More than just a pencil?

giant pencil
It wasn’t THAT big

Now that we’re in the month of October, what happened to me this morning feels very apropos for the season, and definitely worth recounting.

But first, a little backstory…

The latest draft of the pulp sci-fi is just about wrapped up. I’ve received lots of great notes on it, and incorporated some very helpful suggestions. The contest I’d like to send it to has its final deadline next week, so the past few weeks have been all about getting it as ready as I can.

While I still plan on submitting this script, there’s still that part of me that isn’t sure if it’s good enough, and that maybe I should hold off on the contest because it just needs too much work, which of course makes me doubt my abilities as a writer.

“Am I good enough? Am I wasting my time?” You know. The usual.

Cut to this morning.

My workday starts at 5AM, which means I get up around 3:15. Part of my getting ready involves having to take the dog out.

Since we live near Golden Gate Park, there’s always a chance of running into raccoons or skunks, so I’ve started bringing a flashlight as part of the dog-walking.

This morning, we got to the bottom of our front steps, and right there just beyond the first step was a pencil. Just a plain ol’ regular pencil.

I thought that was kind of weird. How did a pencil get there? Maybe one of the neighbor kids dropped it yesterday as they passed by? But it wasn’t there last night when I took the dog out. I took the dog around the corner. She took care of business, and we returned home. The pencil was still there.

We got inside and I got ready to head out to work. For some reason, I couldn’t stop thinking about the pencil. It being there seemed so random.

Maybe about seven, eight minutes pass between returning inside with the dog and going down to the garage to get my bike ready (helmet, lights, etc). I step outside. Just out of curiosity, I want to see that pencil again.

I maneuver my bike over to the steps and reposition the headlight down towards the sidewalk.

No pencil. Swear to God. It was gone.

Let’s consider the possibilities:

-it wasn’t there to begin with. Maybe, but I distinctly remember seeing it just a few minutes ago.

-it wasn’t a pencil. Highly doubtful. The unmistakble yellow, the green metal, a pink eraser. Definitely a pencil.

-somebody took it. possible, but highly unlikely. Not a lot of foot traffic in our neighborhood at 4AM. K later suggested it was the paper delivery guy, but his m.o. is to  toss the paper from inside the car. Plus, we don’t get the paper anyway, so there’d be no reason for him to stop in front of our place.

-a raccoon or skunk took it. Again, highly unlikely, but you never know. They continuously go after our composting bin on the other side of the house, so why not snatch up a pencil?

And what may be the most outlandish theory of all – it was some kind of message to me.

Think about it. A pencil. The most basic of writing implements. Maybe this was some kind of “sign from beyond” that despite all my doubts and occasional lapses of self-confidence, writing really is what I’m meant to do and that I should keep at it.

Then again, I might find the pencil upon returning home later today, rendering the whole thing moot. (In which case, I’d wonder “How could I not see it earlier?”)

But pencil or no pencil, the message, or at least how I interpreted it, remains the same. Even with all the frustration, I’m in this for the long haul. There’ll be good days and bad days, but I’m hanging in there, determined to keep going.

Thus the pushing forward continues…

Guilty as charged

lardner mugshot
I did it. I’m glad I did it. And I’ll do it again. As many times as necessary.

The clock’s ticking down to the final deadline for an upcoming contest, so almost all of my energies are being directed at getting the pulp sci-fi in as tip-top shape as possible. Overall, I’d say it’s coming along nicely.

As you’d expect, there have already been some big changes made, with more than a few more on the way.

A major part of some of these changes has involved cutting material that I previously considered untouchable, or at least to do so would have constituted a crime against all that is good and wholesome.

Otherwise known as “killing one’s darlings”.

As you edit/polish/rewrite your scripts, changes will (and should) occur within the context of the story, so you have to deal with the consequences and ramifications of making those changes. And that means gettin’ rid of the stuff you love.

Did I really, really like this line of dialogue or that scene? Most definitely.

