Things that get in the way

david silverman

Today’s guest post comes courtesy of psychotherapist and script doctor/coach David Silverman.

As a writer-producer in film and tv, David Silverman worked on shows like Mork and Mindy, One Day at a Time, ALF, Newhart, Dilbert, Duckman and South Park. He learned firsthand that “staring into a computer screen day after day could make you feel isolated, frustrated, anxious and even depressed.” Today, he works as a script doctor/coach and as a psychotherapist where he “tries to help writers cope with creative blocks, mountains of rejection, job insecurities, stress, couples problems and the occasional knife in the back.”

A while back, I gave a talk to a group for writers trying to get back into the workforce after a hiatus. It was titled “Things That Get In The Way of Writing”. A quick bit of backstory about this organization: it’s made up of television writers; WGA members who won a class action suit against the studios based on ageism. 

They were able to show that they’d lost income and jobs because they were labeled as “old.” The studios paid out some settlements and included was membership in this group. So there were a lot of older disgruntled writers; some who’d created TV shows, some who’d won Emmys.

They were all so used to getting paid lots of money to write when they were last working, the prospect of writing on speculation didn’t motivate them much. Yet they all wanted to reinvent themselves and restart their writing careers. Some were writing screenplays, others were writing half-hour and hour TV writing samples.

Everything seemed to get in the way of writing for them. So we talked about how writers get motivated to write  – without being paid. They’d done it before, but times were different now.

Having done so much research into the subject of productivity and motivation for screenwriters and TV writers, I didn’t know where to begin. I ended up talking about the methods that make the most sense to me, that I actually use myself, or that I find most interesting.

Most ideas about how people can change themselves involve changing the way they think about things. Psychologists call this “reframing.” Look at things differently. For example, too many writers believe they’ll write one screenplay that will sell and make them rich and famous. Not likely. Sorry.

Instead, it helps to think of this whole selling scripts thing as a long-term process. Tell yourself you’re going to write dozens of spec screenplays over your career. It’s possible that none of them will sell. However, they may get you an agent or a pitch session with a producer.

The producer will hopefully say, “I love the writing in your script! Tell me about some of your other ideas.” They may also say, “Your writing is great and we think you’d be perfect to write this feature idea.” Either way you get paid to write.

So don’t get hung up about having to sell each screenplay you write. Hopefully you will sell one or two. However, writing spec screenplays can have many positive outcomes besides selling. Some writers get locked into this wrong-headed way of thinking. If that first script doesn’t sell, they give up. Or they keep trying to sell that same script for the rest of their lives.

Thinking about the long view also helps you handle rejection better. A rejection (such as when the studio says they’re not going to buy your script) isn’t a soul-crushing experience when you realize there are other positive outcomes that come from writing a spec script.

Another favorite reframe comes from the Woody Allen quote “80% of success is showing up.” It simplifies the writing process. It’s always overwhelming to think of sitting down and immediately writing this great Nicholl-winning script.

Break down the process. The simplest piece is “show up at the keyboard.” A screenplay is not going to pop out fully-formed. Everybody should think about writing as a process. You show up. You have some ideas. You figure it out.

You break the script down into an outline, a treatment, a first draft. Don’t expect perfection in a first draft. In fact, don’t think about writing a perfect script. Write a great script, or a script that will sell.

I remember trying to be a perfectionist about writing a screenplay. I got all detail-oriented, and polished each scene and every piece of dialogue. However, the more I focused on polishing up the little stuff, I seemed to lose track of the big picture. Be careful – the big picture is the one that counts. Tell a great story.

So I brought up these ways to think about writing differently in my talk. Some of the writers thought they could put these ideas to work. I noticed, however, that some of these writers were truly stuck and needed real psychotherapy.

There’s another thing that gets in the way of writing – overthinking. How can you write when your mind is telling you you’re not good enough? Because that’s what your parents told you your whole life? How can you write when you have doubts? Will this sell? Am I wasting my time with this genre?

You have to center yourself and stop dwelling on all these thought while you write. You have to be able to clear your mind. And that’s not easy, because we have all these expectations. Our brains are more than happy to supply us with reasons we’ll never succeed. Learn to let go of those thoughts.

