Proofreading Q&A panel – part 2

Tammy Gross
Tammy Gross
bill.and.puppy.girl.cropped (1)
Bill Donovan and friend (friend occupying Bill’s lap)

Here is the second of a two-part panel discussion with professional proofreaders Tammy Gross of proofmyspec.com and Bill Donovan of screenwritingcommunity.net about proofreading and its connection with screenwriting, along with some info about the proofreaders themselves.

Part one can be found here.

When you proofread a screenplay, do you also take on the role of story analyst?

Tammy Gross (TG): Not as a primary service, but yes. Since I’m reading it anyway, I do offer inexpensive add-ons if a writer wants some basic “coverage.” And even with proofreading, there are some story issues which may be addressed during the edit if there’s a problem with consistency and/or continuity.

Before I started my proofreading service, I took a course on story analysis and offered a coverage service. I soon learned how bad formatting and text were too distracting for my left brain. It’s agony for me to look past multiple errors/issues.

Bill Donovan (BD): To a limited degree, yes. However, I put these and other words at the top of every set of notes I give back with the proofread copy:

“These are not the words of an expert script analyst … I strongly hope not to hurt your feelings … To the extent that you find my comments on your story to be wrong-headed, pointless, or insensitive, you are hereby counseled and, with regret for any hurt feelings, encouraged to ignore them.”

What’s your writing background?

TG: The agony of trying to look past typos sent me down an editing path in my 20s. I read a book published through a major publishing house that had multiple errors in the soft-cover version. I sent my corrections to the publisher, and the author contacted me personally to thank me. Ever since, I’ve honed my editing skills.

My life plan was “sing while I’m young and write when I’m old.” I did write a couple of novels in my 20s and managed to have some sort of writing or editing responsibility in every “real” job I ever worked, whether at a church, a bank or Fortune 500 company.

In 2008, while taking a break from singing, I learned about a couple of female pirates. These historical swashbuckling stories fascinated me. I traveled the world researching pirates (including falling victim to real ones in the Bahamas) and learning about writing screenplays. I haven’t looked back.

So far, every script I’ve entered in contests has placed or won. In fact, my first script won the first contest I ever entered. Since then, I’ve realized that my ability to write in “the language of screenplay” was getting me further than better storytellers due to their weaker technical skills.

I’m currently writing an adventure story for a producer who found me because of one of my scripts (which I also turned into a YA book).

BD: -Screenplay contest judge (three contests)
-Screenplay contest executive (11 screenplay contests, 5 scene-writing contests, two logline contests)
-Two of my own screenplays won three first prizes equaling $30,104 in prize money in today’s dollars.
-Former Editor of Creative Screenwriting Magazine
-Author of three e-books for screenwriters to date; a fourth is upcoming
-USC Master of Fine Arts, Screenwriting and Filmmaking
-Copy desk chief at a daily newspaper, the Morristown, N.J., Daily Record
-Copy editor at the Associated Press
-Copy editor at another daily newspaper, The Record, Hackensack, N.J.
-Copy editor for several business-to-business trade publications
-11,200+ published pages and screenplays edited/proofread over the years
-News stories I wrote and/or edited won five national journalism awards.

How’d you get into proofreading?

TG: Totally by accident. I started a screenwriting group where we would table-read 10 pages of each writer’s script. I found myself making lots of corrections on everybody’s pages, and many of them asked me to proofread their entire scripts. It was a little overwhelming, due to also running a thriving music-arranging business at the time, so I put up a website to help me prioritize and charged a low but fair fee.

And it’s good that I did, because after the 2007 writers’ strike, followed by the recession, the spec-writing business boomed while music arranging fizzled.

BD: For an upcoming book, I surveyed and interviewed producers, agents, screenplay readers, directors, contest judges, and contest executives, asking them for their comments on the most common and the worst mistakes they see. Within the screenplay, proofreading and editing mistakes were named both the most common and most disliked by people in the industry.

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

TG: The order page functions as a quote calculator, or send an email anytime: Proofreader@ProofMySpec.com

BD: Email me at Bill@screenwritingcommunity.net or use this form at my website.

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

TG: Humble. I should eat more of that and less Key lime.

BD: 1. Great pizza. 2. Pumpkin, my own homemade recipe. 3. Blueberry, Comstock filling, augmented.