Did I cut it without a moment’s hesitation because it just didn’t work anymore? Yep.

Any regrets? Not really. Why should I? It’s all about making the script better, right?

A lot of writers won’t cut something because they hold it too close. To them, their ego takes precedence over the material. If a producer or director says something doesn’t work, and says it’ll have to be cut, what are they going to do? Say no?

It’s very rare that the final draft of a screenplay is exactly like the first draft. Changes will always be necessary, whether you want to make them or not. Much as you might hate it at the moment, make those changes. Chances are you’ll barely remember what was there before anyway.

A screenplay-in-progress is the raw material, and your job as the writer is to continuously work with it and shape it in order to get it to the final version – the one that tells your story in the best way possible.

If that means discarding something for something new, so be it. Even more so if the new something is even more effective.

One more hurdle hurdled

hurdles
On to the next one!

A little self-serving project status update for today…

Work on the comedy spec has been put on hold so I can polish up the pulp sci-fi in order to make a fast-approaching contest deadline.

Luckily for me, I’ve been very fortunate to get some high-quality feedback on it from trusted colleagues, and a lot of what they’re saying has been proving most helpful.

Several readers had the same comments about several sections. If one person had said it, their suggestion might be worth considering. Since it was a bit more than one, action had to be taken.

Among the notes was that a few scenes were simply too clichéd and unoriginal, and that their tropey-ness, along with being kind of dull, was more or less counteracting the high-octane action of the rest of the script.

Changes had to be made.

The objective of the scenes and sequences in question was still the same, but the execution needed some major work.

I went through several options with a mindset of “What haven’t I seen before?”, and came up with one I thought adequately fit the bill. That triggered a few more ideas, which upon a little more figuring out, could actually be connected to other parts of the story.

A little more tweaking and suddenly it all clicked into place. By having A happen, that would result in B, which leads into C, which both reinforced an integral part of the overall story while further developing a character several readers had felt was somewhat lacking in substance.

It was quite an exhilarating sensation.

There’s still more work to do for the script, but I felt quite psyched about having gotten this far, along with looking forward to implementing a few more of those much-appreciated notes.

A scary good Q&A with Jimmy George

JImmy George

Jimmy George, aka Script Butcher, has been writing and producing films for over a decade. Along with optioning several screenplays, Jimmy has lent his name as co-writer/co-producer to six award winning feature-length films, garnering rave reviews, and boasting international distribution.

He has a talent for engineering fun and innovative productions on shoe-string budgets with few of the modern technological marvels used in major Hollywood blockbusters. Each of his films have been praised for circumventing their meager budgets, standing out through memorable storytelling.

Jimmy co-wrote and co-produced WNUF Halloween Special (2013), which won numerous festival awards, alongside national press from The New York Times, VICE, MTV, Birth.Movies.DeathFandango, and Red Letter Media, and is currently available on the AMC Networks’ streaming service, Shudder.

After tearing up the festival circuit, his most recent film, Call Girl of Cthulhu generated enormous buzz in the horror industry. Harry Knowles of Aintiticoolnews declared it “fun, better than it should be and quite splattacular.”.

Jimmy’s current project (and his seventh feature), What Happens Next Will Scare You, will be released next year.

In addition to writing and producing, Jimmy has a passion for helping creators succeed. As the Script Butcher, he consults with screenwriters, empowering them with the necessary tools to sharpen their scripts into dynamic stories that slice through the competition.

What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

The pilot episode for GLOW. The world-building is excellent. It takes you into a sub-culture that’s mysterious and relatively unknown. The characters are memorable and entertaining. We meet the lead character at her lowest point. It leaves us with so much promise for what could take place during the series. Does everything a pilot should do and more.

How’d you get your start reading scripts?

There are many screenwriting gurus out there. I am not one of them. I’m just a guy who’s written a ton of screenplays, produced a half-dozen movies of my own, and learned a lot along the way.

