Finding the positive in a negative

 

Converting something acidic to tasty and refreshing requires a little bit of knowing how
Converting potentially acidic to tastily refreshing requires a little bit of knowing how

Notes on both my western and mystery-comedy specs have been flowing in steadily from friends and trusted colleagues over the past couple of months, and the results have certainly been a mixed bag of opinions.

The general message is “Love the concept, solid structure, but ____, ____ and ____ needs work.” The individual comments, of course, are much more assorted. Happily, none are of the “This sucks! Do the world a favor and give up writing!” nature.

Show the same material to half a dozen people, and you’ll end up with half a dozen different reactions. And as you would expect, each one is helpful in its own way, especially if it includes something you may not necessarily agree with.

But here’s where it gets even better – take all of those notes and use the ones that you think make the most sense. Apply them to your script. Does it immediately read better?

Now let’s take it a step further, but this time with those comments you don’t agree with. What is about them that doesn’t work for you? Give ’em another look. Maybe there’s something in there worth using.

I got some great notes on the western, and one of the suggestions was cutting or at least shortening some sequences in Act Two. Of course, my initial reaction was “Not a chance!”

But this was defeating the whole purpose of getting notes – to make the script better. And me being so obstinate about it wasn’t helping.

So I read it again, this time with a more open mind. Would this work? Would it accomplish what I needed it to? The suggestion started to make sense. I’d already cut 12 pages out of this thing, so there was no reason I couldn’t trim a few scenes down. It wouldn’t hurt the story, and could actually improve it in terms of moving things along.

You get notes to help point out what’s wrong with your script, or at least what needs to be fixed. You can use them however you want, but to totally disregard them isn’t doing you any favors.

Ask a Talent-of-Colossal-Proportions Script Consultant!

Barri Evins

 

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Barri Evins of Big Ideas.

1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

A few contest scripts impress me each year. I wrote about one that swept me off my feet in my ScriptMag.com Column: Breaking & Entering – Great Writing – A Love Story. A good rewrite from a writer I was consulting with who made a huge leap between drafts. In terms of what I’ve watched, it’s TV that’s knocked my socks off of late.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

In kindergarten. Well, practically. Grew up reading plays and studying theatre. Convinced that background would be an albatross around my neck in the film business. I was trying to get my first industry job after moving to Los Angeles, and a lit agent my brother was friends with from a fraternity connection set me up on interviews. He gave me a script that was on its way to becoming a major movie with an A-list actor and told me to do story notes on it as a sample. I did a pretty good job of it, and impressed some folks in meetings, but wound up working at the agency. It was grueling in terms of amount of work and amount of hours, but I read a ton in features and in TV, and I learned a ton. In eight months (that’s pretty fast) I moved on to a Development Associate job and then Story Editor for writer/producers Bruce Evans and Raynold Gideon where I learned a ton and read so much my distance vision deteriorated! Ironically, it was the theatre degree that helped win me the job.

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

I always believed that it could be taught, as I’ve taught coverage to literally jillions of interns, many of whom have gone on to be very successful in the industry, as well as part of a course I taught at the UCLA Graduate Producing Program. However, I had one very lovely intern who simply could not tell good writing from, well, dreck. It was like being colorblind. She got a little encouragement from me to look into other areas of the industry and became a successful publicist.

4. What are the components of a good script?

A great concept, that delivers on the promise of the premise, with strong storytelling. Yum.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Oy. Here’s my current bone too pick – I call it “Too Much Tinsel On Your Tree.” The overcomplicated story where the writer has crammed in so much that we simply don’t know what’s going on. Diagnosis of that syndrome can be found here in a guest blog by my dear friend, Dr. Paige Turner, who steps in and answers writers’ sticky questions in a column she likes to call, “S-E-X Tips for Screenwriters.”

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

If I never, ever, ever read another story where something happens to make the main character revisit their small hometown after 20 years absence, I would be thrilled. That said, I will probably come across a terrific one now that I’ve gone on record with this. But I somehow doubt it.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

Outline, outline, and get an outside opinion, preferably from a professional because you’re just too close to your own work and your mom thinks everything you do is “just terrific, honey.”

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

Yup, but the execution was horrid, I mean terrible on almost every count, and my company couldn’t get our studio to buy it based on the great concept. Another studio wound up doing it, but took it in the complete wrong direction. So I’d rather not share the logline. Sorry.

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

Depends on the contest and what the writer is looking to achieve. I wrote two monthly columns for a year on screenwriting contests for MovieBytes.com – a terrific, free online source of info on contests by writers. Inside the Contest is in-depth interviews of the heads of 13 top contests – asking questions I think writers would want to ask. Contest Judge of the Month interviews a wide range of contest judges from first round to famous, all anonymously, a la the Playboy Playmate of the Month, so the questions are a bit naughty and answered with absolute honesty. So, I know a bit about contests from different angles. Why 13 in a year? Because the contests were eventually competing to get the free publicity.

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

I consult on everything from loglines to screenplays to queries, as well as offer custom packages and mentorship. My website is www.bigBIGideas.com, which includes my consulting page, where you have the  opportunity to “Pitch Me For Free” and get a thumbs up or down on a concept.

