A few words from the gentleman from Salinas…

Steinbeck
Didja know he wrote the story for Hitchcock’s LIFEBOAT? But he also didn’t like some of the changes Hitch made to it.

Big thanks to author/blogger Chad Schimke for inspiring today’s post.

John Steinbeck is one of, if not my absolute, favorite authors. I just love the way he writes, and many of his works occupy space on my bookshelf. If you haven’t read him lately – or at all, I highly recommend it.

I’m also very fortunate to live relatively close to his hometown of Salinas, California, where the National Steinbeck Center is worth a visit.

Here are his six writing tips, as originally published in an interview with The Paris Review from 1975.

-Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

-Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

-Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

-If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

-Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

-If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

Now these are all great, but the really interesting part is that in 1963, a full 12 years prior, after being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, he wrote this letter of “Advice for Beginning Writers”, which includes the following:

“If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.”

True, screenwriters should read a lot of scripts, but that’s not all you should read. Books. Plays. Comics. So many choices. Whatever floats your boat.

Take it all in. Read. Enjoy.

Could it get made today?

psycho-house
“Another “boy and his mother” story? Pass.”

Originally, this post was going to be about the multiple changing of protagonists in PSYCHO (which is another great potential future topic), but the more I read about the film and thought about the impact it’s had since being released way back in 1960, it triggered a totally different train of thought.

Every once in a while, when a classic film is brought up in some context or another, the phrase “That could never get made today” will get thrown in. After the recent death of Gene Wilder, his talent was lauded via the mention of several of his most well-known roles. Willy Wonka. The Waco Kid. Victor Frankenstein (“That’s Fronken-steen.”). His performances were vital parts of each film, which no doubt contributed to making them “classics”.

But, as always, it starts with the script. (Incidentally, I don’t think Wilder gets enough credit for co-writing YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.)

Examining the stories being told, each one has something truly unique about it, and then some. The writer (and subsequently the filmmaker) wasn’t afraid to take a chance and try something completely new and different. Sadly, the studios today aren’t as open to it. Better to play it safe then take too big a chance, which is why we’re seeing so many remakes and re-imaginings. Of course, that doesn’t always work out either (e.g. 2015’s PAN, the recent BEN-HUR remake).

While there are always original and innovative scripts floating around, it’s a lot of time, effort and money to make a film. The only recent original film I can think of is SWISS ARMY MAN, which I admit I haven’t seen yet.

Who hasn’t read a “truly original” script or about one getting a lot of attention, but a lot of the time the writer will go on to work on other projects while the script that started the whole thing gathers dust?

The best exception to this that I know of is Travis Beacham’s spec A KILLING ON CARNIVAL ROW, which drew a lot of heat when it sold in 2005, then continued to garner praise while it languished in development for years before ultimately becoming an upcoming series on Amazon – at last check, anyway.

Budgets are getting higher, and the gap continues to grow between microbudget features and mega-budget tentpoles. It’s getting harder for original material to get noticed, let alone something that screams out “NEW!” It also doesn’t help that the chances decrease if the script isn’t based on pre-existing material. This could be why today you’re more likely to see an original film that’s a low-budget independent, probably written by the filmmaker themselves.

Before that, your best bet of seeing something groundbreaking would have been at the hands of established filmmakers, only because they had that kind of leverage (and the budget) to get their projects made. An unknown writer doesn’t have that kind of luxury. All we can hope for is to connect with somebody who likes the script (and our writing) so much that they’re actually excited to help us take things beyond the “Sure, I’ll read it” stage.

That’s our objective as writers: to write something that’s not only compelling and involving, but so eye-openingly original that the reader is compelled to the point that they need to see this as a movie. Doable, but definitely not easy.

Homework time! Part one – find a script you really consider a game-changer for the same genre as yours and give it a read. Can you identify what made it so unique? What really stands out for you? Plot? Story? Characters? A little of everything? Another option is if that script has been produced, then watch the film and follow along with the script. Are they the same? Totally different? Do you think the changes add or take away from the script?

