A little post-comp analysis

July 22, 2016
scientists

Studying the script data at Maximum Z Labs

The results are in for my standing in two highly-ranked screenwriting contests, and at best could probably be considered partially encouraging.

As mentioned previously in this space, my western did not advance to the quarterfinals of the PAGE International competition. That was somewhat disappointing.

Earlier this week, I’d been informed that it made the top 15 percent for the Nicholl, and was also not advancing to the quarterfinals. This ranking ties a previous personal best. Not bad, but again, slightly disappointing.

As it would probably be for most, my initial reaction to both of these announcements, especially the former, was “Well, I’m just a shitty writer, aren’t I?”

Apparently, not necessarily.

After I’d announced my contest results, I heard from a lot of fellow writers, including comments about the quality (or lack thereof) of the scripts that advance, the quality (or lack thereof) of the readers, but the most-repeated one was:

“It’s all subjective.”

Very true. We produce what we believe to be the absolute best script we can, and either someone’s going to like it, or they’re not. And there’s nothing we can do about it.

If you were also among those of us whose scripts didn’t advance, take heart. It ain’t the end of the world (although it may feel that way). Use this as a learning experience and work on improving your script so it’s ready for next year. Get notes on it. Rewrite. Polish. Whatever you think is necessary.

It’s also important to keep in mind that these contests are not the be-all and end-all. Winning them or placing high doesn’t guarantee a career. Sure, a handful of past finalists are working writers or consultants, but they appear to be the exceptions.

Just to put things in perspective, a friend of mine was a recent Nicholl finalist and says it had zero impact on their career, and still struggle to get their material read.

In all honesty, the sheen of contests is starting to wear a bit thin for me. I’ll probably still enter the western again next year, along with two other scripts I’m hoping to complete, but I’d rather focus on getting my material sold or produced, or at least using my scripts as strong calling cards and writing samples to get assignment work. I’m not picky. Whatever it takes.

There are a lot of ways to break in and become a working writer. Contests are one, but definitely not the only one.

 


If only you could eat a bad script

July 19, 2016
pineapple upside down cake

Let the metaphors commence!

Before we get to the gist of today’s post, let’s address the elephant in the room: my western did not advance to the quarterfinals of the PAGE contest.

Honestly, I was a little surprised; I thought it would have done better. After a brief wallow in disappointment, I shrugged my shoulders and moved on. It’s just another one of those things over which I have no control. I still have a ton of confidence in this script and might submit again next year. Also waiting to see how it fares in Austin and the Nicholl.

True, it was a rather lousy way to start the weekend, but over the next couple of days, I managed to redirect my focus, which included a nice long run that involved traversing the Golden Gate Bridge, and attempting something I’ve always wanted to try:

Making a pineapple upside-down cake (from scratch, naturally).

Guests were coming over for dinner, and I’d made pies for them before. But this time,  I wanted to try something entirely new and preferably a little challenging. I’d say this falls into both categories.

I scoured the internet for an ideal recipe, found one to my satisfaction, and followed the directions to the letter. The result? It looked like it was supposed to, and that’s where the similarities end. A little too sweet and the center was still kind of goopy. Nevertheless, my guests still liked it, and K & I split the last piece after they left. Not bad for a first attempt.

Why did it not turn out the way I expected? A lot of reasons. The oven’s a piece of junk. It didn’t bake long enough. The ingredients and the amount of them probably need to be tweaked. No matter what, I know now that I can adjust all of these next time and get closer to the results I seek.

Except for the oven. It will forever remain a piece of junk until it dies. Which can’t happen soon enough. But I digress.

Notice all of the comparisons you could make between baking and writing a script? Trying something new and long-sought-after. Seeking advice and guidance. Following the guidelines. Doing what I was supposed to. An okay-but-was-hoping-for-better initial result. Planning ahead on what to fix/adjust for next time.

If a less-than-determined baker ended up with the cake I made, they’d probably denounce the whole process, give up entirely and probably buy pre-made stuff at the supermarket. But we’re made of sterner stuff. We hit a snag or some kind of unforeseen development, and we compensate as best we can. We learn what not to do next time. Sometimes you end up with something jaw-droppingly amazing, and sometimes you end up with something totally inedible.

