You win some, you lose (or don’t place in) some

Another screenwriting contest season come and gone, at least for yours truly.

My western’s record with PAGE extended to 0-6, and didn’t make it to the quarterfinals in the Nicholl. After last year’s debacle with Austin, I opted to skip it this year.

(Side note 1 – I don’t pay to get the reader/judge notes, so don’t know why the script fared how it did for either contest. The Nicholl used to offer notes after the top 5 were announced, but not sure if they’re doing that this year or you had to pay upon registering.)

(Side note 2 – A very hearty congrats and good luck to the 359 writers who made it to the Nicholl QFs. I wholeheartedly applaud the Academy’s decision to limit submissions to one script per person. Other contests should follow their lead.)

My initial reaction to the news from both competitions was “I must be a really shitty writer to keep failing like this.”

But as my ever-supportive wife, a few friends who are also consultants, and several other trusted colleagues in my writers’ network reminded me:

It’s a really good script.

You’re not a bad writer.

IT’S ALL SUBJECTIVE.

This script has also done moderately well in some smaller contests, so it can’t be that bad.

I know a writer whose script advanced in the Nicholl after several years of bupkis. I also know another writer who made it to the top 50 one year, then the same script didn’t even make the quarterfinals the following year.

And as a few others pointed out about the prestigious contests and the scripts that do well in them: it may be a good script, but would it be a good movie? I’ve read some contest winners (and some top vote-getters on The Black List); some were very well-written, and some just didn’t do anything for me. One or two even made me question why they did as well in the contest as they did.

Furthermore – did any make me eager to shell out the cost of a ticket if it were available on the big screen?

Not really.

But again, that’s just my take – i.e. SUBJECTIVE.

At the very least, reading these scripts could be helpful in a “developing your craft” kind of way.

So where do I go from here? I’m rewriting a pair of newer scripts, and haven’t decided if either will go the contest route. Possibly, but right now I couldn’t say.

I’d rather focus on getting them in decent shape. If that means skipping contests next year, that’s fine by me.

Q & A with Scott McConnell

Scott McConnell is a writer/story consultant who has worked as a producer in Los Angeles and in fiction development. Scott edits stories from inside them as a writer. He finds solutions to story problems and can especially focus on improving a story’s premise. Scott believes this is where most films/scripts succeed or fail. He also finds that many good writers don’t focus enough on theme. It is through theme that a writer moves an audience emotionally. Scott can edit low budget features as well as big budget blockbusters. He fixes scripts for individual writers and production companies around the world.

Scott started in the business as a story analyst in Los Angeles; analyzing scripts for Roger and Julie Corman, Samuel Goldwyn and the Sundance Institute, among others. He was later the showrunner (writer/producer/director) of the U.S. nationally syndicated LIVE LIFE AND WIN! and he co-wrote the reality series HOLLYWOOD BOOT CAMP. He has found the story by studying footage, reading scripts/books, pre-interviewing talents, and writing or editing the script. Scott is a member of the Producer’s Guild of America and of the Australian Film Institute (AACTA.)

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

Regarding television, I’m a big fan of the English series VICTORIA, about Queen Victoria. The writing is often excellent, especially in season one, which dramatized a young girl developing herself in high stakes circumstances to become queen of an empire and the loving wife of a man she admires but who often has different ideas to her and is at times in romantic conflict with her because she is also his queen and leader.

Regarding film, I think SAVING MR. BANKS is brilliantly written, especially its dramatization of a profound theme and the integration of its two main plot lines from different time periods. The characters were intelligently written and layered, while the arc of the protagonist is beautifully climaxed.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

My first start in the business came after I graduated from UCLA Extension (scriptwriting) and did some interning work at industry places in town and started my own script analysis business. The study and volunteer work allowed me to get experience so I was skilled and employable.

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

It is something that is learned. But there are great individual differences in how much someone might actually know about what makes a good story. And it’s hard for readers to see a story objectively as it really is and not be prejudiced by their own values and tastes.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

There are two basics to any script. First there is the mechanics of how well it is written: its structure, clarity of its theme, use of dramatic devises, the development of its character and relationship arcs, the nature of its climax, and so forth. That is, the storytelling skill.

And then there is the values side of the story, the actual nature of the specific content. For example, its theme and sensibility, the values and goals of the characters, the nature of the conflicts and the theme resolution. That is, the values the story is dramatizing.

A good script has skilled storytelling and universal, important and personal values that the audience cares about. It is the nature of these values that especially makes a story or film an enduring classic.

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

The biggest mistake I often see is that writers do not give their characters agency (free will). That is, more specifically, the writer does not create a protagonist who has a big main goal that drives the story and underpins its structure. One of the negative consequences of this lack of agency in characters is that it becomes the writer who drives the story by dropping contrived and coincidental problems onto the heads of the characters. Such a story lacks logic, believability and suspense.

Another common writing mistake I see all the time is that the concept of the story was not developed properly. Many scripts, for example, have unoriginal, uninteresting or one-layer premises. Creating a strong premise is the hardest and most important part of writing a story.

A mistake I see in good writers is that they often haven’t mastered theme, so they don’t know how to use it to give depth to their story and to induce deep emotion in their audiences.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Some writers want to throw in the latest political fad or fashion.

Other writers think that chases, fights and explosions are what make an action script great. They aren’t. Look at two of the great actioners, DIE HARD and GLADIATOR: both of these stories have layered and driven characters enduring terrible personal problems.

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

The first rule of all writing is to have something interesting to say or show. If your story – its premise, characters, plot, climax – are not interesting then it doesn’t matter how well you structure your story, for example, no one will care.

I think every creator of a script should have a story expert outside of their story bubble vet and edit their script, and the closer to the front end of the story creation this is done the better.

Have a writing process. Many writers who don’t have a writing process never finish their story or don’t know how to. A writing process can be learned and should be. A good writing coach can teach you one.

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

That’s pretty rare. Most scripts, produced and unproduced, have issues. But I remember a script I edited about two years ago where I was impressed that these two writers were really in charge of the story and the writing. That is, that with some fixes this script would make a good movie. These writers had a layered, intriguing concept, an escalating plot line and characters who I cared about and I was anxious to see who among the leads won. (The three leads in conflict were all good guys but in a big conflict.)

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

That’s a good but difficult question. At best I’m mixed on contests. Yes, there are some good ones that can help a writer get doors opened or be noticed, but for other contests you have to worry about who is reading these piles of scripts. My concern is that too many contest readers seem to be straight out of college where they haven’t studied the great classic plays/novels nor analysed the
truly well written films. They tend, I also worry, to be naturalistic and PC in their reaction to story content. I hope I’m wrong but….

My suggestion to those considering entering contests is to vet carefully. For example, look to see if the contest has some clout, that being a winner or a placing near the top will truly open doors, etc. Also try to see the loglines of previous winners. If they’re rubbish, be wary, as you should be if any samples of coverage by the contest’s graders indicates a focus not on story essentials. Also try to determine if that contest prefers a certain genre over others. Good luck. Caveat emptor.

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

I edit scripts of many genres and forms, have a mentorship program to teach writers a writing process while they actually write a script, and other writing and development services. People can learn more about me on LinkedIn at this page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/scottamcconnell/

Or write to me via email: scottm100@gmail.com

People can also find my articles on screenwriting on Script, Creative Screenwriting and MovieMaker.

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

American Pie! (the song, not the movie)

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.