Friday, 12 June 2020

Tony McHale Interview – The Art and Craft Of Writing, from TV to Novels

For the inside information on the art, craft and business of writing, you won’t do better than talking to Tony McHale. His writing credits are jaw-dropping. Having written scripts for many of the best known TV series – ranging from The Bill to EastEnders – he is also an actor and, most recently, a novelist. Tony is passionate about writing and (luckily for us!) he is very free with advice for other writers. Here I talk to Tony about everything from the ‘rules’ of good writing (and how to break them!) to the pros and cons of self-publishing…

Tony McHale has written for many hugely popular TV dramas. Check his bio on IMDB https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0570370/ and Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_McHale.

Ever since the 1970s, you’ve written an amazing number of scripts for theatre, radio and TV. Why did it take you so long to write a novel?

When I was an actor I started writing and directing stage plays, not as a means of making money, but because I loved that creativity.  Then, whilst driving home one night, I heard a rather horrific problem on an early days radio call-in show.  I found I couldn’t get it out of my mind so I wrote a radio play about it, which the BBC bought. 

From there I progressed onto TV and gradually the writing took over from the acting. I realised I much preferred writing and directing to acting, and if I had a choice between writing and directing, I’d choose writing. Nothing happens without a script – nobody works.  Through the whole of the 80s I was working flat out on TV dramas and didn’t have the time to even think about writing a novel. Then suddenly I thought, as a serious professional writer, I should write a novel.  At the end of the 80s I took time out from TV writing and started a novel only to have the process interrupted by a family drama, and somehow by the time the drama was over, I was back writing and directing TV projects.
Cut to 2016 and I made a conscious decision, because of the way the long running series were being run, the creativity having gone from them and format writing was the thing, that I needed to step back from them, which gave me the opportunity to write my first novel – BECK LE STREET. Now I’m on my third.

In terms of the writing process, what are the main differences between writing scripts and writing a novel?

A script for me is a shorthand version of a novel.  The same preparation goes into both, getting the plotting right, creating the characters – a script is just a more succinct way of telling the story.  Also, generally with a script, you’ll be working to a time frame. TV shows are, by the nature of scheduling, quite tight, not many of us want to sit through a five-hour screenplay. A novel is as long as it is. The character explorations are more thorough and descriptions of locations and atmospheres fuller. 

Having said that, I believe everything you put down in a novel, should be in your head when writing a script.  You should know your characters as if you’d written that prose description and equally location descriptions should be as detailed in your head, if not so much on the paper.  Novels allow you to explore avenues, you wouldn’t include in a screen play – at times it almost feels self-indulgent, but there again your reader needs to be able to ‘see’ every aspect, so they expect that amount of detail.  They don’t read a script, they just see it. Other than that, for me the story process is the same.  And as far as I’m concerned – story is god. Nail the story whether it’s a script or a novel. With a script you tell the story in a tighter, a more economical manner - it’s a great discipline. A novel you’re allowed to include all those bits you had to cut out of a script.

Tony’s series of lessons on the art and craft of writing is available now on YouTube.

You recorded some brilliant videos recently to advise and encourage would-be writers to get writing (You can watch the videos HERE). Do you think anyone can learn to write fiction or drama? Or do people in fact underestimate the effort and the skill needed?

I’d never tell anyone they couldn’t write fiction or drama; I think that’s something you have to learn for yourself, whether you’ve actually got what it takes.  But what I would say is that there are people who believe there is some sort of formula for writing drama.  I became aware of this many years ago when every producer and script editor at the BBC were being sent off to attend the Robert McKee Workshops. Robert McKee has toured the world telling people how to write using his particular formula. I’ve always doubted any formula is the solution to successful scriptwriting.  So I never say if you do ‘a’ then add ‘b’ minus ‘f’ it equals a script – because I don’t think it’s that simple.  I just like to offer up possible ways of working that hopefully make the process easier and more enjoyable.  What I call ‘by-passing the blank page syndrome.’ 

I champion ‘creativity.’ I want a writer, any writer, every writer, to be inspired to write. I don’t see how we can be creative if we’re all writing in the same way to the same formula.  Writing is about individualism, having your own voice, making the drama live - and I don’t see how that can happen adhering to some preordained structure.  There are lots of script writing gurus instructing people how to write and for me they cause more damage than good. Writers have to find themselves, find their own method, practice, practice, practice (in other words – write, write, write) and then there’s a chance they could create something special.

Watch the first episode of Tony’s ‘Write Time’ guides for writers.

Quite a few well-known writers have written books and essays about the art and craft of writing? Are there any that you can recommend (or, indeed, any that you would warn against)?

