Q & A with Paul W. Cooper

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Paul W. Cooper has been a working freelance television and motion picture screenwriter for more than thirty years. With over 60 television credits and one feature film, his awards include three Emmys, the Humanitas Prize, Writers Guild Award and the Kairos Prize.

He wrote the critically acclaimed film ONCE UPON A TIME…WHEN WE WERE COLORED winning Best Picture honors at the Movie Guide Awards. His television credits include MURDER, SHE WROTE, HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN, LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE and THE WALTONS. He served as Story Editor on Oprah Winfrey’s dramatic series BREWSTER PLACE, and has instructed Film and Television Writing at Pepperdine University.

Paul has written 21 ABC and CBS AFTERSCHOOL SPECIALS dealing with subject matter exploring every significant social issue including incest, alcoholism, physical abuse, homosexuality and racism. A number of these projects won Emmys as Best Television Specials for their significant social and dramatic impact.

Paul has written a number of films for cable television, which have appeared on Showtime, Disney, the Animal Planet and Family Channels. He wrote THE MALDONADO MIRACLE for Showtime, produced and directed by Salma Hayek. It earned 5 Emmy nominations and won the Writers’ Guild Award. His film for the Hallmark Channel, THE NOTE was the highest rated Hallmark movie of 2007 and 3rd highest rated of all time.

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

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. Visually stunning. I ached for the characters.

Two of my favorite genres to write in are straight drama and crime. There are two screenplays I constantly refer to so I’m certain the last material I read are one or both of these screenplays. The first is TERMS OF ENDEARMENT by James L. Brooks. It’s the only screenplay that actually brought me to tears while reading. The second is the crime drama SEA OF LOVE by Richard Price.

Here’s my practice. After I’ve written ten pages, I will pick up my dog-eared and worn copy of SEA OF LOVE. I’ll read ten pages (any ten) then come back to the last ten pages I wrote. Now I find myself re-writing those pages with a different tempo. I’ll knock out words from the dialogue to give it a more staccato and street feel. My shoot-outs become more cinematic because now I’m trying to write UP to Richard Price’s standard. And the more I do that, the better writer I become.

When I write a drama-charged relationship story, I use Terms of Endearment the same way. Again, I’m always trying to write UP to the standards of the masters. So those are two works I refer to constantly and believe are incredibly well-written.

Were you always a writer, or was it something you eventually discovered you had a knack for?

I learned I had a knack for writing when, in the 8th grade, the class was assigned to write a short story. Once I started, I couldn’t stop and the world of fiction opened up before me. From that time on I wrote stories, plays, songs and poetry. But I never considered pursuing writing as a career. I was eminently practical and got my degree in business administration.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

There was a war raging in Vietnam when I graduated college. Rather than being drafted, I joined the Air Force, attended Officer Training School, then pilot training. I was a pilot in the Strategic Air Command for six years. I got assignments all over the world including three tours of the war zone and came back registering 61 combat sorties. As a crewmember in SAC, I was also required to sit alert for seven day periods. The Strategic Air Command was our first line of offense in the event of a nuclear war. So we had to be ready. And that meant living in an underground alert facility (mole hole) for those seven-day tours. There’s not a lot to do while waiting for the horn to go off. Guys played poker, shot pool or watched TV.

One night I was watching an episode of MEDICAL CENTER and thought “I can do that”. So I went to my little bombproof room, took out a spiral notebook and started writing. I had never seen a film or television script and had no idea about formatting. So I wrote my story like a play, drowning it in terms like cut to, fade out, dissolve etc. When finished I was optimistically excited and immediately began writing another episode. Then I branched out and wrote for other series popular at the time; MARCUS WELBY, THE WALTONS, SANFORD AND SON, MCMILLAN AND WIFE, and others. Now, none of these scripts was very good, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was I was writing stories, creating characters, giving those characters words to speak. And I loved the sensation, the power I had over these fictional “people” and their lives.

After a year or so of writing television “scripts” I thought it was time for the entertainment world to be exposed to my heretofore undiscovered talent. I wrote to the Writers Guild of America and they sent me a packet of useful information, including a list of agents. So I began firing my material off to agents who would summarily return fire with a politely worded rejection letter and my envelope unopened. Dissolve to a year later when I met my future wife, an Air Force nurse. On a blind date, I discovered she had lived next door to the sister of Earl Hamner, Jr., creator of THE WALTONS. What do you know, I had written two Waltons episodes. Through that connection I contacted Earl and he graciously agreed to read my scripts. I sent them and a week later, he called me and said I should be in Hollywood writing for television. So off to Hollywood I went, Earl became my mentor who put me in touch with an agent, and I was on my way.