Over the last ten years of making movies, I’ve become the go-to script doctor for a lot of friends and colleagues. I’ve been doing this for free for a decade and it became clear a few years ago that this was my purpose. So I decided to start this service and try to make a living doing what I love.

Telling stories is what I was put on this Earth to do. Helping others fine tune their stories is a close second. I’ve been in your shoes. I know the blood, sweat, and tears it takes to complete a screenplay. This isn’t a job for me. It’s my passion. It’s what I live for.

Where does the moniker “Script Butcher” come from?

Whenever someone would ask for notes, I always delivered their script covered with red ink. The pages looked bloody. I once joked with a friend that I was their “script butcher” and it just stuck. To this day, every time I finish a set of notes my hands are covered with red ink splatters. I have a background in horror so a lot of people assume those are the only scripts I work with, but I provide the same exhaustive notes for all genres. I’d say 75% of my clients don’t write horror.

Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

Writing well and recognizing good writing are skills that go hand in hand. Both can be taught and learned. For me, recognizing good writing as compared to bad has come from reading thousands of scripts at all levels of the talent spectrum. Having my own scripts brought to life on a frequent basis, sitting in theaters watching what works and doesn’t has also taught me invaluable lessons most script doctors haven’t had the opportunity to learn or pass along.

Studying the work of pros is a must too, but a lot of scripts available to the public are shooting drafts which are different from spec scripts and teach new writers bad lessons. So much can be learned from script consultants as well. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the mentoring advice and guidance I received from my own trusted script doctors.

I didn’t go to film school. The notes I received from these professionals over the course of a decade and a half, became my film school. By failing time and again, by continuing to experiment with the form and seeking constant feedback, I learned the craft. I never stopped trying to get better. Growing thick skin and learning how to use feedback to improve your stories is an important skill set for a writer.

Sending my scripts for notes became a crucial part of the writing process and continues to be.

What are the components of a good script?

A good script should have an original, marketable concept.

With flawed relatable characters who are actively seeking something they care deeply about, that we can emotionally connect with and root for, and that deals with the most important events of these character’s lives.

It should present a visual goal for the character or characters to achieve which form the central story question, and present primal, relatable stakes for what will happen if they fail to achieve those visual goals with formidable forces of antagonism that cause never-ending complications, standing in the way of the character’s achieving their goals.

It’s properly formatted on the page, relies on visuals instead of dialogue to tell the story, with plausible surprises and reversals of expectation at every turn.

And it builds to an emotionally satisfying climax that answers the central story question of whether our characters will achieve their visual goal in a positive or negative manner.

Other elements such as a quick pace, character arcs, thematic resonance, and memorable dialogue are a bonus, but not absolutely necessary for a script to do its job.

(Some of this is inspired by Terry Rossio’s 60 Question Checklist, which every screenwriter should read here.)

What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

1) FAILURE TO DELIVER ON THE PROMISE OF THE PREMISE

A story is a promise. Imagine Mrs. Doubtfire if the story followed Robin Williams working as an accountant instead of following the trials and tribulations of trying to reconnect with his wife and kids while dressed as an old woman.

The audience is waiting for you to deliver on the promise of your concept. If your script is about killer beer, you better have a beer pong massacre scene.

2) TONAL IMBALANCE

If you’re writing Schindler’s List, there’s no room for campy comedy. Vice versa.

Even if you’re mixing genres, keep your characters’ reactions to the events around them and the events themselves consistent in tone.

3) LACK OF CLARITY EMOTIONAL OR OTHERWISE

Clarity of what a character is feeling in reaction to a situation or what is being conveyed in general is a common issue I encounter with client scripts. Because the story is alive in your head, it’s difficult to tell what is and isn’t conveyed on the page. It’s all crystal clear for the writer, but often muddled on the page.

There are many more common mistakes, but these are the big ones.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

UNDESERVED CELEBRITY STATUS – I see so many scripts that give their characters a level of celebrity status that’s unbelievable simply for the sake of telling the media-frenzied story they’re trying to tell. The paparazzi and press are very specific about the types of people they will follow. Make sure your characters are worthy of the celebrity status you’re giving them in your story.

