Quit them or queue them up?

q
As long as we’re emphasizing Qs today…(Yes, it’s a terrible joke. But that’s how we operate around here.)

Today is all about query letters.

I read about other writers who’ve gotten reads, representation, options and even production. There must have been something quite special about those letters (and scripts) to get those machines in motion.

There are also a select number of writers who’ve never had to use a query letter. Bully for them, I say. But I’ve never fallen into that category, so I’m firmly planted in the “those who send” group, which is still fine.

Taking a look at the somewhat limited results of my past efforts and reading about others’ experience makes me wonder in a “big picture” way about the nature and concept of the query letters themselves.

Are they worth the effort?

Naturally, if something happens as a result, of course they are. But even that appears to be a needle-in-a-haystack kind of scenario.

(Incidentally, any tales of query success are more than welcome in the comments section.)

There are so many factors to take into account, including but not limited to:

-who you’re sending to
-what kind of material they want
-they’re intrigued enough to want to read the script
-your script is a good match (or at least close enough) to what they want
-they think your writing’s strong enough
-they think they can make something happen with your script

Several years ago, an agent who’d struck out on their own (along with a sole assistant) told me that their office received approximately 75-100 queries a week. From around the world. Some were good, most were awful. A significant part of each morning was spent sorting through them. As you’d imagine, finding one, possibly two, that clicked seemed to be the norm.

Remember, this was a two-person operation. If they were getting that many, imagine how many the mega-agencies were getting, and still are. Possibly in the thousands.

The chances of success are minuscule, and grow smaller with each progressive step. Those not exactly in the know are more likely to think they’re the exception, but those of us who’ve been down this road before know better.

This isn’t to say that queries never work, but the odds definitely appear to be not in our favor. Luck and timing seem to also play significant parts. Maybe the person you’ve sent to just happens to be looking for a script exactly like yours. I’ve heard it does happen; just not very often.

But the dedicated, persistent and determined among us, including yours truly, will keep at it.

Even though my success rate hasn’t been the best, I’ll continue to do the research, find potential recipients, craft what I believe is a solid query, and send it out.

All that’s left is to wait, hope for the best, and keep busy working on other scripts, each of which will probably also have its own respective query letter get sent out sometime in the near future.

Q & A with Babz Bitela

Babz Bitela

Barbara “Babz” Bitela is a literary agent operating out of northern California, a “hired gun” editor for fiction writers, and hosts the Babzbuzz internet radio show “because folks were nice to me and helped me, so I’m trying to pay it forward, and believe me, I’m keeping it real.”

“We want voice on the page. We KNOW it when we ‘hear’ it.”

Her book Story of a Rock Singer is currently being adapted as a Broadway musical.

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

Justified and Bates Motel are my top two. Joss Whedon is by far one of my favorite writers. Buffy the TV series –  WOW!  You can youtube his interviews: it’s like an AA degree in writing and it’s free to anyone.

How’d you get your start as an agent?

I pitched a semi-retired agent named Ed Silver on a book I wrote. He was Lee Marvin’s manager and finance guy, also for James Coburn and many others. The guy’s ‘seen’ stuff, man – Hitchcock napping, for one. He loved my style and offered me a gig to take over and he’d mentor. We clicked big time. He’s Jewish, I’m Italian. As Sebastian Maniscalco says, “Same corporation, different division.” That’s us.

Is recognizing good writing something you believe can be taught or learned?

You for sure can learn it IF you want to. Here’s why – bad writing obviously sucks. It just does. How do you know that? By reading GREAT (not just good) scripts. I read so much so often I can now tell what’s going to go and what MAY go but here’s the rub: in the absence of money behind it, it may not matter. And I may love it and another may say “meh”. So pov does matter.  So you can learn and pitch but Lady Luck is no lady: she’s a tramp in cheap shoes and she’s fickle. We press on because we believe in the story/writer we hawk. If it goes, it goes, if it doesn’t, well, I’ve had the benefit of “seeing” incredible “movies” and the only down side is, so few others will see that. THE WRITER however, benefits. Why? Job well done. And if you don’t write for the JOY of the craft, there’s no point. Write for the sale? That’s an industry sucker punch. I’ve learned to find great scripts and I’ve learned it can be like screaming in space once you do.

What are the components of a good script?

VOICE, RISING ACTION and TWISTS.  What is voice: it’s a lot like porn – I know it when I see it but it’s hard to describe. Think of it this way: you open a novel, settle in and by page two you’re thinking “Ugh, this just sucks”, but you press on and by page ten you know it’s not the book for you so you donate it to Goodwill. It’s the same with a script. I once read a tv pilot by my client that I couldn’t read it fast enough. Why? I WAS DYING TO SEE WHERE IT WOULD LEAD. The action and characters were alive on the page. That is what makes a good script: I call it NARRATIVE TUG.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Where to start? Typos, for sure. It’s a speed bump.

Wrylies. Just don’t. UGH! Makes me crazy. There’s only one time I’ve seen it used where it worked. ONCE. And that writer is a five-figure-income writer.

