#041 Lorna Woolfson

“Nothing career-wise happens for a looooooonnnnnnnggggg time and hanging on in there takes quite a lot of energy, effort and self-belief.”

Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #041 with Lorna Woolfson.

Lorna was working as a freelance Assistant Director until she had an idea for a sitcom that she couldn’t shake. Now she’s written for HIGNFY, been on the writing team for a web series with Turtle Canyon, and has had success with various competitions (including BBC Writersroom, Sitcom Mission, and the Funny Women Writing Competition). We had a great discussion about process, agents, collaboration, the importance of finding a community of writers, and her current projects, including a podcast about funerals!

When did you start writing?

I started writing in 2015. I had an idea for a sitcom that wouldn’t leave me alone and, I know it sounds silly but it had never even occurred to me that I could write before that.

Are you a full-time writer or do you balance with a day job?

I do balance writing with work but I don’t have regular hours for either so it’s cheating a bit.

What was your first credit as a writer and how did you land it?

My first credit as a writer was for Have I Got News For You.

I had won a HIGNFY competition at the Craft Of Comedy Conference and the prize was the opportunity to submit up to five photo-joke suggestions to the show each week. It was amazingly time consuming but when I eventually got a joke on and saw my name in the credits it was a great feeling!

You previously worked as a freelance assistant director with credits on some big shows, including Casualty, Saxondale, and Sooty. How has your production experience helped you as a writer?

I think it’s been both a huge advantage and a bit of a disadvantage.

Simply put, I know how it works. I know how a show goes from being words on a page to being a finished article on the screen so I’ve always got that process in the back of my mind when I’m writing.

But it would be great sometimes to just throw an idea onto the page without my AD voice telling me all of the reasons why it’s not practical and/or won’t work.

“I studied up on the rules of sitcom and got a group of friends together to write it with me.”

Your first sitcom script ‘Bumps’ was longlisted for the BBC Writersroom. What inspired you to write the script and what do you think made it stand out?

Bumps was inspired by my real experience of attending an antenatal class. The midwife who was running it did not want to be there. For her, we were just a room full of deluded hippies wanting water-births or thinking we would just breathe through the pain when she knew full well that most of us would be screaming for epidurals and calling our husbands c**ts whilst delivering our blood splattered offspring.

I found the contrast between her irritability and our innocence really funny. That, with the fact that I was in a room with people who I had nothing in common with apart from our bumps made me think there was a real opportunity for a sitcom.

I had never written anything before and didn’t have the confidence that I could do it alone. So I studied up on the rules of sitcom and got a group of friends together to write it with me and we came up with something really fun together.

I have submitted to the BBC Writersroom program subsequently with scripts that I feel are funnier and structurally way more established but that have not placed as highly. So it’s hard to know what made it stand out. Maybe it was the naivety of the writing that they liked?

You went on to have success with the Funny Women Writing Competition, The International Page Awards, Sitcom Mission and BAFTA Rocliffe.

There’s a lot of debate over the value of writing competitions these days. How important were these competitions to your career?

For me the competitions have been great not only for meeting other people in the industry but also for challenging myself to come up with new ideas and working towards deadlines. It’s all really good practice.

What questions should writers ask themselves before submitting to a competition?

I always like to just check that I’m submitting something that I would enjoy watching. It sounds obvious but I think it’s best if you write something that makes you laugh rather than thinking it might make someone else laugh.

In 2019, your script ‘Tudor Roses’ was selected to be performed by a cast including Robert Webb, Kerry Howard and Maggie Ollrenshaw. What was that like and how important is it for writers to hear their work out loud?

It was wonderful! The Female Pilot Club was set up to address the imbalance between the numbers of male and female comedy writers getting paid commissions. It’s run by Kay Stonham, Abigail Burdess and Emily Chase. They invite women to send in their uncommissioned comedy pilot scripts and then select their favourites to be read by some amazing talent in front of an invited industry audience.

I think of all of the initiatives I’ve taken part in, this was the one that opened the most doors.

When did you sign with your agent and how did it happen?

I met David Quantick on a comedy writing course. By this time I had written a few scripts on my own but wanted to learn more. David really liked one of my scripts and offered to show it to an agent friend of his. She invited me for a meeting and suggested that before signing with her, I should meet other agents as it’s a long term relationship and I shouldn’t just go with her because she’s the only one on offer.

