Words that need to be heard

It takes a lot of determination and persistence to make it as a screenwriter.

A LOT.

And since so many other people are trying to accomplish the same things (more or less) as you and I, the difference between good days and bad days is a vast one indeed.

We learn to take the hits and the disappointments to the point that we chalk it up to “them’s the breaks”, and move on to the next thing. It is vital that we toughen up our skin to help us survive the journey.

But let’s go back to the good days thing.

When something positive happens for us, we do not hesitate to trumpet it from the rooftops – a rooftop in the form of some kind of social media platform.

And when that happens, our network of peers and associates is just as quick to join in the celebrating. We’re practically deluged with “congrats!”, “that’s awesome!”, “well deserved!”, and the like. Speaking for myself, I really appreciate it, and make a point of returning the sentiment when appropriate.

As writers, we live and breathe using words as our craft. We write something and hope it has the desired effect. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it makes a much bigger impact than you could have ever expected. (Those are particularly pleasing.)

Don’t underestimate the power of what you write. Not just for your latest script, but also when it comes to how you present yourself to the rest of the writing community.

Are you always there with a positive message? Do you think “telling ’em like it is” is the way it should be?

Sure, somebody who does well in the Nicholl or Austin is going to get all sorts of congratulatory messages, but what about somebody who came in second or made the quarterfinals in that small contest you’ve never heard of? Are you just as enthusiastic for them? Do you let them know that?

When I was just starting out, I naturally had the novice’s daydreams of “they’re going to love it!”, which of course didn’t happen. Just about every response from my queries would be along the lines of “thanks, but no thanks” (if there was a response at all), and the contest updates that most of the time start with “Unfortunately…” It’s just the way the business is. You take your lumps, move on, and try to be a better writer so you do better next time.

Anybody who’s reading this knows exactly what I’m talking about. We’ve ALL been there.

I’ve recently read the lamentations of a novice writer who hasn’t had much luck in their efforts. They’re convinced that this can only mean that they’re a terrible writer, their family isn’t supportive of them even trying, and are thereby doomed to fail no matter what, so why even try? With as much sympathy and understanding I can put into text on a screen, I (and others) have tried to explain to them that everything they mentioned, from not placing in a contest to getting a pass from a query to them feeling completely alone in this, is not unique to them. Making any kind of progress on any of those fronts won’t happen overnight.

If ever there was a time that words could make a difference for the better, this was one of them. Hopefully my comments had at least the start of the desired effect.

We’re all busting our asses trying to make it however we can in this crazy business, and any outside offering of hope or encouragement is always welcome.

So as you skim your way across the turbulent waves in the vast ocean of social media and see someone’s comment, good or bad, about how they or their writing are doing, take a second to respond.

Let them know you’re rooting for them and hoping for continued success.

You’ve been where they are and hope things get better.

You’re thrilled for them.

You’re sorry.

You’d be amazed at how effective words, especially yours, can be.

A holiday Q & A with Heather Hughes & Kate Wharton

Heather Hughes and Kate Wharton have been writing together for over 12 years and worked with Disney, Hallmark, and Lifetime, as well as a plethora of indie filmmakers.

They are both graduates of the TheFilmSchool in Seattle and studied with the late, great Blake Snyder.

They are represented by The Nethercott Agency in Los Angeles.

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

Heather: I thought The Queen’s Gambit was extremely well-written. The characters were very real and they avoided all tropes. I really enjoyed the mother and that character defied all my expectations. We also just rewatched Breaking Bad, which is about as far away from Hallmark movies as you can get, but genius writing.

Follow-up: a Christmas movie, TV or feature, you think is well-written.

Heather: We detail the seven sub-genres of Hallmark movies in our book and we’re huge fans of the “fake boyfriend” sub-genre, which we call “The Christmas Fake Out” or “Rent-a-Boyfriend” and thought The Mistletoe Promise (2016) was quite well done.

We also like Mary Christmas, which has one of the most satisfying and unexpected endings of any Hallmark movie ever. It’s not The Usual Suspects, but for these movies it was a shocker!

Kate: Hallmark’s The Angel Tree is very nicely done. The plot setup involves good Hallmark-appropriate conflict and there are a couple of nice plot twists. I think it’s the best of 2020’s 40 new Hallmark movies.

How did you get your starts in the industry, and how did you get into writing Christmas TV movies?  

