Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #033 with Anna Costello.
County Durham-born writer Anna Costello is showing how it’s done. There aren’t many writers out that who can say their first credit was for a BAFTA-nominated immersive detective series! With a ‘why can’t I?’ attitude and the talent to back it up, Anna has signed an agent and is busy developing her original pilot with UKTV for the comedy channel Dave. Writing isn’t just something that ‘other people do’ and Anna is on a mission to prove it.
Once you’re done reading this one – go and email that producer, agent or production company you’ve been thinking of reaching out to. Who knows what’ll happen.
When did you start writing?
I wrote my first short film script in November 2018, aged 27, then I wrote few and far between really until last year, really!
I didn’t think there was much point in trying to write for the fear of not being very good, and because I never thought it would get anywhere! Whilst still teaching, I started an improv course, and it was the first time I’d really met people who were comedians, writers, actors, but it still took a while before I had a go myself.
The day before I wrote my first script, I was travelling back from a short film festival with my wonderful then-boyfriend, and said off-handedly that I’d love to try writing something someday. He said ‘Well do it’. Those three words were enough to go ‘You know what? Sod it! I will!’.
What was your first credit as a writer and how did you land it?
My first credit was as an additional writer on series one of Dead Man’s Phone, a BAFTA nominated immersive mobile-phone detective series you play on your phone (which is available to download for free on Android and IOS! 😉 ).
In February 2020, I saw the company behind it, Electric Noir, on a Film London email, and thought I’d send a cheeky email saying how much I loved the concept of their series, with some examples of my writing. I asked if it was possible to do some work experience with them. We had a Zoom call, and they said they weren’t looking for anyone right now, but would be in touch. I thought I’d never hear from them again.
In May 2020, they gave me a short writing task to try, and then offered me a full time job! They’re honestly the loveliest company in the world, and I’m so happy I sent that email!
I’m currently writing a season set in a female prison, which has been such a brilliant experience!
We use Unity and various tech programmes that I don’t really understand to write them (the dev team are amazing and help a lot!). It’s honestly not too different to writing a TV script – you just get to play around with alternative routes which is really fun!
When did you sign with your agent and how did it happen?
I’d sent some emails to agents before but got no responses. Then, at the start of this year, I got nominated for the All3Media New Comedy Script Award, so I started emailing people with the subject line ‘All3Media New Comedy Script Award Nominee – Anna Costello’, and I started getting responses!
I met my now agent over Zoom, and we immediately clicked. She was so lovely, and really ‘got’ me as a writer, so I knew she was the agent I wanted to sign with!
What’s your relationship like with your agent?
It’s brilliant! She is so helpful, and I know I can contact her with anything, big or small, and she is always really responsive and so happy to help. She’s arranged generals with companies I could only dream of talking to before.
You’re currently a full time writer. What was your previous career and how did you balance with your writing?
I’m really lucky that I’m writing full time with Electric Noir, though I’ve recently gone down to 4 days a week so that I can focus on my own stuff more!
Until now, I’ve been writing my own scripts on evenings and weekends. I’ve been a secondary school teacher most of my adult life, and I’m not sure how I’d have found time to write (massive respect for teachers who are writers too!). The year before I started working for Electric Noir, I was working as an Education Officer (a 9 til 5 job), and again worked on my own stuff on evenings and weekends. It was tiring, but doable.
What scriptwriting software do you use and how important is it for new writers to equip themselves with these tools early on?
In the past year I’ve started using Highland 2 which is great, but before that I just used Raw Scripts which is a free to use online screenwriting software.
For me, it didn’t feel like it was too important to buy something expensive early on, as long as I had something that meant scripts were formatted correctly.
Your comedy pilot, Dead Canny is being developed by UKTV for Dave after earning a spot as a finalist in this year’s Triforce Writerslam. There was a HUGE amount of competition for this (close to 1600 entries). What can you tell us about your script and the story behind writing it?
I wanted to write something that was set in my hometown in Co. Durham, which was goofy, fun, but still had a lot of heart.
As a writer from a working-class background in the North East, I wanted to write something that dealt with issues that are experienced in the area but without it being too ‘on the nose’.
What other projects are you currently developing?
I have another pilot about an anxious mess of a working-class female teacher (again, write about what you know…). I’ve got another couple of ideas in the pipeline, but they’re still very much in the early stages!
You’ve been nominated for the All3Media New Comedy Script Award as part of the Edinburgh TV Fest New Voices. Congratulations! That’s an amazing achievement.
The industry seems to be moving in the right direction to open things up but there’s still a long way to go to get some balance. What has your experience been like as a female writer from a working class background?
Thank you so much! You’re totally right, there IS a long way to go, and the more people from underrepresented backgrounds getting their voices out there, the better!
For me, I think a huge barrier is that belief that writing is something that ‘other people do’, and realising that you deserve to be a writer and deserve to be heard.
