A most informative Q & A with Andrew Zinnes

 

andrew zinnes

Andrew Zinnes is a UK-based screenwriter, screenwriting consultant and producer who’s worked for production companies, read for contests, and co-author of The Documentary Film Makers Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to Documentary Filmmaking and The Guerilla Film Makers Pocketbook: The Ultimate Guide to Digital Film Making. He currently holds the position of Lecturer in Screenwriting at The Bournemouth Film School at Arts University Bournemouth, the London Film Academy, and the University of Portsmouth.

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

I have small children so I don’t get to the theater as much as I’d like, but I recently saw I, TONYA and thought it was fantastic – a real pleasant surprise! I remember the Nancy Kerrigan incident vividly and, at the time, there wasn’t a bigger villain than Tonya. Yet Steve Rogers managed to make her sympathetic by focusing on her relationship with her mother and other aspects of her home life. Then you add breaking the fourth wall and other stylistic choices, and the characters became self-aware in a manner that added to their depth and relatability. BABY DRIVER was great, too. Loved the way they used music to tell the story. Very Edgar Wright.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I became a script reader for a small production company based at Sony. I read for free as I wanted anyway into the machine. I would go in on off days or they would messenger me scripts, back when that was a thing, and I would write up coverage and fax it back to them, when that was a thing. I became friends with the assistants in the office and when I said I wanted to do development, they put me up for other assistant gigs.

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

From my experience, recognizing good writing is innate. Many years ago, I went home for Thanksgiving and took my weekend read with me. My sister got curious and started reading some of them. She read one that was a spec from an unknown writer and she was surprised at its mediocrity. She stopped reading after 40 pages and picked up another. This time she started laughing straight away and continued through the whole 100 pages. That script turned out to be AMERICAN PIE. She knew the difference between the two scripts quality-wise with no training, but what she wasn’t able to do was tell me what was wrong with them via screenplay/story theory or how she would have fixed any issues. That part needs to be learned and practiced as one would with any craft.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

The biggest component revolves around making the story or premise personal to you, the writer. If it’s not something you’re passionate about then how are you going to put 100% effort into it? If you can’t connect to the premise, then how can the reader or the viewer? John Truby says this issue leads to generic, unoriginal work and I have seen this first hand with my college/university students. Just recently, one wanted to do a crime thriller that had an okay hook, but was otherwise unremarkable. I asked why he wanted to do this project and he said it was because he loved those kind of movies and this sounded cool. I told him my doubts and he got frustrated. He said that he has trouble making decisions about writing because he doesn’t want to make mistakes that can’t be undone easily. When I pressed, he said he felt that way about many things in life, not just writing. I told him he should write about that concept. His eyes lit up!

The other key component are the forces of antagonism. I don’t just mean the villain. I mean everything that holds back the protagonist(s) from their goals. The better they are, the better the tension, drama and comedy become.

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

Because I work with many writers in the development of stories from early in their conception, impatience reigns the king of mistakes. Often times writers want to rush into the actual writing before they’ve explored a premise fully. The don’t want to do enough research to make the story richer or come up with alternative character motivations and story points that might make their project surprising and original. They don’t want to take hard looks at their structure because they have something in their head and want to get it out.  I get it. I’ve felt the rush of getting something down in Final Draft, too. However, whenever I’ve let a client or student get on with it despite my objections, it always goes wrong. They create a story and/or characters that are generic or derivative. They come to the point where the structure doesn’t work and either get stuck or plow forward anyway and there’s structure or story flaws. Now for some writers, this is the process they need to go through. This is how their brains process information. That’s fine, but whether that is the case or they are just steadfast, we end up going back to the drawing board to pull everything apart as we should have done originally.

