Hand over the peanut butter cups and nobody gets hurt

Anybody else suspect how the American Dental Association figures in all of this?
Anybody else suspect how the American Dental Association figures in all of this?

Halloween Eve shorty today.

This has been a real rollercoaster of a week around Maximum Z HQ. Highs, lows, and many points in between, including:

-Notes back from BlueCat and Screencrafting Action about the western. Very positive comments from both, plus a few “needs a little work”-type items. Don’t know if I have a shot at winning either, but I’d be okay with a top 10 or along those lines. At least nobody said the script sucked.

-Been busy giving notes on friends’ scripts. So far, everybody’s liked what I’ve had to say, including a lot of agreement about what the notes say. Always nice.

-Started compiling a new list of potential query recipients to add to the master list I already have. Also got some great feedback on a revamped query letter. Trying to be more organized about it this time, including customizing as many letters as I can.

-There’s a strong sense of big changes of a positive nature in the air, so I’m going to do what I can to hold on to those and keep working on turning them into reality.

Hope you have a great weekend and get lots of kickass writing done (after whatever Halloween activities you’ll be engaging in, of course).

A thought that never truly goes away

Just a little self-evaluation to pass the time
Just indulging in a little self-evaluation

I posted this just about a year ago, and after recently receiving some very supportive and encouraging script notes, think it’s still relevant.

Am I getting better?

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.

A red flag if ever there was one

'nuff said.
Nope. Nothing suspicious about this whatsoever.

One of my earliest paid writing jobs came from a listing on craigslist. It was for a 10-minute student film, and I got $20 in cold, hard cash. Living the high life, baby!

Since then, every once in a while, I’ll peruse the “writing gigs” section just to see what’s out there. There’s the occasional “looking for a writing partner” or “need help with a screenplay” or “seeking screenplay”. Compensation is usually no or very little pay, or screen credit. Par for the course.

Earlier this week, there was a listing (since removed) that read something like:

“Experienced literary agent with Hollywood connections. I can get your script or manuscript sent throughout the industry for $3500/year (flat rate)”

Urgh. Where to even begin?

Maybe that you should not be paying an agent?

Maybe that this “experienced” agent is seeking clients on the online equivalent of the classified ads?

Maybe that they’re charging an exorbitant amount for something, given time and research, you can do yourself for free, if not a much smaller fraction of the cost?

But the saddest part is that there are gullible writers out there who think is a legitimate offer, and will enthusiastically pay, thinking it’s a shortcut to success.

Nope, because there are no shortcuts. Only one surefire path – write a phenomenal script. People will find it.

“But I’m a total outsider!” they argue. “How else am I going to get people to read my stuff?” The same way the rest of us do. Through your writing and networking (and maybe a contest or two).

Not sure if something’s legitimate? If you even have to think about it, then it probably isn’t.

Do your homework. Take advantage of the many online resources just a few keystrokes away. Get the info you need before you make a big (and potentially costly) mistake. Ask writers with more experience. Don’t be shy.

This is how you learn so it never has to happen to you.

Is the original concept an endangered species?

Keep looking! They're out there somewhere.
Keep looking! They’re out there somewhere.

Quick! Name a recent successful film NOT based on a pre-existing property.

Right now, the only one I’m coming up with is INSIDE OUT.

Warner Brothers just blew $150 million on PAN, which finished 3rd its opening weekend, dropped to 6th this week, and has only made $25 million. It’s probably safe to say it’ll be one of the year’s pricier bombs.

Marvel unveiled its slate of something like 20 films over the next 5 years.

Every studio desperately wants the next Harry Potter, TWILIGHT or HUNGER GAMES franchise, but despite plenty of copycat attempts (e.g. GOLDEN COMPASS. DIVERGENT. PERCY JACKSON. SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES. MAZE RUNNER.), the search for a new heir to the throne continues.

Despite cries of “Ugh! Another reboot/remake/reimagining?” the public keeps paying to see them and the studios keep making them. (“It worked before, so it’ll work again!”)

And with so many other writers out there, both aspiring and professional, as your competition, there’s bound to be a lot of repetition and similarity of stories and ideas.

What’s an ambitious spec writer to do? Especially when you take into consideration the age-old adage “Nobody’s going to take a chance on an unknown writer.”

To say our work is cut out for us is putting it very, very mildly.

We are competing against source material from all kinds of media, so your script has to be jaw-droppingly amazing for it to have any kind of traction.

And even getting to that point ain’t easy.

Everybody always says they have an idea for a script, but how many are actually able to turn that into an honest-to-God original, as in “never seen that before”?

Every script you write has to be something that people who aren’t you would want to see. Totally brand-spanking new. Out of left field. New twist on an old idea. Familiar, but different. The more original and well-executed it is, the better your chances.

What is it about your script that makes it truly stand out from all the rest? How mind-blowingly original is the idea behind it?

There really is a demand for solid, well-written original scripts. It’s up to you make sure yours is all three.

Getting over overwriting

Whattya think? Too much?
Whattya think? Too much?

It’s a bad habit of mine, definitely happens in the first draft, and then has to be slowly and surgically removed with each successive draft that follows.

Simply put, I put too much detail into a scene. I visualize in my mind how it plays out, and that’s what I put on the page.

There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s probably my equivalent of a “vomit draft”, where everything gets written down because you know you’re going to go back and edit and rewrite it multiple times. It’s a starting point.

So after you’ve got that first draft written, how do you know what to get rid of?

Like with sculpting a statue out of a block of marble, just chip away anything that doesn’t belong.

Say you have a scene that runs 1 3/4 pages. Do you know what the point of the scene is? Does it advance the plot and the characters’ development? Is there a way to have the scene still do that but with significantly less words? Can you cut the whole thing in half? Can you cut it by 75 percent?

How much of the scene is just back-and-forth dialogue? How detailed are you when it comes to what the characters are doing? (“He climbs the first step of the stairs, pauses to catch his breath, wipes his sweaty brow, then advances another step.” That sort of thing).

Do you describe parts of the scene that, when you really think about it, really don’t have much or anything to do with moving the story forward (how a room is decorated, what the characters are wearing, etc)? I’ve been reading a lot of scripts lately, and have seen all of these on display.

It’s like this is the culmination of three important screenwriting rules:

get in late, get out early
get to the point as soon as possible
write as if ink costs a thousand dollars an ounce

Don’t be of the mindset that you can’t or won’t change anything. Yes, this is your baby, but what’s more important? Your writer’s ego or telling your story in the best, most efficient way possible?

I had a first draft that was 132 pages. Just about every person who gave me notes said it was too long, and that it had to be at least 20-30 pages shorter. At the time, I thought that was asking too much. If I really pushed myself, I could cut maybe 10, 15 tops.

But as I went through each rewrite, trimming wherever I could, savagely wiping scenes, characters and dialogue from existence, it kept getting shorter until I got it down to 107. A whole 25 pages cut, just as was suggested. It took a while, but I got there.

Whittling each scene down to its bare essentials not only helped make the script better, but also proved beneficial to developing my writing and editing skills so while I’m sure I’ll continue to overwrite in the future, at least I’ll be better prepared to deal with it.