My confidence for reaching out and contacting people (such as producers – something I did a lot before I got my agent and still do now!) has grown massively in the last year, and now I just go ‘f*ck it – if other people are doing it, why can’t I!?’
What does it take to write a script that stands out?
I think writing from a place of truth and the world that you know helps a lot. A producer once said to me it’s finding the story that ‘only you can tell’, and I think that’s massively true.
You’ve completed an NFTS part time evening course on ‘Screenwriting: Finding Your Voice’. What was the biggest lesson you learnt from the course and would you recommend it to other writers?
The course was brilliant. The biggest things I learnt from it was something has to actually happen in terms of plot (sounds obvious, but before this a lot of my writing was just characters bumbling along!), and that your opening couple of pages really need to show your voice and style and ‘grab people’s attention’ (I hate that expression, but it’s kinda true! I’d just caveat that with making sure it’s true to the story, and not there for the sake of it).
The thing that I appreciated most with the course was how empowered it made me feel. The language used by our wonderful tutor was very much ‘WHEN you’re a professional writer’, ‘WHEN you’re in the industry’, and it really helped it feel like it was a tangible possibility!
It’s expensive (I basically spent my life savings from teaching on it – who needs a mortgage/security anyway!?), but if you can afford it, it’s worth it!
What advice do you have for coping with rejection as a writer?
Oh god, I’ve had SO many rejections! The first few (probably more…) I cried, and thought ‘that’s it! I’m clearly a terrible writer!’, but nowadays I just see it as part of the process. It’s so important to remember that just because one person doesn’t like it doesn’t mean others won’t!
With the big competitions (I’ve never placed with BBC Writersroom or BAFTA Rocliffe, even with the same script that got me the All3Media Award Nomination and the UKTV gig!), I remind myself that no matter how good a script is, there’s still an element of luck to it – a reader on the day might just not ‘get’ your voice, or it might not be what they’re looking for.
When I’ve had rejections from production companies, more often than not the ‘rejection’ comes in the form of no response at all. However, there have also been times that they’ve said ‘this script isn’t right for our slate, but do keep in touch with new ideas!’ Don’t get me wrong, I had a rejection the other day and it still stung, but it’s a lot easier to get over now!
Is writers block ever an issue for you and if so, how do you deal with it?
Ohhhh yes. My writer’s block tends to come when trying to think of new ideas. I can go ages without thinking of something new, and when I can’t, I try not to stress about it.
I’ll write down notes, or go on a ‘random word generator’ online and see if I can get any ‘inspiration’, but I try not to dwell on it, because something will come (eventually).
When I get writer’s block on a script I’m working on, it depends on my mood – sometimes I’ll push through and think ‘get something down and you can edit it later’ (I often write ‘INSERT SOMETHING FUNNY HERE’), or I just go onto something else as a break, OR I just leave it and come back to it another day. Sometimes all you need to get over writer’s block is to give yourself space from it.
What’s your number one tip for writing dialogue?
When writing dialogue, write how people actually talk. It sounds obvious, but you can hear it in a script when the dialogue sounds jarring or not ‘real’. I will always write little idiosyncrasies in speech, like ‘like, I mean, you know’, and then may have to be edited/cut down later, but it helps to make it sound like a real person speaking.
What are the goals for your writing career?
I want to keep working with Electric Noir as long they’ll have me, and I’d love to get something on TV that really highlights issues that haven’t been shown in a comedic way before.
A BAFTA would also be nice.
How has the pandemic impacted on your ability to network and how have you had to change the way you work?
Pretty much all my experience networking has been throughout the pandemic, so I don’t really have much to compare it to! But people have been happy to jump on zoom calls, and I’m a big fan of emailing people and asking if they’d be happy to chat over a virtual coffee!
If you could reboot any series or movie, what would it be and what would you change? If you’re 100% against the idea of reboots, what are the shows/movies that inspire you?
I’m not against reboots, but I’ve honestly no idea, because anything I’d like to do I think I love too much to mess with!
Shows which inspire me are those that are funny but with a lot of heart – ‘The Royle Family’, ‘My Mad Fat Diary’, ‘Bojack Horseman’, and of course ‘Fleabag’ are just frustratingly perfect.
Are there any books or scripts that you would recommend to other writers? (can also be podcasts, youtube videos, blogs etc)
James Cary does some excellent webinars (his one on how to structure a sitcom is brilliant!), and BBC Writersroom has so many incredible scripts to choose from!
If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to yourself at the start of your career?
Stop doubting yourself (I still have to try and tell myself this a lot!)
What’s the worst part of being a writer?
The constant feeling of imposter syndrome. Even writing these answers I’m like ‘who the hell am I to be answering these questions!?’. Also waiting for responses from people/producers. I’m constantly checking and refreshing my emails.
What makes you laugh more than anything?
My best friend, Bethan. We’ve been friends since we were 12, and she’s bloody hilarious.
You can follow Anna on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn. She’s represented by Berlin Associates.
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