Words that need to be heard

It takes a lot of determination and persistence to make it as a screenwriter.

A LOT.

And since so many other people are trying to accomplish the same things (more or less) as you and I, the difference between good days and bad days is a vast one indeed.

We learn to take the hits and the disappointments to the point that we chalk it up to “them’s the breaks”, and move on to the next thing. It is vital that we toughen up our skin to help us survive the journey.

But let’s go back to the good days thing.

When something positive happens for us, we do not hesitate to trumpet it from the rooftops – a rooftop in the form of some kind of social media platform.

And when that happens, our network of peers and associates is just as quick to join in the celebrating. We’re practically deluged with “congrats!”, “that’s awesome!”, “well deserved!”, and the like. Speaking for myself, I really appreciate it, and make a point of returning the sentiment when appropriate.

As writers, we live and breathe using words as our craft. We write something and hope it has the desired effect. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it makes a much bigger impact than you could have ever expected. (Those are particularly pleasing.)

Don’t underestimate the power of what you write. Not just for your latest script, but also when it comes to how you present yourself to the rest of the writing community.

Are you always there with a positive message? Do you think “telling ’em like it is” is the way it should be?

Sure, somebody who does well in the Nicholl or Austin is going to get all sorts of congratulatory messages, but what about somebody who came in second or made the quarterfinals in that small contest you’ve never heard of? Are you just as enthusiastic for them? Do you let them know that?

When I was just starting out, I naturally had the novice’s daydreams of “they’re going to love it!”, which of course didn’t happen. Just about every response from my queries would be along the lines of “thanks, but no thanks” (if there was a response at all), and the contest updates that most of the time start with “Unfortunately…” It’s just the way the business is. You take your lumps, move on, and try to be a better writer so you do better next time.

Anybody who’s reading this knows exactly what I’m talking about. We’ve ALL been there.

I’ve recently read the lamentations of a novice writer who hasn’t had much luck in their efforts. They’re convinced that this can only mean that they’re a terrible writer, their family isn’t supportive of them even trying, and are thereby doomed to fail no matter what, so why even try? With as much sympathy and understanding I can put into text on a screen, I (and others) have tried to explain to them that everything they mentioned, from not placing in a contest to getting a pass from a query to them feeling completely alone in this, is not unique to them. Making any kind of progress on any of those fronts won’t happen overnight.

If ever there was a time that words could make a difference for the better, this was one of them. Hopefully my comments had at least the start of the desired effect.

We’re all busting our asses trying to make it however we can in this crazy business, and any outside offering of hope or encouragement is always welcome.

So as you skim your way across the turbulent waves in the vast ocean of social media and see someone’s comment, good or bad, about how they or their writing are doing, take a second to respond.

Let them know you’re rooting for them and hoping for continued success.

You’ve been where they are and hope things get better.

You’re thrilled for them.

You’re sorry.

You’d be amazed at how effective words, especially yours, can be.

A new chapter begins…

Since posting this, I have journeyed to an exotic faraway place in order to deliver the inimitable Ms V to the next phase of her education.

And she’s not the only one entering a realm rife with unexplored potential.

I’ve had a lot of time to think things over the past few weeks, especially in terms of my writing and pursuing a career at it.

I can’t help but look around and see my peers achieving the well-earned success I’ve also been working towards and feel more than just a pang of jealousy. Some days it feels like it’ll never happen. One can only take so many hits, knockdowns and setbacks before the motivation to keep going starts to strain against the pressure.

As much as I love my scripts, the feeling isn’t exactly mutual from the film industry. All of my attempts along traditional methods have yet to yield their desired results.

Contests are more or less a money drain, especially with the ones of significance receiving entries numbering in the high thousands.

Queries yield a miniscule fraction of responses, let alone read requests, with an even smaller number of those leading to anything. A constant hearing of “thanks, but no thanks” can really take its toll on one’s confidence.

I’ll also admit to being a bit heartbroken from the steady announcement of yet another reboot, reimagining, or recycling of stories that have come before, especially when there are so many new and original ones out there. And yes, I’ll include mine in that latter group.

