The writer’s GPS: always recalculating

The road to screenwriting success is a long and hazardous one, filled with constant obstacles that make you constantly second-guess yourself, doubt your judgment, and even make you wonder if you’re even headed in the right direction.

Trust me, we’ve all been there.

And the longer the journey takes, the longer it seems like anything good is going to happen – if it happens at all.

Who doesn’t know a writer who’s made some progress, only to have things stall out, making them question if it’s worth continuing on, or are just so fed up that they throw up their hands up and say “That’s it. I’m done.”?

As someone who’s been at this for a good number of years, again – totally been there.

There’s a part of me that always feels bad when I hear somebody say this sort of thing. Thanks to social media, I’ve been able to follow many a journey, offering congratulations on successes, and encouragement for the bad times.

So when I’m engaged in an online conversation with someone, and they talk about being so frustrated that they’re ready to chuck it all, I go into pep talk mode with the hope it helps replenish their reserve of strength to keep going.

No idea how effective these are, but I keep trying.

And just like these writers, I feel that way sometimes too. I accept there’s a chance it might not happen, but the optimistic cheerleader in me is quite stubborn and keeps pushing me to stay at it. That, and I like writing too much to stop anyway.

There’s also the realization that my road to success may not be what I initially set out on, and is totally what I make it.

If things don’t seem to be going my way, and often times they’re not, I’ll take a step back and explore what my other options are.

Queries not getting any responses? Read requests fizzling out? Contest results not attracting any attention? The industry constantly saying “Thanks, but no thanks”?

Frustrating, so I’ll try something else.

I’ve got a phone with a movie camera in it, and my computer has basic film editing software, so I can take a stab at making a short film. It might not look great, but it’s something.

Bonus – the $ I’d normally spend on contests can now be put towards a film budget.

I’m fortunate to be connected to some local filmmakers. I can ask if they need any help with their projects. No qualms about being part of the crew, and it’s a great education in filmmaking.

(If the filmmaking opportunities are somewhat limited where you are, maybe see this an opportunity to start laying the foundation to create them.)

I’m extremely fortunate to be connected to writers literally from all over the world. I can ask for feedback on my scripts, and offer to reciprocate.

Since a lot of my scripts are of a visual nature, there’s the possibility of turning some of them into graphic novels. I know a few writers who’ve done this, so I could talk to them about their experience and get their advice and suggestions.

The dream to see the stories we create on the big screen is powerful, and what drives a lot of us to do this. The sad truth is it most likely won’t happen for a large percentage of us.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying, or that it’s the only way it can happen.

You’re going to keep getting knocked down. It’s up to you how many times you’re willing to get back up and try again.

(you + ideas) x plan = 2022

As we stand on the cusp of a brand spanking new year, do you know what you want to accomplish, writing-wise?

More importantly, do you have a plan on how that’s going to happen?

I’m finding that it really helps to take a realistic approach, focusing more on the things we can actually control, rather than the things we would like to happen.

Knowing your own productivity and output, how many scripts do you think you could write/rewrite?

For me, I’m looking at 1-2 new ones, and 2-3 rewrites. Might be a bit of a challenge, but still doable.

I’ve also noticed an increase across social media of writers offering to give notes to other writers, so that’s something also easily achievable. Doing that once or twice a month benefits both you and the other writer, and a lot of the time the other writer will reciprocate, so…win-win.

Lots of writers are also directors or filmmakers, so maybe making a film or a short is part of your 2022 to-do list. Count me among that number. Got a horror-comedy short I’m just itching to make, and have started the ball rolling to see that happen.

No matter what you’re hoping to accomplish this year, I hope you not only do that, but also manage to enjoy yourself along the way. You should be getting as much out of the journey as you do finishing it.

And keep in mind that while you might be flying solo on a project, you’re definitely not alone. Just about every other writer out there is going through the exact same thing. Don’t hesitate to ask for help, advice, or feedback, or to offer it.

Win-win, remember?

Here’s to a phenomenally productive 2022.

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!