Jane McNulty Interview
Posted on 16 September 2005. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
WriteWords talks to screenwriter Jane McNulty whose credits include EastEnders, Heartbeat and Peak Practice.
Tell us all about your writing background- what you’ve written, what you’re currently writing.
For the last five years I’ve been writing episodes of long-running TV dramas – Peak Practice, Heartbeat, Crossroads, Doctors and most recently EastEnders. At the moment I’m touting around a couple of original ideas of my own. Before I went freelance – and gave up ‘the day job’ (co-operative development/community work; adult and youth training; barmaid) – I wrote short stories, poetry and a couple of plays. A few of them were published in small press magazines, etc, and several of my pieces won competitions: it’s a great way to get started in the business.
I also offer mentoring and tutoring in scriptwriting (TV, film, radio and theatre) and fiction (short stories and novels) mostly by email. This is because I love helping new and developing writers to find their writing voice. I’ve tutored groups and individuals for about 15 years – one-to-one distance learning, workshops and courses, for both adults and children.
As a working writer, I don’t have a huge amount of time to run regular courses or take on lots of students, but if someone approaches me whose work excites and interests me, I will always find room on my books to mentor them. It really gives me a kick when someone I’ve nurtured gets a foot on the ladder. I should declare an element of self-interest, here: I find that really looking closely at someone else’s work – what does and doesn’t work – helps me with my own writing. I imagine other tutors feel the same.
At the moment, I’m in the middle of building a website to promote a new on-line tutoring/mentoring/editing/appraisal service I’m setting up with a group of other professional writers. We all previously tutored for a distance learning college but decided to ‘cut out the middle man’ to offer our services directly to those looking for support from people with experience not only as tutors but as published/broadcast writers. We believe it’s essential that one’s tutor should not only be able ‘to teach’ but also ‘to do’.
For fun (!) I run a children’s community drama group. It’s good to see them realise what drama can do for them and their audience.
How did you start writing?
I can remember telling myself stories as I walked to infant school, always using third person narration. At seven, I wrote a series of books about squirrels and other fluffy creatures (I’m over that phase now!) and as a teenager I penned some pretty dark stuff – didn’t we all? Then life got in the way – I left school at 16 and didn’t go to university until I was 42, with a couple of kids in between – so really I didn’t start writing again until 1988 when I joined a local writers’ group. I got a couple of poems and short stories published, won a couple of competitions, took a couple of courses…Things started happening in about 1996. I didn’t do anything unusual really – lots of people followed a similar route, I guess – but I persisted. Competition organisers saw something in my work and by winning a few quid here and there, getting stuff published, I grew in confidence, I suppose.
Why I write is something else: all I know is that when I’m not writing, I’m horrible to live with (when I’m writing I’m in my office so no-one has to worry about my moods.) I suppose that means I have to write. I’m also fascinated by why people do what they do – I’m a great one for endless analysis of motives and agendas. Being nosy helps, too.
How did you get your first agent/ commission?
I’ve been with the same agent since I started, and we’ve changed agency three times as she’s been head-hunted. The relationship between writer and agent is crucial: she believes in my work and in me as a writer; I trust her to do the best for me. I had been on the (now defunct) Carlton scriptwriting course and had my calling card script, as well as a CV of my writing ‘successes’. Basically I touted myself around the addresses in The Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book. And for months all I got were ‘we like your work but we’re not taking on new clients at the moment’ type answers. In the end, getting desperate, I rang one the agencies who’d knocked my back and asked if they did know anyone who was taking on new clients. After a little think, the agent said she did know someone who was looking to expand her list: she gave me this agent’s name and address. Before taking me on, on the strength of my calling card script, this agent asked to see some other scripts (I had two or three in my back pocket by then) and when she saw I was in it for the long haul she took me on. The rest as they say is history.
The first commission? Well, as I said, I did manage to get on the Carlton scriptwriting course. It was a great opportunity, and as it was run in-house at Carlton’s script production offices in London, I was around and got to meet lots of script editors and other industry folk. My name was on their desks – Carlton wanted some return for their investment in putting on the course – and I got my first commission writing an episode of Peak Practice. Talk about learning on the job! Still, it was a useful experience, and my script editor later moved on to Crossroads and then The Bill, taking my name and my friendship with her: I got a couple more commissions through that relationship. In this industry, it always helps to stay on the best possible terms with people you work with.
Who are your favourite writers and why?
My very favourite writer is John Banville: his writing is like poetry but there’s an edge of self-mockery there, too. He’s also great at people’s dark side. Other favourites include Margaret Atwood – she comes up with the most amazing observations about people; Jim Crace; Graham Swift; Tobias Hill; Joseph O’Connor; T C Boyle: Sarah Waters. Steinbeck of course, and also Flann O’Brien/Miles Na Gopaleen (for the sheer daftness of it) plus poetry, particularly Seamus Heany and Rita Ann Higgins (two great but very different Irish writers.) When I’m selecting reading matter, I go for the writing ‘voice’ every time – I’m not into plot too much: I could read Seamus Heany’s shopping list, I’m sure.
What’s the worst thing about writing?
The worst thing about writing for TV – and courses never tell you this – is that you can get dumped off a commissioned episode without any warning. I’ve known loads of writers this has happened to, and it’s happened to me, too. You think everything is going fine and then suddenly, boom – you’re off and the episode is handed over to another writer. The thing is not to let it deflate you completely. It isn’t always your fault: producers can change their minds about a story and not leave you time to change things; script editors may not have adequately relayed the producer’s vision to you; all sorts of problems can occur. I’ve hand-held a few writers who’ve been devastated by the experience and I can tell you it’s horrible. But you have to have a thick skin to write for TV: I didn’t always have one but I’m toughening up by the day. Perspective! It’s only TV after all.
And the best?
Seeing your name on the screen is pretty good. The money helps too. But the very best thing of all is when it works – when a story comes together and the characters you’ve created become real to you.
Tell us what kind of response you get from audiences/readers and if/how this affects/influences your writing.
Writing for TV means you don’t get a lot of audience response. Unless a piece has been written by a big name – Paul Abbott, Debbie Horsfield etc – viewers tend not to notice who wrote it (my Auntie Betty always notices my credits, of course: she’s my biggest fan.) Even when the viewing figures come out – well, it’s nice to know my Heartbeat episode was seen by 16 million viewers (on it’s first outing) - it all feels rather remote. Writing for the theatre is much more satisfying – and nerve-wracking – when one can actually see the reaction: I was present when a monologue I'd written was performed at the Pontadawe Arts Centre in 1997 and it remains the thrill of my lifetime to look around the auditorium and see members of the audience in tears. You don’t get that when you write TV.
What was your breakthrough moment?
I’d say that monologue performance – the One Voice International Competition – was my big break though moment. To reach and to touch people with my words was such a buzz – I think I was hooked right there.
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