I’ll be honest the only one I ever really read was Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, I’ve skimmed lots of others and also attended The Robert McKee Workshop, I had to find out what all the fuss was about and the meaning of certain terminology that was being spouted by every editor throughout the land.  They all say very much the same, just using different jargon. And as I’ve explained I think it gives would-be writers the wrong impression, as if writing were like doing a maths puzzle – but a ‘first reversal’ and a great ‘mid-point’ does not guarantee a good script.  

The book I recommend everyone to read is William Goldman’s … Adventures in the Screen Trade.  Goldman wrote such classics as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, Marathon Man and many, many more, he certainly didn’t use an A, B  and C of how to write a script. It’s an insight into the world of a professional writer and helps you the understand that it doesn’t matter how good you are, or what you’ve achieved, we all get treated the same.  

Some writers set out rules of good writing or good style. I’ve heard you say a few times that “there are no rules”. Can you think of any so-called “rules” of writing that you’ve broken – and explain why?

There’s this myth about writing that there are rules and patterns you have to follow.  One of the simplest is the rule about act structure.  It has to be a three-act structure, or a five act structure, I’ve even heard talk of a seven act structure. It’s often said that the three-act structure came from way back and is talked about in Aristotle’s Poetics.  In fact Aristotle was commenting on Greek tragedies, by observing that they all had a beginning, a middle and an end. There was no great theory with regards to three acts, it was just common sense.  I never consciously write in an act structure.  If I’m writing a stage play, then I know it’s going to be two acts. After an hour or so people need a loo break, a glass of wine, stretch their legs – whatever.  So I know I need to build to that act drop. But of course, in a half hour episode on the BBC there are no breaks, so I just write a story that fits the time slot.  Instinct tells you when the pace or direction of the story needs to change, not the number of pages you’ve written.  The same for an hour-long BBC drama.  If I’m writing for ITV, you’re suddenly into two acts for 30 minutes, whether you like it or not. The hour-long slot used to work for the theorists because it was three acts – then they added another commercial break, so it’s now four acts. How does that fit in with the rule?  

Basically, the story has to work – bottom line. If it helps to write with the idea of some act structure, then use it, I would say just don’t get hung up on it.  My belief is most things developed out of necessity.  An act in Elizabethan times was the length of time it took a candle to burn down and later in the 20th century when theatre going habits changed, gradually playwrights moved away from three acts to two, people no longer wanted to spend three and a half hours in a theatre.  For me all the so called rules are just common sense, instinct and/or necessity.

Most of your career has been devoted to writing scripts which must mean you’ve written a huge amount of dialogue. Not all novelists are good at dialogue. Have you got any tips to help them improve?

I think writing good dialogue is about hearing it.  Hear the voices of the characters in your head. To get that authenticity you need to constantly listen to people, their speech patterns, their phrases, their accents and their tones.  Once you’ve written the dialogue, especially if you’re starting out, read it out loud, then read it with someone and then if you can get some people to act it out, so much the better. You can constantly tweak as you move through each phase. I always end up reading out my dialogue, even if it’s to myself, because you should be able to feel when it jars.

What’s a typical writing day for you? Do you have a set routine? Do you set yourself a target – for example, to write a certain number of words each day?

I try and write every day, but I don’t have a set routine. This comes from when I was really flat out with TV scripts and I was constantly up against deadlines. So sometimes it would mean working way into the night, sometimes it meant getting up at three in the morning, sometimes it meant working round the clock. When I was starting out, I was an actor which meant I was either acting or fitting carpets, or loading lorries or whatever to make a buck, I had to write when I could. So I’ve never had a routine. What I do have though is an unfortunate habit of always believing I will get things written quicker than actually happens. It’s a sort of optimism, which I’ve never lost.  I do set myself targets, I need to get so much done before such and such a time – that can be words or it can be scenes.  It’s hit and miss whether I make it or not.

What do you do when you sit at your desk and you just can’t think what to write?

Taking on board there are no rules … I tend to plan quite thoroughly.  I don’t just set off blindly.  Things change on route, but I always know the direction I’m going. This means I rarely get writer’s block – if ever.  I might get to something that I need to sort out, clarify how something will work, but for me that’s just part of the process. I’m normally working on more than one thing at once, so if something needs serious thinking time, I just move onto another project. 

Many famous dramatists got their big break writing one-off plays for TV. But the days of ‘Armchair Theatre’ or ‘The Wednesday Play’ are long gone. How would someone go about getting their first chance at writing for TV these days?