With this whole experience behind me, I can now focus on projects of the immediate future, which includes another round of editing and revising a script, and making a pie or two for a dinner party this coming weekend.

It’s my intention to have the results of both of these undertakings be totally and utterly irresistible when they’re done and ready to serve.


Taming the beast we all must face

July 14, 2016
lion 2

Intimidating at first, but eventually, just a big ol’ pussycat

When I was part of a writing group last year, each week we would read and critique a few members’ sets of pages. Some were just starting out, some had a few scripts under their belt, and some had been doing this a while. You can probably figure out which category I fell into.

Simply put, some of the writing just sucked. Really sucked. Like painful-to-listen-to sucked. To my credit, tempted as I was, I never actually expressed my thoughts that way.

I fully understood that not everybody had a firm grasp on the basics, and I, along with a few others, made a sincere effort to explain what would help improve their work. While a majority were appreciative of our comments, a select handful got defensive, some even to the point of flat-out dismissive, of any kind of comment that didn’t reinforce their belief that their writing was fine just the way it was.

This was one of the things that helped me decide to leave the group.

One of the universal truths about being a writer is that not everybody’s going to like what you’ve written, and just about everybody will have a suggestion as to how it could be better.

While there’s nothing you can do about the first part, the great thing about the second is that it gives you options. A lot of them. You like what this person said? Use it. Don’t like what that other person said? Ignore it.

Some people will make suggestions based on how they would do it, which is all well and good, but what’s more important is how you would do it. Do you agree or disagree with what they’re saying?

You’ll be bombarded with a wide variety of opinions, but don’t feel like you have to incorporate every single one. And while you may be the final word on what works and what doesn’t for your story, you shouldn’t dismiss every suggestion either. Some of them may be more helpful than you realize. There are a lot of  writers out there with more experience than you, so their opinions should be at least taken into consideration. But it’s okay to disagree with them, too.

Speaking from experience, it takes time to learn not to take criticism of your material personally. The comments you receive may sting at first, but you have to remember they’re about the material, not you. Read them with a “How can I use these to get better?” frame of mind. That’s the only way you’re going to improve.

One last thing – make sure to thank the person for giving you notes, even if you totally disagree with everything they’ve said. Doesn’t matter if you asked them to do it or they offered. They took the time to help you out, and the least you can do is acknowledge that and express your appreciation for it. And it’s the polite thing to do. Manners still count.


An education most painful

July 12, 2016
scared

Please don’t make me watch that again!

Once again, your stalwart author makes the necessary sacrifices so you don’t have to.

This time around, I had the misfortune of watching an extremely bad large-budget movie from the semi-recent past. It was painfully obvious that a larger percentage of the budget should have been diverted to hiring quality writers, rather than on everything else. A pipe dream, I know.

But trust me. It was bad.

What made it so bad, you may ask?

Oh, where to begin.

My biggest problem was that too much of the story felt glossed over, with vital elements explained in a very lazy and haphazard way, if they were even explained at all. It felt like they were trying to force events to match how they wanted the story to play out, rather than deftly setting things up.

Reasons why something would happen, or were supposed to have happened, seemed to have simply been thrown against the wall, and whatever stuck, that’s what they went with. Did it matter if it fit within the context of the story?

Nosireebob.

Once again, there were too many questions raised that were never sufficiently answered. When this happens, it simply takes away from the movie-watching experience. The only reason I knew the film had to have been around the midpoint area was because of its running time, and NOT because of what had transpired over the course of the story.

I could say I had a vague inkling of what was supposedly going on, but was just never sure, since the story was being told in a very sloppy and unorganized way. It irked me to no end to be see such terrible writing so prominently displayed. And apparently I wasn’t alone in my opinions. The film was a major flop at the box office.

So what silver linings can we extract from this pitch-black cumulonimbus that stole away just under two hours of my life?

-Write a story that’s easy to understand. Keep it simple. This doesn’t mean dumb it down. Keep us informed, unless withholding that information is absolutely necessary.

-Let the story play out organically. Don’t try to force it because that’s what you want to happen. It’s easy to tell when that happens, and it ain’t pretty. If you didn’t put in the effort to figure it out, why should we?

-Have things happen for a reason. “Because it looks cool” is not one of them. Would it drastically change things if it didn’t?

