Super-busy times around Maximum Z HQ these days, so rather than bore you with tedious details about my current slate of projects, I thought it would be better to offer up a few classic posts dealing with the idea of writers connecting and interacting with other writers.
Potentially entertaining side note – Feb 9th marks 10 years since I started this blog. Like with my scripts, it’s been a labor of love, and I appreciate every single one of you taking the time to give it a look. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it and have found it helpful in one form or another.
Ten years. Gosh. That’s a lot of posts about screenwriting, and the occasional mention of pie. Hope you’ll join me in celebrating by indulging in a little bit of both.
What’s the last thing you read/watched you thought was incredibly well-written?
I have small children so I don’t get to the theater as much as I’d like, but I recently saw I, TONYA and thought it was fantastic – a real pleasant surprise! I remember the Nancy Kerrigan incident vividly and, at the time, there wasn’t a bigger villain than Tonya. Yet Steve Rogers managed to make her sympathetic by focusing on her relationship with her mother and other aspects of her home life. Then you add breaking the fourth wall and other stylistic choices, and the characters became self-aware in a manner that added to their depth and relatability. BABY DRIVER was great, too. Loved the way they used music to tell the story. Very Edgar Wright.
How’d you get your start in the industry?
I became a script reader for a small production company based at Sony. I read for free as I wanted anyway into the machine. I would go in on off days or they would messenger me scripts, back when that was a thing, and I would write up coverage and fax it back to them, when that was a thing. I became friends with the assistants in the office and when I said I wanted to do development, they put me up for other assistant gigs.
Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?
From my experience, recognizing good writing is innate. Many years ago, I went home for Thanksgiving and took my weekend read with me. My sister got curious and started reading some of them. She read one that was a spec from an unknown writer and she was surprised at its mediocrity. She stopped reading after 40 pages and picked up another. This time she started laughing straight away and continued through the whole 100 pages. That script turned out to be AMERICAN PIE. She knew the difference between the two scripts quality-wise with no training, but what she wasn’t able to do was tell me what was wrong with them via screenplay/story theory or how she would have fixed any issues. That part needs to be learned and practiced as one would with any craft.
What do you consider the components of a good script?
The biggest component revolves around making the story or premise personal to you, the writer. If it’s not something you’re passionate about then how are you going to put 100% effort into it? If you can’t connect to the premise, then how can the reader or the viewer? John Truby says this issue leads to generic, unoriginal work and I have seen this first hand with my college/university students. Just recently, one wanted to do a crime thriller that had an okay hook, but was otherwise unremarkable. I asked why he wanted to do this project and he said it was because he loved those kind of movies and this sounded cool. I told him my doubts and he got frustrated. He said that he has trouble making decisions about writing because he doesn’t want to make mistakes that can’t be undone easily. When I pressed, he said he felt that way about many things in life, not just writing. I told him he should write about that concept. His eyes lit up!
The other key component are the forces of antagonism. I don’t just mean the villain. I mean everything that holds back the protagonist(s) from their goals. The better they are, the better the tension, drama and comedy become.
What are some of the most common screenwriting mistakes you see?
Because I work with many writers in the development of stories from early in their conception, impatience reigns the king of mistakes. Often times writers want to rush into the actual writing before they’ve explored a premise fully. The don’t want to do enough research to make the story richer or come up with alternative character motivations and story points that might make their project surprising and original. They don’t want to take hard looks at their structure because they have something in their head and want to get it out. I get it. I’ve felt the rush of getting something down in Final Draft, too. However, whenever I’ve let a client or student get on with it despite my objections, it always goes wrong. They create a story and/or characters that are generic or derivative. They come to the point where the structure doesn’t work and either get stuck or plow forward anyway and there’s structure or story flaws. Now for some writers, this is the process they need to go through. This is how their brains process information. That’s fine, but whether that is the case or they are just steadfast, we end up going back to the drawing board to pull everything apart as we should have done originally.
Aside from that, overwriting tends to be an issue, especially with newer writers. Screenplays are meant to be quick reads and having a lot of black on the page slows that down. Learning economy of writing is essential. I realize that many people, myself included, like Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino’s style, which creates these dense, epic screenplays and, that further, feel they should follow suit. However, one, that’s being derivative; two, they’re directing the work so they probably doing it partially because they don’t want to forget anything; and three, they’ve earned it as they had to fund their first films in this style mostly themselves and became successful with it.
What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?
Tropes don’t bother me. It’s what is done with the tropes that matters. Whenever a superhero movie comes out social media garners a a lot of eye rolls and hate from various creative or general public communities and then WONDER WOMAN, DEADPOOL or BLACK PANTHER comes out and shakes things up. Teen horror films is another one that gets a lot of grief, and then HAPPY DEATH DAY hits the screens and all of a sudden cyberspace is hit with short memory syndrome. Take tropes and tell them in unique ways.
What are some important rules every writer should know?
-Observe people, places, things and ideas.
-Observe by asking questions and listening to what people say and don’ t cut them off to speak about yourself.