Part two – without blatantly copying the style of that script, work on applying a similar originality to yours. Did reading that script inspire ways for you to make yours really stand out?

Don’t be afraid to take chances. Strive to offer up something we’ve never seen before. The results might surprise you, too.

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Q & A with Babz Bitela

Babz Bitela

Barbara “Babz” Bitela is a literary agent operating out of northern California, a “hired gun” editor for fiction writers, and hosts the Babzbuzz internet radio show “because folks were nice to me and helped me, so I’m trying to pay it forward, and believe me, I’m keeping it real.”

“We want voice on the page. We KNOW it when we ‘hear’ it.”

Her book Story of a Rock Singer is currently being adapted as a Broadway musical.

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

Justified and Bates Motel are my top two. Joss Whedon is by far one of my favorite writers. Buffy the TV series –  WOW!  You can youtube his interviews: it’s like an AA degree in writing and it’s free to anyone.

How’d you get your start as an agent?

I pitched a semi-retired agent named Ed Silver on a book I wrote. He was Lee Marvin’s manager and finance guy, also for James Coburn and many others. The guy’s ‘seen’ stuff, man – Hitchcock napping, for one. He loved my style and offered me a gig to take over and he’d mentor. We clicked big time. He’s Jewish, I’m Italian. As Sebastian Maniscalco says, “Same corporation, different division.” That’s us.

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

You for sure can learn it IF you want to. Here’s why – bad writing obviously sucks. It just does. How do you know that? By reading GREAT (not just good) scripts. I read so much so often I can now tell what’s going to go and what MAY go but here’s the rub: in the absence of money behind it, it may not matter. And I may love it and another may say “meh”. So pov does matter.  So you can learn and pitch but Lady Luck is no lady: she’s a tramp in cheap shoes and she’s fickle. We press on because we believe in the story/writer we hawk. If it goes, it goes, if it doesn’t, well, I’ve had the benefit of “seeing” incredible “movies” and the only down side is, so few others will see that. THE WRITER however, benefits. Why? Job well done. And if you don’t write for the JOY of the craft, there’s no point. Write for the sale? That’s an industry sucker punch. I’ve learned to find great scripts and I’ve learned it can be like screaming in space once you do.

What are the components of a good script?

VOICE, RISING ACTION and TWISTS.  What is voice: it’s a lot like porn – I know it when I see it but it’s hard to describe. Think of it this way: you open a novel, settle in and by page two you’re thinking “Ugh, this just sucks”, but you press on and by page ten you know it’s not the book for you so you donate it to Goodwill. It’s the same with a script. I once read a tv pilot by my client that I couldn’t read it fast enough. Why? I WAS DYING TO SEE WHERE IT WOULD LEAD. The action and characters were alive on the page. That is what makes a good script: I call it NARRATIVE TUG.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Where to start? Typos, for sure. It’s a speed bump.

Wrylies. Just don’t. UGH! Makes me crazy. There’s only one time I’ve seen it used where it worked. ONCE. And that writer is a five-figure-income writer.

Novels posing as scripts. The writer MUST understand the economy of words and do VISUAL storytelling. Telling a story with pictures is a movie. Telling a story with talking is a soap opera.

Avoid using “ing” words – slows narrative, slows the readers eyes.

Avoid “very”. Just find what IT IS. Don’t say “very smart”, say “bright”  – just pick! Not kidding. You’ll thank me. Rodale’s The Synonym Finder is invaluable for writers.

And never fall in love with your stuff. It’s gonna get cut.

What story tropes are you tired of seeing?

Well, many work. Some don’t. My favorite recently was probably in draft form: “Fire all phasers!” But instead he said “Fire everything!” Love it!

But I say write bad and cliché in the draft, leave it there, then go back and rewrite it.

Lots of folks say “Not my first rodeo.” I say “Not my first rocket launch.” Anything to WAKE UP the reader.

What are the three most important rules every writer should know?

I’ve got more than three.

-Don’t enter a script contest pitching a word doc.

-Don’t send a script unless invited.