Sad to say, my story only reinforces the notion that you have to know someone in the business in order to get into the business.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

People ask, what is or are the most important elements of a screenplay. Some will say character. Others say story. But the answer is – structure. You may have the most beloved character since Hoke (DRIVING MISS DAISY) and an absolute jaw-dropping story (THE RIGHT STUFF), but unless the pieces are stacked properly, the whole construct collapses.

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

The thing I see most often is that a story is derivative. Nothing new. All the same old plowed ground. And this, of course, makes stories predictable. I believe it was William Goldman who said, “Always give the audience what they want, but in a way they didn’t expect.” If it’s true there is no story new under the sun, then at least get us to the desired ending by way of a different road.

Too many words, not enough story. I will often tell a student, “You have a 105-page script here but it only contains 65 pages of story.”

My pet peeves are typos, misspellings and grammatical errors. There’s no excuse for these infractions. They label the writer careless at best and illiterate at worst and create an unfavorable impression for the reader.

Other mistakes are what I call re-hash and deadwood. Never tell the reader what he already knows. And omit anything that doesn’t relate to the premise. Keep the story ever moving forward.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m not a fan of superheroes. It always comes down to the hero battling with an equally powerful villain in an epic cinematic struggle only possible with CGI. Yes, it’s visually impactful, but for me, cartoonish. No matter what the bad guy throws at the hero, he/she
always recovers and comes back for more. After ten minutes of lightning bolts being hurled and mushroom clouds rising over the city, I’m bored.

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

-Determine what your premise is. This is found by asking who your hero is and what does he/she want, need or desire. You should be able to state your premise in ten words or less. The premise of Romeo and Juliet is Romeo desires Juliet (boy wants girl). Indy wants to find the Lost Ark of the Covenant. Rocky needs to go the distance. The premise is your searchlight that must always be in view as you write the story. If it disappears, you’ve taken a wrong turn.

-Be aware of the third question — why do we care? We must be endeared to the hero (or despise the villain) and the hero’s goal must be worthy and important. The implication is obvious. If we’re not emotionally attached to the hero, we won’t care what happens. And if his goal isn’t both worthy and important, we won’t care if he attains it.

-Until the premise is revealed, the story is pointless. In other words, until the audience knows what the hero WANTS, the story has nowhere to go. Example: In Raiders of the Lost Ark, we open with Indy in an Amazon jungle cave stealing some artifact. He barely
escapes with his life and manages to return to his work as a professor at Chicago University. Now what does any of that have to do with the Lost Ark? Nothing. Indy has stated no particular goal so the story is nowhere. But then… he learns of the existence of
the Ark and decides to find it before the Nazis get hold of it. Now the premise becomes, Indy WANTS the Ark. And everything he does from that point on is aimed at achieving his goal. I like to see the premise revealed within the first 20 pages.

-Love is a process. You can’t just put two people together in a story and tell us they’re in love. We may believe it but we won’t feel it. You MUST give us the scenes showing us the behavior that causes one person to fall in love with another. What is it in her that he needs? What does he have that makes her desire him? And it can’t be only physical attraction. We know that people in bars can be physically attracted, fall into bed and the next morning regret it and never see each other again. That’s lust, not love.

-Once the hero has attained his goal… THE STORY IS OVER. Think of it this way. You’re watching a film full of danger and intrigue keeping you on the edge of your seat as the hero hurtles ever onward toward his worthy and important goal. The drama builds. Tension is unbearable. Then, in the exciting climax, the battle between good and evil is waged and the hero wins (or loses as in a tragedy). At that moment, all of the dramatic tension that was built is released like air out of a balloon. At this point, the audience is ready to rise and file out of the theater. THE STORY IS OVER. A common mistake these days is for a writer to keep going with the story even though there is no more tension to be derived. Yes, you often have to spend time to tie up loose ends but this must be done
quickly so you can get out and fade out.

-Think about what the audience is seeing onscreen. I often read a scene wherein two people are at a restaurant. They order. The waitress leaves. The two people converse for about thirty seconds and the waitress returns with their chateaubriand.

-Think of a script as a document of information. Something happens. And that something is first registered in the brain, right? We see and hear the event. Now if that information stops in the brain (intellect), then you’ve failed as a writer. Once it registers in the intellect, then it must go further into the heart or the gut. Those are the places emotion comes from.

