Q & A with Christine Conradt

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With more than 70 produced credits, screenwriter/producer/director/author Christine Conradt received her Bachelor’s degree in Screenwriting from the esteemed University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts and then worked briefly in development and as a reader before launching herself as a successful writer. Christine naturally gravitated to crime dramas and thrillers, and eventually went back to grad school to receive a master’s degree in Criminal Justice from Boston University.

Christine’s films have aired on Lifetime, LMN, Fox, Showtime, UPtv, Hallmark, and USA.  She is the writer behind some of Lifetime’s most successful franchises including the “at 17” series, which she turned into a three-book series, published by HarperCollins. She has directed four TV movies and is attached to direct two more this year.

Christine also acts as a script consultant. More information about her services, books, and bio can be found at ChristineConradt.com. She frequently posts tips for writers on her Facebook page.  She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two rescued cats, and in her spare time, loves to travel.

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

Does a documentary count? Probably not, but I’ll mention it anyway because I found it to be very thought-provoking — Three Identical Strangers. It’s about triplets who were separated at birth and later found each other. I haven’t seen a lot of movies this past year because I’ve been so busy but I did think Bird Box was well done for an adaptation. Sometimes adaptations feel stilted, especially those that take place over a long period of time, but Bird Box didn’t feel that way to me. I found myself getting lost in the story which means it was well-written. One of my favorite movies was Vince Gallo’s first film– Buffalo ’66. The story is simple and the characters are really well-drawn. I can watch that movie over and over.

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

I can honestly say it was what I was born to do. I love writing and telling stories. As soon as I could hold a pen, I was writing short stories. I won my first writing award– the Young Author’s Award– when I was in the third grade. I grew up in the Midwest in the late 80s/early 90s and at that time, there was no film industry there at all. No film schools, nothing. I didn’t know screenwriting existed as a career until I received a brochure from the University of Southern California my junior year of high school and it listed it as a major. If I’ve ever had an epiphany, it was in that moment. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. So I abandoned my plans to go to law school and applied to USC.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

After graduating with a BFA in Screenwriting from USC, I worked briefly in development but didn’t like it. I was constantly reading and giving notes on other people’s scripts and had to constantly sit with a jealousy that they were doing what I wanted to be doing. I did a rewrite on a USA movie, got fired off that, and didn’t get any more writing work for about four years. During that time, I was working at a YMCA as a lifeguard and fitness instructor and they promoted me to Director. Soon after, they promoted me to Senior Director. I was managing million dollars in budgets and supervising about 45 employees. The hours were long and I stopped writing for the most part.

One day, my Executive Director brought me into her office and told me they wanted to promote me to Executive Director of a branch in the neighboring city. The money they were offering was enticing but because of all the training I’d be sent to, they wanted me to give them a five-year commitment. I went home that night and realized I wasn’t living the life I was supposed to be living – I was supposed to be a writer. So the next day, I went back and told her that I couldn’t accept the job and I was giving my 30-day notice. I took out a loan to live on for six months and decided to spend every day of that period writing. If I couldn’t make it happen in six months, I’d go back and get another job at the YMCA, but at least I had given it a shot. Fortunately, during that time, I wrote two screenplays. Neither sold but both got me rewrite work, which turned into more rewrite work, and so on and so on.

At the end of the six months, I was on my way, but I wasn’t there yet. So I took a job as an editor for an international publishing company while I continued to intermittently do these rewrites. It was hard to go to script meetings because I had this day job. One day the producer asked me what it would take for me to give up my day job. He was annoyed that I could never come to meetings until 5pm. I told him I needed to make the same amount that the publishing company was paying me and he agreed to give me enough work to cover my lost income. That was the day I started to ‘make a living’ as writer. 

A large percentage of your credits are for TV movies. How much of a difference is there writing for TV (and TV movies) compared to features?

