Only include that which serves a purpose

redacted
Exactly

A just-starting-out writer had contacted me, asking if I could take a look at their spec.

I did. It wasn’t easy, but I did.

The script had a lot of the usual problems. On-the-nose dialogue. One-dimensional characters. A story that was more a jumbled collection of random events rather than a cohesive series of scenes and sequences.

But even with all of that, what really stood out was the excessive overwriting when it came to setting up a scene, with excessive being a major understatement. The writer seemed to feel the need to provide an extraordinary amount of details – for just about everything.

Just to name a few:

-What kind of furniture is in every single house or apartment
-What kind of food is on the table during a dinner scene
-Why a character, who’s only in one scene, is wearing a particular item of clothing, along with what it looks like
-A detailed list of all the items of clothing a character removes when getting undressed
-The direction a character is driving, along with street names

Did any of these have anything to do with the story?

All together now – of course not.

Then why is it in there?

I posed this question to the writer as part of my notes. They haven’t responded yet, but it’ll be interesting to see what they say about it.

I can’t remember the specific joke/comment about sculpting, but it’s something along the lines of “Start with a block of marble, and then chip away everything that doesn’t look like a (whatever you’re sculpting).”

Screenwriting’s very similar. While it’s true you should describe what we’re seeing, there’s no need to drastically overdo it. Some writers don’t know the difference between “painting a picture with words” and “overwhelming us with information”. Or worse, think they’re more or less the same thing.

They are most definitely not.

Everything on the page should have a reason for being there. If it doesn’t, take it out. Trust me, it will not be missed. If you argue that it should stay, you better have a mighty good reason why. Helpful tip – saying “Because I want it to” or “Because I like it” will totally invalidate your argument.

When the writing goes into Overly Descriptive Mode, it simply slams the brakes on the momentum of the story; things really do come to a screeching halt. Wouldn’t you rather the reader stayed interested in what’s going on, and not think “Hold on a second. Why is this here? Is it relevant?”

For a lot of writers starting out, they think they need to cover all the bases and include as much info and detail as possible. Only through constant self-educating will they eventually learn what they should and shouldn’t be doing.

I sincerely hope this writer takes my notes to heart and is able to figure out how to transition from the latter to the former.

No small feat using another medium to be a writer-at-large

HG Wells
The man responsible for tales of time travel, alien invasions, and assorted mad scientists, just to name a few…

After a gap of several years, I recently had the opportunity to reconnect in person with a respected colleague who has had more than their fair share of experience dealing with writers of all shapes, sizes, and levels of talent.

This person used to deal a lot with screenwriters, but now deals primarily with writers of manuscripts. Over the course of our conversation, I was asked about my scripts and my writing (What do I like to write? What genres are the scripts I have now? What kind of stories am I working on?)

As has been documented here before, my genre of choice is definitely adventure, along with hyphens connecting them to other genres (i.e. western-adventure, pulp sci-fi adventure, etc).

I gave a quick thumbnail sketch/five-second elevator pitch for the two completed and the one currently in revision mode.

You’d be harder pressed to find a stronger advocate for using your already-existing material as a springboard to jump into other mediums – primarily books and/or graphic novels.

It was their opinion that all three sounded like very original and fun ideas, which would make each a prime candidate for attracting attention. And this person has also been following the blog for quite a while, so their opinion is also that my writing is pretty solid. They cited examples of writers they knew who’d foregone the traditional route of trying to get in with one of the high-profile publishing houses and done it all themselves, each achieving respectable levels of success. Nothing to break the bank, but still some impressive numbers.

“A script is more or less an outline for a novel. And even though you’re not limited by page numbers, it still takes talent to create a novel,” I was told. “Your stories are original and unique, which makes them prime candidates for this. At least think about it.”

Believe me, I am.

My success in trying to get these scripts through to reps and production companies has been practically non-existent at best, yet I persist. I’m sure I’ll continue along that avenue, but this new alternative is definitely food for thought.

I’ve been told by more than a few people that my writing is very visual (which you would think would make it ideal for film), and that it really moves. In the past, I’ve entertained and even at times partially investigated the notion of applying my scripts to a graphic novel format (a great match), but am also not averse to trying my hand at converting it to pure prose.

I’ve no intention of stopping writing scripts. I like it too much. But I also like the pure act of writing by itself, so for the time being, all this talk about working in other formats is nothing more than speculation and conjecture.

But in some ways, still worth considering.

Mel said it best

Once again, the latest round of sending out query letters is underway.

My attitude about the whole process is eloquently stated via the title of the song above by Mr Brooks. This is only because of my experience in dealing with it over the years.

I’d explained this mindset to a friend, who felt I was being too negative and pessimistic.

“Not at all,” I responded. “I send these out, definitely hoping at least one of them clicks. Sometimes that happens, and someone will ask to read the script. Maybe even a handful of requests. Those usually end with “just not what I’m looking for,” and the rest are silent passes.”

There are countless reasons a script gets a pass, so trying to figure it out is a waste of time.

But I move on, determined as ever.

You’d think all of this would make me a lot more jaded and cynical, or at least left with a bitter taste in my mouth after putting myself through this over and over again. Maybe in some ways I am, but I’d also say I now take a much more realistic approach.