-Character development occurs when we create the scenes that show the character behaving in the manner we want him identified with. Don’t tell us Joe is wonderful, he’d give his shirt off his back. Give us the scene where Joe gives the shirt off his back or “Saves the Cat.” Don’t tell us Sam is so evil he’d stick a knife in his grandma’s back. Give us the scene where Sam not only stabs his grandma in the back, but then twists the knife. Those scenes hit straight at the heart and gut.

You’ve written for both TV and film. How does writing for one medium compare to the other?

No difference unless you’re writing for a series. Then you have time (page count) considerations. I’ve written a number of movies for cable television and every one I wrote as though writing a feature film

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

Yes. And the reasons are hard to explain. First, it followed all of the requirements listed above concerning proper mechanics, economy, etc., but beyond that it grabbed my interest on page 2 and never let me go. It had complication, conflict and invention. It gave me the satisfying ending I wanted but in a way that was unexpected.

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

Go to my website at www.PaulCooperScreenwriting.com or my IMDb site: http://www.imdb.me/paulw.cooper

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

Coconut cream. The best I ever found was in a little diner/pie shop in Williams, Arizona. My wife and I always stop there on our trips between California and Oklahoma.

coconut cream

Q & A with Ethan Ransom of Screenwriting Is Hard

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Ethan Ransom began writing at a young age, but didn’t find his way to screenwriting until college, when he had a glorious realization that people actually made a living writing the movies that he loved. Right then and there, screenwriting became his discipline. After finishing two feature scripts, getting married, and moving to LA, Ethan completed the UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting, and then the Screenwriting MFA at The American Film Institute.

He was very fortunate to get repped right out of school, and has been hustling ever since. In 2016, he realized he needed to give back to newer screenwriters who were still struggling to learn what he had and began mentoring and coaching in earnest. He lives down the street from the Walt Disney and Warner Brothers studio lots in Burbank, California, with his incredible wife and three vivacious children.

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

THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK. Great dialogue and characters, great twists, gut punch of an ending. It puts you so squarely in the perspective of the characters, who are isolated, without information, operating on instinct, and doing the best they can, only to have rug pulled out from under them — and thus, us. Not a wasted word in that movie, and great performances to boot! Anyone looking to write a contained thriller should give it a watch and study why it succeeds!

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I made the move to LA after writing a couple screenplays, getting engaged, and getting invited to the UCLA Professional Program for Screenwriting (UCLA’s and USC’s grad programs declined my application). From there, I’ve worked a number of different day jobs — reality TV vault manager, post-production assistant, marketing production coordinator and writer-producer — all while continuing to write.

But my big boost was the screenwriting MFA at The American Film Institute, and specifically the two acting seminars that they made us take. That opened up my world as a writer and gave me a way into my craft that I hadn’t had up to that point. It helped me understand what I was actually trying to achieve on the page: a framework for real, performable emotion, created by the story I would write. I tell people that AFI made me three times the writer I was beforehand. From there, I was fortunate enough to find a manager thanks to my thesis script, and have been on the hunt ever since.

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

I think everyone recognizes good writing intuitively. They feel it — they know it’s good, whether or not they can explain why. I think the ability to recognize why writing is good and to reproduce that in your own work is what’s difficult to learn. I think it can be taught and learned to some degree, but if you don’t have an innate writer’s instinct buried somewhere inside, all the classroom time in the world can’t teach you how to write well.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Far and away, the most important component of a good script is compelling action lines and a rhythm of dialogue that creates the mood and flow of the story in the same way that the movie/TV show will. That’s what sets professional scripts apart: the action lines feel masterful, artful, and they take you through the movie in your mind’s eye in a specific and calculated way to mimic the feeling of watching the final product in your head. That’s the most important thing. That’s what makes for a compelling read, a page-turner, which to me is the best description of a good script.

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

Beyond bad grammar, bad spelling, typos, and improper format, the most common screenwriting mistake I see is action writing that describes the visual moments out of order, where we have to interpret the prose to figure out what we’d actually be seeing if we watched the filmed version of the script. That’s what screams “amateur” to me.

Second to that, I often see dialogue that doesn’t factor in character reactions — as in, the emotions of the lines don’t follow each other moment to moment. One character says something, and then the other character says something that simply would not follow from what the other character said, but is rather what the writer wants or needs to happen. That takes the reader out of the scene, out of the script, out of the story. You just can’t make that mistake and expect your script to work.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

None, really. I love tropes, as long as they’re executed in an original, fresh way. I think tropes exist because certain types of stories just work, but with how much content is being created right now, when you use a trope, you better put a spin on it, or it’s going to be absolutely dull, no matter what trope it is

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

You never need as many words as you think. Cut as much as you can.

