You make it sound like a bad thing

good deed
That’s the gist of it

In a few conversations with writers and industry-connected folk, I’ve mentioned how I occasionally do script notes for friends and read for contests.

Sometimes I’d get a “That’s really nice of you.”

And once in a while, the person would look puzzled, and ask, with what I presume was in all sincerity, “Why?”

The way they utter that monosyllable carries a strong tone of “Well, that sounds like a genuine waste of time.”

To which I say, “Why not?” I consider myself a nice person, and try to help other writers out when I can.

Too simplistic? Let me elaborate.

I like reading other people’s stuff. In the case of doing notes, I’m either asked, or it’s reciprocal for them having given me notes on my scripts. That’s the least I can do.

(It should also be pointed out that a few cookies-for-notes transactions have taken place, with both parties being quite satisfied with the results.)

With a lot of the material I read being from experienced writers who know what they’re doing, the scripts are often quite solid from both craft and storytelling perspectives. This in turn helps me hone my analytical skills, which I can then apply to my scripts. Or at least attempt to.

Plus, screenwriters should always be reading scripts.

Regarding the contests, I’ve entered enough of them over the years with the hope I get a quality reader or readers, so I see this as a kind of giving back. It’s very time and labor-intensive, and I’ve had to endure more than my fair share of poor-to-horribly-written scripts. On the other hand, every once in a while you find a true rose among thorns.

I’m just trying to offer up the kind of help I could have benefitted from when I was still learning the basics. And even today, having made some progress on all fronts, I still seek out, as well as offer up when asked, advice and guidance. So far, no complaints.

I’ve never claimed to be an expert, but I do what I can. If that means setting aside some time to read something and offer up my two cents, so be it.

And I don’t see anything wrong with that.

A population of your creation

deadpool
Part of the appeal was how blatantly non-traditional the characters were

Totally unintentionally, I’ve watched a handful of independent films lately. It’s just the way my Netflix queue was set up.

Apart from each one being a solid example of good writing and demonstrating how to craft a small and contained story with a limited number of characters, they also had the distinction of featuring well-known and established actors in a wide variety of roles.

My first thought was “How did they end up in this?”, but as the film played out and the story progressed, it became pretty apparent that the actors were attracted to the characters and that they were actually part of the story.

Ranging from those in a handful of scenes to the protagonist, each one felt fleshed out and three-dimensional. They had depth. Nobody came across as if they had no business being there to begin with.

This was also apparent in the trailers that preceded the films; many, if not all, I’d never heard of or had a very, very limited release. There must have been something to that script or the roles that would attract actors of that caliber.

As a screenwriter, you want to make sure that not only are you presenting a solid and entertaining story, but it has to be populated with original and unique characters we’re interested in, who are also developed enough that we become invested in wanting to see what happens to them.

Not as easy as you think.

How often have you seen a film or read a script where a character is simply a tired cliché? Notice how fast you lose interest?

Now if that character were something totally different than what you expected, wouldn’t you be more likely to want to go along on their journey?

Just as an example, I read a script last year with a protagonist who was introduced as a “total slacker dude, mid 20s”.

Snore.

And if that wasn’t tropey enough, he was playing a video game in his cluttered studio apartment.

Double snore. Seen it countless times before.

I’d suggested to the writer they consider really changing things up with a totally different approach. Rather than a slacker, what if the protagonist was some kind of genius? Or had been successful, but now fallen on hard times? Something, anything to not go down Cliché Avenue.

See where I’m going with this?

You’re not only telling a story, you’re providing the raw, base material for an actor to work with. They like delving into new territory just as much a reader or audience. By taking a different approach and providing the foundational details, you can create a new and original take on old and f amiliar characters.

Like with the story overall, give us somebody we’re not expecting. The more unique and interesting they are, the more likely an actor will be interested in portraying them, just as much as we’ll be interested in wanting to see what happens to them.

A few treats, but no tricks

Halloween candy
…and all the peanut butter cups you can eat

Halloween shorty today due to yet-again busy times around Maximum Z HQ.

Among the highlights:

-Finished the initial overhaul for the outline of the comedy spec. The story is still kind of/sort of the same, but still significantly different than what it was. There’s still some tweaking to be done, but I’m really liking how it turned out.

