Let the simmering commence!

kitchen
Not the current focus of my attention, but always lurking about somewhere in my noggin

Well, here’s the good news: the first draft of the horror-comedy spec is done. Clocking in at a somewhat respectable 89 pages. Not too shabby, but I honestly expected it would be closer to 95.

Which, combined with the notion that there really isn’t any bad news in this scenario, which is nice, leads me to the whole point of today’s post.

Time for a little post-game analysis and strategizing.

Am I thrilled that I got this draft done in something like 4-5 weeks? Most definitely. I wanted to be able to say I typed FADE OUT by the end of the calendar year, and I did exactly that.

Am I happy with how it turned out? Mostly, but more on that in a minute.

Even after my “thorough” plotting and planning of the outline, the script simply isn’t where I want it to be. For now. After all, this WAS a first draft, which will usually be vastly different from each and every one that follows.

I imagine that mindset also applies here.

Even as the pages were being churned out, I kept realizing there were story elements and developments I’d wanted to include, but they’d inadvertently fallen by the wayside. My “thoroughness” had only gone so far.

But there’s hope for me yet. I devised a handy-dandy set of guidelines and questions to use for each scene, so all the things I’d missed this time around won’t suffer the same fate in draft number two.

My younger self would do a fast 180 and dive right back into the rewrite. Current self? Not so much.

Instead, I’m opting to put this draft into the proverbial desk drawer and just let it sit there for a few weeks. The next time I give it a good look-see will probably be in early January.

Full disclosure – some new ideas and fixes for this script came to be while it was being written, but trying to incorporate them would have complicated things more than I wanted, so I simply created a list and kept adding to it when applicable. No doubt it will be extremely helpful when the rewrite begins.

There’s also a strong suspicion that all those changes will result in the next draft being closer to the more-desired 95-100-page range.

In the meantime, I’ve got quite a bit of a backlog of material to work through, ranging from working on some of my other scripts to reading and giving notes. The hope is to shrink that backlog to the point of non-existence, or at least mighty darned close to it, by the time 2019 rolls around, thereby enabling me to jump right into this rewrite.

Exciting times are just ahead, chums. And coming up fast.

Ask a Fount-of-Knowledge Script Consultant!

Matt Lazarus

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Matt Lazarus of The Story Coach.

Matt Lazarus has worked in the industry since 2003. He started in development with jobs at Untitled Entertainment, CAA, and Platinum Studios (Cowboys and Aliens). He joined the WGA in 2007 by selling a horror script to RKO, and he sold a movie to Cartoon Network in 2011. Matt’s story coaching was designed to be affordable, regular, and useful, and he excels at breaking advanced concepts into simpler processes and exercises.

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

Short Term 12, a thoughtful, sad drama about a foster home for displaced youth and the human condition. I saw the trailer and it hooked me. The world, performances and characters are all on point. It’s a great example of a drama, and of wringing the most entertainment and potential out of a simple concept.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I moved to Los Angeles in 2003, and I got my first assistant job after working really hard at an unpaid internship. I wanted to be a writer, and I talked about it way too much. Anyway, I got good at reading scripts and it always provided me an entry to meeting lit agents and executives who wanted to ask follow up questions on material. I’ve been a freelance reader for some studios for years, and there was a time I was even unironically working on a book on how to cover (most of it made it onto my blog). I’ve been a sporadically working WGA writer since 2007, but the financial security of coverage has always given me something to fall back on.

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

Good writing is hard to define. You want it to be accessible: a mediocre scifi appeals to scifi fans, a great one appeals to everyone. You want it to be engaging: no one goes to the movies to not be affected. You want it to help your career. It’s great to sell a script, but if a script doesn’t sell but gets me in a room with someone who can hire me for my next job, I’ll take it.

Anything can be learned. Not everyone who studies piano will become Glen Gould, but they will get somewhat better at piano. I was pretty cineliterate when I moved to LA, and my years in the development trenches helped me marry my base of knowledge to a working understanding of how the industry works and what the powers that be tend to look for.

4. What are the components of a good script?

“Good” is a hard term to define, a semantic minefield. The components of a good script are the same as the bad ones: they both have the same main four (character names, dialogue, sluglines,descriptions), they both take up the same amount of space.

The difference is harder to measure. We see a thousand faces a day, but only a few make us stop and say wow. We hear new songs on the radio every day, few of them will become our favorite. Most would agree that a good writer can do more in the same space than a bad writer, but the ways in which they are better will always and should always be argued over.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

The most common is writing a script without a premise. I use something called the premise test. It breaks things down to what’s simple. It’s not the only way to look at scripts, but it’s as good as any, better than most:

“An <ADJECTIVE> <ARCHETYPE> must <GOAL> or else <STAKES>. He does this by <DOING> and (optionally) learns <THEME>.

