#016 Amy Xander

“I don’t think we should worry about ‘standing out’ necessarily.”

Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #016 with Amy Xander.

Amy has recently graduated from the BBC Writersroom. She’s had success as a topical comedy writer, once wrote a novel, and performs as a stand-up comedian. Still considering herself to be at the beginning of her career, Amy’s looking for more opportunities to get her writing out into the world and is definitely a writer to watch.

When did you start writing?

I started writing at university, purely because Creative Writing was one of the modules of my degree so I had to – and to be honest I hated it! 

Back then I had no idea what I actually wanted to write, so I just attempted the same kind of serious, literary fiction that everyone else was writing and it really wasn’t me. For a while it made me think I wasn’t that good at writing at all, it hadn’t occurred to me that I just hadn’t discovered the right genre yet.

I had never really considered writing comedy. I just thought it sounded way too difficult and something I wouldn’t be capable of. But a couple of years later I had a go at writing a few articles for a satirical news website. I really enjoyed it, and it made me realise that writing comedy wasn’t as impossible as it first seemed.

What was your first credit as a writer?

It was a Newsjack oneliner. I think it was a joke which compared getting into a grammar school with competing in The Hunger Games. So both hilarious and very powerful, which is probably how I’d describe all of my writing and also myself.

You also perform stand-up. Is this something you’d recommend for all writers?

I wouldn’t necessarily feel any pressure to do it if you love writing comedy, but you couldn’t think of anything worse than getting up on a stage. I’ve found that, although it obviously requires good joke-writing skills, a decent stand-up performance relies a lot more heavily on your delivery and stage persona. 

However, if there’s even just a tiny part of you that’s interested in giving it a go, just do it!

Obviously the idea of it is terrifying for everyone, but early open-mic gigs are very low-stakes. If you mess up it really doesn’t matter. I find it’s a good way to balance out the sometimes lonely process of writing scripts and sketches, where sometimes few people will end up reading your work.

Doing stand-up, you can get instant feedback and it can feel a bit more proactive than sitting in front of your laptop for hours. The ideal scenario would be if a large audience could laugh out loud and give me a round of applause every time I finish writing another scene of a sitcom pilot, but unfortunately I think that’s unlikely.

What was it like performing at the Edinburgh Fringe? I did it once back in 2008 and I’m still recovering.

I’m probably about to give a really annoying answer – my Edinburgh Fringe experience was actually pretty good! Although I don’t think I’m properly qualified to comment, as we only did five shows in the end, which is nothing really compared to the acts who do a show a day for 25 days straight!

I did a split show with another comedian (the fabulous Ginnia Cheng), we had a small room which was actually converted karaoke booth next to some toilets. It was then I realised that this would be the show to launch my career.

Ok, so it doesn’t sound that great. BUT we had some really lovely audiences and we managed to get some extra people in who’d gone through the wrong door whilst looking for the loo. Anyone who has done the Fringe will know that this should be considered a major achievement. 

I read that you spent years trying to write a novel before moving to comedy. Is this a project you still go back to?

I did! This was actually a long while after my attempt to be a serious fiction writer at university. It was a comedic novel (I was repeatedly told at the time that unless you’re already a successful author, these don’t usually sell and literary agents are rarely interested in them, advice I cheerfully ignored).

I finished it and it got (a very small amount of) interest from one agent. This eventually went nowhere and my exasperation led to me try stand-up. Basically, after being rejected by about 50 other agents, I think I got to the point where I was like; ‘for God’s sake will someone just pay me some attention.’

I re-read a few bits of the novel recently and cringed several times so I don’t think I’ll be re-submitting to agents any time soon, but I think I might use the general idea again – even if it’s in a different project like a sitcom script.

“I learnt a lot about writing technique and how to navigate the industry, both equally as useful!”

You made it into the BBC Writersroom (2019). What was your submission and how has the experience?

My submission was a dark comedy called Damsels, about a woman who accidentally kidnaps her ex-husband’s new girlfriend. Very much based on something that happened to me a few years back. (Only joking! I rarely take inspiration from my past crimes.)

I officially finished the Writersroom at the end of 2020 when I sent them the latest draft of the script I’d been working on for them. So I guess that now (scarily) makes me alumni! 