-Don’t ask me what I think if you don’t want to know.

-Don’t go past 120 pages. I mean it. Try to stay around 100 if you can.

More rules? I think it’s just wise to do 12pt Courier font as it’s tradition. The Coen Brothers don’t use Courier. But they’re already famous, so when you’re famous do what you want. In the meantime, stick to tradition.

What do you look for when it comes to potential clients, both personally and professionally?

No dope. No booze. No drama.

Feet on the ground, and committed to spending tons of time doing what you love, regardless of the outcome.

My clients pitch themselves. They must. If that’s not for you, then I’m not the agent for you, and also, you’re in the wrong business.

Yes, the agent makes inroads, but you must pitch you and build relationships. When you do; AVOID using “I” and ask the person “What do you do, and how do you do it?” Ask about them. We’re people FIRST. That’s why I do Babzbuzz. People like me. They helped me. So I take what they tell me and mush it up with what I’ve learned, and talk about it on my show to try to help.

I’m a small company: I’m WGA.

Meh. Folks hang up on me all the time.

Why?

“Babz, love the script! Who’s funding?”

Crickets.

“Babz, baby. Call us back when you have the dough and I’ll show my client. He may want to star in it.”

EEEK!

What happened to love of story?

Hell, that left the building and moved to an island the actor/director owns. He’s got to feed his family too, ya know. So bring the bricks.

EEEK!

Lightning can and does strike. That’s what I do. I’m really a stormchaser who looks for folks with money who want to buy.

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

Oh man, you had me at the fridge door. Dutch apple. Key lime. Rhubarb when you can find it. And pretty much any clever use of chocolate.

 

Shouldn’t you already be doing this every day?

"Hmm. How about Mrs Bates kills Marian while she's running through the sprinklers? Nah."
“Hmm. How about Mrs Bates kills Marion while she’s running through the sprinklers? Nah.”

Based on what I’m seeing on various social media outlets and assorted online forums, a lot of screenwriters, including myself, are taking part in the self-imposed project of cranking out an entire script by the end of November.

I think it’s great that so many writers are taking it upon themselves to accomplish this. It definitely helps you establish a kind of rhythm or pattern or whatever you want to call it that you can incorporate into your writing process the other eleven months of the year.

A few months ago, I’d originally set a personal goal of having this draft of the low-budget comedy done by the end of the year, so that’s what I’m shooting for. At the rate of approximately 2 pages a day, there’s no reason it couldn’t done by or at least around Thanksgiving, which would be nice.

What’s also proving to be very helpful is that because this is a first draft, which means it will most likely suck (as first drafts often do), and require the requisite inevitable extensive rewriting, I’m not constantly fretting over whether a scene or a line is perfect. I might spend a minute or two on it, trying alternate takes, but I get it out of my system and move on to the next scene. For right now, whatever I write down works.

It’s a very liberating sensation, and removes a lot of that “I have to get it done!” pressure.

Also good – setting a realistic goal. A lot of writers post updates like “Only 12 pages today. Will try to do better tomorrow.” My at-least-2-pages-a-day quota seems kind of dinky in comparison, and while I wish my output were higher, you gotta do what works for you. My schedule also plays a factor. I only have so much time to write, especially during the week, so I figure I can only produce so much in this timeframe, and take it from there.

What it all boils down to is that no matter how much or how often you’re writing, the important thing is that YOU ARE WRITING. Don’t stop, and definitely try to keep up the pace once the calendar changes to December 1st.

Ask an Industry-Powerhouse Script Consultant!

Lee Jessup

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Lee Jessup.

Author of the best-selling book Getting It Write: An Insider’s Guide To A Screenwriting Career, Lee Jessup is a career coach for professional and emerging screenwriters, with an exclusive focus on the screenwriter’s professional development. Her clients include WGA members, Golden Globe and Emmy nominated screenwriters, writers who sold screenplays and pitches to major studios and contest winner. An invited speaker at screenwriting conferences and festivals both in the US and Europe, Lee is a regular contributor to Script Magazine and was the interview subject for a number of film-centric television and web programs. To learn more about Lee and her services, visit www.leejessup.com.

