No small feat using another medium to be a writer-at-large

HG Wells
The man responsible for tales of time travel, alien invasions, and assorted mad scientists, just to name a few…

After a gap of several years, I recently had the opportunity to reconnect in person with a respected colleague who has had more than their fair share of experience dealing with writers of all shapes, sizes, and levels of talent.

This person used to deal a lot with screenwriters, but now deals primarily with writers of manuscripts. Over the course of our conversation, I was asked about my scripts and my writing (What do I like to write? What genres are the scripts I have now? What kind of stories am I working on?)

As has been documented here before, my genre of choice is definitely adventure, along with hyphens connecting them to other genres (i.e. western-adventure, pulp sci-fi adventure, etc).

I gave a quick thumbnail sketch/five-second elevator pitch for the two completed and the one currently in revision mode.

You’d be harder pressed to find a stronger advocate for using your already-existing material as a springboard to jump into other mediums – primarily books and/or graphic novels.

It was their opinion that all three sounded like very original and fun ideas, which would make each a prime candidate for attracting attention. And this person has also been following the blog for quite a while, so their opinion is also that my writing is pretty solid. They cited examples of writers they knew who’d foregone the traditional route of trying to get in with one of the high-profile publishing houses and done it all themselves, each achieving respectable levels of success. Nothing to break the bank, but still some impressive numbers.

“A script is more or less an outline for a novel. And even though you’re not limited by page numbers, it still takes talent to create a novel,” I was told. “Your stories are original and unique, which makes them prime candidates for this. At least think about it.”

Believe me, I am.

My success in trying to get these scripts through to reps and production companies has been practically non-existent at best, yet I persist. I’m sure I’ll continue along that avenue, but this new alternative is definitely food for thought.

I’ve been told by more than a few people that my writing is very visual (which you would think would make it ideal for film), and that it really moves. In the past, I’ve entertained and even at times partially investigated the notion of applying my scripts to a graphic novel format (a great match), but am also not averse to trying my hand at converting it to pure prose.

I’ve no intention of stopping writing scripts. I like it too much. But I also like the pure act of writing by itself, so for the time being, all this talk about working in other formats is nothing more than speculation and conjecture.

But in some ways, still worth considering.

All that on a single piece of (digital) paper?

bad 1st impression
It can only go downhill from here

You only get one chance to make a good first impression. And that also applies to a screenplay. If your first page doesn’t make us want to keep going, why should we? Chances are the rest of it is exactly the same.

The first page is your golden opportunity to start strong straight out of the gate. Show us from the absolute get-go you know what you’re doing. A lot of the time, I’ll know by the end of the first page what kind of ride I should be expecting.

Just a few items to take into consideration.

-First and foremost, how’s the writing? No doubt you think it’s fine, but face it. You’re biased. You want a total stranger to find it fault-free, so look at it like one. Is it easy to follow and understand? Does it flow smoothly? When I read it, do I get a clear mental image of what you’re describing? Does it show, not tell?

-Is there a lot of white space? Are your sentences brief and to the point, or do they drone on and on with too many words?

-Do you point the reader in the right direction and let them figure things out, or at least get the point across via subtext, or do think it’s necessary to explain everything, including what a character is thinking or feeling? Yes, that happens on the first page.

-If your protagonist is introduced here, are they described in the way you want me to visualize them for the next 90-110 pages? Does a notable physical characteristic play a part in the story? Are they behaving in such a way that it establishes the proper starting point for their arc? Are they doing something that endears them to us, making us care about them?

-If your protagonist ISN’T on the first page, does it do a good job in setting up the world in which the story takes place? Do the characters introduced here play any kind of role later on in the story?

-Are there any mistakes regarding spelling or punctuation? Are you absolutely sure about that? SPELLCHECK IS NOT YOUR FRIEND. A team does not loose a game, nor do I think they should of won either. Two glaring errors that your software will not recognize. But a reader will.

