Q & A with Jim Vines

Jim Vines

A Beast Is Born COVER (High Resolution) (COMPRESSED)

Jim Vines has been a screenwriter and script consultant for a number of years. His first produced film was THE PERFECT TENANT (2000). He has optioned several of his scripts and has also been commissioned to write or rewrite scripts for numerous producers. He has written a play (staged in 2009), a web series (2009), a book of interviews with screenwriters (2006), and “indie-published” his first novel in 2015. His latest book, A BEAST IS BORN, was released in 2019.

Jim, who was born in New York City but grew up in Los Angeles, and currently lives atop a hill that affords a truly inspirational view of the Hollywood sign.

What was the last thing you read/watched you considered to be extremely well-written?

I kinda hate to say this, but I don’t watch TV per se, so if you asked me to name two or three top TV shows, well, I probably couldn’t do it. But a few years ago, I thought MAD MEN was great. (I should point out the reason I don’t watch scripted TV is that I’m an avid watcher of documentaries and interview shows found on YouTube.) As for theatrical movies, I haven’t been to a new release in about eight years. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD got me back into a theater. I had high hopes for that one. All I’ll say is: I didn’t care for it.

I do a decent bit of reading and tend to go through a lot of biographies. A recent one was of Stanley Kubrick written by Vincent LoBrutto, which was pretty fascinating. I just did a re-read of Jack Kerouac’s excellent THE TOWN AND THE CITY. A few months ago I read Donna Tartt’s THE GOLDFINCH which I really enjoyed. I also finally read the Daniel Keyes novel FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON, which was pretty amazing. I just finished reading Anne Tyler’s rather poignant novel A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD and wrapped up the audio-book of the classic TRUE GRIT, written by Charles Portis (who passed away recently).

As you can probably ascertain by these titles, I’m drawn to stories about people and their plights, their struggles, where they’re trying to understand where they fit in with the rest of the world. This is what I find interesting.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

It was 1994 and I had been writing scripts with the intent to sell for four or five years. I knew this low-budget producer – she really liked a thriller script I’d written, so she optioned it. She never did get the script off the ground, but at least I knew my writing was solid enough to garner interest from producers. I kept sending scripts out. A couple of years later another opportunity came my way in the form of a script assignment from a budding producer who had read some of my work a year or so before. There was no up-front money but he was pretty certain he could sell the script to a production company where he had connections. So, I wrote the script (based on his story)—and he actually got it sold!

It was a bit of a roller-coaster ride for the next few years, but the script was eventually produced and the movie did quite well on the cable TV circuit. It played constantly on cable and broadcast stations here in the United States and also around the world (I know this because I’d received some pretty decent foreign royalty checks, which was nice). Having this credit on my resume made getting meetings, script assignments – everything from page one rewrites to doctoring scripts- and optioning original scripts a wee bit easier.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

You need to have interesting and/or compelling characters that people will feel something for. Even if it’s a bad guy, you have to give him (or her) at least a smidgen of humanity. Look at Hans Gruber in DIE HARD. Sure, he was a cold-blooded killer – but c’mon, he had such a great sense of humor! You should have a story that continually moves forward and doesn’t get bogged down. I can’t tell you how many novice scripts I’ve read where ten pages goes by and NOTHING happens. It’s just dialogue or superfluous actions that might seem cool or interesting while you’re writing it, but has virtually nothing to do with the story being told.

What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know?

-Write screenplays because you love to write and love telling stories, not because you
think you’re gonna get rich and famous. (Quick, who won the Best Screenplay Oscar last
year?)

-Writing is work—and if you’re not willing to put your rear end in a chair and your
fingers on the keyboard on pretty much of a daily basis, you probably need to find
another career path.

-Rules were meant to be broken, but first know these rules before you break them.

-Rewriting is your friend.

-Formatting isn’t what makes a script sellable. Sure, you need to get it all looking nice and proper, but the actual words you put on those 100 pages—this is what you need to focus on.

-There is no one particular way to write a screenplay. Your job is to discover the method
that works best for YOU.

-Don’t rush things. Send your scripts out only when they’re ready. As they say, you only
have one chance to make a first impression. If you send an agent or producer a script
that’s still pretty rough, chances are they won’t want to read any of your future work.

It’s my opinion—and I’ve done over 200 critiques/evaluations—that about 99% of all
novice screenplays are nowhere near marketable shape, so please, don’t write your first
two or three screenplays intending to sell them; write them merely for the purposes of
learning the craft.

What was the inspiration/motivation for your book A BEAST IS BORN?

