Lynsey Murdoch is a Scottish screenwriter; based in Glasgow who has just been signed by the Hollywood management agency Zero Gravity. She’s got an outstanding oeuvre of work across theatre, film and television and she’s very kindly agreed to share her writing story.
Pens at the ready because her story will get you back to your desk immediately to carry on your writing adventure.
Who are some of your favourite writers of stories right now?
I keep going back to Jordan Peele’s work, his scripts have a real pertinence and resonance with big societal issues while also being entertaining… It’s something I want to achieve in my own work.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Michaela Coel have made me so much braver in my own writing, they’re so bold. I often think of Phoebe’s quote on creativity which I shall paraphrase here for you right now: ‘What would you write if you weren’t afraid.’ I try to remember that and do the same.
Novel wise, Maria Popova is amazing — I’m reading her book Figuring just now which I’d love to adapt into a screenplay. I’m also a big fan of Carlos Ruiz Zafón and his Cemetery of Forgotten Books quadrilogy, such beautiful writing.
Can you tell us the first film that made you want to write scripts? Or if the journey started with another medium like novels or theatre. What was the first story that made you think ‘I want some of that.’
Like a lot of UK families, we were all about the TV: it was the camp fire of our house. We never went to the theatre when I was a kid but trips to the cinema and couch potato-ing in front of the box: yes! It was escape, a window into another world… I remember us all watching a cheesy afternoon soap and having a strong feeling that I wanted to do that.
What specifically I didn’t know but seeing my families reaction, their laughter, their dedication to the stories…Oh my god, I’ve come to realise that I’m a cliche and I’m doing all this to please my parents.
Can you tell us about your first ever piece of writing?
It was when I was really young, about eleven and it was an idea for an animation. I sent it to Disney in the US! Punch above your weight why don’t you, young Murdoch? I even enhanced the outline by drawing the characters (cringe!) Months later I got a rejection letter from a very nice lady at Disney and I remember having to look up what ‘unsolicited’ meant in the dictionary.
My next piece of writing was about a decade later — a one woman show that I performed in at a fringe theatre festival. Glad to say, it was a bit better although still a bit cringe.
Your theatre cv is fabulous. Can you tell us about the first time you saw your work performed and thought ‘wow, that’s cool.’ Your first moment with something you had created.
It was a short piece of theatre called Nimrod that was performed at the Tron Theatre as part of Scenes Unseen, a festival of new writing produced by the brilliant Natalie Toyne and her company New Inck. It wasn’t the first piece I’d written and had seen performed but I remember being really proud of it — mainly because the actors and direction were terrific, nothing to do with me!
That’s the beauty of collaboration — the excitement of seeing what that particular set of actors, directors and creatives bring to it. It’s such a joy.
Can you tell us about a seminal moment or person on your writing journey?
Yes, meeting actor Murray Melvin. I was working for the Young People’s Theatre department at Theatre Royal Stratford East on the Oh, What a Lovely War project. Murray would advise us as he was in the original production that Joan Littlewood, the ‘Mother of Modern Theatre’, directed.
He’s such a legend, searingly intelligent and so positive. He infused in me, as did my whole team at that theatre, that my working class voice mattered and that giving unheard voices a platform was vital and necessary if things were going to change.
Stories allow us to empathise, understand and realise we have more similarities than differences.
He wrote me a letter when I left the company and moved back to Glasgow. It’s something I’ll treasure forever.
You’ve won awards for your short scripts and been selected for some of the best writing programs and fellowships here in the UK. Was it always part of your strategy to take this particular trajectory. Did you have a clear sight of where you wanted to get to and how?
I wish I had that clear sight! To be honest, if I saw that a fellowship/program was open and felt I had the right project for it then I’d apply and cross my fingers. I’ve been rejected from just as many as I’ve been accepted into.
I knew I wanted representation in the US as I had ideas set there and I love a lot of US TV and film but I also knew I wanted to write period pieces with a punky edge set in the UK… so I let the work lead the way which sounds a bit naff but it’s true.
I go with my instincts on things rather than plan — I’m not saying that’s necessarily a good thing!
Writing is hard, it takes time and is so absorbing so you’ve got the love it…I guess tuning into that and letting it guide you makes sense in a way.
Maybe it’s just me, but I find the process of submitting work to agents and competitions full of highs and lows and keeping faith in your writing can be difficult. Would you agree with that, and how have you dealt with the lows?
Yes, riding the lows and keeping your head up is a big part of navigating this industry. It happens to every one of us and it’s okay to feel disappointed and frustrated. Of course, there’s gender and racial bias which has meant people of colour, particularly women, have had a much harder time breaking through. There has to be an level playing field — that’s all any of us want!
Working as an actor has helped a lot with dealing with the down times, it was a tough environment and I got used to having to pick my heart up off the floor and carry on.
A few American friends I know call a rejection a ‘bounce’ and I really like that: it’s not a dead end, you’re just being pushed in another direction and that’s so true.
What’s your process of going from the seed of an idea to a finished first draft? How has this process changed as you’ve gained momentum and progress?
I used to jump right into writing a script once I had a fluttering of idea but after about three pages I’d run out of puff and it’d go nowhere. Now I think about the idea a lot and let it play out in my head then I write a one pager to get the big turning points down. I do this first because I don’t enjoy writing them and it’s good to have something to send to my manager and get some initial feedback. Then I write a beat outline and then, the script, hallelujah.
I mean, I still fight with the urge to jump right in and start writing when I get a juicy new idea but I’ve learned, the hard way, that you’ve got to be practical because the development process in TV and film has the script right at the end after pitch docs, step outlines, treatments etc…
But you can still be naughty and start writing it anyway.
Can you tell us about the process of getting representation from Zero Gravity? Was it something your agent put forward or did you apply directly or did they reach out to you? Unrepped writers such as myself love hearing these stories.
My UK agent recommended me — I’ve been with her for about six or seven years now so she knows me really well and there’s a lot of trust there. I believe that’s what made it happen more than anything. You’ll have heard many a time that it’s an industry about relationships and it’s so true. I had held back on ideas I had set in the US but when lockdown hit I thought, bugger it and sent them to her asking for advice or any kind of insight. I think that probably compelled her to recommend me too.
So if you feel it in your heart, get it out. It all goes back to that old adage ‘write what you love’ — there’s power in that.
If you could leave us with one piece of advice about ‘making it’ what would it be?
One of favourite quotes about the writing process comes from Ray Bradbury, which again I shall paraphrase…’Just write every day… and see what happens’. I remember reading that about five years ago and thinking, okay, I can do that.
It’s so simple (the best things are) and it took the pressure off, I started to enjoy writing more because there was no expectation — that little voice, that part of our ego, can get in the way saying ‘you’re not doing enough, you need to win this, impress this person’…but it’s so not true. If you write for ten, thirty, one hundred minutes a day that’s an achievement, if you keep going, you’ll have a script. It’s a powerful door-opening tool!
Cultivate lots of ideas so you don’t get too attached to one in particular — I’m lucky that the scripts I’ve completed have gotten me meetings with production companies but they have no intention of developing that particular story, they just like my writing style and want to know what else I’m working on.
Always have a few ideas ready.
That script you think you’re not good enough to write? You are! Work on it a little every day and see what happens.
Also, bless your bum cos you’re going to be on it a lot.
You can follow Lynsey on Twitter @LynseyMurdoch or read more about her amazing work here.
Thanks for reading.