Proofreading Q&A panel – part 2

Tammy Gross
Tammy Gross
bill.and.puppy.girl.cropped (1)
Bill Donovan and friend (friend occupying Bill’s lap)

Here is the second of a two-part panel discussion with professional proofreaders Tammy Gross of proofmyspec.com and Bill Donovan of screenwritingcommunity.net about proofreading and its connection with screenwriting, along with some info about the proofreaders themselves.

Part one can be found here.

When you proofread a screenplay, do you also take on the role of story analyst?

Tammy Gross (TG): Not as a primary service, but yes. Since I’m reading it anyway, I do offer inexpensive add-ons if a writer wants some basic “coverage.” And even with proofreading, there are some story issues which may be addressed during the edit if there’s a problem with consistency and/or continuity.

Before I started my proofreading service, I took a course on story analysis and offered a coverage service. I soon learned how bad formatting and text were too distracting for my left brain. It’s agony for me to look past multiple errors/issues.

Bill Donovan (BD): To a limited degree, yes. However, I put these and other words at the top of every set of notes I give back with the proofread copy:

“These are not the words of an expert script analyst … I strongly hope not to hurt your feelings … To the extent that you find my comments on your story to be wrong-headed, pointless, or insensitive, you are hereby counseled and, with regret for any hurt feelings, encouraged to ignore them.”

What’s your writing background?

TG: The agony of trying to look past typos sent me down an editing path in my 20s. I read a book published through a major publishing house that had multiple errors in the soft-cover version. I sent my corrections to the publisher, and the author contacted me personally to thank me. Ever since, I’ve honed my editing skills.

My life plan was “sing while I’m young and write when I’m old.” I did write a couple of novels in my 20s and managed to have some sort of writing or editing responsibility in every “real” job I ever worked, whether at a church, a bank or Fortune 500 company.

In 2008, while taking a break from singing, I learned about a couple of female pirates. These historical swashbuckling stories fascinated me. I traveled the world researching pirates (including falling victim to real ones in the Bahamas) and learning about writing screenplays. I haven’t looked back.

So far, every script I’ve entered in contests has placed or won. In fact, my first script won the first contest I ever entered. Since then, I’ve realized that my ability to write in “the language of screenplay” was getting me further than better storytellers due to their weaker technical skills.

I’m currently writing an adventure story for a producer who found me because of one of my scripts (which I also turned into a YA book).

BD: -Screenplay contest judge (three contests)
-Screenplay contest executive (11 screenplay contests, 5 scene-writing contests, two logline contests)
-Two of my own screenplays won three first prizes equaling $30,104 in prize money in today’s dollars.
-Former Editor of Creative Screenwriting Magazine
-Author of three e-books for screenwriters to date; a fourth is upcoming
-USC Master of Fine Arts, Screenwriting and Filmmaking
-Copy desk chief at a daily newspaper, the Morristown, N.J., Daily Record
-Copy editor at the Associated Press
-Copy editor at another daily newspaper, The Record, Hackensack, N.J.
-Copy editor for several business-to-business trade publications
-11,200+ published pages and screenplays edited/proofread over the years
-News stories I wrote and/or edited won five national journalism awards.

How’d you get into proofreading?

TG: Totally by accident. I started a screenwriting group where we would table-read 10 pages of each writer’s script. I found myself making lots of corrections on everybody’s pages, and many of them asked me to proofread their entire scripts. It was a little overwhelming, due to also running a thriving music-arranging business at the time, so I put up a website to help me prioritize and charged a low but fair fee.

And it’s good that I did, because after the 2007 writers’ strike, followed by the recession, the spec-writing business boomed while music arranging fizzled.

BD: For an upcoming book, I surveyed and interviewed producers, agents, screenplay readers, directors, contest judges, and contest executives, asking them for their comments on the most common and the worst mistakes they see. Within the screenplay, proofreading and editing mistakes were named both the most common and most disliked by people in the industry.

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

TG: The order page functions as a quote calculator, or send an email anytime: Proofreader@ProofMySpec.com

BD: Email me at Bill@screenwritingcommunity.net or use this form at my website.

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

TG: Humble. I should eat more of that and less Key lime.

BD: 1. Great pizza. 2. Pumpkin, my own homemade recipe. 3. Blueberry, Comstock filling, augmented.

