Welcome to my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, scriptwriters, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with screenwriter, novelist and spotlightee Harry Duffin. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Harry. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Harry: Well, I’ve been living on the Costa Blanca in Spain for the past 13 years, but I was born in Bradford in the Second World War, so that makes me a member of a very proud, special and notoriously boastful breed – a Yorkshireman. That made me eligible to play cricket for the best county in England but, though I was opening batsman for my junior and senior schools, I was never destined to become the next Len Hutton, or Geoffrey Boycott. So I had to look around for another career, and found my inspiration firstly, and mainly, through a wonderful junior school teacher called Mrs Poulson. She so encouraged my writing that I won 3rd prize in an essay competition in the whole of Hull, where I was brought up. That inspired me to believe that writing was something that maybe I could be good at. [It would be interesting to know if the kids who won first and second prize went on to be writers.]
At grammar school I was lucky enough to have another inspiring English teacher, Mrs Mayer, who fired me with her love of Jane Austen and Shakespeare. Out of school I began to devour Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald among many others, and the dream of becoming a famous writer grew from there. A dream, I have to add, that I am still pursuing, [though over the years I’ve learned that writing is its own reward, and fame, if it comes, is a by-product that shouldn’t be pursued as the main goal.]
So basically, to sum up, I owe what writing success I’ve had to two amazing women teachers to whom I will always be deeply grateful
Morgen: English was one of my favourite subjects and I remember the best teachers being those but it didn’t twig I could be a writer until I went to evening classes eight years ago but then I have those years’ experience to write about. You’re a scriptwriter, was there a reason for creating scripts rather than standard prose?
Harry: A scriptwriter for nearly thirty years, and, latterly, I’m very proud to say, a novelist, as that was my original ambition.
From my late teens I had been sending short stories to magazines and having them all roundly rejected. Then one day in the staffroom when I was a young teacher, someone mentioned that the fee you could earn for one half-hour television play was almost exactly the same as my whole year’s salary as a teacher. So it was a no-brainer. I started writing and sending off TV plays by the dozen and had them all rejected as well. In fact it was about 15 years before I sold my first TV script, so I’m not what you could call an overnight success.
It’s absolutely true to say that I pursued script-writing, and taught myself how to do it over many long and often dispiriting years, essentially for money. Because you can write a script in a quarter of a time it takes to write a novel and, if it sells, it pays well, and as my late friend, Alan Plater, used to say [jokingly] ‘It’s better than working for a living.’
Morgen: I think overnight successes can’t appreciate the hard slog that those who’ve become a 30-year overnight success. What have you had published / performed to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Harry: After thirty years the scripts are too numerous to mention here, but you can check them out on my website www.harryduffin.com if you’re interested. The most obvious are scripts for ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘Eastenders’, but the scripts I’m most proud of are for the teen series, ‘The Tribe’, which I co-created in 1998 and which ran for 260 episodes over five series.
However, my proudest writing achievement to date is my self-published novel ‘Chicago May’, that began life as a screenplay, and which I turned into a novel about three years ago having failed to sell the script in Hollywood.
Write under a pseudonym? No, I’m far too vain. I want people to know I wrote those words they are reading or hearing. And it would be a betrayal of Mrs Poulson and Mrs Mayer, who had such belief in me, wouldn’t it?
Morgen: 🙂 What’s the main difference between the script format and novels?
Harry: Length. And depth. With a script you have to rely on the actor to convey emotions and underlying thought processes that as a novelist you are able express directly in words. With a script, unlike a novel, the maxim ‘Less is more’ should be your guide.
Morgen: As it should really in any format. Waffle on and a reader’s eyes will glaze over. Script is mostly constructed of dialogue and stage / camera directions. Some writers find dialogue hard to write, do you have any tips for them?
Harry: Scripts are mostly dialogue; stage and camera directions should be kept to the bare minimum. [Hardly ever camera directions. That’s the director’s job.] And, generally speaking, in scripts dialogue should be kept to the minimum as well. One of the main mistakes that wannabee scriptwriters make is giving their characters too much to say. LISTEN TO HOW PEOPLE SPEAK. How often do they speak in grammatically correct, coherent sentences? An actor, or a director, can often say more with a look, or a camera angle, than a thousand words. Watch that brilliant edit in Kubriick’s 2001 Space Odyssey, when the ape hurls the jawbone weapon whirling into the sky where it transforms in an instant into an orbiting space station. That moment says everything you need to know about the progress [or otherwise] of mankind.
Morgen: Exactly. I love cutting off my characters’ sentences. 🙂 Please tell us the process between the acceptance of one of your scripts and its completion on the screen / stage etc.