It’s basically Darwinism at play – the survival of the species. A gazillion years ago when sabertooth tigers were lurking around every corner, our brains needed to keep us hyper-vigilant. We doubted all our moves. We lived in a state of “fight, flight or freeze.”

We got civilized, but our brains didn’t catch up. We still overthink everything and have doubts. You can’t write with all those thoughts getting in the way. You have to center. Different writers have done it in different ways. Some hole up in a beach house, or a cabin in the woods. Some go to Starbucks.

Some, like Stephen King, wrote through a haze of beer and cocaine. Phillip K Dick wrote everything – the stories that spawned Minority Report, Blade Runner, and The Man in the High Castle – on amphetamines.

The key is not to let all the noise and overthinking interfere with your writing. Some people have simple rituals that help them center. They make a cup of tea and listen to their favorite music. They go to the same hotel lobby everyday to write.     

Rituals calm us down because of their familiarity. So get that latte at Starbucks, drive to the art gallery where you like to write, open your laptop, plug in your earbuds and listen to U2. Whatever works for you. Then stick to it.

Perseverance pays off.

Remember that bunch of “old” writers? I found out they sold a pilot – no doubt from putting all of my advice to work. But in all seriousness, it was more likely they were doing what I advised them to do – not because I gave that talk, but because that’s why they were successful in the first place.

A lot of writers have learned these lessons, these ways of thinking about their craft and their careers, through experience. Some might have known about them instinctively. Hopefully some of this advice can help you skip years of learning the hard way.

O, the joy of a southernly jaunt

gable colbert
Fortunately, I didn’t have to resort to this

The suitcase is put away. The dirty clothes laundered. The thank-you notes sent.

All the result following your humble blogger’s recent trip to the land of potential future employment, aka Los Angeles, which continues to yield results and, hopefully, keep on doing so.

“Los Angeles? How in the world did that come that about?” you may ask, and probably just did.

I was invited. At the behest of a new media company (as in “new media” i.e. online content, not “a media company that is new”) called AfterBuzz TV that produces a myriad of programs about an even wider variety of topics – all entertainment-based.

This one in particular is called The Unproduced Table Read. As the title implies, after finding a heretofore unproduced script they deem appropriate, they assemble members of their core group of actors and do a table read of the script – first as livestream video, then viewable on Youtube. Following the read, there’s a brief q&a with the writer. Sometimes the writer’s there in person, or if they can’t make it in, done via Skype.

Seeing as how the City of Angels is an hour-long plane ride away, I opted to attend.

They’d found my fantasy-swashbuckler in the archives of the Black List website and thought it fit the bill. The producer contacted me earlier this year, and after some informative back-and-forth emails, it was all set.

Seizing the opportunity of being in town, I also went about setting up meetings of both personal and professional natures. Although the scheduling didn’t work out with a couple of potential representatives, I was able to have some very productive conversations with some exceptionally talented professional contacts.

Networking, people. Establish and maintain those contacts! SO worth it.

But getting back to the table read. It was great. And fun. The actors did a fantastic job, and as a bonus – they really, really liked the script on several levels. I’m quite thrilled with how it turned out.

Was it worth doing? I’d say so, and not just because it got an enthusiastic reception from the people involved. It’s probably a little early to see if it’ll contribute to the career-building aspect, but it definitely makes for a strong marketing tool.

If you ever get the chance for a table read to be done for one of your scripts, take it. You can even put it together yourself. It’s a great way to evaluate the material, plus the actors might provide some unexpected insight. All you need is a workable space and the ability and willingness to feed your performers.

While talking afterwards with the show’s producer and some of the actors, somebody asked what other scripts I had. I mentioned the western. “We haven’t done one of those,” was the reply. Thus raises the possibility of a return trip. Time will tell.

Proofreading Q&A panel – part 1

Tammy Gross
Tammy Gross
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Bill Donovan and friend (Bill’s the less hairy one)

When you read a script, it’s not just about “Do I find this story interesting?” or ” Why should I care about these characters?”. There’s also “Does it look like a professional script?”

That’s where proofreading comes in handy.