-Got some notes back on a few of my scripts. For the most part, they’re pretty positive with some good suggestions, but there were also a couple of comments that made me question if my writing abilities are where they need to be. Maybe to a certain extent, but as it was pointed out to me, those comments are from one person, and one person’s opinion is not the final say. That’s something I really need to keep in mind.

-More writers asking me to do notes or engage in a script swap. Some new, some returning for more. Guess my analysis skills are improving. Happy to help when I can, but don’t expect a fast turnaround.

-A slow but steady output of query letters continues, with a handful of “send it” responses. Not a bad percentage so far. Not relying on any of them, but always maintaining a positive & hopeful attitude. Send it, forget it, on to the next one.

Thus the journey to being a working writer continues…

A most illustrative Q&A with Emma T. Capps

new hair icon maybe

Being a lifelong reader of comic books, it was inevitable I would discover and subsequently enjoy a wide variety of webcomics. Variety is actually one of the key words in play here. There are so many to choose from, along with so much talent on display from the creators.

Like with screenplays, webcomics are great examples of storytelling – just in a different medium. It takes a lot of work to create and maintain a quality webcomic.

I first met Emma Capps a couple of years ago at the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco; she was 15 years old and already an accomplished cartoonist. She’s experienced a lot since then, both professionally and personally, and despite some tough setbacks, still maintains an incredibly positive and upbeat attitude.

“Emma T. Capps started her first webcomic at age 14, and has exhibited her work all over the country and done special installments for publications like Dark Horse Presents. She also teaches cartooning workshops at 826 Valencia in San Francisco, and has more than doubled the percentage of female students in her classes! In her spare time, she likes chatting in Spanish, learning new crafts, and being politically active through volunteer work. Most of all, she really hates talking about herself in the third person.”

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

Hmm, this is honestly a bit of a tough one to answer because I am constantly reading. I just finished George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, which to my mind deserves all the accolades it’s recently gotten. (Michiko Kakutani, recently departed bastion of the New York Times book review, never steers me astray). Bardo is a bit of a tricky book to classify, as it skillfully combines various genres in a way that makes it difficult to define. I cried much more than I expected for a book where the premise is that all the characters are dead.

I think what I recently had the most fun reading was Scott Hawkins’ The Library at Mount Char, a novel that to me has flown quite undeservedly under the radar. It’s a really fresh voice in fantasy that begs multiple readings just because it is so skillfully plotted and imagined. There are scenes of violence and horror – many – but I’ve still been recommending it all around and it’s become one of my favorite books. It begs a sequel, or a companion novel set within the same universe, but as of yet Hawkins hasn’t expressed his immediate plans to write one (Library is his, remarkably, his debut).

In terms of things I’ve watched, I don’t watch a large amount of TV – mostly period dramas, like Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife and pretty much everything on Masterpiece Classic – but a movie that has one of the most excellent scripts, to me, is Tarsem’s The Fall. This might be a little bit of a cop-out because there were definitely unscripted scenes between the young actress and Lee Pace, but the entire conceit of the movie is amazing – and the costumes by Eiko Ishioka are understandably incredible. It’s a historical movie, sure, but at its core it’s a movie about the power of stories and how they bind us all together.

How’d you get into creating your own comics?

This is also unfortunately a slightly strange answer. It’s not so cut-and-dry! I always knew I loved writing and drawing, and I had several short stories I published in Stone Soup Magazine along with illustrations I did. But I never really synthesized the two, mostly because I considered my writing to be better developed than my art skills were at that point. But I took a short art course, and I realized I actually could capture my ideas visually just as I had imagined them.

In Fall 2010, I drew a short autobiographical comic called Jam Days and submitted it to a competition – and, somehow, managed to work that into my final “recital” project for 8th grade. But I finished Jam far before the overall project’s deadline! So, I re-discovered Chapel, a character I had created a while ago and had turned into a line of greeting cards I made for my parents. I’ve always had a fascination with newspaper dailies, which are sadly dying out, and I thought it would be a great challenge to try and re-create that sort of schedule.

So I set out to draw one Chapel comic every single day for 30 days. I put them online in installments – that’s what became “Season One” of The Chapel Chronicles – and by the time I’d finished posting them, I realized they had really struck a chord. People were commenting! People I didn’t even know in real life! So why not continue? I lightened my load a little bit, though, to one comic per week instead of per day. I kept to that schedule throughout all four years of high school (including summer break!)

What are some of your favorite comics and webcomics?

