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My Writing Life
Sandra Howard
Kay Mellor
Sam Baker, Editor of Red Magazine and author

My Writing Life 
Kay Mellor

Kay has written extensively for theatre and television. Her shows over the years have won and been nominated for numerous awards and Kay herself was awarded the BAFTA Dennis Potter award in 1997 for outstanding writing for television. She is currently working on a screen adaptation of her play A Passionate Woman, a stage play and a 6-part drama for the BBC.

Hi Kay, I’ve interviewed you several times over the years and I'm really pleased that you’re speaking to Literary Chicks about your writing life.You have been hugely successful in your writing career. Firstly, have you ever taken a writing course?
No. I studied for an Honours degree in drama at college for 3 years and that gave me access to lots of scripts. That was the most wonderful learning curve for me; it was sheer luxury to be able to just absorb myself in drama.

Do you think scriptwriters are born or is it a craft you can learn?
I think you have to have a flair and desire to be a storyteller. If you’ve got flair then you can hone that. I've given writing courses over the years and it's quite interesting how some people are naturally engaging and some people just are not. I've given creative lessons and I've gone along and people haven't even got a pen.

If you meet somebody and they're entertaining and a good conversationalist – are they a good storyteller? Is it that same skill?
Usually, yes. Sometimes I'm talking to somebody and I just think to myself ‘they're probably a writer’, but they probably don’t know it.’

What other qualities do you need?
You need to be a good listener; you need to be able to listen to how people speak to one another. You have to learn how profound sometimes something quite simple can be, you don’t need to be elaborate and deep in your storytelling, actually the very simple things can be very meaningful. You certainly don’t have to look for the intellectual – usually you should avoid that.

In terms of gender, have you found along the way that women are better scriptwriters than men?
I think when I started off it was a bit of a phenomenon to have a woman writer in television. More and more now it's become the norm for women writers to be r alongside men as great writers – rightfully so. I personally like female writing; I like Gwyneth Hughes and Sally Wainwright. It's just a personal preference.

Do you write every day?
Yes. I haven't been writing every day recently as I've been editing, but that’s just a different form of writing.

What comes first – the characters or the story?
I think you’ve got to have something that you want to say. That has to be the start. Often with me, somebody tells me something and I start to think, ‘How am I going to tell this story?’ or ‘How can I turn that into a story?’ I hear something such as, ‘a woman climbs into the loft on the morning of her son’s wedding’ and I immediately think, ‘What kind of woman does that?’ It's interesting because if they were somebody who was very ordinary and never did things like that, then there’s where the scope lies. Working out who they are. That’s where you’d start off and then you’d go ‘right okay, let's think a bit about her’. And you would sit and do a lot of thinking about her. I'd start adding qualities to that character until you knew her – you’d know her name, her age, where she was born, who she was married to, who her sister or brother was. I can tell you every single thing about my characters, any one of them, things that don’t even materialize on the page. I always fall in love with my characters and love them even for their flaws.

Wherever you are, are you constantly analyzing people and situations; is it difficult for you to switch off from that?
It is very difficult for me to switch off sometimes. At the moment for instance, I'm editing and I've got a lot of ideas crashing in and that’s when I start becoming a bit of an insomniac because I need to write things down.

Do you set yourself word targets every day or do you just see how it goes?
Generally I set myself targets because working on your own, you’ve got to be self-motivated. I set myself a target of five or ten pages each day. I generally break my stories down into three acts - because it's good practice.

And can you write anywhere?
Absolutely anywhere. The house could fall down and I wouldn’t be aware of it; you don’t really know where you are when you're writing. When I was writing an episode of ‘Band of Gold’ I remember thinking ‘I’ll just write for ten minutes before I have my shower,’ I went into my study and began to write. I heard the door bang downstairs. I thought ‘Oh my God, I've got robbers’ I was frozen to the spot until my husband shouted upstairs that he was home from work. It was 6 o’clock and I'd sat there all day. It felt like I'd been there about ten minutes. I also once travelled to Newcastle and missed my stop. I had to get off the train and wait for the Leeds train to come back the other way. When you're in the moment, when you're writing like you should be, then you’re not aware of external things

How do you write- long hand or on a laptop?
I gave up writing long hand a long time ago. If I'm trying to crack something really important and somebody’s trying to say something, then I might write it in long hand and then punch it in later. Or I might be watching television and think ‘That’s what she’d say in that situation…’ the television kind of glazes over and I will just pick up a pen and paper and just write something – what was in my head.
In the middle of the night I've got up, staggered about, bumped into things, found a pen and paper and just written things down. I do a lot of that in fact but when I'm in full flow, it’s on a laptop.

Other than your own scripts, is there one script that comes to mind that you think is just beautifully crafted – that’s just the perfect model?
Years ago an American woman who was phenomenally clever sent me a script to look at. She had seen some of my work and wanted to see if I could get her work seen over here. It was just absolutely beautiful. It took my breath away it was so beautifully crafted. I showed it to somebody at the BBC and they said ‘Oh, it's beautiful – I love it’ and it got absolutely nowhere. It was called A Passion For More and was stunningly written.

What is your advice to would-be writers?
I think you need to have a broad back because taking criticism about work which is very dear to you is very hard and it's hard not to feel personally hurt by things when somebody says, ‘It's not quite working’. And believe in yourself – that’s another quality that I think is really important for a screenwriter – always to believe that you have the qualities to make a good writer. And stupid as it may sound, if you want to write television, watch television.

Go to Kay’s website for further writing advice

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