Nothing a little maturity wouldn’t cure

tantrum
You’re so mean!

Okay, I admit it. I daydream about being a successful screenwriter. Who doesn’t?

“That mega-hit blockbuster? Yeah. I wrote that.”

It’s nice to think about, but again, it’s still just a daydream. I’m not counting on it. I’d be happy just to make a decent living at it, and that’s what I’m working towards.

I try to be realistic about this, learning from my mistakes and missteps. I’ve been extremely fortunate to be able to ask advice of writers with more experience than me, and I have heeded that advice to the best of my ability.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen a lot of activity online involving writers (usually in the early (read: uninformed) phase of their careers) asking questions regarding a wide variety of topics.

A majority of the time, they get quality answers from seasoned (read: informed) writers. In theory, the original askers respond with “Thanks! That really helps!”, or “So glad you told me!”, or even “Great to know!”. These do happen. On occasion.

And then there’s the other response.

“You’re just trying to kill my/their dreams!”

“What do you know? You only have X credits on IMDB!”

“You just don’t want the competition!”

“I’ve never heard of you, so your advice is worthless!”

“What makes you so important?”

Sigh.

People are going to believe what they want to believe, or are more likely to believe advice that works in their favor, rather than the cold, hard truth. And if that cold, hard truth runs counter to the answers they want (despite them claiming to “seek” them), the harder they’ll reject it.

You may not like the fact that there’s not a snowcone’s chance in hell a major studio/agency/prodco will look at your script, let alone greenlight it for production, even with your without-a-doubt absolutely certain belief they’d grab it in a second if they’d only read it to see how totally awesome it is, but getting angry (and even berating) at somebody who tells you “that’s how it is” makes you look foolish and amateurish. And you’re also setting yourself up for continuous disappointment.

One of the things a screenwriter needs to accept early on is that there are certain truths about the industry and how things work within it. Unless people are completely blown away by the sheer genius of the writing in your first or second draft, (which they will not be. Trust me on this one.), you and your script are not going to be the ones that “change all of that”.

Learn the way things work. Ask questions of those who know better (and more) than you. Accept the answers and adapt. You need to. The industry has no interest in and will not be adapting to you.

No matter how many tantrums you throw.

**Shameless self-promotion! I had the good fortune to be interviewed by my pal Justin Sloan, who hosts The Creative Writing Career podcast, which covers a wide variety of fields and types of writing careers. We had a great time discussing trying to make it as a screenwriter. You can listen to it here, or subscribe to it on iTunes. Thanks for listening!

Do you know what you don’t know?

scarecrow
I’m no ThD (Doctor of Thinkology), but I try

Throughout the online writing community, among the many forums and networking groups, there will always be someone, most likely just starting out, who asks a question along the lines of:

“How do I go about accomplishing THIS?”

The variations on this are endless (as are the number of possible answers, but that’s another subject for another time).

A lot of the time, the question stems from a simple lack of knowledge; they just don’t know. Most likely, it’s about a subject which the more seasoned of us have an answer, probably having lived through it ourselves. Hoping to pass on the benefit of your experience, you provide an answer.

Is it what they were expecting to hear? Maybe. Maybe not. But you are giving them THE TRUTH.

With any luck, the question-asker is grateful and appreciative. A win for both sides. They learn something, and you fulfill the mentor role. Even if you just told them “For God’s sake, DON’T DO THAT!!”

And sometimes they don’t like the answer, possibly even getting angry and resenting you for telling them what is, in essence, THE WAY THINGS ARE. How dare you shatter their illusion in which they can do no wrong? They probably don’t realize how petty and thin-skinned they’re acting; two traits which will doom their potential writing career before it  even gets started. Hey, at least you tried to help.

(Side note – this process is a two-way street. If somebody asks you a question straight out of the first day of Screenwriting 101, don’t insult or belittle them for asking it. You were in that exact same situation once too. Plus, it makes you come across as a total dick.)