A producer requested our screenplay, which had done well in a contest.  He routinely asks the directors of the contest to send him the winning scripts.  When we started writing together, we were advised that some screenwriting contests were a way to get noticed. That proved to be true for us. We consider Austin, the Nicholl Fellowship, PAGE, Big Break and Kairos to be some of the best contests.

You refer to these films as Cozy Christmas Romances, or CCRs. Is romance a necessary component of the story template? 

Romance is a requirement for this genre. When we first started writing these movies we assumed that any wholesome content would appeal to these networks. We spent a lot of time pitching heartwarming stories that routinely got turned down. It wasn’t until we’d been at it awhile that we realized that these scripts had to be about—to steal from the late great Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat—two people who are better together than apart AND they needed to celebrate Christmas not just take place at Christmas. Or, as one producer told us, “It needs to be about Christmas, not just set at Christmas.”

There is an abundance of CCRs on several channels and streaming services, with new ones coming out each year. To what do you attribute the popularity of the CCR? 

There are several reasons they are so popular. These movies are predictable, safe, and uncontroversial. It’s a great escape! We like to call them the mac-and-cheese of movies. They’re familiar, warm and comforting. You won’t have nightmares after watching them and you can watch them with your 92-year-old grandma and your six-year-old niece. 

When we were researching the book, we actually found that a lot of military vets enjoy watching them because they can relax knowing that they won’t encounter any disturbing content.

What was your inspiration behind your book IT’S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE HALLMARK! WRITING A MADE-FOR-TV CHRISTMAS MOVIE?

We learned these guidelines in dribs and drabs while we were working with and pitching to companies that make films for Hallmark. It would have been helpful to us if someone had written them down. For instance: we wrote a whole spec script featuring a couple in their 50s thinking it would be perfect for them. After we submitted it, we
learned the protagonist for that project needed to be 28 – yes, they actually said 28. We wish the production company had told us that at the start!

These specific guidelines change from year to year, but it’s helpful to know the basic framework for these movies.

How much research went into putting the book together? How many Christmas TV movies did you end up watching?

If you ask our husbands they would say thousands, but it was really more like hundreds. We also did extensive research with a ton of screenwriters, agents and producers. Some were eager to share, but wanted anonymity, especially when talking about money. After doing more and more interviews we began to see specific rules emerging. There are always exceptions to these rules, and we aren’t out to stifle creativity. But when we compiled our findings, we began to see them as a roadmap for writers who would like to write in this genre.

In the book, you list the 7 main types of CCRs. Obviously, that’s not all they’re limited to, but a majority tend to fall into one of those categories. If a writer comes up with something totally different from any of these but could still be considered a CCR, does that hurt their chances of getting it noticed?

We came up with the seven after watching many movies and reading all of the loglines. We’re sure there are more subgenres or ways to put these movies into buckets. We’d love to hear from your readers who identify others!

If a writer comes up with a new and original subgenre it could be great! But the companies seem to be buying similar content. If the idea strays too far from the conventions of the world (a Christmas town full of zombies, for example), it might hurt your chances of selling to Hallmark. Other networks might love it, though! 

Hallmark has honed its brand to the point where they know the 85 million viewers who tune in during November and December and what those viewers expect.

A few chapters involve the CCR beat sheet, along with filling in the blanks about the story. Some might say that there’s a certain predictability to these stories, so what advice would you give to writers striving to come up with something original?

We’ve noticed that many writers struggle with plot. They start writing with a lot of momentum, and then get stuck around page 50 because they don’t know what’s going to happen. The beat sheet is a fill-in-the-blank exercise to teach the writer a structure that is common to all these movies. If you’re great at plot without a beat sheet, then you probably won’t need this roadmap. 

These movies are intentionally predictable, but within that framework there is a lot of room for originality. If you want to write CCR movies, your original ideas will probably center on an unusual hero, and a unique romantic combination. For example: you could find a new reason the female character needs to leave the big city, an unusual job for the male character, or a unique Christmas activity to include in your montage.

You also go into “what to do after the script’s done”, i.e. queries, meetings, etc., and reference several non-professional writers who sold their scripts. While not every script is guaranteed to sell, is this something you would recommend for aspiring writers?

When you write a script, the goal is to get someone to buy it and make it into a movie—unless you want to film it yourself, which is a great option for aspiring filmmakers. After writing your script, the second hardest thing to do is to get people to read it. Our process of research and queries is a good system for getting people to read your script, regardless of your genre.

We think this is a good place for new writers who like these movies to break in simply because of the sheer number of CCRs made each year. In 2020, Hallmark made 40 new movies, Lifetime made 30 and UPtv made 5. There is never a guarantee that a script will be optioned, but there are many companies looking for content.