Find your writing routine and stick to it. Defend it zealously.

Let early drafts be bad — no one will see them but you! Don’t try to be perfect on the first pass, it’ll just slow you down, and no matter WHAT you do, the first pass will suck!

Ultimately, don’t ascribe to anyone else’s method for writing. Take in their ideas, experiment, and find your own.

Don’t get too caught up with prep work or logistics work — the finished script is what you’re aiming to create. Everything else must serve that goal. Set aside anything that isn’t.

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

Sadly, I haven’t, but the elements that might earn a script a “recommend” are as follows: a unique concept and point of view, stellar writing, a tight and compelling plot, rich characters, and as a bonus, the subversion of genre conventions.

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

As long as you know that winning a contest will never get you a career — you’re basically paying for the chance to, at best, be rewarded with prize money and exposure, and at worst, be told your work isn’t good enough yet — heck, go for it. I think it can be helpful for exposure purposes and getting read in certain places, but like this business, there are no guarantees. Only spend what you’re willing to lose.

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

Email me at ransomwriting@gmail.com, or find me on the socials — @ransomwriting (Screenwriting Is Hard) on Facebook (my services are posted on this page).

People can also follow me on Instagram (@ransomwriting), Twitter (@ethanwransom), and subscribe to my YouTube Channel Screenwriting Is Hard.

I also do mentoring sessions as well as notes on completed work, and am always posting helpful info and links!

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

French silk. Mmmmm. Oui, oui.

french silk pie

Q & A with Lisa Gomez

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Lisa Gomez is a Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter, aspiring screenwriter, novelist and professional story analyst. She writes screenplays, songs and novels with her twin sister. Together they are writing a Barry spec, a 30-minute dark comedy, a period drama pilot, and a feature based on their father’s life as an immigrant and his pursuit of the American Dream. She is currently obsessed with Disneyland, matcha, the tv show Barry and reading as many books as she possibly can. You can visit her script consulting website at geminiscriptconsulting.com.

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

The pilot of Barry. It has everything that makes a story compelling and unique. Professional screenwriters have always given aspiring screenwriters these three bits of advice when setting up a character and a world: 1) Start the story with your main character doing something interesting.  2) Show the main character’s day to day, show the audience what a typical day in the life of this main character looks like. 3) Show the audience the main character’s problem. Well, in a whopping 30 minutes, this show delivers all of this and sets up the promise for more.

[Spoilers for the pilot of Barry ahead]. The very first moment of the show shows Barry walk into a hotel room, holding a gun while the camera mostly focuses on the dead body that’s lying on a bed with a bullet through his head. Immediately, this sets up the main character doing something interesting… okay, so, he’s a killer. Possibly a hitman. Whoa, that’s interesting. Then, it shows Barry’s day-to-day. We see him fly home on an airplane, get annoyed at a fellow passenger that opens a window to let the light in (a subtle but effective metaphor), then he plays video games, alone, and takes a shower, alone. Immediately, we get it. This is one lonely and depressed dude that gets no fulfillment from killing.

So, within the first five minutes (and theoretically the first five pages of a screenplay), Barry sets up the main character doing something interesting (killing someone), shows the main character’s typical day to day (he flies home after a hit, he’s alone, bored and does nothing substantial besides killing) and sets up what his problem is (that he’s depressed and gets no fulfillment from his job). It’s a pitch-perfect setup to a show. One could argue that the set-up is traditional and therefore cliché. But because this is a unique character and the premise is so bizarre, Bill Hader and Alec Berg made this setup interesting and makes the audience clamoring for more. And this is all just the first five minutes… if you haven’t seen this show, please do. It’s a masterclass in writing.

One of your job titles is story analyst. What does that job entail, and what are your responsibilities?

A story analyst is essentially someone who gives script coverage for studios, production companies and agencies. In other words, someone who receives a script and has to write notes on that script, on what’s working and what’s not working with the script, if I would pass, consider or recommend the script for the agency/studio/company. I have to read the script in its entirety, write a synopsis of the script, write a logline, describe the main characters and then write comments on why I would pass or recommend the script. Occasionally, in my notes, I offer solutions to story problems.

How’d you get your start doing that?