If you’re among those just starting out, remember that nobody’s first script is at 100 percent. Mistakes will be made. Don’t be afraid of making them. It’s the only way you’re going to learn.

If you’re among those who’ve been down this road many times, be willing to take on the role of patient educator and help when you can.

Even though writing is for the most part a solitary activity, we’re still part of this community, and all in this together.

Ask a Truly Superlative Script Consultant!

Terri Zinner

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 writer-producer-consultant-instructor Terri Zinner of afilmwriter.com.

Terri Zinner has been in story development for over 15 years. She began as a reader for Blue Cat competition and then a reader for Gallagher Literary, who eventually promoted her to SVP of Development.

Terri is also a produced writer and Producer of independent feature films such as EL CAMINOTHE BRIDE FROM OUTER SPACE and other independent projects. Terri worked on the award-winning film MONDAY MORNING.

Terri has provided story consultation on such films as AMERICAN SNIPER, ALBERT NOBBS, KILL YOUR DARLINGS, BREAK THE STAGE, THE HOWLING: REBORN, WHAT MAISIE KNEW, THE BRASS TEAPOT, LOUDER THAN WORDS and more….

Being named as one of the top story consultants in Creative Screenwriting Magazine, Terri is a sought-out story and screenplay analyst. Terri founded the website A FILM WRITER and developed the Screenplay Reader Training. She mentors and trains a team of screenplay readers.

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

I had the honor of reading the script AMERICAN SNIPER. It’s one of those rare occasions when you know that this script is something special from the very first page. The script was heart pounding and riveting from the opening through the ending. The story just came to life for me, as if I were actually watching the movie. The writer, Jason Hall, earned a well-deserved nomination for a harrowing script. I’m also always in awe of TV writers, who have a special gift with words. I admit I haven’t had much time for watching TV, but DAMAGES was one of my favorite shows because I thought the writers did a terrific job of creating a complex character in Patty Hewes. She was a fascinating, morally corrupt character to watch, and I found the dialogue to be very powerful. I try to watch a variety of films, but when I watch now, I tend to pay more attention to the structure. In fact, I forced my friend to go to a horror film, EVIL DEAD, just to analyze how the structure worked.

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

Like most readers, I began by writing screenplays. I optioned a few, but then I was provided the opportunity to become a reader for Gallagher Literary and a reader for Gordy Hoffman’s Blue Cat competition. I found that my real skills were in deconstructing a screenplay and guiding the writer in the development of their script. I read all I could on developing screenplays, structure, and what makes for a great character. I went from a reader to Sr. VP of Development. It just became a passion that I haven’t overcome. I created my own website AFILMWRITER.COM with the idea of helping writers at an affordable rate. Through word of mouth my business began to grow and expand. I also freelance for other agencies and have produced independent films. I developed a program to help teach and mentor others on how to become an effective professional screenplay reader. I enjoy nothing more than the creative process and mentoring writers in their craft.

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

Like writing, I think being a screenplay reader or story analyst is a craft. It requires a fundamental understanding of the rudiments of structure, plot, tension, character, dialogue, and what makes for a great story.

I actually teach a course for potential readers. It’s an intensive course and the reader is given the opportunity to practice coverage. I’ve seen my readers grow as analysts, but like anything, it requires ongoing learning and understanding the craft, being open to visionary worlds, and having a passion for the craft. It’s not about being punitive or negative, but for me it’s about finding the strengths in the writer’s script and helping the writer build upon those strengths. I do become concerned about people who claim to be professional readers, but know little about the craft. A reader has to have the ability not only to deconstruct what’s on the page, but also to be able to deconstruct what’s not on the page.

4. What are the components of a good script?

There’s so much that goes into writing a great screenplay. It’s a skill to bring those elements together. You can have a terrific idea, but executing that idea is the major challenge. Creating an original concept, or taking a tried and true concept and telling it from a new point of view is one step in crafting good script.