At the time I was frustrated. She was great and I just wanted to be signed and get on with it but I’m actually really grateful that she stopped me from rushing into it. I sent my best script to looooaaaaddddssss of agents (just so that I could go back to the original one and tell her I’ve met them).

A couple replied that they loved my script and would be in touch soon (I never heard from them again). Another couple replied that it wasn’t for them (to be fair, I never heard from them again either). Eventually, I got a request for a meeting with Christina (my agent) and it just felt right straight away. She’s great!

“Most of the agents I approached didn’t respond. I think that’s fairly standard.”

What advice do you have for writers who are seeking representation?

I think having the recommendation from someone in the industry really helped to get my submission noticed.

If you know anyone with a name that carries weight, see if they would have a look at your script (maybe just 10 pages) and then, if they like it, see if they would mind you using their name to contact agents. Obviously, if they would mind, don’t do it! If you don’t know people in the industry, it might be worth finding out about some networking events.

The other thing is to write to lots and lots of people.

As I said, most of the agents I approached didn’t respond. I think that’s fairly standard. People are busy so spread the net wide.

In 2019 you joined the writing team for Turtle Canyon’s web series ‘Content’. How did you get involved in the project and what was the experience like?

BCG Pro had set up a competition where the winners were invited to be involved in the writers room for Content Content.

I submitted Tudor Roses and luckily they liked it and invited me along. I was nervous at first not knowing what to expect but I absolutely loved it. I mean what’s not to love about spending two days with some brilliant, funny people creating comedy together.

What was the biggest lesson you learnt from being on the team?

It was interesting to me that everyone was bringing something different to the table. I had imagined that everyone there would be an expert in writing sitcom but some of them were just expert in being really funny or dry or just had fantastic outside of the box ideas.

I learned that collaboration means bringing your strengths to the table and combining them with other people’s strengths to get a good result rather than feeling that you have to be strong in all areas to be worthy of being in the room.

It can be a bit jarring for writers’ when they go from hiding away working on their own specs to then collaborating with a team. What skills do writers need to have to be successful?

When it comes to collaborating, it’s about taking egos out of the equation. You have to be able to throw an idea into the mix and let it go if people don’t like it. You also need to recognise when someone else’s idea is just better than yours without having your pride mortally wounded.

And then on the other side, you need to not turn into a cocky arsehole if your idea is the best one (I’m working on that one).

What projects are you currently working on (that you can tell us about)?

I have currently got a very exciting project in development with Company Pictures; I’m also co-writing a new comedy drama which will be the second project I’ve written with the same writing partner (delighted that he’s still prepared to work with me!).

I’m also very excited about a new podcast I’ve been recording with my great friend, Dan. It’s called ‘It’s Your Funeral’ and each episode we chat to some well known people from the world of comedy about what their ideal ending would be.

We’ve had some great guests so far. It sounds morose but trust me, it’s a good laugh. We’re going to record a few more before we launch it properly so you can’t hear it yet but look out for it.

I’m also working on a new idea for a sitcom.

And I’m always working on the ongoing and exciting development of the two humans I co-created.

“I usually start a project with panic and self doubt that I’ll ever have a good idea.”

What’s your process when you begin a new project?

I usually start a project with panic and self doubt that I’ll ever have a good idea. Then, when I think I’ve got one, I get entirely carried away with it and panic that unless I write the whole pilot episode within days, someone else with have the same idea and they’ll be Sharon Horgan or Phoebe Waller-Bridge so mine won’t get a look-in.

Then, once I’ve stopped panicking about that, I start plotting chaotically; I have a page with the working title and “ideas” on it and I just write down anything that I can think of for it; characters, scenarios, possible bits of dialogue, relationships etc. I switch between typing and handwriting notes (not sure why).

I’m sure there is a more organised way of doing it but my brain seems to prefer chaos. Then, certain ideas seem to persist and come to the fore and I stick with them and try to build around them. I’m making it sound like there is any sort of consciousness about the process. It generally is just panic and self doubt until I’ve plotted it all out and get to the fun writing bit.

How much of an impact has the pandemic had on your work?

I hadn’t realised how much I depend on being amongst people to inspire ideas. Sometimes overhearing a simple name can switch something. I found being isolated really did make me a bit blank for a while.

