Tuesday, April 15, 2014

An interview with Victoria Aveyard, writer of THE RED QUEEN and ETERNAL

I almost feel like this interview needs to come with one of those "results not typical" disclaimers. Everyone dreams of landing their first sale right out of college, but Victoria Aveyard is the extremely rare person who actually did it.  About a year after graduating from USC, her first manuscript (as in, first manuscript she ever completed) RED QUEEN was optioned by Universal Pictures. The novel is set for publication in 2015, the first in a trilogy.

Getting that second sale is almost as hard as the first one for a lot of writers, but less than two months ago, Aveyard crossed that goal off her to-do list with the sale of her spec script ETERNAL to Sony Pictures.  The only information released so far about the project is that it will involve a modern re-interpretation of Greek mythology.

Despite working on a number of projects, Victoria was generous enough to answer some questions about what has been a year that every aspiring writer would envy.

Aspiring writers often ask me what I think of getting a degree in screenwriting.  I usually tell them that the most important thing is that they keep writing and take advantage of a lot of free resources out there.  As a graduate of the USC Screenwriting program, I imagine you might have a different take.  What can you tell us about the program and how it specifically benefited you?

Keep writing and take advantage of your resources definitely still applies within SC, but the writing is more guided and the resources are arguably better/cost tuition. I'm a big cheerleader for SCA (School of Cinematic Arts) and the Writing Program especially. It turned me, a kid from the middle of nowhere, into an actual professional screenwriter, which is crazy. I think without the prospect of USC, I would've never been brave enough or equipped enough to make it in the industry. It was sort of like training wheels for a Hollywood career, if the wheels were made of gold and had a football team. I got a crash course in pretty much everything, from pitching to structure to film business, which gave me the tools to make my own career. And I cannot say enough about the professors. I seriously can't choose a favorite because I learned something incredibly valuable from every single one.
You don't come out knowing everything, but you definitely have a leg-up if you've done the work and used what SC gave you. Plus, SC isn't just a film school. You get the benefit of a huge university along with a specialized school. It's the best of both worlds. I think a lot of people think writing all day, every day, in every spare moment is the way to succeed. I don't agree. At least for me, that results in dead writing. I'm much better when I have time for real life. I definitely learned that balancing act at SC. 

One piece of advice I always give (that I got from SC) is read screenplays. And not just the Academy Award winners. Read everything. SCA has a script library I would frequent and if you get a chance, check out Home Alone. Worth every page. 

Since you ended up at USC, I assume you had an interest in film from the start. How far back does your interest in screenwriting go and when did you become interested in writing Young Adult fiction?  Are you a particular fan of that genre?

Movies are sort of a family thing and have always been. I probably went to the movies with my parents and my brother at least 15 times a year, every year since I was about 7 and my brother was old enough to sit still. It started when I accidentally saw Jurassic Park when I was 3 and that was it. I clapped when the Rex ate the lawyer and my parents were like "so she's going to be weird." Totally hooked on movies, especially Star Wars, Indiana Jones, basically the pantheon of Lucas and Spielberg. 

But actually making movies seemed impossible to a girl from a small town in the middle of nowhere Massachusetts. It wasn't until I watched George Lucas get the AFI Life Achievement that something clicked. There was a big segment about his time at USC and their film school, and I realized that was my in. Film school. I've always loved writing and movies, and finally put 2 and 2 together. I could write movies. Come senior year of high school, I applied to 7 colleges. Only the film schools accepted me, so my parents were sort of Shanghai'd into letting me go. They pushed for NYU, but USC was the first and only school I wanted to go to.

Novel-writing was always in the back of my head during this, but I never thought I could do it. First it was Lord of the Rings that really affected me (still affects me), and I tried my hand at epic fantasy too many times to count. Not the best attempt for a 16 year-old. Back then, I didn't quite realize YA was a whole genre unto itself, even though I was also reading a ton of YA books. I read the Twilight books in high school, and I will still go to bat for the first novel. There is definitely an art to its addiction (mirroring Bella's Edward addiction, blah blah blah), but the other three are more than a little off the rails. I was also very taken by Ella Enchanted. I guess my foray into YA came pretty naturally. Something in my head just clicked. "I'm 22. I'm a good writer. I want another YA to read - I'll just write it myself."

Best part, now I can buy books without feeling guilty! It's my job!

I know RED QUEEN was your first novel, but how much writing had you done before you began working on it?

I never finished a novel until after college, until I had a few screenplays done and realized I might actually be able to complete a book too. My parents' house is probably filled with scraps from all my abandoned novels (so is my computer). On the screenwriting side, I left SC with 5 features and 2 pilots under my belt, and the knowledge that I can actually accomplish something in the writing world. I was also sifting through the Amazon self-published pile for an internship, and realized that, at the very least, I could self-publish something better.