This is a fun story. My sister actually found an internship listing for a script coverage reader for a literary agency on entertainmentcareers.net. I applied and got the job. I did that for about a year. Then, as luck would have it, a Nicholl fellow walked into my retail job and I recognized him because he spoke at one of the classes that I took at UCLA Extension. We got to talking and he said he could refer me to a low-paying but highly regarded script coverage job. I applied, had to do test notes on a script and then got that job.

Once I started getting more and more experience, I had screenwriting friends I’d met in various networking events in LA refer me to different script coverage jobs. Every friend I met through networking was an aspiring screenwriter that eventually got a job in the entertainment industry and either reached out to me about the script coverage job or I would ask if they knew about any script coverage jobs. This is truthfully the first time I finally understood the importance of networking in this city.

When you’re reading a script, what about it indicates to you that “this writer really gets it (or doesn’t get it)”?

First and foremost, the grammar. I know, that seems like such an obvious answer but it’s true. You would not believe how many scripts I read that have beyond atrocious spelling and grammar. Sometimes the ends of sentences don’t have periods. I wish I was joking.

Secondly, clarity. What do I mean by that? Clarity is probably the easiest and the hardest aspect of writing a great screenplay. Easy because once you put on the page exactly what you want the reader to know, you’re done. Hard because putting exactly what you mean on the page is very very difficult. This is why script coverage or having someone read your script is helpful. It can point out the areas that the writer thinks makes sense but in reality, it doesn’t and it only makes sense to the writer.

Clarity, for me, means a few things. One, that the writing makes sense. For example, if you’re writing an action scene, please write description that is easy to follow and easy to read. The worst thing you can do for a script reader is make them read lines of description a few times in order to understand what’s going on. We get bored and frustrated.

Secondly, that the character’s arcs, story and plot is clear. It sounds simple, but again, most scripts don’t have this. I think it’s because the writer knows the story so well that the writer forgets to put in important and obvious things. For example, I was doing coverage on this script where the main character was queer. It was a very interesting main character, but I didn’t understand why this character’s queerness affected their journey because every character that interacted with this character loved and relished their identity. The writer then told me “Oh, because this story takes place in 2010.” BAM! I now understand the context of the story. But that date was nowhere in the script. It could be little details like that that can make a script clear or unclear.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Clarity/conciseness. No one wants to read a script that doesn’t make sense, or rambles on too long. Make it sweet and to the point. And make it fun and interesting to read.

An interesting main character that has an interesting and relatable problem. So many scripts I read don’t have this in its entirety. Especially the relatable part. The main character might have an interesting problem, but it’s something that literally no one on this earth can relate to.

When the main character has a goal that’s actually attainable, but also difficult. This is something I don’t see all the time. What’s really important is that your main character has the skills to defeat their problem/the antagonist but it’s still difficult. A great example of this not happening is Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Sure, you know that Rey is strong, but you don’t know specifically how Rey will be able to defeat Palpatine. This makes the story boring because the audience can’t participate in her journey in how she can do that. She just defeats Palpatine. It’s not set up how she can. It just happens. This is story suicide.

The script is great if it has something to say. What is your theme? What is your unique point of view on the world? Not only that, but what is your unique point of view on a specific theme? For example, everyone writes about redemption, but what are you trying to specifically say about redemption? Are you saying it’s not possible (Barry), that it is possible, but a very hard road (Bojack Horseman), or are you saying that it is possible (Star Wars: Return of the Jedi)?

Interesting situations/scenes. If you have a scene where two people argue, that can be boring. If you have a scene with two people arguing in the middle of a mall, that instantly makes it more interesting.

Great dialogue. If you have dialogue I’ve heard before, that makes me cringe. If you have dialogue specific to the character and only that character can say it, it makes me happy.

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

The way screenwriters describe women as beautiful, sexy, or simply defined by their looks. It’s disgusting, objectifying and just plain terrible. It’s 2020. Women have always been complex. It’s time to write us as such.

Too much description. Description writing is very hard, but please don’t have paragraphs and paragraphs of description. Try to write what only needs to be in the script but as simply and concisely as possible.

Cliché dialogue. A lot of the scripts I read have the following lines: “It’s too late!” “You really don’t get it, do you?” “Hi, my name is [blank].” “So, are you new around here?” It’s exhausting. We get it. You’ve seen a lot of movies. Please prove it by not giving us these lines that we’ve all heard a million times. Sometimes it’s inevitable. You have to. But please try to the least you possibly can.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

One-dimensional women. I promise you, women are human beings that have ambitions and feelings that don’t revolve around men.

