An overnight success years in the making

Well, it finally happened.

After countless hours, drafts, contests, emails, queries, coffee chats, and just about everything else I could do to help things work out in my favor, yours truly can now officially be called a professional working writer.

I kid you not.

A trusted colleague referred me to a producer seeking a writer for their microbudget project.

We talked, hit it off, and signed a contract.

(Once again showing the value of networking.)

Work on developing the first draft starts immediately, so the fantasy-comedy rewrite is on hold for the time being, which is fine by me.

And this producer already has a few films already under their belt, so the odds are better than average that this project will end up being a completed film. (As a friend said – always great when you can add a produced title to your resume.)

It’s all a bit overwhelming, but also quite thrilling.

This is what I’ve been working towards all this time. It may not be a huge industry-shattering deal, but it’s still me being hired to write a script for a movie.

Which is what this whole journey has been all about.

Fingers fully crossed that this is the first of what will hopefully be many more finish lines in this ongoing and never-ending race of mine.

I hope you have an excellent and productive weekend. Mine will most likely involve a celebratory piece of pie. Feel free to enjoy one wherever you are with my compliments.

Q & A with Tim Schildberger of Write LA

Tim Schildberger is an experienced writer, script coach, and co-founder/Head Judge of Write LA – an annual screenwriting competition that gives writers a chance to get read by managers, and hear their winning script read by professional actors in LA (and posted on YouTube). He cares far too much about helping writers improve their craft and get access to the industry. Tim is an expat Australian, a former TV journalist, writer on the globally popular soap opera NEIGHBOURS, newspaper columnist, creator of a comedy/reality series for the Travel Channel called LAWRENCE OF AMERICA, and one of the key members of the original BORAT team. He has stories.

In his spare time, Tim is a husband, parent, tennis player, road tripper, and he and his family foster kittens. Seriously. Twitter: @write_la Instagram: @writela

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

I hate to be a cliche, but THE CROWN – sets the bar very high. Peter Morgan is a genius. His ability to tell story with and without words, and build tension in scenes that on the page might appear boring, is remarkable. THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT had similar skill, attaching us to an unconventional character quickly and effectively.  Feature films – I loved PALM SPRINGS – structurally, and characters/dialogue, and who doesn’t love a woman solving the problems using education and intellect!

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I was 22, living in Australia (where I’m from), working as a trainee TV News Producer. I had applied to newsrooms, and I’d called up various TV series, asking if they needed a writer. It was a simpler time. A nightly soap opera, NEIGHBOURS, let me do a writing submission, which they liked – and said they’d get back to me. In the meantime I got the job in TV news.

One day, six months later,  I got a call in the newsroom, it was NEIGHBOURS, asking if I’d like to write an episode. I said yes, obviously. They mailed me the scene breakdowns, I typed my script on a typewriter, and ten days later mailed it back. All after working a full day in the newsroom. I did that 5 more times before it all got far too overwhelming. I was the youngest writer they’d ever had, and that experience made it clear to me that writing, in all its forms, was my future.

What was the inspiration for creating the Write LA competition?

We wanted to create a competition we’d want to enter. I’ve been writing for a long time – and I’ve entered competitions large and small. I’ve won a few, placed in a bunch, and it became clear that many of the writing comps out there don’t really do much when it comes to attracting attention, gaining industry access, or launching careers. And pretty much none put any kind of focus on helping writers improve their command of craft. So our goal was to build a competition that somehow combined both goals – to help with the craft, and to help with the access.

What makes Write LA unique compared to other screenwriting competitions?

Two things I think separate us. First, we are a competition run by actual writers. So we are able to deliver a certain degree of respect and admiration for the act of actually finishing a script and entering it – that many competitions lack. We know how it all feels.

Second, we stand proudly in front of the competition. Everyone knows I’m the co-founder and Head Judge. When you email a question, it comes to me. I do an enormous amount of reading, and I’m supervising every aspect of the competition. We try hard not to be a faceless comp where sometimes it can feel like you’re sending your script into a void, and then hoping something emerges. It matters to us that the entrants feel ’seen’.

