actually sit down and write, the war with your expectations is probably harder.
Can you recommend any books or scripts that every writer should read?
‘The Writer’s Chapbook’ by George Plimpton and Kafka’s ‘Letters to Milena’ are pretty inspiring, while William Trevor’s ‘Last Stories’ is the perfect collection of short-stories that could easily be turned into a series of short films.
If you could reboot any TV series or movie from history, what would it be and how would you bring it up-to-date?
‘House of Rock’ with an updated group of dead musicians.
What makes you laugh more than anything?
Humour that’s so dry, the punchline suddenly explodes in your head several days later. And ‘The Boondocks’.
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