USING NEWSPAPER HEADLINES AS EXPOSITION – Many of my clients rely on one newspaper headline after another to show the passage of time and relay important exposition. Media has changed. This is an antiquated story device that no longer holds weight with the audience.

What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

1) REVERSE EXPECTATION at every turn in a way that feels organic to the story and not calculated or contrived.

2) FIND THE CLICHE AND THROW IT AWAY. If we’ve seen it or heard it before, find another way to show it or say it. This will ensure your story always feels fresh and unique.

3) MAKE IT VISUAL. If dialogue comes last instead of first when you’re crafting scenes, it will ensure your story is cinematic and not better suited for the stage.

Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

I have once, it’s called BaSatai by my longtime client Suzan Battah. She’s in the process of turning it into a graphic novel. You can find out more here. https://www.patreon.com/suzanbattah

How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

Not worth it. Writers put so much time, emphasis, and worst of all, money into contests. In my opinion they’d be better off spending that time improving their craft and spending their money on attending networking events and writing workshops.

While I understand the allure of getting a festival or contest win to stand out from the crowd of writers trying to break in, a contest win can be detrimental to a writer’s sense of skill level and give them a false sense of completion with their scripts.

I’ve worked with dozens of screenplays that were “award-winning” with multiple festival monikers to their name, that I don’t feel would get a RECOMMEND from a single studio reader.

Writers are paying money to contests, being assured their scripts are good enough, when they aren’t ready yet. There’s nothing more detrimental to your career than trying to shop around a script that isn’t ready.

How can people get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

My website has all the details you’ll need at www.scriptbutcher.com/services

You can also find me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/scriptbutcher

Instagram at www.instagram.com/_jimmygeorge

And Facebook at www.facebook.com/scriptbutcher

Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

Offbeat answer here. My wife and I were passing through Intercourse, Pennsylvania, otherwise known as Amish country. There was a gift shop that sold Shoofly Pie with cartoonish construction paper flies advertising how fresh it was. We bought a slice. Needless to say, it was so delicious we left with two whole pies.

An amiable assortment o’ items

study group
Everybody’s keeping busy, so there’s lots to talk about!

First three months of the year wrapping up today, which makes it the perfect opportunity to offer up your Project Status Update! Feel free to step up to that virtual microphone (aka the comments section) and announce the latest developments for whatever is currently occupying your attention.

My list is pretty short:

-Work on the pulp spec continues. Currently around page 83, with a projected final count of 120ish. Strongly suspect FADE OUT will be typed sometime in mid-April, give or take a couple of days.

-Dipped my toe into the waters of rewriting the low-budget comedy courtesy of some helpful notes. Not a total page-one rewrite, but definitely taking my time with this one.

-My western was named a finalist at the WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival screenwriting contest. (Editor’s note – yay) Further details (i.e. how it placed) won’t be announced until the awards ceremony at the end of April, but still quite proud to have made it this far.

And a couple of items tacked on to the bulletin board, which spotlights creative-type folks and their even more creative projects well worth your time and attention:

-Filmmaker/screenwriter Eric Claremont Player has launched a crowdfunding campaign for his courtroom drama film project. Make sure to check out the colorfully captivating and absolutely true backstory that led up to it.

-Writer-director Dianna Ippolito is running a crowdfunding campaign for her new project Robb’s Problem: A Horror Short. As Dianna puts it, “Our goal is to bring you a really smart, beautiful and thought-provoking horror film, produced, written and directed by women.”

As with all crowdfunding projects listed here, donate if you can!

If you’d like to get the word out about a project of your own, feel free to drop me a line. Operators are always standing by.

-Ran the San Francisco Rock & Roll Half-marathon this past weekend. Made it just under the 2-hour mark with 1:59:11. Next race is in July, so hoping to shave a few minutes off of that.