Throughout the Writersroom we’d have workshops every month from various comedy creatives or producers – so I learnt a lot about writing technique and how to navigate the industry, both equally as useful! We were also tasked with writing a brand new script and were paired with professional script editors who provide detailed feedback. I’d never had anyone read my scripts before really, so it was hugely helpful to get a full page of notes from someone who knows what they’re talking about!

I would say though, getting into the Writersroom really isn’t the be-all and end-all. There’s tons of writing advice online of course, and if you’re writing or producing your own content then there’s nothing to stop you from contacting production companies or producers about your work. Whether you’ve been in the Writersroom or not, you still have to graft and be very proactive about both the creative side of writing, and also seeking out opportunities to get your work seen.

The Comedy Room writers at BAFTA (Photo credit: Kwame Lestrade) / find Amy!

As well as the Writersroom, you were also a finalist for the David Nobbs Memorial Trust. What advice do you have for writers to make their competition submissions stand out from the crowd?

I don’t think we should worry about ‘standing out’ necessarily.

This will sound like slightly cliché advice but I think you just need to ‘be you’. If you really believe in your concept, you enjoy writing it and you make it the best you possibly can before submitting, then there’s a good chance you’ll catch the judges’ eye.

Unless competition guidelines specifically state what they’re looking for, I’m not sure it’s worth trying to second guess what the judges might be after. They might not even know themselves until they see it!

You’ve had success with topical shows such as Newsjack and the Now Show. What does it take to write a good joke and/or sketch?

I’m still after advice on this myself to be honest! This will probably sound really obvious, but I think the main thing I have learnt to employ when joke-writing is brevity. Which has never been my strong point! I recently looked back at some of the ‘one-liners’ I sent in a few years ago. They were so long I may as well have included a list of characters and stage directions. Now I think I’m a bit better at being brutal with my editing and focussing on the words I really need to tell a joke.

With sketches, often my problem was that I’d think of a joke that was really funny (or at least I thought it was), but only tenuously linked to the concept of the sketch. I’d usually stick it in anyway because I didn’t want to let it go. I think I had to learn to be brave and kill the jokes that weren’t immediately related to main idea, otherwise the sketch would start to go off course. 

Any tips on coping with rejection and lonely Thursday evenings refreshing the inbox for a Newsjack email? 

I guess you have to remind yourself with any rejections that it’s often not a reflection on your work. Whether you’re submitting to Newsjack or entering a competition you’re always competing against hundreds or sometimes thousands of people. Success is mostly a combination of talent, persistence and luck. Lots of successful people seem to have all the luck in the world, but they often don’t talk about all the hundreds of rejections they had first.

If you’re talented and keep persisting you will give yourself more chances at being lucky, if that makes sense!

“I am a stand-up and therefore love the sound of my own voice.”

What’s your top tip for writing dialogue?

Again, this might sound obvious but it’s not something I did until very recently!

Reading your script out loud and recording it really helps to see if any of your dialogue sounds stilted or clunky. Obviously it helps massively if you can have a read-through with actors or perhaps some of your friends, but it can even help if you just record it yourself and listen back to it – if you can bear to hear the sound of your own voice. I am a stand-up and therefore love the sound of my own voice. I basically only write scripts so I can record them and listen back to myself.

What are your current writing goals?

I am stilly VERY early on in my writing… I can’t even call it a ‘career’ because it’s that early. So – my goals are to just write more and look for more opportunities to get my work out there.

What’s the worst thing about being a writer?

This is a difficult one, I suppose the fact that you have to get out there and network to get contacts and create opportunities for yourself – a lot of writers (even ones who are also stand-ups) can be a bit introverted when it comes to networking and absolutely dread it!

If you could reboot any TV series or movie from history, what would it be and how would you bring it up-to-date?

I’ve recently discovered that Sky Arts are re-running Tales of the Unexpected, I think that would be fun to reboot. They were initially based on Roald Dahl’s short stories for adults, so although some of them had a thread of dark humour, they weren’t exactly comedies. It would be fun to take that format and make it really funny.

Perhaps the scripts could even be adaptations of contemporary short stories, it might be nice to fuse the worlds of literature and TV comedy in that way!

What makes you laugh more than anything?

I am a simple person and think I laugh the most when someone falls over, puts on a silly voice or has a sudden outburst of anger. Or farts.

You can follow Amy on Twitter and read her blog about her time in the BBC Writersroom.

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