Hey! Long time no (preferred form of communication)

operator
A hard-at-work pre-Internet server keeping things up and running

There’ve been several previous posts here regarding the benefits and necessity of networking. It can’t be stressed enough how incredibly helpful and effective it can be, especially if you’re not in Los Angeles or somewhere you don’t have a lot of in-person access to other writers.

But it’s not enough to just make a connection. An effort needs to be made by at least one of you (most likely you) to maintain that connection and keep it healthy. And it’s not as hard as you might think.

While it can be extremely easy and tempting to get sucked into the never-ending rabbit hole of the internet, designate a portion of your non-writing time to be just as productive and try to get some networking stuff done.

Are you connected to another writer in your area, but you’ve never actually met in person? Ask them if they’re up for a get-to-know-you coffee or lunch chat.

If you’re limited to online communication, send them an email or tweet asking how they’re doing, and how their latest projects are coming along. Be helpful, or at least offer to help. They might just take you up on it.

*Important – if it’s been a while since you’ve been in touch, don’t start things off by straight-out asking for something. Would you want someone to do that to you? Didn’t think so.

If something good (career or otherwise) has happened for them, send a note of congratulations. Likewise, if something not-so-good has happened, express your sympathies accordingly.

Cliched as it may sound, keeping the lines of communication open really can help you out. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have established strong relationships with several local writers and filmmakers, and exchanged notes with writers scattered across the globe.

I reconnected with a consultant I hadn’t been in touch with for several months, and that conversation led to them offering up coverage (which I still paid for) that proved to be quite helpful.

A writer I know who works in TV and film emailed me, wanting to discuss her latest concept because she thought I was a good match for it.

None of these would have happened if I hadn’t taken the time to keep each relationship going. Rather than taking a “how can you help me?” approach, I go in with the mindset of “maybe I can help you?”

One of the things you hear so often when it comes to establishing a screenwriting career is “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. I’ve found both parts to be true. You definitely have to know what you’re doing in terms of craft and writing ability, but it’s equally important to establish and maintain solid, professional relationships with as many people as you can.

Because you never know who’s going to suddenly be a person of influence willing to help you out because you did the same for them.

So here’s your voluntary assignment:

1. Contact five of your connections.
2. Ask them how things are going.
3. Take it from there.

Good luck!

A workload on steroids

Man drowning in stacks of paperwork
All I need to do is cut out the non-essentials. Who needs food, sleep or oxygen anyway?

I’m in the home stretch for the November writing project. I got into Act 3 over the weekend, and think there about 10-12 pages left before I can call it a day. No reason I can’t wrap things up in the next couple of days. Estimated final page count should be somewhere in the mid-90s, so pretty much where I was hoping it would be.

My original intent was to put that on the back burner once it was done and shift my focus to another script, but something else has developed that definitely requires my attention: other people’s work.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been very fortunate to have gotten some fantastic feedback from friends and trusted colleagues. Now it’s my turn to return the favor.

Actually, make that favors. Plural.

Every time I’ve asked someone if they’d be willing to read and give me notes, I always offer to do the same for them. And several have taken me up on the offer.

Which is totally fine. I just didn’t expect all of them to happen within such a short timeframe.  But it’s cool. Just requires a little planning.

Some script-related items, two scripts requiring special attention (with a bit of a time limitation), and at least 4-5 others getting straight-up notes. Yeah, that’s a lot, but I’d feel pretty shitty if I didn’t reciprocate the kindness all of these folks extended to me.

While I’d love to keep the 2-pages-a-day momentum going clear through to the end of December and have at least part of a draft of another script, taking care of these is now top priority.

It may take me a little longer than I expect, but I always strive to honor my commitments. I said I’d do something for you, and by gosh, I’ll do it.

It’s the least I can do.

Ask a Decidedly Ingenious Script Consultant!

Ryan Dixon

The final installment in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Ryan Dixon of the now-defunct ScriptShark.

Ryan Dixon is the manager of ScriptShark, a creative consultation company, and a screenwriter currently writing projects for Universal, Disney and WWE Films. Previously, Ryan worked in development for Oscar-nominated producer Michael Nathanson (L.A. Confidential, Draft Day) and at such companies as Paramount, MGM/UA, IMAX, World Wrestling Entertainment, Endemol and Good in a Room. A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama and Entertainment Technology Center, Ryan co-authored the graphic novel Hell House: The Awakening and co-wrote and exec-produced the upcoming feature film backstage comedy OPENING NIGHT starring Anthony Rapp (Rent) and Cheyenne Jackson (30 Rock).