How did you get your screenwriting agent?

I actually don't have a screenwriting agent, but I got repped off of one of those awesome USC resources: at the end of senior year, all the Writing grads participate in First Pitch. Basically, speed dating, but you're pitching movies for 10 minutes to about 10 execs, agents, managers, etc. over the course of a night. It was probably the most nervous I've ever been and makes any meeting seem like cake in comparison. I actually didn't meet with Benderspink on the night of, but they emailed everyone they missed for portfolios. They liked a pilot I wrote and brought me in for a general. I pitched a few more tv and feature ideas, and then kind of said 'fuck it' to myself and told them I wanted to write an awesome YA novel. I didn't have much more than a kernel of an idea, but they wanted me to run with it. Now I'm managed by Benderspink and Suzie Townsend is my publishing agent.

Was RED QUEEN based at all on any screenplay ideas you were developing?  I understand it was your first novel, so what made you develop it as a book rather than a screenplay?

RED QUEEN was definitely a book from the very beginning. I pitched it as a book and always imagined it as a book, maybe with a movie one day. I do think that my screenwriting background made it a lot more accessible to the film industry, which is why it made a splash when it first made the rounds. It's very visual, quick, and has a structure people understand, which definitely helps a lot.
Because I'd written screenplays before, I knew their limitations. I knew, for a newbie, to create the world I wanted with the depth I wanted, I had to go the book route, and I'm very glad I did. I don't think RED QUEEN would've gone anywhere as a standalone script, simply because the novel allowed me to really sink into the world and characters. A script would've only scratched the surface back then.

Take us through the journey of RED QUEEN manuscript from the time you finished it to it being optioned by Universal.

After pitching and getting the thumbs up to work on the manuscript, I knew I had a choice. I could stay in LA and go the assistant route to support myself, or move home to Massachusetts and really power through the novel. I'd make a pretty terrible assistant - I'm forgetful, I have a temper, and I would definitely snap at someone and burn bridges - and knew the assistant life would be too much for me personally to handle. People who can do that and still write are pretty much gods in my eyes. 

So I moved back home, novel outline in hand, and finished the first draft in January 2013. That was a scary month. Benderspink passed my manuscript on to Pouya Shahbazian at New Leaf, who passed it to his co-worker Suzie. I first realized things might be good when Suzie followed me on Twitter and got my hopes up. And more than a year later, she has never let me down. After a revision, Suzie signed me to New Leaf. After another revision, we went on submission to publishers. We lost about 40k words off the manuscript at this point. Even with screenwriting training, I tend to write long. 
We were on submission for two weeks before we got an offer from HarperCollins, and two weeks after that, an option from Universal. Because I was still in Mass for all this, there were a lot of harried phone calls. I was driving kids home from school for cash at that point, and took a lot of phone calls with shushed kids in the back seat.

So timeline: book pitched in May 2012, officially started in June, sold to Harper in April 2013, Universal in May 2013. Kind of a wild ride.

One thing that I and a number of other screenwriting personality types have been pushing for is greater clarity in what the reported deals actually mean.  We're in a business where script options are reported as sales and that gives a very distorted picture of what a writer actually makes. 

For example, if RED QUEEN was a spec script and Universal had bought it for six figures, what that really means is that the writer usually pockets only 10% of that until the film goes into production.  So my question is, how does that work with book options?  Is it similar or does the writer of the underlying material see more payment up front? 

I definitely see what I define as a great deal of money up front for the Universal option, but it's against a lot more for a purchase. If we go through the full options (18 months, plus another 18 if Universal wants), I get a bit more than 10% of the total purchase. I don't have any experience with the screenwriting option side (ETERNAL was an outright sale), so I don't know how the book option money compares to screenplay option. I'm sort of waiting for the shoe to drop because everything and everyone has been great so far.

Are you writing the screenplay for RED QUEEN?  If so, have there been any interesting challenges in adapting your own work?  What are some things that work well in one medium that have to be altered for the other?  And is the screenplay for RQ impacting where you're taking the novel storyline in the remaining installments of the trilogy?

I'm actually not writing the RED QUEEN screenplay. Gennifer Hutchison, an amazing writer who will probably do it way more justice than me, is taking the book to screen. A few people think this might be a touchy subject because I'm a screenwriter too, but it's honestly not. Books and film are two very different mediums and I'm probably too close to RQ at this point to do what film requires. I couldn't cut characters or scenes, and we'd end up with a 200 page screenplay. Plus Genn's phenomenal. This wasn't a factor when writers were interviewed, but I'm personally very happy a female writer is taking the reins. I feel like a fan myself and can't wait to see what she does!

