Q & A with Melody Jackson of Smart Girls Productions

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Melody Jackson, Ph.D., founder and CEO of Smart Girls Productions and Hollywood Business School, is a self-described “Marketing Person” and Entrepreneur.  After working as a Marketing Person selling to the film industry for several years, she started Smart Girls Productions in 1992.

To learn more about Melody and the services provided by Smart Girls Productions, check out their screenwriting blog.

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

That question is a little bit funky for me to answer and I’ll tell you why.  Years ago I took the famous/infamous Robert McKee screenwriting course, and there was one thing that really stuck with me. In that legendary, deep gruff voice with his big scary face belting from the stage, McKee shouted out:  “I’m not doing this class to try to make you guys win Academy Awards…. I’m teaching this class to try to raise the overall quality of films that are out there.” Something to that effect.

He talked about how, when he was a young boy, he would go watch every single film that came out in the theaters near him — even as a young kid, he went to see everything.  All types of films. He just loved the medium of film.

The thing I learned from him is not to be so hung up on what is great writing, but to learn to enjoy film as a whole.  Most scripts are not going to be great or really well-written. It’s easy to critique and criticize most of them. But in that class, I learned to have a different perspective, and that makes a difference for me as a script analyst and for my clients.  

Sure I can go deep into “analyzing” structure and character arcs and all kinds of stuff. But ultimately, it’s a question first and foremost of “did this script cause me to have some kind of emotional experience? Regardless of anything else.”  Then, and only then, do I engage my left brain and start seeing how it could be made better. With better writing, you tend to appeal across a broader group of people.  

How’d you get your start reading scripts?

Prior to starting my company Smart Girls Productions, I worked for a company that was involved with film distribution — both domestic and international — and I learned a fair amount about that.  At one point, I just had to quit — no really good reason; they were great. But I just wanted to do a business on my own. That’s when I started Smart Girls.

I was actually working on an acting career at that point and need to figure out how I was going to make money.  Since I read scripts as an actress, I thought, “Hey, I could make money typing scripts.” Yes, typing! I ran an ad in the Writer’s Guild magazine and got a call right away.  The truth is, I didn’t even know how to type a script. I called an aspiring producer friend of mine who was also my mentor. And I asked him desperately, “How do I type a script?”  He told me to get some book from Samuel French bookstore and I did. It took me forever to type those first two scripts. But after that, I typed a LOT of scripts…. we still do!

Then once I learned to type a script, I took lots of classes on screenwriting. Then I began writing my own scripts. Got hired to write a couple. I got a WGA agent. I went on to get my Ph.D. in mythological studies.  And along the way, I added script analysis to my list of services and it turns out, I apparently have a knack for it. I ended up being rated one of the top 5 Script Consultants on three different occasions by Creative Screenwriting Magazine.  

Your company’s called Smart Girls Productions. What’s the story behind the name, and what kind of work does the company do?

This one is short.  When I started my company, I brainstormed a list of about 30 company names. I read it to my Mom, and she said, “Definitely Smart Girls.”  And so it was. Told you it was short.

You have a PhD in Mythological Studies. Has that helped you in analyzing scripts?

For sure. Joseph Campbell, the father of bringing mythology into an understandable form, is the one who identified The Hero’s Journey.  That’s the foundation of almost every great Western story. My studies in mythology looked at story from innumerable angles…. not just Campbell’s but many others.  So yes. It is in my DNA that it informs my analysis.

What are the components of a good script?

For me this is where the Hero’s Journey meets Aristotle’s Poetics.  The Hero’s Journey focuses more on the experience of the character and the inner transformation.  The Poetics has more of an emphasis on plot. But if you work both angles, then you’re going to have things that appeal to more audience members.  That’s the big picture.

If I had to say what those elements are, it would be something like… You need to have a character that has something he or she NEEDS to learn, some kind of lesson, some area of their life where they are misguided.

They then get pulled into some external plot in which they will be forced to confront that thing they have not learned. They will come face-to-face with it in the external plot.

Their choice and how they handle it is the big lesson for them and for the audience.  The biggest component for a good script for me is that the the main character has some kind of transformation. That they are somehow a bigger, better or wiser character by the time the story ends.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

The most common big mistake I see is no solid theme developed in the story. You have to have some point to telling the story, otherwise it’s a boring story about going to the store.