A big concern for writers entering a screenwriting competition is the quality/experience level of its readers. How does Write LA address that?

I hear that. And I’ve experienced it first hand. A script will make the Nicholl semifinals, and won’t make it out of the first round somewhere else. And then you get ‘feedback’ that feels like it was written by someone who never actually read the script, they just strung a few buzzwords together.

So to address that – I’m heavily involved in the reading process. I’ve handpicked our small team, I do a ton of reading personally, and I set pretty clear parameters when it comes to what I’m looking for when it comes to command of craft. Every script that makes it into our top 15 semi finalists will have been read by at least three different people, including me.

We give every script, whatever the genre, or whether it’s a TV pilot or feature, full respect and attention. And all the additional feedback (offered at an extra fee), is done by me personally. So there is a consistency of the feedback, and a name attached to it (mine). I’m not interested in telling anyone what I would do, I’m focused entirely on maximizing the opportunities presented by the writer and doing my best to empower them to bring the most out of their idea, and their skills. 

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Gosh – this isn’t easy to answer quickly, but I’ll try. For me, a good script needs fleshed out characters, who face clear challenges – no matter how big or small. Because no matter how detailed the world, or ‘big’ the story, if we don’t care about the characters, it’s all a waste of time.

Also, an understanding of the audience experience is awesome. A writer who is aware of audience expectations, and is able to manipulate those expectations is exciting. And finally, a clear sense of where the story is heading. Not a lot of extra clutter. Just a solid story, competently and confidently told.

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

Misuse of Scene Description is HUGE. Using it to reveal character details an audience couldn’t possibly know. Using it to show off a writer’s literary command – with all sorts of flowery descriptions that waste time, rather than establish ‘mood’.

Not writing an outline. I’m confident I can pick within 5 pages if a writer has an outline, and a firm idea of who this story is about, and where it is going. And taking too long to dive into story. Spending page after page building a complicated world, and then finally starting some sort of story – is a big mistake. Even STAR WARS had a brief title explanation, and then we were into Darth Vader storming Leia’s ship. The rest we figure out as we go.

Lastly, I have to add too many spelling errors. A sloppy script does not inspire confidence.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

A character waking up, turning off their alarm, and getting into the shower as the first thing we see. Happens WAY more often than you would expect, and is not only dull, but unwise. What viewer who sits in a darkened movie theatre wants to see a feature film start that way?

I’m also not a fan of drawn out action sequences. It’s great that you see the car chase in your head, but all a reader cares about is ‘does someone important die?’

Oh, and a shot of ‘overdue bills’ on the kitchen table. Anything but that please. I see a lot of stereotypes with the characters too – which usually tells me a writer is basing a character on another character they’ve seen in a movie or on TV – rather than an actual, flawed, complex human being.

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

What you are doing is more about hard work than flashes of inspiration. It’s less about talent than it is about grind.

Accept that re-writing is inevitable. Your first draft will not be a work of art. It’s a starting point.

Learn to receive notes as comments on the words on a page, not a personal attack, or a statement on your writing ability.

Characters are more important than story nowadays. Put the extra effort into figuring out who they are, and their emotional journey through your story.

What you are doing is brave, and awesome, and you should feel very proud of yourself every time you finish anything. Every time. Plenty of people talk about writing something. You went and did it. That’s huge and should never be ignored.

There is no work of art in the history of human beings that has ever been loved by 100% of the people. Accept that your work will not be universally loved – because humans are humans.

Details matter. Every scene matters. Every line of dialogue matters. Everything you do is conveying a message to an audience. Understand and embrace that.

Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer really gets it”? If so, what were the reasons why?

I read many scripts like that! I read hundreds of scripts a year, so I regularly find writers who are very skilled. As for reasons, I would say the absolute, clear number one is making me feel something. I’m not alone in this. I tell anyone who’ll listen if you can make a reader feel a genuine human emotion, that is FAR more important and impactful than any set piece, world, intricate story or cute scene description. It isn’t even close.

Also, it’s fun to read scripts by writers who think about the audience, and work hard to provide us with a rich, enjoyable experience. I know the expression “write what you know” is popular. My version is “write what you know, but make it accessible to strangers.”