The two of you are about more than just writing Christmas TV movies. How can people find out more, as well as order the book?

We love teaching and writing together. Readers can contact us through our website writingtherom.com or on our Facebook page We Heart Rom Coms.  You can buy our book on Amazon, and we’d love to hear any thoughts your readers might have about it. Feel free to reach out!

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

We both adore pecan pie with a ton of lightly sweetened whipped cream! No wonder we’re such great writing partners!

If your pie preferences run a bit more savory, we also recommend Costco chicken pot pies. They’re amazing—flaky crust, delicious chunks of chicken, and a light creamy sauce. Find them in the back, by the rotisserie chickens—It’s a cost effective, delicious meal.

Q & A with Heidi Hornbacher of PageCraft

A graduate of UCLA’s screenwriting program, Heidi Hornbacher has written numerous features, treatments, and TV pilots for various independent producers. She’s judged for the Slamdance Film Festival screenwriting contest and co-founded the Slamdance Script Clinic. She and her husband founded PageCraft Writing in 2008, offering script coaching and writing retreats in LA and Italy. Her clients include Emmy winners, TV legends, and brand new writers too. Heidi has written, directed, and produced numerous commercials, music videos, and electronic press kits for various artists. She’s currently making a documentary film about British artist Paul Whitehead.

What’s the last thing you read/watched you considered to be exceptionally well-written?

There is so much great TV right now. I was mesmerized by I May Destroy You. Anything that makes me say “wow, I could not have written that” I love. I had a Kenyan writer on my podcast recently and she noted that it was a very African storytelling style which I found particularly interesting. 

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I moved to Los Angeles to go to the UCLA Professionals Program in Screenwriting at night and landed a day job at Paramount as a president’s assistant. From there it was a lot of reading, learning, developing skills, and networking. And just making things without waiting for permission.

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

I think this is absolutely something that can be taught. If you have a natural instinct it helps but you can train your eye to spot things the same way a sommelier trains to spot subtle flavor differences in wine. When I first started reading for contests I would decide to advance or decline a script based on instinct, but had to develop the facility to be able to say why.

Once I could could point to things like unmotivated dialogue, a major story turn being on the B story but missing from the A story, unearned reveals, etc. it helped me codify those elements into my own writing and into a teachable curriculum for PageCraft.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Solid characters that have been well developed with clear goals, and positive and negative stakes to achieving those goals. Scenes that work hard to move your story forward and don’t just sit there. Even in a reflective moment, we should be learning something new about the character or they should be learning something about themselves. Every scene having a clear Goal-Obstacle-Outcome, or what we call GOO structure. Yes. EVERY SCENE.

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

Where to begin? The most offensive mistakes are things like not spellchecking (how hard is that?) and grammar errors. Those tell me you just don’t care about your craft or my time, so why should I give my time to looking at your craft?

A lot of scripts that are findable online, etc. are shooting scripts rather than original scripts so I see a lot of bad habits writers pick up from those such as writing in edit and camera direction. There should never be a CUT TO or CLOSE UP ON in your original script. Every slug line implies a cut so there’s that, and you should be able to imply the angle and type of shot by how masterfully you work your action lines.

I see a lot of over-directing the actor from the page. Unless a movement is key to the plot, don’t tell your actors how to move their bodies. The hardest thing about screenwriting is getting your head around the fact that it’s a collaborative art where we often never meet our collaborators because they come in after we’ve done our part. Learning to trust that your actors are going to bring nuance and physical choices to the role can be like a trust fall. If you’ve written the script well with clear context for what that character is going through, the actor will run with it.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Aside from lazy things like the detective with the board full of photos connected by red string, I’m really tired of societal tropes; rape as a motivator for why a female character becomes stronger, stories that only view Black characters as suffering characters. Can we move on? We’re more nuanced as humans so our stories should be too.

Then there are just overused dialogue lines like “it might just work”, “that went well”, and “we’re a lot alike, you and I.” We actually have a powerpoint with stills from over 40 films and shows illustrating how overused that last one is.

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

-As I said above: Make sure there is GOO (Goal-Obstacle-Outcome) in every single scene.

-Make sure you have a solid structure and outline before you start writing. You need a roadmap!

-Make sure you’ve done your character work and understand what motivates them. Make sure you’ve done as much work for the antagonist as for the protagonist so the struggle is worth your protagonist’s time. 