-Set up, pay off. If something happens, we want to see what happens as a result. Don’t leave us hanging. And counter to that, don’t suddenly spring something on us out of thin air. It reeks of desperation. Audiences don’t like that, either.

One of the things I always strive for in my scripts, be they big or small budget, is to respect the intelligence of the intended audience. That is one lesson I believe the writers of this abomination should have kept in mind.


Time very well spent

July 8, 2016
finish line

Yeah. It felt just like that.

And…I’m back. Didja miss me?

To say the past week and a half has been a little hectic would be a slight understatement*. And of course, it involves writing and the opportunities that come with it.

Long story short – Somebody wanted to read one of my scripts. But I hadn’t finished writing it yet. So I wrote, edited and polished it. In ten days. Without taking time off from work.

As you can probably guess, I’m equal parts exhausted and exhilarated at having done it.

While I catch my second wind, here’s the extended version:

A little over three weeks ago, I connected with somebody who works for a production company. They mostly do TV, but are looking at expanding into features.

Emails and pleasantries were exchanged. They took a look at the blog, liked what they saw, and asked for a list of my loglines “to see if my boss might be interested.” So I sent it. This was on a Friday afternoon.

A vital piece of the puzzle to keep in mind – just before all of this occurred, I’d gotten the outline of a long-dormant comedy spec to the point where I felt ready to start on pages. Which is what I was doing while all of this interaction was occurring.

The following Monday morning, the response came in. “Do you have scripts for X and Y? Would love to request if so.”

Naturally, X was the long-dormant comedy spec that so far I had written all of 8 pages, and Y was still in outline form (which I’d already been considering producing in another medium).

My initial thought was panic. Neither script was available, but I didn’t want to blow the opportunity; I wanted to be able to send them SOMETHING. Sooner, rather than later. What to do, what to do?

After a little evaluation and weighing all my options, I wrote back that I was still working on the latest draft of X (which was true), and could have it for them the following week. I’d considered saying a few weeks or a month, but that seemed too long. Regarding Y, I said pretty much what I mentioned above – it was an outline, but they could take a look at it if they wanted to.

They were cool with both options, and were looking forward to reading them.

I’d just thrown the gauntlet in my own face. What had I gotten myself into? Was I totally insane for thinking I could pull this off? Would I be able to pull it off?

Only one way to find out.

I had a script to write, and had to do it faster than I’d ever done it before. I had no intention of sending them a first draft, so I had to crank that out and do a major polish on it. In about a week and a half. Taking time off of work was not an option, so I’d have to be as productive as possible in the off-hours that didn’t involve sleeping.

I explained my plan to my understanding family and got to work.

I produced as many pages as I could per day, averaging 8-10. Those would then be edited & polished during all available downtime at work (it being summer vacation season was a godsend – traffic’s much lighter, so that really helped). I’d get home, incorporate the changes, then move on to the next set.

Write, edit/polish, rewrite, repeat. A seemingly never-ending cycle.

A few things I discovered during all of this:

-Having a solid outline made it so much easier. I knew exactly what had to happen in each scene, and how I wanted it to happen, so there was no time wasted trying to figure it out.

-I sincerely think my joke-writing’s gotten better.

-I’ve gotten much more proficient at coming up with solutions to last-minute script-related problems.

-I seriously wondered if this is what it would be like if I were doing this for a living. I’d actually be pretty cool with it.

After ten days of non-stop effort, I had what I considered a somewhat decent 97-page comedy script. Both it and the outline have been sent.

Of course, they may not like either one. But at this point, I don’t care. Simply having accomplished this is my victory. I set an intense short-term goal and did it.

The script could definitely benefit from at least another rewrite, but that’s not a priority at this juncture. I wrote it in the time I said I would, and that’s the important thing.

Others may scoff at my feeling of accomplishment, claiming it’s no big deal or that they’ve done it or even done it in less time. But their words will fall on deaf ears because it’s a big deal to me. This is something I did, and am extremely proud of having done it.

So what now? I’m taking the weekend off, which will include going for a much-missed and much-needed training run.

But come Monday, I’ll be right back at it, hard at work on whatever project I opt to do next.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to take my time with it.

*I really appreciate everybody’s patience, and hope you enjoyed the throwback posts. And K wanted to thank everybody for the kind comments about her guest post. Yes, I am a very lucky guy to have somebody like her.


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