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

Write from the heart.

Write with something to say.

Get your first draft out as quickly as possible.

Even if you don’t like outlining, do it.

Read screenplays. They’ll help you write screenplays.

Live life.

Enjoy the process of writing.

Show your writing to people who will give you honest feedback.

Have a clear structure in your story.

Pitch your show/movie idea to your friends. If they don’t like it, either fix what’s wrong with the premise or think of another idea.

Screenwriting contests. Worth it or not?

Yes. Contests are great for deadlines and keeping yourself accountable. Because, if you’re paying that submission fee, you want to submit the best work that you have. However, don’t make your entire screenwriting identity about contests. I did and that got me nowhere. Use them for deadlines and don’t think about them after you submit. Just write the next script.

Follow-up: You’ve placed in the top 50 of the Nicholl. What was the script about, and what happened for you and/or the script as a result?

The Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting are amazing. I’ve had friends become Nicholl Fellows and I’ve had friends in the top 50. We all have similar experiences.

That script was co-written with my writing partner, my twin sister. It’s a biopic about the nine weeks that Vincent van Gogh spent with fellow artist and rival Paul Gauguin. What started off as a friendly rivalry between them ended with Vincent cutting his ear off. It was my sister’s and I’s first screenplay… and it was the first draft. When we were announced in the top 50, we got about a dozen e-mails from huge agencies… I’m talking, CAA, WME, Anonymous Content, you name it… we sent them our script and then… crickets. I believe this script wasn’t ready and I also don’t think we sent them out to the agents and managers that would respond to our type of script anyway.

Here’s my biggest piece of advice if you place highly in a reputable script contest: contact the managers and agents you want to or agents that represent writers that write similar scripts to you. If my sister and I did that, I think we would have been represented by now.

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

I recently began my own script coverage service. If you would like quality script coverage with an affordable price, please visit my website at geminiscriptconsulting.com.

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

Aye, there’s the rub. Unfortunately, I have a gluten and lactose intolerance, so I can’t have pie unless it’s gluten-free and dairy-free. I know, it’s a sad existence. However, if I could have any pie, I personally love apple pie. Maybe because when my stomach could handle those pesky ingredients, I would always love getting apple pies from McDonald’s during my youth and that taste just brings back good, happy childhood memories.

apple pie

 

Proofreading Q&A panel – part 1

Tammy Gross
Tammy Gross
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Bill Donovan and friend (Bill’s the less hairy one)

When you read a script, it’s not just about “Do I find this story interesting?” or ” Why should I care about these characters?”. There’s also “Does it look like a professional script?”

That’s where proofreading comes in handy.

This week offers up a 2-part panel discussion with professional proofreaders Tammy Gross of proofmyspec.com and Bill Donovan of screenwritingcommunity.net to discuss proofreading and its connection with screenwriting.

Enjoy.

How exactly does one proofread a screenplay? What are some of the things you’re looking for?

Tammy Gross (TG): That’s a loaded question! For me it boils down to what I call “the language of screenplay.” Spec screenplays need to be streamlined, devoid of technical distractions and written in a cinematic style that transports the reader to the theater.

And, of course, it’s my job to fix all the “errors.” In context, misspellings and bad grammar are often intentional and work better than perfect grammar and spelling conventions. However, you gotta know the rules to break them. And there are many ways to format some things, though the best is always whatever is clearest, most economical, and relevant to the story.

My job is to make a screenplay easy, fast, and fun to read – and up to professional standards. So I look for anything that gets in the way of that.

Bill Donovan (BD): My service is a bit of a hybrid. I give some story and screenplay structure notes as well as proofread and copy edit. The proofreading/copy editing part covers:

— Typographical errors
— Spelling errors
— Grammatical errors
— Punctuation errors
— Capitalization errors
— Verb tense errors
— Sentence structure and clarity problems
— Basic formatting mistakes
— Cramming in too many words
— “Saying” when you need to show

What’s the difference between editing and proofreading?

TG: When it comes to screenplays, it usually is a matter of time and thoroughness. Proofreading should be the last step before submitting a screenplay to anyone for consideration. In a perfect world, a screenwriter will go through various phases of self-editing. Once it’s polished, it should probably receive a copy edit to have fresh eyes to catch all the formatting, consistency, and text issues. After it’s been cleaned up and the story is solid, it’s time for proofreading. And the depth of proof-editing depends on the writer’s level of proficiency.