There’s a big difference between TV movies and feature films. First, the content can’t be as edgy as in a feature and it’s much more formulaic. Every network has a brand and when you write for that network, whatever you deliver has to fit within that scope, so in that way, it’s more difficult. You have to be creative and original despite all the limitations. The structure is also different. In TV movies, we use an eight or nine act structure (which basically fits into the traditional three act structure) but has three times as many cliffhangers. You have to end on a tension point before a commercial break to keep the audience from flipping the channel. In a theatrical feature, you have a captive audience so the story can unravel more slowly. Theatrical features also tend to be more high concept than TV movies. A lot of people think that a TV movie is just a movie that airs on television. There’s a lot more to it than that.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Probably the same things that most people do. For me, characters are what define a story. Not plot. The best scripts are emotional, not cerebral. They make us think but more importantly, make us feel. The way to accomplish that is with well-defined characters who have plot goals and thematic goals and who choose to struggle for what they want rather than let life simply happen to them. Those are the characters, and consequently, the stories that stay with you long after you leave the theater or turn off the TV

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

Passive characters. The most annoying thing to hear when I ask a writer what her character wants is “He just wants to keep his life the way it is.” That’s not a goal. A character adverse to change isn’t fascinating. I also see a lot of redundancy in scripts. In a screenplay, real estate is precious. You have to write clearly, economically, and infuse that writing with style without being verbose. Over-explaining in both dialogue and action pulls the reader out of the story.

In addition to your TV work, you’ve also branched out into print with your “at 17” book series. How’d that come about, and how does it compare to writing for a visual medium?

The “at 17” series is a successful franchise on Lifetime Network. It was the brainchild of one of the producers I work with and I’ve been the primary writer behind those movies for about a decade now. In 2014, I pitched him the idea that we should turn those movies into a YA book series and he championed the idea. Neither of us knew much about the publishing industry so he handed it off to me to figure out. I took the script from ‘Missing at 17’ which had already aired and wrote it as a manuscript. I went to the Greater Los Angeles Writers Conference and pitched it to an agent there. He read the manuscript and loved it. He ended up partnering with another agent in NYC and they secured a three-book deal with HarperCollins. Harper wanted each book to come out one month apart in the summer and for the last book to align with the premiere of the Lifetime movie with the same title. So in May, June, and July of 2018, ‘Missing at 17,’ ‘Pregnant at 17,’ and ‘Murdered at 17’ were released.

For me, writing prose is much harder than writing a screenplay. Even though I started out writing prose, I hadn’t done it in years. When you’re writing a screenplay, you have to ‘show’ instead of ‘tell.’ That means you can’t write what the characters are thinking or feeling or pondering. In a novel, that’s mostly what you do. So I had to retrain myself to move in and out of the characters’ thoughts instead of just giving them actions and I had to switch from the omniscient perspective of a screenplay to first person. The books follow multiple characters in first person so that was fun to write. Picking up where one character leaves off and continuing the story with a different character. But it was definitely a challenge.

Follow-up – when can we expect to see the publication of Zombie at 17?

Ha! The movie Zombie at 17 premiered on Halloween weekend in 2018 and was a fun take on the “at 17” series. It’s about a girl who, after getting bit by a cat, contracts the zombie virus. As she teams up with an alienated guy in her high school who has an obsession with zombies to figure out how to stop the progression of the disease, she witnesses a semi-confession to a murder by one of her boyfriend’s friends. When her boyfriend refuses to rat out his friend, she involves herself in the investigation while trying to hide her zombie symptoms from the rest of the world. I don’t know if it will ever become a book because it’s a bit off-genre, but I think it would make a great one.

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

1. Give your characters goals

2. Create obstacles for your characters. Achieving their goals shouldn’t be easy.

3. Don’t obsess on formatting. Focus on writing a good story. 

4. Read scripts. Lots of scripts. Not just books on how to write screenplays.

5. Subplots (or B-stories) need to have some effect on the A-story. If you can cut out the subplot and nothing changes in the A story, you failed.

6. Don’t judge your characters. Every person feels justified in their actions. Your characters are the same way. To write them, you must believe they’re justified as well, even when they do really bad things.

