Q&A with Tina Walker

Tina Walker is a BBC screenwriter who has worked on several short films. She has an IMDb page and is an established writer on the BBC serial drama Doctors. I have known Tina for some while and as we recently got back in touch (thanks, LinkedIn!), I asked if she wouldn’t mind answering a few questions for us. She agreed, and this is what she said:

PB: A screenplay timescale is roughly one minute per page of script, so is there a typical length of time it takes you to write a single page, and does it vary from project to project?

TW: No and Yes. It also varies according to the draft I’m working on and whether I’m trying to incorporate anyone else’s feedback. Basically a minute of screen time can take me anything from a few minutes to a few days to write!

PB: What’s your take on the concept of ‘genre’ in drama? Do you feel restricted by it or do you feel it gives you a solid framework?

TW: I don’t worry about it. It’s useful for marketing departments to position film/tv projects and it’s handy for the public to make a judgement about what they’re getting and whether it’s something they want to watch. Though a lot of what I write would be categorised as ‘genre’ I let the story/characters guide my choices. In my experience the genre emerges organically.

PB: What’s your opinion of BBC drama in general? How do you think it compares to, say, the quality of programming in the US by HBO?

TW: I try not to watch too much TV drama as I worry that it will affect my own work. I especially avoid soaps, continuing drama and my speciality, comedy drama for that reason. Now and again I’ll get hooked in by something though - I really enjoyed the last series of Silk and have tuned in to series 2. I tend to miss a lot of the US stuff because I go to bed early and don’t have a means of recording it in the house. I rarely plan my viewing so mostly have no idea when these series are on. I did catch a few eps of Mad Men and enjoyed that. So basically I’m in no position to offer a valid view!

PB: When writing for Doctors, do you need encyclopaedic knowledge of the ongoing characters, or do you need only basic information to be able to construct a story?

TW: Every serial character comes with 2 or 3 pages of bio describing their nature, personality, likes/dislikes, family background and formative events, which is generally enough for my purposes. I can watch them on screen too, which also helps. It’s much trickier writing for new serial characters who haven’t yet been televised. I do get to read all of the ongoing serial content before it’s broadcast as well. It’s handy to know what’s been happening in the characters' lives in the weeks/days before my episode as it may impact on their behaviour/attitude.

PB: Is there anything you’ve read or seen that’s made you say, ‘Bugger me, I wish I’d written that!’? What was it about it that made you wish you’d written it?

TW: There are many screenwriters whose work I admire, but that sense of awe at someone else’s talent was triggered by a poet. I was in the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea at the weekend and some of his writing was on display. I think it’s incredible. I wish I had the imagination and confidence to use language the way he did. His words make me see the world through his eyes, and it’s magical. I adapted one of his short stories once (as an exercise, not a paid job) - his characters and dialogue are just wonderful too.

PB: When you were based in Portsmouth, you attended a writers’ circle [Pen Ultimate], so do you feel reading out your work in front of a handful of people helped you to improve what you’d written?

TW: Absolutely. Nothing like hearing your work read aloud to learn what works and what doesn’t. Dialogue especially, benefits from being read aloud. It’s important though to remain in control of your own material. Not all feedback is equal. You can get so many responses to the same piece of work. I think it’s important to remember that the reader brings a piece of themselves to the story, world and characters you’ve created and that will affect their response. Having said that, you’d better pay attention if half a dozen people are telling you that something isn’t working.

PB: Apart from serial work such as Doctors, before you have actors to bring your characters to life, do you have a clear image of what they look like or do you deliberately not visualise them until you know who will be playing the parts?

TW: I have a personality in mind rather than an exact physical image. For me it’s about what’s going [on] in their heads that’s most important. It’s not so much that I deliberately don’t visualise them, rather, I don’t need to. Obviously the way a character looks can impact on how they behave and how the audience will perceive them, so I’ll have a physical type in mind. For example, in a screenplay I’m currently developing one of the key characters, a 14 year old girl, is described as ‘… elfin, androgynous, she could pass for an off duty choirboy’. That’s enough of a visual for me - the rest is up to the casting folks.

PB: When you were just starting out as a screenwriter, did you feel wary of sending off your scripts or was it more a feeling of excitement?

TW: I was probably more excited than wary. Because I believed in the characters and stories I hoped that other people would feel the same way about them. The wariness came later. These days it’s largely my agent that does the ‘sending off’, which means that she gets the rejections on my behalf! In this business rejection is the norm. Even if people like your work they may not like it enough, or have the means to produce it. Sometimes they have something similar in development, and sometimes you just never [hear] back! Getting any kind of feedback is the exception rather than the rule.

PB: What’s your advice for budding writers who give up because they think they will never have a chance of success?

TW: I’d say write because you want to write, not because you want success. I was writing and telling stories from a very young age because I loved to do that. I was into my 30s before I realised that writing could be a career choice. As a writer of course you want to share your work with other people, but seeing success as the be all and end all can take the joy out of doing the thing that you love, whether you fail or succeed. If your benchmark for success is sustaining a career as a writer then you’ve chosen a very tough career. I would say to budding writers, write for the love of words, for the pleasure and satisfaction of creating a good story, for the journey you take with your characters. Look on that as success then anything else that happens is a bonus.

And finally:

PB: We’d like to invite you to become an honorary Plot Bunny. Do you accept?

TW: Where do I sign?!

Thanks to Tina for her time and for being crazy enough to associate herself with Brighton Plot Bunnies!