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

EX MACHINA’s screenplay was masterful. It reminded me of a sci-fi version of those great meta-thriller plays of the 1970s, like DEATHTRAP and SLEUTH. P.T. Anderson did an extraordinary job with INHERENT VICE. His adaptation added a layer of depth and Los Angeles historicity that was missing in Pynchon’s fun, but flawed and rather juvenile novel.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

As a movie-obsessed child, I used to buy shooting scripts at the late and belated Suncoast: The Movie Store. In college at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama, reading scripts was part of the curriculum. My first job in Hollywood was interning for Tom Cruise’s former company CW Productions, so from that point on, I’ve been reading and covering scripts professionally in one form or another.

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

I think it’s a matter of taste. Of course, one must have a certain degree of training and skill in order to fully recognize and appreciate any craft. A classically trained musician or a fine arts scholar is better able to pinpoint the minutiae of Beethoven or Picasso. At the same time, taste is a separate sort of knowledge and instinct. A layman can find beauty if they’re a person who can digest and appreciates art for art’s sake. Nickelback’s members are studied musicians, Lisa Frank is a trained artist, and both are wildly successful in their fields. Study can hone and illuminate the elements of a craft but that can only take you so far.

4. What are the components of a good script?

The basic elements (structure, character, theme) must be superiorly executed. Next, there should be something special in the piece. Even if it’s basic genre fare, the script should include elements that make the reader sit up and say, “Wow! I haven’t seen that before.”

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

From young writers it’s always basic mistakes: mechanics, too much dialogue and/or scene direction. Sadly, these mistakes are also the easiest to avoid. What they reveal is that that writer hasn’t bothered to learn the fundamentals. This is fascinating because I can’t think of any other vocation where a similar incident would occur. If one were serious about learning to cook, a cookbook would be the first purchase. If you wanted to scuba dive, you’d take lessons before jumping head first into the ocean. While all the fundamentals are usually outstanding in the work of veteran writers, there is often a lack of courage and conviction in terms of content, as if they’re afraid to try something different for fear of being tossed out of another development meeting. If you are going to make the huge time commitment needed to write a spec script, swing for the fences. The creative dilution process can come later, once the script’s been optioned.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

One is when characters (particularly female characters) are described solely on their looks. It tells you nothing about who a character is and often times a bit too much about the writer’s psyche.

Another is the oversaturation of beautiful people playing everyday characters. Even if you look at a movie from as recently as the 90’s, a man could be a regular guy with full chest and back hair and a woman could do a nude scene with a soft, everyday body. In contemporary films, everyone is sculpted, plucked and dyed to perfection. In this renewed Golden Age of Television, character actors are able to once again shine and it really strengthens the storylines and characters (Breaking Bad and Mad Men are obvious examples).

My wife is a screenwriter as well (and very opinionated to boot), so for better or worse, this is a constant discussion and analysis in our household. A big one for her is that men can have high-risk jobs and a strong drive, but if it’s a woman is in the same position, she needs a tragedy or a backstory. GRAVITY most recently did this—George Clooney is an astronaut because of his skill but Sandra Bullock is an astronaut because her kid died.

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

-The believability of characters is often more dependent upon the execution of other elements in the script (e.g., plot, theme, dialogue) than anything else. A trap writers (myself included) often fall into is to confuse “believable” with “realistic.” Thus the ever-present tendency to write characters who are mill workers, teachers, office drones, etc. While there’s nothing wrong with this if that’s what your script dictates, it’s also important to remember that some of the most believable characters in cinematic history were also some of the most unrealistic: E.T., Yoda, Kermit the Frog, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, etc. They’re believable not because you could see them walking down the street, but because the creators of those characters did an amazing job of creating the world in which they existed.

-Master the art of writing a “skimmable” script. We all dream of studio execs, producers, agents, etc sitting down in a quiet space and focusing fully on our script, but the truth is that they are often read in a rush during limited time frames. This is why it’s important to craft your script in a way that a decision maker can easily understand it if they are forced to skim it. You want your script to FEEL like a movie. That means, a reader should be able to zip through it in about 90 minutes. If a first time reader can’t do that, they won’t be able to envision you script as a movie no matter its other strengths.