My favorite comics hew much more to the print side than the webcomic side, although some of them were definitely webcomics that later become print collections! My favorite print volumes are Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp, Kerascoet’s Beautiful Darkness, DeForge’s Ant Colony, Tamaki’s SuperMutant Magic Academy (previously serialized online, but I strongly recommend the printed version). In terms of series, I really enjoy Oda’s One Piece – I use it as an example of differing panel structures in the comics classes I teach. In a parallel universe where I actually have my life together, I’d also keep up regularly with Witchy, Paranatural, Saint for Rent, and Hark! A Vagrant. I’m 99.99999% sure there are more that I’m forgetting to list.

In our pre-interview, you’d mentioned plotting out the story for your latest project. How did you come up with the idea for it, and how did you develop it?

In contrast to Chapel, this story, The League of Fonts, is much older in terms of its sheer gestation period. I actually had the idea for it before I even started doing Chapel! If I remember correctly, I was having lunch with my grandma and had the idea – but I had no paper, so I went to a stationary store next door and bought a small notebook to jot down my thoughts! I still have the notebook, somewhere.

The structure of the story was far different back then, but the central conceit of the characters and fonts was the same. It has evolved through various iterations and plot changes, though, especially as I learned things that could make certain aspects more realistic and others less so for the purpose of satire. I think my greatest breakthrough was a few years ago, when I realized it was a highly visual story and would be better served as a graphic novel instead of a prose story. So I converted it to a script, and continued work in that format. I have the entire story scripted now, on Scrivener, which for me is the ideal process: that way, when I’m actually drawing, I can put all my attention on the visual aspect knowing that I’ve already got the overall flow of the storyline planned out. If I hadn’t done that writing beforehand, it would be a mess, since it’s a highly detailed plot and relies on continuity to really work.

Going through the archives of The Chapel Chronicles, some of the earlier strips are of the one-and-done format, followed by a gradual transition into longer storylines. Was this intentional or more of a natural progression (i.e. the more you wrote, the more ideas you got)?

As I mentioned previously, I didn’t really have a set “game plan” for how I would start Chapel – and, honestly, I never intended it to become something longer. My first 30-comics-in-30-days was a personal challenge, but I found I enjoyed it much more than I had anticipated. There’s still narrative and continuity in those early comics; some of the board game strips, for example, might not make quite as much sense without context, nor would the storyline of Chapel acquiring her pet hedgehog, Rupert. Once I decided I was going to make more Chapel, I immediately knew there would be longer storylines. My favorite newspaper comics do just that: there are longer storylines, but each can still be enjoyable as a stand-alone strip.

You’re definitely a very creative person. Is being a professional artist/cartoonist the ultimate goal, or just one of many?

I honestly don’t know! YES, being a professional cartoonist is a life dream of mine – but is it the only, ultimate goal? Most likely not.

When it comes to stand-alone visual art, I doubt it. This goes against all accepted artist etiquette, but I almost never sketch. If I do, it’s to plan out aspects of a narrative world I’m creating. I don’t mind that, though! I have little-to-no interest in being solely a visual artist, as I honestly don’t think that’s my strong suit.

When I was younger I wanted to be a novelist, and I still might revisit that – comics, to me, are just a way of telling stories that have a strong visual component and couldn’t be fully expressed with just prose. I read books all the time (to the point where I’ve had to ban myself from reading the New York Times book review, since it’s the equivalent of window-shopping for me) and I feel, often, the narrative/written side of graphic novels is treated as less important than the strength of the artwork. Really, the opposite is true. The most successful contemporary comics don’t, in a strict sense, have technical artistic proficiency. The reason they’re so popular is because the story or writing has something that is engaging. XKCD, for example, pulls no punches: it’s all stick figures, but it’s so wildly popular because it resonates with people through the strength of the writing.

When I was a lot younger, I wanted to be a paleontologist, but now I’m not sure I’d be a very good one. Math and science aren’t really my strong suits – they could be, if I was passionate about them enough to study them on my own – so that likely wouldn’t work out. In my spare time, beyond reading, I like to design and sew/knit my own clothes. But as of yet, I have no intention of ever doing that professionally. That way, nobody can see my lazy seam-work on the interior of the garment! I mostly taught myself, so I don’t do anything the way it’s “supposed” to be done. If it fits, then I’m happy, and I don’t have to go clothes shopping ever again!