Understanding structure, pace, and how tension and conflict works is pivotal to the craft. Creating deep and complex characters with not only a well-identified external goal, but with inner conflict and struggle is part of writing a great character. Giving characters strong moral choices to make and defining moments can create powerful storytelling. Powerful dialogue can propel a script. Incorporating an emotional theme that’s well assimilated into the script can make for a compelling script.

A writer should be asking questions like this: Is there a ticking clock tension and sufficient tension to sustain the story? Does this tension build? Is there a relationship component to the story? Is there a satisfying ending that involves a hero/foe conflict or confrontation?

A reader knows a great script when they can visualize it as a film in their mind vs. on the page.

For me, the most significant component of a great script is that the script provides an emotional experience, in which not only does the character learn something about life, but so do I.

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

Normally, it’s the lack of the writer having the ability to convey a clear and compelling story. It can be challenging to read a script and not be able to visualize what the writer is attempting to convey. I honestly want to be able to provide constructive notes, but sometimes you run into a script and you’re simply bewildered by what the script is truly about. This commonly occurs when the writer doesn’t stay on task with the goal and the script isn’t goal-focused. The hero may not be proactive. Without a strong structure it’s going to be a long, difficult read for the reader.

For new writers, certainly professional presentation is a common mistake. First impressions are important, but these elements are easily correctable. Writing “ordinary” characters or on the nose dialogue is also more typical with new writers. Some writers tend to over write. They add dialogue when dialogue isn’t necessary and they forget the power of visual storytelling.

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

I recently wrote a blogpost on this topic. Several scripts involved slacker men playing video games. Script after script, all these immature men are obsessed with video games. Some of the other common tropes for me are lines of dialogue that make me cringe. My most feared line in a script has to be: “You’ll never get away with this.” If I read a comedy, most likely in the first act the character will lose their job, get evicted, and break-up with their significant other. If the character races to the airport at the end of the script to stop the person they love from leaving, it’s not original. I have to admit I’m not fond of the script in which the world is in jeopardy of being blown up. There’s always a way of taking the tried and true, and crafting it to be more refreshing.

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

-Learn the craft. Study structure. Understand conflict and tension.

-Understand it’s a creative process. Feedback, coverage, and rewrites are part of the process. It’s not personal.

-Be passionate about what you write.

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

I have been fortunate to read some great scripts ranging from American Sniper to Killing Your Darlings to Albert Nobbs. All were recommends. I’ve read other scripts that I have given a recommend to and they are in development. On the other hand, I have given “consider” to scripts that have also been produced. I’ve watched some of films I’ve recommended and haven’t enjoyed the film as much as the script. “Rating” a script can be somewhat subjective. I’ve given recommends on scripts that others have passed on, and I’ve passed on scripts others have given considers or recommends to. The lesson for writers is that every reader is not always going to love or like your script. That’s okay. You also shouldn’t just rely on one reader. I always encourage getting coverage from more than one professional reader to get a good idea of how readers are reacting to your script. Make sure they know their craft.

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

There are many screenwriting contests, so I think the writer has to be selective in which ones they enter. It can be an opportunity for writers to get their name out in the community and receive feedback, but it’s also a business and can be costly. A writer has to remember that placing in a contest doesn’t necessarily mean the script will receive a consider or recommend from a professional reader. On the other hand, a great script may not place. Contests are very dependent on the reader you get.

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

I am always open to writers or potential readers. They can contact me at afilmwriter@aol.com or visit my website afilmwriter.com

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

Cinnamon Crumble Apple Pie.

Ask One of the Great Brains Behind the GAPF!

Signe Olynyk

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 especially significant for writers ready to pitch their material, as it features an interview with ScriptFest/Pitchfest co-founder Signe Olynyk.