And while I’m here, let me add that writing what you know really refers to your emotional experience and authenticity. Not your time in middle school. If you can dig into your emotional space, which is uniquely yours, and share that on the page – that authenticity connects you with a reader/audience, and goes a long way to establishing what the industry likes to call your “voice”. I’d like to say it was easy to do. It’s not. But it’s important.

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

I have to say I’m a big fan of custard. There’s a custard tart in my homeland Australia – a mini pie – which is very much my favorite. But as that doesn’t really exist here – I’m going to say I like banana cream, apple, peach, and I’m a big fan of all the cobblers and crumbles too. I don’t think I’d refuse any pie that came my way.

Just missing one component

Over the past few years, as my network of writing associates and contacts has grown, along with my interaction with a lot of these people, more than a few have commented that they consider me a professional screenwriter.

My initial reaction – that’s flattering, and very kind of them to say, but I don’t necessarily consider it true. Like a lot of you, I write scripts, but I don’t get paid to do it. The ongoing plan is to keep at it until that last part changes.

But I was intrigued. What would make somebody say such a thing?

Is it how I present myself? I try to be professional, which includes being polite, respectful, and patient, whether it’s in person or online. But that’s just common sense and good manners.

Side note – do those two things diminish the more a writer works? Most of the pros I’ve met and know have been quite decent folks, but I’ve also heard more than a few anecdotes about a pro writer being a total jerk, but they could also be the exceptions. 

Is it about the scripts? How they’re written and how they look on the page? I’ll be the first to say my writing’s not the shining example everybody else should follow, but I try to present a well-crafted story that paints a picture in your head while also being easy on the eyes while you read it.

But that’s what we’re all striving for, right?

Is it because I keep trying? I love putting my stories together, and want to do it for a living. Why wouldn’t I or anybody else constantly work on anything and everything to help improve the chances of making that happen?

There’s no definitive path. Each writer finds success their own way. For me, it involves entering contests (temporarily on hiatus), sending out queries, networking online (and returning to it in person when that comes back), and what have you. Maybe somebody else films their own script and enters it into a few festivals, or decides to turn it into a book, or a webseries, or serialized chapters on a blog, or a graphic novel. So many options!

Trust me, there are days where I’ll see something great happen for another writer (who’s probably also been working at this just as much as me), and while I’m happy for them, it still feels like fate is twisting the knife in my gut just a little bit more, as if to say “Not a chance, sucker.”

My confidence plummets below sea level and all I can think is “That it. I’m done. D-U-N-N. Done.” It’s SO tempting to give up and walk away, but any and all chances of success immediately drop to zero if I do, and then I get angry at myself for even considering such a thing, so I get back to work.

The only way to make this happen is to keep trying, so no matter what kind of day it’s been, or whatever kind of new obstacle’s been thrown into my path, that’s what I do.

I keep pushing forward.

A really interesting thing I’ve been told is that “I deserve” success. I don’t necessarily agree with that one. Would it be nice to see the results I seek for all the work I’ve done? Of course, but I prefer the idea that I’ve earned it, rather than “I put in all this work, so the universe owes me.” I’ve seen/read a few writers state words very similar to that effect. It’s not attractive – on several levels.

Kids, the universe doesn’t owe me, you, or anybody, shit. This is all on us making that one connection where the other person says “Yes,”, which gets the ball rolling.

Naturally, there’s no guarantee it’ll ever happen for me, but I remain confident and hopeful.  Every day is a new opportunity to try. According to my trusted readers, my skills and my scripts have improved over time, so hopefully something positive will happen, preferably sooner rather than later.

Many years ago, I saw Shane Black on a panel at a writing conference. He told the crowd “Don’t call yourself an aspiring screenwriter. That just means you want to be a screenwriter. You write a script, no matter how it turns out, good or bad, you are a screenwriter.”

I really took that to heart. When I tell people I’m a screenwriter, most of the time the first follow-up question is “Have I seen something you’ve written?” To which I say “Not yet, but I’m working on it.”

