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.

A somewhat small undertaking

With all the writing-related stuff I already have going on, I’ve decided to add more one more item to my jam-packed plate.

Every once in a while, the idea for a short film will just pop into existence. Maybe just a concept, or a line of dialogue, or an image around which a story could be built. A few have been percolating in my noggin for a while, so why not start putting them down on paper – on a weekly basis.

I’m not going to say “one a week for a year!” or any nonsense like that. More like “one a week for as long as I can do it.” If it’s just a few months, great. If for some inexplicable reason it somehow actually does end up being a year, that would be amazing, plus I’d have 52 short scripts to show for it.

Nothing too big or overly ambitious. Most likely 5-10 minutes in length, and spanning a range of genres. But knowing me, there’ll probably be a joke or two thrown in.

Why would I want to do this? A few reasons. Like I said, sometimes I just come up with an idea and want to write it. Of the ones I’ve written so far, I think it would be pretty cool to produce at least a few of them (as well as quite the learning experience regarding filmmaking). The others I would make available to filmmakers interested in adding to their repertoire. Always seeing listings for that sort of thing, so why not give it a go?

I’d never really thought about writing shorts before, but after having done it a few times, I find it to be a great way to keep those writing muscles in good shape. All the same elements of a feature-length screenplay, but in a much more condensed version.

I go into this with no goals or expectations. It’s just something I’d like to try.

Let’s see how it goes.

Q & A with Jim Vines

Jim Vines

A Beast Is Born COVER (High Resolution) (COMPRESSED)

Jim Vines has been a screenwriter and script consultant for a number of years. His first produced film was THE PERFECT TENANT (2000), and his latest, DARK HAVEN, was filmed in 2020. He has optioned several of his scripts and has also been commissioned to write or rewrite scripts for numerous producers. He has written a play (staged in 2009), a web series (2009), a book of interviews with screenwriters (2006), and “indie-published” his first novel in 2015. His latest book, A BEAST IS BORN, was released in 2019.

Jim, who was born in New York City but grew up in Los Angeles, and currently lives atop a hill that affords a truly inspirational view of the Hollywood sign.

What was the last thing you read/watched you considered to be extremely well-written?

I kinda hate to say this, but I don’t watch TV per se, so if you asked me to name two or three top TV shows, well, I probably couldn’t do it. But a few years ago, I thought MAD MEN was great. (I should point out the reason I don’t watch scripted TV is that I’m an avid watcher of documentaries and interview shows found on YouTube.) As for theatrical movies, I haven’t been to a new release in about eight years. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD got me back into a theater. I had high hopes for that one. All I’ll say is: I didn’t care for it.

I do a decent bit of reading and tend to go through a lot of biographies. A recent one was of Stanley Kubrick written by Vincent LoBrutto, which was pretty fascinating. I just did a re-read of Jack Kerouac’s excellent THE TOWN AND THE CITY. A few months ago I read Donna Tartt’s THE GOLDFINCH which I really enjoyed. I also finally read the Daniel Keyes novel FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON, which was pretty amazing. I just finished reading Anne Tyler’s rather poignant novel A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD and wrapped up the audio-book of the classic TRUE GRIT, written by Charles Portis (who passed away recently).

As you can probably ascertain by these titles, I’m drawn to stories about people and their plights, their struggles, where they’re trying to understand where they fit in with the rest of the world. This is what I find interesting.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

It was 1994 and I had been writing scripts with the intent to sell for four or five years. I knew this low-budget producer – she really liked a thriller script I’d written, so she optioned it. She never did get the script off the ground, but at least I knew my writing was solid enough to garner interest from producers. I kept sending scripts out. A couple of years later another opportunity came my way in the form of a script assignment from a budding producer who had read some of my work a year or so before. There was no up-front money but he was pretty certain he could sell the script to a production company where he had connections. So, I wrote the script (based on his story)—and he actually got it sold!

It was a bit of a roller-coaster ride for the next few years, but the script was eventually produced and the movie did quite well on the cable TV circuit. It played constantly on cable and broadcast stations here in the United States and also around the world (I know this because I’d received some pretty decent foreign royalty checks, which was nice). Having this credit on my resume made getting meetings, script assignments – everything from page one rewrites to doctoring scripts- and optioning original scripts a wee bit easier.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

You need to have interesting and/or compelling characters that people will feel something for. Even if it’s a bad guy, you have to give him (or her) at least a smidgen of humanity. Look at Hans Gruber in DIE HARD. Sure, he was a cold-blooded killer – but c’mon, he had such a great sense of humor! You should have a story that continually moves forward and doesn’t get bogged down. I can’t tell you how many novice scripts I’ve read where ten pages goes by and NOTHING happens. It’s just dialogue or superfluous actions that might seem cool or interesting while you’re writing it, but has virtually nothing to do with the story being told.