Aside from that, overwriting tends to be an issue, especially with newer writers. Screenplays are meant to be quick reads and having a lot of black on the page slows that down. Learning economy of writing is essential. I realize that many people, myself included, like Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino’s style, which creates these dense, epic screenplays and, that further, feel they should follow suit. However, one, that’s being derivative; two, they’re directing the work so they probably doing it partially because they don’t want to forget anything; and three, they’ve earned it as they had to fund their first films in this style mostly themselves and became successful with it.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Tropes don’t bother me. It’s what is done with the tropes that matters. Whenever a superhero movie comes out social media garners a a lot of eye rolls and hate from various creative or general public communities and then WONDER WOMAN, DEADPOOL or BLACK PANTHER comes out and shakes things up. Teen horror films is another one that gets a lot of grief, and then HAPPY DEATH DAY hits the screens and all of a sudden cyberspace is hit with short memory syndrome. Take tropes and tell them in unique ways.

What are some important rules every writer should know?

-Observe people, places, things and ideas.
-Observe by asking questions and listening to what people say and don’ t cut them off to speak about yourself.
-Travel and observe what’s around you.
-Write down what you observe and think about what universal truths of the human condition emerge that matter to you.
-Read good scripts and watch good movies so you know what works.
-Read bad scripts and watch bad movies so you can recognize problems to avoid.
-Notes are opinions. They aren’t personal.

Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, what were the reasons why?

I haven’t read many. TRAINING DAY may have been one. THE SIXTH SENSE may have been one, too. The reasons are for the usual hallmarks: great voice, original take on a premise, explored some kind or large idea, writing that moved my emotions (tense, scary, etc) and structured well. Then the other side of the equation, the business side, saw great roles for movie stars to play, was something my company might do and had general commercial appeal.

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

That’s a tricky one. On the one hand, if you can win one or at least become a finalist, it can get you noticed. The bigger the competition the better your chances, obviously. If you live outside of Los Angeles or don’t have a friend that works in the industry, it may be one of the only ways that you can garner attention. On the other hand, if you enter many of them, it can get expensive. Also there is a fundamental truth about screenplay competitions: there has to be a winner. It’s the best of what a competition gets that year, not necessarily the best written thing that would attract an agent or manager and that sometimes makes Hollywood impatient with competitions. But all in all, I say they are worth it. Especially if there’s some sort of networking attached to winning or placing.

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

I’m very easy to find: andrewzinnes.co.uk. You can message me from there. I live in the UK, but work with writers all over the world. Thank you FaceTime, Skype and WhatsApp!

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

Blueberry! I make a mean one, too.

blueberry pie

My brain’s helping hands are ready to go

 

vintage handyman
No job too small! (schedule permitting)

Thanks to my ever-expanding network of savvy creative types, I get lots of chances to be on both the giving and receiving ends when it comes to reading scripts.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to get exceptionally helpful notes from a lot of really talented folks. All this feedback has somehow managed to influence my writing for the better, and for that I am overflowing with gratitude.

So the least I can do when somebody asks me “Will you read my script?” or “Can I pick your brain about this idea?” is to say “Of course.”* Maybe I can offer up a few scraps of advice that might somehow work to their advantage. If anything, I can at least point out where a fix in spelling or punctuation is needed. For a script, anyway. That counts, right?

*caveat – it’s taken a lot of work spread over a long time for me to build up my network and establish connections, so I don’t mind if somebody I actually know drops me a note with such a request. If our only connection is being connected on social media and we’ve never interacted – at all, you’re little more than a total stranger to me. So heed that one word and be social. It makes a difference.

I had the pleasure of such an experience this week. I’d connected with another Bay Area creative, and we’d been trying for a while to arrange a face-to-face meeting. After much scheduling, cancelling and rescheduling, we finally made it happen.

This person had an idea for a project, wanted to talk about it, and see if I was interested in being involved. I stated at the outset that I had enough work on my own for now, but would be open to giving notes – time permitting.

After the initial introductions and our thumbnail backstories, we focused on their project. I won’t go into specifics or details about it, because those aren’t the important parts.

What was important was:

-this was a story they’d had inside them for a while, and even though they knew it needed A LOT of work, they were still happy with simply having written it all out

-they were totally open and willing to listen to my suggestions. Some they liked, some they didn’t. Totally fine.

But the more we talked, the more the seeds of ideas were planted in their head. Even though a lot of the details we came up with, including possible paths the story could take, ended up being totally different from their original incarnation, it was easy to see that spark of excitement reignite inside them.