Avoiding the dreaded unfilmable

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Don’t go this way!

I recently had the pleasure of giving notes on a friend’s script. It was an early draft, so it had some of the usual problems that were easily fixable.

But the one thing that really stood out to me was their use of unfilmables.

“Unfilmables?” some might ask. “What are those?”

I’m glad you asked. Here’s an example:

“EXT. PORCH – DAY

Jane sits on the stained deck chair her father bought for her birthday last year.”

If you saw that onscreen, you know what you’d see?

A woman sitting on a chair.

In other words, HOW DO WE KNOW it was a birthday present from her father? We don’t. How can you let us know? Maybe we see the father giving it to her. Or another character asks about it, and she delivers a one-line explanation.

If there’s an important detail to your story, you need to find a way to include it as part of the story, and preferably in the most organic way possible.

What’s on the page is what we see and hear.

Unless there’s a line of dialogue or some kind of action somewhere in there that reveals these kinds of things, the audience has no way of knowing them.

Here’s another:

“INT. KITCHEN – NIGHT

Kevin washes dishes. He thinks about that time he and his high school girlfriend crashed her mom’s car.”

What’s on the screen? A guy washing dishes.

HOW DO WE KNOW that’s what he’s thinking about?

Maybe we see the accident take place. Or hear Kevin talking about it. Maybe the story involves how the accident leads up to him washing dishes.

In my old writing group, one writer was insistent about leaving these sorts of things in. When pressed on why they were so adamant about not being willing to take them out, they’d launch into a long-winded explanation of why it was necessary to include them.

“So if we were watching this, you’d be there explaining things, rather than working them into the story and showing them on the screen?”

I’m not sure if they got the point.

Hopefully you do.

Taming the beast we all must face

lion 2
Intimidating at first, but eventually, just a big ol’ pussycat

When I was part of a writing group last year, each week we would read and critique a few members’ sets of pages. Some were just starting out, some had a few scripts under their belt, and some had been doing this a while. You can probably figure out which category I fell into.

Simply put, some of the writing just sucked. Really sucked. Like painful-to-listen-to sucked. To my credit, tempted as I was, I never actually expressed my thoughts that way.

I fully understood that not everybody had a firm grasp on the basics, and I, along with a few others, made a sincere effort to explain what would help improve their work. While a majority were appreciative of our comments, a select handful got defensive, some even to the point of flat-out dismissive, of any kind of comment that didn’t reinforce their belief that their writing was fine just the way it was.

This was one of the things that helped me decide to leave the group.

One of the universal truths about being a writer is that not everybody’s going to like what you’ve written, and just about everybody will have a suggestion as to how it could be better.

While there’s nothing you can do about the first part, the great thing about the second is that it gives you options. A lot of them. You like what this person said? Use it. Don’t like what that other person said? Ignore it.

Some people will make suggestions based on how they would do it, which is all well and good, but what’s more important is how you would do it. Do you agree or disagree with what they’re saying?

You’ll be bombarded with a wide variety of opinions, but don’t feel like you have to incorporate every single one. And while you may be the final word on what works and what doesn’t for your story, you shouldn’t dismiss every suggestion either. Some of them may be more helpful than you realize. There are a lot of  writers out there with more experience than you, so their opinions should be at least taken into consideration. But it’s okay to disagree with them, too.

Speaking from experience, it takes time to learn not to take criticism of your material personally. The comments you receive may sting at first, but you have to remember they’re about the material, not you. Read them with a “How can I use these to get better?” frame of mind. That’s the only way you’re going to improve.

One last thing – make sure to thank the person for giving you notes, even if you totally disagree with everything they’ve said. Doesn’t matter if you asked them to do it or they offered. They took the time to help you out, and the least you can do is acknowledge that and express your appreciation for it. And it’s the polite thing to do. Manners still count.

Shakin’ things up so much it registers on the Richter Scale

richter scale
Brace yourself

I recently took part in a group conversation with some other writers, and naturally, the topic came around to “So what else are you working on?” I always enjoy this sort of thing. So many great ideas out there.

When it was my turn, I mentioned some of what’s been occupying my time, which included the Christmas-themed mystery-comedy.

“A Christmas mystery-comedy? What’s that about?”

