Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #020 with Nadia Fenty.
Nadia is managing to successfully balance work and family whilst developing an exciting profile as a writer to watch. Her scripts have impressed judges across the world but instead of feeling the pressure, each new project is freeing and Nadia gives herself permission to fail. With a love for ‘choose your own adventure’ books, it’s clear that Nadia is really enjoying mapping out her own career.
When did you start writing?
I was an obsessive reader as a child and I wanted to emulate the escapism I found in storytelling. I wrote my first story around the age of eleven and gave up because all I cared for was the dialogue.
In 2017 I was in an ITV production meeting for my then day job and I was inspired by all the posters of the shows that I loved. I wrote a ten-minute short film called Just Like Mummy which I entered into the Black Screenplays Matter Screenwriting competition in LA. It’s about a mixed-race child desperately wanting to look like her white mother, with devastating consequences. I had zero expectations. It was my first completed screenplay and the first time I’d entered a competition. I was shocked and delighted when I won the grand prize.
Are you a full-time writer or do you balance with a day job?
It’s a balance of a nine to five-thirty office job and then writing by any hours necessary. I write for about four hours in the morning, up until the day job starts. The hardest part is being immersed in writing when it is going well and then having to stop for the day.
Writing and working a day job is challenging. I’ve been doing both for so long, it’s just who I am.
How has the pandemic impacted on your ability to network and how have you had to change the way you work?
I’ve adapted to virtual networking. Now is the time to get yourself out there because the industry is now more accessible and on a level playing field, in terms of location and travel.
Your script placed in the top 3% of the 3,590 submissions to the BBC Comedy Writersroom window last year. What was your submission and can you discuss your process writing it?
El is a family sitcom about a Moroccan old-school mechanic, his English wife and their two children. El’s a walking contradiction and playful with it. As the duel-heritage family embraces both cultures, it naturally brings about themes of identity and compromise.
I wrote the first draft pretty quick, no planning, I just wanted to get to the end and know if there was some kind of funny in there. I then kept rewriting pretty much up until the deadline. It was fantastic to be longlisted and receive a script report. I’ve since written quite a few drafts to get it where it needs to be in order to go out to producers with a strong pitch for the series.
Prior to that success, you also reached the top 14% for comedy in 2018 and top 15% for drama in 2019. You were a finalist for the Bristol Independent Film Festival, the Cannes Screenplay contest, and the New Renaissance London Film festival where your script also received an honourable mention AND (as mentioned above) won the Grand Prize in the Black Screenplays Matter Screenwriting contest in LA!
You’re clearly producing work which is consistently standing out and grabbing the attention of the industry. What advice do you have for writers who are preparing to submit to competitions?
Competitions are a great way to give weight to your CV when querying agents and producers and gain industry feedback for subsequent drafts. Seek competitions that are right for you and your script. Write what you are passionate about. Authenticity is what draws out reader emotion. Don’t shy from genres or mediums that you haven’t tried. You could miss windows of opportunity to get your work out there.
If you don’t place, that’s okay. Keep honing your craft and write through any rejection.
What is your process when you sit down to begin work on a new script? Does your previous success encourage or intimidate you when you’re starting over with a blank page?
A new project is freeing. I give myself permission to fail. Worst-case, my agent nor any other human will see it.
A great deal of thinking goes in before I begin to write. I write pages of dialogue to find character voices and some kind of planning document. If I hit a wall in a scene, I will write something like ‘XXX happens to X’ and move on. The most important thing is getting words down and getting to the end. Then I start from the beginning and rewrite.
Printing a script signifies draft one is complete. Printing is something to celebrate.
You fairly recently signed with an agent. What was the process like signing with them? What advice do you have for others who are currently searching for representation?
As soon as I finished my first feature I went out to agents and on reflection, this was too soon. I didn’t have samples in different genres to showcase my talent. I’d often be asked for a comedy sample after they had read my drama scripts and for a long time, I didn’t have a comedy script. Last summer an agent reached out to me and I was querying at the same time. I had two offers of representation and went with my agents, which happened pretty quick once they read both a comedy and drama sample of my writing.