This seems simple, but the doing is the real meat of the movie. If a naive accountant must raise 100k or his daughter dies, different doings give you very different movies (for example, he could win a surf contest, kill a vampire lord, or invent a time machine and go back to 1979). If you can’t explain what’s interesting about your script in 50 words, you’re unlikely to improve things by writing out 100 boring pages.

Writing is a lot like being a chef. Both are creative forms that have structural limits and immense room for interpretation. Tastes are subjective, but a good chef can anticipate the audience and when he serves something he should have a rough sense of why the average patron might find it delicious.

Most writers write without a real sense of the audience. We’re writing to entertain, to deliver a satisfying emotional experience to the audience. If a writer isn’t writing with a sense of empathy for the audience, the end result is likely to be disappointing.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

-Scripts about Hollywood power brokers written by people who haven’t met Hollywood power brokers.

-TV pilots that spend their entire length explaining how we got to the premise without every showing what’s fun or interesting about the premise (see #5). There won’t be a second episode. What are you saving it for?

-Comedies that aren’t funny. I recommend taking an improv class and reading the UCB Handbook.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

The word “rules” needs to die. It always starts a fight. People have an unending appettite for hearing that they can write, but any suggestion of how one might approach writing is generally taken as a suggestion of how one ought to write, and then an unproductive argument ensues. Here are three general principals:

-Entertain. You should know exactly what feeling you want to create in your audience.

-Use unity. Once you’ve set up your script, you want everything to feel connected, organic, and like a ramification of what’s come before. Bad scripts keep inventing random stuff throughout the second act, and it leads to a script that feels arbitrary.

-Be specific. A lot of writers will write in variables, keeping things loose (my character is either an architect or a deli owner… I haven’t decided which) because they think it will prevent them from getting lost or stuck in the later stages. This never works. Imagination thrives on immediacy and specifics. It’s better to commit to an idea and follow it to its conclusion. Even if you went in a wrong direction, the specifics you generate add value to your story. If you keep things vague, you’re building on sand and it’s hard to move the story forward when things exist in a vacuum.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

In 2003 I read a really funny script called Underdogs. I couldn’t stop reading it or quoting the dialogue. It ended up turning into DODGEBALL starring Vince Vaughan. The movie is really funny, the script is funnier.

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

It depends on the contest. When I was at big companies, execs would usually read the top Nicholl scripts out of a morbid curiosity, but other big script contests (Scriptapalooza comes to mind) would try to get executives to read their top three, and the execs were lukewarm. For instance, a lot of people are selling off the Black List right now. It’s useful now, but might not be in three years.

10. How can people get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

I can always be reached at thestorycoach.net.

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

Humble pie. If you’re serious about writing, you’ll be served it more times can be counted. Alternately, strawberry rhubarb. I’m from Vermont, and it reminds me of a childhood garden.

Not done just yet

Made one of these to ease my pain. Ate one piece, gave the rest to coworkers
Made one of these to ease my pain. Ate one piece, gave the rest to coworkers

No matter what level of success a writer has achieved, they are always learning.

Or at least they should be.

So far, my western is 0 for 2 in the competitions I’ve entered, at least in terms of making it past the first round.

Once I got past the initial shock and heartbreak, I took a more analytical approach – why was I not getting the results I was hoping for?

The most logical and practical explanation – the script isn’t as perfect as I thought. It needed fixing.

But what to fix?

(I’ve no inflated sense of ability. I know what I’m good and not-so good at, and expertly analyzing a script falls into the latter category)

So I did what any sensible writer would do – I sought out help from those in the know.  People who write for a living, or advise other writers on how to improve their material.

I asked if they’d take a look at the script at their convenience, let me know what they thought about it, what worked and what needed work. Constructive criticism, not praise, was my objective.

Let’s not say the results were eye-opening, but more like “oh, I see.”

The two most frequent comments were to trim the page count down (many conceded the current 132, while a very fast read, would initially be off-putting to potentially interested parties) and to flesh out the main character a little bit more.

As I said to one person, tough but not impossible assignments.

My biggest mistake was thinking the script was good to go, when what I should have done at that point was get this kind of advice, make the fixes and then do the whole contest and query circuits.  Something to remember for next time.

So for now, another rewrite is in store, which is totally fine.  Anything to make it better.

Sometimes it’s too tempting to finish a project and declare it ready. That’s when your internal editor/critic needs to stand up and ask “Are you absolutely sure about that?”

Make sure you listen to them.

Meanwhile, 365 days later…

When exactly are the days of auld lang syne again?
When exactly are the days of auld lang syne again?

Things definitely changed for me during 2013, happily for the better.

-My script DREAMSHIP got me a manager, was a semifinalist in a high-profile contest and placed in the top 15 percent of the Nicholl. While I hope more things happen with it this year, I’m also pretty excited about the potential of the western spec and the two still in the rewrite/development stages.

