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.
No matter what your screenplay is about, or what genre it is, it really comes down to one thing: telling a story about the characters and what happens to them.
While some may put more emphasis on the latter part with its vast number of variables and possibilities, it’s equally important to put a lot of effort into developing the former.
You want your characters to be relatable. Let us see ourselves, or at least part of ourselves, in them. How they act and interact. What they do. Even if it’s within a completely ridiculous or unbelievable scenario.
A good example: the works of Judd Apatow. “Comedies with heart,” is often used to describe them. By injecting emotion into what might otherwise be just something silly, he adds that extra layer of humanity. Notice you never heard the phrase “wacky hijinks ensue”? Because it’s about the emotion within the comedy, not just going for the cheap laugh.
Nobody only experiences one emotion, and neither should the fictional population within your pages. If a character’s happy, sad, or angry, show us why. Don’t hold back. Put it there for us to see.
Do they act like a real person? Is this how they would act in this kind of situation? Is it a real reaction or a “movie” reaction? Getting your characters to act using their emotions makes them come across as more realistic, which makes for a better story.
“The characters are too one-dimensional,” or “He/She’s just a one-note character.” Heard those before? If your character only acts one way, or remains static and never changes, or doesn’t even react accordingly, that’s what the response will most likely be. And you don’t want that.
A savvy writer knows how to use emotion without being blatant about it. Maybe it’s a subtle action, or a turn of phrase, or the subtext within a line of dialogue.
Find the way that works best to develop and advance the character both within their own story and the story overall.
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.
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?
When you read a script, it’s not just about “Do I find this story interesting?” or ” Why should I care about these characters?”. There’s also “Does it look like a professional script?”
That’s where proofreading comes in handy.
This week offers up a 2-part panel discussion with professional proofreaders Tammy Gross of proofmyspec.com and Bill Donovan of screenwritingcommunity.net to discuss proofreading and its connection with screenwriting.
How exactly does one proofread a screenplay? What are some of the things you’re looking for?
Tammy Gross (TG): That’s a loaded question! For me it boils down to what I call “the language of screenplay.” Spec screenplays need to be streamlined, devoid of technical distractions and written in a cinematic style that transports the reader to the theater.
And, of course, it’s my job to fix all the “errors.” In context, misspellings and bad grammar are often intentional and work better than perfect grammar and spelling conventions. However, you gotta know the rules to break them. And there are many ways to format some things, though the best is always whatever is clearest, most economical, and relevant to the story.
My job is to make a screenplay easy, fast, and fun to read – and up to professional standards. So I look for anything that gets in the way of that.
Bill Donovan (BD): My service is a bit of a hybrid. I give some story and screenplay structure notes as well as proofread and copy edit. The proofreading/copy editing part covers:
— Typographical errors
— Spelling errors
— Grammatical errors
— Punctuation errors
— Capitalization errors
— Verb tense errors
— Sentence structure and clarity problems
— Basic formatting mistakes
— Cramming in too many words
— “Saying” when you need to show
What’s the difference between editing and proofreading?
TG: When it comes to screenplays, it usually is a matter of time and thoroughness. Proofreading should be the last step before submitting a screenplay to anyone for consideration. In a perfect world, a screenwriter will go through various phases of self-editing. Once it’s polished, it should probably receive a copy edit to have fresh eyes to catch all the formatting, consistency, and text issues. After it’s been cleaned up and the story is solid, it’s time for proofreading. And the depth of proof-editing depends on the writer’s level of proficiency.
I take it a couple steps further than most. First, I create a style sheet to ensure that preferences are observed and maintained throughout. I also work very hard to help the screenwriter understand the edits I’ve made so they can grow in their craft. I’ve seen writers improve from script to script as a result. Some have gone from disaster to master.
BD: There are key differences. Proofreading, strictly defined, is a bit more limited. It involves fixing actual errors, such as typos, missing words, missing punctuation or wrongly-placed punctuation, capitalization errors and other outright mistakes. Copy editing covers all of those mistakes and also addresses larger issues of clarity, such as fixing a sentence or paragraph which may be grammatically correct but is vague.
I have great difficulty leaving a badly-written sentence or paragraph alone even when it might be okay in strict proofreading terms. Since I make my changes in colored type, I figure that the writer can go in and change it back if he/she prefers his or her own phrasing.
For example, some of my clients write much of their scene description in partial sentences. That’s fine if you can do it well. However, most of the writers who come to me do not write partial sentences well. The meaning is clear to them because they know what they mean. However, if it’s not clear to the reader, I fix it or give the writer a note suggesting that he or she fix it.
A lot of writers might say “I can do just as good a job proofreading it myself.” Your response?
TG: In nine years I’ve read only one screenplay that was error-free, including shorts. The biggest mistake even the most experienced writers make is assuming that because they understand some mechanics, they have a full grasp of format. While everyone claims there are no “rules”, there really are guidelines that are basically rules. Very few writers can keep up with the latest standards the way I and other professionals (hopefully) do.
My favorite trick for self-editing is to simply read backward from bottom to top. But it won’t catch everything. Most quality scripts go through many revisions and rewrites. It’s bound to pick up some introduced errors along the way that you become blind to.
BD: If you’re very good at English language usage, and if you’re an experienced editor, and if you walk away from it for a while, and if you then focus on every word and every bit of punctuation for all possible mistakes from overall clarity down to missing commas, yes, you can.
But will you? For example: I’ve sent out email blasts for my proofreading service about 15 times in the past 15 months. Three times, recipients have written back, gleefully and snidely, “Ha-ha! I found a typo in your email blast.” They were right. How could I make such a mistake, in a blast advertising proofreading, when I have thousands of pages of experience as a proofreader and copy editor? I know exactly how: The mind tends to gloss over the tiniest little details of that which you have written yourself, and you become both tired of reading it and eager to get it out.
