Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #027 with Kate Scott.
Kate is BUSY. She’s a scriptwriter, playwright, poet and award-winning children’s author, with experience in script editing, series/feature development, and script reading. She’s hugely supportive of other writers and has a genuine love for her craft, running various workshops and co-founding Book Pen Pals.
When did you start writing?
For various reasons, reading was a lifeline to me as a child. In Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm she talks about being such an avaricious reader that she remained rooted to the spot for days at a time. That rang a whole symphony of chords with me. So the moment I discovered writing was something you could do as a job, child-me thrilled at the thought. (Adult-me is still pretty thrilled too.)
There was never really another serious contender for my career ambitions. (Also, writing is the cheapest possible therapy available.)
What was your first credit as a writer?
Technically, my first credit was when I was seven years old. My grandmother, who was not a very religious woman, sent off two of my poems to the Christian Science Monitor which then published them. It was either an extremely slow news day or they were doing the Christian thing. So as first credits go that was … unusual. My second credit was also a poem, but this time in a literary magazine with no religious affiliations. I can still remember spending minutes
hours staring at the poem on the page. Between the two instances there were many, many rejections. A pattern which persists to this day.
As well as your writing for the screen, you’re also a published author. Which came first?
My first book was a poetry collection but alongside poetry I’d written radio and theatre plays and these landed me a chance to pitch for a children’s pre-school show. For my first pitch, I took inspiration from a classic children’s book from my own childhood (following the advice to
steal be inspired from the best) and that got me the precious first commission.
I got on well with the script editor for the show so one commission became ten and gave me something to build on. A little later I was also given the opportunity to pitch for a children’s educational fiction book which became my first children’s book credit. That was followed a few years later by my children’s middle-grade novel (after many, many rejections).
You have two agents. At what point did you sign with them and what advice do you have for people who are currently seeking representation?
I made a lot of mistakes when I began submitting (including not having finished the book I was sending the opening chapters of. Yes, I was that stupid.) So the main thing is the obvious thing – ensure your (completed) scripts and books have been worked on and polished until you’ve worn your fingers to their stubbled nubs.
My book agent rejected me the first time she read my book but offered representation for the same manuscript a year or so later after I’d revised it with the help of a literary consultancy (Cornerstones). Luckily my agent had no memory at all of the first submission. If she had, she might not have agreed to read it again.
The story of getting my scriptwriting agent is more convoluted but I found that with scriptwriting it was really important to demonstrate that I had a good list of credits and had already made contacts within the industry. (With scriptwriting, I know it can feel as if you have to not need an agent in order to get one…but then it’s an insanely competitive industry so perhaps agents are looking to see you’re a self-starter.)
While I’d recommend getting an agent if you possibly can, it’s important to remember that you can thrive without representation – I know several writers who have carved out phenomenal careers without an agent in both the book and television industries.
Readers of your blog will know this already but again, to repeat the obvious, get your work seen or read in any way you can. Write short scripts and submit them to Fringe events that showcase ten-minute plays. Or organise your own rehearsed reading of a full-length play. I did this early on (using actors from drama schools looking to show off their skills) and it was events like this which led to me being given a chance to pitch for television.
Submit to literary magazines. Take part in open-mic events. Enter competitions (my children’s book career owes a lot to the kick start it got by winning a place in the Undiscovered Voices competition run by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). Team up with creatives in related industries to make your own short film. Sign up to e-newsletters advertising opportunities in your chosen genre. For all that the arts are chronically underfunded, there are still hundreds of submission opportunities and being aware of them will give you deadlines to work to.
A few examples of organisations/people to follow/sign up to: David Lane provides a regular list of playwriting opportunities – it’s not free but I think it’s worth every penny: http://www.davidjohnlane.com/subscribe/
If you’re based in London, the Director’s Cut brings together playwrights, directors and actors to make new work and put it on in fringe theatres – an excellent way to make connections: https://directorscuttheatre.co.uk/
These are just a few examples but there are so many more – and many provide emailed newsletters of various writing opportunities at no cost. Examples include New Writing South; Writers & Artists; Script Lab; The National Association of Writers in Education.
Are you a full-time writer or do you balance with other work?
