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Women & Writing # 4: Sally Abbott, TV Screenwriter

Delighted to have the brilliant Sally Abbott on the blog today to tell us about her work as a TV screenwriter in continuing drama – amongst other things! Sally is a real powerhouse and has been involved in all SORTS of things over the years and this summer dips a toe in feature filmmaking too. She offers some fab insights into the industry and writing that I really agree with, but I won’t spoil it for you. Read and enjoy!

1) If you could describe yourself in 3 words, what would they be and why?

Obsessive – which is a polite way of saying anal. I get caught up in detail, in the 3D jigsaw of writing (the physical practical where are these characters? Where have they just come from? What is going on emotionally for them? Etc). I can be like a dog with a bone on things – this can be both good and bad. I rarely get whole weekends off. I don’t see my friends enough. I’m pretty much always “on”.

Passionate – Whatever I’m writing feels incredibly important to me. It what gives me my mojo and energy to fight my corner for my script, character or stories. I do this keeping in mind Peter Brooks’ brilliant quote about creating work “Hold on tightly, let go lightly”. It’s equally important to know when to stop fighting and when you’re flogging a dead horse.

Ditherer – the fact that it’s taken me three days to think of this word should have given it away. I love procrastination. Sadly.

2) What’s your background?

I wanted to study theatre but my dad didn’t think it was a proper career path; as a result I did Psychology and Communication Studies at Uni. Psychology turned out to be incredibly useful for writing. Probably more useful though were all the plays I did with the University Drama Society and writing on the University newspaper.

I trained as a community arts worker in Liverpool after University (on the amazing Hope Street Project) and worked in theatre for eighteen years: working as a producer, young people’s director and trainer at Contact Theatre, English Touring Theatre, Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre, THEATRE IS… and with the National Association of Youth Theatres as Associate Artist.

I also wrote whilst I was producing. I did a lot of co-writing with my husband, an actor. Mainly plays that didn’t get past a rehearsed reading or some workshopping. We got a place on the second series of Shameless but got bumped off (we weren’t ready at all). We then wrote a play “Martha Loves Michael” about a Michael Jackson obsessive fan that we took to the Edinburgh Fringe. thanks to support from local arts venue, the Junction, and Escalator (which helps to fund East England artists to take their shows to Edinburgh).

Through that we met Jon Sen, a TV writer/director, and the three of us developed a comedy-drama series, Cowboys and Indians, with Hilary Salmon and Mob Dar at the BBC for four years. It never got greenlit but even now, the characters in it feel incredibly vivid and alive. The fact that Life on Mars took so long gives me hope that these characters may one day be living and breathing.

As I approached 40, I decided (maybe rashly) to give up producing and concentrate just on writing. Give myself a last proper go at it. I went on a writing road trip leaving the husband and kids behind and staying with friends in Liverpool and Manchester, working up ideas. One of these was a three-page synopsis for a horror film which I wrote quickly after I came back. Finally I had a solo written original script – Camp Fear. I did about three drafts of it before I sent it out. This got me meetings, a place on an Eastenders shadow scheme and, crucially, a place on the BBC Writers Academy. The Academy was a complete game changer.

3) Tell us about your work in continuing drama.

I did a Doctors Shadow Scheme in 2004 but failed to get another story through. Although one rejected story became my A story in my first episode of Casualty.

I did the BBC Writers Academy in 2008 where I was in a class room for 13 weeks with 7 other writers, John Yorke, Ceri Meyrick, David Roden and amazing guest speakers. I wrote an episode each of Holby, Doctors, Casualty and EastEnders in 2009.

In 2010, I went onto contract with EastEnders (a bulk deal of episodes) and writing one episode of Casualty a year. I’ve only written four episodes of Casualty but have been very lucky to get to write two corkers – “the fire episode”, the last episode ever filmed in Bristol where I burned the A&E department down; part one of #HolbyRiots (part two being written by the phenomenal Sasha Hails). I’ve just started a core contract at Casualty so will be writing three scripts for them over the next year.

4) What’s your top 3 bits of advice on the industry for screenwriters?

Raise your bar higher than anyone else’s. Be more demanding of yourself than anyone else will be. Don’t spread yourself too thinly. Don’t think you have to have loads and loads of scripts to make it or break through as a writer. You just have to make sure your project, your calling card script, is good (and by good I mean really really REALLY good).

Don’t compare yourself. Competitiveness is normal. But it can also be soul-destroying, time-consuming and eat you from the inside out. Everyone has a different path; it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Just be concerned with your path and making sure your work is good. Be pleased for other’s success – you don’t know what they’ve been through to get there; how many nights they haven’t slept; how much they’ve sacrificed. Maybe they haven’t. Lucky for them. Make your own luck. Be generous. Don’t be in a hurry thinking time will run out and you’ll miss the boat. There’s more than one boat.

Do not kill yourself for this. The utterly brilliant Sarah Phelps once said this to me three times in one conversation. I wrote it on a post-it and stuck it above my desk. Being a writer is terrible for your health: it’s sedentary; it involves deadlines; it’s stressful; it can make you paranoid; it can make you snack like you wouldn’t believe. Look after yourself – eat well, exercise and move occasionally.

Bonus answer!!!

Break everything down. I like to break all the stages down so I know what I need to achieve for the day. I usually do John Yorke’s “10 questions” to identify the initial building blocks for each character; then brief story synopsis (bullet point/beats); then treatment (or scene by scene) then, finally, script. I have a page target for each day I write scripts. It means I know when I can stop each day without feeling guilty.

5) Describe a typical day for you.

I take the kids to school then procrastinate til 10 over breakfast, then procrastinate* til 11 over the internet. Just before 12 I think I really should have started to work by now. I cram in as much as possible between 12 and about 7pm**. I eat tea with the family. Maybe do a bit more work or more usually watch TV and films. I try and keep up to date with what’s on as well as getting through box sets. I try and watch a couple or so films a week that are relevant to what I’m working on. I love it that writing means I can legitimately watch TV and film. What a result.

* When I get over half way through script I tend to start work as soon as I’ve had breakfast and don’t go anywhere near the internet. I love those days. The half-way point is such a marker.

**The one thing I generally know is exactly what I need to achieve that day – whether that’s a pitch or a synopsis or 12 or 18 pages of script or whatever. Sometimes that means I don’t finish til 10.30pm. I try not to work later than that, as I can’t sleep which means I get ill.

6) What’s the ONE thing you wish you knew before you became a screenwriter?

That a working writer doesn’t just write when they feel like it. They don’t wait for inspiration. They sit down, look at a screen and start working. Sometimes it’s easier than others. Sometimes it’s like torture. Sometimes it’s wonderful. Writing isn’t about inspiration, it’s about application.


BIO: In addition to developing her own work, Sally Abbott writes for Casualty and EastEnders. She has written over 20 broadcast episodes. Her feature film “Camp Fear” is due to go into production later this year with the Fyzz Facility and Bigger Pictures. She is also currently adapting Emma Kennedy’s best-selling book, “The Tent, the Bucket And Me” for Scamp Theatre. Follow Sally on Twitter.


The Women & Writing Series profiles inspirational women and their writing and/or related work on B2W. If you know of an inspiring female writer you want to see profiled here – or are one yourself! – get in touch. Tweet me, leave a msg on the Facebook wall or send me an email on Bang2writeATaolDOTcom Want more? Here’s a collection of tweets dedicated to Inspirational Women, as nominated by Bang2writers.

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