I don’t recommend sending scripts in the first instance, it’ll just get deleted if unsolicited. Email with a short query letter and ask if they would be interested in reading a sample of your work. If they agree, it’s now solicited and also a mental YES in their mind.
Prior to turning to screenwriting, you were writing poetry and novels. How different is the experience now and are these still things which you’re pursuing?
Screenwriting is collaborative and a much quicker writing process. A feature screenplay is around 90 pages compared to a 90,000 word novel. I knew as soon as I started screenwriting that I’d found my lane. Having said that, novel writing gave me a strong basis for storytelling before moving into the visual medium of screenwriting.
I still write poetry for fun.
What’s your top tip for creating characters?
When creating characters for drama I write scenes of dialogue in a comedic tone. It’s purely an exercise to uncover their distinct voice that emerges through the comedy. Equally, if I am stuck on a drama scene I will flip it on its head in a comedic tone. Your protagonist could be in the worst possible situation, but they also laugh and experience joy. None of it makes it to script, but it stirs something in the character that I couldn’t find otherwise.
What advice do you have for coping with rejection as a writer?
The best advice I can give is NEVER GIVE UP. I expect to fail, in fact, at times I seek it. Screenwriting is rewriting and rejection. Celebrate the mini wins. Seek other like-minded creatives who can offer support. I am a firm believer that a no is a not now. Don’t give up. Don’t give up. Don’t give up.
Who are the writers that inspire you?
Agatha Christie for obvious reasons – queen of mystery. Russell Lewis and Jack Thorne for their distinctive dialogue and characters. Neil Simon for his comedy genius. Paulo Coelho’s books are beautiful. I have always loved reading Harlan Coben, especially with his Win and Myron stories, such strong character relationships.
Your bio mentions a love of ‘choose your own adventure books’. Is this a type of writing you’d like to explore for modern audiences, perhaps in a similar style to the work Netflix has done with a few productions?
Absolutely. I credit those books with my desire to write at such a young age. It was the first time I realised that the writer wasn’t God, not if I didn’t want them to be. My imagination would run wild with alternate endings and that has always fascinated me – the what if? The idea that the user is interacting and influencing the world is thrilling.
You’ve had success writing comedy and drama, do you have one which you favour?
I love writing both. Drama can be tough if you are writing upsetting content. I remember finishing Just Like Mummy in the coffee shop before work, all day I felt down and couldn’t shake it.
There’s been a lot of talk recently (well, for a few years now but even more so recently) about “comedy drama” and how to define it. What’s your view?
That’s something I kept asking myself when writing my office comedy drama. I think it’s like falling in love – when you know, you know.
I am aware that was a side step.
I saw a tweet from you recently about whether or not it was appropriate to use swear words in scene descriptions. Did you decide to go in that direction and what advice do you have on language in scene descriptions and action?
Yes, I went for it In the end. It added value in maintaining the tone of the script. Try different things. If it doesn’t work, you will pick up on it in later drafts or through notes.
Are there any books that you’d recommend to other writers?
I’m a massive fan of Stephen King’s memoir On Writing.
What projects are you currently working on?
A drama pilot and animation scripts.
I cannot believe I didn’t attempt animation before – so much fun. I am working on a couple of pre-school specs and I have a strong desire to write interactive content for children. Not sure there is any better feeling than writing on shows that reflect and represent the world of the children watching.
What are your current writing goals?
Working towards my first commission. My daily goal is to focus on what I can control which is showing up and writing. Showing up is sometimes the hardest part and yet it is the only thing fully in my control. I show up no matter what.
What’s the worst thing about being a writer?
Always thinking that you should be writing, even when in Tesco shopping. I suppose it’s like dieting and thinking obsessively about cake.
Is writers block ever an issue for you and if so, how do you deal with it?
Yes and I’ll write in another form. Walking is writing. Reading is writing. As my writer friend says, staring out the window is writing. This is where the 90s boyband moment comes in with the pitter-patter of rain as you stare into the abyss – yup, that’s writing too.
What makes you laugh more than anything?
I think it’s a mixture of the way people say things and what resonates – even if it’s a bit tragic. Turning tragedy into windows of comedy is pure genius if you get it right.
You can follow Nadia on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn. She is represented by WGM Atlantic.
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