7. Write every day. Even if it’s only for a half hour. And even if you have writer’s block. Professional writers write every day. Train yourself to do the same and pretty soon, you’ll stop having writer’s block and you’ll be surprised at how easily the writing comes.

What kind of impact or influence has your experience as a writer had on your work as a director or producer?

Some directors come up as cinematographers, some as actors. Coming up as a former writer, I think I pay more attention to how the visuals support the content of the story. I hate stylistic shots for the sake of being stylistic. The best shots are the ones that you don’t even realize are shots– because you’re so wrapped up in the visual storytelling. I think as a writer, I’m good at letting the moments that need to breathe, breathe. Story is always first. There are lots of visual ways to tell a story. As a director, it’s your job to choose the best one.

You’ve also spoken at a lot of conference and workshops about screenwriting. Are there any particular points or lessons you make sure to include as part of those?

One thing I mention at every conference is not to compare your journey as a writer to anyone else’s. Everyone always wants to know how professional writers broke into the industry, yet they can’t emulate it even if they know. It’s not like becoming a doctor where you go to med school and do your residency and become a doctor. There are infinite ways to become successful as a writer. And it depends on your goal. If your goal is to simply make a living writing, you’ll make different choices than if your goal is to sell a TV pilot and become a showrunner. Be laser-focused on your goal, but also be flexible enough to take advantage of opportunities even if you aren’t sure how they’re going to get you there. Sometimes those opportunities turn out to be much better than anything you had planned.

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

People can contact me directly through the contact page at christineconradt.com. I’m available to speak and give workshops, and I offer screenplay consulting services as well which are outlined on my website. They can also follow me on Twitter at @CConradt or like my page on Facebook.  I post a lot of contests and other opportunities and tips for screenwriters on my FB page.

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

It’s a dead heat between blueberry and sour cream raisin.

blueberry pie

sour cream raisin pie

Just made it tougher for myself (which is a very good thing)

hipster writer
Coffee – check. Notes – check. Fresh typewriter ribbon (took a real effort to find one) – check. Ready to go!

A most interesting development has presented itself for the horror-comedy outline, and you can accurately label me as “immensely grateful”.

Although I’m still working my way through the story, somehow that certain pizzazz that was part of the appeal when I first came up with it had slowly faded away. That’s a problem that needed some immediate fixing or this thing would never work.

I went through what I already had. It’s taken a while just to get to this point in the story, so I’d forgotten about some of it. This made for a nice reminder that I had a lot more material to work with than I remembered.

The basics were there, but what was it that was missing? Since this is at its heart a horror story, some of the standard elements had already been used, but it needed more. Something to really hammer the concept home. My protagonists were already in a pretty dicey situation, and I wanted to up the stakes.

Hence my dilemma.

Have you ever suddenly have a solution just present itself, right out of the blue? One that feels like the light bulb actually popped into existence right there above your head? One that caused the muse to do backflips and handsprings while screaming for joy at the top of her lungs?

Inspiration didn’t just strike; it walloped me upside the head.

This new idea feels like such a perfect match for the story. It creates a ticking clock that really ramps up the stakes to the nth degree, and what might be the best aspect – it gives the whole thing the original approach it so desperately needs.

So now that I’ve been fortunate enough to come up with this, the next step is to go back and reorganize a majority of the outline in order to incorporate it. Pretty daunting at first, but I’m not too concerned. I know exactly what I want to happen. It’ll just require a little more of an effort.

Results may vary

crystal ball

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been involved in a few online discussions about posting and pitching one’s material via script-hosting and pitching sites (The Black List, InkTip, Virtual PitchFest, etc). I even featured a Q&A about it last year with a trusted colleague who also happens to be a very savvy writer (and had some moderate success in this area).

The primary question: are any of them worth it?

As you’d expect, there’s no easy answer, and everybody’s experience is going to be different. I can only speak for what’s happened to me.