-Does it properly set up the genre? If it’s a comedy, should I be prepared to have my sides ache from laughing too hard? If it’s a horror, should I make sure the lights are on, even if it’s 12 noon? If it’s a drama, should I have a box of tissues within arm’s reach to dry the expected river of tears?

-Do your characters sound like people saying actual things, or are they spouting nothing but exposition and overused cliches?

Not sure about any of these? Read it over with as critical an eye as you can muster, or get help from somebody within your network of savvy writing colleagues. DO NOT go to somebody who doesn’t know screenwriting.

Think I’m being overly critical? Ask any professional consultant or reader, and I bet 99 out of 100 will say they know exactly what kind of read they’re in for by the end of the first page. And number 100 might also agree.

Then again, there’s also the possibility that the first page could be brilliant and it stays that way until FADE OUT.

Or the wheels could fall off anywhere between page 2 and the end.

Your mission, and you should choose to accept it, is to make that first page as irresistible as you can, grab us tight, and not let go. Make us want to keep going. Then do the same for page 2, then page 3, page 4, etc.  Make us totally forget what page we’re on.

Take a look at the first page of your latest draft. Does it do what you and the story need it to?

-Didja notice the spiffy new look? Had to make some behind-the-scenes changes, and this is the result.

A big stove with lots of burners

jayne
Always something cookin’ in this kitchen

Thanks to a big, determined push, I managed to wrap up the initial edit of the pulp spec last night. Amazingly, it’s still 116 pages. Much as I’d love to take another pass on it, a better option is to gently nudge it aside and let it simmer for a few months.

In the meantime, my attention now turns to a few other items, including providing some script notes and a major overhaul of one of the low-budget comedies.

To some, it might seem I’m taking on too much. Others might think it’s great to be so busy. No matter which opinion you have, it all comes down to how the individual (i.e. yours truly) sees it.

Me, I enjoy the diversity and variety. I like to work on my own material AND read other people’s stuff. All that mental stimulation helps me in the long run; the equivalent of maintaining a regular workout schedule at the gym. Or in my case, a steady regiment of training runs.

Always working on something, or even adding some reading and watching into the mix, not only helps your creativeness, but your actual output. Wouldn’t you say your writing skills are significantly better today than they were, say, a year ago? How about compared to when you just started out? I know mine are. Especially in terms of the latter.

All that being said, I think there’s a big difference between being a productive writer and just being a non-stop writing machine. A productive writer definitely produces material, but they also take the time to have a life outside of writing. The machine is just full speed ahead and don’t let up. Granted, there are some who can do both, and kudos to them. I prefer to be the former.

I also don’t have any problem with transitioning to a new project once one is completed. Even though I haven’t directed all attention on the new one, it’s always been in the back of my mind. Maybe an idea about it would pop, which would then be added to an always-handy list, then brought back out later. You might have a different approach, but this is what works for me. Everybody writes in their own way.

In the meantime, my nimble little fingers will now get a bit of a rest while I dive into the aforementioned giving of notes. And once all of those are done, the dust gets blown off the keyboard and the cycle repeats.

Q&A w/Phillip Hardy about Hosting vs DIY

Phil Hardy

Phillip E. Hardy is a four-time optioned screenwriter who also runs The Script Gymnasium script consultancy. His work has recently been presented to Jay Roach, William Morris Endeavor, Tyler Perry Productions and A&E Network. He has placed and won at 45 film festivals and contests including Page International, Austin Film Festival, Cannes Screenplay, Shore Scripts, Screencraft, Beverly Hills Film Festival and Sunscreen Film Festival.

Today’s post stems from a discussion between Phillip and myself regarding the benefits and drawbacks of posting your script on a hosting site or taking a more proactive role and doing the work yourself.

You’ve had some experience with both handling your own material and hosting sites. Do you find one to be more effective than the other, or is it more of a case-by-case basis?

