New year, new plans, and all that

It all comes down to a two-part question:

What do you hope to accomplish in 2021, and what are you going to do to make it happen?

This year for me is primarily about one thing: getting better, writing-wise. My screenwriting game needs to be severely upped if I want to make any kind of headway in becoming a working (i.e. paid) writer.

Part of this also involves totally stepping away from entering contests. Many are nothing more than a money drain – I’ve already saved over $1200 in registration fees – and I’d rather work on improving my craft.

And if I’m not spending money on contests, I plan to redirect it into another long-gestating project. Part of my 2020 involved writing a short script which I’d really like to make myself. After talking with a few filmmaker chums (many of whom offered up their services and advice), it’s definitely doable.

Another thing I’d like to accomplish this year is to read more scripts; at least one a week. Two, if possible. The Black List, produced works, what have you. Of the handful I’ve already enjoyed, it’s already been most helpful.

I’ve started reading and giving notes on other writers’ scripts. Always nice to see what others are up to and check out some original material, and it also lets me develop my analytical skills.

My approach to this year will be a little more laid back than in years past. The drive and desire are still there, but I want to enjoy my time making the journey more than focusing solely on the destination.

There will no doubt be the usual ups and downs. While the ups will be enjoyed and celebrated, the downs will be endured to the best of my ability, and then viewed through the lens of “what can be learned from this so it yields a more positive outcome next time?”.

As always, I am extremely grateful to all of you who’ve enjoyed my posts over this year and those past, and hope you decide to stick around for this one. I wish all of you a 2021 filled with numerous good writing days, positive career news, TV shows and movies you enjoy, and at least one piece of your pie of choice; sharing it is optional.

Q & A with David Wappel

David Wappel is a screenwriter and story consultant. He recently wrote the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO MaxAmazon, and iTunes. Wappel worked in production and post-production for five years before turning to writing. His stories often feature themes of private courage, nostalgic longings, and contradictions.

He has consulted writers, producers, game developers, and others on their narrative work. In addition to screenwriting, you’ll find Wappel talking about Tolkien, Shakespeare, or sailing.

What’s the last thing you read/watched you considered to be exceptionally well-written?

This is a tough one for me, because I watch or listen to at least one Shakespeare production a week, and it’s hard not to just answer with one of his plays.

So setting the Bard aside, the last thing I watched that was exceptionally well-written was an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine titled The Visitor. Written by Michael Taylor, it’s the second episode of season four of the series, and it’s deftly simple and incredibly human.

I also recently rewatched Dead Again, written by Scott Frank. I’ve already seen it a handful of times, but I wanted to share it with my parents. What I love most about the script is the way it continues to surprise throughout, with twists and turns both big and small. It’s like a rabbit hole that just keeps going down.

Oh, and if I’m not setting Shakespeare aside, the answer is The Globe’s 2015 production of The Merchant of Venice.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I actually first started out working in post-production in Atlanta. I was an editor for a small production company. Editing is just writing with an extremely limited vocabulary. As an editor, you can only storytell with what is provided, and it’s actually pretty amazing how much power you have to manipulate the moments by organizing shots in various arrangements.

So when I made the pivot into writing, I had already been looking at story as sequential bits of information, and it helped me understand how to build a moment, a scene, a sequence, or a story, piece by piece.

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

I’m going to be a bit cheeky and say it doesn’t have to be taught or learned. We already know when something is good writing from our emotional reaction. Humans are designed to have stories act on us emotionally. So instead of looking at a text and deciding if it is good writing or not, all you actually need to do is read it and look at yourself. If you’re responding to it, it’s good writing.

What isn’t as apparent, but can be taught and learned is why something is good writing. One can study the patterns and structures, micro and macro, that seem to crop up again and again as effective ways to produce emotions in the audience. Writing, I believe, is both an art and a craft, and has tools and techniques like any other craft. How to employ those tools and techniques can be taught. Why to employ those tools and techniques is a little bit trickier, because it’s far more subjective. That’s what makes it art.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

When I’m reading, I’m looking for a few things. One thing I find myself sensitive to is honesty. Are the characters acting in ways that feel truthful. And that doesn’t mean it has to be grounded, but it has to be truthful to the established world.

I’m also looking for specificity. Whether it’s a feature or an episode of television, I value a script that is doing a “deep dive” into a specific aspect of the human condition. That may sound like it needs to be profound, but it doesn’t. It just needs to be specific. Mediocre scripts tend be about a general idea, but the great ones take a very specific idea, and explore it fully.

On a technical level, I value clarity. Not only do I want to visually understand what is happening, but particularly for the screen, I want to have a good sense of how I’m seeing it. For me, that’s the biggest thing that separates screenwriting from other forms of writing, even playwriting. It’s the explicit visual component, and the limitation of the lens. I don’t need every shot selected, but I want a sense of how this will unfold on a screen.