A few years ago, I posted my fantasy-swashbuckler on The Black List, and paid for a review. Based on their comments, I was convinced the reader got to around page 22 or so, had no interest in reading any further, and then skipped to the last page. Biggest clue – no mention at all about anything that happened in the second act.

I griped about it on Twitter, which somebody at the Black List then responded with “You can’t make those kinds of accusations without any evidence to back it up!” (I love the idea that it was Franklin Leonard himself, but doubt he would have been spending his Sunday morning checking the Black List Twitter feed). Skittish newb I was, I backed down.

However, it wasn’t all bad. Through a series of interesting events, the script did get some positive reviews, which actually got me a manager. That was nice, but it didn’t work out, and the relationship soon ended. Since the script wasn’t getting much traction (read: any) on the Black List anymore, that subscription also came to a close.

I’ve also heard from other writers who got a 2 on one review and a 9 on another, or who’ve paid for reviews and heard nothing back. Then after asking about it, managed to get a refund; sometimes they’ll also throw in a credit for a free review as a form of apology. Are these commonplace or rare occurrences? Beats me.

I also signed up for the batch of pitches from Virtual PitchFest, and have so far only pitched to two production companies. While I felt my script was a solid match for the criteria they were seeking, each yielded the same response – “Nothing personal. It just didn’t grab us.” No doubt this is the generic rejection everybody gets.

I still have something like 10 or 11 pitches remaining, and if I opt to actually use them, will probably still be very selective about it. But I also suspect I’ll get the same boilerplate response.

I’ve written before about my experiences with pitching to Stage 32, so I’ll just leave this link here. I believe a lot of the points I make still apply. And at the time, I wouldn’t mention them by name. Things change.

Finally, there’s InkTip. I signed up and posted three scripts. Each subscription period is four months, and I did it two consecutive times. During those eight months, the loglines got constant views, which really doesn’t mean much, one script got downloaded once, and another had the synopsis downloaded twice – amazingly, on the same day, which was also two days before the hosting would expire.

*Interesting side note – If your synopsis or script gets downloaded, InkTip doesn’t want you to follow up with the company until at least three weeks later, and then ONLY by regular mail. I’ve always found that a bit odd, but I guess it’s to discourage bombarding them with constant emails. A follow-up to the prodco that downloaded the script yielded no response at all. A little disheartening at the time, but I got over it pretty quickly.

I also subscribe to the InkTip newsletter because a lot of the time there’s at least one or two listings on it that I can send to. That’s yielded a few read requests, but each of those has ended with “Thanks, but it’s just not for us.”

Between the two, I think the newsletter is the better choice. More options, more possibilities; especially compareed to the extremely low return for just having your scripts hosted on the site. I’ve since let those expire, with no immediate plans to return.

I’m sure there are those who think posting or pitching this way is their way in, and for some it probably is, but it can get a bit exhausting to keep shelling out bucks on a monthly basis and getting nothing in return. I’ve had better results with contests and query letters, and you know what longshots those can be.

What if you did this for a few years and still got nothing? Would you still think it was worth it? Sometimes on the InkTip newsletter, they’ll list “success stories”, which mention how long the writer has been a member. Some of them go back 10 to 12 years. That’s A LOT of money invested.

There’s spending money to make money, and there’s reaching the conclusion you’re just throwing money away. Despite the controversy surrounding the practice, I’d rather spend that money on quality notes, which in the end helps me become a better writer.

Like I said, all of this is stuff that’s happened to me. Your experience might be the total opposite. For all I know, you’re one of those “WRITER SELLS SCRIPT THANKS TO OUR SERVICES!” people. If so, great. You beat the odds and I’m glad it worked out for you.

But for the rest of us, how’s it been for you? Good? Bad? Somewhere in that nebulous middle? Have you had similar experiences with any of these companies, or any who aren’t listed? Did you get a read request? A writing assignment? Connect with a filmmaker or production company? Get representation? Can you point to an actual completed film and say “I wrote that!”?

Like I said way back at the beginning, it’s different for everybody. Is subscribing to any of these sites something you’d recommend, or would you deliberately steer people away from them?

