Taiwanese screenwriter shares insider secrets
Luo Qian Ni, Taiwan
Story by Koh Eng Beng | Photos by Charmaine Wu
Taiwanese idol drama shows were all the rage in Singapore in the early 2000s. Remember 流星花园 (Meteor Shower) and 海派甜心 (Hi My Sweetheart)?
Guess what? I met up with Luo Qian Ni (羅茜妮), the screenwriter for海派甜心 (Hi My Sweetheart), in Taipei.
It was nominated in five categories at the 45th Golden Bell Awards in 2010, including Best Television Series and Best Actor for Show Luo (罗志祥).
Rainie Yang (杨丞琳) who portrayed Chen Bao Zhu in the drama, won Best Actress.
After 海派甜心, Qian Ni went on to create drama hits like 1989一念间 and 莫非这就是爱情.
Her screenwriting journey
She became a screenwriter (also known as scriptwriter) by accident.
After graduating from Chinese Culture University with a degree in Chinese Literature, she worked as an editorial planner in a magazine publishing company. But the company closed down after her boss went on the run from a money laundering and corruption scandal.
Armed with zero screenwriting experience, Qian Ni applied for a new job at Comic Ritz (可米瑞智), a TV production company.
She had to go through five rounds of interview, including a three-day writing test.
She wrote a 15,000-words story proposal which won her an interview with Angie Chai (柴智屏), the renowned producer of Super Sunday (超级星期天) and Meteor Shower (流星花园).
Angie Chai gave Qian Ni her first big break in the industry, as part of the production team of 海派甜心 (Hi My Sweetheart).
There were ups and downs in her journey. As a rookie screenwriter with no stable income, Qian Ni took on any jobs that came and set up an online clothes shop to make ends meet.
She also suffered from self-doubts. Halfway through a drama production, Qian Ni was told that her service was no longer needed. Speaking in mandarin, she recalled: “The producer asked if I had given my best effort. Perhaps it was a hint that my best effort was not good enough.
“You can still make a living with 60/100 standard. There are many such screenwriters around, it’s just that you can’t be a great screenwriter.
“Just a few years, I still wasn’t sure if I had the talent to cut it… today I give myself 70 out of 100.
“I worked extremely hard. I’d go to the supervising screenwriter’s place, kept writing away till the next morning. I’d go back home after I clarify all my doubts, get some sleep, wake up and continue writing.”
In this Q&A, Qian Ni shares her journey on how she becomes a top screenwriter. You will get an insider glimpse into her life, and pick up tips on how to write a good drama script and how you can enter the TV industry.
Me: Why did you choose to study Chinese Literature?
Qian Ni: It’s because of my interest, not in language, but in reading. I am able to connect more with words, compared to subjects like mathematics and sciences. I actually wanted to major in history or philosophy but I felt that there were no career prospects.
The Chinese Literature course that I took was not your traditional language studies, but more of creative writing. If you don’t understand any difficult Chinese characters, please don’t ask me for help because I can't! Many people think that Chinese undergraduates study stuffs like ancient Chinese (古文) and should know all the Chinese characters, but what I studied was creative writing.
In university, we were given a long reading list, we would read these works and pen our thoughts. I write more artsy stuffs in the past, but now after stepping into the work force, my writing style has become practical.
After graduation, I worked in a publishing company as an editorial planner for magazine. But the company soon closed down. I then applied for a job at Comic Ritz International Production (可米瑞智).
Since I liked to read and write, I felt that I could take on the job. Also, it was my childhood dream to be a comic artist or novelist.
There were five rounds of interview. In the first round, I had to complete a 15,000-word proposal within three days, outlining the storyline and characters. I had studied novels, poems and stuffs in university but this was something new to me.
I went home to work on it and submitted my proposal. A week later, the hiring manager called me to go for an interview.
During the interview, he asked the usual questions like, why I wanted this job, blah blah blah… After this interview, the third round was another interview.
When I was there, I saw many copies of submissions from other candidates. I realised this was how they screened for serious candidates. There were probably 300 over people who applied for the job, but only 100 of them completed the 15,000-word proposals within three days.
During the interview with the assistant head, he asked me to talk about my story idea. He told me he would recommend me for the job. Another five days later, I got to meet the boss.
In the fifth round, I met Angie Chai (柴智屏), renowned TV producer in Taiwan, who produced Meteor Shower (流星花园) and Super Sunday（超级星期天). On her table were four submissions from candidates who survived the cull. She asked me what do I want to do. There were a few roles like planner, editor, producer, and post-production.
Out of the four candidates, two became planners while the last girl and I went into screenwriting.