Gotta have some point about human nature that is revealed in your story, or what’s the point? That is the biggest mistake new writers make. I would also venture to say it’s also why more sophisticated movie-goers don’t like straight-up action films. Too many times, the focus is not on any kind of transformation, but on other fun stuff like chase scenes and explosions and cool special effects. Nothing wrong with that, but it does nothing for the soul. The soul longs for transformation, and personal development. The theme is the highest articulation of that. The most common mistake I see — actually I don’t see it as a mistake, but more like the most underdeveloped aspect of scripts I read is theme. And I say it that way, because I find that most writers have some place of meaning they are writing from; they just haven’t consciously identified what it is.

One of the non-writing necessities of screenwriting is the writer’s ability to market themselves. Seeing as how that’s one of your specialties, what are some key pieces of advice that writers should keep in mind?

You’re not going to be successful overnight or next week. You’re not going to sell your first script for a million dollars. Or even $250,000. The first person who reads your script is not going to fall in love with it and suddenly introduce you as this newly discovered gem that Hollywood has been waiting for.

Many screenwriters really have no idea how hard it is to get a deal and then get your movie made. It’s a long shot. I’m not saying you should give up, but I am saying that my best advice is to learn more about the BUSINESS side of the business. It’s far more likely that a writer will get hired to re-write a script if they’re a great writer than it is that they will actually sell their film and have it be produced. Trying to convey this idea and educate writers on this is why I launched my Hollywood Business School at HollywoodBschool.com.  My mission there is to help actors and writers better understand the business so they can have a much better chance at reaching their goals.

To boil it down to a few simple bits of advice:  Keep learning as much as you can about the business. Get great at your craft. Market market market. Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up.  Enjoy the pursuit. Be positive and be persistent. And don’t quit your day job. — BUT… do everything you can to help your career while you still have that job.

Part of your bio lists being the former emcee at the Hollywood Networking Breakfast. Could you provide a little more detail about the event and is it something screenwriters should consider attending?

My dear friend Sandra Lord is the Networking Guru of Hollywood. She was my manager for a period of time when I was acting. She started The Breakfast at that time, and she excelled at finding top level producers and agents to speak.  For the nine years I emceed that and heard the speakers, I got a deep education in how Hollywood works and what execs want.

Sandra still hosts the breakfast several times a year.  She also runs an event called “Let’s Do Lunch” and the L.A. Film and Television Meetup.  She is the first person that I recommend for every aspiring filmmaker, actor, set designer — anyone who wants to get into the business — go to her events as much as you can.  You will definitely start making connections. And it’s also not just for newbies. You’ll find a lot of working industry people there as well.

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

“Most” important?  I tend to stay away from hyperbole because how can I really boil it down to MOST important?  It’s a great question that writers need to know, so it’s not the question that’s an issue — it’s just my picky resistance to saying what is my most anything…Let me slightly modify and simply tell you what I think are some generally important rules.  Here are the three I pick for now:

  1. Learn story structure.  Study screenwriting. If you haven’t studied screenwriting, I guarantee you don’t know how to do it well. 100% guaranteed.
  2. Tap into your authenticity and write from there. In a very positive way, I think everyone has a great story to tell — of their own life even — if you find the right bits and pieces. Whatever it is that moves a screenwriter to spend weeks, months, and years on their screenplay, that tells me they have something important to say.  This goes back to the theme I mentioned above. They may not have completely identified what their theme is — and why their story is important to them. But I will also guarantee this …. if they tap into their authenticity and why they are so moved by that story, that story will have a hundred times more impact — on them and their audience.  If they get to their authenticity about it, there is deep fulfillment and satisfaction in writing a story like that. Then your passion makes it much easier for others to see its greatness.
  3. Don’t take anything you hear from a producer or agent at face value. You have to know how to read between the lines.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

It’s less a story trope that I’m tired of because they can be told in different ways.  What I find hard to watch or read is when the writer or filmmakers have not tapped into their unique vision — again I would call it lacking authenticity — but then … I don’t want THAT to come across as a TROPE!  If I had to say it another way, it’s when people are not digging deep enough into their soul to get to their authentic, unique perspective.

You could see the same story ten different times and if the filmmakers or screenwriter truly tapped into their own unique take deep within, it could still be interesting. It’s like when a great song is recorded by many different artists.  Whether it’s “Over the Rainbow,” “Amazing Grace,” “Yesterday,” “Can’t Help Falling In Love” or “To Love Somebody,” when a great singer does their unique rendition, we can hear it over and over and still be moved by it. The same with a story or a story beat.  The problem lies in the lack of tapping into the truth of the individual writer.