Never fear. I’m not giving up writing. I could never do that.

Think of it more as readjusting my approach – just a bit.

Rather than focus all my energy and efforts on “breaking in”, it’s now all about keeping things simple and working on projects I enjoy.

I’ve got a queue of scripts all needing a rewrite. If one or three turn out to be of exceptional quality, maybe I’ll put it out there see to gauge if there’s any interest.

If not, that’s okay. I’ll at least have another script in my catalog.

And after much delay, I’m actively looking into filming a short I wrote. This has activated something in my creativeness that’s resulted in ideas for several new short scripts, as well as garnered some interest from filmmakers looking for something to shoot. Why beat myself up over lack of progress for a feature when I could make some headway with having an actual short film (or films) available?

I’ve talked to a few writing colleagues who’ve been in a similar situation. Just about each one agrees that it’s better to work on something you control, rather than beating yourself up and stressing over something you don’t. Not that making a short is easy, but you get the idea.

One of my favorite hashtags to use on social media is #notgivingup, and that remains my plan. I’ll still keep at this, just with a somewhat different approach. Everybody’s path to success is unique; mine just happens to be undergoing some minor modifications.

Whether or not it works out in my favor and gets me there remains to be seen, but at least I’ll be enjoying the journey a little bit more.

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.

Q & A with Hudson Phillips of ScriptBlast

Hudson Phillips is a writer and producer from Atlanta, GA. He’s also the founder of ScriptBlast, an online community to help screenwriters navigate the emotional ups and downs of the writing journey, and host of the ScriptBlast Screenwriting Podcast.

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

The short story collection STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS by Ted Chiang is jaw-droppingly good. I don’t think I’ve ever read a short story collection where every single story is perfect. Each one is weird and memorable and moving and smart and tackles some big gigantic idea. I’ve also really enjoyed the Zoey Ashe series (FUTURISTIC VIOLENCE AND FANCY SUITS and ZOEY PUNCHES THE FUTURE IN THE DICK) by David Wong. Both are laugh-out loud funny with incredibly memorable characters in one of my favorite grounded science fiction worlds. 

Movie-wise, NOBODY was a surprisingly fresh take on the action hero. I could use the same line to describe SHADOW IN THE CLOUD, another film that shook up traditional action films. 

TV-wise, the first season of KILLING EVE really blew me away. I can’t think of a TV show that surprised me as much as that. 

How’d you get your start in the industry?

It is a very long, very winding road that has taken me here, where I still feel like I’m just getting started! I’d always been writing, but in my mid-20s I started taking it more seriously after a music career fizzled out. I ended up writing comedy scripts with two buddies of mine and the second script we wrote together (a sports comedy about church league softball) ended up getting optioned by Lionsgate films (thanks to a friend of a friend of a friend).

For a split-second we were “local celebrities” on radio and in the newspaper and then everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The writers strike happened, pushing it back a few years. Lionsgate changed out leadership and dropped the film. A local production company picked it up and made it, but completely threw our script out. I don’t think a single word of ours ended up on screen (I still haven’t seen it). So a quick high and low right out the gate. My two writing partners both gave up after a couple new scripts went nowhere, so I broke out on my own.

The problem with having writing partners is when you start writing on your own it’s like starting fresh all over again. So I leaned into the movies I loved the most – crazy sci-fi fantasy action adventure stuff – and started to write that. I’d write a script, send it out to connections in Hollywood, no one would be interested, and I’d write another one. I’d get occasional bites from a contest or the Black List, but nothing ever gained traction. I think in large part because I was a single dad to a young kid, so I couldn’t move out to L.A.

Pro tip: it’s SO much harder to make it in this industry if you’re not in the city where it all goes down. It was during this time of rejection after rejection that I started ScriptBlast as an online haven for writers to connect, talk about their struggles in a safe space, and find encouragement and inspiration. 