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

Key Lime, baby. I’m a Florida girl.

Am I getting better?

Go ahead. Tell me the truth. I can take it.
How does it compare to last time?

One of the sad truths about trying to make it as a screenwriter is that it’s an extremely frustrating process.

On certain days, the frustration feels like it extends to the uppermost part of the outer edge of the stratosphere. To the nth degree.

What is it about screenwriting that people who don’t do it think it’s easy? If you’re reading this, it’s more than likely you’ve given it a go, or at least know somebody who has, so you know full well that it most definitely is not.

We even try to warn those who think hammering out a first draft in a few weeks is a guaranteed million dollar paycheck. This is a long and arduous road, we say, but they don’t let that stop them. A legion of the truly unaware who will discover the scary truth soon enough.

Those of us who are fully committed (an apt phrase if ever there was one) finish the latest draft, then edit, rewrite and polish it so many times it enters well into double digit territory, hoping our writing and storytelling skills are improving with each new attempt.

But how do we know if that’s even happening?

We ask friends and trusted colleagues for feedback. We pay for professional analysis. The script gets reworked yet again.

We hope this newest draft is light years ahead of all of its previous incarnations in terms of quality, but sometimes it’s tough to be able to recognize if that’s the case. At least for me, anyway.

Whenever I send somebody a script for critiquing, I always say “Thanks for taking a look. Hope you like it.”

I know the script isn’t perfect – maybe even far from it, which is why I ask for help. Part of me knows it’s good, but can be better. It’s being able to identify the latter that gives me trouble. I’m so deeply embedded in a story that it’s tough to step back and be objective. Maybe I can not look at it for a few weeks, but even then it’s tough to look at it with fresh eyes.

Follow-up notes will tell me what they liked and what they feel needs work. There will be a fair mix of stuff I should have already figured out and some “How could I have missed that?” surprises.

So back I go into rewrite mode, hoping for improvement for both the material and myself, still not knowing if that improvement is there until I undergo the entire process all over again.

Or at least somebody tells me.

Ask a Straight-talkin’ Script Consultant!

Jim Cirile - Coverage Ink

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Jim Cirile of Coverage Ink.

1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

After binge-watching “Sons of Anarchy” season 6, you really have to marvel at the craftsmanship. The upheaval and complications are so constant as to be ludicrous, yet it’s so devilishly well-written that you just strap in and hold on tight. And blowing our own horn a bit, the last script I read which was truly special was Brandon Barker’s “Nottingham and Hood,” which we found as part of our last Get Repped Now! promotion this summer. We got him into Benderspink, where he’s now working with their head of lit Jake Wagner. So, win-win. A real talented guy with a bitingly funny comic voice.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

Kind of fell into it, really. I originally founded Coverage Ink to offer my small handful of analysts, whom I’d assembled to help develop my own material, to other writers at low cost. Getting feedback from smart readers is a major part of my process and always has been. In fact, the very first person I met when I moved to Los Angeles 20 years ago was a union studio reader, and that fellow was enormously gracious in giving me feedback and teaching me how the biz really works. Over time, as a writer myself, I gave feedback to plenty of other writers and realized I had a lot to say in that regard. Our approach is based around writer empowerment – giving constructive feedback as opposed to humiliation. This is in part a reaction to some of the astonishingly humiliating and unhelpful coverage I’ve received on my own scripts and have seen others receive over the years. I figured there had to be a way to give helpful guidance without belittling the writer. So all of that combined to get the CI ball rolling in 2002.

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

Yes, but to a point. Obviously anyone can read a bunch of books, take classes on writing and so forth, and get down your Save the Cat!, Syd Field, McKee, etc. However, some folks have a hard time putting aside their egos — the frustrated writers out there who fancy themselves story analysts. These folks project their personal tastes and frustrations onto material as opposed to appreciating it for what it is and trying to help it become the best possible version of itself. I’ve had to let go of several very smart people who fancied themselves as story consultants because they actually could not recognize good writing or material with potential.

4. What are the components of a good script?

Great, multidimensional characters. Solid structure. Avoiding clichés and surprising the reader. Snappy, tight pacing. And of course, good storytelling. That said, a lot of it is about hitting your marks and doing it in creative ways – nailing those structural beats that Hollywood uses to judge whether you’ve got game or not, such as the inciting incident by page 15, Act II beginning by page 25, etc. Even things like whether you know how to write down the page or use sluglines and white space properly all contribute to the first impression as well as perceived ease of the read. A good screenplay is simply a fascinating story well-told. If you’re facile with words, that’s a start – but that’s all it is. You still have to study the form.

5-6. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

By far the biggest one, and I’m just as guilty of this, is sending a script out before it’s fully cooked. We finish a script and we’re so excited that we immediately contact our industry friends and before long, you’re dead in the water. It took a long time to learn to never send out first or even tenth drafts (if I can help it.) Taking the time to develop a screenplay until it’s bulletproof is crucial. My current spec is on its 11th draft and we only just got our first consider. It will probably be three more drafts until we nail it and get consistent considers, which will indicate we’re finally ready to go, and even then we’ll still have to do at least another draft or two for our manager.