Harry: It’s a far too long and complicated process to describe here. But essentially, unlike novel-writing, writing scripts is a very collaborative process, which involves dozens of people from directors, actors, set-designers, etc, all of whom can make major or minor changes in your script. Some changes you’ll like, some you’ll hate. And quite often the stuff you hate gets onto the screen. A novelist can have as big as ego as they wish; a script-writer should learn to leave their ego at home with the cat.
Morgen: <laughs> Are you involved in any other aspect of the production other than the writing?
Harry: A jobbing writer is sometimes asked to be on set or location in order to make changes that the director, or actors, ask for. That can often involve heated arguments, which the writer generally loses. Frequently, if the director is incompetent and/or is behind schedule, the changes required are cuts to help the production finish in time and on budget. It’s painful to cut dialogue and whole scenes you’ve sweated blood over, but it’s better than leaving it to some script-assistant who is only anxious to please the director and producer. It’s not exactly Sophie’s Choice, but it can hurt.
Morgen: A film I have but never watched. <she goes to dig it out> Do you always work as part of a team?
Harry: Script-writing is a collaborative effort. You may write at home alone, but then your draft is passed to the script-editor and producer who will invariably ask you to make changes, small or large, and sometimes ask for many drafts. So there’s always a team.
In soap operas or long-form drama series, there is usually a team of writers as well. When I wrote for Coronation Street there was a 12-strong writing team, all of whom met regularly to debate the next set of episodes and storylines. Later, as script-consultant for Cloud 9, producing hundreds of hours of television over ten years, I led a team of about half a dozen writers that I had gradually whittled down after trying out about fifteen or so writers. It’s horses for courses. Not all writers are good at every genre.
Morgen: Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Harry: I don’t know of any professional TV writer who just ‘runs with it’. That can be a long and messy process. When I was writing one-off dramas for ‘Boon’ or ‘District Nurse’ I developed the storyline fully first before writing a word of dialogue. A lot of writing for television is like making a table or a chest of drawers. If you don’t have a plan it’s like trying to assemble something from Ikea without the diagram.
When you’re writing as part of soap team you are given the storyline for your episode and you have to stick with it or you foul up everyone else’s scripts. And you don’t get asked to write another script.
Morgen: Boon (Michael Elphick and Neil Morrisey) and District Nurse (Nerys Hughes?) were my era. I fell in love with the Dudley accent because of Neil Morrisey. Are your scripts available to buy?
Harry: No. Scripts are generally the property of the companies that commission them. But if anyone wants to buy a copy of my ‘Chicago May’ script to see how I developed that into a novel please contact me.
Morgen: Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Harry: Paper. I can see the convenience of the kindle, but it feels alien to me. Like 3D on film. My brain doesn’t process images in that way.
Morgen: I’m not keen on 3D but I love the Kindle app on my iPad. Do you get to keep the titles of your scripts?
Harry: Again, not if they are commissioned by a company. Only stuff that I develop on my own is my copyright.
Morgen: Which authors did you read when you were younger and did they shape you as a writer?
Harry: I mentioned Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald earlier. Others were Thomas Hardy, Orwell, H.G Wells, Evelyn Waugh, Steinbeck, all the ones current for that time. Now it’s Faulks, Welsh, Picoult, McEwan, Ben Elton.
Apart from just the delight of reading well-chosen words, I think the brevity of some of the earlier writers was a big influence. I try not to write 100 words when 20 will do the same job. I think publishers today probably encourage their authors to write ‘airport’ length novels, with the misguided notion that the public buy on weight rather than quality. Sadly they are frequently right. Few writers can resist the encouragement to write more.
Morgen: When they really shouldn’t. You’re spot on (earlier reference to glazed eyes). What are you working on at the moment / next?
Harry: I’m hoping to finish a novel I’ve been working on for the past fifteen years. I’ve fully plotted it out, but it’s very long and ambitious, which is why it’s very easy not to get back to it. I’m also planning a follow-up to ‘Birth of the Mall Rats’, which is a novelisation of the series ‘The Tribe’. That’s easier because all the episodes have already been written and the stories exist. And it was a brilliant series that I’m very proud of, and is a joy to return to in a different form.
Morgen: After my time as a teenager, I think, sadly. Do you manage to write every day, or ever suffer from writer’s block?
Harry: When I’m working I generally work a normal working week, with weekends off for socialising. Thankfully, I’ve never suffered from writer’s block. A famous author once said that the cure for that is to get out more and look around you. Read newspapers, books, watch films, talk to people, laugh, make love. Live.
Morgen: Anais Nin said something to that effect but I’m pretty sure every author would agree with you / her. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Harry: I do most of my editing in the story development and plotting. I find if I have a solid structure to build on which I trust, like a good musician, I can improvise the words and they just come out. For me writing is a lot like music. When the book is finished I then go back over it and nit-pick words and phrases, but you have to know when to stop. For me, the painter Constable’s best works are his spontaneous sketches. Back in the studio he worked them to death. You can do that with writing.
