Notes continue to come in for the pulp sci-fi spec, some contrary, many encouraging, and all chock-full of notable suggestions. With some coming from my trusted core of reliably savvy readers, there’s been one statement more than a few have included.
The gist of it is:
“This is the third script of yours I’ve read, and each one has shown a definite improvement over the previous one.”
It warms this writer’s soul to hear that sort of thing. And these are writers who pull no punches. They won’t hesitate to say something doesn’t work.
I’ve been working at this for a while, but it really feels like just the past few years have seen the most significant progress. Just goes to show what constant hard work can do, right?
Nor do I have any intention of slowing down. Doing my best to maintain a dedicated block of time and/or pages on a daily basis. The more you do it, the easier it gets (but is still tough).
The three scripts in question were all adventure-based, which enabled me to exercise a certain set of writing skills. With work now commencing on overhauling a comedy, an entirely new set will get the workout they deserve.
Crafting a sequence involving a train heist in the Old West, or a team of adventurers taking on a mad scientist? Piece of cake.
Writing a story involving everyday people in relatively normal (but funny) situations, peppered with smart (and funny) dialogue, all without the benefit of using special effects to enhance the story?
That is truly the next challenge to yours truly. It initially feels very daunting, but I’ve made it this far, and there’s no reason to think I can’t continue to push my way forward.
Should be a very interesting journey.
*Billy Wilder’s 10 Rules for Good Filmmaking (also applicable to screenwriting) 1: The audience is fickle. 2: Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go. 3: Develop a clean line of action for your leading character. 4: Know where you’re going. 5: The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer. 6: If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act. 7: A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever. 8: In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing. 9: The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie. 10: The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that’s it. Don’t hang around.
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.
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.
“Jack kisses Jill and they walk off into the sunset.”
“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.
Even as I continue to plow my way forward with the pulp spec (page 91 so far), I’m already anticipating what and how to edit what I’ve already written.
I suppose the current mood is “keep going until it’s finished!” rather than “write this, go back, edit it, then move on.”
The final page tally will be somewhere between 120 and 125, which isn’t bad, but it’s a safe bet I’ll be able to trim it down. It’s an even safer bet a lot of what will have to be cut stems from my habit of overwriting.
There’s no doubt I can make some good headway cleaning up the action lines, but my work is definitely cut out for me when it comes to dialogue.
It’s not uncommon for me to occasionally veer into chitchat territory. I even recognize it as I’m writing it. So why do I still do it? Probably as a form of placeholder; I know I’ll go back and fix it, but for now, it does the job.
To help provide some guidance on this, whenever I’m watching a film, I’ll pay extra attention to the dialogue. So many times the exchange between characters is just what it needs to be. They get to the point, and then get out. Anything beyond that wouldn’t be necessary, so it simply isn’t there. This is what I try to keep in mind when I’m in editing/rewriting mode.
I’ve read a lot of spec scripts with scenes that seem to never end because the writer throws in a lot of idle conversation between characters, so it feels like it takes forever to get to the point.
Too much dialogue adds to slowing down the read, which you want to avoid at all costs. The challenge is to use the dialogue to get to the point of the scene as soon as you can, then get out even faster.
Like with almost everything associated with writing a screenplay, difficult, but not impossible.
Jumping back to focus on the pulp adventure spec, along with a return of that certain ZING! one gets when quite psyched about a story. Yep, still going strong.
Gotta say, this whole “break down each scene to its individual elements” thing is really working out nicely. It’s tremendously easier to have a line-by-line description of what happens rather than trying to figure it all out on the fly.
The most recent wrinkle has been manipulating the events that lead up to and just after the midpoint of the story. I originally had the antagonist explaining their sinister plan, but seeing as how it sounded a lot better in the outline than it does on the page, there’s been some extensive editing, rewriting, cutting and pasting going on over the past couple of days.
And this was just for a couple of pages’ worth of material.
Among the pleasant surprises:
-discovering that a line or action in one scene could easily be relocated, thereby making the new scene that much stronger. All the elements were in place; it was just a matter of finding the right order in which to put them.
-being reminded of the concept of “less is more”. Some scenes as originally written turned out to be simply overly complicated – just too much going on. By eliminating everything EXCEPT what’s necessary in that scene naturally tightens things up, but also really moves things along and gets the point across that much faster.
-figuring out a way to present details of the plot without being so blatantly obvious about it. Implying seems to be much more effective.
It took a while, but the changes that have been made have proven to be most satisfying. No doubt there will be more of this sort of thing in future drafts, but for now it works.
A good number of years ago, I came up with an idea for a script.
“Write something you would want to see.” This definitely fell into that category.
There were so many angles and aspects to it I found appealing. The concept kept drawing me in, compelling me to tell the story in the most entertaining way possible.
To say I’ve really thrown myself into it during all this time would be an absolute understatement.
I couldn’t even tell you how many iterations and drafts this story has gone through; let’s just say a whole freakin’ lot.
Notes? I’ve probably received enough to make two books, or at least a really long pdf. Some were good, some weren’t, and some seemed to exist in an alternate dimension where opposites are the norm.
I’d finish a draft, thinking, “Okay. This is IT.” And if you’ve been following this saga, you know how it turned out each time.
There were lots of times of feeling totally burned out, thinking there was nothing else to do. Or receiving comments like “Why keep messing with it? It’s good enough as it is.”
But something kept nagging at me, saying “This can still be better. Keep going.”
So I did. My faith in the story was still strong. I knew I could make this work.
The tweaking/fine-tuning continued, aided by a few more sets of notes courtesy of very qualified readers. My red pen was working on overdrive. Cut this. Move this. Switch these around. Expand on this. Changes and fixes were made, until…
“The End” had once again been reached. But this time it felt different. I won’t say “complete”, but you get the idea.
I’ve been extremely fortunate in connecting with a lot of exceptionally talented writers over the years, and there’s one whose critiquing ability I hold in very high regard. I asked them to look over the script, adding that this was for the most prestigious screenwriting contest of them all.
The last time they read it was two years ago, so there was some extra intrigue regarding what they’d think of this draft. Approval from one’s peers plays a bigger-than-expected part in helping a writer develop.
They liked it.
I’ve been writing screenplays for quite a while, always striving to improve both my skills and the quality of my material, all as part of the effort to become a working writer. Reading their notes helped solidify my belief that this could actually happen.
Final preparations are being made to submit the script to the aforementioned prestigious screenwriting contest. Is this draft better than previous ones? Definitely. Has its chances for this contest improved? God, I hope so.
Even if nothing happens with this or the other high-profile contests, I still have a script I consider well-written and exceptionally entertaining. At this point in time, I don’t think there’s any reason to do any more work on it. So now it enters into that category of “calling card scripts”, ready to be sent out at a moment’s notice.
In the meantime, my attention is currently being split between several other projects in various stages of development. And based on how much my writing improved working on this script, I’ll speculate that the quality of these newer ones might just end up being pretty darned good.