For a long time I’ve wanted to chronicle the writing, marketing, production, and afterlife of one of my projects. I just never got around to it. But as the marketing phase of my short horror SUSIE’S BEAST script ground on, I realized I had plenty to write about: all the ups and down, all the gut-punching disappointment. I had personal journal entries (I’ve kept a daily journal since 2004) and emails relating to SUSIE’S BEAST, so I figured it was now or never. I pieced it all together and—voilà—A BEAST IS BORN!

I don’t think most pre-pro (i.e., novice) screenwriters realize how long it can take for a script to finally end up in front of a camera. Whether you’re talking about a 15-page short (which is what SUSIE’S BEAST was) or a 120-page feature, the script-to-screen voyage can take years and years. Sadly, that’s the rule and not the exception. I wanted the reader of my book to get a sense of that journey.

It took 11 years for your script to be produced, which must have really tried your patience. What was it that made you keep going?

It’s not like SUSIE’S BEAST was my entire world. I had a lot going on a personal level. As for my writing life, I was working on my first novel, writing and producing a web series, and had been getting script assignments—so I was keeping busy. Aside from all that, I knew this was a solid script that absolutely had to get made.

What were some of the takeaways/lessons you learned from the whole experience?

I’m not sure I learned much of anything I didn’t already know, but it definitely reminded me that in order to be a screenwriter you need to have a certain doggedness and faith in your own writing. I also realized I might be a little too lenient with people, giving them too much time to get things done or make up their minds. If I hadn’t been so indulgent, I probably could’ve shaved a year or two off that 11-year timeline.

Despite everything you endured trying to get SUSIE’S BEAST made, is writing (and
potentially making) a short film something you’d recommend to writers?

Getting a short film made typically will not do a whole lot for a screenwriter’s career. If the finished film makes any kind of a splash at film festivals, it might do something for the director, the actors, maybe even the director of photography. But for the writer – well, hopefully they get a fun and creative experience. That’s pretty much all I wanted out of it. Luckily, that’s what I got! But having your name on a produced short – especially if it wins some awards – can’t do you too much harm. So, yeah, go for it!

You’ve also written another Hollywood-based book—your novel LUIGI’S CHINESE
DELICATESSEN. What was the inspiration for that?

I figured my first novel should be about something I knew, so I wrote about a young guy going to Hollywood with the dream of becoming a screenwriter. The story is loosely – very loosely – based on some experiences I’ve had in this town. As I’ve mentioned in previous interviews: “The book is 97% a work of fiction—and no, I’m not telling you which three-percent is true.” It’s a fun ride, it really is. One review referred to it as a “cautionary tale,” which I think is pretty accurate!

How can people find out more about you and your work?

A BEAST IS BORN is available on Amazon. Check out Jim Vines Presents which is my “creative page” on Facebook, and my screenwriting blog The Working Screenwriter.

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

This is a very silly question, but an excellent one. Let’s see…I’ll have to go with pecan. I love pecan pie. Pumpkin’s also pretty great, especially when it’s topped with whipped cream. But pecan pie on its own – sooooo good!

Q & A with Bob Saenz

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Bob Saenz is a screenwriter, actor and author. His produced works include Hallmark’s Help for the Holidays, Rescuing Madison, Sweet Surrender, On the Twelfth Day of Christmas, Sound of Christmas, The Right Girl, Christmas in Love,  the theatrical Church People, and the black comedy thriller Extracurricular Activities. He does rewrites and polishes on film and TV projects for Producers and Production Companies. His screenwriting book THAT’S NOT THE WAY IT WORKS was released in 2019.

His acting roles include a 6-year run recurring character run on the TV show Nash Bridges, Hallmark’s Valley of Light, Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack, David Fincher’s Zodiac, Finn Taylor’s Unleashed, Church People, and The Village Barbershop, among dozens of others. He was a radio DJ on KYCY-FM in San Francisco, played the last 10 years in the 60’s rock band The BSides, and has done voicework on video games, documentaries, and commercials.

Editor’s Note – I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Bob personally for a few years. His insight and advice has proven invaluable to helping me become a better writer, both in terms of craft and career.

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

A spec script by a writer named Rene Gutteridge called Where the Wind Comes. Maybe the best spec I’ve ever read. Just spectacular. Was emotionally affected by it. Stunning.

What was the inspiration/motivation for your book That’s Not The Way It Works?

Two things. One, I’ve been teaching and speaking at writers’ conferences all over the country the last few years and everyone who was there speaking had a book, except me. I complained to my wife about it and she said, “What’s stopping you from writing one?” So I did.

Two, there’s not a single one I could find out there that spoke plainly about the business of being a screenwriter.

With so many screenwriting books out there, what is it about yours that makes it unique?