The second one is: is your concept really multiplex-worthy? You have to really think about whether your idea is one that makes sense in the current filmmaking climate – be it studio film, indie or festival darling. There are certain stories that just work better as a book, stage play, web series, or whatever, than a feature. Or maybe it just isn’t an exciting idea at all, or is just too played out or derivative – how many spy or vampire movies can they make? Unless you can find a way to bring something really fresh and innovative to those genres, you’d best keep looking for the killer concept.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

1. Be a student of the business. There’s no point in trying to be a screenwriter if you don’t learn what that actually means and how the game is played.

2. Learn your craft. Just because you wrote a great thesis in college or even a novel doesn’t mean you have any idea how to write a screenplay. Take classes at your local community college or online, get into a writer’s group, read scripts and how-to books and study. Can you get hired as a doctor or lawyer without years of study? So why would you expect another lucrative job like screenwriting to be any easier to learn or break in to?

3. Don’t expect to find representation until you are really, really ready – and by that I mean they come to you because you’re winning contests, or producers and industry types are championing your material. We all want to get representation, but usually an agent won’t even read you unless you’ve already got some heat.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

The aforementioned “Nottingham and Hood.” The Sheriff of Nottingham captures and attempts to transport his prisoner, Robin Hood, to trial. Complications, as they say, ensue. “Midnight Run” in Sherwood Forest. Boom.

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

Our contest Writers on the Storm has gotten several of our winners into agencies like UTA, and last year’s “Cake” was produced and stars Jennifer Aniston. (WOTS is on hiatus this year.) So the answer is – damn right they’re worth it, but it depends on the contest. There are really a few worth the money – Tracking B, Nicholl, Scriptapalooza, Final Draft Big Break, Script Pipeline, maybe one or two others. But the rest – no juice. Save your money. Sadly, no one cares that you made the top ten of the Terre Haute Screenwriting Showdown 2003.

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

Email me at info@coverageink.com, or check out our website – www.coverageink.com

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

Here in Culver City, there is an amazing 2-piece band, a guy and a gal, who play often at the Culver Hotel, my favorite watering hole. They’re called Pie. I’d have to go with them, since they go quite well indeed with an Absolut martini with lime. Other than that, Boston Cream, baby!

You’d be tired, too.

Allowing myself the luxury of a 5-minute nap between projects
Allowing myself the luxury of a 5-minute nap between projects

What an exhausting week this has been.

-My “Ask a Script Reader/Consultant” series is going strong, with no signs of letting up. What I originally planned as a handful of interviews is now poised to run until at least the end of the year, possibly into January. There are a lot of quality readers and consultants to choose from out there, all of whom really know their stuff. If you think your script is good enough as it is right now, you should seriously consider getting some professional feedback from any of these folks to help make it even better.

-Had a great face-to-face meeting with another writer in which we talked shop, exchanged feedback on each other’s scripts and just had a nice time. It’s one thing to connect with somebody on social media or an online forum, but when you factor in the human element, it just makes it that much more a pleasurable experience.

-The feedback this writer gave me was about my western. He used to do coverage, so his notes were significantly better than mine. He had some very nice things to say about the script, and some great suggestions about how to improve it. Luckily for me, a lot of them were relatively easy fixes.

Working with these notes, I just completed a major edit, which resulted in shortening it by 4 pages to 122. That’s 4 pages less than the previous draft, and 10 pages less than the draft that went out to all those contests earlier this year. There will be at least 1-2 more edits, in which I’m hoping to cut even more.

-Because of all this other stuff, progress on the low-budget comedy has slowed a bit. The latest obstacle is the fleshing out of some of the subplots. While the main storyline is kinda/sorta solid, it’s those supporting ones that still need some work.

The next step may be focusing on developing each one subplot individually, then work out how it connects/relates to the others. This puzzle keeps getting more complicated all the time. I was hoping to have a first draft done by the end of the year, which is still possible, but it’s more important to me to have a nice, solid outline first.

-Got some great notes from a few people about the mystery-comedy. Still needs work, but just about everybody raved about its potential and how much they like the concept, which is always nice to hear.

-Looking for help with loglines? Check out this book from Doug King.

-A friend gave K some Meyer lemons, which naturally resulted in making a lemon meringue pie. I considered sharing some with my co-workers, but decided it was just too tasty to leave the house. When your child asks if the last piece can be saved so it can be part of her breakfast the next day, you must be doing something right.

-I haven’t been able to do any half-marathons since last year, but we got a dog a few months ago, so 2-3 times a week, I run the 3 miles to pick her up, then both of us do the run back. Doing these along with my occasional longer weekend runs has resulted in about 10 pounds dropped since Labor Day. Hoping to get back into doing some races next year, but the dog stays home.

-Oh, and there was this. 5 years in the making and no sign of letting up. Thanks for all the support, and I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride as much as I have.

If you’re new around here, welcome! Feel free to take a look around, ask questions, comment on something, what have you.

Can’t wait to see what happens next week.