Being stuck in Atlanta, I leaned into what the city had to offer, which was great filmmaking talent and started making short films. This was a great way to get to know local actors and crew, and we started pulling together our little “collective” of talent until eventually, in 2017, we shot our first feature film, THIS WORLD ALONE. It’s a post-apocalyptic drama / thriller about three women attempting to survive in a world without technology or power. And after a very long 4-year journey (with a year-long pause for COVID), the film was finally released in May and is now available wherever you rent or buy movies online. 

THIS WORLD ALONE helped get my name out there enough and allowed me to make enough connections that I’ve since been hired to write a few other indie features. So while I’m not yet making a living at it, writing is bringing in a good second income right now. And I believe all these little seeds will eventually build momentum and add up to a career. Fingers crossed that 2021 is the year that it happens! 

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

It’s interesting that you say “recognizing good writing” and not “becoming a good writer.” I don’t think recognizing good writing is something that can be taught or learned. But I don’t look at good writing that way. Good writing is a feeling. Good writing is being whisked away to another world and laughing and crying and cheering and getting done and immediately wanting to go back. A technically excellent screenplay that checks all the screenwriting boxes is not necessarily “good writing.” 

But I also think most people can be taught to become good writers (some just might take more time than others). I’d put writers into three categories:

Writers who can recognize good writing and turn around and immediately write an excellent story. 

Writers who can recognize good writing but struggle to write an excellent story.

Writers who can’t recognize good writing and will therefore never write an excellent story.

The ones who can be taught are in that middle level but I think 90% of us are in that middle level. We know what a great story looks like but it takes a lot of time and work and practice and patience to create one ourselves. 

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Such a great question. there’ s probably an infinite list, but here’s the first three that popped in my head:

Set-up and payoff. This is the easiest way to make your script look smart. Just set up everything you payoff and payoff everything you set up. Need a great line for your finale? Go back to your first act and find one that’s applicable. Have an item that represents something in the beginning? Make sure you bring it back in the end. My first rewrite is always looking for these things. 

Emotional honesty. We’ve all seen the movies (usually starring Adam Sandler) where you get this pat life lesson at the end like “spend more time with family.” These kinds of lessons are ultimately forgettable because they aren’t honest. They are themes we’ve seen a million times before. The real honest emotions aren’t pat answers, they are deep questions. Mark Duplass decries this as “you know when you’re up at 2am with your best friend and you’ve had too much to drink and you talk about your biggest fears? That’s what you should write your movie about.” Give the audience an answer, and they’ll forget it right after they leave the theater. Present the audience with an honest and brave question, and they’ll keep thinking about it long after they’re done. 

Tension & release. If a screenplay is a wavelength, it should go up and down. It’s all about pacing. A script should rise and fall and feel natural. I think this is one of the toughest things to teach because it’s a “feeling”. Lean into whatever genre you have, if it’s a horror movie it should be a little scary, medium scary, really scary, and then give us a break. If it’s a comedy, it should be a little funny, medium funny, really funny, and then give us a break. 

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

Telling someone else’s story and not telling your own. So many writers just regurgitate their favorite movies and don’t have anything unique to say about the world. Audience members don’t care about the “what” of your story, they care about the “why.” If you’re just writing something because “it’s cool” or “it’ll sell”, the audience can see right through that. It goes back to the “emotional honesty’ thing above. It’s the old saying “write what you know” but that doesn’t mean write about your day job or your current boyfriend, it really means “write what you feel.” If you’re emotionally connected to your story, your audience will be too. 

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Usually the things that make me roll my eyes have to do with masculinity on film. I get so bored with cold, stoic, masculine action heroes. I’m equally tired of female action heroes who feel like someone went into the script and just did a search to change “him” to “her.” And don’t get me started on shallow descriptions of women in scripts “nerdy but beautiful” or whatever. Like the two films I mentioned earlier – NOBODY and SHADOW IN THE CLOUD, these are films with warm, broken, interesting, action heroes who lean into their vulnerabilities as much as their strengths. 

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

Here’s kind of a checklist I try to run through for every scene I write:

GOAL: What does your protagonist want in this scene and how are they going to get it?

CONFLICT: What obstacles make it difficult for your protagonist to reach that goal?

