Keep your ego out of it

vintage lady writer
As much as she loved that scene, she eventually accepted the fact it would have to go.

I’ve received notes on three separate scripts in the past week or so, and each set is of  very high quality. Each does a very thorough and insightful job of spotlighting What Needs Work for each script.

Daunting and somewhat overwhelming at first, I’ve begun the slow and somewhat laborious process of analyzing and breaking down all the comments and suggestions. I won’t use everything, but there is definitely a lot of good material to work with.

I provided a total stranger with material, and they’re offering up their honest opinions about it. At first glance, some of the comments might be interpreted as negative, but they’re really not. This is what they saw/thought while reading my script.

No axes to grind. No vendettas. No hidden agendas. Just pure, honest opinions. I take what they said, figure out which parts I consider the most helpful, and proceed from there. Ten times out of ten, the result is a better script.

I was told once that getting critically constructive notes and being willing to accept them were signs of a quality writer. Honestly, that was a little surprising.

As much I’d like to think my stuff is great, the reality of the situation is that it’s more along the lines of “it’s okay/pretty solid, but could still use some work”, which is fine. That’s what rewrites are for. From my experience, the final draft is always different from the first. I wouldn’t have been able to produce that final draft without all those helpful notes.

Many times I’ll see a writer ask for feedback on their script, which they get, but might not be the high words of praise they were expecting. Are they ever? Then they respond with something along the lines of “You just don’t get my genius!”, and promptly reject any and all notes. The end result: a lousy script that’s not much better.

Helpful tip: don’t do that.

The whole reason you want notes is to find out how to make your script better. Hard as it is to believe, you can’t make it better if you’re not willing to accept criticism. You can be super-proud of the script you have, but don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s perfect just the way it is now.

Chances are it’s not.

What’s more important to you: having what you think is a good script, or having somebody give you tips that would actually help make it better?

Would we love to see our scripts play out onscreen, just the way we wrote them? Of course. But what you see is up there is usually a lot different from what how it originally read on the page. Happens all the time. Getting upset about it and decrying the sacrilege committed by altering even one letter or syllable from your precious text is definitely the wrong way to go.

In the next couple of days, I’ll be having separate in-depth discussions about two of my scripts with some of the people who gave me notes on them. My emotional state could probably be summed up with “excitedly nervous”. It’s a combination of looking forward to and feeling a bit anxious about hearing what they have to say.

But in the end, it’s not about the writer. It’s about the script and doing what’s necessary to make it better.

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.

Setting out in a new direction

hikers
Aha! Just the path we’ve been seeking!

As part of the overhaul of the comedy spec outline, I’ve been trying to come up with ways to make this draft significantly different from previous ones.

I’d managed to work my way through one of the subplots, and was now focusing on another one. But something felt very…off about it. It felt too preditable, in a tropey, tired cliche kind of way.

So of course, it had to be changed. But to what? That required a little more thought.

I tinkered around with a few ideas. Since this IS a comedy, what would be funny? That inspired some new trains of thought, with ongoing emphasis on “different”, “unique” and “original”. Finally, totally out of left field, one popped and stuck.

Boy, did it.

The more I thought about it and considered the possibilities, along with determining if it fit into the subplot and the overall storyline, the more it seemed to work. I honestly couldn’t recall seeing this idea in a script before.

Okay. This new idea creates a new objective for the storyline, so now it’s all about the “how things develop/how we get there”, PLUS figuring out how to present it in a way that’s original, unique, and funny.

Some more tinkering occurred, and it was all slowly coming together. There’s still some more work to do on this part and the rest of the script, and that’s totally cool.

The finished product will be significantly different from what it was before, and that’s really what this overhaul is all about.

Sometimes it can be tough for me to discard ideas and elements from previous drafts, but have found that totally wiping the slate clean and starting anew, or at least really pushing myself to come up with new ideas, is paying off much, much more than anticipated.

-Can’t let today go without acknowledging the ongoing and unwavering support I’ve received from the woman I’ve been extremely fortunate to be married to for the past 23 years as of this Sunday.

Writers – never, ever underestimate the importance of a partner who’s there for you through good times and bad. They are one of, if not your most valuable resource, and make sure they know how much you appreciate them.

Happy anniversary to my wonderful K. Love ya, baby.

The appeal of appealing to a younger demographic

kids
Multiple generations, engaged and enraptured. Fine by me.

During a recent phone conversation with another writer, I’d mentioned having wrapped up work on the pulp sci-fi spec.

“What’s it about?” they asked. I proceeded to give them my 10-second elevator pitch, plus the “THIS meets THAT” combo.

“Huh,” was the response. “It sounds cool, but it also sounds like it would be a kids’ movie.”

I suppose that’s one way to look at it. My preference is “a rollercoaster ride of a story, fun for anybody from 8 to 88”. That’s always been my approach when I set out to spin a ripping yarn.

Was I supposed to view their comment as some kind of insult? As if there’s something negative or shameful about writing material that appeals to kids? Because that hasn’t worked at all for Disney or Pixar.

PIxar especially has a reputation for producing films that appeal to all ages. There’s been a lot written about the immense amount of time they spend on making sure the story is rock-solid. One of the most-read articles for screenwriting is based on part of their process, and those don’t just apply to animation; they’re for ALL screenwriting.

Let me also throw a couple of “kids movies” out there. You might have heard of them.

Star Wars. Harry Potter.

One’s been around for 40 years, with no sign of letting up, while the other just celebrated 20 years of entertaining readers and moviegoers.

On the surface, both are solid, simplistic stories about the fight of good versus evil. But is that all they are? Heavens no! There’s universal appeal, engaging characters who grow and change, themes being explored, conflict like you wouldn’t believe – all told through a filter of imagination. Don’t let the presence of lightsabers, magic wands, or animated, talking animals distract you from what’s really going on.

And let’s be honest. Both of those series have done more than okay at the box office.

Not too shabby for “kids movies”.

Now, I’m not saying any of my scripts are in the same arena as those, but a good story is a good story, no matter who its target audience is. And if it appeals to a younger generation as well as my own, what’s wrong with that?

And you know what else works with kids movies? Kids grow up, and eventually have kids of their own. What do they watch? The movies the parents enjoyed as kids.

Who wouldn’t want to write something that leaves a lasting impression on a young mind, and then see them pass their love of that story to later generations?

For me, that’s what it all comes down to – writing a script that tells a fun and exciting story that anybody could enjoy. And if that includes kids, that’s fine by me.