Inquiring minds want to know.

A few other writings of relevance

pro-writer
Only sixteen more items to deal with and I can call it a day!

First, the good/positive news – the rewrite of the comedy spec is complete. However, at 88 pages, it’s a little shorter than I expected. Fortunately, adding in another 4-5 pages shouldn’t be too strenuous.

As part of the effort to recharge my creative batteries before jumping back in, I’ve stepped away from it for a couple of days.

From actually working on that script, anyway.

Since there are a lot of other avenues involved in getting your work out there, I’ve been focusing on some of those, including:

-got some great feedback on query letters, so revised one (along with updating a few lists of potential recipients – always works in progress) and sent a few out.

-submitting some pitches, and just about every one asks for a synopsis. Working on these tends to usually involve me putting in too much story info, then turning around and drastically editing it and shrinking it down to fit on one page. Despite how important this is, I’ve always disliked it.

-jotting down ideas for other scripts. While a nice reminder that I have these waiting in the wings, it’s also quite pleasant to take a look at stuff I haven’t seen in a while. Some are still in the development stage, and others are older scripts due for a massive overhaul.

-the maintenance and upkeep of connections with other writers and creatives. Like with the scripts, some are from the past, and some are brand new. Can’t go wrong with keeping your network healthy.

-reading scripts and watching movies. True, not necessarily writing, but definitely affiliated with it. It’s especially gratifying when the script comes from a writer who knows what they’re doing. As for the movies, that’s been a mix of the popular (Wakanda forever) and the Oscar nominees.

The point of all of this is that there’s much more to building a career in screenwriting than just writing scripts; it involves writing of all sorts for many other things. While I already dedicate a good portion of my available time to working on scripts, I also realize and accept that these other things are in just as much need of my attention.

And an added bonus – many of these things are not one time only. They’ll be done again and again, so the more I do them now, the easier they’ll be to do when the need arises.

Except for the one-pagers. I’ll always struggle with those.

I see what you did there, Mr. Kasdan

Marion Ravenwood
A handful of lines + a solid right hook = insight into 2 key characters

Of all the notes I’ve received about my western, the ones that really stood out the most were about developing the characters a little more – especially the titular protagonist.

I’ve also been spending some time reading, watching and analyzing the scripts and films that influenced it. Namely, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (along with its sequels) and a few others involving female leads who kick ass.

It’s a great opportunity to explore what makes a character tick. A lot’s been written about the “exposition without being blatantly expository” scene in RAIDERS with Indy and the government men, but I’ve been paying more attention to other scenes; the ones that offer up a bit more about what kind of person Dr Jones is as seen through his interactions with other characters.

-Indy discussing with Marcus the implications of finding the Ark.

-The reunion with Marion (see photo above)

-The encounter with Belloq in the cafe in Cairo.

All of these (and a few more) present an aspect of Indy’s character WHILE ALSO advancing the plot. It takes a lot of effort to do that and do it well.

I’ve also been working my way through the infamous story conference transcript, where Spielberg, Lucas, and Kasdan work out the story based on Lucas’ idea of a “swashbuckling archaeologist”. While you can easily find the memo itself, check out this phenomenal post that also analyzes some key points of what’s being discussed.

A lot of this is what I’ve been focusing on during this rewrite. More than a few of my notes highlight certain scenes and say something like “This would be a great place to show us more about her.” So that’s part of what I’ve been trying to do.

I originally thought it would be really tough to implement those kinds of changes, but using RAIDERS et al as guidelines and knowing my objectives for each scene, it actually hasn’t been as challenging. Sometimes all it requires is a few extra lines of dialogue or a modified action line. It’s not always easy, but it definitely feels a little less daunting. Also helping – working on one scene at a time.

In the meantime, progress on the rewrite/polish continues at a healthy pace and I really like how this new draft is shaping up. I suspect the end result will be a little more than just slightly different from previous ones, and hopefully the changes will really take the script to the next level.