CHOICE: What difficult choice will the character have to make as a result of the conflict? 

STAKES: What is hanging in the balance with each choice?

TWIST: What does this choice tell us about the character that we didn’t already know?

THEME: How does this choice push the character’s emotional journey forward?

CONNECTIVITY: Can the elements of this scene be set-up in a previous scene or lay the ground-work for future scenes? 

VISUALIZE: Is there a visual or item that can replace obvious dialogue or action? 

LESS: Is there a “perfect line” or action that could say it better than a long drawn-out scene?

VOICE: How can you rewrite it to be more “you”?

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

The screenplays that I love all make me feel something. They get an emotional response out of me, whether that be fear or laughing or crying or warm-heartedness. They are masters of set-up and payoff. They surprise me at every turn and never make the obvious choice, I can’t predict where the story will go. They ask big questions about the world. 

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

On their own, I think they’re worthless. I don’t know if I’d go as far as calling them scams. I think a lot of contests are well-intentioned, but it’s a model built on 99% of writers who enter paying money and getting nothing in return. That industry has created a lie that writers can write one screenplay, enter a contest, win, get an agent, and go write Hollywood films. This lie is why so many writers give up after their first script. It’s heart-breaking to me. 

Having said all that, I still enter them. Why? Because I think they do have merit when combined with other things. It’s all about stacking the deck. If you google the winners of these contests, you’ll usually find that they’ve written multiple screenplays, have already made some indie films or short films, maybe published in a different medium, might even already have representation. A contest on its own means nothing, but when you put a win on your writing resume alongside a dozen other things, it helps stack the deck. 

If you’re going to enter a contest, pick and choose carefully. First, only enter contests that actually give you something of value, whether that be notes or industry access. Secondly, don’t enter the big, giant contests where you’re competing against 10,000 other writers. Instead, find all the local film festivals that have screenwriting competitions, enter those and then attend those festivals! A strong connection with another filmmaker at a festival is worth a million times more than a laurel on your website. 

I always tell writers “don’t put your career in the hands of someone else.” Contests are relying on someone else’s validation of your work. That’s a very unhealthy way to live. Go make a short film. Go make your own $1000 feature. Attend festivals and meet people. Seek out local producers and directors and pitch them ideas until you connect on something and go make it. Make a narrative podcast or YouTube series. There are a million options to advance your career and I suggest you do all of them. 

How can people find out more about you and the services you provide? 

I’ve been doing ScriptBlast as a free service for about 5 years cause I always struggled with charging for anything that wasn’t actually helpful for writers. So I just launched a new online community in 2020 where we have weekly Zoom calls, tons of free resources and courses, accountability worksheets, share notes on each other’s scripts, etc. It’s blown my own productivity through the roof just being a part of it, and multiple writers have finished their screenplays as a result of being in the group. And it’s only $10/month. You can try it free for a week at Members.ScriptBlast.com.

I also do a podcast and provide other free resources (like online courses or one-on-one consultations) you can find at ScriptBlast.com. And if you’re interested in checking out THIS WORLD ALONE, it’s available on all digital platforms. You can learn more at ThisWorldAlone.com

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

It’s hard to beat a slice of hot apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. But, if there is no heat source or ice cream, I might go with peanut butter pie.

Clock’s ticking…

Just a few days left to submit your script – either film or TV – for the Maximum Z Script Showcase coming up on Friday 4 June.

The deadline is Wed 2 June. Anything that comes in after that WILL NOT BE INCLUDED.

There are over 100 listings so far, with plenty of room still available to add yours.

Send the following info here with the subject Maximum Z Script Showcase:

Title

Author

Film or TV

Genre

Logline

Awards (if any)

Your email (in case somebody wants to read your script)

Only 1 script per person. (No problem if you’ve sent it to previous Showcases. It’s totally up to you.)

DO NOT SEND THE SCRIPT!

I’ve been thrilled with the responses, along with the wide variety of material that’s been sent in.

So don’t put off what will take you all of a minute or two to put together and send.

You’ll be glad you did.