-Make sure every major story turn occurs on the A storyline – the external story. Turns on the B and C storylines can serve as point and counterpoint to that but if a turn is missing from the A story, the narrative will feel off and it can be hard to see why. 

-Remember that a script is a blueprint for a visual story and as such everything in it needs to be visual and filmable so no internal writing about what a character feels or remembers – we should get that from how you externalize those feelings. 

-Break up action line chunks by story beat, audience focus or implied new camera angle so they stay below 5 lines each and keep the reader’s eye flowing down the page.

Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer gets it”? If so, what were the reasons why?

All the time! It’s clear when a writer just doesn’t know the rules versus a writer who knows the rules and breaks them creatively. These tend to be scripts with thoroughly developed characters, great pacing, and a satisfying emotional catharsis. They are scripts with a clear point of view and strong positive and negative stakes for the characters. Their message is the byproduct of a great story and not the sole reason for the story (i.e. the story isn’t preachy).

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

It depends. If you do well in a big one, you can get noticed. The right ones can help you get representation or otherwise forward your project. For example, one of my clients just won the Nicholl. She will get lots of meetings off of that.

There are obviously a ton that are a waste of money but it can boost your confidence to get those laurels. There is a backside to that too. When I see scripts in competition with laurels on the title page (DO NOT DO THIS!), it’s like they’re painting a target on themselves saying “find reasons to tear this down” and, except in the rare occasion when it’s a stellar script, we always can.

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

Visit us at PageCraftWriting.com. Our next round of script workshops starts in January, we offer one-on-one consulting services, and check out our Hearthside Salons podcast (on Podbean and iTunes) featuring conversations with writers, directors and other creatives.

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

That’s like asking me to pick a favorite sunset. I love anything fruit-related and made some killer loquat-ginger pies this spring. But I love pecan and pumpkin so I’m happy it’s that time of year. More pie!

Q & A with Lisa Gomez

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Lisa Gomez is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter, novelist, songwriter and a professional story analyst for The Black List. They write screenplays, songs and novels with their twin sister. Together, the twin siblings have placed in the Top 50 of the Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting and are represented by Empirical Evidence.

The twins are working on 3 original pilots; a 30-minute dark comedy involving an asexual lead character, a biopic drama pilot in the vein of THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT and a female-driven SHERLOCKian-inspired pilot. Lisa is currently obsessed with Marvel, Disneyland, matcha, and reading as many books and comic books as they possibly can.

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?

Due to an ever-expanding list of projects, I’ve had to suspend my script consulting services.

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

Q & A with Bob Saenz

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Bob Saenz is a screenwriter, actor and author. His produced works include Hallmark’s Help for the Holidays, Rescuing Madison, Sweet Surrender, On the Twelfth Day of Christmas, Sound of Christmas, The Right Girl, Christmas in Love,  the theatrical Church People, and the black comedy thriller Extracurricular Activities. He does rewrites and polishes on film and TV projects for Producers and Production Companies. His screenwriting book THAT’S NOT THE WAY IT WORKS was released in 2019.

His acting roles include a 6-year run recurring character run on the TV show Nash Bridges, Hallmark’s Valley of Light, Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack, David Fincher’s Zodiac, Finn Taylor’s Unleashed, Church People, and The Village Barbershop, among dozens of others. He was a radio DJ on KYCY-FM in San Francisco, played the last 10 years in the 60’s rock band The BSides, and has done voicework on video games, documentaries, and commercials.

Editor’s Note – I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Bob personally for a few years. His insight and advice has proven invaluable to helping me become a better writer, both in terms of craft and career.

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

A spec script by a writer named Rene Gutteridge called Where the Wind Comes. Maybe the best spec I’ve ever read. Just spectacular. Was emotionally affected by it. Stunning.

What was the inspiration/motivation for your book That’s Not The Way It Works?

Two things. One, I’ve been teaching and speaking at writers’ conferences all over the country the last few years and everyone who was there speaking had a book, except me. I complained to my wife about it and she said, “What’s stopping you from writing one?” So I did.

Two, there’s not a single one I could find out there that spoke plainly about the business of being a screenwriter.

With so many screenwriting books out there, what is it about yours that makes it unique?

The tone. It’s conversational. My experience. It’s filled with what I have learned actually succeeding at it. With more than a dozen films produced, I used all that experience to write about what I know. And, I talk first hand about the business of screenwriting. What the writer needs to know about that part of it, which is just as important as writing a script, and how to approach that.

