I read about other writers who’ve gotten reads, representation, options and even production. There must have been something quite special about those letters (and scripts) to get those machines in motion.
There are also a select number of writers who’ve never had to use a query letter. Bully for them, I say. But I’ve never fallen into that category, so I’m firmly planted in the “those who send” group, which is still fine.
Taking a look at the somewhat limited results of my past efforts and reading about others’ experience makes me wonder in a “big picture” way about the nature and concept of the query letters themselves.
Are they worth the effort?
Naturally, if something happens as a result, of course they are. But even that appears to be a needle-in-a-haystack kind of scenario.
(Incidentally, any tales of query success are more than welcome in the comments section.)
There are so many factors to take into account, including but not limited to:
-who you’re sending to
-what kind of material they want
-they’re intrigued enough to want to read the script
-your script is a good match (or at least close enough) to what they want
-they think your writing’s strong enough
-they think they can make something happen with your script
Several years ago, an agent who’d struck out on their own (along with a sole assistant) told me that their office received approximately 75-100 queries a week. From around the world. Some were good, most were awful. A significant part of each morning was spent sorting through them. As you’d imagine, finding one, possibly two, that clicked seemed to be the norm.
Remember, this was a two-person operation. If they were getting that many, imagine how many the mega-agencies were getting, and still are. Possibly in the thousands.
The chances of success are minuscule, and grow smaller with each progressive step. Those not exactly in the know are more likely to think they’re the exception, but those of us who’ve been down this road before know better.
This isn’t to say that queries never work, but the odds definitely appear to be not in our favor. Luck and timing seem to also play significant parts. Maybe the person you’ve sent to just happens to be looking for a script exactly like yours. I’ve heard it does happen; just not very often.
But the dedicated, persistent and determined among us, including yours truly, will keep at it.
Even though my success rate hasn’t been the best, I’ll continue to do the research, find potential recipients, craft what I believe is a solid query, and send it out.
All that’s left is to wait, hope for the best, and keep busy working on other scripts, each of which will probably also have its own respective query letter get sent out sometime in the near future.
*And considering this doesn’t cost you anything to begin with, that’s the best deal you’ll get today.
The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Miranda Sajdak and Sandra Leviton of Script Chix.
1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?
BUTCHER HOLLER by Daniel Shea
2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?
M – Started off as an intern in Hollywood doing the typical script-reading duties. Moved on to being an assistant and continued to do coverage there. Eventually found myself reading for friends and family on the side, and realized (around the same time as Sandra did) that it was a good idea to monetize some of this so as not to just be doing it in my free time. Ended up simultaneously being asked to read for various studios/companies, and turned all that experience around into Script Chix!
S – I believe I read my first script in college, though as a kid, I liked to watch movies and transcribe them. It took hours, but I loved it. The internet wasn’t really a thing yet, so there was no easy access to them. However, professionally, I started reading as an intern doing short coverages for executives during staffing season. My subsequent jobs at an agency and a cable network had me reading all of the time – for potential clients, development, and show staffing. Giving notes to clients, friends, and others who needed feedback was part of my daily life. When I decided to leave my network gig and go out on my own, doing it professionally seemed like a natural transition. As soon as friends at another cable network heard my news, they offered me a spot as one of their book readers. Around the same time, Miranda and I teamed up, and the rest is Script Chix history.
3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?
M – Somewhat. The biggest thing here is to read as much as possible. We see scripts from writers who clearly don’t read screenplays regularly. The more you read, the more you’re able to recognize. Some of it is likely innate – and it should start early, before you get to Hollywood and decide you want to make movies – but, sure, recognizing what works just comes from reading more.
S – Reading is both objective and subjective. When we give notes, we try to focus on the objective. Even if we personally don’t like a character, a plotline, or concept, we can recognize that it written well, and it’s just not our personal taste. So yes, being able to recognize good writing can be taught; some things are obvious like formatting. However, it takes years of learning and practice to be able to both identify what is good and to be able to separate your own opinions/ taste from it.
4. What are the components of a good script?
S & M – There’s a number of things, but most importantly, a compelling story with multi-dimensional characters. Believable moments that still feel fresh. Strong narrative voice. Imagination and marketability. We would also include formatting in this list. It’s not a sexy component, but it is an important one. The story can be amazing, but if the formatting is off, it’s distracting, and most readers won’t be able to pay attention to greatness of the script.
5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?
S & M – The biggest one we see, by far, is lack of formatting and proofreading. Bad character introductions. Lazy concept. Writing from experience, but instead of dramatizing the “true story that really happened” to the writer, it’s a regurgitation. Not understanding the difference between edgy and outright offensive or mean. One-dimensional or non-existent women and minorities. Some of these are not necessarily mistakes, but they’re all definitely problems we encounter often.
6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?
M – Refrigerator women. Lack of women and minorities. One-dimensional women.
S – Stories about Hollywood, writers, and nights out with the boys. Every writer at some point writes a script about being a struggling writer in Hollywood or their lead male protagonist is a sensitive writer that gets their heart broken. Also behind the scenes of reality TV – this is starting to become a thing. People tend to write what they know and unfortunately, all they know is trying to make it in Hollywood. Unfortunately for them, no executive wants to read this and no audience wants to see it. So if a writer must write this story, do it, get it out of your system, and move on to something more original. Draw from life experience – get out there and enjoy the world, feel heartbreak, and get into trouble (but not too much). The “night out/ retail job with the boys picking up women” is also the most common one we see in fledgling comedy writers. It’s another case of writing what you know. These stories don’t work because they are usually re-tellings of actual experiences that are not particularly dramatic or funny to anyone outside of the people who experienced it. Additionally, the humor only comes from insulting women. Just because making fun of a woman was hysterical to you and your boys in the moment doesn’t make it funny or appealing to anyone else.
7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?
M – Write. Read. Revise.
S – Persistence, practice, and patience.
8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?
M – Yes! And it just finished shooting! “A teenage con artist tricks a desperate mother into hiring her as a live-in companion for her autistic daughter.”
S – I agree with M. That script is amazing. Honestly, it’s tough to give a blanket “recommend” because each company and client we work with has their own specific mandates of what they are looking for, so it needs to be tailored to their needs. A script that I loved recently, like goosebump-inducing loved is “With the help of a crotchety old neighbor and his garden, a young woman’s world comes alive.” It sounds a bit generic, but it was beautifully written and full of magic with a hint of surrealism.
9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?
S & M – Absolutely worth it, but not all of them. Do your research. See which contests have a track record of success for the writers who’ve won. Look at what the prizes are. If the only prize is that you won the contest, it’s probably not that worthwhile (unless it’s a big name like Nicholl or Page). And look at things like fellowships, as well. If they want you to pay but aren’t giving you anything WORTHWHILE in return, it’s not worth it.
That said… if you’re starting out and still sending out queries and you haven’t won anything or been published or produced – enter contests. Get some prestige next to your name, even if it is just “winner of miscellaneous contest.” It helps in general, but it mostly helps if the contest is considered reputable.
10. How can people can get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?