Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #036 with Oliver Selby.
Oliver went full time as a writer in 2019. When the pandemic hit, he pushed forward and took his career to the next level. Primarily writing for young audiences, Oliver also punches-up graphic novels and writes for a range of genres and formats, including corporate projects and theme park attractions. He’s currently busy developing original projects whilst gaining experience on other people’s series (including the international hit, Masha and the Bear), and he ALWAYS manages to clock off by 5pm to start cooking an elaborate meal.
When did you start writing?
As a kid I was completely obsessed with The Beano. I would spend every weekend going to car-boot-sales trying to get my hand on anything Beano I could. My collection has been in my mum’s attic for the past 10 years but last time I checked, I had over 2000 comics and every annual since 1957.
Anyway, inspired by The Beano I started writing and drawing comics in primary school which started a kind of comic book revolution in the class where loads of people started making their own comic books. This lasted for about two weeks before everyone gave up and I was the only sad sack left scribbling and writing comics for my audience of one (myself).
My comic was called Aah-choo! and to call it revolutionary would be selling it short.
Have you ever considered developing Aah-Choo! into a series? Images of a Zzzap! style sketch show come to mind.
I would love this! The only problem… I don’t remember any of it at all. I think there was a mad scientist? Maybe a funny policeman? It was lightning in a bottle stuff, that’s for sure.
You studied scriptwriting at university. What led you to this and how was the experience?
In school I loved drama, particularly when I was able to write and perform in my own pieces. I toyed with the idea of going to drama school but quickly realised I was in no way confident or good enough to do so.
The main reason I went to university was because everyone else I knew was going, and I didn’t want to be stuck in my little South West Wales village by myself… so Scriptwriting seemed like the obvious thing to study. At the time in Wales, there was a huge university discount, so I wouldn’t have been able to go without that help.
In terms of the course itself, Scriptwriting for Film & TV at Bournemouth University, it helped me learn a lot about story structure and how to write a series bible, but I definitely wouldn’t say having a degree in scriptwriting is essential to be a scriptwriter. I essentially got to write silly stories for 3 years whilst my friends were doing ‘proper degrees’.
What were the biggest lessons you learnt whilst studying scriptwriting? What were the things they didn’t teach you but you wish they did?
I would say one of the biggest things I learnt was that a good idea isn’t everything… it’s all in the execution! Also, as my scripts were being marked, I actually had to finish them, and I was more of a ‘THIS IS THE BEST IDEA ANYONE HAS EVER HAD!’, write half of it, then forget about it, kinda guy.
One thing I wish they taught us was the art of sending emails. For a long time, I would just send the most ridiculous ‘me meme’ emails, not trying to build any form of connection with the person I was trying to reach. I still cringe at some of these emails… but I think I’m getting better.
What was your first credit as a writer and how did you land it?
After finishing university, I worked in Bournemouth’s worst hotel for 6 months, before getting hired as the In-house Scriptwriter at LoveLove Films. There, I wrote a load of TV adverts, promo films, short films and led the development of four children’s IP’s, writing series bibles and scripts for each one, one of them Pop Paper City secured a distribution deal with Aardman whilst I was there and has now gone on to be commissioned by Milkshake!
In terms of actual production credits, this happened not too long ago at the start of the pandemic, I reached out to a Chinese company called FZ Entertainment on LinkedIn about writing for them and they asked if I could write an episode of their preschool series Conablue, which was in its 2nd season and airing on Tencent. Hopefully that episode will be out soon!
When did you sign with your agent and how did it happen?
At the start of 2020 I had been freelance for about 6 months and it really wasn’t going very well. I barely had any work, so I decided to write a new spec script. I sent this spec out to about 20 agencies whom I knew represented writers working in kids and animation.
Culverhouse Associates asked if I would meet with them, and I just so happened to be on holiday up in the North, so I met Diane whilst I was there and she really seemed like she had her writers’ best interests at heart, so I signed with them a month or so later.
Signing with an agency was a great feeling – it really helped simmer down my Imposter Syndrome for at least half an hour!
What is your relationship like with your agent?
Honestly, she is so helpful. I wouldn’t have a clue what I was doing in regard to contracts and things like that. Also, without an agent I wouldn’t really believe in my own worth and would probably still be writing scripts for way under the WGGB minimums, because I wouldn’t know any better.
She also has way more industry contacts than me who she can send my development projects out to… none of which have come to fruition yet, but they have helped me get work on other things which is good!