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

-Write screenplays because you love to write and love telling stories, not because you think you’re gonna get rich and famous. (Quick, who won the Best Screenplay Oscar last year?)

-Writing is work—and if you’re not willing to put your rear end in a chair and your fingers on the keyboard on pretty much of a daily basis, you probably need to find another career path.

-Rules were meant to be broken, but first know these rules before you break them.

-Rewriting is your friend.

-Formatting isn’t what makes a script sellable. Sure, you need to get it all looking nice and proper, but the actual words you put on those 100 pages—this is what you need to focus on.

-There is no one particular way to write a screenplay. Your job is to discover the method that works best for YOU.

-Don’t rush things. Send your scripts out only when they’re ready. As they say, you only have one chance to make a first impression. If you send an agent or producer a script that’s still pretty rough, chances are they won’t want to read any of your future work.

It’s my opinion—and I’ve done over 200 critiques/evaluations—that about 99% of all novice screenplays are nowhere near marketable shape, so please, don’t write your first two or three screenplays intending to sell them; write them merely for the purposes of learning the craft.

What was the inspiration/motivation for your book A BEAST IS BORN?

For a long time I’ve wanted to chronicle the writing, marketing, production, and afterlife of one of my projects. I just never got around to it. But as the marketing phase of my short horror SUSIE’S BEAST script ground on, I realized I had plenty to write about: all the ups and down, all the gut-punching disappointment. I had personal journal entries (I’ve kept a daily journal since 2004) and emails relating to SUSIE’S BEAST, so I figured it was now or never. I pieced it all together and—voilà—A BEAST IS BORN!

I don’t think most pre-pro (i.e., novice) screenwriters realize how long it can take for a script to finally end up in front of a camera. Whether you’re talking about a 15-page short (which is what SUSIE’S BEAST was) or a 120-page feature, the script-to-screen voyage can take years and years. Sadly, that’s the rule and not the exception. I wanted the reader of my book to get a sense of that journey.

It took 11 years for your script to be produced, which must have really tried your patience. What was it that made you keep going?

It’s not like SUSIE’S BEAST was my entire world. I had a lot going on a personal level. As for my writing life, I was working on my first novel, writing and producing a web series, and had been getting script assignments—so I was keeping busy. Aside from all that, I knew this was a solid script that absolutely had to get made.

What were some of the takeaways/lessons you learned from the whole experience?

I’m not sure I learned much of anything I didn’t already know, but it definitely reminded me that in order to be a screenwriter you need to have a certain doggedness and faith in your own writing. I also realized I might be a little too lenient with people, giving them too much time to get things done or make up their minds. If I hadn’t been so indulgent, I probably could’ve shaved a year or two off that 11-year timeline.

Despite everything you endured trying to get SUSIE’S BEAST made, is writing (and
potentially making) a short film something you’d recommend to writers?

Getting a short film made typically will not do a whole lot for a screenwriter’s career. If the finished film makes any kind of a splash at film festivals, it might do something for the director, the actors, maybe even the director of photography. But for the writer – well, hopefully they get a fun and creative experience. That’s pretty much all I wanted out of it. Luckily, that’s what I got! But having your name on a produced short – especially if it wins some awards – can’t do you too much harm. So, yeah, go for it!

You’ve also written another Hollywood-based book—your novel LUIGI’S CHINESE
DELICATESSEN. What was the inspiration for that?

I figured my first novel should be about something I knew, so I wrote about a young guy going to Hollywood with the dream of becoming a screenwriter. The story is loosely – very loosely – based on some experiences I’ve had in this town. As I’ve mentioned in previous interviews: “The book is 97% a work of fiction—and no, I’m not telling you which three-percent is true.” It’s a fun ride, it really is. One review referred to it as a “cautionary tale,” which I think is pretty accurate!

How can people find out more about you and your work?

A BEAST IS BORN is available on Amazon. Check out Jim Vines Presents which is my “creative page” on Facebook, and my screenwriting blog The Working Screenwriter.

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

This is a very silly question, but an excellent one. Let’s see…I’ll have to go with pecan. I love pecan pie. Pumpkin’s also pretty great, especially when it’s topped with whipped cream. But pecan pie on its own – sooooo good!