The tone. It’s conversational. My experience. It’s filled with what I have learned actually succeeding at it. With more than a dozen films produced, I used all that experience to write about what I know. And, I talk first hand about the business of screenwriting. What the writer needs to know about that part of it, which is just as important as writing a script, and how to approach that.

While the first half of the book is about the actual writing of a script, the second half covers the not-as-discussed “what happens AFTER the script is written (i.e. the business aspects)”. What advice would you give to writers who want to learn more about this?

As I say in the book – find out that it’s not easy, it’s not instant gratification, and you have to work at it. Hard. You can succeed; it just takes time and a business plan. I think the book helps with that. Realizing that writing a script is only the beginning of your journey is a BIG eye-opener for most writers who dream of doing this.

Yes, the script needs to be something people would want to choose to see and has to be good, but that’s not the end of it.

The book has a great chapter about dealing with rejection. What are some key takeaways and advice you’d offer to writers?

The main takeaway is that rejection isn’t personal. Producers and reps don’t care enough about you to make it personal. It’s ALL about the content. Whether they love your script and not or can use it at that time or not. There are hundreds of reasons to reject a script… you have zero control and it’s not personal. Even the most famous screenwriters get rejected on a regular basis. It’s an everyday occurrence. You have to learn to live with it or it’ll destroy you.

Another important issue writers tend to overlook is the need to effectively market themselves in addition to their script. While the chapter about what NOT to do is entertaining (and a bit eye-opening), what are your suggestions about what writers SHOULD DO?

Use the avenues that producers and reps have opened to the writer. Querying. Something that is an art unto itself and something I delve into pretty deeply in the book with a whole section on query letters.

Networking. There’s a huge section in the book about this.  The dos and don’ts. One thing to always remember about networking: It’s about building relationships, not using people. People who can help you absolutely know the difference and will run away from you if you try and use them.

Contests. The Nicholl and Austin are the ones who will pretty much always get you reads in LA if you final or win them. I’ve had friends get their films made doing well in both of these. Neither are easy to do well in because of the sheer number of entries, but they can pay off.

The last way is through referrals, especially to get a rep. If you know a producer or director or star who will refer you… but again, this goes back to networking and having the great scripts to back it up.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

The most important thing is a great story. It also has to be lean and mean. Brevity and white space are your friend. You aren’t writing a novel. You want just enough in there to have the reader see the film in their head and to be able to fill in what they want to as they read, engaging them in the story that way. Again, a big section in the book about this.

I will say this: Producers are ONLY looking for STORY. Screenwriters can never forget this. Don’t over-complicate the read. You can write a complex story without making it hard to read. Oh… spelling and grammar are important, too.

What are some of the most common screenwriting mistakes you see?

The main one? Choosing the wrong story to tell. Telling a story no one wants to see. Whether it’s not sustainable, not interesting, ridiculous, something that’s been done a thousand times before, something you can see every day in TV reruns… there are a million reasons NOT to write this kind of story. You need to go through a pretty thorough checklist (in the book) and make sure it’s a viable story before you do the time consuming hard work it takes to write a good script. Why do all that hard work on a story that’ll be Dead On Arrival?

Another big mistake I see all the time is writers not doing their research about the topics they choose to write about. Writing things that would never ever happen. You have to ground your script in the reality of the subject matter before you take liberties with it.

What are some key writing guidelines every writer should know?

-AIS – Putting your Ass In the Seat. You have to be disciplined. Producers expect you to be disciplined. Good to start doing that at the beginning.

-Never give up. This is so hard to do, you’ll get discouraged on a regular basis. It’s a lot easier to give up than to stick with it because it takes years to succeed in. Notice I didn’t say it CAN take years, I said it TAKES YEARS, because in every case, it does. You aren’t going to be the exception.

-Don’t cheat on research. Take the time to actually learn about the things you’re writing about. Go out and learn them. A big section in the book about this.

-Again…. for emphasis…. choose a story that is viable for producers and audiences. Don’t just pull something out of the air and write it.

-You’re not writing a novel. Leave everything that isn’t directly hooked to your story or plot points out of your script. One rule of thumb? You know all those people listed in the credits of a film? It’s your job to do everything they don’t. You aren’t a costume designer or a casting agent or set designer…. or… any of them. They don’t ask to write the story, you don’t try and do their job.

You’ve managed to establish and maintain a writing career while living outside of Los Angeles. What are some of the pros and cons about it you’ve experienced?

Pros: I don’t live all that far away (400 miles) and can be at any meeting on a day’s notice, so it’s been fine for me. I am in LA multiple times a year, sometimes for more than a week at a time. It’s expensive… but also my choice. There’s a section is the book about moving to LA and when to pull the trigger and do it if you need to.

