Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #014 with Lucy Dwyer.
With a background as a TV producer, Lucy shifted focus to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. She’s super-inspiring with her competition success, skill for writing authentic dialogue, and keen understanding of the industry. Writing in a partnership, Lucy has been busy developing a series over Zoom.
When did you start writing?
I really got into writing around the end of primary school. I remember making a book and getting good feedback about doing a joke about a power source, which turned out to actually be power sauce. The tiny sniff of approval was all I needed to spend the rest of my life chasing that first high.
I loved writing stories and was much better at writing those essays at school where you have to pretend to be a character in one of the set texts rather than dissecting what it was about which, as we all know, was bor-ing.
I write both comedy and drama, but my love of comedy was the early entry point for me, I think. Victoria Wood, French and Saunders, Only Fools and Horses, The Young Ones, Rab C Nesbitt, Cannon and Ball. I begged, borrowed and asked Father Christmas for any scripts I could lay my hands on. In 6th form I wrote sketches (blatantly ripping off Monty Python) and inflicted them on the whole school in end of year shows.
I write because I really love telling stories, engaging an audience and taking them on a journey. I especially love telling stories with a twist that take you somewhere you aren’t expecting
Before you were working as a writer, you were a producer. What led to the shift in focus?
I’d always wanted to write and producing was an end product of that, I think. I thought working in television would be a path for me to sidestep into writing, but it just didn’t happen because working in production in television (and film) is a super full-time job and there was literally no time for it. As a producer I was writing to a degree – links, V/O script etc…, but what I really wanted to do was scripted.
I loved working in comedy and entertainment non-scripted and had amazing times, met awesome people, made some fabulous friends, and worked on some really special productions (I’m looking at you Eurovision). Working my way up from prod sec to producer, with lots of stints in development along the way, was a really good education in how production works.
The shift in focus came after the birth of my daughter and it really forced me to prioritize what I wanted to do and think about what was important to me. So in-between poo explosions and naps I just cracked on. Probably the worst time to decide to do anything that requires long periods of concentration, but the deadline of a squawking baby really focused and motivated me.
When the little squawker became more child shaped, I got to work with Graham Linehan and he said nice things about my writing and I was also a finalist in that years Funny Women Comedy Writing Awards. That gave me the confidence that I was moving in the right direction.
From your production experience, what advice do you have for writers when they reach out to industry people?
Before reaching out, think about where your project sits tonally and look to connect with producers and production companies that you feel have a similar taste.
Be polite and concise. Know what you’re asking for. Whatever you do don’t send out a rambly e-mail.
Be persistent, but not stalky. Send the e-mail but don’t expect to hear from them immediately. At the four week mark give them a polite nudge. Don’t send a script out on an initial intro e-mail. Introduce yourself, say why you like their work, and ask if you could send a script, the logline and why you think that script might be a good fit for them. This goes for agents and producers. If someone gets back to you with notes thank them for the time it’s taken them to read and feedback with constructive criticism.
You write with a partner (Kirsty Smith). How does the partnership work and what tips do you have for people who want to write as a team?
Kirsty is based in Leeds and I’m in London so most of our work is done speaking across the internet every day. We brainstorm ideas and think about which ones we’re really passionate about and want to write. We’ll got through everything we want the project to be and one of us will have a stab at a one pager and then the other will edit it / re-write it and we’ll both feed into it until we’re happy it’s the best that it can be and gives a really good sense of the project.
When we’re writing a script, we’ll beat it out together and then we split the beats up to write scenes. We know our characters and world really well by the time we start writing, so it’s got a fairly unified voice. We then stitch the whole script together and go through with notes and basically re-write each other’s stuff!
To work in a writing partnership, you’ve got to leave your ego at the door. Be open to notes but fight for something if you know it’s good – but make sure you’re fighting for it because it’s best for the project. Both of you need to have the best interest of the project at heart – if stuff gets cut / changed it’s not about you, it’s about the writing best serving the project. Work with people you like and can have a laugh with – and someone you can be honest with. Kirsty and I have been friends for a really long time and have a good idea of what we like, and a very similar sense of humour. If I can make Kirsty laugh, then I know it’s good.
You’ve been successful with some of the biggest writing competitions around. How can writers make their submissions stand out from the crowd?
Competitions are a really good way of getting your work in front of industry figures. Being a finalist in the Sid Gentle Thousand Films competition opened loads of doors for us: we had meetings with agents, production companies and it inadvertently led to us working with Lime Pictures.
Make sure the script is the best it can be before sending it in – don’t rush it just for the deadline. The projects that Kirsty and I write are ones that we’re really passionate about. Make sure it’s a unique idea that’s not been done before, or it’s from a unique viewpoint that we don’t see very often. Those first pages need to intro your characters and world in a really hooky way – you need to make the reader desperate to finish the rest of the script. Format the script professionally – Celtx is a good free cloud-based tool.
At what point did you sign with an agent and how did it happen?
We both signed with the brilliant Julia Mills at Berlin Associates in March 2020, just before lockdown.
After placing highly in competitions and generating a bit of work for ourselves, we started to appear on agents’ radars. After some nice chats and even nicer offers we decided to go with Julia as she really got us, was super enthusiastic about our work, understood what we wanted to do and wanted to be part of our team.
You’re currently developing a series with Lime Pictures. Can you tell us a bit about the experience?
We first got to know Lime Pictures when we went to the Edinburgh TV Festival with Sid Gentle as part of the Thousand Films competition. There were speed meeting events and we signed up to talk to anyone that we thought had similar interests to us. We got on really well with Lime and e-mailed them a couple of examples of our work and went up for a chat with the scripted development team.
