Zara Janjua

Zara Janjua

When did you first realise you wanted to write for a living?

When I was 12 I won the East Dunbartonshire Short Story Competition. It was big news in the playground that day. I’d written a story titled The Map, which was an imaginative name for a story about … a map. Like a country song, it did what it said on the tin. The magical item came to life and whatever object was placed on it would appear in whichever country it landed on – a reptilian monster appearing in Japan (might have ripped that idea off from somewhere), a giant gorilla wreaking havoc in America (this story was a plagiarism lawsuit waiting to happen) and a tsunami in Alaska, washing up the frozen Titanic shipwreck (geography was never my strongest subject). I was so proud to have won “most likely to be an author” in my yearbook. Which was why I studied business management at university. At the age of 33, with some life experience under my belt, I set about making it happen.

Which writer, past or present, do you most admire?

Tina Fey is a genius both on and offscreen. I love her SNL sketches and have watched those Golden Globes monologues several thousand times. Having been a journalist and news presenter, who moved into stand-up comedy and comedy writing, I have an affinity for 30 Rock and the lesser known Good News, it had one series on Netflix, which is a travesty. Her writing is surprising and offbeat. She is boldly entertaining and unapologetically edgy with her gags.

What was your first published (or performed) credit as a writer?

I did a Masters degree in Journalism in 2010. During my course I undertook some work experience at The Scotsman newspaper. I was determined to get a byline during my week with the team. It was like The Day After Tomorrow that winter and when snow hit, I made it my priority to befriend and assist the travel reporter. When I worked in restaurants, I learned it was a good idea to be pals with the chef if you wanted more than stale chips for tea. This was clearly a ‘transferrable skill’. Thankfully us Brits are obsessed with weather and travel – so combined it was a winner. My news gathering got me a shared byline on the front page of the paper the next day. I am still really smug about that.

Which piece of writing work are you most proud of?

BBC Studios commissioned a Short Stuff comedy sketch from me, which was around three minutes in duration. I have been a producer in unscripted productions for a few years so I had experience crewing up. I chose a great team to work with and I wrote, produced and performed in the sketch called Pak Life, which received three million hits in three weeks. It’s been lovely to see my director and co-star get a turn from it and it has led to some very lovely and unexpected opportunities, including messages from the US and Pakistan. One fan even offered me a three-night stay in a luxury Airbnb.

Who or what inspires you to write?

Storytelling is really special in all its forms. I love that we can share and connect with ideas or perspectives through anecdotes. While researching public speaking, I discovered the concept of ‘brain coupling’ – where brain activity can be mirrored from speaker to listener, creating neural coupling. This happens when the speaker is sharing an emotive, impassioned speech. Not only does it help us connect with stories, it releases the chemicals we need to remember information. It’s like a mental Post-it note. When I was in news we were constantly being asked “what’s the story?” – and the answer is always something human and personal. Writing just fills me with joy and passion. A whole day can disappear while I’m lost inside myself. I’m inspired by the chase for that feeling.

How do you switch off when you’re not writing?

Switching on to writing is more my issue. I have a number of other jobs and probably suffer from a toxic earning mentality. I need to clear the decks of all my admin and fee paying work to feel the creative space and energy to write. But once I’m in it, I’m in it. I find my brain rattling at 3am with ideas ping ponging and I say hello to my friend insomnia. I have found meditation really helpful to slow my thoughts and release me from the dread that if I don’t capture THIS idea, I might be losing out on the best, most genius idea I ever had. Usually I wake up and look at the notes I’ve made through the night and they are the ramblings of a madwoman.

Which one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Get your idea out of your head and into the world. I’ll be honest, I had never written a screenplay or even read one when I decided to write a sitcom pilot. I had an idea for the opening scene but I didn’t have a clue how it would play out. I saw the BBC Comedy Writers Room was open for submissions so finished it in a week and off I popped. I thought I’d be blacklisted it was so bad but I got in. I actually got in. Holy Schnitzel. Transforming ideas into something tangible has really benefitted me and my writing career.

Why are you a member of WGGB?

Being new to writing, I am really keen to connect with other people in the industry. Covid has kiboshed boozy networking events so we need to work a bit harder to expand our circles. I have also been negotiating my own contracts and it’s becoming quite time consuming. When a sitcom was optioned I spent 10 days online finding the legal lingo to propose new terms. I felt like Don Draper (but less misogynistic) and at the time I was convinced I’d done a good job. Now I can see my CUT TO moment where I’ve been stiffed out of millions. I am really looking forward to the contract vetting services, screenings and information about upcoming opportunities.

Zara Janjua is a TV presenter, journalist, writer, producer and comedian. She won a spot in the BBC Comedy Writers Room 2019/20 and was shortlisted for The Funny Women Comedy Writing Award 2020. She joined the BBC Children’s New Voices Writers Room on the indie mentorship programme and has been commissioned to work on a project with Unstoppable Film & TV. She also recently won the ITV 50:50 Female Pilots’ Club and is developing her new comedy series. Zara has had commissions for Short Stuff comedy sketches from BBC Studios and has a sitcom under option.

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