Angie asked if we wanted to try writing straightaway and threw us a script. The first episode of Hi, My Sweetheart had already aired on TV back then.
She gave us this document called 分场, that laid out what’s the broad storyline for this episode. We had to think about the details, how to develop the story. We went back, studied the format of the script given to us and began writing.
I had not written a script before. The only time I did something related to scripting was a cinema studies class by Taiwanese writer Li Ang (李昂). She’s famous for her novel The Butcher’s Wife (杀夫).
In her class, we watched films and transcribed the dialogue for selected scenes. But this was not screenwriting as we got to watch the film first before writing.
It seems like a screenwriter has to have great imagination, to conjure up a scene. Where do you get your inspiration?
It’s about how much you have seen or know, and whether you have immersed yourself into the character’s role. What does the character do or say? You have to think as if you are THE character.
It was very painful when I wrote my first few episodes. Let’s say I have only two days to complete a script with you as a co-screenwriter. We agreed that the character is a cheerful person, but you and I may interpret ‘cheerful’ differently.
As a result, we have inconsistencies in our scripts. The supervising screenwriter has to come in to do the moderation, tell us exactly what is the right direction to go.
Which drama is your best script?
I don’t think I have produced my definitive piece of work yet. In Taiwan, a screenwriter does not have the final say; the manager, supervisor and even actors can amend your script.
For example, “1989 一念間”, one of the popular drama shows in Taiwan last year, I was quite happy with my script. But the TV station boss said we shouldn’t do this and that. Since he’s the guy who paid our salaries, we went ahead with his decision.
How much time do you need to write a script?
A script for one episode (lasting 90 minutes) is about 20,000-word long. I may take about two days to write if I have to be fast, otherwise I can take up to a week or so.
For drama that is already showing on TV while the next episodes are still being filmed, you have to write really fast. Sometimes, you don’t even have time to sleep. You may receive a call from the producer at 2am, “Hey, everyone is waiting for your script.”
You have no choice but to crawl out of bed and keep writing. You just got to finish it. No ifs or buts. You don’t have the luxury of time to check if your work is good or not because it’s already so difficult to type out the words. This is a tough line. You need to have a lot of passion for screenwriting.
What is considered a good script?
There is no such thing as a good script. It is subjective. Anyone can nit-pick something they don’t like about a script. It’s the same for work by award-winning writers like Li Ang. I can only say there are only scripts that I am satisfied with. I have done my best, I feel that the script is ok, it’s nice to watch.
Do you watch the drama after you finished writing the scripts?
Yes, of course, for drama that is on-going. Let’s say I am now writing the script for episode 9, I might be watching episode 5 on TV. “Oh my god, I wanted the actress to cry, why did she do this?” Of course, there are actors who really brought out the characters the way I wanted, and there are those who failed. Or the director may drop a scene. All these are not unusual.
What’s your daily routine?
I don’t have a routine. It depends on my mood and whether I have a deadline to meet. Sometimes, I may sleep in the day time, or I may watch a movie or read a book.
But there are screenwriters who are very disciplined and hardworking. They stick to a routine, wake up at 7am everyday and start writing till lunch. But I can’t do it. I may wake up in the middle of the night to write.
If I have to write a script for a drama that’s currently screening on TV, I have to write every day non-stop. I have to attend meeting, write, attend meeting, and write. I have no choice but to start writing the moment I wake up. I would eat my breakfast while I type on my laptop. Occasionally, by lunch time, I might so be engrossed with writing that I may have not touched my breakfast at all.
If I am not rushed for time, let’s say I received my brief today and I have ten days to complete the script, I would take my time to ‘warm up’. I may go to a cafe, get into the mood, take my laptop out, think about what to write. I can spend a long time thinking, but only use two days to do the actual writing.
If my deadline is tomorrow 12pm, I will burn the midnight oil. But different writers have different working style. Some may work better with an office routine: wake up at 7am, start writing, have lunch, and continue writing. Such writers are usually mothers who have to wake up early, and follow the routine of their children.
How do you get into the mood for writing?
I play music. As to what type of music, it depends on the drama I am working on. If it is a happy drama, I play lively music. Recently I was working on a period drama (古装), so I played classical music like 三生三世十里桃花.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Of course, I do. I tend to spend a lot more time on the opening scene. I always get writer’s block at the start. But once I get past the beginning, it would be smooth-sailing.
I need time to warm up, to get the ‘feel’ and into the ‘space’. It’s like being possessed (by the character). In other words, it’s hard to be ‘possessed’ right at the start; I’d still be living in my own world, but once I’m ‘possessed’, I can write faster.
At times I may feel that certain lines can be written in a better way, I will highlight it first, and continue writing the rest of the script. I will come back to it later.