-This is stolen but golden: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” (Stephen King, a favorite author, from ON WRITING). Lightning doesn’t just strike and no one will just hand you anything in Hollywood. Nothing comes easy in writing and you have to work yourself to the bone to get success. I track my time using my iPhone timer and a writer’s log. I make sure to always get in 6 to 8 hours of writing a day. If I’m blocked, I take a brainstorming walk. I’m not perfect. I can procrastinate with the best of them and it took a few years to build to that point. But like any exercise, it works if you keep working at it and pushing yourself.

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

Elizabethtown by Cameron Crowe. I read the script while it was in development and was never so moved or in awe of a piece of screenwriting. In the end however, the final lesson I gained from the experience was that great scripts don’t always make great movies. For whatever reason, the alchemy needed to successfully transform material from page to screen failed. This specific incident was doubly disappointing since the writer directed the piece himself and has shown time and again that he’s an immensely talented director.

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

There are only a handful of contests that will have an impact on your career if you are a top finisher. I’m hesitant to state that all the others aren’t worth it if only because placing high can be a great confidence boost to any young writer (if they have the money to spend). But if you are cash-strapped, go for the big guns and ignore the others.

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

You can visit www.ScriptShark.com or email us at ScriptShark@gracenote.com

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

Boston Cream. As a writer and eater, I like synergy and mixing genres. There’s no pie that does this better.

Ask a Truly Superlative Script Consultant!

Terri Zinner

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on writer-producer-consultant-instructor Terri Zinner of afilmwriter.com.

Terri Zinner has been in story development for over 15 years. She began as a reader for Blue Cat competition and then a reader for Gallagher Literary, who eventually promoted her to SVP of Development.

Terri is also a produced writer and Producer of independent feature films such as EL CAMINOTHE BRIDE FROM OUTER SPACE and other independent projects. Terri worked on the award-winning film MONDAY MORNING.

Terri has provided story consultation on such films as AMERICAN SNIPER, ALBERT NOBBS, KILL YOUR DARLINGS, BREAK THE STAGE, THE HOWLING: REBORN, WHAT MAISIE KNEW, THE BRASS TEAPOT, LOUDER THAN WORDS and more….

Being named as one of the top story consultants in Creative Screenwriting Magazine, Terri is a sought-out story and screenplay analyst. Terri founded the website A FILM WRITER and developed the Screenplay Reader Training. She mentors and trains a team of screenplay readers.

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

I had the honor of reading the script AMERICAN SNIPER. It’s one of those rare occasions when you know that this script is something special from the very first page. The script was heart pounding and riveting from the opening through the ending. The story just came to life for me, as if I were actually watching the movie. The writer, Jason Hall, earned a well-deserved nomination for a harrowing script. I’m also always in awe of TV writers, who have a special gift with words. I admit I haven’t had much time for watching TV, but DAMAGES was one of my favorite shows because I thought the writers did a terrific job of creating a complex character in Patty Hewes. She was a fascinating, morally corrupt character to watch, and I found the dialogue to be very powerful. I try to watch a variety of films, but when I watch now, I tend to pay more attention to the structure. In fact, I forced my friend to go to a horror film, EVIL DEAD, just to analyze how the structure worked.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

Like most readers, I began by writing screenplays. I optioned a few, but then I was provided the opportunity to become a reader for Gallagher Literary and a reader for Gordy Hoffman’s Blue Cat competition. I found that my real skills were in deconstructing a screenplay and guiding the writer in the development of their script. I read all I could on developing screenplays, structure, and what makes for a great character. I went from a reader to Sr. VP of Development. It just became a passion that I haven’t overcome. I created my own website AFILMWRITER.COM with the idea of helping writers at an affordable rate. Through word of mouth my business began to grow and expand. I also freelance for other agencies and have produced independent films. I developed a program to help teach and mentor others on how to become an effective professional screenplay reader. I enjoy nothing more than the creative process and mentoring writers in their craft.

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

Like writing, I think being a screenplay reader or story analyst is a craft. It requires a fundamental understanding of the rudiments of structure, plot, tension, character, dialogue, and what makes for a great story.