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

Gotta be pumpkin!  I need to find a good source for pumpkin pie here in Los Angeles. Got one?

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Q & A with Angela Bourassa and Tim Schildberger of Write/LA

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Screenwriters enter contests for a variety of reasons: industry connections, cash, software, notes on their script. And there are a lot of contests to choose from. How your script places can make a significant impact on helping you establish a screenwriting career.

And now there’s a new contest that wants to help you do just that.

Write/LA launches today (with early bird pricing in effect until April 30th), and is the brainchild of Angela Bourassa and Tim Schildberger. I had the opportunity to speak to them about it.

But first, a little background info…

Angela Bourassa is the founder and editor in chief of LA Screenwriter, a leading online resource for working and aspiring screenwriters around the world. Angela graduated from UCLA back in 2008 and has been writing feature screenplays — mostly comedy — ever since. In addition to writing, she spends much of her time wrangling her 18-month-old son, watching Survivor (#DropYourBuffs), and trying to keep track of which jail her public defender husband is visiting today.

Tim Schildberger is the founder of LiveRead/LA as well as a script consultant, writer with thirty years’ experience, an expat Australian, creator/writer of a Travel Channel comedy/reality series no one saw, and the man who led the team who found all the people for the feature film Borat. He’s a big fan of Aussie rules football (which isn’t anything like football or soccer or any other known sport) and baking treats with his twin girls for LiveRead/LA’s events.

Both of you have extensive experience providing information & resources to screenwriters. Tell us about your respective paths to get there.

Tim: I started writing for an Australian soap opera called Neighbours when I was 21. For the last twenty years I’ve been in the USA, and I’ve been a member of a writing group that holds weekly live reads. Not only has working with actors helped me enormously as a writer, but so has hearing all the feedback from my peers. That experience helped me overcome my hatred of re-writes (does anyone like re-writing?) and showed me the only path to becoming a better writer is writing more, sharing your stories, and being open to feedback. It also showed me I have an aptitude for identifying strengths and weaknesses in other people’s work, offering suggestions while maintaining the writer’s self respect.

In 2016, I decided that rather than continue assisting others with their scripts as a favor – which was becoming a little time consuming – I would put my own spin on the live read concept and build a new collaborative community, so I launched LiveRead/LA – and it’s already helped many writers. But I wanted to do more – to help more writers, to reach more people. I couldn’t make it happen alone, though, so it wasn’t until I met Angela and we discovered we had a similar sensibility about helping and giving back that Write/LA was born.

Angela: I started LA Screenwriter in 2011, and at first it was just a small blog where I would bring together produced scripts that I wanted to read and screenwriting articles that I found helpful as I worked toward my own dream of becoming a working screenwriter. But over the years, it’s really taken off, and now thousands of people a day come to the site for advice and resources, and that’s a responsibility I take very seriously.

I’ve thought about launching an annual competition before, but I honestly think that a lot of the screenwriting competitions out there – maybe even most of them – are ripoffs that don’t have the writer’s best interests at heart, and I didn’t want to be part of that cycle. I only wanted to start a competition if I had the ability to offer great prizes and great judging that could actually help writers in their careers, and that ability showed up in the form of Tim.

What prompted you to create Write/LA?

Tim: I was prompted to create Write/LA because I wanted to share what I’ve learned about writing, about the power of hearing your work read by actors, and about giving and receiving feedback. And the importance of interacting with working industry folk. Los Angeles is the global epicenter of writing for TV and film, so it seemed obvious to try to find a way to bring people to LA to learn, connect, and be celebrated for what they’ve achieved so far.

Angela: And I really wanted to be a part of Tim’s vision, because his idea for this competition and the prizes got me excited. Both of us are writers, so we know what it feels like to do well in a competition and then end up with no real benefit. We’re trying to change that by creating a competition that we both would want to enter.

What makes Write/LA different from other screenwriting competitions?

Tim: Write/LA is a competition aimed at the process of writing at a professional level. Most other competitions offer prizes in the hopes of discovering a script that can sell or a writer who can get representation. We’re focused on building command of the craft. Let’s be clear – our three grand prize winners will be writing while they’re in town. They’ll also be mingling with working writers and Industry people and gathering knowledge and experience that’s vital for lasting success. We aim to help our writers become professionals, not just one-hit wonders. It’s that combination of experience, education, and celebration that sets us apart.

What sort of criteria are you looking for in scripts that are entered?