So about a year after the option, where does RED QUEEN stand as a Universal project?

Well, the manuscript that went out last April is definitely not the final product. There have been a few rewrites since then, and copy edits were finished only a few weeks ago. But now that the first book is pretty much locked in terms of content, the engine can start moving.

I'm sure there are plenty of envious aspiring writers wishing they could have your luck in selling your first manuscript. Most writers aren't that good on their first try, so I'm guessing your writing background gave you an edge.  So it's with that in mind that I ask: what was your first screenplay about and how likely are you to parade that around as a writing sample?

Oh man. Full disclosure, I still love that script. It will probably never see the light of day, but I love it. It's exactly my style and taste and tone, and maybe one day...then again maybe not. It's called RAW HIDE and it's a zombie western. Logline: In 1876, Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane attempt to outrun an undead plague overtaking the Old West. My first time out of the barn and I got to have a zombie/cowboys/Native American battle in a white-out blizzard in downtown Deadwood. My class probably thought I was nuts.

Looking back, can you see a turning point in your growth as a writer? How many scripts did it take for you to figure this out?

I've sort of always been on the same trajectory in terms of style and genre (I like big worlds, big characters, and big explosions), and I think I had a lot of little turns instead of one big hard right. Revising my first screenplay, learning to FINISH, learning to pitch, all affected my writing immensely. At first I kind of resisted the sort of tenets of screenwriting, because I thought myself a sort of touchy-feely, make my own rules kind of writer, but through college I learned how to take what I was learning and absorb it to the point where I wasn't thinking about it anymore. The work still came out with my flow, but it was more refined, more structured. I still absolutely hate outlining but senior year I finally got good at it and it shows a LOT. I think I finally hit my stride with my second TV pilot, the one that got me in the door at Benderspink. That script was where I really showed my taste and my tone, but filtered into something accessible.

Let's talk about ETERNAL, which Sony acquired in February for an undisclosed amount.  Was this a project you developed after RED QUEEN or is it a script you'd been working on for a while?

ETERNAL came about after RED QUEEN, after a summer of back and forth with Benderspink trying to find a project idea we all loved. I remember sending a bunch of ideas, knowing ETERNAL was my favorite, and then they came back with "we love ETERNAL." It was really exciting to get back into screenplays, but also a bit rough. I remember I forgot sluglines for the first five pages. I was like a baby learning to walk again, but it went a lot faster this time.

Was this the first project you had developed with your reps?  Did your team play any role in guiding you through the process or deciding what to write?

Yep, this is our first project together. The team was great to narrow down my ideas, then get my outline in shape, and then the screenplay itself. I'm not really good on the phone, but somehow our phone meetings are working out much better than my usual phone panics do. Benderspink and Pouya from New Leaf were also awesome at getting me on the right generals, in the right places. I think I went on about twenty meetings last fall, and each one was pretty rocking. Really great way to ease me back into the film industry.

How many drafts of ETERNAL did you go through before your reps felt it was ready to send out?  What was that process like?

ETERNAL went through three revisions total, so technically three drafts? The last one was pretty minor. The entire thing took about 3 months once were out of the outlining stage, from September to December 2013. It was really great timing, since I was between edits on RED QUEEN, and just gearing up on the second book. I definitely needed to write a different story in between books, or else I'd be sick to death of the RQ world. 

Because ETERNAL concerns the Greek gods, kind of a big deal to my 10 year-old dorky self, it was a real passion project and I had a ton of fun working on it. Not to say it was easy, but it was always fun. Any time you can throw a minotaur into a ferris wheel, I suggest you do it. When everyone came back from Christmas break, the boys went to work getting ETERNAL out there, and did a tremendous job. I got the call that we sold as I was leaving to get my author photos done, so I had to focus on not smiling too much and looking like a lunatic.

So what's on your writing to-do list currently? And have you already started thinking about what your next project will be?

Currently, I'm all about book 2 in the RED QUEEN series, and trying to get that done for hopefully next month. I've got another industry idea on the back burner that I really, really love and hope to develop as soon as I can. And of course, I currently live my life for Game of Thrones and any news of George RR Martin's next release date.

If you could go back in time and give advice to yourself just before you started writing your first screenplay, what would be the most important things you'd want your past self to know?

Know your limits. Your instinct will be to throw yourself at everything, and that's just not right for you. Listen to all the advice, but follow only what applies to who you are and what path you want to take. Stick to your guns when you know you're right. Admit when you aren't (still working on that). Read A Song of Ice and Fire slowly. Invest in Apple. You made the right choice moving to California. Keep at it.

You can find Victoria Aveyard on Twitter at @VictoriaAveyard.

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