Despite the odds being stacked against me, I’ll keep at it. Researching potential recipients. Revising the letter itself.

I send ’em and forget about ’em. If they’re interested, they’ll contact me, which could be anywhere from five minutes to a year, or longer. If they’re not, they won’t, and that’s the way it goes.

I’m also not going to sit around waiting to hear back. I’d rather spend my time, y’know, actually writing (a lot of which is coming along nicely, thank you very much).

My aforementioned friend understood where I was coming from. They’ve also read (and really liked) my scripts, and remain very, very hopeful that something good will happen for me soon.

Me too. It would be nice.

But until then, Mel’s song remains the status quo.

And since I prefer to end things on a high note, here you go…

The hazardous journey down Contest Road

Flat tire in formal attire
A savvy driver is prepared, no matter what they encounter

I’ve lost count of how many screenwriting contests there are. A whole lot, I believe. But out of all of them, only a handful actually mean anything in terms of helping build one’s career.

The Nicholl. Austin. PAGE. There are others of high prominence, but these three are the ones that really matter.

This isn’t to slight the smaller or lesser-known contests, but someone who’s a finalist in the Nicholl probably has a better shot at being able to use that to their advantage than, say, the Greater Cedar Rapids Screenplay Contest (not that such a thing actually exists, but you get the idea).

As evidenced on my My Scripts page, I’ve done moderately well in some of the bigs, but have also totally fizzled out. I’ve also been fortunate to have done well in some of the second-tier competitions. Every year yields different results.

Sometimes the first thoughts that race through your head when you read that email from the contest organizer that includes the word “Regretfully” somewhere near the beginning makes you think “Does this mean my writing is lousy?”

No. It means it didn’t click/connect with the reader or readers from that contest. A lot of the contests give you at least two reads. Sometimes I’ll receive praise from the first reader, only to have the second one not like it, thereby stopping it in its tracks. Or both readers like it, but not enough to advance it to the next round. Nothing I can do about it. C’est la vie, and better luck next year.

And even if you win, or at least place highly, in a high-profile contest, that’s no guarantee to getting work. I know a Nicholl finalist who had zero traction with their script, as opposed to the PAGE winner who is now super-busy with assigments.

I know writers who’ve never won a contest, and they got work. I know writers who’ve never entered a contest at all, and they’ve gotten work. How? Because the writing wasn’t just good; it was really, really good. That’s what it comes down to. That and somebody liked it enough to want to do something with it or with the writer.

A few years ago, I was a lot more likely to enter almost any contest. And there weren’t even as many then as there are now. Time and experience has shown me that, yes, it’s a nice validation to get that certificate from that small contest you’d never heard of before you entered, but how much did it actually do to help you get your career going?

A lot of contests offer “industry exposure” to the winners, and you do get that – to a point, and it’s probably a safe bet not to the extent you imagine. Your script might get checked out by maybe a handful of reps and production companies, and even then there’s still no guarantee anybody will be interested. I’m speaking from experience on this one.

Contests are just one of the ways in. As someone who’s in it for the long haul, I’ll continue to try my luck with the big ones while also exploring other avenues. Whatever it takes.

And no matter what contest you may have entered this year, I wish you the best of luck. Except for the ones I did. Then all bets are off and it’s every person for themselves.

A writer does what again?

typewriter
Just another schmuck with an Underwood

In case you haven’t been following me on social media (which is easily rectified), I’ll post semi-daily updates regarding my progress in writing the latest draft of my current spec.

(Incidentally, just passed the page-75 plot point on the pulp spec)

After I post an update, my network of fellow creatives will offer up their very supportive and encouraging comments.

“Great job!”

“Keep going!”

“I don’t know how you do it!”

I do, and it’s actually a pretty simple formula: I try to write every day. Even if it ends up being just a short amount of time, or all it yields is a single page. Sure, sometimes life gets in the way and I’m not able to write, but there are definitely more days of writing than not-writing.

Writing scripts (preferably my own, but I’m not picky) is what I want to do. More than anything. So I continuously work at it, trying to improve my skills and produce quality material. It’s the only way I know how to get there.

Some might say I currently have the luxury of just writing specs. No pressure. No deadlines. No conflicting sets of notes. But I don’t really see it that way. I treat this like a job because I’m working on making it my job.

To reinforce the whole “marathon, not a sprint” concept, maintaining a daily regiment of writing helps me prepare and get in shape for when it’s time to take on the real thing.

And when that actually happens, I’ll be able to keep up.

(Speaking of which, I’ll be running my first half-marathon of the year this weekend. Once again hoping to hit the 1:55 mark, but breaking 2 hours will be just fine and dandy.)

Mini Bulletin Board time!

-Writer/friend-of-the-blog Mark Sanderson is proud to announce the release of his new book A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success. Mark is also an accomplished screenwriter and script consultant.

-Script consultant/literary manager Whitney Davis will be teaching an 8-week Introduction to Screenwriting course through the Writing Workshops Dallas program beginning on April 4th. Even though the course will be conducted in Dallas, attending via Skype is also an option. Bonus for attending in person – Whitney’s homemade cookies.