Seeing that happen with somebody you’re trying to help is more satisfying than you can possibly imagine.

We parted ways, with them really rarin’ to go and start developing the latest draft. They added that they really appreciated me being so willing to help out.

I just like doing that sort of thing. I never had that kind of person-to-person help when I was starting out, so why not do what I can for others? Granted, the internet and social media didn’t even exist then, so it’s a lot easier now.

I got a few emails from them the next day showing me what they’d come up with since our meeting. Same concept, but a totally new approach (and, in my opinion, provided the opportunity for a lot of new possibilities). This also included a more thorough write-up of “what happened before the story starts”.

Even though it can be tough to read emotion in text, it was easy to see the spark was still burning strong within them. The way they talked about their plans for what comes next, I could tell they were actually looking forward to working on this.

It was nice knowing I had a little something to do with it.

We exchanged a few more emails (mostly me asking questions about story and characters and them providing sufficient answers), and I wrapped up with “Keep me posted.”

Their response: “Definitely. Thanks again. You’re a good dude.”

That was nice too.

Just the pep talk I/you/we need

pecan pie
Where else could you find comfort, reassurance, and tranquility, all on the same plate? 

(Author’s note – I wrote a lot of this earlier in the week, but circumstances of a confidence-instilling nature have occurred since then. I considered scrapping it and starting over, but thought the content was still relevant, so opted to stick with it. Enjoy.)

Let’s face it. Trying to make it as a screenwriter is an almost impossible task.

Emphasis on “almost”.

It can be done. Remember, every single writer whose name is up on there on the screen had to go through a lot of the same things you and I have. Probably even more.

The sad truth is that you will have to endure a lot of frustration before you start to even come close to achieving the results you want. And that frustration can easily lead to anger and depression and feeling like you’re wasting your time and this is never going to work out.

I say this because I’ve been that writer. Many times. This week was no exception. Several writer colleagues had some truly awesome things happen for them, and deservedly so.

Still, I can’t help but feel a slight pang of jealousy about it, but that’s all on me. In no way would I ever intend to divert the spotlight away from their success. They earned it, so they are more than entitled to enjoy it.

As for me, sure, I might wallow in self-pity for a little bit, but time and experience have helped me “get over it” faster, but the hurt does tend to linger.

Writing might be the last thing I want to do, but it’s actually been pretty therapeutic. Shifting your attention to another project – maybe one you haven’t worked on in months – helps with the emotional recovery process. Sometimes I’ll vent to another writer; usually someone who’s been through the exact same scenario.

Once I get all of that out of my system, the drive to succeed once again takes over, I get back on the horse and pick up where I left off – because the only way I’m going to make it is to keep trying, and that the only person who can make it happen is me.

That’s how it is for all of us. You’re not alone.

There will be so many situations where things don’t go your way. In the beginning, it feels like somebody’s stomping on your soul. But you eventually learn to accept that it happens, which helps toughen you up for the next time, of which there will also be many.

So on that note…

There will be a lot of times you just want to give up, or feel like the only word you ever hear is “no”, or have it seem like you’re the only writer on the face of the Earth not making progress.

Corny as it may sound, the best piece of advice I can offer is to keep at it. You will definitely hear “no” a thousand times before that one significant “yes”, but you won’t get it at all if you don’t keep going.

This is not a career path for the easily-defeated or the thin-skinned. I’ve had people tell me my story ideas were stupid and my writing was awful. One memorable character even thought my script was so terrible they were certain it was some kind of practical joke. Comments like that sting, but only temporarily. You learn to ignore them to the point they don’t even faze you anymore.

I’ve had the good fortune to make lots of connections with very talented people, many of whom have been more than willing to help me get closer to that goal.

I’m still here, still trying, determined as ever. And I sincerely hope you do the same.

Characters are people!

soylent green
Go ahead. Say it like he would. You know you want to.

I’d always heard how your script should somehow reflect “the human condition”, but never really had a firm grasp of eactly what it meant or how you would accomplish that.

