Questions? I got lots of ’em.

Steadily working my way through an always-growing queue of scripts in the “to read” pile. Most are for pleasure, while the remainder are for notes.

A majority of my notes usually tend to involve asking questions because something might not be clear to me. This is all part of my effort to try to understand what’s going on with what I’m reading, as I try to figure things out and get a better grasp of what information the writer is trying to convey.

If I don’t understand something, I’ll just come out and ask.

It can range from “I’m not sure why this character was doing that. What was their reasoning behind it?” to “What’s this character’s arc? How do they change over the course of the story?”

Having the writer provide the answer helps them figure out the solution, or at least opens the door for them. More so than I ever could, at least. I don’t want to be the type of note-giver who’s all about “This doesn’t work. I think this would work better.”

(I have seen more than my fair share of notes that include that sort of comment, and I don’t particularly care for them.)

The questions usually come about because something wasn’t clear enough to me. And if I don’t pick up on it, chances are the audience won’t either. Everything we need to know should be there on the page, whether written out or as subtext.

If more than a few of your readers ask the same questions or make the comments about something in particular, that’s an issue you’ll definitely need to address.

A reader wants to like the script they’re reading. They make comments and ask questions in order TO HELP MAKE YOUR SCRIPT BETTER. As the writer, it’s up to you how to interpret them. Sure, you don’t have to incorporate everything, but ask yourself “why did they say/ask this?”

It can be tough to read your own script and see what works and/or doesn’t. You’re too familiar with the material. This is why getting notes can be so invaluable. The reader hasn’t seen this AT ALL, so it’s all entirely new. If they come upon something in your script that stops the read because it makes them think “Wait a second. What does that mean?” or “Why did that happen?”, then you’ll need to fix that so it addresses the issue and makes sure it doesn’t happen for whoever reads it next.

Sometimes a writer will respond to my questions saying nobody had mentioned or asked about that before, but they could totally see why I was asking. This in turn helped them figure out a way to make the changes they felt would eliminate the reason for the questions in the first place.

Which is why I asked them.

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.

Thank you for the positive reinforcement

Got some notes back on the animated fantasy-comedy spec.

I’ll be the first to say it still needs work on a few fronts, but the overall consensus is “I really enjoyed it”, which means a lot. On several levels.

Added bonus: they liked the jokes. Always great.

Despite all this, for as long as I’ve been at this, I still feel a twinge of anxiety as I open the email to see what the reader thought.

Impostor Syndrome? Possibly.

I know I can do the work, but there’s always that hidden fear that somebody’s going to say “wow, does this suck”. I suppose it stems from that initial sense of just hoping the reader likes it.

While it’s great to get notes of a positive nature, I tend to focus more on the sections that deal with what didn’t work or needs work. Every writer wants their script to be the best it can be, and notes of a critical nature can be invaluable in helping you get there.

And a lot of the time I find myself agreeing with what the notes have to say. Sometimes they even help me navigate my way out of a problem I already knew was there, but was having trouble finding a solution. Those are fantastic to get.

Even as I wait to hear from a few more readers, I’ve already started jotting down ideas to incorporate the strongest suggestions from this batch into the next draft.

Which I will then send out, once again thinking “I hope they like it.”

-Just a friendly reminder that my two books – GO AHEAD AND ASK! INTERVIEWS ABOUT SCREENWRITING (AND PIE) VOL 1 & 2 are available on Amazon and Smashwords.

Notes: givin’ ’em and gettin’ ’em

Simply put: notes can help make a script better. This also heavily relies on several factors, including the experience level of the person giving the notes, the notes being of high quality, and the relevancy of the notes in relation to the script.

I’ve had the recent experience of being on both sides, and both proved to be extremely helpful on several levels.

First: the giving.

I’d been invited to take part in a group Zoom call giving notes on a new script from an established writer-producer.

I thought the writing was okay. Nothing stellar.

As the call progressed, the comments seemed to go back and forth between honest, critical feedback and flat-out gushing. Were those doing the latter doing that in order to get in the writer’s good graces? I hope not.

When it was my turn, I started with what I liked about it (the characters and the strong establishment of tone, in particular) and then segued into what I thought could use some work, which was mostly tightening up the writing, and trimming scenes or sequences.

Just to clarify – I wasn’t trying to tear anything down; just offering some suggestions of what I thought could help make the script better.

The writer appreciated my positive comments, but the other ones were met with a lot of “well, these other people I work with in the industry LOVED that” or “Nobody else mentioned that. This doesn’t mean you’re wrong; just in the minority.”

I’m not really the biggest fan of a writer who gets defensive when they get notes. It’s what they asked for. I don’t have a problem if you disagree with what I’ve got to say. Just say thanks and move on. Don’t try to make me feel small or wrong. If you wanted praise for your script, you should have started with that.

I had to hop off the call soon after that for work-related business, so don’t know how the rest of it went. While I’m slightly curious if any of the other participants had a similar experience, I’ve no pressing desire to find out.

Despite this bump in the road, I still enjoy giving notes and will continue to do so; maybe just a little more selectively.

Second: the getting.

A few weeks ago, I wrapped up the latest rewrite on the animated fantasy-comedy spec. My usual m.o. is to contact a few colleagues to ask their availability to give notes. This time, I opted to keep the number even lower and asked two.

Still waiting to hear back from one, but the other sent back a thorough set of notes. They explain what worked for them, what didn’t, and ask a lot of questions centered around the story and the characters.

It was my intent to get notes that would help make the script better, and that’s exactly what these are – and what I need. Yes, it would be great for someone to say what a fantastic script it is, and how much they loved it, but that’s not going to help improve the script, or why I asked them to read it.

An outside pair of eyes is more likely to see things that I, as the writer, might not. How could I argue with that? Maybe there’s something in there I don’t initially agree with, but would still want to know why they said it – the “note within the note”.

Getting solid notes from those within your network of writers can be a priceless resource, and hopefully you’ll be able to reciprocate with the same level of quality.

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.