-Want to have your TV or feature spec script included in the Maximum Z Script Showcase on 4 June? Click here for all the details.

A win is a win is a win

This is a tale of two writers.

Both have recently achieved success, but of very drastic varying degrees.

The first writer has had some tremendous accomplishments over the past few weeks. Their work has placed very highly in some prestigious contests, resulting in sales, professional writing assignments, membership in the Writer’s Guild, and representation with a management company of significant importance.

The other writer had a script do well in a small contest, and had some nice things said about their writing during an online forum chat.

At first glance, the first writer definitely had the better results. Who’d complain about all of that? This is what we’re all working towards, right? That’s like a dream checklist with every box checked off. No doubt ones such as “script produced”, “film/TV show produced and released”, and “box office/ratings hit” still remain, but this is the initial phase.

Even the writer admitted they’re a bit overwhelmed by all of it.

Meanwhile, for the other writer, the contest win is nice, and while it may not be “makes the industry take notice”-level, it still fills them with a certain sense of pride. They sent their script out, hoping for something good, and that’s what happened.

Regarding the online forum chat, the moderator has raved in the past about the professional-level quality of the first writer’s material, so for the other writer to also receive similar praise was pretty uplifting and encouraging. Truth be told, it was just about the first page of a script, but why quibble?

While the first writer’s journey to success seems to be coming to fruition right before our eyes, the other writer continues to sit at their laptop, diligently plugging away and working on scripts that will hopefully garner some attention from reps and producers.

Also important – the other writer is thrilled for everything the first writer has accomplished. They’ve earned it. There might be a smidge of jealousy, but that’s expected, and the other writer can use that as motivation to do better.

The moral of the story is twofold:

First – be proud of anything you accomplish with your writing, no matter how big or small it might seem. This isn’t an easy thing we’re doing, so try to enjoy the journey and celebrate the high points whenever possible. Don’t hesitate to toot your own horn – within acceptable limits, of course.

And second – everybody’s path to success is going to be wildly different from everybody else’s. What works for one person might not work for another. It’s up to you to find your own path and keep pushing forward on it. It might take you longer than you want to reach that finish line, but it definitely feels worth it when you get there.

My, what a pleasant scent

jimmy stewart flower

It’s a been good week around Maximum Z HQ. A very good week, you might even say.

Got a couple of read requests, including one several months after the initial pitch, and my western advanced in the first round of a reputable contest.

On the actual writing front, made some good progress in the latest overhaul of the sci-fi adventure outline, plus got a last-minute invite to come up with a story idea for a friend meeting with a filmmaker looking for potential projects.

All in all, not too shabby.

Do I wish every week could be this fulfilling and rewarding? Most definitely.

Will they? Heavens no. But that’s expected. It’s the just way it is, and I accept that.

Everything that happened was the result of me putting in the time and effort. Writing, rewriting, researching who’d be most receptive to queries, figuring out which contest was most worth entering, and so forth.

I just happened to be fortunate that a lot of them are paying off very close to one another.

I also realize that each read request could results in “thanks, but no thanks”, my script doesn’t advance any further in the contest, and the filmmaker doesn’t like my idea.

Disappointing, sure, but it won’t slow me down, let alone stop me. I’ve got too much else going on to worry about it.

While the road to screenwriting success may be dotted with potholes, sharp objects and people who shouldn’t be allowed behind the wheel to begin with, every once in a while you get a long empty stretch of green lights and smooth pavement. It may not last long, but it’ll might make you appreciate it even more.

So when you have a brief window of time where it seems like everything is actually going your way, savor it knowing that YOU EARNED IT. And definitely spread the word to your support network – they’ll be thrilled (just like you’d be if it were them).

Use the emotions and sensations you’re experiencing during this happiest of times to keep you going when every response you get is “NO” and the dark clouds return.

But also keep in mind that it won’t always be like that. This path is full of highs and lows, mountains and valleys. The important thing is to enjoy the journey and keep pushing forward.

As we head into the weekend, I’ll take a moment to review the past few days and think “This was nice.”

And then get right back to the grind, once again hoping for the best.