Signe Olynyk is a writer/producer, as well as the co-founder of ScriptFest and www.pitchfest.com, which includes the Great American PitchFest, the Great British PitchFest, and the Great Canadian PitchFest.  She is also the co-founder of the Ultimate Logline Contest, and Your Career In A Day industry workshops. She lives in Canada, and runs the highly regarded Sooke Writers Retreat from a secluded, oceanfront home, where dozens of select writers join her each year for their personal writing retreats. In addition, Signe has written and produced a number of television pilots, series, documentaries, and feature films, and works in the industry. She has professional credits on more than 120 productions, including her two latest feature films, Below Zero and Breakdown Lane. Her work has been seen around the world on the CBC, Discovery Channel, Scream Channel, Fox, the BBC, and various others.

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

Great first question. There are so many. The ‘smartest’ movies I can think of right now include Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, and The Disappearance of Alice Creed, which was incredibly smart and well written. These two films were dramatic thrillers, but I actually feel that comedy is some of the most difficult to write – it has to be smart and well-written, and generally, a brilliant mind must be behind a comedy to successfully pull it off. Creating original characters, situations, and dialogue that makes us laugh, and that we haven’t seen before, is an incredible feat.

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

I got my start reading scripts by writing scripts. For years, I was writing and sharing my work with others in my writing groups. At the time, I didn’t understand the value in reading, but the group I joined took turns reading a screenplay each week for a film that had been recently produced. Reluctantly, I started to read other screenplays. I just wanted to create new material and share script notes by reading each other’s screenplays, not spend my time reading the screenplays for movies that had already been produced. I thought it was going to be a waste of time when I could just watch the films. But that was when my world changed.

When you read scripts, you learn a rhythm and start to see the style in which a writer puts their words on the page. You see how evocative language and onomatopoetic words like ‘sizzle’ and ‘slap’, make your script come alive visually on the page, and in your mind’s eye. When you read other scripts, you discover and absorb lessons that you automatically start applying to your own work. And you are a better writer because of it, thanks to the work of other writers. It’s invaluable to your own development as a writer.

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

Physical limitations are an interesting thing. I love to play soccer, but I know I’m not the best player on the field. My coach can make me run drills, and practice for hours, but my skill level is only going to get me so far compared to others, because there are others who are simply more skilled and talented than I am.

Writing is the same way. Same with math, with physics, with music, art, or sports, or anything really. Someone’s physical brain or body has developed in such a way that they are stronger at a certain skill than someone else.

What really matters is attitude and perseverance. Good writing can be taught or learned, but there has to be a certain level of natural ability and talent in the first place. And then there has to be a passion behind whatever skill you have to really drive success at anything.

As an aside, I have been very frustrated by some of the ramblings of some who like to criticize consultants and say that ‘those who can’t, teach’. What a hugely unfair, offensive and dismissive thing to say. I am the founder of the annual screenwriting conference ScriptFest, which is held each year in Los Angeles. We have had hundreds of speakers teach at the conference, and they are educated, brilliant, and generous people who give back to the community and help writers become better at what they do. Since when did we decide it was okay to criticize teachers? It is not an easy task, and great teachers are a huge gift to those of us who are still learning – which is all of us, isn’t it?

Yes, teaching can be taught. I’m incredibly grateful to all of those who have mentored me in my life. It is the moral obligation of each and every single one of us to share what we have learned with others, so that we can all learn from one another.

4. What are the components of a good script?

I want to see characters I care about in situations I haven’t seen before overcoming outrageous obstacles in the singular pursuit of their goals. I want to feel something, and root for them to achieve their goals. I want to go on a ride with them, and experience an emotional journey as they give everything they have towards reaching their goals, being beaten down and nearly defeated as they pursue an eventual triumph. That doesn’t mean a character must always reach their goal – and by triumph, I mean they’ve learned something meaningful that has changed them forever, for better or worse.

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

Many writers write characters and stories they think people want to see, hear, or read. They cling to stereotypes, which does nothing to create originality or anything of interest to an audience. Finding your own voice as a writer is something that develops the more you write, because your confidence grows as you do.