I’ve had varying degrees of success with different hosting sites. But it’s a total crapshoot, especially with paid hosting and pitching sites. One of my colleagues swears by Virtual Pitchfest (VPF). And, at 10 bucks a pop for a pitch, they look attractive to writers on a budget.  I’ve done ten pitches at VPF and though I received some very good feedback on one of my period piece dramas, nobody at that website has requested a script read.

When I first started out, I used Project Greenlight (PG), which was expensive and the responses I received were very sloppy and unprofessional. I did get one read request from a video game company. But I would never use PG again. I know of nobody who has scored with them.

Don’t ask me about the Black List. Okay, I’ll tell you. I hate them and everything they stand for. However, if you wish to pay their reviewers (frustrated writers with their own axe to grind) seventy five dollars a pop to review your script, then that’s the site for you.

International Screenwriter’s Association is fairly inexpensive for a premium listing. However, anyone that uses them can call themselves a producer or director. I’ve made several connections there but they led me nowhere and have netted no financial remuneration.

I’ve also hooked up with a few folks on Craigslist (CL), which can be a real pain and you have to answer a lot of adds to get any action. One of the best connections I made on CL was with one of the stars of the TNT show “Falling Skies”. So you never know who you’re talking to but you should vet them out before sending them your scripts.

I’ve had my best luck at Inktip, which allows you to list a script for four months at a price of sixty dollars for four months. Producers at Inkitp shop loglines and will read your summary or request a script read if they’re interested in your spec material. For example, I had multiple logline reads today and two of them read the synopsis as well. However, a lot of Inktip clients troll loglines and do little else. I’ve had a number of script downloads, which have also netted zippo. However, the Inktip Newsletter has been much more effective for me. The price is the same as the listing. The difference is you can pitch producers looking for specific genres and concepts. I’ve also written pitches for these clients, which led to a script option and three right-to-shop agreements with a producer that got my work into the hands of some big time production companies and cable networks. I’ve also bullshitted people and told them I had scripts I hadn’t written yet. And then banged them out in a week. This method is not for the faint of heart.

I’m sure most writers know that Amazon Studios has an open door policy about submitting television and feature screenplays. Unfortunately, that door leads to oblivion. And if you can locate one unproduced writer that has something produced by Amazon, I’ll buy you lunch at my local Sonic drive-thru. Several months back, I did some research on this and could find no unproduced writers who have made it out of development purgatory. And by unproduced, I mean you’ve never had a big budget movie made from one of your screenplays.

Lastly, I’ve used Stage 32 for paid pitch sessions and gotten script requests from four major players including Ridley Scott Productions and Good Fear Management. But if you do a written pitch, you better make sure your logline is catchy, your synopsis is clear and concise and you include the character arc for your protagonist.

The bottom line is use any means possible to get your work into the hands of people you are looking to make movies.

If you’re going the DIY route, what methods have worked for you?

Smack-talkin’, bold action has worked best for me. I hooked up with several producers looking for projects by telling them I had scripts already written about things they were looking for, including a story about Michael Rockefeller, who disappeared in the Papuan Islands more than fifty years ago. In this particular instance, the producer was advertising and I wrote a logline and synopsis in three hours and pitched it to the guy. He optioned the screenplay I wrote in six days.

In another instance, I did the same thing with another producer looking for an Angela Davis screenplay. However, when the producer asked me if I had a script, I said “sure, it’s sitting on the shelf with my screenplays about Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver.” He got the joke and we wound up working together on several different projects. The DIY Method should include whoring your wares at any given moment and making as many connections as you can. Also, make friends with writers like Paul Zeidman.

Never heard of him. Keeping that theme going, what do you recommend when it comes to using hosting sites?

Passive hosting sites where you don’t aggressively work the leads may be a waste of time. Just listing a script without supporting efforts offers little chance for anything happening to further your career.

What’s your opinion of hosting sites overall?