We had the characters for a teen mystery series and an idea of where we wanted to take them and how that world worked. We’d previously written DIRTY WORK, the comedy drama we’d entered for Thousand Films, which had a mystery set in a different world and also a children’s sitcom based on solving mysteries. They were really keen on the idea, so we worked up a short treatment with their input and they optioned it.
We met with the team over Zoom and really went through the idea with a fine tooth comb, looking at storylines, characters, world and tone. Kirsty and I went away and wrote an in-depth treatment and sent it back. Lime came back with some great notes and questions for us to consider and we went away and worked through those before sending over the next draft. After a few drafts it was signed off, and now they’re taking it out to broadcasters, which is very exciting. It was such a brilliant experience and we loved working with the Lime team.
For many writers, the idea of pitching is terrifying. What advice do you have?
Oh god, well, if it helps, I still find it terrifying and my natural defence mechanism usually kicks in which is making wildly inappropriate jokes. Really it’s all about the preparation. Make the initial pitch concise and attention grabbing – intro the world, the characters, the story, why you’re the person to write this and why this story needs to be told now. Just really get across your passion for the project.
Also don’t cut up or be rude to anyone on the way to your meeting (if it’s happening in the real world) because you just know that person will be the person you’re pitching to. Obviously if you’re pitching on Zoom then feel free to call your cat a bastard on the way to your computer.
Often new writers are unsure about what work should be produced for free and when it’s reasonable to start asking for money. What advice do you have for anyone who may be in this situation?
I mean, I think it’s reasonable to start asking for money when production companies want more than a short treatment i.e. a ten page treatment with story arcs and character biogs. And if they want to heavily feed in to the idea. I think it also slightly depends on where you are in your writing career as well. If you’re relatively new you then you have to prove yourself a bit more so that people know you can execute your brilliant idea. Which is annoying, because of course you can, but as a newer writer you are more of a risk.
For Lime, we sent them a short treatment with what the idea could be, brief character outlines, potential online tie-ins (360 degree platform folks!). I think it was around 4 or 5 pages. They liked the idea and possibilities so optioned it and then fed into how we created the world. They were great and really supportive, encouraging us to make it into what we wanted.
What’s your top tip for writing dialogue?
Don’t feel you have to have the characters explain too much about their situation. In real life no-one goes around going ‘Oh I’m just going to the toilet because I really need a wee’, for example. They just go.
There’s a lot of information that we hold in our heads, that we don’t need to explain to anyone else, and that’s exactly how the characters should behave in your script. Cut away the dialogue until you only have what’s necessary. It’ll stop it being too clunky and filled with a tonne of exposition.
When you’re out and about (much more difficult to do at the moment, granted) eavesdrop on conversations in cafes, buses, trains, supermarket, school playground. Listen out for tone, rhythm etc… People don’t speak in perfect sentences.
What are your current writing goals?
We are trying to build up our credits at the moment, so would love the opportunity to write episodes for existing shows. We’re developing a few ideas which we’re working up into one pagers and are also working on a new script. Obviously we’d like to get some more options and would love a script commission! Coming from a development background Kirsty and I both are both used to pitching ideas and working collaboratively, so would love to be part of a writing room.
If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to yourself at the start of your career?
Persistence is key. Keep putting yourself out there even if you get nos. Very early on I think I let knock backs get to me, which led to me sulk and not write for a bit. Yeah, that showed them! When I’ve stumbled across the those e-mails from aeons ago (alright, yes I searched for them) they weren’t that terrible and I wondered what on earth I was thinking. One even said they liked my dialogue and to get back in touch with any other projects and I DIDN’T because I clearly had a great big stropper. Ridiculous. Go to your room.
What’s the worst thing about being a writer?
The rejection. You are going to hear ‘no’ A LOT and you have to get used to it. The project might not be the right fit for the producer / production company, they might already have something similar on the slate. Ideas are everywhere. If you’ve had it, you can pretty much guarantee that thought has occurred to someone else. But the difference between you and that someone else should be a) the fact you’re going to do something about it and finish it (this is VERY important, and more people fall at this hurdle than you think) and b) you’re going to write it in such a unique way particular to your voice that people can’t turn it down.
Can you recommend any books or scripts that every writer should read?
Books about writing are great, but nothing beats reading scripts and breaking them down to figure out how / why they work, and for this the BBC Writersroom script library is brilliant. I try to track down anything that I’ve connected with and think is particularly brilliant and want to figure out how it was done and steal it.
For books: Save The Cat by Blake Snyder, Into The Woods by John Yorke, Adventures In The Screen Trade by William Goldman, On Writing by Stephen King, Story by Robert McKee. Dan Harmon’s 101 story circle is also great.
If you could reboot any TV series or movie from history, what would it be and how would you bring it up-to-date?
I don’t want to reboot any TV series or movie from history because there are more than enough new, exciting, diverse stories begging to be made and lots of brilliant talented people who want to make them.
What makes you laugh more than anything?
Good, old fashioned left-field silliness, something that you can’t see coming. A man falling through a bar hatch, a woman disappearing into a puddle, hairy babies.
Recently I’ve really enjoyed Truth Seekers, Famalam (basically anything with Samson Kayo in), Ghosts, The Year of The Rabbit, Enterprice, Stath Lets Flats, The Duchess, PEN15. Fergus Craig’s Dad tweets and excerpts from his Roger Le Carre books are brilliant. Some of the people that make me regularly cry with laughter are Lolly Adefope, Melissa McCarthy, Sharon Horgan, Kate McKinnon, Natasia Demetriou, Tiffany Haddish, Julia Davis, Maya Rudolph, Vicky Pepperdine, Lesley Jones, Kristen Wiig, Susan Wokoma, and Katherine Ryan.
You can follow Lucy on Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, visit her profile with Berlin Associates and watch her CBBC Sparks monologue.
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