Morgen: Until you eventually let go. Do you have to do much research?
Harry: As much as I need to write what I want to write about. Nowadays the internet is an amazing tool for the writer. When I was first researching the novel I’m hoping to finish someday, I had to travel all the way to the British Library, order some books then wait around for ages for them to be brought from the stores, than had to furiously read them and scribble notes before having to hand the books in at the end of the day. Then repeat the process the next day. And the day after. Now I can lounge at home in my Noel Coward smoking jacket, clicking on a million websites unearthing vast treasures. The trick is not to let the research dominate the work. You can sometimes see when authors are clearly reluctant not to put in all their research they have worked so hard on. And that hurts the book.
Morgen: It’s not an area I’m keen on but I am grateful for the internet and won’t release something until I’m happy it’s accurate. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Harry: Maybe the book I have been working on for 15 years. I hope not.
Morgen: I hope not too. Do you pitch for submissions and / or are you commissioned to write?
Harry: I’ve always hating pitching, though I used to have to do it. It’s phoney. In Hollywood I met brilliant pitchers who couldn’t write a word that was worth a damn. These days I am in the lucky position that I can write for myself, which is what I dreamed of when I first realised I wanted to be a writer.
Morgen: Presumably you’ve had some rejections over the years? If so, how do you deal with them?
Harry: I could paper my substantial house with rejection slips, several times over. You deal with them by hurting a lot, feeling very bad and worthless, and then you pick yourself up, try to look at any criticism objectively and go onto the next project.
Morgen: The best way. Do you enter any script competitions? Are there any you could recommend?
Harry: I have entered script competitions and got some useful feedback from some. There are a lot around. One site I found useful was Francis Ford Coppola’s Zeotrope. Don’t know if it’s still going. There are a lot around to choose from. But be careful. Most of the comps are really just about making money for the organisers.
Morgen: They certainly can be, although I’m involved in three and two have made a loss (judge fees / prize money outweighing entry fees). Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Harry: I don’t have one at the moment and don’t feel the need, though I believe a good agent can be invaluable. I’ve had four in my career. All of whom took 10% for work that I got for myself. So I’m a bit bitter and not one to ask about agents.
Morgen: Oh dear, sorry about that. A few of the authors I’ve spoken to have had bad experiences which is a shame, although I think the need for agents is less these days. Do you do much marketing for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Harry: I had to do all the marketing for my first novel ‘Chicago May’ as it was self-published, by choice. I didn’t approach any agents or publishers with the completed manuscript because I didn’t want anyone telling me to change things. After thirty years writing I’m arrogant enough to believe that I know what I want to write and how I should write it, though I will take advice from sources I trust. I’ve used all the usual social networking sites and I’m still trying because everyone who’s read it says it’s a great book that should be made into a movie.
Morgen: Life is about practice, and you’ve certainly had plenty. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Harry: My favourite aspect is sitting down in front of the laptop each morning with another day’s writing ahead of me. The least favourite is pitching ideas, and having to do my own marketing.
Morgen: What advice would you give aspiring scriptwriters?
Harry: The advice I give all people who ask me. Read a lot, write a lot. Though the best way in is probably to join the Groucho club and brown-nose every producer and director you meet there.
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Harry: There’s a lot of potential for prose writers with the new electronic media and self-publishing, which is beginning to be seen as something other than vanity publishing. But I’d say the opportunities are less for the script-writer. More people from film school and media courses flooding the market with less drama slots to write for, with TV’s emphasis on ‘reality’ TV and game shows. And Hollywood’s obsession with blockbusters. I’m glad I managed to get a foot in the door when I did in the early Eighties. It’s much tougher now.
If I were starting out as a screenwriter now, I’d write a script, get all my mates together and make a movie for the social media sites.
Morgen: That’s a good idea, and the internet has made some ‘stars’. Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Harry: On my website www.harryduffin.com. Also…
Morgen: Thank you, Harry. It’s been great chatting to you again.
Harry Duffin is an award-winning British screenwriter who has worked extensively in UK television for such hugely popular series as ‘Howards Way’, ‘Eastenders’, ‘Boon’ and ‘Coronation Street’. As Head of Development for Cloud 9 he was responsible for seven major television series, including ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ starring Richard ‘John Boy’ Thomas, and ‘Twist in the Tale’ featuring William Shatner. He is co-creator of the hit teen series ‘The Tribe’, produced by Cloud 9, which ran for 260 episodes and has a growing worldwide fan base. His first novel ‘Chicago May’ was adapted from his own screenplay of the same name.
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