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

It’s a cliché, but I always go back to Breaking Bad episodes, which is probably fresh in my mind because I just did that the other night. That’s master craft right there. I’ve been reading a lot of TV scripts lately; one of the best I read recently actually came from a client who wrote a really amazing, intricate pilot with some amazing, innovative character work. Sadly, I’m not allowed to say who. Can’t play favorites!

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I started reading scripts as a kid – my dad was a film producer, and so we always had scripts lying around the house. I thought everyone read scripts and broke them down for fun – it took me a while to get that some people (like my mother) just can’t wrap their brains around reading that format. After all, a script is not fully realized work – it’s a blueprint made to be elevated by imagination.

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

The more you read, the better you learn to recognize quality. When I send my clients to readers, I am always looking for people who are super-seasoned, who’ve read thousands of scripts, because that foundation really informs the reader about what’s out there and  provides a more solid quality barometer. When someone just starts out reading, they can often find promise in the work, whether or not it’s actually there. It’s after you’ve been reading for a while that you begin really evaluating the script for what’s on the page, rather than the potential your imagination allows you to see in it.

4. What are the components of a good script?

For me it all starts with character, so “must-haves” are things like: wound, stakes, clear goal(s), ample conflict. Michael Hauge has a great saying that a strong screenplay rests at the intersection of story and character. That’s a big one for me. Don’t get me wrong – a strong, clear external journey to take us from act 1 to 3 is a must, but if you don’t have that internal journey, that element of taking a protagonist from living in fear to living courageously, you lose me. At the end of the day, I always look to see what the protagonist’s goal was, whether this was achieved or reversed, and if it was done, whether it was done to satisfaction.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Page count is the most obvious one. I am sure you’ve heard this before, but I find it to be one that’s very, very hard to recover from because ultimately it’s your first impression. Second is another one of those: not enough white space on the page. The look of the material itself. I recently interviewed Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, and Scott talked about the fact that script pages are meant to be read from top to bottom, not left to right. When I am unable to read from top to bottom, when the script is overly described, then the writer automatically has a serious strike against him. Other things that drive me crazy are scenes that don’t move the plot along, or ones that repeat information we already know without giving us anything new. Hitchcock was famous for saying that in every scene you have to get at least two new bits of plot-relevant information, specifically once you’re out of the first act. That’s a great rule to go by.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I am one of those who believes that anything old can be made new again with a new, different, unexpected take, so in this scenario I am actually open to seeing anything so long as there’s a fresh, interesting voice behind it.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

1. This is a craft; you get better as you go along (which means: write a lot!)

2. Screenwriting is iterative work. No one gets it right on the first draft. This is why you finish a draft, you get notes, you finish another draft, you get another set of notes, etc. It’s all part of the process.

3. While writing great screenplays is critical to screenwriting success, it’s only part of what it will take to build your screenwriting career. Building a screenwriting career takes consistent industry-facing efforts that will help construct and progress your screenwriting career. As a writer, your job is to consistently stoke and manage both the creative fire and your industry-facing, strategic fire.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

Gonna have to pass on this one if only for client confidentiality…

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

Winning a big contest is a big deal, which just goes to show that contests are a small-fish/big-pond sort of a game. In order for a win to really work for you, it has to be in one of the biggies, where in truth even high placement goes a long way. For example, every year my clients who place in quarters or semis for the Nicholl Fellowship get multiple read requests from agents, managers and production companies. It’s a way for industry execs to have material vetted for them, and qualified for them to read. In addition, being able to say that you won, were a finalist or a semi-finalist in one of the BIG contests, such as Final Draft’s Big Break or PAGE is generally a door opener. The industry is a bit like the mafia – we need someone to vouch for you. The big contests can certainly help you build that pedigree.

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

Everything anyone ever needs to know about me (and then some!!!) can be found on my website: www.leejessup.com. There’s a full breakdown of how I work, what I do and all the rest of it.

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

Chocolate mousse. Hands down. No question.