I’m a full-time writer – something that happened when my kids were small. I was juggling academic editing and proofreading (my previous line of work) with a little bit of fiction writing and scriptwriting, when I landed a lot of work writing for the pre-school show Chuggington. This not only knocked out the editing and proofreading but also nearly knocked me out at the same time. (If you want to write for children’s television, don’t be fooled into thinking the deadlines are any less crazy than for adult television.)
From that point on, the number of writing commissions I had meant that I could drop book editing and proofreading completely. Although it took me longer to get up and running as a full-time writer because I didn’t focus on one particular genre, in the long run this has actually worked to my benefit. In periods when scriptwriting or script editing has been slow, I have managed to get more book commissions, and vice versa. I’ve essentially managed to make my scattergun approach to writing look like a sensible career plan. Entirely by accident.
You’re also a parent, which is a lot to manage in itself. How do you balance parenthood with writing and how interested are your children in your work? Are you the kind of Mum who will do talks at their school?
My husband and I have worked from home since our first child was a baby, so it’s always been just about possible to balance work and parenthood without too much hair pulling (ours or theirs). We do work extremely odd hours though. My kids have always been sweet and supportive about my work.
And yes, I have done more than one talk at their school and they’ve never owned up to any feelings of embarrassment. (I commend them both on spectacular self-control.)
Does your writing process change based on which medium you’re writing for? When you have an idea for an original project, how do you know if it’s a book or a script?
My writing process doesn’t change as much as you might think (with the exception of poetry, which I approach in a completely different way). I make a lot of notes, I write a lot of outlines (and then change or ignore them). I stare at the screen and hate-write my way through a first draft. I delete the majority of what I’ve written and then replace it with something equally bad. I delete more and add more and eventually end up with something approaching a ‘thing’. If someone else likes it, it will be promoted from ‘thing’ to ‘script’ or ‘book’.
I usually have an idea of which medium the idea is best suited for but it’s not unheard of for me to re-pitch a script idea as a book idea (or vice versa). I’m a believer in recycling. (It could also be sheer laziness.)
Your radio play, Voice, attracted a lot of praise and earned a spot on various short and long lists (including the Nick Darke Award and the BBC Writersroom). Lots of new writers get their start in radio because there are various opportunities available which you won’t find in television.
What tips do you have for writing an audio piece?
I’ve written three radio plays that have all done fairly well in various lists but I’m not sure that makes me qualified to offer tips since none of them have actually been produced! But years ago, I had a couple of short stories produced for radio and I think the same principles apply to both fiction and playwriting for radio.
The most common advice is true – you need to think about soundscapes and make sure you’re creating the tone that informs that soundscape as you write. You don’t have to write lengthy description but sketch in the atmosphere, the feel, the sound style throughout. Be as playful and inventive as you can – you can afford to be. With no visuals to consider, your budget is limitless. Want a cast of thousands? You can have it – sound can fill a listener’s mind with crowds, or lunar landscapes, or vast deserts.
I think whether you get your plays or stories on air or not, learning how to write for radio is a challenge that will strengthen and add layers to all your writing projects because it forces you to think about the other senses that can be stimulated. And while my radio plays have never been on radio, they’ve worked really hard for me – they were the main reason I was offered scriptwriting representation and also gave me my first chance to pitch for television. Everything you write can work for you – even if it’s in not the way you imagined.
A lot of writers are able to gather a few credits but then struggle to move to than next level. What advice do you have for building a career?
Neil Gaiman gave an address to some students some years ago and told them that the recipe for a successful career as a freelance writer was to ‘be good, be on time, and be nice’. He then apparently paused and said that actually, you could just be any two of those three and you would probably still be employed. (By this logic, if you’re good and on time, you can get away with being a complete arse.) I’d say you should aim for all three but in my experience, if you can learn to write fast, it really helps. In television particularly, everyone is running behind, so a speedy writer is a gift to a beleaguered script editor or producer. That said, you have to make sure you know what you’re doing before you speed it up because if what you deliver is complete pants, no one is going to ask you back.
Other than that, I’d say keep saying yes to an array of projects so that you develop a strong skill set in more than one area. Poetry can help you strengthen the capacity for image-building; plays and scripts will develop your aptitude for dialogue; fiction gives you the ability to build worlds and an understanding of narrative pace; and non-fiction helps you hone your research skills. You don’t have to write in more than one genre but even within your chosen one there are ways to keep pushing past your comfort zone and to learn how to do new things.
Also, develop a way to cope with rejection that doesn’t rely heavily on substances that damage your liver.