Tim: We’re looking for evidence of command of the craft. That means we want original stories, compelling characters, an understanding of format and genre, and way above all else – an emotional connection with the material. There has been so much written about the structure of writing for TV and film: act breaks, inciting incidents, midpoint turns, and the rest. As a result, many writers are good at moving characters from point A to B to C.  But very, very few are good at letting us know what this particular story is doing to the emotional well being of the characters. An audience needs to feel something, or the script is flat.

As I like to say, no teenage girl saw Titanic ten times because it was a cool special effects movie about a boat sinking. They felt for Jack and Rose. We want to find scripts that make us feel, show us the writer knows how to tell a story, and will really benefit from the grand prize we’re offering.

Angela: That’s why we’re not judging film and television scripts separately. We’re accepting both, and we might end up with completely different genres and formats for the three grand prize winners, which I’m personally really excited about. We’re interested in emotional, engaging storytelling above all else.

Seeing as how this is Write/LA’s inaugural year, what are you hoping to establish with it in terms of opportunities for screenwriters?

Angela: We want to establish ourselves as a different kind of screenwriting competition. Our prizes stand out from the crowd, and we’re hoping a lot of writers out there understand the undeniable value of a private, intensive writing lab, an inside look at the industry, and the value of having their words read in front of an invite-only LA crowd.

Tim: Our winners will have a rare gift for any writer – a moment to be celebrated. Obviously, we hope their time with us will be a springboard to a writing career, or perhaps the final step toward breaking through, but what we’ll be focused on is helping them make connections and bring their writing up to a professional level so that – when they’re ready – they can begin long and successful writing careers.

We will also give everyone who makes the quarterfinals and above something of value. Being named a quarterfinalist feels good, but usually means little else. We want to change that.

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

Tim: Gosh. I love pie. But if you’re forcing me to choose, I think I lean toward the more pudding/custard pies. In Australia we have custard pies, which are my absolute favorite. But here in the US, I love a good banana cream pie. No disrespect to the fruit pies – as I said, I wouldn’t say no to any of them!

Angela: For me it has to be blackberry. Blackberry pies remind me of my childhood. But I’m a sucker for basically any sweets that don’t have nuts. (Apologies to the pecan pie fans out there.)

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One last ride

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Saddle up

Last week, work on the comedy outline wrapped up a bit earlier than expected, so while I wait for the notes on that, I’ve decided to venture back into some territory I’d considered over and done with.

My western.

Although it’s done alright in some contests (and I suppose top 15 percent in the Nicholl isn’t too shabby), I really think it can be better. Plus, more than a few opinions and comments from totally non-biased outside parties confirm this.

As one set of notes so succinctly put it, “Don’t get me wrong. The story’s a lot of fun and the structure is solid. It’s the characters that could use more development. Nothing too drastic, but just enough to flesh them out a little more.”

Makes sense to me.

On top of that, a recent conversation with another writer, who is starting on their new western script, included mention of how I should read the script for UNFORGIVEN – even though that and my script are worlds apart.

I downloaded it and started reading it. Just a few pages in, and it absolutely confirms I need to step up my game. There’s no reason I shouldn’t strive to present that kind of quality, even in a script that would most likely be labeled a “popcorn-tentpole” kind of story.

Luckily for me, I’ve always enjoyed working on this story and am actually kind of psyched about jumping back into it. I thought it was pretty good before, and now hope to make it even better.

Safe to say this should be pretty interesting.

A most illustrative Q&A with Emma T. Capps

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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.

A very hands-on Q&A with Geoffrey Calhoun

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Geoffrey D. Calhoun of wefixyourscript.com is listed as a Top 100 Indie Writer in the World. He has optioned several screenplays and has worked as a writer on two features coming out in 2017: The Little Girl and Studio 5. His multi-award-winning thriller Pink Bunny is scheduled for a 2018 release. Geoffrey has won multiple screenwriting awards and has worked as a producer, an assistant director, and director on indie film productions. He has been sought out by studios as a script consultant and a re-writer for various stages of development and production.

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

The last thing I watched I couldn’t stop thinking about was Arrival. I loved this film. It had depth and really explored her character. I loved how they played around with the structure of the film in creative ways that really built up to a climax. It was fantastic. I could see how Eric Heisserer did over 100 drafts to make that story perfect.