What are some common mistakes you usually see?
TG: I have a very long, and boring list of words and format issues I plan to turn into a book once I can figure out how to make it fun and simple to reference. The usual suspects: its/it’s, your/you’re, there/their/they’re, lie/lay. A baffling but common one is “draw” instead of “drawer.” Possibly the biggest peeve and most common issue is passive voice.
There’s also a zeitgeist in the editing world. One year something like “clinch” vs. “clench” needs fixing in every script (or manuscript) I read, then the next year everyone is misspelling or misusing “rifle” vs. “riffle.” It’s weird.
Also, some things in spec writing evolve, so things that were “mistakes” five years ago are perfectly normal or even preferred today. I work hard to keep up on the current trends and roll with the changes, but I’ll probably never accept “how r u” for spoken dialogue.
BD: This is the short answer. I maintain a document on common mistakes screenwriters make. It’s 14 pages of paragraphs and explanations. These are not in order of frequency, but are some of the most common:
1. The “Their, they’re, there” and possessives sort of grammar mistakes.
2. Missing commas. Commas are sneaky little creatures, always slipping away from your text where it needs one.
3. The worst, and surprisingly common, is the “Show, don’t say” mistake. John Vorhaus, author of The Comic Toolbox, summed it up perfectly:
“You could tell by his face he was thinking of Paris.”
But, of course, you can’t tell by his face what he’s thinking of. He could just as easily be thinking about a juicy cheeseburger.
4. Specifying shots. In film school, they used to say that you learn to write by directing and you learn to direct by editing. You don’t learn to direct by writing, so the decision on shots should be left to the director 95% of the time. Even when a closeup is required in order to provide closeup information, it can be done without saying “CLOSEUP” or “CU”. I don’t tell writers not to specify a closeup, but another way to do it is a separate paragraph describing the content of the closeup. The director will get the idea.
5. Run-together sentences. Even grammatically-correct compound sentences can be bad choices when they gloss over the action. They forego the opportunity to emphasize great moments. One way to “direct the director” without specifying shots is to write a separate paragraph for each camera setup.
“Jack kisses Jill and they walk off into the sunset.”
“Jack kisses Jill. Their lips lock, long and loving.”
“They break the kiss. Grasping hands, they turn, and walk off into the sunset.”
New writers tend to rush through both the blocking of scenes and the emotions of the moment. In contrast, a recent client of mine, a produced director and stage director, wrote a comedy screenplay so precisely that many of his descriptions were delivered with punch lines in visual jokes. It was marvelous to read.
6. Writing in present participle rather than present tense. A screenplay is action taking place NOW. Sometimes, present participle (“Jack is standing”) is unavoidable because it’s needed for clarity. However, if Jack pulls out a gun and then pulls the trigger, then “Jack shoots,” not “Jack is shooting.”
7. Incorrect use of ellipses.
8. Incorrect parentheticals. If a character does something before speaking or after speaking, it doesn’t belong in the parenthetical; it belongs in the scene description.
9. Failure to do research. When laws, government regulations, and historical events are mentioned, they should be correct. I’ve seen two screenplays in which the writers had significant plot turns saying that under HIPAA, they couldn’t get their own medical records because they were company secrets. It’s the other way around.
My list has quite a few more. Again, the “common mistakes” reference I’ve created is 14 pages long and growing.
Do you have a “most memorable” example of writing that was in severe need of proofing?
TG: My very first client almost scared me off from doing this. I put my website up in the middle of the night and a guy in Australia emailed me almost immediately. He sent me a Word file filled with something more like ideas or musings about some stuff in outer space. No formatting. No story. I don’t think there were even any characters or dialogue. Fortunately, my second client wasn’t high after a long walkabout (that I know of) and let me cut my teeth on a good script in Final Draft (my favorite, though I work in every program under the sun).
BD: Yes, and no. I just turn back the “most memorable” with notes suggesting to the writer what should be done before hiring me to proofread the work. For example, I recently sent back a feature script that was 195 pages with the suggestion that it be cut to 115.
When I write out a scene, I have a pretty solid idea of what needs to happen in it; how to make it follow the one before it, and lead into the one after it.
Sometimes it ends up the way I intended, and sometimes it needs a little more punching-up.
And a lot of the time, that punching-up involves making things more complicated, which does a simultaneously effective job of upping the conflict, which was already a necessity.
This whole process most recently came into play while working on a scene in the pulp spec. I’d planned out what was supposed to happen, and on the surface, it seemed okay.
And then I wrote it, but it wasn’t the same as I’d envisioned. It was still missing a vital component, and I couldn’t determine exactly what.
Did it successfully connect the scenes before and after? Was there conflict? Did it advance the necessary elements? Yes on all counts, but it still seemed off.
I read through it again. It was tight and efficient, and did what it was supposed to. But this second read also revealed the hidden problem that was nagging at me.
It was too tight and efficient. The protagonist accomplished what they were supposed to, but it needed to be tougher for them to do so.
So back I went to the planning-out stage, tossing in a few more wrinkles to make it that much harder for my hero. Although they still achieve their goal within the context of the scene, this time I made sure they really earned it.
Plus, the new complications really emphasized the overall nature of the story, which is always good.
This isn’t to say that every scene has to have some kind of monumental obstacle to your protagonist, but the journey towards their goal shouldn’t be an easy one. It might not even be a physical thing; maybe your hero has to overcome an internal or emotional problem.
It may be easier for you to keep things simple and straightforward, but unfortunately that makes for dull storytelling. Making things more complicated for your protagonist may complicate things for you in putting it all together, but it will definitely make for a better story while also improving your skills as a writer.
Don’t hold back. Put both yourself and your protagonist through the wringer. You’ll both be better for it.