I mentioned the phrase in a discussion with another writer, to which they responded “I don’t care about that. I just want to tell good stories.”

But isn’t the story about the characters to begin with? And a story with under-developed characters won’t be as good as one where the characters feel like actual people.

Accomplishing that has always been one of my biggest challenges.

A comment I’ve received more than a few times in the past is that the reader finds my characters good, but somewhat incomplete. They’re established and believable, but only to a point. This isn’t saying they’re flat, one-dimensional caricatures (something I’ve unfortunately seen in many other spec scripts), but they don’t feel completely real.

Readers/audiences want to be able to relate to the characters in your script. They might feel they’re only getting a glimpse into what kind of person the protagonist is, or know there’s more to them, but that “more” isn’t there, and they want to see that. And this doesn’t just apply to the main characters; it’s everybody.

Digging a little deeper and offering up a few more details would help flesh them out, which in turn would make for a stronger story.

When I recently sent a script out for notes, the reader asked if there was anything specific I wanted them to focus on. Without a doubt, it was the protagonist and the antagonist. I felt while they were good, there was definitely a need to make them better.

The reader agreed and made some good suggestions about how that could be achieved. “We don’t know as much about these two characters as you might think,” they wrote. Since I was the writer, I had a little more insight into their respective backstories and what made them the people we see, but some of those details had stayed in my head, rather than been transferred onto the page.

So I went about adding in some small details here and there; a line of dialogue or a seemingly insignificant action. A few touches to give a little more insight into what makes them tick; why they are the way they are.

All of this, combined with a few alterations with the plot, makes this latest draft feel really different, and hopefully stronger, than its predecessors. I’m giving it a few more days to simmer, and will then give it another look to see if that vibe still holds.

What I’m also hoping is that from here on in, I’ll be able to apply this kind of approach to all future drafts, which would in theory, help achieve the same results but in a shorter amount of time.

Hope and ambition. Just two parts of the human condition, right?

A rather introspective Q&A with Lauren Sapala

Lauren-Pic-2
Lauren Sapala is the author of Between the Shadow and Lo, an autobiographical novel based on her experiences as an alcoholic. She is also the author of The INFJ Writer, a writing guide made specifically for sensitive intuitive writers. She currently lives in San Francisco.

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

The best book I’ve read this year is Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. I was absolutely mesmerized and couldn’t put it down. The blend of fantasy with serious fiction was just enthralling.

Tell us a little about your writing background.

I’ve been writing seriously for over a decade and started my blog for writers in 2013. Shortly after I started the blog I went into business as a writing coach and I quickly noticed a pattern with my new clients. Nearly all of them were intuitive, introverted personality types. Using the insights I gained from working with my clients I wrote a book called The INFJ Writer, which came out in 2016. This year I released my addiction memoir, Between the Shadow and Lo. So, I currently juggle a few different writing responsibilities—I still write regularly for my blog, I work on my own books, and then I help my clients with their manuscripts.

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

Wow, this is a tricky question and I have heavily biased opinions on it. I have a degree in English Literature, and I would say that it’s actually been one of the biggest obstacles in my own writing journey. Studying literature at the university level put me in an environment with a lot of “experts” who felt they definitely knew how to “recognize good writing.” But from my observations, this basically came down to the writers who have won awards, been canonized in some way, or who everyone has agreed is a “master.”

When I was a kid growing up in the 80s, for example, Stephen King was dismissed by a lot of people who liked good literature. Even when I was working in a bookstore in the early 2000s, a lot of the booksellers looked down on his books. Today, he’s been recognized as a “master” and so now it’s a different story. So, no, I don’t think “recognizing good writing” is something that can be taught. I think you have to learn how to read everything with an open mind and trust your own judgement. If you like something, you like something and that’s that,

Your book is called THE INFJ Writer. What does INFJ mean, and how does it apply to writers?

INFJ is one of the 16 different personality types in the Myers-Briggs Typology personality system. The letters stand for Introverted (I) Intuitive (N) Feeling (F) Judging (J). Another way of putting it is that INFJs are introverts who interpret the world through their intuition and use emotion to make the majority of their value judgements. INFJs are about 1% of the population, but from my observations they make up a much larger percentage of the writers out there.