In my opinion, a major component of a good script is restraint. I’m looking for human behavior, and nothing else. I want to see what characters are saying and doing, and draw my own conclusions. When I read a screenplay that tries to tease out meaning in the action lines (or even in the dialogue sometimes) I find myself checking out. It feels a bit like someone grabbing a puzzle piece and fitting it into the slot for you. People don’t do puzzles just because they like how it looks when it’s complete, they enjoy the act of completing it.

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

I think the most common screenwriting mistake I see is more of an artistic mistake than a craft mistake, and it’s basically not having a specific enough answer to the question, “What are you trying to say?”

Corollary to that question is this one: “Why do you want to say it?”

Those two answers can act as guideposts for a writer, and will help navigate story choices. Without some reflection on these, a technically proficient story will end up vague and dull.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Honestly, none of them. What I’m tired of seeing are tropes lazily explored. Tropes are simply common patterns that are emotionally effective. What often happens is that more than the underlying pattern gets repeated, and we get bored of seeing the same thing over and over again.

For me, the key to keeping tropes fresh is to understand why they are tropes in the first place. What is the pattern beneath it? There’s clearly a satisfying story element there, and going in the opposite direction to avoid a trope may be going in the opposite direction of that satisfying story element. You want to understand how it’s working so that you can approach it, then zig-zag away in a specific way. You’ll get all the benefit of a story pattern, without it feeling stale.

All that said, I’m completely over the “wife killed, husband wants revenge” trope.

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

This is in no way meant to be comprehensive or authoritative, but these are some guidelines I try to go by when writing.

-Writing is 90% thinking and feeling, and 10% typing.

-Melodramatic writing is not fixed on the page it occurs. It is fixed in all the pages preceding it, and then on the page it occurs.

-A character’s voice and a character’s worldview are two different things.

-People are different versions of themselves depending on who else is in the room. Characters should be the same.

-Adjectives and adverbs may point to opportunities for stronger nouns and verbs.

-Always be reading.

-Wardrobe, makeup, props, and production design all provide storytelling tools. Make sure you’re using them.

-Turn off the critic for your first draft. After that, question every word.

-When approaching a problem, see if it can be solved first by removing lines, rather than adding lines.

-Understanding how your characters interact with the world outside of the story of your script can provide insight for how they interact with the world within it.

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

Plenty of times, and while I’m sure it’s different for everybody, for me  the answer is in showing simple, specific moments of humanity. When I feel like a writer lasers in on something small, and then continues to explore each facet of it through a sort of narrative microscope, then I feel like I’m in good hands.

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

You can check out my website, davidwappel.com, and while I have a page on there about my services, it’s also about me as a writer. The best way is probably to connect with me on Twitter.

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

Apple, by a mile.

It is most definitely NOT a sprint

I haven’t written about it in a while, but one of my other interests is running. It’s inexpensive, good exercise, and I’m fortunate to live in a place well-suited for it.

Added bonus – plenty of time to think about whatever script I’m working on at the time.

However, the passage of time and some good old wear-and-tear are starting to take their toll. My pace is a little slower than it used to be, but I don’t mind.

I especially enjoy half-marathons. 13.1 miles is a good, solid distance. In the Before Times, I’d run about 6-8 a year.

This year, kinda-sorta. All but one of the races I’d signed up to do this year were cancelled. Race organizers, however, were undeterred. Runners were given the option of doing the races virtually, as in “you run the same distance, but on the route of your choosing, then send us your time and a map tracking your route, and we’ll send you your shirt and medal.”

With all of this going on, one of the things I’d always wanted to attempt was running a full marathon. 26.2 miles. Running a half wasn’t too hard, but taking on a full seemed much more formidable.

But the biggest challenge was I wanted to see if I could do it.

So I trained. A lot.

This is also where that part about wear-and-tear really started to make itself known – primarily in my heels and ankles.

But I kept at it, always trying to push myself a little more each time. I was confident, but still plenty nervous.

As the days wound down to Race Day, my anxiety levels were growing. The biggest question on my mind was “COULD I DO THIS?” My family were as supportive and encouraging as possible, but in the end, it was all me.

So I started out. The app in my phone announced at the onset that “tracking would continue for 26.2 miles”, which is quite intimidating during those first few steps.

“It’s the distance, not the time,” I reminded myself.

Off I went through the pre-dawn streets. Sunrise was still about 80 minutes away, and save for some hills and a bridge colored international orange, it was a pretty flat route.

The miles ticked away. I got to the halfway point, feeling pretty confident the second half might not be as challenging as expected.

Mile 19. So far, so good. At this pace, maybe an hour fifteen to go.

Mile 20. The wear-and-tear decides to kick in. For my heels and ankles. Steps got a little bit tougher to take. Then a stabbing pain at the base of my left shin. That doesn’t seem good.

I wanted to keep going, but was more concerned about inflicting further damage, so I chose the safest option: I stopped running, and walked. Not what I wanted, but at least I was still moving.

It’s the distance, not the time, remember?

I got to Mile 24 and thought “maybe I can run these last 2.2 miles” and ran for about 4 steps. Nope. The walk continued.