I launched into my 30-second elevator pitch. “LA Confidential with an all-elf cast.” The seedy underbelly of the world of Santa’s workshop. Guns. Sassy dames. Tough-talking gangsters. Intrigue. Double-crossings. The whole gin-soaked ball of wax.

While most thought it sounded like a lot of fun, one person looked absolutely horrified.

“Oh no!” they exclaimed. “My kids and I love Christmas. It’s supposed to be sweet and wonderful! I can’t believe you’d want to write something like that.” (All that was missing was them sprawled on a fainting couch, claiming to have the vapors while frantically fanning themselves.)

How could I not want to write this? Sweet and wonderful doesn’t make for good storytelling. I love this kind of story, and think it would make a great script.

This person makes it sound like trying something new is a bad idea because it messes with the comfort of the familiar. Yet one of the most common tenets is “Familiar, but different.” A story you’ve seen before, but told in an entirely new way. It’s what we should all work towards.

Everybody’s looking for something truly original and unique. Why in the world would you want to write something that doesn’t offer up anything new?

Every script you write is a golden opportunity to push your creativity to the limit so you really catch ’em off-guard. You know the story you want to tell, but it’s on you to truly surprise your reader/audience. Take things in an entirely different direction. They may think they know what’s coming, but you know better and look forward to how they’re going to react.

No matter what genre your story falls into, there will be certain expectations that come with it. The challenge of every writer is to not just meet those expectations, but toss them out the window and offer up a totally new and unexpected way of telling that story. Some people may not like it, but it’s most likely they’re in the minority, and therefore not your target audience.

Think about it. What kind of script are you more likely to take notice of and remember? One that goes for new and original, or one that plays it safe with the tried, true and predictable?

I know which one I’d pick, and will be waiting over by the window for your answer.

The sound I needed to hear

Oh so worth it
Oh so worth it

It’s been a very long time since I felt my heart beating that fast.

It was the weekly meeting of the writing group, where volunteers offered up ten pages of their material for a read-through and critiquing. The time was right to take the low-budget comedy out for its first road test.

Despite my confidence in my own writing ability, anxiety was coursing through me. What if they didn’t like it? What if my attempts at jokes fell flat? Worst of all – what if they thought it wasn’t funny? These meetings are held at a small cafe, so the strongest drink in the house was coffee, so I couldn’t rely on a stiff drink to steady my nerves.

To make things that much more nerve-wracking, the moderator (who knows and likes my writing) had me going last. This may have been deliberate on his part.

We worked our way through the other three sets of pages, and then finally it was my turn.

I took a deep breath, stood up, and began distributing pages (complete with assigned parts), explaining the concept behind the story. Upon reflection, the chuckles and comments of “Oh, that’s good” and “I like it” were harbingers of what was to come.

Even so, I had to force myself to take deep breaths and calm down as the read-through commenced.

Also working in my favor: the person portraying the main character was spot-on.

They got to the first joke.

And they laughed.

To say I felt a sense of relief is a severe understatement, but it was exactly the reaction I was hoping for.

The read-through continued, with laughs in the places they were supposed to be. As expected, some jokes hit better than others, but it wasn’t that much of an issue.

A few minutes later, it was over, and we transitioned to the feedback stage.

Overall, it was very positive. Comments were made about what worked, what needed work, and potential changes. Some of the suggestions had merit and worth considering, but for the most part (and keeping in mind that a few members of the group are not the greatest writers – based on reading their work), I smiled, nodded and thanked each person for their thoughts.

Once again proving it’s all subjective, one person said my character descriptions were “too much” and maybe “too flashy”, but the person sitting to my left interjected and heartily disagreed, saying “a lot of the writing in other scripts is just dry and kind of dull, but this really pops off the page and paints a great mental picture.” A few nods around the table supported the latter position. If your work sparks contrasting opinions, then it must have something going for it.

The evening came to a close, and I left, feeling just the slightest bit triumphant.

For now, I’m still working my way through the first draft, and a lot of the jokes probably need a ton of work, but at least I can say I got past this first hurdle.

Should be interesting to see how things go from here.

-Shameless self-promotion! The Great American Pitch Fest is only two weeks away, so there’s still time to register. Save yourself a nice chunk of change by using the code MaximumZ20 to get 20 percent off. I’ll be there, and hope to see you too.