-Travel and observe what’s around you.
-Write down what you observe and think about what universal truths of the human condition emerge that matter to you.
-Read good scripts and watch good movies so you know what works.
-Read bad scripts and watch bad movies so you can recognize problems to avoid.
-Notes are opinions. They aren’t personal.
Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, what were the reasons why?
I haven’t read many. TRAINING DAY may have been one. THE SIXTH SENSE may have been one, too. The reasons are for the usual hallmarks: great voice, original take on a premise, explored some kind or large idea, writing that moved my emotions (tense, scary, etc) and structured well. Then the other side of the equation, the business side, saw great roles for movie stars to play, was something my company might do and had general commercial appeal.
How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?
That’s a tricky one. On the one hand, if you can win one or at least become a finalist, it can get you noticed. The bigger the competition the better your chances, obviously. If you live outside of Los Angeles or don’t have a friend that works in the industry, it may be one of the only ways that you can garner attention. On the other hand, if you enter many of them, it can get expensive. Also there is a fundamental truth about screenplay competitions: there has to be a winner. It’s the best of what a competition gets that year, not necessarily the best written thing that would attract an agent or manager and that sometimes makes Hollywood impatient with competitions. But all in all, I say they are worth it. Especially if there’s some sort of networking attached to winning or placing.
How can people can get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?
I’m very easy to find: andrewzinnes.co.uk. You can message me from there. I live in the UK, but work with writers all over the world. Thank you FaceTime, Skype and WhatsApp!
Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?
Busy times around Maximum Z HQ (including some details listed below), so another shorty today, but first:
Big announcement time!
Two weeks from today, the 2018 Maximum Z Screenwriter’s Gift Guide will go up. It’ll feature holiday deals on script consulting services (from many of the consultants profiled on these very pages), books about screenwriting written by screenwriters, along with books written by screenwriters, but aren’t about screenwriting, as well as all kinds of other fun stuff that any screenwriter would enjoy receiving.
If you have a product or service like these that you’d like to be included, or if you’re a filmmaker with a crowdfunding effort for your latest project, and you’d like more people to know about it, don’t hesitate to drop me a line. (Email’s on the About Me page)
Cutoff date is Tuesday 20 November, so don’t wait until the last minute!
Now about those aforementioned busy times…
-Slow but steady progress on the horror-comedy spec. So far, my outline-to-page ratio is a bit off – page count exceeding outline expectations – which means I’ll some major editing (i.e. cutting) to do once it’s complete. But I’m having fun writing it, which is really what it comes down to anyway.
-Also have a little touch-up work to do on the sci-fi spec, with the help of some recently-received great notes.
-Been busy with the occasional reading and giving-of-notes. Have I mentioned how great it is to know so many talented writers? Yes indeed.
-Speaking of crowdfunding, filmmaker Ben Eckstein is looking for more backers for his current project WINNING. They’re a portion of the way there, but every little bit helps. Donate if you can!
Settle yourself into a comfy chair with your refreshing beverage of choice at the ready, because have I got quite a story for you. Hopefully one from which everybody can benefit.
I belong to a few screenwriting-oriented networking sites, and do what I can to engage with other members. I do what I can to be friendly, outgoing, and supportive with each connection.
Back in mid-July, I got an email from one such person. Their bio lists them as a “producer, screenwriter, and script consultant”. Would I be interested in a script swap? Despite having a few other reads already lined up, I’m always up for such a thing and agreed, telling them I’d try to get to it soon. Turns out they were in a similar situation.
They sent their script, and I sent mine. After a few days, I’d worked my way through the other projects and started in on their script.
I won’t say it was awful, but I’d have to say in all honesty it simply wasn’t good. I’d also add that it made me seriously question their credentials.
Among the details:
-a passive protagonist I really didn’t care for, and who didn’t give me any reason to want to see them achieve their goal.
-a weak antagonist with a cartoonish goal
-underdeveloped story/bad structure, including several unresolved subplots and a big letdown of an ending
-flat supporting characters
I pointed out what didn’t work for me and why, and offered suggestions of potential fixes. (I always make a point of never ever saying “this is how I’d do it”.) I’d estimate it was around 2 pages worth of notes, and they were free to use or ignore whatever they wanted.
I sent it out Friday afternoon.
Saturday morning, this was the email I got.
Seriously. That was it.
I came to two potential conclusions:
-I was an ignorant know-nothing boob to the nth degree with zero appreciation for their extraordinary skills (“How dare you not recognize my genius!”), and they were just saying “thanks” to be polite
-My notes were so cruel and inhuman, and if that was how we were going to play that game, then they’d be just as ruthless and grind my script into a bloody mess
Hyperbole on my part? Maybe, but check out their response again and think about what your reaction would be.
I figured it was one or the other, but all I could do now was wait (while working on other scripts, naturally).
Quick reminder – this was the end of July.
August passes. No response.
September. Still nothing. (but I did finish the outline of another script, so…yay)
Hmm. Several possibilities now.
-they still haven’t read it
-they read it, but haven’t gotten around to sending the notes
-they forgot. It happens.
