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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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.

That special spark within

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Why is this writer smiling? You would too if you came up with the term “Everlasting Gobstopper”.

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to meet with some fellow Bay Area writers. Among their number was a writer who had written some small stuff, and was in the middle of working on her first big project – a TV pilot.

Even though I don’t know much about writing for TV, I and another writer offered up what advice we could. The recipient was very appreciative, and one of the things she said later on in the conversation made a very strong impression on me.

“I know the first draft isn’t going to be perfect, but I’m just really loving writing this.”

Truer words could not have been spoken.

Like I told her, I write stuff I would want to see. It’s taken me a long time and many drafts of many scripts to feel like I’ve really come into my own. Each time, the end result is a script for a movie I think would be an absolute blast to see play out on the big screen.

It always astounds me when a writer complains about having to write (or rewrite). If you don’t like doing it, WHY ARE YOU DOING IT?

It was genuinely pleasing to hear this writer who, despite the challenges she knew awaited her, was still excited about working on this project. Sure, she was still nervous about doing a good job and hoped the end result didn’t suck too much. No matter how many scripts you’ve written, that feeling never goes away.

But to simply see her face light up while she described the story (which is a real doozy, believe you me) and hear her talk about what she’s experienced so far, including doing the research involved, and learning what to do and not to do regarding formatting, it was just really, really pleasant.

I’m sure a lot of us do this because the title “storyteller” really suits us to a tee. Are some better at it than others? Sure, but instead of being discouraged about what you perceive as a lack of progress, try seeing every time you write as a chance to learn and improve. Because it is. It’s certainly been that way for me, and I strongly suspect I’m not alone in that.

I got the impression our little chat gave this writer an extra little jolt of encouragement that she wasn’t expecting. She doesn’t know when the pilot script will be ready, but I told her not to worry about that and just keep enjoying writing it.

I suspect she will.

-Friend of the blog Andrew Hilton (aka The Screenplay Mechanic) is offering a special deal as part of his stellar screenplay analysis. (Editor’s note – his notes helped shape my western into what it is today)

If you use any of his services, refer a friend, or write a Facebook review of your experience using his services, you are automatically entered to win a free DVD of the motorcycle documentary WHY WE RIDE (of which Andrew was a co-executive producer).

The winner will be chosen on October 1st. The holidays will be here before you know it, and if you or somebody you know loves motorcycles, this would be an excellent gift (as would purchasing some of Andrew’s script services for that special screenwriter in your life).

All the details here.

-My time in the San Francisco Half-marathon the weekend before last – 2:02:56. Disappointing, but still glad I did it. I blame all those uphill stretches in the second half. And probably not training enough.

Next race is coming up in a few weeks in Oakland. Pleasantly flat Oakland. Training a little harder for it, with the intention once again of hoping to break the 2-hour mark.

181 days in, and…?

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First we write, then we hit the beach. Who’s in?

My goodness, where does the time go?

Here it is the last day of June, signifying the halfway point of 2017, which means it’s time once again for that most lauded of blogpost topics:

The Project Status Update!

This is your opportunity to give as much or little info as you desire regarding what you’re currently working on, finished so far this year, or plan to jump into in the coming months.

Mine’s pretty simple and straightforward.

-Currently revising two scripts – a comedy and the pulp sci-fi spec. Already have a spec rewrite project lined up for when both of those are done – target start date is end of the summer.

-On the non-writing front, I’m signed up to do 4 half-marathons between now and the end of the year. A slight chance that number might potentially increase by one or two, but it remains tentative. As long as I can keep my time under the 2-hour mark, I’m good.

So how’s 2017 been for you, writing-wise?

A few items from the bulletin board:

-Filmmaker Steve Davis has launched a crowdfunding campaign for his World War 2-era short No Glory on Indiegogo. Looks pretty cool. Donate if you can!

-Even though the focus around here is mostly on screenwriting, a lot of writers are also interested in writing for television. The National Hispanic Media Coalition TV Writers Program is accepting applications from Latino writers between now and August 7. If you qualify, give it a look-see!

-If you’re a screenwriter in the San Francisco Bay Area (or the general northern California area, or just happen to be in town that weekend), the NorCal Screenwriters Networking Shindig will be taking place from 2-4pm on Sunday, July 30th, at Kawika’s Ocean Beach Deli at 734 La Playa (between Balboa & Cabrillo, just a block from the Pacific). Let me know if you’re interested in attending. Hope you can make it!

Things that get in the way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perseverance pays off.

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

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