Con: I’m not in LA networking all the time. Out of sight, out of mind is a real thing. Not worth moving there for me, though.

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

Peach. Nothing else comes close.

peach pie

A note of appreciation

scrooged thx

Seeing as how this is Thanksgiving weekend here in the US, I’d like to take this opportunity to offer some hearty words of gratitude.

To all my writing colleagues, being associated with you has been a major factor in my being able to become a better writer. Reading your works has been a joy, and the number of you who’ve returned the favor and offered up notes has proven invaluable in elevating my material.

To all the incredible writers, creatives, and consultants, all past and future, who’ve consented to being interviewed on this site, your willingness to be involved, your honesty and candor regarding advice for writers, and suggestions for potential pies (and other assorted desserts) cannot and will not be overlooked.

And to all my readers. I’ve been doing this for almost 11 years. Each week’s post is always a challenge for me to provide content of both an informative and entertaining nature. It’s nice to know there’s somebody out there enjoying this, which makes my efforts that much more worthwhile.

Everybody have a fantastic weekend, and go write something.

-Looking for a gift for that special screenwriter in your life (even if it’s yourself)? How about a book or notes from a consultant? Lots of options available from the numerous interviews found right here on this very blog. Just click on the “Go Ahead & Ask!” link up on top, and have at it.

(Remember – lots of these folks do this for a living, so you’re not only helping out yourself or another writer, but them as well.)

-Feeling generous? How about tossing a couple of bucks towards somebody’s crowdfunding campaign? Projects like Venita Ozols-Graham’s short film Just Dessert or Chris Mancini’s graphic novel Rise of the Kung Fu Dragon Master. Time is short and every dollar helps, so donate if you can!

A few words from the gentleman from Salinas…

Steinbeck
Didja know he wrote the story for Hitchcock’s LIFEBOAT? But he also didn’t like some of the changes Hitch made to it.

Big thanks to author/blogger Chad Schimke for inspiring today’s post.

John Steinbeck is one of, if not my absolute, favorite authors. I just love the way he writes, and many of his works occupy space on my bookshelf. If you haven’t read him lately – or at all, I highly recommend it.

I’m also very fortunate to live relatively close to his hometown of Salinas, California, where the National Steinbeck Center is worth a visit.

Here are his six writing tips, as originally published in an interview with The Paris Review from 1975.

-Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

-Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

-Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

-If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

-Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

-If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

Now these are all great, but the really interesting part is that in 1963, a full 12 years prior, after being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, he wrote this letter of “Advice for Beginning Writers”, which includes the following:

“If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.”

True, screenwriters should read a lot of scripts, but that’s not all you should read. Books. Plays. Comics. So many choices. Whatever floats your boat.

Take it all in. Read. Enjoy.

Q & A with Travis Seppala

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Travis Seppala is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter who’s repped by Bright One Management. In addition to selling shorts, optioning features, being hired to write dozens of feature films and episodes of television, he’s also published his new book 365: A Year of Screenwriting Tips.

What was the thing you read or watched you considered incredibly well-written?

My favorite script of all time was A KILLING ON CARNIVAL ROW. I’m thrilled to see it’s being turned into a series on Amazon, and will be very interested to see how the format changing from feature to TV affects the amazing story.

I think the perfect movie is IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. It might be a little corny by today’s standards, but a lot of it (both story and dialogue) still holds up today.

And for TV, we’re in the new golden age where almost everything is super well-written! One of my current favorites is DOOM PATROL. It’s about a superhero team, but it’s also a  deeply emotional drama. It just happens to be about misfits with powers (and problems).

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Compelling (i.e. interesting and fun) story.

3-dimensional characters who are the right people to partake in the compelling story.

Terse, snappy descriptions.

Lots of white space.

Connectivity (i.e. everything makes sense and flows smoothly).

What was the inspiration/motivation for this book?

Facebook!

I’m in a bunch of screenwriting forums on Facebook. There are both experienced writers and total newbies on there. A lot of the newbies, though, seem to keep asking the same questions over and over and over and over and over and over and… you get the point. Many of their questions make it seem like they forget Google is even a thing.

After a while, seeing repeated questions and questions that can be answered with about five seconds of research on Google, I thought “What if all these answers were in one place, by category?”

I figured I could put it all together, plus answer a bunch of questions that aren’t being asked. And so the book was born.

There are a lot of screenwriting books out there. What about this one makes it unique?

Many of those other books are about a specific aspect of screenwriting. Story. Character development. Rewrites. Business.