Novels posing as scripts. The writer MUST understand the economy of words and do VISUAL storytelling. Telling a story with pictures is a movie. Telling a story with talking is a soap opera.

Avoid using “ing” words – slows narrative, slows the readers eyes.

Avoid “very”. Just find what IT IS. Don’t say “very smart”, say “bright”  – just pick! Not kidding. You’ll thank me. Rodale’s The Synonym Finder is invaluable for writers.

And never fall in love with your stuff. It’s gonna get cut.

What story tropes are you tired of seeing?

Well, many work. Some don’t. My favorite recently was probably in draft form: “Fire all phasers!” But instead he said “Fire everything!” Love it!

But I say write bad and cliché in the draft, leave it there, then go back and rewrite it.

Lots of folks say “Not my first rodeo.” I say “Not my first rocket launch.” Anything to WAKE UP the reader.

What are the three most important rules every writer should know?

I’ve got more than three.

-Don’t enter a script contest pitching a word doc.

-Don’t send a script unless invited.

-Don’t ask me what I think if you don’t want to know.

-Don’t go past 120 pages. I mean it. Try to stay around 100 if you can.

More rules? I think it’s just wise to do 12pt Courier font as it’s tradition. The Coen Brothers don’t use Courier. But they’re already famous, so when you’re famous do what you want. In the meantime, stick to tradition.

What do you look for when it comes to potential clients, both personally and professionally?

No dope. No booze. No drama.

Feet on the ground, and committed to spending tons of time doing what you love, regardless of the outcome.

My clients pitch themselves. They must. If that’s not for you, then I’m not the agent for you, and also, you’re in the wrong business.

Yes, the agent makes inroads, but you must pitch you and build relationships. When you do; AVOID using “I” and ask the person “What do you do, and how do you do it?” Ask about them. We’re people FIRST. That’s why I do Babzbuzz. People like me. They helped me. So I take what they tell me and mush it up with what I’ve learned, and talk about it on my show to try to help.

I’m a small company: I’m WGA.

Meh. Folks hang up on me all the time.

Why?

“Babz, love the script! Who’s funding?”

Crickets.

“Babz, baby. Call us back when you have the dough and I’ll show my client. He may want to star in it.”

EEEK!

What happened to love of story?

Hell, that left the building and moved to an island the actor/director owns. He’s got to feed his family too, ya know. So bring the bricks.

EEEK!

Lightning can and does strike. That’s what I do. I’m really a stormchaser who looks for folks with money who want to buy.

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

Oh man, you had me at the fridge door. Dutch apple. Key lime. Rhubarb when you can find it. And pretty much any clever use of chocolate.

 

Q & A with Rick Ramage of The Screenplay Show

Rick Ramage

Rick Ramage is a writer, director and producer with numerous credits on major motion pictures and television shows. During his 25-year career as a screenwriter, he has set up or sold over 40 scripts in Hollywood.

Rick’s latest project is The Screenplay Show, a new 10-part online series to educate about the art, craft and business of screenwriting and storytelling.

What is The Screenplay Show, and what inspired you to do it?

The Screenplay Show is an actual show about writing, presented in a fun, narrative style. It’s a ten-part webseries that will focus on the trade secrets I’ve developed (and learned) from Hollywood’s most talented writers, directors and producers during my 25-year career.

As to what inspired it, a few years ago, a buddy of mine started a writer/actor group called, “Write to Act” and he asked me to put on a seminar for his people in Denver. I was reluctant to say the least. For the last 25 years, my only job has been writing and producing film and television. Speaking in public? Not so much. He kept twisting my arm and after about a year of hounding me, I finally gave in and promised him I would do a one-day seminar. Then reality hit me: What could I possibly say for six hours that would interest other writers and actors? In an effort to alleviate the poor souls who would be stuck looking at my ugly mug all day, I pulled in my editor and we put together a long list of writing samples and clips covering every element of screenwriting so they could actually SEE what I was talking about – instead of listening to me pontificate as I clumsily tried to explain it.

For instance, using stills from The Shining, I put every moment of Jack’s character arc into a still photo sequence. You can actually visually track his descent into madness. I then put the page number from the script beside each expression. The audience literally gasped, because it was the first time they had actually seen a character arc moment by moment. I did the same thing for all the other elements of storytelling. As screenwriters, we have to write visually – so I figured it would work for seminars, too. But one thing really surprised me: the audience had as many questions about the writing experience as they did about the nuts and bolts. Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by the methods of actors, athletes, and other writers, so I guess it’s fair that they wanted to know about my method – and how a life and career in the film business actually works.

What sets The Screenplay Show apart from other online seminars?

One look at the teasers we’re putting out there will let people know this isn’t your father’s seminar. I can’t honestly say I had an epiphany and The Screenplay Show was suddenly born. But doing the seminars over the next year or two, it definitely evolved into a rolling narrative; my personal Hollywood experience merged into describing actual methods that have worked for me and many of my colleagues. So far, I’ve set up or sold over 40 scripts. But I have to give credit where credit is due: I didn’t learn how to survive the biz, or sell scripts from books. I learned from working closely with tremendously gracious agents, managers, producers, directors, executives and actors who were generous enough to share their knowledge with me for one purpose – to get the story right.