While the first half of the book is about the actual writing of a script, the second half covers the not-as-discussed “what happens AFTER the script is written (i.e. the business aspects)”. What advice would you give to writers who want to learn more about this?

As I say in the book – find out that it’s not easy, it’s not instant gratification, and you have to work at it. Hard. You can succeed; it just takes time and a business plan. I think the book helps with that. Realizing that writing a script is only the beginning of your journey is a BIG eye-opener for most writers who dream of doing this.

Yes, the script needs to be something people would want to choose to see and has to be good, but that’s not the end of it.

The book has a great chapter about dealing with rejection. What are some key takeaways and advice you’d offer to writers?

The main takeaway is that rejection isn’t personal. Producers and reps don’t care enough about you to make it personal. It’s ALL about the content. Whether they love your script and not or can use it at that time or not. There are hundreds of reasons to reject a script… you have zero control and it’s not personal. Even the most famous screenwriters get rejected on a regular basis. It’s an everyday occurrence. You have to learn to live with it or it’ll destroy you.

Another important issue writers tend to overlook is the need to effectively market themselves in addition to their script. While the chapter about what NOT to do is entertaining (and a bit eye-opening), what are your suggestions about what writers SHOULD DO?

Use the avenues that producers and reps have opened to the writer. Querying. Something that is an art unto itself and something I delve into pretty deeply in the book with a whole section on query letters.

Networking. There’s a huge section in the book about this.  The dos and don’ts. One thing to always remember about networking: It’s about building relationships, not using people. People who can help you absolutely know the difference and will run away from you if you try and use them.

Contests. The Nicholl and Austin are the ones who will pretty much always get you reads in LA if you final or win them. I’ve had friends get their films made doing well in both of these. Neither are easy to do well in because of the sheer number of entries, but they can pay off.

The last way is through referrals, especially to get a rep. If you know a producer or director or star who will refer you… but again, this goes back to networking and having the great scripts to back it up.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

The most important thing is a great story. It also has to be lean and mean. Brevity and white space are your friend. You aren’t writing a novel. You want just enough in there to have the reader see the film in their head and to be able to fill in what they want to as they read, engaging them in the story that way. Again, a big section in the book about this.

I will say this: Producers are ONLY looking for STORY. Screenwriters can never forget this. Don’t over-complicate the read. You can write a complex story without making it hard to read. Oh… spelling and grammar are important, too.

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

The main one? Choosing the wrong story to tell. Telling a story no one wants to see. Whether it’s not sustainable, not interesting, ridiculous, something that’s been done a thousand times before, something you can see every day in TV reruns… there are a million reasons NOT to write this kind of story. You need to go through a pretty thorough checklist (in the book) and make sure it’s a viable story before you do the time consuming hard work it takes to write a good script. Why do all that hard work on a story that’ll be Dead On Arrival?

Another big mistake I see all the time is writers not doing their research about the topics they choose to write about. Writing things that would never ever happen. You have to ground your script in the reality of the subject matter before you take liberties with it.

What are some key writing guidelines every writer should know?

-AIS – Putting your Ass In the Seat. You have to be disciplined. Producers expect you to be disciplined. Good to start doing that at the beginning.

-Never give up. This is so hard to do, you’ll get discouraged on a regular basis. It’s a lot easier to give up than to stick with it because it takes years to succeed in. Notice I didn’t say it CAN take years, I said it TAKES YEARS, because in every case, it does. You aren’t going to be the exception.

-Don’t cheat on research. Take the time to actually learn about the things you’re writing about. Go out and learn them. A big section in the book about this.

-Again…. for emphasis…. choose a story that is viable for producers and audiences. Don’t just pull something out of the air and write it.

-You’re not writing a novel. Leave everything that isn’t directly hooked to your story or plot points out of your script. One rule of thumb? You know all those people listed in the credits of a film? It’s your job to do everything they don’t. You aren’t a costume designer or a casting agent or set designer…. or… any of them. They don’t ask to write the story, you don’t try and do their job.

You’ve managed to establish and maintain a writing career while living outside of Los Angeles. What are some of the pros and cons about it you’ve experienced?

Pros: I don’t live all that far away (400 miles) and can be at any meeting on a day’s notice, so it’s been fine for me. I am in LA multiple times a year, sometimes for more than a week at a time. It’s expensive… but also my choice. There’s a section is the book about moving to LA and when to pull the trigger and do it if you need to.

Con: I’m not in LA networking all the time. Out of sight, out of mind is a real thing. Not worth moving there for me, though.

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

Peach. Nothing else comes close.

peach pie