An hour before submission, I read the script verbally one last time. I have never finished a script way before deadline. I always submit it at the last moment. Deadline gives me the pressure to finish my work.
How do you keep yourself motivated? How do you recharge?
I write different genres of drama like comedy, romance, mystery, time travel and period. Every genre has its uniqueness. If I keep writing the same genre, I would feel bored. I would take on other projects instead.
But taking on a different genre means you have to start all over again because each genre demands a different way of writing. As you dabble in different genres, you’ll learn to think from different perspectives.
I have always wanted to write fantasy period drama (古装，仙侠) because I read a lot of such books. But my screenwriting experience is mostly in modern idol or romance dramas.
If you have no experience in a particular genre, how do you prepare yourself?
I will do research. For example, recently I had to write about a drama about work in a hotel. I joined a WeChat group with members working in the hospitality industry. They shared insider tips on what to avoid when you stay in a particular hotel in mainland China. For example, never use the kettle in the hotel room because there were inconsiderate visitors who used the kettle to ‘sterilise’ their underwear.
Have you ever worried about not earning enough money as a freelancer?
Of course, I was worried. I left Comic Ritz in 2011 to freelance. I could only survive if I have scripts to write. Sometimes I got my pay late because of delay to the TV production.
To make ends meet, I took on odd jobs that came along the way. I also sold clothes online to supplement my living expenses. When I was in university, I worked part-time in a fashion store so I knew the suppliers in the industry.
As my screenwriting business stabilised, I stopped selling clothes and concentrated fully on writing.
Since it was financially unstable to go freelance, why did you leave your company?
I feel that no screenwriters can write a proper script in an office. The office environment with all the square cubicles is not conducive. I can’t write in a ‘boring’ environment. I prefer to have the freedom to choose where I want to work, whether it’s home or outside. I write mostly at home. I used to write in a library.
I am doing well now but I wouldn’t say I am extremely successful. Let’s just say I have no problem making a living and need not worry about money.
In the past, I would be worried about not having clients because I had just started out. No one knew me, and I was hoping that someone would introduce me to the right people. In the screenwriting line, almost no one look for jobs online, most people depends on referrals. “Hey, are you free to help me write for this drama?”
I did not do any marketing or promotion; I relied on fate and luck. As I wrote more scripts, I got to work with and know more people. We worked well together, and they kept referring clients to me.
One crucial quality that a screenwriter needs to have is responsibility. You have to remain contactable at all times. Quite a number of screenwriters simply ignore phone calls when they can’t finish writing. The drama producer would be very worried because he or she does not know what’s the progress at your end. “Whether or not you are able to produce the script, the filming has to go on. You have to tell me your progress!”
I am a responsible person, I have never ‘disappeared’ from the radar. My phone is on 24/7, anyone can contact me anytime. If I am stuck, I would tell you I’m having a writer’s block. I would ask if you could help me. If I really can’t produce the work, I would tell you straightaway. This is perhaps one of the reasons why I could survive in this industry.
What’s your dream? What are your future plans?
I have written various genres of drama like period, comedy, mystery, crime, romance, idol and more. But there is one genre that I wouldn’t write anymore — the “8pm melodrama” that centers around the conflict between the wife and her mother-in-law (婆妈剧). I have no passion for it.
Right now what I feel like writing is period drama, and period fantasy drama like The Journey of Flower (花千骨) and Eternal Love (三生三世十里桃花).
As for my dream, it’s alway changing. When I hit a goal, I would move to the next goal. You can say that I don’t really have a dream actually as I have not really thought about it. I need to get there before I can find out what I want next. I just have to keep doing what I have to do.
What advice would you give to undergraduates doing Chinese studies or literature?
It depends on what you would like to do, right? If you want to be a screenwriter, you may want to follow my route. But it’s just one of the many possible routes.
I have a friend who took part in a screenwriting competition and won a merit award with NTD50,000 cash. In a competition, you don’t have to deal with demands from the actors and producers. No one is controlling you. You have the freedom to write what you want. Taking part in competition also allows you to benchmark your writing skills. Even if you don’t win any awards, you still benefit from the exposure. Getting to know the industry people is important because someone may just offer you a job.
When you start working (as a freelancer), your income may not be stable. You can do some part-time jobs to supplement your income. Some people approach senior/supervising screenwriters and offer to work for free in order to gain working experience. They may offer you a modest salary.
You can also attend a screenwriting class conducted by TV stations. It’s quite popular in Taiwan in recent years. You get to learn professional skills that are not taught in universities. That said, my opinion is that you need to have certain talent and flair to work in this industry.