But I kept going, and eventually did cross the virtual finish line, with a time of 5:11:33.

Not the results I was hoping for, and despite some unexpected problems to deal with, the important thing was I DID IT.

One of the most apt metaphors about screenwriting is “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” It takes a REALLY long time to be able to do it, especially properly, so you need to keep working at it, constantly trying to do better.

The journey to finishing a script, let alone establishing a career as a screenwriter, might not be the one you anticipated. Everybody moves at their own pace, so don’t be discouraged if it seems like everybody but you is moving forward by leaps and bounds.

The important thing is to focus on becoming a better writer and making your script better. Work on crossing the finish line that’s waiting for you, and you alone.

Giving yourself a medal, however, is totally optional.

Lesson learned

A very recent post was all about my effort to read more scripts. I’ve been doing that, and from the ones I’ve read so far, the biggest takeaways are:

Wow, these are some fantastic scripts, and…

I need to be a better writer.

Not that I’m terrible. Maybe decent. Somewhat above average. But they don’t want decent or somewhat above average.

They want AMAZING.

PHENOMENAL.

MIND-BLOWINGLY AWESOME.

They want a script that once you read it, you can’t forget it.

My game needs to be severely upped if I want to make that kind of an impact and achieve the desired results.

What’s been truly eye-opening has been the overall quality of the scripts. They’ve been more than exceptional on several levels – originality, story, character, plot, etc.

The writing is vivid – incredibly so, and really makes you feel like you’re right there in the story. It wows me while I’m reading and compels me to keep going. This is something I strive for with my own work.

Reading these makes me want to do better when it comes to the quality of my scripts. I can only hope that I actually will.

Arrivederci, contests! For now.

waving goodbye
Normally, one would say “Don’t forget to write!”, but that seems a bit off in this scenario

Starting a few weeks ago, and continuing into the coming months, the results of numerous screenwriting contests will be made public.

For the most part, my scripts won’t be part of them. I’ve opted to skip the 2020-2021 season to focus on creating some new scripts and fine-tune some pre-existing ones.

Contests and I have had a rocky relationship. The primary reason I enter is for industry access (or at least the potential for it). As nice as a cash prize is, I’d much rather my award be my scripts shown to a manager or production company.

Naturally, even that’s not a guarantee of success. Somebody could read a script that’s done exceptionally well in a contest – even win it – and decide “I like it/It’s good, but not what I’m looking for.” This has happened to me, and even a few writers I know who’ve claimed a finalist spot in some prestigious contests still couldn’t make anything happen with it.

Them’s the breaks, and usually means it’s back to square one. But not this time.

I don’t have anything against contests. They can help motivate you to work towards beating a deadline. Some of them might lead to something, but many just mean you get a nice set of laurels. And no slight to smaller contests, but I’ve seen lots of comments from reps and prodcos that contests don’t really matter that much to them. What’s important is if they like the script and want to do something with it.

Additionally, those contests fees can get pretty steep. I try to keep things on the lower end (early bird deadlines, discount codes, etc) because the fees can really add up. And this isn’t even taking into account paying an additional cost for “notes” – something I don’t usually do anyway.

Added bonus for me – I also shell out some shekels for 6-8 half-marathons each year. You think screenwriting contests are expensive? Ha! Many of the races I’d signed up for for later this year have been cancelled or postponed until next year. So not having to pay for races or contests definitely works in my favor.

So that’s it for me and a temporary “so long”. At least until around this time next year. Until then, it’s all about the writing. My scripts are good, but I know they can be better.

Since deciding to step back, it’s kind of nice to be able to consistently delete the barrage of emails announcing “LAST CHANCE TO ENTER!” or “CLICK HERE FOR SPECIAL DISCOUNT CODE!”, and then get right back to work. I won’t say it’s still tempting to want to enter, but it is getting easier to read an email from a contest, and then kill it without hesitating.

Interesting side note – it would seem I entered 2 of my scripts in a pair of contests several months ago. In fact, one was in October of 2019. Turns out each advanced through the contests’ respective first rounds.

Since I adhere to the “send it & forget it” rule with my scripts, guess my putting more emphasis on the latter half of that phrase really came into play. As one friend put it – “you seem to do better in contests you forgot you entered.” Can’t argue that.

So now that I don’t have contest deadlines or announcements to deal with, I can focus on these two new scripts. Both have been percolating for quite some time, and I figured lockdown and shelter-in-place were the ideal times to jump into both.

Would I have been able to dedicate so much time and effort if the world hadn’t changed? Possibly, but having the opportunity to do so has definitely worked in my favor.

The latest draft of one script is out with a batch of savvy readers, and the other is still in the outline phase. Feeling pretty confident about both.

I’m more than content to let the 2020-2021 contest season pass me by as I write and write, then rewrite, and then write some more.

For all you writers looking to enter contests in the coming year, you now have one less competitor to worry about.

Catch you on the flip side.