Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #052 with Mina Barber.
With a background as a writer/director in the theatre, Mina is now building a career as a television writer. She was selected as one of the BBC’s London Voices, the BBC Drama Room, and has credits for some BIG children’s and family shows. After a wake-up call during the pandemic, Mina pushed ahead and is on her way to achieving her dream of being a show runner.
What was your first credit as a writer?
My very first credit was probably for a monologue scratch night for a theatre – I think it’s the way that a lot of writers find their way into theatre.
What attracted you to working in theatre?
I knew I wanted to work in the creative industries and at the time as a writer, theatre was the most accessible. I didn’t even dream about writing for TV because I couldn’t see a way in.
You’re also a director. How did you get started in directing?
I found my way into directing through the Young Vic theatre and started off as an Assistant Director working with the Director Ola Ince on Danai Gurira’s ‘The Convert’. The Young Vic is a great supporter of new directors, especially Sue Emmas the Associate Artistic Director who heads the Creators Programme previously known as the Directors Programme.
Are you a full-time writer/director or do you balance with a day job?
I wish I could be full time, but at the moment I still work part time and to be completely honest it’s absolutely mad juggling, but it has to be done and within that I try to find moments of rest however small. I’ve realised that there’s a small, sweet spot between the time when you send a draft back and wait for notes. Although this can get crazy when you have a few projects on the go.
Am I correct in thinking that you originally trained as an actor? Is this something that you still pursue?
I did originally train as an actor and it was tough just getting into drama school, I got a place but then realised I couldn’t afford to go and my drama school held my place for year whilst I tried to find the money and I worked every job I possibly could that year from factory work, to supermarket work, and hospitality, but I still didn’t have the money but in twist of fate I managed to get a scholarship to go to drama school.
Looking back I was just trying to find my way into the industry at my secondary school drama felt like it was just all about acting rather than all the other brilliant jobs that you can do and it wasn’t until I moved onto writing and directing much later that I realised that that was what I really wanted to do.
Do you find that having experience as a director and a performer helps to influence your work as a writer?
I don’t regret taking the long road to writing through being a performer because it absolutely has influenced my writing for the positive, because of the acting I don’t struggle to create characters and I don’t struggle with dialogue. My directing also influences all of that because when I write a piece it literally plays like a movie in my head.
Coming from a theatre background, how are you finding the transition to TV?
It’s been pretty smooth, famous last words…no really, I really like the way that when you write in TV there’s much more of a structure to creating a piece. In TV you really are creating a piece together with your Script Editor, Development Producer, Exec’s, etc – you’re working with a community of people. I know that the thought of that probably horrifies some writers but it works for me.
You were a part of the BBC London Voices group. What was the process like to be selected and what did you learn from your time in the group?
I got taken onto London Voices after submitting to Writersroom for a number of years for the Open Call and at that point I had finally made it to the interview stage but then didn’t get onto Writersroom which was gutting at the time. However, even though I didn’t make it into Writersroom then, they where really good at providing me with other support like taking me onto BBC London Voices.
The main thing about London Voices was getting the support of a script editor for a year to write a spec script and also just meeting other writers.
You were then selected out of 3,800 writers to be a member of the BBC Drama Room. What was the script that you submitted and why do you think it stood out?
I have no clue what stood out about the script itself but what I can say is that that year I wrote what I wanted to write not what thought was expected. My Mum was already seriously ill and then died from Covid that year and I got a real wake-up call and I just thought let me write something that is truly me. I think for anyone submitting to any schemes I would say keep learning and work on your craft but most importantly write from your truth.
You’ve written for The Beaker Girls. My daughter is currently going through a BIG Jaqueline Wilson phase. How did you get involved in the show and what was the experience like writing for a series with such a dedicated fanbase?
I was lucky enough to get accepted on the CBBC New Voices Scheme and part of the commitment of that scheme was to get the writers real experience and I can’t tell how grateful I’ve been for that scheme. Writing for ‘The Beaker Girls’ yes there’s always that pressure of coming onto something that’s already established, and I would say do your homework and watch as much as you can and then put that worry to one side and just get on with your job.
Like I said when you’re writing in TV, you’re surrounded by people who are trying to help you write the best script and with an established show they can help you to get the voices right.
You’ve also written for JoJo and Gran Gran, which is a top tier CBeebies show. What was the process like writing for an animated series?
I was surprised to find that the process for writing JoJo and Gran Gran was like any other process for writing TV, it was similar in the structured approach to creating the episodes. It was fun for sure but it’s also rigorous.