I take it a couple steps further than most. First, I create a style sheet to ensure that preferences are observed and maintained throughout. I also work very hard to help the screenwriter understand the edits I’ve made so they can grow in their craft. I’ve seen writers improve from script to script as a result. Some have gone from disaster to master.

BD: There are key differences. Proofreading, strictly defined, is a bit more limited. It involves fixing actual errors, such as typos, missing words, missing punctuation or wrongly-placed punctuation, capitalization errors and other outright mistakes. Copy editing covers all of those mistakes and also addresses larger issues of clarity, such as fixing a sentence or paragraph which may be grammatically correct but is vague.

I have great difficulty leaving a badly-written sentence or paragraph alone even when it might be okay in strict proofreading terms. Since I make my changes in colored type, I figure that the writer can go in and change it back if he/she prefers his or her own phrasing.

For example, some of my clients write much of their scene description in partial sentences. That’s fine if you can do it well. However, most of the writers who come to me do not write partial sentences well. The meaning is clear to them because they know what they mean. However, if it’s not clear to the reader, I fix it or give the writer a note suggesting that he or she fix it.

A lot of writers might say “I can do just as good a job proofreading it myself.” Your response?

TG: In nine years I’ve read only one screenplay that was error-free, including shorts. The biggest mistake even the most experienced writers make is assuming that because they understand some mechanics, they have a full grasp of format. While everyone claims there are no “rules”, there really are guidelines that are basically rules. Very few writers can keep up with the latest standards the way I and other professionals (hopefully) do.

My favorite trick for self-editing is to simply read backward from bottom to top. But it won’t catch everything. Most quality scripts go through many revisions and rewrites. It’s bound to pick up some introduced errors along the way that you become blind to.

BD: If you’re very good at English language usage, and if you’re an experienced editor, and if you walk away from it for a while, and if you then focus on every word and every bit of punctuation for all possible mistakes from overall clarity down to missing commas, yes, you can.

But will you? For example: I’ve sent out email blasts for my proofreading service about 15 times in the past 15 months. Three times, recipients have written back, gleefully and snidely, “Ha-ha! I found a typo in your email blast.” They were right. How could I make such a mistake, in a blast advertising proofreading, when I have thousands of pages of experience as a proofreader and copy editor? I know exactly how: The mind tends to gloss over the tiniest little details of that which you have written yourself, and you become both tired of reading it and eager to get it out.

What are some common mistakes you usually see?

TG: I have a very long, and boring list of words and format issues I plan to turn into a book once I can figure out how to make it fun and simple to reference. The usual suspects: its/it’s, your/you’re, there/their/they’re, lie/lay. A baffling but common one is “draw” instead of “drawer.” Possibly the biggest peeve and most common issue is passive voice.

There’s also a zeitgeist in the editing world. One year something like “clinch” vs. “clench” needs fixing in every script (or manuscript) I read, then the next year everyone is misspelling or misusing “rifle” vs. “riffle.” It’s weird.

Also, some things in spec writing evolve, so things that were “mistakes” five years ago are perfectly normal or even preferred today. I work hard to keep up on the current trends and roll with the changes, but I’ll probably never accept “how r u” for spoken dialogue.

BD: This is the short answer. I maintain a document on common mistakes screenwriters make. It’s 14 pages of paragraphs and explanations. These are not in order of frequency, but are some of the most common:

1. The “Their, they’re, there” and possessives sort of grammar mistakes.

2. Missing commas. Commas are sneaky little creatures, always slipping away from your text where it needs one.

3. The worst, and surprisingly common, is the “Show, don’t say” mistake. John Vorhaus, author of The Comic Toolbox, summed it up perfectly:

“You could tell by his face he was thinking of Paris.”

But, of course, you can’t tell by his face what he’s thinking of. He could just as easily be thinking about a juicy cheeseburger.

4. Specifying shots. In film school, they used to say that you learn to write by directing and you learn to direct by editing. You don’t learn to direct by writing, so the decision on shots should be left to the director 95% of the time. Even when a closeup is required in order to provide closeup information, it can be done without saying “CLOSEUP” or “CU”. I don’t tell writers not to specify a closeup, but another way to do it is a separate paragraph describing the content of the closeup. The director will get the idea.

5. Run-together sentences. Even grammatically-correct compound sentences can be bad choices when they gloss over the action. They forego the opportunity to emphasize great moments. One way to “direct the director” without specifying shots is to write a separate paragraph for each camera setup.

For example:

“Jack kisses Jill and they walk off into the sunset.”

