On Writers In Ireland this week, I’m chatting to Lindsay J. Sedgwick. A former journalist, Lindsay is a versatile and imaginative award-winning screenwriter and playwright with more than eight hours of credits for TV and film work, including a feature film, TV series and short films. Her series Punky has been recognized as the first mainstream cartoon series in the world in which the main character has special needs (Down’s syndrome). It is available in over 100 countries with around 5 million hits on YouTube. She founded the Creatives in Animation Network in 2012.
A screenwriting tutor since 1995, she regularly runs courses, workshops and masterclasses in libraries, colleges, universities and festivals around Ireland. As Screenwriter-in-Residence at Maynooth University/Kildare Co. Council Library and Arts Service 2016-7, she published Ireland’s first comprehensive guide to screenwriting, Write That Script in April 2018. Lindsay has had 14 plays produced around Ireland and the UK and has published two novels, Dad’s Red Dress and The Angelica Touch.
A prolific and varied writing career, Lindsay! So when did it all begin?
I can remember writing poems when I was six or seven; I wrote my first book when I was nine. It was 56 pages of a journal and I can remember making the words very big towards the end to fill the pages. But I can also viscerally remember the intensity and excitement of putting those words down and seeing the story build. Very melodramatic, it was about a cousin who was due to visit Ireland only a witchdoctor substituted his daughter instead. There were voodoo dolls, poisoned chocolates, mind control, the whole lot.
And your publishing journey to date?
My first feature article was published in 1984 when I was 17 in the Evening Herald, after which I worked as a freelance journo until 1997 in Ireland, Australia and also for publications in Europe, the UK and the US, while writing plays on the side. I’d been steered towards journalism by my mother, creative fiction was meant to be the hobby. In 1989, I got my first book commission from a publisher. It was a history of the Olympia Theatre up to 1990, all based on original research after the music hall era since the records had all been dumped in the ‘50s. The day after I delivered the manuscript, the publisher went bankrupt. End of first publishing break! Then I wrote a few novels between 1993-96. I got nice replies from agents and publishers that said I fell between literary and popular fiction. I focused on screenwriting from 1997 onwards, but did return to rewrite those first books, but I never felt I got them right and put one aside. The other I will return to. In 2010 or so, I tried turning some of my family features scripts into books. Again, ‘polite’ no’s. There seemed to be a very real chance of Dad’s Red Dress being published by a traditional publisher in 2016 but when that fell through at the last hurdle, I decided to self publish in 2017. I self-published Dad’s Red Dress when I was Screenwriter in Residence in Maynooth Uni & Kildare Co Council Library & Arts Service because I had the time to focus on it. Then came The Angelica Touch in Feb 2018 and Write That Script in May 2018.
Do you have an agent, Lindsay?
I had one as a screenwriter from 1998-2012. The first ten years were great but in the end he was frustrated with the deals he was able to make with Irish producers. Since he wasn’t sourcing work for me or able to make better deals, I suggested we part ways for a year.15% is a lot to hand over unless they are actively earning you more in the deals you get. He was also only ever interested in dealing with TV and film work and I was also writing books and plays. Now, when I have a number of book projects at different stages, plus some TV series that seem to be of interest and a new play, I’m looking for an agent again. I want someone who is able to cope with the range of material I write and direct my energies!
How much of a contribution do you make to the marketing and PR of your work?
All of it. Trouble is I concentrate on it for a while but once I start writing, it gets put aside. This is definitely a mistake because then I lie awake at night thinking of all the opportunities I am missing by not sending the books here and there, not pushing them properly. I keep promising myself that I will organise my time better – put certain hours aside to do marketing and nothing else, but it hasn’t happened yet. When I do focus on it, it seems to take up the entire day and I go to bed frustrated at not getting enough creative work done!
Did anyone – famous or not – inspire you to write?