My goal with The Screenplay Show is to share what they’ve taught me with other writers and storytellers. And when I say storytellers, I mean anybody involved in the film and television business. Directors, actors, producers, cinematographers, and even executives. They are storytellers because they impact the script and help bring it to life.

Tell us a little about your writing background. How did you get started?

I didn’t finish my degree. Instead I went into business with my dad, selling tractors. But I wanted to be well-read and well-spoken, so I sat down with 100 of the great novels and voraciously read them back-to-back. In the process, I began to see how the authors worked the elements. The storytelling process fascinated me. So when I was out covering my sales territory, I began to daydream about becoming a writer. Eventually, I tried to write a novel. Long story short – it sucked. But the person who told me it wasn’t very good also told me I was a good writer. That seemed like a contradiction, but it wasn’t. He told me I had a very visual style, and suggested I write a screenplay. So I turned my bad novel into a bad screenplay! (But that process lit a fuse in me, and I’ve never looked back.)

What have you recently read or watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

When I’m deep into writing one of my own scripts, I don’t usually watch or read much. By the end of the day, more words and plot lines are the last thing I need to relax. But two shows I try not to miss are Game of Thrones and House of Cards. From their production values, to the great characters, to the tight, well structured scripts, I admire them both a great deal. In fact that’s how I can tell when I’m in the hands of great storytellers – they make me forget I’m a writer. I become a fan.

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

Definitely. Recognizing good writing can and certainly should be taught and learned. I’ve known some executives who were by no means writers, yet they learned to identify good writing and write smart notes. Their jobs depend on it. I’ve learned to recognize good writing by the way it makes me disappear into it.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

For me, the single most important component of a good script is simply this: It must have soul. I need to feel what the writer is trying to say through his or her characters. If that happens, I know the other elements are working.

What are the three most important rules a writer should know?

-Dialogue:  When to shut up and let the subtext play.

-Action:  When not to overwrite. (more often than not, you’ll lose your reader.)

-Characters:  We write in search of ourselves. (makes them real.)

How can people find out more about The Screenplay Show?

We’re really encouraging people to go to their most comfortable social media site and follow us. Also, we’re really hoping they go to www.thescreenplayshow.com and sign our landing page. We won’t bombard you with trivial junk, but we do want to build a steady audience so we can let people know about events and new material.

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

My grandmother made the best pie I’ve ever had. Golden, flaky crust made from scratch, crisp green apples sliced thin, and lots of cinnamon! I do miss that woman.

Nothing a little maturity wouldn’t cure

tantrum
You’re so mean!

Okay, I admit it. I daydream about being a successful screenwriter. Who doesn’t?

“That mega-hit blockbuster? Yeah. I wrote that.”

It’s nice to think about, but again, it’s still just a daydream. I’m not counting on it. I’d be happy just to make a decent living at it, and that’s what I’m working towards.

I try to be realistic about this, learning from my mistakes and missteps. I’ve been extremely fortunate to be able to ask advice of writers with more experience than me, and I have heeded that advice to the best of my ability.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen a lot of activity online involving writers (usually in the early (read: uninformed) phase of their careers) asking questions regarding a wide variety of topics.

A majority of the time, they get quality answers from seasoned (read: informed) writers. In theory, the original askers respond with “Thanks! That really helps!”, or “So glad you told me!”, or even “Great to know!”. These do happen. On occasion.

And then there’s the other response.

“You’re just trying to kill my/their dreams!”

“What do you know? You only have X credits on IMDB!”

“You just don’t want the competition!”

“I’ve never heard of you, so your advice is worthless!”

“What makes you so important?”

Sigh.

People are going to believe what they want to believe, or are more likely to believe advice that works in their favor, rather than the cold, hard truth. And if that cold, hard truth runs counter to the answers they want (despite them claiming to “seek” them), the harder they’ll reject it.

You may not like the fact that there’s not a snowcone’s chance in hell a major studio/agency/prodco will look at your script, let alone greenlight it for production, even with your without-a-doubt absolutely certain belief they’d grab it in a second if they’d only read it to see how totally awesome it is, but getting angry (and even berating) at somebody who tells you “that’s how it is” makes you look foolish and amateurish. And you’re also setting yourself up for continuous disappointment.

One of the things a screenwriter needs to accept early on is that there are certain truths about the industry and how things work within it. Unless people are completely blown away by the sheer genius of the writing in your first or second draft, (which they will not be. Trust me on this one.), you and your script are not going to be the ones that “change all of that”.

Learn the way things work. Ask questions of those who know better (and more) than you. Accept the answers and adapt. You need to. The industry has no interest in and will not be adapting to you.

No matter how many tantrums you throw.

**Shameless self-promotion! I had the good fortune to be interviewed by my pal Justin Sloan, who hosts The Creative Writing Career podcast, which covers a wide variety of fields and types of writing careers. We had a great time discussing trying to make it as a screenwriter. You can listen to it here, or subscribe to it on iTunes. Thanks for listening!

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.