You’ve taught cartooning workshops at a non-profit writing center. How did that come about, and what sort of things do you talk about?

Coinciding with my initial work on The Chapel Chronicles, I decided I would bundle up the first “season” into a small book and sell it at my school’s craft/project fair! I also went to a convention (my first one ever!) in New York and exhibited there as well, which was terrifying, exhausting, and exhilarating all at once. I had planned from the beginning to donate all my profits to 826 Valencia, a nonprofit in San Francisco, as one of the teachers who first sparked my interest in creating comics used to teach there. They were a bit surprised at a 14-year-old donating money, I think, and invited me to come teach a comic class myself! I was unimaginably nervous, but I wanted to knock it out of the park, so I prepared worksheets on the process, a detailed time breakdown for the class, and specific PowerPoint presentations on what I’d be trying to teach. I really wanted to show them that I wasn’t doing this just as a lark (or, in any way, a “volunteer experience” to look good on school applications). I was serious!

My first workshop was a disaster: only one student showed up. 826 contacted me to apologize, and asked if I’d like to teach another class. I didn’t, but I said yes regardless. I started to teach regularly, and began theming my workshops so students could have some framework around which to create their ideas. Mostly, I focused on teaching kids various steps of planning a comic, and then some conventional tools that make cartooning easier – but my focus was never about imposing some specific way of doing something, as I’d experienced that in art classes at my school and bristled at it. I would explain to them why we would be doing a certain step, and why I felt it was helpful. I’d then go around to each student individually, and if they had a reason they’d like to do something against the grain, I would encourage them to go for it! I really wanted to let their individual voices shine. I even had a few “repeat offenders” who attended multiple classes and tried to squeak in before registration filled up, as it did often!

I love teaching, and I haven’t gotten to do so in a while due to extenuating circumstances, which leads me to…

You also mentioned having to take a break from writing and drawing due to some health issues. Can you elaborate on that, and how are you feeling these days?

I would be more than happy to discuss it! To be honest, I’m never quite sure how to bring up the details – I’ve essentially disappeared for the greater part of two years, both to focus on my treatment and to figure out a way to broach the subject. I’m always cognizant that the Chapel audience skews younger, and I never want to write something that might scare them. I haven’t updated in quite a while because while I’m on the road to recovery, it’s never 100% guaranteed, and I feel that proclaiming “I’m cured!” would be jinxing it.

Essentially, I went to college in New York City in Fall 2015. Less than a week in, I caught a cold from my roommate and I didn’t get better. I missed several days of class, spent most days sleeping, and barely had enough energy to get something to eat. I went to go spend the afternoon with a family friend, and I was so tired she booked me an emergency appointment with her son’s pediatrician. He sent me in for tests at the hospital, and I woke up in the ICU around three weeks later.

At the time, I had a diagnosis of generic pulmonary failure – but it wasn’t correct. In order to breathe, they’d given me a tracheostomy. I’d also been tube-fed, so I had lost so much weight that at first I couldn’t walk at all. Initially, I wasn’t very upset, most likely due to the massive medications I was on that kept me fairly sedated at all times. But I learned I had to go back home to San Francisco and that made me devastated. At home, I started seeing a pulmonologist, got steroid prescriptions, and was allowed to let my trach hole close up. I worked really hard! I still never really had a cut-and-dry diagnosis, but I was on strong daily medications and they seemed to be working. So in fall 2016, I went back to school in New York again.

This time, I lasted longer. I stayed for about a month or so. But things started to fracture: I got three colds; I wasn’t thinking clearly; I couldn’t do school assignments that, rationally, I knew were easy. Eventually I decided I needed to come home. I felt it was my fault, like I wasn’t trying hard enough.

One day, I got a severe headache and vomiting. We went to the emergency room, and they quickly took me in an ambulance to UCSF Hospital. I had severe inflammation in my brain, to the point the doctors were shocked I was even walking. I got discharged around…Christmas, I think? But a few weeks later, the entire left side of my body began to feel numb and tingly, so we went to the hospital as a precaution. They diagnosed me with some sort of brain condition, and put me on a treatment of regular IV drips. But that, too, was incorrect.