You went full time as a freelance writer in 2019 – how did you make the leap and how did you know it was time?
At this point I had been working for LoveLove Films for 2 and a half years and I was ready for something different. I wanted to write on other people’s shows which I couldn’t do whilst working full time as it could be a conflict of interest. I also wanted to leave Bournemouth and move up closer to London.
I definitely think I went freelance prematurely, as I spent the first 6 months without much work, but now the work’s coming and I’m super happy I made the leap!
What’s an average day like for you as a freelance writer?
The first thing I’ll do when I open my laptop is check Twitter for slightly too long. Then I’ll scroll on LinkedIn, also for slightly too long. I’ll check my emails and reply to anything pressing.
Whatever work I’ve got on that day I’ll try and get as much done as possible before lunch, as I find my productivity trails off more in the afternoon. I like to get things done and don’t really like mulling scripty things over for too long, as I often find my first idea is usually my best one. That is of course until I get feedback from a client asking for my second or third idea.
One thing I do pride myself on is my ability to shut off from work in the evening. At 5PM every day I will close my laptop and focus my mind on other things, like making an excessive dinner that takes hours to cook and seconds to eat.
How much of an impact has the pandemic had on your work?
As I mentioned, I didn’t have much work for the first 6 months of being freelance. Then, the pandemic hit, and suddenly I had more work than I’ve ever had before! Amongst other less exciting things, during the pandemic I have written an episode of Conablue, a 22” special for Masha and the Bear, development work for theme parks around the world and I’m currently writing 20 preschool episodes for a Beijing-based app company, as well as joining the writing team for a new show in production.
Masha and the Bear is a big show with a huge global audience. What was it like getting involved in the series?
I was really, really thrilled when I was asked to write a long-form special for Masha and the Bear. I felt like I’d made it! They knew they wanted an ecology-themed special so I sent them over a few ideas and they picked their favourite.
Writing it was a lot of fun but of course as a show with a huge global audience there were particular things I could and couldn’t do with the characters so I was just trying to stick to the tone they’d spent years developing, whilst also bringing some different elements to the show as I was taking them out of their usual forest setting.
It’s always such a great feeling when you see something you’ve written being brought to life, so I can’t wait to see the finished episode!
You’ve worked on some projects that may not usually occur to new writers as an opportunity. Tell us about your experience writing for theme parks and corporate videos.
With the theme parks, this came by complete chance. About a year ago I saw a post on LinkedIn from a company who specialised in developing themed attractions, and they were looking for a freelance scriptwriter to work with them on one project. I threw my hat in the ring, was selected, and have since worked with them on the development of about 12 projects. A lot of it is writing what the guest experience should be as well as developing narratives for specific rides. It’s a lot of fun!
The corporate video writing came about from working at a production company where I had to write loads and loads of them. I’ve written a few since going freelance but I don’t actively go looking for them.
I will say, I’ve learnt a lot of random stuff from writing corporate videos. Recently I wrote one about back surgery, so if anyone reading this has any questions about that just hit me up… I would probably recommend talking to a doctor first though.
You’ve also punched up work, such as a series of graphic novels. What is this process like?
With the punch ups it’s just about trying to squeeze humour out of anything you can. When I’m punching up, I don’t want to remove any of the writer’s story, or even add too much as their page count can be really strict. A lot of the time it’s just thinking ‘how can this bit of dialogue be funnier?’ and usually it’ll be heightened with a bit of word play or slapstick. I usually find there is more room for slapstick in any scene, even if it’s just in the background.
Have you ever considered writing a comic book or novel of your own?
I’d love to develop and write a graphic novel with an artist one day, so never say never! I have also written so many first chapters of different novels I think are going to be the next big hits, but I have always got bored with the idea after a few days. I’m incredibly impressed by (and jealous of) any writers who can sit down and write a whole novel.
I think for me one of the big things I take from your career is the range of projects you undertake. What advice do you have to support writers in identifying and pursuing new opportunities?
I pretty much take on any project that comes my way, but I think this is because I’m still fairly new to freelance life and I’m very aware the work could stop at any moment. I think it’s good to try a bit of everything to see what you enjoy and could see yourself doing full time. Even if a project comes your way that you’re not so passionate about, the people behind it could have another project down the line that you will be passionate about… so just go with the flow and see what happens.
Being a writer is so much more than being able to write a good script. We need to be strong communicators, persistent and have the ability to network and create opportunities. What advice do you have for people who may struggle in this area?