This week offers up a 2-part panel discussion with professional proofreaders Tammy Gross of proofmyspec.com and Bill Donovan of screenwritingcommunity.net to discuss proofreading and its connection with screenwriting.

Enjoy.

How exactly does one proofread a screenplay? What are some of the things you’re looking for?

Tammy Gross (TG): That’s a loaded question! For me it boils down to what I call “the language of screenplay.” Spec screenplays need to be streamlined, devoid of technical distractions and written in a cinematic style that transports the reader to the theater.

And, of course, it’s my job to fix all the “errors.” In context, misspellings and bad grammar are often intentional and work better than perfect grammar and spelling conventions. However, you gotta know the rules to break them. And there are many ways to format some things, though the best is always whatever is clearest, most economical, and relevant to the story.

My job is to make a screenplay easy, fast, and fun to read – and up to professional standards. So I look for anything that gets in the way of that.

Bill Donovan (BD): My service is a bit of a hybrid. I give some story and screenplay structure notes as well as proofread and copy edit. The proofreading/copy editing part covers:

— Typographical errors
— Spelling errors
— Grammatical errors
— Punctuation errors
— Capitalization errors
— Verb tense errors
— Sentence structure and clarity problems
— Basic formatting mistakes
— Cramming in too many words
— “Saying” when you need to show

What’s the difference between editing and proofreading?

TG: When it comes to screenplays, it usually is a matter of time and thoroughness. Proofreading should be the last step before submitting a screenplay to anyone for consideration. In a perfect world, a screenwriter will go through various phases of self-editing. Once it’s polished, it should probably receive a copy edit to have fresh eyes to catch all the formatting, consistency, and text issues. After it’s been cleaned up and the story is solid, it’s time for proofreading. And the depth of proof-editing depends on the writer’s level of proficiency.

I take it a couple steps further than most. First, I create a style sheet to ensure that preferences are observed and maintained throughout. I also work very hard to help the screenwriter understand the edits I’ve made so they can grow in their craft. I’ve seen writers improve from script to script as a result. Some have gone from disaster to master.

BD: There are key differences. Proofreading, strictly defined, is a bit more limited. It involves fixing actual errors, such as typos, missing words, missing punctuation or wrongly-placed punctuation, capitalization errors and other outright mistakes. Copy editing covers all of those mistakes and also addresses larger issues of clarity, such as fixing a sentence or paragraph which may be grammatically correct but is vague.

I have great difficulty leaving a badly-written sentence or paragraph alone even when it might be okay in strict proofreading terms. Since I make my changes in colored type, I figure that the writer can go in and change it back if he/she prefers his or her own phrasing.

For example, some of my clients write much of their scene description in partial sentences. That’s fine if you can do it well. However, most of the writers who come to me do not write partial sentences well. The meaning is clear to them because they know what they mean. However, if it’s not clear to the reader, I fix it or give the writer a note suggesting that he or she fix it.

A lot of writers might say “I can do just as good a job proofreading it myself.” Your response?

TG: In nine years I’ve read only one screenplay that was error-free, including shorts. The biggest mistake even the most experienced writers make is assuming that because they understand some mechanics, they have a full grasp of format. While everyone claims there are no “rules”, there really are guidelines that are basically rules. Very few writers can keep up with the latest standards the way I and other professionals (hopefully) do.

My favorite trick for self-editing is to simply read backward from bottom to top. But it won’t catch everything. Most quality scripts go through many revisions and rewrites. It’s bound to pick up some introduced errors along the way that you become blind to.

BD: If you’re very good at English language usage, and if you’re an experienced editor, and if you walk away from it for a while, and if you then focus on every word and every bit of punctuation for all possible mistakes from overall clarity down to missing commas, yes, you can.

But will you? For example: I’ve sent out email blasts for my proofreading service about 15 times in the past 15 months. Three times, recipients have written back, gleefully and snidely, “Ha-ha! I found a typo in your email blast.” They were right. How could I make such a mistake, in a blast advertising proofreading, when I have thousands of pages of experience as a proofreader and copy editor? I know exactly how: The mind tends to gloss over the tiniest little details of that which you have written yourself, and you become both tired of reading it and eager to get it out.

What are some common mistakes you usually see?

