Tell us about your background…
I was born a British expat in Malaysia. My family moved back to the UK when I was 7, then moved at least every 3 years as a result of my father’s job as a Mining Engineer. Keen to be independent and in control of all aspects of my own life, I left home at 17.
I enrolled in a 9-month secretarial course at a boarding college because that was the shortest training I could find that would get me a job, then moved to London to start working. My parents were in Nigeria by that point and only available via telex, so it was a steep learning curve to independence!
While working in London, I married my husband, Adrian, also a British expat, although he had been brought up in Madrid. We actually met at Madrid Barajas airport, which turns out to be quite poetic given the amount of time we’ve spent on planes.
After having our first daughter in London, we went on to have two more daughters, one while living in Barcelona, and one while living in Mexico. We then moved back to Barcelona for a bit, then on to Brazil, then to Argentina, and lastly to Paris. I’ve never lived anywhere longer than 3 years, other than our final posting to Paris, which lasted 6. I have lived in 35 houses and 8 countries. I am now done and happy to be back in the UK permanently.
When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?
I have always loved words—writing them or reading them. The day my youngest daughter started full time in school, while we lived in Campinas, Brazil, I sat down and started writing a novel. I figured everyone is supposed to have at least one novel in them, so I better get going with mine.
I wasn’t convinced I’d ever finish it, so it helped that I sent a Christmas letter out that year telling the whole world I’d started writing a novel. It made me finish it—despite regular Brazilian power cuts, which caused me to lose great swathes of my work at times.
My novel, Love, Lies & Latinos, is a romantic comedy about a control-freak publicist who struggles to remain professional when she finds herself juggling a psychotically jealous boss and a headline-making playboy client.
What is your next act? Why did you choose it?
I am writing screenplays, both for film and television. I haven’t had anything optioned yet but have had lots of interest and support from professionals in the industry. I am also writing another novel.
I knew I was a writer but wasn’t confident enough to admit that out loud. So I didn’t do anything with the book I’d written. I did decide I liked writing dialogue more than descriptive prose so I tried rewriting my novel as a film script. That made me realize this was where my passion really lay.
A friend of mine asked her friend, a well-known director, to read my script. Although it took him nearly two years to read it, when he did, he really liked it a lot, pitched it around Hollywood, and has encouraged my writing ever since.
Still, I felt like a bit of a fraud. I certainly didn’t think I would be able to confidently pitch my script myself or get anyone else to believe in me. Having said that, I didn’t know what else I could do while so far away, since at that time we lived in Argentina. So I just kept writing scripts. I couldn’t stop, really.
How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?
Rather than writing from instinct, I knew I needed to learn my craft in order to improve my confidence and be able to pitch my work. When we moved to France, and I was 42, I started attending one-day courses in London with the Scriptfactory (since closed). They helped but I still felt that something was lacking.
Then, while looking at universities in the UK with my daughter, I found a 2-year, part-time, Masters Degree in Scriptwriting for Film and TV at the Royal Holloway University. Although I was living in France at the time, it only meant spending one week every 3 months on a retreat in the UK.
What challenges did you encounter?
The first challenge was getting accepted into the course. I had no undergraduate degree, and only one A-level, so thought it highly unlikely (A-levels are subject exams you need to get into university in the UK, and you usually need at least two). I had to write a short story for my application, send in a CV (resume) detailing my writing to date, submit recommendations, and interview in person. For some reason, the two tutors (professors) who vetted me took a leap of faith and offered me a place in the program. As one of my friends said, it was typical of me to manage to skip the Bachelor of Arts degree and just go for the Master’s!
The next challenge came on the first day of the course. At age 45, I had to sit with the other students (nearly all much younger than me) as we went around the room listing our achievements. Everyone else had some legitimate connection to writing, acting, film, or TV—everyone but me, that is. It was a grim moment, but just made me all the more determined!
After that, one big headache was managing the retreat week every 3 months. Because he runs an international business, my husband travels all week, every week, so I had to arrange childcare in Paris while I spent those weeks in the UK. I needed to be able to switch my phone off (one of the rules) and really immerse myself in the course. My mother-in-law was great; she came over from the UK to stay with our three children each time.
The next challenge was meeting all the required writing deadlines.
Tell me more about writing and working with the other students in your Master’s program.
The writing we did on our own pieces was solo, but we were required to give in-depth feedback to the other students. I believe my peers appreciated my ideas, as I was not afraid to tell them what I really thought. And maybe life experience gave me insight that could improve their work.
In the first year, you worked in different small groups each quarter. In the second year, I was in a group of three people, all of us writing for TV. You definitely got to know everyone because during the retreat weeks we all lived in a house together, and cooked and ate all our meals together. That’s in addition to working together, which was very intensive during those weeks. We were often given only a few hours for a writing assignment.
I believe my peers appreciated my ideas, as I was not afraid to tell them what I really thought.
My dissertation—I chose TV—involved having to write a series bible, two full episodes, create a mood book, and write two essays (one on production and one on marketing).
A series bible is a package of information including descriptions of the characters and their back-stories, the series synopsis by episode, narrative themes, and on-going story arcs. With an ongoing series, such as Breaking Bad, they give the series bible to anyone who comes onto the writing team so that they can catch up on all the action/interaction between the characters. On long-running series, they can be serious reading!
A mood book consists of images illustrating the types of actors you would ideally like in a role, location ideas, anything interesting (in a visual way) that can help get across what your series should feel and look like.
My dissertation piece was a comedy called Lolita Smith; it follows the journey of a frumpy, middle-aged filing clerk who works in the basement of MI5, but has spent a lifetime longing to be a spy. Then, due to a computer glitch, she gets her chance. Can she prove she deserves the job for real?