Did you find it challenging writing for a preschool audience? Did you pull from your own childhood experiences?
I honestly did not think I could write for children let alone a preschool audience, I grew up in a big working class family so we grew up fast, but I also love a challenge and I just pushed myself to engage with the kid part of me and I just found that I’ve loved getting my head into that space, it is so much fun to see the world from a kids eyes.
You’ve written for BBC’s long-running daytime drama, Doctors. Did you come through the shadow scheme? What was it like?
No I didn’t come through the shadow scheme, one of the script editors knew me from years ago when she was a Development Producer at Writersroom and actually interviewed me the year that I didn’t get onto the scheme, but stayed in touch. I’ve realised that building good relationships are so important in the creative industries, you never know when you will cross paths with someone again.
In 2021, you joined the writing team for a series of audio dramas with Documental Theatre. What tips do you have for writing for audio projects?
I’m not sure that I’m the greatest person to give tips for this as it was my first official audio drama, but what I did do was listen to a lot of audio dramas, and when I was writing the piece rather than thinking of it as a movie in my head like I would normally do, I imagined that I was just listening to it. It really helped me to really think about how the sound is actually another character in the piece and it made me think not just about the written story but the sound story for the piece.
What are your current goals as a writer?
My goals… Big dreams to write and be the show-runner for my own series and day to day dreams to just be able to sustain a career in writing and pay my bills.
It can be tough to build up the motivation to begin a new spec project. How do you approach the early stages of a new script and how do you keep going to the end?
Like I said in TV there’s a real structure to writing episodes, and what I’ve learnt is to use that structure to help me to create my own original work – for me the initial idea is always the hardest part. What I’ve found is that I actually have to relax in order for an idea to drop into my head.
You recently tweeted about the mental stamina required to be a TV writer. Can you elaborate on this?
Yes! Writing for TV can feel like you’re trying to solve the greatest puzzle. You’re trying to hold onto different story strands in the episode, whilst you also try to navigate the show itself, and if you’re writing further down in a block of episodes you have to contend with possible changes happening in earlier episodes that effects your episodes. That’s just one script, on top of that I was trying to juggle scripts for other shows as well as my own original work.
So it can be a lot of plate spinning in your own head! On days like that at the end of the day I’m dead to the world and I just want to switch off and watch Strictly or Bake Off.
On that… How do you maintain your mental health as a writer?
Oh wow…sometimes I feel like I’m holding on by a thread… but what I’ve learnt generally as a person is to listen to myself and if I feel the burn out coming on, it’s back to basics and for me the basics are sleep 8 hours, eat good food, get outside, speak to friends – give myself complete brain rest for day.
I’ll probably come back to a whirlwind but I’ll be much more ready.
What tips do you have for dealing with rejection?
At the moment I’m working on multiple things so in a strange way it makes rejection easier because my focus isn’t on one thing. That’s not to say that I don’t get the odd humdinger of a rejection that feels like a kick in the stomach every now and then.
When I’m finding rejection difficult I just remember my actor friends who are regularly getting rejected, so many more times than me, but they keep putting themselves out there and I just respect that so much.
The way I see rejection is that it actually means I’m putting myself out there and for someone who suffers from major imposter syndrome, it’s a win.
What’s your number one tip for writing dialogue?
Listen and study people in your everyday life – having and developing an ear for peoples voices is something I learnt as an actor and has proved so useful.
Are there any books, scripts or other resources that you would recommend to other writers?
I would say read all the books, soak it up but don’t get into a tizzy trying to implement everything you’ve learned. For me the craft of writing really properly comes into play once the first outline, or first draft is written. I just get it out (vomit draft) then I might use the books to remind myself about structural under pinning or to help me crack a problem in the script.
If you could travel back in time to the beginning of your writing career, what advice would you give yourself?
Being brought up in a South Asian family there was always a lot of power given to what other people thought about you and my parents regularly used the killer phrase of ‘What will people say?’ So I would say don’t worry about what people will say, don’t write to impress other people or write what you think is expected of you – write what you want to write.
What’s the worst part of being a writer?
There is rejection of course but I would also say for me personally it’s the constant freelance juggling that keeps me up at night worrying if I can financially survive.
What makes you laugh more than anything?
I wish I could say high brow comedy but to be honest I grew up watching Mel Brooks movies and I get proper belly laughs from silly slapstick humour. The Season Finale of Season 1 ‘Only Murders in the Building’ made me laugh so much recently, Steve Martin is a genius.
You can follow Mina on Twitter.
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