TG: I have a very long, and boring list of words and format issues I plan to turn into a book once I can figure out how to make it fun and simple to reference. The usual suspects: its/it’s, your/you’re, there/their/they’re, lie/lay. A baffling but common one is “draw” instead of “drawer.” Possibly the biggest peeve and most common issue is passive voice.

There’s also a zeitgeist in the editing world. One year something like “clinch” vs. “clench” needs fixing in every script (or manuscript) I read, then the next year everyone is misspelling or misusing “rifle” vs. “riffle.” It’s weird.

Also, some things in spec writing evolve, so things that were “mistakes” five years ago are perfectly normal or even preferred today. I work hard to keep up on the current trends and roll with the changes, but I’ll probably never accept “how r u” for spoken dialogue.

BD: This is the short answer. I maintain a document on common mistakes screenwriters make. It’s 14 pages of paragraphs and explanations. These are not in order of frequency, but are some of the most common:

1. The “Their, they’re, there” and possessives sort of grammar mistakes.

2. Missing commas. Commas are sneaky little creatures, always slipping away from your text where it needs one.

3. The worst, and surprisingly common, is the “Show, don’t say” mistake. John Vorhaus, author of The Comic Toolbox, summed it up perfectly:

“You could tell by his face he was thinking of Paris.”

But, of course, you can’t tell by his face what he’s thinking of. He could just as easily be thinking about a juicy cheeseburger.

4. Specifying shots. In film school, they used to say that you learn to write by directing and you learn to direct by editing. You don’t learn to direct by writing, so the decision on shots should be left to the director 95% of the time. Even when a closeup is required in order to provide closeup information, it can be done without saying “CLOSEUP” or “CU”. I don’t tell writers not to specify a closeup, but another way to do it is a separate paragraph describing the content of the closeup. The director will get the idea.

5. Run-together sentences. Even grammatically-correct compound sentences can be bad choices when they gloss over the action. They forego the opportunity to emphasize great moments. One way to “direct the director” without specifying shots is to write a separate paragraph for each camera setup.

For example:

“Jack kisses Jill and they walk off into the sunset.”

Better:

“Jack kisses Jill. Their lips lock, long and loving.”

“They break the kiss. Grasping hands, they turn, and walk off into the sunset.”

New writers tend to rush through both the blocking of scenes and the emotions of the moment. In contrast, a recent client of mine, a produced director and stage director, wrote a comedy screenplay so precisely that many of his descriptions were delivered with punch lines in visual jokes. It was marvelous to read.

6. Writing in present participle rather than present tense. A screenplay is action taking place NOW. Sometimes, present participle (“Jack is standing”) is unavoidable because it’s needed for clarity. However, if Jack pulls out a gun and then pulls the trigger, then “Jack shoots,” not “Jack is shooting.”

7. Incorrect use of ellipses.

8. Incorrect parentheticals. If a character does something before speaking or after speaking, it doesn’t belong in the parenthetical; it belongs in the scene description.

9. Failure to do research. When laws, government regulations, and historical events are mentioned, they should be correct. I’ve seen two screenplays in which the writers had significant plot turns saying that under HIPAA, they couldn’t get their own medical records because they were company secrets. It’s the other way around.

My list has quite a few more. Again, the “common mistakes” reference I’ve created is 14 pages long and growing.

Do you have a “most memorable” example of writing that was in severe need of proofing?

TG: My very first client almost scared me off from doing this. I put my website up in the middle of the night and a guy in Australia emailed me almost immediately. He sent me a Word file filled with something more like ideas or musings about some stuff in outer space. No formatting. No story. I don’t think there were even any characters or dialogue. Fortunately, my second client wasn’t high after a long walkabout (that I know of) and let me cut my teeth on a good script in Final Draft (my favorite, though I work in every program under the sun).

BD: Yes, and no. I just turn back the “most memorable” with notes suggesting to the writer what should be done before hiring me to proofread the work. For example, I recently sent back a feature script that was 195 pages with the suggestion that it be cut to 115.

Part 2 will post on Friday

Psst! Your desperation is showing

liz
Liz knew the value of taking one’s time

Seeing as how I post links to this blog on a few social media and networking sites, it’s inevitable that word about it will continue to spread across the globe (even more than it already has, apparently).