I actually teach a course for potential readers. It’s an intensive course and the reader is given the opportunity to practice coverage. I’ve seen my readers grow as analysts, but like anything, it requires ongoing learning and understanding the craft, being open to visionary worlds, and having a passion for the craft. It’s not about being punitive or negative, but for me it’s about finding the strengths in the writer’s script and helping the writer build upon those strengths. I do become concerned about people who claim to be professional readers, but know little about the craft. A reader has to have the ability not only to deconstruct what’s on the page, but also to be able to deconstruct what’s not on the page.

4. What are the components of a good script?

There’s so much that goes into writing a great screenplay. It’s a skill to bring those elements together. You can have a terrific idea, but executing that idea is the major challenge. Creating an original concept, or taking a tried and true concept and telling it from a new point of view is one step in crafting good script.

Understanding structure, pace, and how tension and conflict works is pivotal to the craft. Creating deep and complex characters with not only a well-identified external goal, but with inner conflict and struggle is part of writing a great character. Giving characters strong moral choices to make and defining moments can create powerful storytelling. Powerful dialogue can propel a script. Incorporating an emotional theme that’s well assimilated into the script can make for a compelling script.

A writer should be asking questions like this: Is there a ticking clock tension and sufficient tension to sustain the story? Does this tension build? Is there a relationship component to the story? Is there a satisfying ending that involves a hero/foe conflict or confrontation?

A reader knows a great script when they can visualize it as a film in their mind vs. on the page.

For me, the most significant component of a great script is that the script provides an emotional experience, in which not only does the character learn something about life, but so do I.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Normally, it’s the lack of the writer having the ability to convey a clear and compelling story. It can be challenging to read a script and not be able to visualize what the writer is attempting to convey. I honestly want to be able to provide constructive notes, but sometimes you run into a script and you’re simply bewildered by what the script is truly about. This commonly occurs when the writer doesn’t stay on task with the goal and the script isn’t goal-focused. The hero may not be proactive. Without a strong structure it’s going to be a long, difficult read for the reader.

For new writers, certainly professional presentation is a common mistake. First impressions are important, but these elements are easily correctable. Writing “ordinary” characters or on the nose dialogue is also more typical with new writers. Some writers tend to over write. They add dialogue when dialogue isn’t necessary and they forget the power of visual storytelling.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I recently wrote a blogpost on this topic. Several scripts involved slacker men playing video games. Script after script, all these immature men are obsessed with video games. Some of the other common tropes for me are lines of dialogue that make me cringe. My most feared line in a script has to be: “You’ll never get away with this.” If I read a comedy, most likely in the first act the character will lose their job, get evicted, and break-up with their significant other. If the character races to the airport at the end of the script to stop the person they love from leaving, it’s not original. I have to admit I’m not fond of the script in which the world is in jeopardy of being blown up. There’s always a way of taking the tried and true, and crafting it to be more refreshing.

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

-Learn the craft. Study structure. Understand conflict and tension.

-Understand it’s a creative process. Feedback, coverage, and rewrites are part of the process. It’s not personal.

-Be passionate about what you write.

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

I have been fortunate to read some great scripts ranging from American Sniper to Killing Your Darlings to Albert Nobbs. All were recommends. I’ve read other scripts that I have given a recommend to and they are in development. On the other hand, I have given “consider” to scripts that have also been produced. I’ve watched some of films I’ve recommended and haven’t enjoyed the film as much as the script. “Rating” a script can be somewhat subjective. I’ve given recommends on scripts that others have passed on, and I’ve passed on scripts others have given considers or recommends to. The lesson for writers is that every reader is not always going to love or like your script. That’s okay. You also shouldn’t just rely on one reader. I always encourage getting coverage from more than one professional reader to get a good idea of how readers are reacting to your script. Make sure they know their craft.

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

There are many screenwriting contests, so I think the writer has to be selective in which ones they enter. It can be an opportunity for writers to get their name out in the community and receive feedback, but it’s also a business and can be costly. A writer has to remember that placing in a contest doesn’t necessarily mean the script will receive a consider or recommend from a professional reader. On the other hand, a great script may not place. Contests are very dependent on the reader you get.

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

I am always open to writers or potential readers. They can contact me at afilmwriter@aol.com or visit my website afilmwriter.com

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

Cinnamon Crumble Apple Pie.