I seriously lament the passing of ‘Armchair Theatre’ and the ‘Wednesday Play.’ I wrote a blog recently which was prompted by a re-viewing of Nell Dunn’s ‘Up The Junction.’  A lot of those writers had worked in theatre or written other things – Up The Junction was originally a set of short stories by Nell Dunn. And that part of it still remains good today. Writer’s write.  So the main thing is to write something. Get yourself a number of scripts that you’re pleased with and start to shop them round.  Look out for producers of programmes you feel you’re in tune with and send them a script.  You might get lucky and someone will read it.  Remember apart from the BBC and ITV, there are numerous independent companies who need material.  Then of course the BBC’s writer’s room (check out their website) there’s also BBC’s Writers’ Academy (again check out their website).  I’m not a great believer in the latter, but there’s no doubt it’s a route into the business.  The main thing is perseverance.  Don’t expect to write a script and immediately get a commission, it rarely, if ever, happens. I was writing stage plays before I moved into TV, radio plays are a great calling card and also a lot of fun to write.  Don’t get disheartened just keeping on knocking on doors.

What has been the most satisfying thing you’ve ever written?

I’ve written lots of things I’ve been proud of, things like ‘Silent Witness – The World Cruise’ and ‘Holby City’s Elliot’s It’s A Wonderful Life’ ( A Christmas special), but I think probably the most satisfying was a eight part thriller serial I did back in the 1990s called ‘Resort To Murder.’  The end result was somewhat disappointing (long story), but the writing of it was great.  There’d been nothing like it at the time, and I don’t think there’s been anything like it since.  More recently I’ve obtained the rights for Adam Adamant, the 60s cult TV series about an Edwardian gent who is cryogenically frozen and comes back to life in the 1960s. I always wanted to do a film version, which I’ve now finished. My Adam Adamant is a Victorian gent who comes back in the 21st Century. Just loved writing it and we have a reading of it in the next couple of weeks – of course on Zoom.

 And are there any things that you wish you hadn’t written?

Not really – the disappointment can often come with the final production, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I wish I hadn’t written it.

For anyone who wants to write books, the publishing process has been revolutionised over the past few years. Some writers (including some I’ve interviewed on this blog) have had huge success self-publishing their books direct to paperback or Kindle via Amazon. Is there really any point any longer in trying to get deals with traditional publishers via literary agents?

I still think there’s great value going the traditional route, the problem being it can be such a laborious route. You hear story after story about how really successful novels were rejected by numerous publishers, and whoever you are, that becomes tedious, because a lot of the time you’re clearly in the hands of people who are not confident about what they’re doing.  The Beatles were rejected by Decca in favour of Brian Poole and the Tremeloes – Who? … I hear anybody under 65 saying. But they were still getting their material out there, playing in clubs etc. If you’ve done the work it’s good to get it read or heard, but The Beatles needed the Parlophone platform to hit the stratosphere.

Your novel ‘Beck le Street’ is only available for Kindle. Why no paperback?

As it’s my first novel and I had no idea what the reaction would be, I decided just to get it out there as an e-book and see how it went down. I’ve had some great reviews and now have to decide where to go next.  

I believe your novel is published by Troubador which is an independent publisher that assists self-published authors. What advantage do they give you over doing it all yourself by publishing direct to Amazon?

I suppose the best thing they gave me was the know-how.  I looked into doing it without help, but I considered I would benefit more involving someone who knew what they were doing.

Did you consider publishing your novel with a ‘traditional’ publisher? If not, why not?

I very much did consider publishing it with a traditional publisher, and still am considering it. I just got bored of waiting.  My agent was sending it out and we were getting a great response.  One publisher contacted my agent halfway through and actually said they were totally hooked, and he couldn’t put it down. But then the timing wasn’t right or something.  There it was, sitting in my computer, I’d done the hard work and yet nobody had the means to actually read it. So I thought it was better out there, than just gathering the metaphorical dust in my computer.

Having watched a number of the videos you’ve recorded giving advice to writers, I can’t help thinking you should write a book on that subject. Any chance of that?

I wouldn’t mind writing a book on my take on writing, but I think I would need it commissioning. It’s such a specific market, needing a specific publisher, if not it would be difficult to get it out there.  The other problem would be, that my idea and approach to writing flies in the face of all the other people out there making money out of selling courses, methods and books.  I touch on a lot of my theories and thoughts about writing in my blogs. There’s ‘Blueprints are for Civil Servants’, ‘The Story is God’  ‘F****** Enjoy It’‘Never Recycle’ are a few of the blogs that deal with those thoughts and ideas.  So the short answer is – ‘Yes, would love write a book on writing’ … if somebody wants me to.


TONY McHALE
Tony McHale was born in Bradford and started his professional career as an actor, before moving onto writing and directing, for the stage and TV.  He has written literally hundreds of hours of popular drama including Silent Witness, The Bill, Trial and Retribution, Dalziel and Pascoe, Waking The Dead, plus numerous others, as well as being one of the original writers on EastEnders and co-creating Holby City for which he was Executive Producer, Series Consultant and Lead Writer. He has worked all over the world creating TV dramas and recently completed his first novel - BECK LE STREET.

Website: www.tonymchale.com       
Twitter:  @TonyMchale11
Visit my website for regular blogs which are a bit about writing, a bit about my career and a bit about life.

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