-because of what I said about their script, they were deliberately not reading it OR sending the notes. To punish me, I guess?
September came to a close, and I figured I’d been patient enough.
I sent an email – “Know it’s been a while, and I’m sure you’ve been busy, but wanted to check in and see if you’ve had a chance to take a look at my script. Thanks.”
Five days later…
“Best script I ever read.”
Again, that was it.
I asked if they could elaborate. (note – this is my comedy)
Were there any parts you felt could use more work? “Nope. Perfect.”
What did you think of the characters?
Your thoughts on the jokes?
“I was rolling on the floor laughing.”
Anybody else find this just a tad suspicious, and, oh, total and utter bullshit?
No apology. No remorse. No attempt to make amends. Just a handful of “ain’t I hilarious?” bare minimum answers.
I really wanted to say something in response. Call them out for it. Tell them what an incredibly brazen dick move that was. I even came up with several scenarios to trap them in their sinister web of lies and deceit.
But in the end, I was getting all worked up for nothing. And this person is most definitely NOT worth it. All I’d lost was two hours of reading and writing notes, as well as severing our connection on that networking site. No skin off my nose.
I can only surmise they didn’t like what I had to say, so for whatever reason, decided to not read my script, and after being asked (reminded?) to uphold their end of the deal, took it one step further and opted to not even bother.
I don’t really mind that they didn’t read the script – especially after seeing their writing “skills” in action – but if you’re going to claim you’re a “professional”, then you damned well better act like it. No matter what.
Bet they wouldn’t have done this if I’d been a paying client. Thank goodness it never came to that.
Present yourself as someone who supposedly knows what they’re doing, but then show that’s not the case, and you’re just screwing yourself. Sometimes all you’ve got going for you is your reputation, and once that’s tarnished, you might never be able to restore it.
And let me also add that YOU CAME TO ME. You wanted MY help. And this is how you react because I didn’t like your script? Too fucking bad. Is this how you’re going to treat others who make similar comments? I may not be the most talented or analytical of writers, but at least I treat everybody with respect, even when they don’t deserve it.
When we read another writer’s script, we don’t want it to just be good. We want it to be so phenomenal we can’t believe we had the privilege of being able to read it.
Notes are about the script, not the writer. Of course you’re going to take criticism personally. But you can’t. I have no idea how much work you put into it, but are you more interested in making your script better, or getting a pat on the head and told “Good job”?
I hope this little incident doesn’t deter other writers from taking part in a script swap, including with me. Schedule permitting, I’m always happy to do so. Fortunately, most of my other script-swapping experiences have been of a significantly more positive nature. This was just one of those rare negative exceptions.
Hopefully you have a strong sense of what kind of writer/note-giver the other person is, and once those scripts are swapped, definitely make sure both of you hold up your respective ends of the bargain.
Because the last thing you want is to get on a writer’s bad side.
Apologies for the lack of a post last week. We had to travel to a different time zone for a family function, and the jet lag really took its toll on me. It’s tough to compose something when you can barely stay awake.
But I’m back, rested, and ready to get back to work.
Among the items on the “list of stuff that needs attention”:
-continue working on the horror-comedy outline
-work with latest batch of notes on the comedy spec. Hoping to have that latest draft done sooner than expected.
-research potential representation firms to query
-look into setting up at least one networking event for SF/Bay Area writers. Previous ones were pretty successful, and are great for establishing connections.
-Among the comments that came in for the comedy spec was how it might benefit from a table read. Never did one before, so investigating setting one up. Anybody out there who’s done it?
There are a few other items going on, but those are the dominant ones for now. At first glance, it might seem like a lot, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. They’re all just parts of the machine that is me working on making a career out of this.
I think the biggest factor here is time management. I do what I can to allot a certain amount of time per task. Work on my own stuff for an hour or two. Spend some downtime at work researching reps and prodcos, then send out some queries. If an idea hits when I’m not actually writing, I jot it down immediately – mostly because I don’t trust myself to remember it a few hours later.
One caveat – If I have to do notes on a friend’s script, all attention is diverted to that. If they were reading mine, I’d want them to be just as focused on my script, so the least I can do is return the favor.
Now, I totally get that no two writers have the same schedule, so everybody will tackle things their own way and at their own pace. Maybe you can only spare an hour a day for anything writing-related, or you get up earlier than you need to because that’s your designated writing time. Any and all of it’s fine. You do what works for you.
The important thing is to be doing something. Anything that helps you along.
Also remember, and I can’t stress this enough – everybody’s path is different. What works for that other person might not work for you, and vice versa. Don’t stress out over feeling like you’re running behind. The only person you’re competing against is you.
Not sure where to start? Easy. Be a writer and write down what you’d like to accomplish. I suggest starting small – list three things you could do today to help yourself out. Write three scenes (or three pages). Send out five query emails. Contact the writer of that logline you liked in that online forum.
Get into the habit of giving yourself stuff to do, and there’s a good chance you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much stuff is actually getting done.