Friday, July 18, 2014

How to query #Hollywood through Twitter and other helpful #Screenwriting advice from @LydiaMulvey

Lydia Mulvey, photo courtesy of Lydia Mulvey
If you'd like to connect with on Twitter: LydiaMulvey
Lydia Mulvey is a self-taught screenwriter who currently has a script in development at Under the Stairs Entertainment. She was a 2006 finalist of the PAGE Screenwriting Contest and a winner of the BBC Sharps Contest. Lydia was awesome enough to stop by and share her thoughts on screenwriting contests, breaking into the business, and learning the craft. 

TL: You're a very accomplished screenwriter. How did you learn the craft?
 LM: Like many screenwriters, I'm self-taught. When I started writing scripts, I had to take a pretty ad hoc approach as there wasn't much information available in Ireland on the topic at the time. I bought a copy of William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting and devoured every page. Then I used the script of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the back of the book as a formatting guideline as this was the pre-Internet age. The first script I ever wrote was terrible. Not in a humblebrag way. It truly was awful. I still have it in a ring binder. I haven't looked at it in years. I'm not sure I ever will again. Then I wrote two more scripts which were less terrible but still pretty awful. I still have those scripts too. As a reminder of how far I've come as a writer. Writing is always a learning process no matter where you stand in the hierarchy but I'm far more confident in my skills and talent now than ever before.

TL: You're currently working with the production company Under the Stairs Entertainment on a sci-fi film called Zone 2. How did the partnership come about and what is Zone 2 about?
 LM: I first encountered Miranda Sajdak and Sandra Leviton at Under the Stairs Entertainment when I sent them a query last December and they agreed to read my feature thriller script Cold Crossing. I ultimately received a pass but they were very gracious and by then we were getting to know each other via social media.

Then in January of this year, Under the Stairs mentioned on Twitter that they would love to make a short film over the summer and wanted to read some scripts. I asked if I could send a few, they agreed and they loved Zone 2 and optioned the script. It's currently in development and you can see artwork for the script here.

The story is a sci-fi/horror and is about a mother and her disabled son who are trapped in the underworld of Zone 2 and must fight for survival...

TL: You're a screenwriting contest veteran, having been a finalist in the PAGE Screenwriting Contest and a winner of the BBC Sharps Contest. What did you submit for both contests, and what advice do you have for any aspiring screenwriters?
 LM: I was a finalist in the PAGE Screenwriting Contest way back in 2006. I submitted a much earlier version of Cold Crossing under the title of Human Error and was very honored to be among such talented finalists.

I submitted a half hour drama short called Piglet to the BBC Sharps Contest in 2008. This was a script that I wrote on the fly as I was deep into a feature, so I sent it off just before the deadline and promptly forgot about it. I was very honored to win the contest along with 9 other writers.

My advice to any aspiring screenwriters:
  • Be selective. Choose your contests wisely. There are a lot of scam contests there. Aim to enter the more prestigious contests such as the Nicholl, Austin, PAGE etc.
  • Be ready. Don't submit a sub-par script. You must feel happy with your work. Forget any "that'll do" attitude. It won't do. It really won't. Screenwriting contests are open to anyone willing to pay the entry fee. Readers have a lot of chaff to cut through before they get to the tasty wheat grains. Make sure your script is tasty wheat grain.
  • Submit your script, then forget about it. Seriously. You have to wait MONTHS before you hear back on contests. You'll drive yourself mad if you keep obsessing about it. So keep busy. Work on another script. Get a body of work behind you.
  • Don't treat screenplay contests as the be-all and end-all of everything. They are just one way into the industry. And even if you win, they are not guaranteed to open the door. So keep submitting elsewhere, keep making connections, keep networking. You don't win a screenplay contest and automatically earn a million dollars a script. You just don't.

TL: Did the PAGE contest connect you with Under the Stairs Entertainment? What opportunities opened up for you after becoming a finalist? 
LM: I hate to say this because I don't want to discourage anyone, but being a PAGE finalist opened up zero opportunities for me. I may have been a finalist but my script wasn't up to the standard that the industry demands. This was a harsh lesson for me and it took me a while to work through that.