You’ve previously run training programmes to support the development of new writers. How did you get started doing this?
I have run creative-writing workshops in schools as a children’s author for several years. Meeting other children’s authors, I thought many of them would make natural scriptwriters. But there seemed to be very little out there about specifically writing for children’s television so I thought I would put together a workshop to address the gap.
I’ve done it a few times and will definitely do it again when I can (post-Covid restrictions). I’ve also run a workshop about writing in different genres as a way to make a living as a writer and would like to do it again but this time over a few days to really explore each medium. The next year looks as if it might be quite full with writing and script editing. If that changes, you’ll see posts from me announcing new workshops!
Through this and your work as a script reader for animated feature films, you must have seen a LOT of scripts by new writers. What common mistakes do you see?
I read sample scripts for pre-school shows as often as animated films so will refer to those here as it might be more useful to writers wanting to break into children’s television.
I find that often a lovely idea for a character or premise has been rushed with the result that the show’s world and its characters aren’t sparking to life in the way that they could. It might be that not enough time has been given to what makes the main characters stand out from each other – their dialogue style, their habits and physical tics, their likes and dislikes.
Sometimes writers (especially those coming from a fiction-writing background) forget that television eats story – and then has seconds and thirds. An idea which might work beautifully in picture-book format is often too thin for an episode of a pre-school show. I’ve seen scripts for a proposed seven- or eleven-minute pilot that I estimate wouldn’t stretch to four if taken to storyboard.
It’s not that the script has to be full of high-octane action, but it does have to be full of content, whether that’s through an emotional or physical journey (ideally both). Pre-school stories can (and often do) feature B-stories, foreshadowing, sophisticated and surprising resolutions. Writing for younger viewers does not mean over-simplifying things.
When people are learning to be a screenwriter, it’s very much focussed on the craft of a script. But what I’m finding more and more is that the jobs I’m getting are for series development.
What’s involved in the develop process and what makes a good pitch bible?
Since a pitch bible’s main purpose is to sell the show to investors and broadcasters, the emphasis is obviously going to be on promoting the freshness of the premise and the show’s unique properties (and any qualities which might translate well to other territories and opportunities for merchandise). But a pitch bible still has to weave in elements from the mainstays of a writers’ bible and indicate the tone of the show, illustrate its world, and make its characters spring off the page.
When writing the world and character descriptions, it’s vital to weed out tired and over-used adjectives and phrases to avoid the series sounding like every other show out there. (This will probably sound obvious but it’s an amazingly easy thing to do.)
The length and format of the document you’re asked to create can vary enormously from one company to another. So in the early meetings, when the production team is telling you about the project, it’s important to listen more than talk until you have a good grasp of what they have in mind, asking as many questions as you can. This will help make sure that when you start to write, you have their vision clear in your mind. I once got over-excited and lost out on a project because I jumped to deliver what I envisaged rather than making sure I understood what they envisaged.
You also need to be ready to change direction as you go along. You might deliver exactly what they asked for only for them to realise that what they actually want is quite different. Be ready to go back to the blank page and don’t take it personally. It’s called development for a reason. More than anything, reading a pitch bible should make you excited about seeing the show it’s describing and prompt you to imagine the stories it could explore.
What common misconceptions do people have about writing for children?
That it’s easier than writing for adults – I think the opposite is true.
In my experience, kids are much harsher judges of creative content than any other audience. An adult might give a book, film or show time for it to warm up and ‘get going’ but a kid will pay you no such indulgence. You bore them, they’re out of there. They’ve got so many exciting places to be and things to do, why would they hang around unless something compels them to stay?
Another common misconception is that the easiest forms of children’s writing are the pre-school script and the picture-book. I think it’s far less of a challenge to write a decent full-length children’s novel than a high quality and memorable picture-book text. Like poetry, a picture-book text is image, story and emotion distilled to its purest form. That’s hard. I also think that writing an undeniably excellent pre-school script requires a host of skills that can take years to master. I’m certainly not there yet.
You’re the co-founder of the Book Pen Pals programme. Can you explain a bit about what this is and how people can learn more?
Book Pen Pals pair up a class at a school with a children’s book author or illustrator. Their author or illustrator pen pal then sends book recommendations (and writing and drawing tips) in postcards over the course of a school year. It’s a low-cost (in both money and time) way to create relationships between book creators and their reading audience. It can be really uplifting to see the results.