Q & A with Brooks Elms

Brooks W Stripes

Brooks Elms is a WGA screenwriter of 25+ scripts with a specialty of crafting grounded personal characters and gut-punch story tension. He’s currently rewriting an Oscar-winning writer. Brooks also loves coaching fellow writers who have a burning ambition to deeply serve their audiences: www.BrooksElms.com

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

JOKER. Because it’s difficult to build empathy for protagonists with flaws that lead to violence against innocent people, especially with all the mass shootings these days. I have ethical questions about whether this was a worthy screenplay to produce because the film can’t help but celebrate what it’s also trying to condemn. And I suspect it will inspire as much (if not more) negative consequences as positive ones – but that makes the screenwriting all the more impressive and skillful. Because this was a very popular film and the bar was VERY high for that level of success.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

Making movies with my friends in high school, which led to NYU film school, then writing, directing and producing indie features. In the last decade, I’ve mostly focused on screenwriting. In between my writing assignments, I taught a screenwriting class at UCLA Extention for a while and now I coach other ambitious writers working at the intermediate to professional levels, as my own schedule allows.

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

What’s the alternative theory – that people come out of the womb knowing how to write well? It’s a matter of defining what you love about other stories and getting familiar with the craft choices that lead to those results. I teach this to everybody from beginners to veteran writers so…. yup.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

It’s about the harmony between components. The craft is taking elements (premise, hero, goal, conflict, structure, relationships, setting, theme, tone, etc..) and adjusting aspects of them (size, shape, style, amount, etc..) until we find the right collective balance which allows something bigger to speak through the parts.

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

Losing touch with the delight of the process. And stopping because of that.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Every trope has the potential to be powerful if created with authenticity. It only feels cliche when there’s too much emotional distance from the truth of the intention.

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

I stay away from language choices like what “every writer should know X”. Those types of words can be a distraction from listening to the subtle impulses of your voice. Instead, I invite people to follow their passion. What excites us about our current story? How can we play with elements to unleash more of that excitement? When we share material for feedback, what’s blocking other people from deeper levels of excitement? “Confusion” is the most common blockage followed by “tepid goals and conflicts.”

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

The Duffer Brothers’ HIDDEN, which they wrote before STRANGER THINGS. It was a masterful display of milking tension using minimal assets in a scene. I used that script to teach myself how to make a huge impact on the way I write tension.

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

ALL the paths toward advancing your career have you pitted against the odds. So just pick the paths that speak to you and your budget. Contests can certainly be helpful so have fun playing that game, and detach from the outcomes. It’s about enjoying the journey and welcoming those that come along that happen to love your work as much as you do.

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

Check out www.BrooksElms.com

I run a few programs for writers looking to cross milestones as fast as humanly possible, in ways that are effortless and fun. One program is a deep dive 1:1 mentorship that’s very exclusive and competitive to get into. And I have other ways of helping writers too. So if writers enjoy the content they’ve seen from me online, I suggest they reach out because my team will be happy to help, in one way or another.

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

Now we’re getting to the essential question. The answer is pecan. It’s rich, heavenly and it shines beneath a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Shout out to banana cream for a close second place. It can be spectacular when it’s baked well, but breaks my heart when it’s often messed up.

A little praise goes a long way

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While a majority of my focus these days is on figuring things out for the sci-fi adventure revision/overhaul, I’ve also been taking time to read the scripts for films that have had some kind of influence on both my writing and my material.

The ones I’ve devoured so far are THE INCREDIBLES and SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE. I have scripts for non-animated films as well, but these were the two I started with.

Both were great reads, and also served as fantastic samples of effective writing. I was impressed to the point of wanting to say so on social media, so I tweeted short statements of praise to the writers. Levels of fanboy gushing were kept to a minimum.

Phil Lord, one of the Spider-Man writers, liked it, which was quite nice to see. No word from Brad Bird or Rodney Rothman, nor was I expecting any. That’s not why I did it.

Although they might not always admit it, every writer wants to know somebody liked their work. It’s great when it’s one of your peers, but there’s a special something to when a total stranger tells you “Hey, I liked this.”

Since you’re reading this, I’m going with the theory that you’re on at least one or two social media platforms, and there’s a pretty good chance that a writer or filmmaker whose work you enjoy is as well.

And they don’t even have to be famous. I’ve seen plenty of shout-outs and “This is a MUST-READ/MUST-SEE!” comments for material from other writers and creatives also trying to break into the industry.

No matter who they are, why not send them a quick note expressing your enjoyment? It’ll take you all of ten to fifteen seconds to write, and that’s all you need. Just some nice words. And don’t ask for anything in return!

You might get some kind of response, and you might not. Both are okay. For all you know, despite their lack of response, your comment may have brightened their otherwise gloomy day.

The important thing is you let a fellow writer/creative know that their work had a positive impact on you.

And who doesn’t like to hear that?