Screenwriting contests help to identify writers who have talent and skill but in my case at least, I wasn't anywhere near as good as I needed to be to compete with writers already working in the industry.

I'd say the most useful thing I took away from the PAGE contest finalist placement (apart from the realization that I had a long road to travel in my writing) was that it made it slightly easier to get a read from agencies and managers. Of course, this is only my experience. Other people's mileage may vary (and I hope it does!).

Winning the BBC contest on the other hand... that was a dream. The 10 winners were taken on a week-long residential workshop where amazing people came to talk to us about the various facets of TV writing including pitching and continuing drama. We were given consultations on our winning scripts by industry professionals and we also developed new ideas during the week (I wrote a two-part TV script called One Blue Shoe, something I'd never done before).

The following year, four of us, including me, had excerpts of our new scripts performed at a rehearsed reading at the BBC studios. There is nothing more gratifying or terrifying than having your script performed live by actors you've seen on TV. My only regret is that at the time I didn't capitalize on the opportunities offered to me by winning the contest as much as I should have. But I learned so much from the experience, I met some wonderful people and it has certainly increased the number of read requests I get when I query.

TL: What other screenwriting contests do you recommend and why?
 LM: Obviously the first contest I'd recommend is the Nicholl. It's by far the most prestigious and winning is a life-changing event. But the chances of winning are incredibly small. However, it's one of the few contests where even being a quarter finalist can open doors. It still means that out of 7500 entries, you're in the top 350. That counts for a lot.

I'd also recommend Austin, although I've never entered myself. But I believe it's a terrific contest and offers tremendous opportunity to progress.

And Blue Cat is a contest I'd recommend if your script is more toward the indie end of the scale.

TL: What screenwriting websites with screenwriting advice would you recommend to other writers?
LM: The BBC writersroom is an excellent place for writers to find writing advice from established writers, read a range of TV scripts and avail of excellent opportunities. Many of the schemes are available only to UK/Ireland-based writers but occasionally international writers can submit.

The Black Board (which is the official forum of the Black List and Scott Myers' Go Into The Story blog) is another website that I'd recommend to writers, especially those just starting out. I'm now a moderator on there (so I admit I'm biased) but before I became a moderator, I found the forum an incredibly positive and encouraging place. Having fallen down deeply depressing writing rabbit holes on the Internet in the past, it was a breath of fresh air. Founder Shaula Evans oversees the forum to ensure it's welcoming, open, supportive and full of useful information.

I'd also highly recommend Script Chix, which is the writing blog & script consultancy service run by Sandra and Miranda of Under the Stairs. Their posts are both educational and entertaining for screenwriters. Sandra spent years working in the agency world and in the Current Programming Department at FX, working on shows like The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Louie to name a few. Miranda has experience in the feature realm, primarily, having worked in development departments for Bold Films (Drive), Practical Pictures (American Pie, Final Destination), and more, as well as in TV for showrunners of shows including Huge and China, IL. So they know their onions when it comes to screenwriting and I've definitely benefited from their collective expertise in relation to my own work.

TL: Thank you for the interview and for giving such great screenwriting advice. Is there anything you would like to add?
LM: I can only speak from my own experience but getting anywhere in screenwriting takes a long time. Longer than you think. So be patient. Take your time. Do the work. Don't be afraid to be terrible. Because when you start out, you almost certainly will be. But it's part of the process to get the bad stuff out of the way.

Don't show your first draft to anyone. Or even your second or third draft. And there are always more drafts than you think. Zone 2 went through 7 drafts after it was optioned (and numerous drafts when I was writing it initially). And there will probably be more when we get into production. And that's just a short script.

Get used to rejection. I can't stress that enough. And by "get used to it", I mean you should send queries out and enter contests and experience the rejection so that you understand what it feels like. Only by experiencing it can you learn how to deal with it. I'm at the point where it doesn't trouble me at all. It's just part of the process. And if you can learn not to take it personally, you're already on your way.

Some spec scripts take years to write. Some only a few months. Don't rush the slow ideas. I've been working on one idea for the best part of two years now. And it's still in the prep stage.

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