Most importantly, I’d say I finally realized the true meaning of “write what you know”. A lot of what I write could fall squarely into the category of pulp material. A high-flying adventure guaranteed to buckle anyone’s swash. A western where you can practically breathe in the dry and dusty air and hear the thundering hoofbeats. A noir-style mystery that makes you want to hang on to your fedora as you toss back a shot of cheap rotgut.

I live for this kind of stuff, and strive to convey the same kinds of sensations and experiences in my work. It took a while to really understand this, but it’s made a significant difference for me and how I approach writing.

-Through this blog, assorted networking websites and writing forums, I’ve connected with a lot of extremely talented people from all over the world. Pleasantries, experiences and script advice have been exchanged, and I’m looking forward to continuing all of them (when possible, regarding the latter).

-Absolutely nothing happened with relaunching the podcast, mostly because I never found the time. Will do my best to change that.

-I ran 5 half-marathons, including two where I finally managed to break the 1:55 mark and set a new personal best – 1:51:10. I don’t know if I’ll do as many this year, but would like to try and at least hit 1:50.

-The running and bike riding definitely helped me stay in shape, and I attempted to maintain a semi-regular regiment of upper body work. Not as fit and toned as I’d like to be, but it’s helped a little. This will continue.

-The great baklava experiment was a smashing success. It’s been requested I make it again, this time with pistachios instead of walnuts. No reason that can’t happen. Still undecided about what new concoction to attempt this year, but baked alaska currently holds the frontrunner position.

As always, I’d like to thank you for coming along with me on this thrill ride of an experience, and hope you stick around because 2014 holds bigger and better things.

Happy new year, and see you on the other side.

Devilishly handsome? Sure. But lovely…?

One Lovely Blog

You never know who’s reading your stuff.

Such is the case with this blog. All I know about my readers is how many there are and where they’re reading me, geographically speaking.

So it was a very pleasant surprise to get a message from The Novice Screenwriter: “I really enjoy your blog (and might I add your great sense of humor:) and I just wanted to let you know that I have nominated you for the One Lovely Blog award.

In the words of the Cowardly Lion, “Shucks, folks. I’m speechless.”

One of my earlier bosses in radio stressed the importance of PIE. Not the world-changing, life-affirming dessert  (which, granted, is very important), but how your performance should always be Professional, Informative and Entertaining. That’s an acronym I’ve tried to adhere to in all forms of my media output, including this blog, which is why I’m flattered to get this kind of recognition.

And apparently there are rules/guidelines for this as well:

1. Add the “One Lovely Blog” image to your post
2. Share seven things about you
3. Pass the award on to seven nominees
4. Thank the person who nominated you
5. Inform the nominees by posting on their blogs

Thanks to Aarthi at The Novice Screenwriter for the nomination. When somebody tells me they heard me doing traffic on the radio, I always say “It’s nice to know somebody’s listening.” So in this case, it’s nice to know somebody’s reading.

Seven Facts you may or may not know about me:
-I’m the youngest of 5 in a typical Jewish-American family. And by “typical”, I mean there’s a doctor, a lawyer, and the one in showbiz.

-I was born and raised in the great state of New Jersey. The southern half, where there are no accents.

-My wife and I saw HEATHERS on our first date. We’ve been together ever since.

-I really enjoy cooking and baking. One of my specialties is pecan pie from scratch – crust and everything. A friend with strong roots in Georgia was practically orgasmic over it, which must mean something.

-I like to run half-marathons, averaging about 4 a year. My pace is around 9 minutes a mile, with the goal to someday break the 1:55 time limit. The idea of doing a full marathon is intriguing, yet very intimidating.

-I collect comic books, but have never attended Comic-Con in San Diego. Someday I will. In fact, the dream is to be there while The Movie I Wrote is being promoted (with a panel in Hall H and everything!).

-I didn’t go to school for screenwriting. Everything I’ve learned comes from reading books and scripts, watching and studying movies, attending a handful of seminars, and most of all, writing and rewriting.

Here are the seven blogs I heartily recommend:
My Blank Page – good nuts and bolts advice from a working screenwriter
Just Effing Entertain Me – practical advice for writers and a high-profile script competition (hurry! final deadline is Aug 15)
Sex in a Sub – an extremely prolific writer plus fantastic analysis of Hitchcock films
Sprinting to Fade Out – great info for aspiring writers (regrettably on hold for now, but worth checking the archives)
News from ME – a wide variety of topics from a veteran writer-director who works in TV, cartoons and comics
Scott Tipton’s Comics 101 – got a question about comics? More info than you could possibly imagine, especially if you’re a fan of ROM: SPACE KNIGHT
Comedy Film Nerds – actually a podcast about movies, but extremely hilarious, entertaining, informative and very NSFW

I have no idea if there’s an actual award connected with this, but it doesn’t really matter. I’m just happy to be nominated, and will practice my “forced smile to mask my internal pain” look just in case it’s not my name if a winner is ever announced.