So along with global recognition (which is always nice), this also attracts attention from those with an idea for a story, a dream of hitting it big, and pure, unbridled ambition.

Those that have all of the above seem to be actively seeking me out, as I have once again received an out-of-the-blue request/plea for some screenwriting assistance.

A writer asked if I would take a look at their script, adding that English wasn’t their first language, so that part might still need some work. Even though this was their first script, they felt it was ready to go and if I liked it enough, they’d be willing to share the rights or even give full ownership to me.

They also included the logline and a few personal details about really, really wanting to move to the US so they can make it in the film industry.

One of my guiding tenets is to never insult or belittle somebody, nor do I have any desire to ridicule somebody for pursuing their dream. Tough as it was, I felt I had to explain a few hard truths to them.

-First, about the script itself. “Everybody’s first script is always bad. Always. I say this not to be discouraging, but from experience (both mine and from others). DO NOT expect me to read it and say it’s perfect, because it won’t be. When you’re starting out, you have to realize what you don’t know and be willing to learn from your mistakes.”

-About wanting to move to the US. “It takes a VERY long time to have anything happen. Focus on studying and improving your craft. Fortunately, that’s something you can do at home. Join some online writing groups. Network. Be friendly. Don’t just start with “Hi. Can you help me?” Nobody likes that.”

This was their response:

“Thanks for getting back to me. I really appreciate your advise. I know that everything you said is true. So I understand. I know you are trying to help me. I know it’s bad to ask help at the first moment I get to know someone. So I won’t do that again. I’m really grateful that I got to know you. Thanks again for your support.”

If you’re like me, you totally get where this person is coming from. They want it so bad it hurts. And that this is something that takes an excrutiatingly long time for anything to even happen just makes it that much harder to endure.

We all know this is not an easy or overnight process; there are no short cuts or quick fixes. It takes time to learn how to this right, so patience is an absolute necessity. But if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, then you’ll eventually start to see results.

Doesn’t get any cheaper than this

cashier
Our helpful staff is ready to assist you!

As my network of fellow screenwriters has expanded over the past few years, I’ve become more active with exchanging script notes with some of them. It’s a pretty even split between me approaching them first, and vice versa.

From my perspective, the whole thing has been quite helpful and I think my scripts are definitely better for it. And as far as I know, none of the other writers have any complaints about my notes. If they do, they’re not saying anything.

It’s gotten to the point where every once in a while, an email will pop up from one of these folks asking if I could look over their latest draft and offer up my two cents. I’m fairly certain I’ve never said no.

Full confession: it usually takes me a little longer than I expect to get it done, but I do make a point of getting it done. I try to extend the same courtesy to them that they would to me.

I bring all of this up because I had a great catching-up coffee chat with a writer yesterday; somebody I haven’t seen since last summer. We shared what’s been going on with our respective projects, and I mentioned finishing/sending off some notes.

“Do you charge for that?” they asked.

No. It’s just an exchange, and I like helping out when I can.

“That’s really generous of you to give up your time like that. Have you thought of charging for notes?”

Of course, but I don’t consider myself qualified to. If I was a working writer and had a couple of produced features under my belt? Maybe.

I’ve always found the bios of professional consultants and readers to be pleasantly diverse and equally fascinating. Almost all of them have spent time working in the industry, many having read or given coverage on thousands of scripts.

Me? I can’t make the same claims. I’ve read a lot of scripts, but nowhere near those numbers, and a large percentage of my time has been (and continues to be) focused on honing my writing skills.

They have a fairly solid grasp of what works and what doesn’t, and provide much more insightful comments than I believe I could.

All things being equal, I’d say my analytical skills have definitely improved over time. I don’t know what kind of pro reader/consultant I’d be, but for the time being, I’ll stick to the friendly no-cost, between-writers exchange.

As mentioned earlier, I like helping when I can, and will continue to appreciate any opportunity to read an associate’s script in order to give them notes that will in theory help them make it better.

*personal note – this is my 800th post. Thanks for being part of the journey, and hope you’ve enjoyed it. I certainly have.