That special spark within

roald dahl
Why is this writer smiling? You would too if you came up with the term “Everlasting Gobstopper”.

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to meet with some fellow Bay Area writers. Among their number was a writer who had written some small stuff, and was in the middle of working on her first big project – a TV pilot.

Even though I don’t know much about writing for TV, I and another writer offered up what advice we could. The recipient was very appreciative, and one of the things she said later on in the conversation made a very strong impression on me.

“I know the first draft isn’t going to be perfect, but I’m just really loving writing this.”

Truer words could not have been spoken.

Like I told her, I write stuff I would want to see. It’s taken me a long time and many drafts of many scripts to feel like I’ve really come into my own. Each time, the end result is a script for a movie I think would be an absolute blast to see play out on the big screen.

It always astounds me when a writer complains about having to write (or rewrite). If you don’t like doing it, WHY ARE YOU DOING IT?

It was genuinely pleasing to hear this writer who, despite the challenges she knew awaited her, was still excited about working on this project. Sure, she was still nervous about doing a good job and hoped the end result didn’t suck too much. No matter how many scripts you’ve written, that feeling never goes away.

But to simply see her face light up while she described the story (which is a real doozy, believe you me) and hear her talk about what she’s experienced so far, including doing the research involved, and learning what to do and not to do regarding formatting, it was just really, really pleasant.

I’m sure a lot of us do this because the title “storyteller” really suits us to a tee. Are some better at it than others? Sure, but instead of being discouraged about what you perceive as a lack of progress, try seeing every time you write as a chance to learn and improve. Because it is. It’s certainly been that way for me, and I strongly suspect I’m not alone in that.

I got the impression our little chat gave this writer an extra little jolt of encouragement that she wasn’t expecting. She doesn’t know when the pilot script will be ready, but I told her not to worry about that and just keep enjoying writing it.

I suspect she will.

-Friend of the blog Andrew Hilton (aka The Screenplay Mechanic) is offering a special deal as part of his stellar screenplay analysis. (Editor’s note – his notes helped shape my western into what it is today)

If you use any of his services, refer a friend, or write a Facebook review of your experience using his services, you are automatically entered to win a free DVD of the motorcycle documentary WHY WE RIDE (of which Andrew was a co-executive producer).

The winner will be chosen on October 1st. The holidays will be here before you know it, and if you or somebody you know loves motorcycles, this would be an excellent gift (as would purchasing some of Andrew’s script services for that special screenwriter in your life).

All the details here.

-My time in the San Francisco Half-marathon the weekend before last – 2:02:56. Disappointing, but still glad I did it. I blame all those uphill stretches in the second half. And probably not training enough.

Next race is coming up in a few weeks in Oakland. Pleasantly flat Oakland. Training a little harder for it, with the intention once again of hoping to break the 2-hour mark.

The learning never stops

classroom
Class is in session

I had the good fortune this past weekend to attend a writing retreat in the serene hills of Malibu, the core of which was a seminar given by noted screenwriting consultant Bill Boyle (who was featured here in my recent Ask a Script Consultant series).

This was by no means “Intro to Screenwriting”, but more along the lines of taking your writing beyond the basics and making it richer and more layered so it reads more like a script written by a professional. Each idea and concept was explained using examples both written and visual.

The way you describe a scene so the words really pop off the page. Writing a character’s introduction to create a solid image of what kind of person they are. Creating dialogue composed of exactly-right words and with a rhythm so it sounds exactly as it should.

And this is just a small part of what was covered. There was a lot of information to process – in fact, I’m still processing it now.

Added bonus for me – a one-on-one with Bill to talk about steps to take to help get my career going.

The big question at the wrap-up session was “Did you get anything out of this?” This isn’t something I could answer right away. I really had to mull it over. In the end, my response, which still applies, was this:

There was a lot to take in, so I don’t think the results will be immediate. It’s not a superficial fix. All of it is something you really need to think about before and while you’re writing.

I have a strong suspicion that in the coming weeks and months, the more I write, the information that was presented will work its way onto my pages. I’ll probably develop my own method of doing it, which will then most likely become an automatic part of my writing process.

Am I glad I went? Very much so. It also gave me the chance to meet and talk with other writers, which is always great. Would I recommend this sort of thing to writers seeking to improve their skills? Definitely. (Here’s a link to Mia Terra Tours, the company that runs them)

No matter how much you think you know about screenwriting, there’s always more of what you don’t know. So when you get an opportunity like this to increase your knowledge and improve your skills, take advantage of it and do it.

Ask a True Veteran Script Consultant!

John Lovett

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 John Lovett.

