My Life as a writer
When did you first realise you wanted to write for a living?
I left the laboratory one lunchtime in 1997 and went to a non-commissioned writers’ meeting at Broadcasting House for the topical BBC radio show Week Ending (which ran from the 1970s to late 1990s and was considered a training ground for comedy writers, performers and producers). Oh my, I thought – this is fun. I hadn’t been having much fun on my microscope recently; job security for untenured scientists being what it is. I pretty soon got commissioned and that was the moment I decided to give up looking at very small things on a screen in a dark room. Eventually, in 2003, I swapped it for the joys of looking at a computer in a slightly brighter room. As a freelance writer I had managed to finally find something with even less job security than scientific research.
Which writer, past or present, do you most admire?
Raymond Chandler, no doubt about it. Before that I had always been a SF fan. Basically, I was in love with ideas. The more ideas the better and I devoured them like a shrew (sorry Duran Duran, as appetite goes shrews beat wolves any day). For clever word use I preferred poetry, and then I discovered Raymond Chandler. It was love at first read. I bought everything (wish there had been more). Sometimes I would just stop reading and repeat a particularly wonderful sentence out loud to myself, over and over again. Still do.
What was your first published (or performed) credit as a writer?
That would be a sketch for the venerable NewsRevue at the Canal Café Theatre in London – a Terminator spoof as I recall. NewsRevue – the world’s longest running stage comedy show – is a National Treasure, no doubt! In any other country they’d write books about it, here it just goes on quietly puncturing pomposity 50 weeks a year, and providing springboards for both writers and performers. All hail NewsRevue!
Which piece of writing work are you most proud of?
I’m delighted with my debut novel: Detective Strongoak and the Case of the Dead Elf, as this was actually the first thing I began writing, while still very much a scientist, back when computers had floppies and comedy writers were thus never short of a punchline about technology. Dwarf Master Detective Nicely Strongoak popped into my head at a conference in Hamburg when, for reasons not unrelated to the aforementioned lack of job security in science, I suddenly found myself stranded with no money and no return ticket. I did also get a terrific buzz reinventing David and Victoria Beckham as a modern Goon Show Bluebottle and Eccles for Roy Hudd and June Whitfield for the BBC radio show The News Huddline audience at Broadcasting House in the late 1990s.
Who or what inspires you to write?
Can’t stop doing it. Everything around me: newspapers, TV and radio throws up ideas and they might all take off in a different direction, script, novel or whatever. I’ve always created stories, and run them in my head; now I get the chance to put them down on ‘paper’ too. I’ve been lucky in some ways, coming into writing as a second career, because I’ve not been daunted by any idea of what I can or can’t achieve. Being ‘unspecialised’ doesn’t worry me and I’ve been able to write for stage, film, radio, TV, new media and now prose – both drama and comedy. I also script doctor and work as a project consultant and that is great as collaboration also leads to many new writing ideas and avenues. So now I’m involved in documentary writing too. The consulting also led to a spell teaching; which means I’ve had two university lectureships, one in scriptwriting and another in cell biology. Go figure!
How do you switch off when you’re not writing?
I don’t. Sorry. Well, except on holiday when I catch up on reading. It’s the same when you’re doing science. There are always sub-routines running somewhere. I also enjoy writing song lyrics, which is sort of a bit different.
Which one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Persevere. No whinging (except with other writers) and look at every opportunity that comes up. I got my publishing deal for A Dead Elf with HarperCollins through their Digital First Initiative for fantasy books. They are doing others in different genres, so keep your eyes open. No agent required for that and I still don’t have one. Agents tend not to like unspecialised writers, but if you’re really in love with all writing then put on that play, make that YouTube clip or self-publish. Send material to Newsjack at the BBC as well. There have never been more opportunities for writing – of course making a living is as hard as ever. Oh, and don’t just carry that notebook, use it.
Why are you a member of WGGB?
It would be totally wrong, not to mention terribly bad manners, to not be.
Terry Newman is a scriptwriter, comedy writer and author as well as a lapsed ultrastructural morphologist. A former university lecturer in scriptwriting, and personal tutor, he is also a regular script doctor for TV, film, radio and print. His novel Detective Strongoak and the Case of the Dead Elf (Harper Voyager, 2014), a comedy/detective/fantasy, is part of Harper Voyager’s Digital First Initiative, with the paperback to follow in June 2015. Find out more about Terry on his website and follow on Twitter @adeadelf if you like that kind of thing.