Networking is a big part of being a writer. What advice do you have for people who may find this difficult?
I’m going to go against the standard advice which is to tell people who find networking difficult that they need to practise until they can do it and do it well. I don’t agree. I think that if you’re not comfortable promoting yourself on social media, or networking in person, limit yourself to what you have to do (you’ll never escape it completely) and concentrate instead on producing work that knocks people out.
You can be on social media to search out the various opportunities that are out there without necessarily taking part in it. If you are talented at using Twitter and Instagram (or whatever your SM platform of choice is) and you’re comfortable sharing details about your life in an entertaining or engaging way then that’s great. But I don’t think you should feel pushed to do these things if they don’t come naturally and think it can end up doing more harm than good if you do. And if you’re spending more time chatting online rather than writing offline, you’ve got things the wrong way around. While networking might get you some extra opportunities to pitch or have work read, networking won’t get you produced or published – the work will.
There are ways of networking that are more gentle and painless too – leave reviews of shows and books you have genuinely enjoyed. Be honest about any positive impressions you’ve had about other writers’ work and share them. Celebrate the successes of the creators you really admire. They will remember it. And providing you don’t leave a good review and immediately ask for a reading favour, you might be surprised at how much goodwill you will create for your future.
I go back to the Neil Gaiman advice – be nice to work with, produce the best work you can, and send it in on time (or if you can, early). My work opportunities have arisen more from trying to follow those principles than from any of the times I have been in a crowded room, drinking bad wine, trying and failing to think of something funny and original to say about the latest must-see Netflix show.
I also think it’s vital to treat every writer (and every person) you meet with exactly the same level of respect. The production assistant at today’s writers’ meeting could be your executive- producer boss in five years. The aspiring- or mid-list novelist or scriptwriter who’s had only limited success could be working on something that wins the next Booker, Carnegie, Golden Globe or BAFTA. Equally, the Oscar-winner or NYT bestseller of today may be forgotten within a decade.
Stay humble. As writers, our time can come – or go – at any point. So in your dealings with others, treat everyone with the same courtesy. Some writers knock it out of the park at their first attempt, others don’t create a masterwork until their late middle age. Don’t assume you know the limits of anyone’s abilities – including your own.
Above all, make sure you enjoy the writing itself – sometimes that’s all we have.
If you could travel back in time to the moment when you first started writing, what advice would you give yourself?
FINISH IT, you lazy git. Also, if someone asks to see more, then send them more. They’re not just being nice.
(There’s a lot more available in this vein. My past self desperately needed a kick up the backside.)
What are you working on at the moment?
In commissioned work, a pitch bible and pilot script, along with scripts for another production company. In the near future, if it’s green lit, I will be the script editor (and hopefully also on the writing team) for a new show on a major streaming platform (fingers crossed for the colour green…).
A few of my own pitches are going out at the moment and two other scriptwriting gigs are in the wings. In terms of personal projects, I’m working on some new children’s books, a poetry collection and a spec script (not for kids).
What are your current goals?
The same as they have always been – to become a better writer and to make a living from putting words on the page (without fame please).
What’s the worst part of being a writer?
The persecuting perdition of self-doubt and its accompanying conviction that every single other writer, living or dead, is infinitely more talented than you are. Or is that just me?
Also, waiting to be paid can be irritating.
What makes you laugh more than anything?
A lot of things make me laugh – but some favourites that spring to mind: the silent films of Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy; the films Some like it Hot, Bringing up Baby, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Mrs Doubtfire; the radio series Cabin Pressure by John Finnemore; any scene featuring Niles Crane (David Hyde Pierce) in Frasier; the film-satire episodes of Community; Joshua Malina on the West Wing Weekly podcast; Would I Lie To You (Bob Mortimer in particular is a reliable joy). Writers Nora Ephron (her essays as well as her rom-com masterpiece When Harry Met Sally) and David Sedaris (particularly Calypso and Me Talk Pretty One Day).
There are a number of people on Twitter who are inventively and consistently funny (Tom Cox’s tweets about his dad are brilliant – and there are many, many more) but I miss a lot as I’m not on social media very often anymore.
My son can deliver some fantastic one-liners and my husband and daughter have their own ‘show’ every evening while we’re eating. When they’re on award-winning form, I am dangerously close to needing the Heimlich manoeuvre.
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