Sometimes you’ve just got to do things you don’t really want to do in order to build your confidence. If you don’t think you can network in person at a networking event or something similar, then utilise platforms like LinkedIn or Twitter to help you build connections (and confidence!).
I remember a few years ago I went to a networking event, and I found the whole thing so uncomfortable that I had a panic attack in the toilet and had to call a friend to pick me up. Now, though, my confidence in this area has grown and I’m pretty happy to go into a room full of people I’ve never met and talk anyone’s ear off.
You have a blog on your website… but not much content there yet. Is this something we can expect to see from you soon? Personally, I’ve found blogging a great way to boost my career. It doesn’t bring in much money, but it pays well in exposure, and you know how much us writers love exposure!
Yes, my new blog ‘The Comedy Winner presents… Writers in Various Stages of Production’ is out soon! No, I would love to start blogging, but I have no idea what to blog about!
What’s your number one tip for creating characters?
Trust your instincts! If you think a certain character or character traits would work well in your story, then put them in. The worst that could happen is you’re asked to change it. Thankfully, the ‘Find and Replace’ tool is your best friend. In a few short clicks you can change your character from a troll to prince charming, a flesh-eating monster to a goofy talking dog and so on and so on.
What’s your process for breaking a story?
When I’m breaking a story, I will usually map as much of it as I possibly can in my head. After this I will sit down and throw everything onto a page, taking structure into mind. If I don’t have a certain beat ready, I will just write something like “Beat 4: CHARACTER B does something silly that encourages CHARACTER A to change her mind”.
Next, I will fix any structural issues and flesh out the story beats until I have a rough structure that hits every beat, I need it to… before tidying it all up into a presentable outline.
Breaking a story is definitely my favourite part of the writing process. My least favourite part, however, is transforming my now-broken story into something legible…
You’ve been working on Handyman Stan and His Intergalactic Van, a non-dialogue comedy animation. I’ve recently been watching the Pixar shorts with my kids and was amazed at how engrossed they were on shorts such as Night and Day which have no dialogue. What’s it like writing without dialogue?
When I was writing my first non-dialogue script, I was shocked at how much story, emotion and humour I could get out of something without any words. On one hand it’s a completely different beast but on the other it’s exactly the same process as writing a normal script.
I’d recommend writing something without dialogue to every writer, as it really helps to ‘find the funny’ in places you wouldn’t even think would be better off with a visual gag.
Over the last year, the majority of my work has switched from sketch writing to animated series development. A big part of this work is the pitch bible/deck. In your mind, what are the ingredients for a strong pitch document?
All the usual suspects really! An overview of the show, character descriptions, a bit about the setting/world, episode springboards, curriculum (if relevant) and themes. Aside from these, I do think the most important thing is to make it fun!
The language in your pitch document should reflect the tone of the show instead of coming across as a boring, matter-of-fact presentation (unless you are creating a boring, matter-of-fact show, of course!)
What are your current writing goals?
At the moment I’m trying to get as much work on other people’s shows as possible! I’m also developing my own kids’ shows which I’d love to get made. I’m particularly excited about one show I’ve been developing which is a fun way to get kids physically active, although my younger non-physically active self who would forge a sick note every PE lesson would probably just call me a hypocrite for creating it!
If you could reboot any series or movie, what would it be and what would you change?
I love the core idea of Bernard’s Watch… a child who can stop time with a stopwatch is bloody great! However, If I recall, he never really used it for anything exciting, only for things like fetching items quickly or having a long lunch. I could envisage a wacky, fast-paced, animated adventure version of Bernard’s Watch where he stops time for much sillier, high-stakes reasons!
Are there any books or scripts that you would recommend to other writers? (can also be podcasts, youtube videos, blogs etc)
Apart from this blog!? *wink wink* I’m not really into screenwriting books as I find they can take the fun out of writing. One thing I would recommend is watching Curb Your Enthusiasm. The way that show intertwines wildly different stories then pays them all off together in incredible. Season 4 is a masterpiece!
What do you enjoy most about writing for kids?
Silliness isn’t just accepted, it’s encouraged! I never thought I’d end up writing for kids, but I really do love it. I’m a big kid who gets to sit at home writing silly stories all day!
What’s the worst part of being a writer?
It’s lonely… especially during a pandemic! I completely understand why people form writing partnerships. I think the dream situation would be to spend a couple days a week in a studio with a team working on show development, then spend a few days at home writing by yourself.
What makes you laugh more than anything?
When my stupid friends do stupid things. Simple as that!
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