While my dissertation was a lot of work, I thoroughly enjoyed every moment.
I also produced and co-wrote a webseries called Halls Web Comedy. As we were celebrating finishing our course, the three of us who had worked on TV discussed the idea of webseries, which were very new then and provided an easy (and free) platform for distribution. We chose a storyline that lent itself to filming on campus because we could use the university facilities, equipment, and location for free while we were still officially students. I thought it was too good an opportunity to let pass by.
I’d never been on a set before, let alone produced anything, but ignorance is bliss, so I pushed ahead with it and made it happen. The story is about starting university and living in student halls with people you’ve never met before. It only took a week to film but months went into preparations and post-production editing. It was a student piece and cost nothing much to make, but I’m still proud of it. I promoted it a lot on all the webseries sites (mostly in the US). You can watch it via my website. I have a cameo…
After 2 years, at the age of 47, I graduated at the top of my class with my Master’s Degree in Scriptwriting for Film and TV. You can graduate with a Pass, Merit or Distinction. Distinction is the highest you can get and means you always achieved above a certain mark in each piece of work, including your dissertation. I graduated with Distinction, which I know was an achievement because my tutor phoned to congratulate me and said she was the proudest of me because I’d known the least when I started. Ha!
My friends and family were very supportive. They were happy that I had found something I was passionate about that I could take with me whenever/wherever I moved. And they were very proud when I got my Master’s.
The training I received while pursuing my degree has changed the whole way I approach writing. Before, I wrote without much planning but now I have a system I use for plotting all the turning points of a story, ensuring theme and that the story is moving forward, as well as developing backstory for characters before I start.
Were there times when you thought about giving up? What/who kept you going?
I never thought about giving up on my Master’s. But after two post-graduate years of writing prolifically in France, I am finding it harder to write now that we’ve moved back to the UK. I am so happy to be back, speaking in English, able to visit family and friends, that I wander about it a jolly haze. I’ve decided not to beat myself up about it and to enjoy feeling totally at home for the first time in 20 years. The writing will come.
It is a very hard industry to crack and you have to stay determined, but I just have to watch one bad film or TV show to realize that, if I keep going, one day I will get there. Speaking to producers or executives and seeing their interest in your work also tells you which idea is worth pursuing and which doesn’t work.
It’s hard to tell people you are a writer if you’ve never been paid for anything you’ve written. Somehow, being paid seems to justify who and what you are. It’s mad really.
It’s important to me to keep going for the sake of my three daughters (now 23, 19, and 17). I want to set an example for them of doing something you love and achieving your dreams.
Find something you are passionate about and all your other problems will be put into perspective.
What words of advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife?
Find something you are passionate about and all your other problems will be put into perspective. You might be worrying about not having your kids living at home anymore, or about getting older and creakier, but I get so immersed in my writing that everything else fades away.
Also, while you may not have worked for a long time in a paid job, you’ve still been working! I was on the PTO, ran committees, spoke at functions, did charity work. Whatever you’ve been doing can all go on your resume or school application.
What words of advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?
If you think you have a book in you, you do! You just have to start writing it. I know it can be intimidating thinking you have to write 1000’s of words, so perhaps start with a short story and that could always develop into a novel, or a short story collection.
Keep a journal in your bag and write in it whenever you’re waiting (for kids, for appointments, for whatever) instead of playing Candy Crush (I am the worst for that!). Writing regularly makes you write more.
If you think you have a book in you, you do! You just have to start writing it.
Look at every avenue that accepts scripts including, for example, radio. In the UK, Radio 1 has to produce an incredible amount of material for broadcast and regularly gets millions of listeners to their daily plays. Often, a piece that does well on radio gets picked up and made into a film or TV show. It is way easier to get commissioned for radio as it is much cheaper to produce. Logical really, and I must take my own advice!
Consider self-publishing. I finally self-published my first novel, Love, Lies & Latinos, on Kindle. It was free and took about 10 minutes.
What resources do you recommend?
Look at universities around the world that offer the type of course I took. The retreat option at Royal Holloway is a great one, and not just for Brits, but there are many full time courses too.
I promote my writing at The London Screenwriter’s Festival. It’s a great way to meet people in the industry and will motivate you with a large kick in the butt! Great speakers and people attend from all over the world.
They have a pitch-fest session where you get 4-minute slots with executives and producers to try to sell them your idea. It was terrifying the first time I did it (I’ve been two consecutive years) but the thought is much worse than actually doing it. Everyone was really nice. Even if they said no, they said something encouraging first. I found it worked better to be clear and brief, and then ask if they have any questions. You only get four minutes so you are better off trying to form a connection with your audience than trying to fit in every detail of your story. The second year I went, everyone I pitched asked me to send them more information.
The festival also has an ongoing forum that you can become a member of, which allows you to join or form special interest groups (e.g. comedy writing).
Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder.
What’s next for you?
I am currently adapting the TV series I wrote for my Master’s dissertation into a novel, as I believe it is incredibly hard for unknown writers to get commissioned for TV. I do think it is becoming more and more common for books to get turned into TV or film, so I’m heading back to where I started and writing a book again. You have to try every angle.
I am also working with a script editor on a script that got very positive responses when I pitched it at the London Screenwriters Festival this year. It has two strong leading roles for older women, which they seemed very keen on—hooray!
I’ve also got a fantasy quadrilogy (four-book series) on the back-burner…
Contact Joanna Gordon and read/watch her work via her website: www.jowhalegordon.com