One doctor thought: “You know, this isn’t adding up.” So she surveyed my entire case and realized the inflammation in my lungs was the same thing now clouding my brain. On a hunch, she did a simple blood test and discovered I have an extraordinarily rare genetic disorder: hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH), which more often than not goes undiagnosed because it’s so uncommon and has a high mortality rate. For this, there is only one treatment: chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. So that’s what I had, and I’m on the road to recovery now! I wouldn’t say I feel 100% back to normal, but at least my brain is working well enough now that I can read novels again and process the information.

Anyway, it’s not a very nice story to tell, which is why I haven’t really told it in any Chapel-specific circles. But if anything can come out of my discussing it, I’d hope that it would raise awareness so more doctors might think to test for HLH and other rare hematologic disorders. Many doctors have never seen a case of it in their entire careers!

What’s next for Emma T. Capps?

A functional immune system.

How can people find out more about your work?

They can read the entirety of The Chapel Chronicles online at www.chapelchronicles.com! It’s all there, except for some work I’ve done for Dark Horse Presents, as I don’t own the copyright to those. And the latest for League of Fonts is up on www.leagueoffonts.com – although that’s on indefinite hiatus due to the aforementioned health issues, which I feel horrifically guilty about. Beyond that, I have a Facebook page for The Chapel Chronicles, and I’m on Twitter –  @EmmaTCapps. On Facebook I’ve been largely inactive, as I know some younger kids do follow me there, and I’ve yet to think of a PG-rated way of describing brain surgery. I update my Twitter account slightly more frequently. Previously, I posted solely about my artwork, but lately it’s been about my health, books, and taking nice baths (verdict: acceptable for all ages. Don’t ever feel like you’re too old for a bubble bath. Trust me).

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

That’s a tough one, because there are two things I am excellent at baking: pie and chocolate cake, in that order. I haven’t specified the pie flavor because I have a good crust recipe and I can usually make them come out equally well. I will say I’m not a big fan of pumpkin pie, so I’d have to say my favorites are probably in the berry territory (berritory?) – I just made a blackberry one, in a desperate culinary plea to woo my new neighbors’ affections, so right now that’s where I’m leaning. My mom prefers peach, though, so I make those more frequently. Yikes, now I’m hungry…!

*Author’s suggestion – Emma’s books would make for some great and pleasantly original gifts, holidays or otherwise, for any young readers on your list. Just click here.

Educate thyself

reading 2
Quiet, please. Writers at work.

Chances are you came to this blog/post via a link from an online screenwriting group or forum. (If you’re a first-timer – welcome! Feel free to subscribe.)

When time permits, I’ll browse through some of the groups to check out what kinds of subjects and topics are being discussed. There are also questions. A LOT of questions. Those can range from “How do I get an agent?” to “What’s the proper format for this?” to “How do these pages look?”, all of which will yield a wide variety of answers.

I don’t usually comment because most of the time I come into it late and somebody with just as much if not more experience than me has already said what I was going to say.

There was a recent post where somebody asked what the best screenwriting book was. Answers ranged from several well-known titles to “read scripts instead”.

To a certain extent, I think those are both good answers. The books that helped me the most were Dave Trottier’s The Screenwriting Bible, primarily in terms of getting a good handle on formatting and the basics of structure, and Paul Lucey’s Story Sense, which expanded on both (and appears to be out of print, but still worth tracking down a copy.)

While some books might help you get a grasp of the basics, the real learning comes from immersing yourself in reading scripts and working on your own. Another helpful practice is to watch a film with the script in hand, following along with the action onscreen while seeing how it’s written on the page.

Reading a script can really help show you what should and shouldn’t be there, which you can then apply to yours.

This doesn’t just apply if you’re just starting out. I still get a kick out of reading scripts, whether it’s from the Black List, or one somebody recommended, or even when someone asks me for notes. Bonus points if it’s somebody within my network of writing colleagues; I know they can deliver the goods, and that’ll be reflected in their script.

I’ve also seen my fair share of terrible scripts, usually identified as such by the content of the first page. If that’s not good, there’s little hope of improvement for the rest of it. The silver lining here is you will quickly see how NOT to do it, thereby ensuring you won’t duplicate it.

So while you should definitely devote time to writing your script, make sure you set some time aside to read scripts. You’ll be entertained AND learn at the same time.

-Filmmaker/script consultant/friend of the blog Jimmy George is offering a special limited-time discount for first-time clients – 50% off all script services. No matter what you’re working on, whether it’s a feature, a short, or TV, Jimmy’s ready to help you out. But better hurry – the offer’s only good until October 11th.