Better:

“Jack kisses Jill. Their lips lock, long and loving.”

“They break the kiss. Grasping hands, they turn, and walk off into the sunset.”

New writers tend to rush through both the blocking of scenes and the emotions of the moment. In contrast, a recent client of mine, a produced director and stage director, wrote a comedy screenplay so precisely that many of his descriptions were delivered with punch lines in visual jokes. It was marvelous to read.

6. Writing in present participle rather than present tense. A screenplay is action taking place NOW. Sometimes, present participle (“Jack is standing”) is unavoidable because it’s needed for clarity. However, if Jack pulls out a gun and then pulls the trigger, then “Jack shoots,” not “Jack is shooting.”

7. Incorrect use of ellipses.

8. Incorrect parentheticals. If a character does something before speaking or after speaking, it doesn’t belong in the parenthetical; it belongs in the scene description.

9. Failure to do research. When laws, government regulations, and historical events are mentioned, they should be correct. I’ve seen two screenplays in which the writers had significant plot turns saying that under HIPAA, they couldn’t get their own medical records because they were company secrets. It’s the other way around.

My list has quite a few more. Again, the “common mistakes” reference I’ve created is 14 pages long and growing.

Do you have a “most memorable” example of writing that was in severe need of proofing?

TG: My very first client almost scared me off from doing this. I put my website up in the middle of the night and a guy in Australia emailed me almost immediately. He sent me a Word file filled with something more like ideas or musings about some stuff in outer space. No formatting. No story. I don’t think there were even any characters or dialogue. Fortunately, my second client wasn’t high after a long walkabout (that I know of) and let me cut my teeth on a good script in Final Draft (my favorite, though I work in every program under the sun).

BD: Yes, and no. I just turn back the “most memorable” with notes suggesting to the writer what should be done before hiring me to proofread the work. For example, I recently sent back a feature script that was 195 pages with the suggestion that it be cut to 115.

Part 2 will post on Friday

Beware the monsters with green eyes!

green eyes
And done without the benefit of contact lenses

Not one, but two, count ’em – TWO, fantastic get-to-know-you chats with some fellow local writers over the past week. (Eight days if you want to get technical about it)

As part of one of these discussions, the topic of dealing with criticism came up. In particular, criticism that seems to come from a harsh, angry place. They go way beyond “This needs work”, and potentially surpass the purpose of notes to the point of simply being downright cruel.

“This is shit. Whoever told you you could write?”

“Any attempt to fix this would be a waste of time. Just give up now.”

Chances are you’ve been on the receiving end of these kinds of notes. I certainly have.

When we’re first starting out, we don’t realize how much we don’t know, and that’s reflected on the page. There’s not one experienced writer who thinks their first script or two was perfect.

So you work at it. You toil away, constantly putting in the effort to improve. And over time, you do. You know you’ve gotten better, and that also comes through on the page. Maybe you’ve even gotten compliments or (gasp!) praise about your work.

But despite your progress, you might still get a note like those above that totally trashes what you’ve written. This has also happened to me. Fairly recently, I might add.

What myself and the other writer discussed was “Where does this anger come from?” We’ve both been doing this for a while, so neither of us is a total noob. We each had more than a few scripts under our respective belts, so what could possibly be the basis for such a mean-spirited rant?

I casually threw out something I’d only read about and heard in the occasional mention: Could the person giving the notes be jealous of the material, and they were venting their anger and frustration about it via their notes?

Let me set one thing straight. I think I’m a good writer, but I will never claim to be the be-all and end-all. In fact, I’d be amazed if somebody was jealous of my work.

When I read somebody else’s script and find it totally amazing, I’ll tell them so. Do I wish I could write something that good? Sure, but it makes me want to work harder so I can. I don’t think “I’ll never be as good as them, so I’ll shit all over their material in order to make myself feel better.”

Taking this kind of negative approach can only result in a lose-lose scenario for you. You make yourself look bad and the other person will most likely not want anything to do with you anymore. And don’t think they’re going to forget you. To them, you’ll always be that angry asshole.

Something else to keep in mind – you never know who’s going to succeed, so the person whose script you just trashed could potentially be the next big thing. Wouldn’t you rather be on their good side, and not their shit list?

I work really hard to establish and maintain my network of connections, and value each one too much to do that. I want everybody to succeed and actually enjoy helping if and when I can.

But then again, I’m just a nice guy to begin with. Even if I do occasionally end sentences with a preposition.

But that’s nothing to be jealous about.