Rejection is a big part of the experience of being a writer. What advice do you have for coping with the inevitable pushbacks?

It sounds silly but I see rejections as small wins, someone has bothered not only to read your work but also to think about it and respond to you! That’s a win.

Often rejections will come with an offer to read other things you’ve written (win!), Or an offer to discuss other ideas that you haven’t even written yet (huge win!). Other times a rejection will have feedback as to why it’s been rejected (another win) so I don’t always see a rejection as a negative.

The harder rejections are the ones where you get no response at all, or when someone has been very enthusiastic about you or your work and then you never hear from them again. I think it helps if you only put out work that you’re proud of so you can see the rejection of it as just someone else’s opinion rather than thinking that it must be rubbish.

Don’t get me wrong, I can also be found rocking in a corner with a big tub of custard crying that I’m wasting my life away from time to time but it’s all part of the fun!

“It’s lovely when people like your work and tell you that they like it or laugh in the right places.”

What has been the biggest achievement of your career so far? You wanting to know about me!

I guess it’s a big achievement that I’m still doing it (as in writing). I think a lot of people become disillusioned that nothing career-wise happens for a looooooonnnnnnnggggg time and hanging on in there takes quite a lot of energy, effort and self-belief. I’m still trying to knock the doors down and still starting and more importantly finishing projects. It’s also lovely when people like your work and tell you that they like it or laugh in the right places. I see that as a great achievement.

What are your current writing goals?

I’m excited to be working on a couple of writing projects I really believe in. I would love for something to come of at least one of these. I would also truly love for Tudor Roses to be commissioned one day as I really sort of fell in love with those characters and have got so much more I’d like to do with them.

Are you interested in combining your experience as an assistant director with your writing to direct a film or your own web series?

At the moment, I’m just about the writing. I still enjoy the idea of working in a creative team with other people. I would never say never though.

What was your favourite show as a kid?

As a kid I lived on a diet of Victoria Wood (As Seen On TV) and the sketch show, Absolutely. I loved these and the American sitcoms that were part of a family Friday night ritual; Cheers, Frasier and Friends. A single episode of any of these shows will still give me a warm happy feeling.

Are there any books or scripts that you would recommend to other writers? (can also be podcasts, youtube videos, blogs etc)

I’ve got a load of scriptwriting books, mainly comedy ones. They won’t thank me for saying this but they are all pretty similar. I would suggest checking the author’s credits before buying. There are a lot of people who write about the secret to success without having really experienced it for themselves. Their advice might be great but it raises somewhat of a red flag.

For anyone writing sitcom I would definitely listen to Sitcom Geeks.

Dave Cohen and James Cary really know what they’re talking about and give great tips as well as talking to some very interesting guests. I would also suggest reading scripts of shows you like. It can be helpful to see what they look like on the page.

What’s your number one tip for writing dialogue?

Listen. That’s it! I appreciate that’s a useless tip but I think if you’re struggling to come up with authentic characters and dialogue just listening to how real people talk can help. Try and notice affectations or idiosyncrasies in the way people communicate and then you can exaggerate those (If they’re not already obvious) in your characters.

(Caveat: As I mentioned before, watch about taking tips from people who haven’t already got a load of shows on telly! Namely me!)

In your opinion, what makes a good comedy sketch?

Some people are amazing at writing sketch comedy. I’m not great at it yet (working on it). I think I get too invested in the characters and want to see what happens to them rather than letting them only exist for two pages.

“It can feel like I’m refreshing my emails more frequently than I’m blinking!”

What’s the worst part of being a writer?

It’s pretty isolating. I’m really lucky that I have an amazing group of writer friends and we are constantly Whatsapping each other with our writery (and life) issues. We feedback on each other’s work and share in each other’s successes (and failures). Even with them, sometimes it can feel quite lonely, especially when the writing isn’t flowing.

But the worst part of being a writer has to be the endless waiting. I’m quite an impatient person anyway but sometimes, when I’m waiting for a response from a producer or a competition result or feedback or outcome of a meeting it can feel like I’m refreshing my emails more frequently than I’m blinking!

What makes you laugh more than anything?

This is a really great question! I don’t really know but I think it usually involves a derailment of expectation. And angry people (obvs.).

You can follow Lorna on Twitter. She is represented by Imagine Talent.

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