After leaving the military in 1992, John went to work as an associate producer for a small production company that produced movies for Cinemax. In 1996, he started The Hollywood Military Advisor and L & M Productions to provide military technical advice to the motion picture industry and produce military documentaries. THMA contributed to numerous military movies and documentaries including BAND OF BROTHERS, PEARL HARBOR, and several military video games.  Now based in the Pacific Northwest, John teaches screenwriting and creativity at a local college, works with emerging and veteran screenwriters as a career coach, and is heavily involved in the local film making community.  John is also the screenwriter behind two produced films: CATHY MORGAN, a science fiction drama, and TWO WEEKS, a tween comedy.

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

Akiva Goldman’s ‘Winter’s Tale’, from the book by Mark Helprin. Regardless of the changes from the book, the movie read and played well. The quality of Goldman’s writing came through in how the actors executed against a fantasy/reality setting.

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

I worked for a small production company starting in the early 1990’s and had to learn all the aspects of movie production from lighting to camera work, which included being able to read and evaluate scripts for the producer/owner. Also, I took a script reading class from Pilar Allesandra and independently read for various studios for many years.

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

Yes, but with a caveat that while the characteristics of good writing can be taught and instilled, the skills of recognizing good writing are learned by reading, reading, and reading more. In addition, mentoring by experienced readers and writers helps considerably.

4. What are the components of a good script?

Besides following the rules regarding script appearance; structure, structure, and structure.

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

Mechanically, the most common mistakes are misspellings, word misuse, and grammar errors. And yes, all of that is important to good writing.

Artistically, the most common mistakes are not having a consistent through-line, long-winded exposition, and on-the-nose dialogue.

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

I look for the heart of a story. If the story is well written, I can look through the genre or internal tropes. To that end, I have seen some B-films that went DTV or direct to Netflix that told effective and emotionally engaging stories whilst the core genre or trope had been significantly overdone. Were I to pick one trope, it would be the ex-GI who witnesses some evil deed and becomes a ‘super soldier’ who knows how to handle every weapon and every karate move.

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

-If you are writing, stay off the ‘Angry Birds’ and Facecrack.

-Develop business and writing goals and stick to them. As you write and continue to improve your writing, you will modify and update your goals, but at least have a starting point.

-A writer should also know what life is about. Copying over tired ‘Transformer’ or ‘Twilight’ scripts is not going to lead you to new writing truths. Living a life is. Get out from behind the computer and join the Peace Corps or the Army, travel, get a job scraping boats in Florida. Do something, anything, that is not directly writing but is a life experience.

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

While I was a reader for a small production company specializing in DTV material, I wrote a “recommend” for ‘Dark Secrets’ written by S. Tymon. The logline was “An aspiring young reporter becomes involved with the subject of her investigation; a millionaire businessman who runs an underground SM club and is rumored to be involved in the murder of a fashion model.” For the intended audience, the movie turned out okay.

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

I don’t participate in screenwriting contests. I figure if you’re going to be a writer, then write and sell your work. Contests are great and you get lots of compliments, mostly. The truth of the matter is that we’re writers because we love to write, but we still need to pay the mortgage, buy diapers, and put food on the table. So, write your material well enough to sell, and not win contests.

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

My email address is twoscriptguys@gmail.com. My site is www.twoscriptguys.com. My Facebook page is Screenwriter John Lovett.

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

Shepherd’s.

Ask a Thoroughly Meticulous Script Consultant!

Jim Mercurio

 

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 Jim Mercurio of A-List Screenwriting.

Jim Mercurio is a filmmaker, writer and teacher. The high-concept horror-thriller he directed, Last Girl, won best feature in the 2012 DOA Bloodbath Film Festival (as #12). The Washington Post called his Making Hard Scrambled Movies (production tutorials) “a must for would-be filmmakers.” His workshops and instructional DVDs, including his recent 10-hour set Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List, have inspired tens of thousands of screenwriters. One of the country’s top story analysts, Jim works with Oscar-nominated and A-List writers. He is finishing up the first screenwriting book that focuses solely on scene writing, The Craft of Scene Writing, for Linden Publishing. To find out about working with Jim, visit his website at http://www.jamespmercurio.com.

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

I used to try to see almost every film that was released in a year. Lately, for better or worse, I have had less time to be a viewer. Although I only watch 3-4 TV series at any given time, I really liked True Detective. I like Girls. Lena has a great voice and the show, as well as You’re the Worst, for me, fills in for the quirky little indies that seem to be on the decline. I thought Her was exciting because it was high-concept but indie in spirit. And it could have been made for almost any price. It was one of those films where I can say, “I wish I had made it,” or “I could have or should have written that.” I also look for gems of craft in surprising places. Who can’t love – capital L-O-V-E — the moment in The Avengers when Bruce Banner reveals the secret to the Hulk: “I’m always angry”?

