Educate thyself

reading 2
Quiet, please. Writers at work.

Chances are you came to this blog/post via a link from an online screenwriting group or forum. (If you’re a first-timer – welcome! Feel free to subscribe.)

When time permits, I’ll browse through some of the groups to check out what kinds of subjects and topics are being discussed. There are also questions. A LOT of questions. Those can range from “How do I get an agent?” to “What’s the proper format for this?” to “How do these pages look?”, all of which will yield a wide variety of answers.

I don’t usually comment because most of the time I come into it late and somebody with just as much if not more experience than me has already said what I was going to say.

There was a recent post where somebody asked what the best screenwriting book was. Answers ranged from several well-known titles to “read scripts instead”.

To a certain extent, I think those are both good answers. The books that helped me the most were Dave Trottier’s The Screenwriting Bible, primarily in terms of getting a good handle on formatting and the basics of structure, and Paul Lucey’s Story Sense, which expanded on both (and appears to be out of print, but still worth tracking down a copy.)

While some books might help you get a grasp of the basics, the real learning comes from immersing yourself in reading scripts and working on your own. Another helpful practice is to watch a film with the script in hand, following along with the action onscreen while seeing how it’s written on the page.

Reading a script can really help show you what should and shouldn’t be there, which you can then apply to yours.

This doesn’t just apply if you’re just starting out. I still get a kick out of reading scripts, whether it’s from the Black List, or one somebody recommended, or even when someone asks me for notes. Bonus points if it’s somebody within my network of writing colleagues; I know they can deliver the goods, and that’ll be reflected in their script.

I’ve also seen my fair share of terrible scripts, usually identified as such by the content of the first page. If that’s not good, there’s little hope of improvement for the rest of it. The silver lining here is you will quickly see how NOT to do it, thereby ensuring you won’t duplicate it.

So while you should definitely devote time to writing your script, make sure you set some time aside to read scripts. You’ll be entertained AND learn at the same time.

-Filmmaker/script consultant/friend of the blog Jimmy George is offering a special limited-time discount for first-time clients – 50% off all script services. No matter what you’re working on, whether it’s a feature, a short, or TV, Jimmy’s ready to help you out. But better hurry – the offer’s only good until October 11th.

A subject worth discussing

soapbox
Listen up, and listen good

Stepping onto my proverbial soapbox to utter a few thoughts on something that needs to be said.

If you’re part of an online forum, and you post your material in that forum seeking feedback from other members, you will get all kinds of responses. Some will be positive, and some will be negative – maybe to point of being outright condescending.

How do you respond to the positive ones?

“Thanks. I appreciate it.” Maybe elaborate a little, or a follow-up question or two. Possibly even ask to communicate with the person in private.

The negative and/or condescending ones?

“Thanks.”

That’s it. No matter how much you feel the urge to respond with a stinging retort written in ALL CAPS and a lot of exclamation points, just don’t. You asked for comments and you got ’em.

A thick skin is a necessity in this business. Arguing or getting angry because you don’t like what somebody said won’t help you or your writing, and it makes you look petty and unprofessional.

Now let’s address the other side.

Somebody asks you for notes, and based on the quality of the material, you do the best you can, trying to be as helpful as possible. Be honest with your suggestions of what needs to be fixed.

Does it have potential? Mention that. Are there problems? Identify them and how they could be fixed.

If the writing reflects an amateur, or a poorly constructed idea, point out how and why in a constructive manner. There’s no need to be insulting or talk down to them. Chances are they’re still learning, so they don’t know as much as you do.

They may not like what you have to say, maybe even going so far as to insult you and your experience, or deride your comments. But that’s on them. You’ve done your part.

So let’s review.

You want help? Take what you get, even if you don’t like it. After your temper cools down, take a serious look at what was said. There may be something in there worth using.

Somebody asks you for help? Be professional and as helpful as you can. Don’t hold their lack of experience against them.

No matter whether you’re giving or receiving, be patient, tolerant, and open-minded.

Keep that in mind, okay?

Thanks. The soapbox is now available.

Good. Better. Getting there.

Billy Wilder
Never hurts to have a good role model*

Notes continue to come in for the pulp sci-fi spec, some contrary, many encouraging, and all chock-full of notable suggestions. With some coming from my trusted core of reliably savvy readers, there’s been one statement more than a few have included.

The gist of it is:

“This is the third script of yours I’ve read, and each one has shown a definite improvement over the previous one.”

It warms this writer’s soul to hear that sort of thing. And these are writers who pull no punches. They won’t hesitate to say something doesn’t work.

I’ve been working at this for a while, but it really feels like just the past few years have seen the most significant progress. Just goes to show what constant hard work can do, right?

Nor do I have any intention of slowing down. Doing my best to maintain a dedicated block of time and/or pages on a daily basis. The more you do it, the easier it gets (but is still tough).

The three scripts in question were all adventure-based, which enabled me to exercise a certain set of writing skills. With work now commencing on overhauling a comedy, an entirely new set will get the workout they deserve.

Crafting a sequence involving a train heist in the Old West, or a team of adventurers taking on a mad scientist? Piece of cake.

Writing a story involving everyday people in relatively normal (but funny) situations, peppered with smart (and funny) dialogue, all without the benefit of using special effects to enhance the story?

That is truly the next challenge to yours truly. It initially feels very daunting, but I’ve made it this far, and there’s no reason to think I can’t continue to push my way forward.

Should be a very interesting journey.

*Billy Wilder’s 10 Rules for Good Filmmaking (also applicable to screenwriting)
1: The audience is fickle.
2: Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go.
3: Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
4: Know where you’re going.
5: The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
6: If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
7: A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
8: In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
9: The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
10: The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that’s it. Don’t hang around.

One opinion is not general consensus

sidewalk
Everybody’s got something to say

Feedback on a script. You know you need it.

But here’s the thing: everybody will give you their thoughts on your script. They’ll tell you what works for them and what doesn’t. However, it’s more than likely their view is going to be different than yours.

That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right and you’re wrong. It’s what they think, and you can take it or leave it.

When I was starting out, I figured the person giving me notes was more experienced than I was (why else would I ask them for notes?), so they must have known better, so I’d implement their suggestions without hesitation.

The result – my scripts were getting away from what I wanted them to be and becoming more of the other person’s.

Which is the total opposite result I wanted.

Only after constantly working and studying and rewriting did I get to the point where I’ll now get notes and have no qualms thinking “You make a good point, but I don’t agree with that.”

Sometimes a note will be the total opposite of what others say, which makes me take a closer look at it. I may still disagree with it, but it’ll make me think.

I’ve been on the giving end of that too; I give somebody notes, and am occasionally told “You’re the only one who said that.”

You can get notes until it seems like you’re heard from every single writer on your list of contacts, and no matter what any of them say you should or shouldn’t do, you’re the one driving this bus.

You are the one – the ONLY one – who knows what’s best for your script.

A big stove with lots of burners

jayne
Always something cookin’ in this kitchen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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