January 22


STOP WRITING SCREENPLAYS (Classic Post)

Book & Quill GifWhat makes you think you know how to write? Because you’ve written a pile of unproduced, unsold screenplays?

Screenwriting is very technical writing. It is scrutinized in a way other writing is not. It is evaluated in a process that comes with mountains of baggage, none of which is designed to be helpful to training the aspiring writer and much of which is very subjective. Because of this, an aspiring screenwriter can cling to the belief that he or she knows what he or she is doing with no evidence whatsoever. Rather, the writer blames rejection on a million other factors – not having a good connection, not living in L.A., another similar project beat you out (even though you were never even remotely on the radar of the buyers in the first place), Hollywood is wrong about what makes a good movie (that’s my favorite one), you are misunderstood, and on and on and on. Never that you’re writing just isn’t yet good enough.

At a storytelling level, the elements that make a screenplay work are the same elements that make any story work; they are just embedded in the most technical dramatic writing in the world.

So, here’s a thought. Take a big step back. Forget about selling a screenplay or selling anything. Forget about three-act structure, forget about formatting issues, forget about number of pages. Instead, focus on telling a great story.

And tell it in prose….

That’s right, prose. Simple narrative. Just tell the damn story. Whether it is short story length, novella, novel or ten volume opus. Feel free to delve inside the characters’ minds, have soliloquies, reveal internal thoughts, do everything you can’t do in a screenplay (or do none of it – you’re the writer). Just make sure you tell a great story.

And let the story be personal. I don’t mean write about your childhood or the girl who just left you. I mean, make sure you think about what it is you want the story to say, what points of view you want it to reflect, how you want to shape the reader’s experience of these points of view. Make this a story no one else could possibly write – only you.

Here’s what you’ll get out of it. First, you’ll have a story that is more easily accessible to qualified readers, a story from which you can more easily get a body of solid feedback. You will find out where your weaknesses are – at least the fundamental storytelling weaknesses. Second, even without feedback, you will learn a tremendous amount about your writing. You will discover things you have to say, how to say them, and what is important to you as a storyteller. Third, you will improve as a storyteller simply from having made the effort to tell a great story. You will not have the excuse of structural challenges or any other technical issue. It is just you and the story. Fourth, you will take a big step towards developing your own unique voice. And that voice – your voice – is really the only thing you have to sell Hollywood. Anyone can learn the technical end of screenwriting. Only you can tell stories with your voice. But you must find and develop that voice or you are just copying better writers and you will fail. Writing in prose is a terrific way to develop that voice.

So, write something else. Write a story, write a novel, write an opus. It will be worth it, I promise. When you’re done, Hollywood will still be there. You can dig into your next screenplay with a new zeal and, perhaps, some new insight.

Now go write.

(And, by the way, it is no harder to sell a well-told unpublished short story or novel to Hollywood than to sell a screenplay. If you do a great job on the story – you have something else to market.)

May 11


ARE THE GATES OF HOLLYWOOD CLOSED? (Classic Post)

Yes. Almost. At a minimum, they are utterly clogged. Every agency, every producer and every studio exec gets scripts by the truckload. The city hires a literal army of readers to read the mountains of material flowing in.

And most of it stinks….

That’s right. More than 90% of it is written so poorly it is barely readable at all, let alone able to be made into a movie. The way into Hollywood is so jammed with crud, the industry is forced to spend millions each year just to sort through it. Hollywood is constantly on the verge of drowning in submissions. The only way to stay afloat is to erect as many obstacles as possible – as many barriers as the industry can dream up – to keep new screenplays away. It’s no wonder that no one here gets excited when an unknown writer from Iowa tries to submit a script. Everyone already knows it probably stinks. It’s probably a waste of paper, a crime against nature, two hours of an underpaid reader’s life she’d rather have back.

SO WHY BOTHER TRYING TO GET IN?

Because of that little word “probably.” Underneath it all, Hollywood is desperate for the new voice, the unknown writer who brings something fresh to the table, the new undiscovered talent. It is a great part of what keeps the industry going. Careers and fortunes are made on discovering and exploiting talent – and writers are talent. That’s why Hollywood spends millions searching for it. The industry needs it. And nobody knows where the next one will come from. They have no choice.

They must keep reading.

Their careers and fortunes depend on it.

But don’t tell anybody. Let them think the gates of Hollywood are closed. It’s less competition for the rest. Okay?

September 17


WAITING…. (Classic Post)

There is a guy you know who knows a guy. You called him and he agreed to give you some feedback on your script. You worked for a year on this script; you know it’s a killer story. And you know it’s ready. So you sent it to him for feedback.

Unfortunately, the dumb S.O.B. isn’t giving you feedback. You’ve been waiting for nine days. Doesn’t he know you are on a schedule? Doesn’t he know you’re going to make whatever few changes are needed and have it ready right away to submit to that other guy you heard might be looking for something just like it? Doesn’t this guy care at all? I mean, he’s had it for nine days!!!! Christ, how long does it take to read a script? He’s screwing up your big opportunity. Right?!?

WRONG!

Try a reality check. First, reading somebody’s screenplay and giving notes as a favor is not on the top of anyone’s list. If it took you a year to write, why should someone feel compelled to give you notes in a few days? Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the script stinks and the reader has to figure out how to say something constructive when, if it were a professional read, he or she would just say, “Pass.”

Second, you don’t really need it immediately, anyway. You are going to get notes – you always get them. And the notes will send you into another month or six of revisions.

Third, the guy who is looking for something just like it isn’t really looking for anything like it, nor does he really have the ability to move on anything anyway. If he did, he’d have a thousand things just like it already. (Don’t write to the market. You will always be behind it.)

Fourth, this reader’s opinion is just one opinion. If you rewrite to satisfy the comments for each casual read someone gives your material, your story will be turned to mush quickly.

Here’s a better approach.

(i) Treat each draft as if it were the final draft. Submitting it for notes should be a significant event for which you have put in a fair amount of work to line up your readers.

(ii) Do not rewrite based on one set of notes that were given to you as a favor. Look at the body of notes and make decisions yourself. You will see a pattern to all of them that will reveal a great deal to you. (Of course, the advice is different if you are working on developing the script with a producer. His or her notes count, all by themselves. Even so, don’t be a robot. It’s your script.)

(iii) Take time between each reading draft. Count on your note-givers to take time to get you their comments. Work on another story while you’re waiting for all of the comments to come in. Count on taking time to think about all of these comments before you make changes.

(iv) Accept the fact that some people who promised to read your script will never get around to it. It’s okay. Do not be a jerk about it.

(v) Do not be anxious and make nonsensical changes every time someone gives you comments. Changes should be thoughtful and make a real advancement in the quality of the story. The difference between a serious first draft and a serious second draft should be substantial and dramatic.

Okay. Relax. It’s a process.

Enough. Now go write.

May 21


JOHNAUGUST.COM (Classic Post)

John August, who may be the most qualified screenwriter currently running a screenwriting blog geared to aspiring writers, received some nice press for his blog from the New York Times today. You can see his blog here and the New York Times article here. (You have to register for the NY Times, but it’s free.) John’s explanations are regularly to the point, no nonsense, good advice. His blog has been and continues to be an inspiration to this blog. His adaptation of “Charlie & The Chocolate Factory” opens in July. Congratulations on the nice press and good luck with the opening.

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