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

After grad school, I wanted to figure out screenwriting inside-and-out because I loved screenwriting but I also thought it would be a means to be able to direct. I read probably every screenwriting book and resource available in the 90s. I worked as a development exec for an indie company owned by one of the producers of Gas-Food-Lodging. And then I attended 120 hours of classes from the so-called “gurus” including, McKee, Hauge, Truby, etc. for a review article in Creative Screenwriting. That experience expanded my perspective and spurred my ability to be able to identify and clearly articulate issues in a script. I would do notes for friends and, by word of mouth, I eventually got more people who wanted feedback, so that’s how I started working as a story analyst. With my development background, my private story analysis and contests I have run, I have read more than 5,000 feature screenplays.

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

For the most part, yes, assuming that a reader has some affinity for screenwriting and storytelling. Recognizing a good or very good script that is a good read is a common developable skill. A rarer skill is when a reader can accurately determine whether a script will play as a film. Some scripts deliver a smooth and emotionally satisfying read but would not translate as well to film as would some scripts that may be a less satisfying read.

4. What are the components of a good script?

I like to see solid execution: great dialogue, exploiting concept, unity of theme… all the craft elements that I preach. No longer in the acquisition side of development, I have a more solipsistic approach to material. I want to find scripts I can direct or produce: High-concept scripts with modest budget a la Her or Buried. Or a script with such awesome characters and dialogue that it is imminently castable or packageable. In general, with shrinking or nonexistent development budgets, I encourage all writers to nail the execution, so their scripts are as ready as possible to being shot.

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

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

My development for outside companies consists of intensive feedback on a few scripts or rough cuts per year. I no longer read 20 scripts per week, so that’s why I combined these two questions. And I will deal with craft issues below.

Impatience. Writers want to rush material to market that isn’t ready. In general, scripts usually aren’t done. The execution isn’t there. It’s several drafts away from being ready to be a movie. For my clients who aren’t already successful writers, the best thing they can do for their career is to go from good to great and write an amazing script.

Clarity. Writers often don’t have a clear picture of how their material relates to the marketplace. I have made several low-concept feature films, so you can learn from my, ah, pain and experience. If you are writing low-concept dramas, unless the script is a masterpiece or can be cast with name actors, you have to accept that the script will only be valuable as a writing sample. If your goal is to sell your next script, you are going to have to say “no” to a lot of your story ideas based solely on their concepts.

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

There are no rules and break them at your peril.

I spent a few years and tens of thousands of dollars creating a 10-hour DVD set where I tried to cover the dozens of craft elements writers need to know including story structure, theme, character orchestration, dialogue, writing cinematically, concept, handling exposition and scene writing. I am not sure I can narrow it down to just three from a craft perspective.

I work with Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning talent whose material is always good, yet they aren’t satisfied. If successful professionals are still fighting to make their scripts better and improve their craft, so should beginners. Regardless of your genre, aim to transcend it. Rewrite it until it sings. Along with concept, one of the most important factors in giving your script a chance is nailing the execution.

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

If you are giving a recommend that means you are reading for someone else and evaluating the material relative to their tastes. There have been scripts that I have loved that weren’t right for the company I was reading for. I get more excited about writers who are a recommend. I want to know what else they have or what they are considering working on next.

There were writers I championed while running the Screenwriting Expo Competition whose scripts would be almost impossible to produce – a $200-million biopic of Michelangelo; a magical realist masterpiece for which there is literally not a young actress in the world whose box office value could carry the movie; a chamber-play western; a devastatingly bleak low-concept drama. But more than a decade later, I keep in touch with those writers: Bill, Nathan, Naida and Lorelei.

I have even helped a few of them to get some non-guild writing work. Not life-changing money but the chance for valuable experience. A reminder that a great writing sample, even if it doesn’t sell, has tremendous value.

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

See above.

Of course, they are worth it. But be practical about what you hope to achieve from them. Only a miniscule percentage of writers should look at contests as a money-making endeavor.

But contests can pay off in other ways. They can inspire you creatively, encourage you to make your deadlines and help to promote your work. There is also a social aspect. They can lead to you meeting other people.

They can also be a tool to evaluate your writing. There is always subjectivity in reading scripts, but if your script hasn’t advanced in 9 out of 10 (appropriate) contests, then I would suggest not spending more money on contests. Work on making the script better and maybe even consider spending your contest budget on feedback.

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

They can look in to working with me at my story analysis site, www.jamespmercurio.com, or check out my new DVD set Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List at www.a-listscreenwriting.com. My coaching and mentoring approach creates a relationship with clients where I can push and challenge them throughout several drafts of a script until it’s where we want it to be.

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

I have gross points in my last film, so if it ever makes money, that will be my favorite piece of the pie.