What inspired you to write it?

It was a combination of different factors. I struggled for many years to write anything. I wanted to write more than anything else, but I did horribly in the creative writing classes I took in college. The whole “critique circle” thing didn’t work for me at all. I also couldn’t write in a linear fashion or use any sort of an outline. I had a lot of shame around these issues for years. It wasn’t until I painstakingly stitched together my first novel that I realized I wrote in a radically different way from the norm. When I started talking about these issues on my blog I got a huge response, and then, as I mentioned, I started taking on clients as a writing coach. Almost all of these people had found me through one article or another that I wrote on being an INFJ writer. I saw immediately that we all had the same problems. I knew then that I needed to write a book about this.

Some writers feel their talent and/or creativity might not be strong enough. How would you approach that?

A lot of people say creativity is a muscle, and I do agree with that to a certain extent, but for me, personally, it’s more like a portal. The more you open yourself up, open your heart and let things just show up in your mind without judgment, the more the portal widens and lets more cool things come through. If an idea pops in your head and you instantly go into rational mode and start judging it, or try to analyze how it will work as a plot or how readers will respond to it, you’ve pretty much set yourself up to kill the idea right there. If you’re habitually in judgement mode (toward yourself or others) you’re just not going to get very far with strengthening your creativity.

Is there a “proper mindset” to being a writer?

I don’t know if there’s a “proper mindset” but I would say there is a “helpful mindset” and that would be: Just Chill Out. Almost every single blockage or obstacle I work with my clients on can be traced back to the root of anxiety. Almost every writer is anxious that they’re not talented, they’re not doing it right, everyone else is doing it better, they’re not published yet, their novel doesn’t look like it’s supposed to, etc. If you’re serious about being a writer, you have to chill out on all this stuff. You’ll have good days and bad days and nothing is the end of the world. You’ll write stuff and be convinced it’s the work of a genius and look back a few years later and hate it. You’ll write stuff that you don’t think is very good and then other people will love it. You just have to hang in there and lighten up most of the time.

Are there some basic guidelines you suggest for writers, for both what they write and how (scheduling, timing, etc)?

Honestly, I think our culture is way too obsessed with rules. This also comes back to being in judgment mode. We live in a culture where people judge themselves and others relentlessly. We are so used to our media constantly bombarding us with what other people are doing wrong or how they’re being stupid, and we’re endlessly encouraged to make judgments about those people and their actions. Most people devote probably about 60-70% of their mind power to self-judgment—so when we see the blog post that reads “5 essential rules for successful writers” we eat it up. However, it’s not nourishing. It might feel familiar, because it’s got that judgment energy attached to it, but it’s actually not helpful.

I think most creative people flourish with NO guidelines in place. Write what you want to write. If you haven’t written anything in two weeks, whatever. Try writing something right now. If you’re not feeling it, then you’re not feeling it. I know this runs counter to the standard writing advice out there that “writing is work” and you have to “sit your butt in the chair and get it done,” and yes, I do understand that sometimes you just have to make it happen for yourself, but it shouldn’t be a constant swimming upstream battle either.

You recently released your autobiographical novel Between the Shadow and Lo. Can you talk a little bit about that and how it came about?

Between the Shadow and Lo is an addiction memoir (in the guise of a fictional novel) all about my alcoholic years in Seattle. I’ve been sober for 12 years now, but when I was drinking I was pretty much a lunatic. Between the Shadow and Lo is the story of how I felt like I had a split personality during that time. “Lo” was my other, sociopathic half and she only came out when I was too drunk to fight her off.

The book is very dark, and very gritty. It’s also one of the few transgressive fiction novels you’ll find out there written by a woman. Jean Genet and Charles Bukowski are two of my favorite writers and they were huge influences in terms of the style of that book.

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

They can email me at writecitysf@gmail.com. I get a lot of emails so sometimes it takes me a day or two to respond, but I do respond to every email I receive.

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

Does vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie count? I don’t eat a lot of sweet things, but I love vegetables.