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

I actually began writing on a bet. A friend of mine was an editor for a local kids show. He wanted to push himself to write a script so he challenged me to see who could write better. Personally, I wasn’t interested because I have dyslexia. I agreed to do it, and ended up really enjoying the process. Since then it became more than a passion, almost like a volition. I wanted to be the best screenwriter I could possible be, so I started studying and learning from the greats such as Syd Field, Robert McKee, Viki King and reading screenplays by modern legends as well like David Goyer, Jonathan Nolan, and Christopher McQuarrie.

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

I think it can be learned. It comes with time. The average movie attendee can recognize a bad film. Now, some people prefer bad films, but that’s a whole different form of self- torture (wink). I like this question. It reminds me of the debate about raw talent vs. learned skill. Some teachers out there believe if you don’t have a modicum of innate talent with writing, then you’ll never be a good writer. I completely disagree with this. Their defense is that this is an art, and thus you must have a certain amount of “taste” in order to know the difference between what’s good and bad. I think what we do is more than an art. It’s a craft; a learned skill plain and simple. Something that can be mastered with just two things, time and practice. That’s all you need. We are craftsmen, like the blacksmiths of old. At first creating something small and simple like a horseshoe, then with time we master our skill and create compelling stories and works of art like the ornate armors of old.

4. What are the components of a good script?

It all starts with having something to say in your script. What are we trying to pass off to the audience? What do we want to tell them about life? Something that will open their eyes and help them see things from a new perspective? Or something that will reassure them and speak to the struggles they are going through? When we have a theme like this and we pair it with a sympathetic character, then we create a compelling story that’s unforgettable and emotionally moving. Take Arrival. It’s about a woman’s struggle with loss. That’s something that speaks to everyone, which is why it resonated so well with people.

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

Wow, that’s a tough one. I see mistakes of all kinds from new screenwriters to professionals. One mistake I often see is having underdeveloped characters. They’re superficial and are around just to be a face. Sometimes they’re even described as pretty or handsome, which reinforces this. When I get hired for a rewrite, the first thing I do is take the characters and layer in depth to make them more human and sympathetic; give them reasons to do what they’re doing and why they make the choices they do. I create depth by adding to them traits that we all suffer from but never talk about such as secretly insecure, lonely, or lost, etc.

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

This is more a genre thing for me but I’m sick of the false ending in horror films. Here we spend at least 90 minutes emotionally involved with a character. If it’s a good one – Dawn of the Dead is a good example – then you’ll have me on my seat the entire film. Then at the end, the lucky few characters that have survived finally make it…until there’s a surprise jump scare right before the credits roll and we discover the characters we’d been rooting for this whole time never make it. I’m so frustrated by this. For me it feels like a waste of my time to discover they all die because of a dirty trope in the end.

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

1) STEAL: Steal everything from everyone. Writers are the best thieves in the world. I’m not saying plagiarize, but when you find a technique or scene that really works for you, break it down and make it your own so you can add it to your toolbox.

2) STUDY: This goes with stealing. Learn from the masters. Writers like John August have a blog that you should be following. Don’t stop there. Learn from the masters that taught the master such as Aristotle. If you pay attention, all the great screenwriters will quote Aristotle. There’s a reason for that.

3) IGNORE THE BS: There’s a lot of flack out there towards aspiring screenwriters. I recently read an article where a Hollywood writer was bragging about telling screenwriters they’ll never make it. He tells them they should just give up because they aren’t talented. It’s BS. You can make it, but it takes time. A long time. If a dyslexic from Detroit can make it, then you can too. One of the reasons I founded wefixyourscript.com was exactly for that purpose: to give screenwriters that extra helping hand to not just  improve upon their screenplays, but to help them become better screenwriters. That’s why we include the one-on-one consultation.

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

Definitely. In fact, I just did some coverage on a dramatic short that had a fantastic concept. I helped them tweak it, but only a little. I guarantee it won’t have a dry eye in the audience when it films. Unfortunately, that’s all I can say about it.

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

I think they’re great, and I strongly recommend contests in festivals. That’s where you can really make headway as a writer. You need to network and make connections to build up your reputation. You can meet other writers, producers, and directors that will eventually land you in a spot where you’ll be getting work. When you go to these fests you want to be the life of the party. Have fun. Get yourself out there. And make sure you’re handing out business cards. It will get you work.

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

They can contact us at info@wefixyourscript.com. They can also sign up for a free 15-minute consultation on our website. With our consultation, we offer ways to help your work or answer any questions about us or the industry in general. We’ve had some great feedback on this service.

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

I’ve got to go with mom’s pumpkin pie. There is one caveat though: it must be smothered with a big dollop of whipped cream.