365: A Year of Screenwriting Tips runs the gamut of covering ALL aspects of screenwriting, from before you have an idea to after you sell a script and everything in between…. all in bite-size tips!

It’s purpose isn’t to try and make you “better” in any specific thing. And I don’t claim to be a guru or expert; I’m just relaying info I’ve learned either through a ton of book reading or personal experience. The book is just meant to help show you the ropes, and makes suggestions on different ways to look at things. Try a bunch of stuff and see what works for you!

Plus, there’s a bunch of coupons for discounts and freebies on a lot of helpful products and services!

Some screenwriting books are geared more towards covering the basics, while others “go beyond (or way beyond) the basics”. Is this a book that both new and experienced writers could use?

The book is geared more toward beginning writers, but my hope is that experienced writers will find some new concepts and suggestions useful as well. Even experienced writers should always be learning.

With 365 tips to choose from, are there any that really seem to resonate with readers? Or any that always instigate an argument?

A couple that have gone over well with people are my tips on creating a positivity calendar (because it’s far too easy to get wrapped up in all the negative aspects of this life) and playing The Comp Game (a great way to produce new stories that are “similar but different”).

The big one that’s gotten people upset is Tip #1: Experts Are Liars!

There’s one section in the book called “Before You Start”, and one called “Prep Work”. What do you consider the difference between the two?

The “Before You Start” section is about things to know before even trying to come up with the idea for a script. It talks about the odds of making it, the fact that there’s a lot of conflicting information out there (and even in this book), and things to consider before you ever start on this journey.

“Prep Work” is about… well… prep work! Ideas. Brainstorming. Outlining. Figuring out what to write a script about.

Before You Start = knowing what you’re getting into.

Prep Work = getting started.

Part of your own backstory involves your relocating to Los Angeles. Where do you fall in the “You have to live in LA to make it” discussion?

Whether or not you HAVE to be in Los Angeles sort of depends on what you’re trying to accomplish in the industry.

If you want to be a television writer, then yes, you absolutely MUST move to LaLa Land! Shows shoot all over the country (and even other countries), but the majority of them have writers rooms in the L.A. Area. How can you expect to get a job if you don’t even live where that job is?

Now, if you want to write features? Then you can live anywhere. But expect to make trips to Los Angeles if/when possible. Why? Because you need to take meetings. Meetings with reps, meetings with producers, meeting with studio heads. Sure, it’s possible to do phone meetings, and you probably will do a bunch… but nothing beats the in-person impression when selling your work.

As a follow-up to that, how has it been for you and your career since arriving in Los Angeles?

There’s been good stuff and bad. 

Like a lot of transplants, I thought I’d get here and “be discovered” in the first year. That didn’t happen. Been here 3 years and still just trying to make it.

I’ve met LOTS of people, though, and made great connections with other writers, reps, showrunners, producers, crew members, and more! My Rolodex is filled out, and it wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t come here.

I’ve also gotten some gigs because I met people at parties out here and hit it off.

The thing to know, though, is that while being here makes it easier to have access to decision makers, it also becomes harder to fit in. You might be the best writer in your small Oklahoma town, but in Los Angeles almost everyone is a damned good writer! It’s the “big fish, little pond” situation. The ocean is where it’s at, but it’s also rougher water.

You offer more than a few tips about networking, especially at social events. How much of an impact has that had for you?

I’ve gotten jobs from people, made loads of friends, and even met my fiancee – all at these kinds of events!

I really enjoyed the final section – “After Your Script Is Done”. How much of that is based on your own personal experience?

Much of the book is based on my own experiences in the industry. I don’t go into a lot of personal stories or examples of my own material like many screenwriting books do, but my experience is definitely where a lot of my “wisdom” comes from.

However, all the stuff in that section is great advice for any writer. It speaks to Serial Starters, Talented individuals, Procrastinators, Newbies who just make mistakes with what they’re writing, Paranoids, Worry-Warts, and Newbies searching for the next steps. There’s also some great coupons in that last section, myths busted, and a suggestion for a killer ice cream place!

Apart from writing scripts, you also offer a script consulting service. How can writers get in touch with you to find out more?

email: flannelmann@yahoo.com

Facebook: facebook.com/travisseppala

Twitter: @TravisSeppala

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

My favorite pie has always been Shoo-fly Pie. It’s this super sweet molasses pie that, so far as I can tell, you can only get in Amish country. Sadly, I haven’t had it since I was a child. I keep meaning to find a recipe online for it… but… *shrugs* when it comes to pie, I’d rather someone else make it for me.

But for those playing at home, I actually prefer cookies to pie. Sorry. 😉

shoofly pie