Eilís Dillon. I did a short course of hers in Listowel during Writer’s Week, in the late ‘80s or early 1990s. I missed one class – food poisoning – and when I came in the next day, I was greeted with, “So does anyone know who this Lindsay Sedgwick is”. Turned out they’d discussed my work at length the previous day, mostly flash fiction, possibly a play and she had been raving about it. When I told her I’d written for TV too, she turned around and said that basically the novel was all that was left and why didn’t I write one? I started two while I was there for the week but neither of them were strong enough to finish.
Have you formed any structure to your writing time?
Not really. Everything begins longhand. Then I’ll print it out and edit those pages. If I can’t settle into it or haven’t slept well (which is often), I sneak down to a local cafe with a chapter or two and scribble over a flat white. Then I find I’m itchy to get onto the computer and type it up and that gets me back into the world. I need chocolate nearby and walk the dog when I’ve been sitting too long. If it’s going well, I forget to eat and end up ravenous. That’s when pizza becomes the reward! I’m always burning food because I get wrapped up in work so I’ve learnt to put the timer on my phone. I can remember my daughter, when she was still quite young, maybe 8 or 9 appearing at my office door – at that time I worked in a shed in the back garden – asking me shouldn’t I have told her to go to bed. I’d lost track of time. But those are magical days when the work flows. A lot of time gets taken up with marketing, emails or trying to break the work I want to do into small chunks so that I can feel I’m making progress. Editing and re-editing seem to take so much more time than fresh writing. I have really productive days and days when I’ve achieved nothing. If I’m teaching, prep time for that will eat into the day too. I can be distracted easily most days and a good book will steal hours from me too! I often tend to take a bit of work that’s proving tricky to bed and force myself to brainstorm or edit it. It’s often the clearest time to work things out. On a good day I could be working at 8 and still working at 11 but there will be big glumps of time when I’m not doing anything remotely connected with writing in between and I only really have those days when my husband is away!
And on average, how long does it take you to complete a book?
Write That Script took a year, from the day I began to the day I received my proof copy. Dad’s Red Dress, which had been around in an earlier draft, I think I worked on it for about 6 months but then I had spent a few months on it earlier in 2016 and in 2015 so that’s not very accurate. The rewrite of Angelica, which had also been around in a very basic draft, took about 8 months but I was working on a lot of other stuff at the time. The current book, Moving On, is the sequel to dad’s Red Dress. I’ve been it at since July 2017 but I had the ending of it for about a year before that. I brainstormed ideas for it until September or so because I was working on Candlemist but I’m hoping to have the first draft finished by September 2018. Candlemist is my other book – and that goes back to 2005; I get a few months to work on it intensively and then something else comes up and I put it aside. At about 110,000 words unfinished, it has a dozen of more threads and I know that each of them needs to be tracked and traced through the book to make sure it all holds together. I worked on it from September to December last year, and now it’s like a sweets jar I can’t wait to dive into when I have a reasonable space of time to do so. So it varies, I guess. Another book, part memoir, has been around in some form from 2008 but I haven’t found the right narrative structure to underpin it yet.
In terms of genre, how would you describe your writing?
My first two novels don’t seem to fit a genre. I’d describe them as general fiction/ humour but because the main characters and 13 and fourteen respectively, bookshops have chosen to categorise them as YA. I think you have to write the stories you are passionate about. I do feel life would be less complicated if I wrote genre, just from a marketing pov but so far it hasn’t happened and I don’t think you can force it – unless someone is offering you payment; then you can write in any form and with passion, as I know from being a professional writer for 30 odd years! I do have two TV series that would make good genre novels/series and I’m actually really curious to know if I could make them work in prose because I love the characters and stories, but there are about five books in between waiting to get finished.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Writing is a muscle you have to keep using. Even when you don’t feel like it. Grab ten minutes here and there and make yourself write. On the bus, during a tea break, waiting for someone. Deliberately arrive early for a meeting or to pick your child up and write while you wait. Don’t expect to write brilliant or even good stuff each time you sit down – you have to write the bad stuff too but at least then it’s not in your head anymore.
Last question, Lindsay – is there a book by another writer that you wish you had written?
Love in the Time of the Cholera by Gabriel García Marquéz.