I also see many writers fall in love with their first script or book, then spend years and years rewriting and tweaking it, and doing rewrite after rewrite. If you want to be a professional writer, you must generate new work. This is important not only because you are creating a body of work, but because you get better with everything you write.

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

Cats leaping out at people in horror stories. The guy who develops a cough, dying part-way through the story. Girlfriends who go after the girl their boyfriend cheated on them with – how stupid is that? Go after the ass who cheated on you! I want to see characters pushed as far as they can in directions and towards goals I haven’t seen before, and making decisions that are real for that character and that people can relate to. I want to see characters overcome their obstacles by making choices that only they would make. Story comes from your characters. Make your character’s reactions realistic for who they are, and have them respond in ways that only they would. Just as each of us has our own backstories, and these experiences shape who we are, our characters need to be developed the same way. Then you create characters and situations that are as real as each of us.

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

-First, don’t miss out on your life because you feel a need to be writing or working all of the time to create success. You must have a life in order to be a great writer. Every experience you have helps to shape you, and you need those experiences to shape your characters and their worlds.

-Second, take care of your health. Watch your posture and get a good chair to support your back. Go on long walks so your characters can speak to you, and you’ll be amazed how ideas will come to you when you’re least expecting it.

-Third, go to every event you can and constantly educate yourself on your craft. You never know who you will meet, or what you will learn that will inspire you, enlighten your work, and help you to create your best work.

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

I’m still seeking that script. I find lots of screenplays that are ‘recommends’, sure. But even then, rarely do you find any script that doesn’t need work, or still has tweaking or ideas, characters, or dialogue that need to be finessed a bit more. There are tons of loglines I read that make me smile and that I get super excited about, and keep visualizing the various scenes, and putting my producer hat on to think about logistics. Although I can’t give a logline exactly, what I can tell you is that they all have certain things in common:

  *TITLE: The title of the script captures the full essence of the story. We know what it is about, just from the title, and the theme of the story is also hinted at. JAWS. UNBROKEN. WILD. UP.

  *CHARACTER: They have a protagonist who is interesting to me, relatable, but who is someone I haven’t seen before. They pursue goals in a way that only they can do, and their backstories make their actions real and believable.

  *PURSUIT OF A CLEAR, IMPOSSIBLE GOAL: They have a goal that seems impossible, and the journey of following this character as they pursue that goal becomes irresistible to me. I must watch them pursue their goal.

  *OBSTACLES: They overcome increasingly serious obstacles in pursuit of their goal. The stakes get more serious as the story progresses.

  *NEMESIS: they have a formidable foe. A Goliath for every David. Goliath keeps putting obstacles in David’s way

  *LESSON LEARNED: the character is different by the end of the story than who they were at the beginning. By going on this journey with them, I am also changed in some way. It is the magical, emotional moment in a movie when your character becomes who they were meant to be, regardless of whether their goal is achieved or not.

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

Anytime you have an opportunity to get your work in front of someone who can make a difference to your career is worthwhile. It’s always a bit of a crapshoot whether your work will resonate with a particular judge. However, a lot of industry people find scripts by judging contests, and really, it’s a matter of the right script finding the right producer at the right time. If that’s the situation, then it behooves any writer – especially without an agent – to get their work out there and in front of as many eyeballs as possible.

Writers may also want to really examine the prizes. What is the real opportunity? Is it just to win a cash prize? Or is it industry exposure? What is more meaningful?

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

I would encourage writers to check out ScriptFest and the Great American PitchFest. It’s an annual, 3-day conference with more than 40 classes, panels, and workshops offered. Writers who’ve written a book or screenplay can pitch it to more than 120 agents, managers and production companies. Visit www.scriptfest.com to learn more.

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

That’s like asking my favorite ice cream! So many kinds, so many flavors! Lemon meringue, pumpkin, butter pecan, coconut cream, banana cream, apple with cheddar…If I have to choose only one kind, I would probably say blueberry-rhubarb. I like the sweet with the tart (kind of like my favorite movies).