Pushing my way forward (x2)

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Really putting my back into this

This has been a most interesting week. Based on some quality notes, I wrapped up a polish of the dramedy spec (which is now in the process of getting notes). Feedback so far has been encouraging, which is nice.

So now the focus can shift back to developing the two new stories. With most of my recently-completed projects having been worked on for extended periods of time, it’s been a while since I was really starting out from the very beginning.

I’d totally forgotten how much I enjoyed the process of putting a story together. I know what the core concept for each one is, and now it’s all about finding the best and most entertaining way to tell them.

At times it feels like my mind is going in a thousand directions at once, so I’m constantly writing stuff down. A scene or sequence idea here, a line of dialogue there, plot twists, character development, turning the scene on its head; pretty much the whole kit and kaboodle.

Main storylines have been established, with the expected constant fine-tuning and adjusting, and as I work my way forward, the subplots are making themselves known.

Entirely new worlds (or maybe “settings” might be appropriate, since each story is on the smaller side) are being created, populated with unique and hopefully somewhat original characters.

While one of the stories is based on an old script, there’s a constant discarding of a lot of the original content and trying new approaches. Not necessarily “throw it all at the wall and see what sticks”, but kinda/sorta along those lines.

For the other, this is dipping my toes into a genre I enjoy, but wouldn’t call myself a major fan, so doing what I can to avoid tropes and cliches (of which there are apparently many). If that proves more challenging than anticipated, will do what I can to least go for the unexpected.

Added bonus – watching movies of that genre and style to get a better feel for both.

Sometimes I’ll read a writer’s account about what a chore it is for them to develop a story, or how much they loathe this part of the process. I don’t see it that way. Organizing the story and putting it all together is a key part of screenwriting. Too many times when reading a spec, you can tell when the writer didn’t put in the effort to get all the details of the story right before they started on pages.

I recently asked my online screenwriting newwork their thoughts on outlining versus a “seat of your pants” approach. The responses were overwhelmingly in favor of outlining. Granted, there are some writers who prefer the latter, but I’m not one of them. I’m a firm believer in having a rock-solid outline before starting to write the actual script.

But that’s what works for me. Others may feel differently regarding their own process. No matter how you achieve the end result, as long as you’re happy with it, then more power to you.

The whole creative process in developing a story is a beast unto itself, but I think all the long-term work I’ve done for other scripts is really paying off for these two. For now, it’s still a big and unwieldy mess, occasionally feeling very unorganized and all-over-the-place, but a little bit of work every day will gradually pay off. When all is said and done, I’ll have two new scripts.

Like I said – I’m enjoying it.

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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Just the pep talk I/you/we need

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Where else could you find comfort, reassurance, and tranquility, all on the same plate? 

(Author’s note – I wrote a lot of this earlier in the week, but circumstances of a confidence-instilling nature have occurred since then. I considered scrapping it and starting over, but thought the content was still relevant, so opted to stick with it. Enjoy.)

Let’s face it. Trying to make it as a screenwriter is an almost impossible task.

Emphasis on “almost”.

It can be done. Remember, every single writer whose name is up on there on the screen had to go through a lot of the same things you and I have. Probably even more.

The sad truth is that you will have to endure a lot of frustration before you start to even come close to achieving the results you want. And that frustration can easily lead to anger and depression and feeling like you’re wasting your time and this is never going to work out.

I say this because I’ve been that writer. Many times. This week was no exception. Several writer colleagues had some truly awesome things happen for them, and deservedly so.

Still, I can’t help but feel a slight pang of jealousy about it, but that’s all on me. In no way would I ever intend to divert the spotlight away from their success. They earned it, so they are more than entitled to enjoy it.

As for me, sure, I might wallow in self-pity for a little bit, but time and experience have helped me “get over it” faster, but the hurt does tend to linger.

Writing might be the last thing I want to do, but it’s actually been pretty therapeutic. Shifting your attention to another project – maybe one you haven’t worked on in months – helps with the emotional recovery process. Sometimes I’ll vent to another writer; usually someone who’s been through the exact same scenario.

Once I get all of that out of my system, the drive to succeed once again takes over, I get back on the horse and pick up where I left off – because the only way I’m going to make it is to keep trying, and that the only person who can make it happen is me.

That’s how it is for all of us. You’re not alone.

There will be so many situations where things don’t go your way. In the beginning, it feels like somebody’s stomping on your soul. But you eventually learn to accept that it happens, which helps toughen you up for the next time, of which there will also be many.

So on that note…

There will be a lot of times you just want to give up, or feel like the only word you ever hear is “no”, or have it seem like you’re the only writer on the face of the Earth not making progress.

Corny as it may sound, the best piece of advice I can offer is to keep at it. You will definitely hear “no” a thousand times before that one significant “yes”, but you won’t get it at all if you don’t keep going.

This is not a career path for the easily-defeated or the thin-skinned. I’ve had people tell me my story ideas were stupid and my writing was awful. One memorable character even thought my script was so terrible they were certain it was some kind of practical joke. Comments like that sting, but only temporarily. You learn to ignore them to the point they don’t even faze you anymore.

I’ve had the good fortune to make lots of connections with very talented people, many of whom have been more than willing to help me get closer to that goal.

I’m still here, still trying, determined as ever. And I sincerely hope you do the same.

If triple digits is how many it takes…

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“So you see, Billy, if you edited out 5 pages from the previous draft, that would put your new midpoint around page 54.”

I recently read in an interview with screenwriter Eric Heisserer that included him being asked how many drafts he wrote for ARRIVAL.

“Over one hundred.”

Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Keep in mind that this was also spread out over time, not all concentrated in one specific period. And that a new draft doesn’t necessarily mean a complete rewrite. It could be anything from that to a few words changed on pages 33, 52, and 88 through 89.

And ARRIVAL was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards, so looks like all those drafts Eric went through were worth it.

About two years ago, I had lunch with a writer friend. He was familiar with my western, and liked it very much. When I mentioned I was considering returning to it to work on it some more, he said “I think it’s fine how it is. If you keep messing with it, you run the risk of making it worse.”

At the time, I really took that to heart. I didn’t want to mess up the script, but deep down I also knew it could still be better.

As you probably already guessed, I eventually ignored his advice and dove back in. I got a few more rounds of feedback from trusted colleagues and professional consultants, always tweaking and fine-tuning with every draft.

There’s no way I could say exactly how many drafts I went through to get to where it is now, but it’s probably safe to say it’s at least over one hundred. That is definitely a lot, but reading the script now, the results of all that work are evident on the page.

Plus, all the notes and all the rewriting have combined to make a really positive impact on my writing. While the overall challenge of putting a script together is still pretty daunting, the whole process seems to move forward in a much smoother manner. And, to be honest, maybe a little faster too.

Even though someone may tell you your script is “good enough as it is”, the final product is all on you. Keep working on it as long as you think you need to, with as many drafts as it takes.

You might not get an Oscar nomination, but getting your script to where you want it to be will definitely make you feel like a winner. Yes, that’s a sappy and corny thing to say, but it’s still true.