If you’re not living in Hollywood and getting meetings with producers, hosting sites, along with promoting yourself vigorously and IMHO, competing in film festivals and script contests to relentlessly build your brand, can be a very useful tool to get you access to producers and agents. As a direct result of hosting sites, I’ve had material read by A & E, History Channel, Emmett Furla, William Morris Endeavor, Jay Roach, Tyler Perry Productions, Ridley Scott Productions, Zero Gravity, Good Fear Management, Zane W. Levitt and many others.

After putting your script on a hosting site, what should you NOT do?

Don’t nag the contacts you make. Don’t be a pain in the ass if someone’s interested in your work.

As an experienced writer, what tips would you like to pass along?

-If you’re a delicate, sensitive woodland creature, then scriptwriting isn’t for you.

-Learn to suck up constant rejection. Never spend more than a few hours wallowing in rejection or failure. Remember, opinions are like assholes, everyone has one. With each setback, learn how to sally forth with renewed vigor.

-The best cure for rejection is writing; particularly if it’s better writing.

-Sometimes a script just sucks. Everyone thinks they have a great idea for a script. More often than not, they’re wrong. Sometimes a script just sucks, no matter how many times you rewrite it. Therefore, don’t attach yourself to any one effort too much. It may take writing fifty scripts before you find something that really resonates with readers.

-If you see writing scripts as a path to riches and fame, you may wish to consider other options.

-There ain’t no such thing as writers block. There are only writers that write and ones that don’t. Look at Bukowski. Drunk or sober, he did great work every day of his life.

-Writers who build relationships, maintain their humility and help their colleagues will do better than ones who don’t.

-If you keep losing script contests, then write better scripts until you win one.

-Read books, take classes, seminars, and good advice about scriptwriting and then march to your own creative drummer. If I listened to every asshole who told me I couldn’t do something, I’d never accomplish anything.

What are some absolute “Do NOTs”?

-Don’t tell anyone “this is my first script”. But don’t think you’ll set the world on fire by writing one script.

-Don’t write something because you think it will have commercial appeal. Write something you believe in.

-Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. Endeavor to be an original.

-Don’t ever rest on your laurels. Keep writing until it becomes second nature AND you can produce even under the most adverse or stressful conditions. You may one day have a job that presents you with just that set of conditions.

Progress, 2-3 pages at a time

fingers
The great tallying of how many pages were written today

Part of this whole thing of getting stuff done, writing-wise, is exactly that.

You need to get your ass in that chair and write. Repeat on a daily basis as long as necessary.

While I may not get to write every day, I certainly do try. So far, the target output of 2-3 pages when I can is holding strong.

For those following me on various social media, you might occasionally see an announcement (read: tweet) proclaiming that day’s results. I’m proud of what I accomplish in each writing session, even if it’s only two pages. Progress is progress.

(Incidentally, I also enjoy seeing others make similar announcements. Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn.)

Every once in a while, someone will comment about how productive I am, or marvel at my steady output of pages. As if I’m some sort of writing machine.

Well, yes and no.

Yes in that I do try to write every day, but only because I like it, and, more importantly, it’s the only way to do it. This thing ain’t gonna write itself. And the more you write, the better you’ll get at it.

Even at the slow pace of 2-3 pages a day, the numbers add up and you can have a completed draft in a relatively short time.

And no because sometimes there are days where circumstances simply prevent me from having time to write. It happens. Life gets in the way and all that. Admittedly, I don’t care very much for those days.

It used to be that sometimes I’d read about someone who had significantly higher results than me (e.g. “Another 15 pages today!”), and feel all “How am I supposed to compete with that?”

Turns out I’m not. The only connection between me and that other writer is just that – we’re both writers. They have their way of doing it, and I’ve got mine. Do I wish I could be that productive? Of course. Does it mean I’m not as good a writer as they are? Hell no.

I write when I can. Maybe that means a little, a lot, or maybe not at all. But it’s the way I do it, and I don’t care how it compares to anyone else. It works for me, and that’s the important thing.