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.

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Q & A with Dominic Carver

Dom Carver

Dominic Carver is a screenwriter, script consultant, and script editor.

In 2008 his first short film, AGN, was produced by Split Edit in Norway and broadcast on Norwegian TV. His second short film written in 2010, the mystery thriller THE TRAVELLER, was a collaboration with Dubai-based director Musaab Ag. In June 2011, Dominic won the Prequel To Cannes Feature Screenwriting Prize for FAITH, a bleak unflinching look at the life of a London street prostitute.

Dominic has since been commissioned for six feature screenplays and has also worked as a script editor on other projects, including the feature THE DYING EYE (2013).

Dominic continues to place highly in many competitions most notably the FINAL TEN of FINAL DRAFT’S BIG BREAK 2016 FEATURE COMPETITION – FAMILY/ANIMATED, the FINAL TEN of STAGE 32 TV WRITING CONTEST 2017 and the FINAL TEN of Idris Elba’s GREEN DOOR, GREEN LIGHT INITIATIVE 2017.

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

DUBLIN MURDERS by Sarah Phelps. Utterly spellbinding, a haunting examination of loss set in and around the search for the murderer of a young girl. Sarah’s work is wonderfully paced and her dialogue frighteningly good. She writes beautifully dark, complex characters, and with THE ABC MURDERS she breathed new life into the well visited character of Poirot.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I have always loved stories, often reading a novel a day during my teens. On one particularly slow and boring day at work, I decided I’d had enough and needed to do something other than rot away in a dead-end job, so I signed up to do the Scriptwriting for Film & TV degree at Bournemouth University. Skip forward a few years and I won the Prequel To Cannes Screenwriting Competition, and one of the judges recommended me to a producer, who offered me my first feature commission.

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

A very interesting question. I believe that to be a truly great writer you have to have a certain amount of natural storytelling talent. You can be taught how to create characters, develop ideas, write characters and dialogue to a reasonable level and to recognise what works and what doesn’t, but if that natural storytelling ability isn’t there. you’re going to struggle and will only ever be average.

Good storytelling is instinct; getting to the emotional core of your characters and their journeys and being able to put that on a page to move and manipulate your audience in ways they weren’t expecting. It’s easy to spot a good screenwriter – they stand out from the crowd. From the hundreds of scripts I’ve read over the years, only four really made me sit up and pay attention and go, ‘This writer has real talent!’

What do you consider the components of a good script?

The characters and the journey they’re on. If your audience doesn’t feel for your characters or their journey, then you’ve lost them before you’ve even begun.

The film JOKER is the perfect example. He’s the most despicable character, a psychopath you would go out of your way to avoid in real life, but on the screen we understand and can empathise with the circumstances that made him. Even when he goes on a killing spree at the end of the movie, regardless of how horrifying and distasteful it is, we understand why and empathise with him. If, as a writer, you can make even the most despicable character sympathetic, that’s masterful writing.

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

Where do I start? Poorly developed characters. If you don’t know who your characters are, how can you expect your audience to? Generic storylines. A popular one at the moment seems to be the ‘mid-life crisis’ and the search for meaning in characters’ lives.

If you don’t approach it from a unique angle, give the audience something they haven’t seen before, then why bother as your screenplay will be lost amongst a sea of similar scripts. Static scenes where characters share their secret feelings around a table and a cup of tea. It’s a visual medium, people sitting around chatting about their feelings is boring to watch. Busy those static scenes up. And when have you ever opened up to a stranger and told them your inner most feelings? Never! People just don’t do that, unless verbal diarrhea is a character trait.

If new writers took more care in developing their characters and their stories, rather than copying what has come before and populating those tired stories with generic characters, there would be a lot more interesting stories out there.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

The mid-life crisis. The hero whose family is murdered and they go on the hunt for revenge. And that’s just two. There are so many more, I’d be here all day listing them. Dig deeper, people!

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

-Spend time on developing your characters and ideas.

-Don’t write great chunks of dialogue or scene description. Less is more. You’re writing a screenplay, not a novel.

-Study people. Find out how people tick.

-Don’t try and write a Tarantino (or another writing hero) movie. Write your own, what appeals to you. Find and develop your own voice.

-Always, always, always have your work read by a professional screenwriter before you send it out into the wider world. Yes, it will cost you money, but you need to know if your story and characters work as it will save you a lot of time and effort. Far too many writers send work out before it’s ready and they wonder why they experience so much rejection.

-Write the first draft quickly without over thinking it too much. The following draft will be a lot better. Just get those ideas on the page and then worry about reworking them. A page of crap is easier to rewrite than a blank one.

-Don’t make a tit of yourself on social media. Be kind, be polite, be inquisitive but never ever pester others to read your work. If you are friendly, polite, respectful and get to know them as friends, people will start to ask to read your work or even recommend you to others.

-Rewrite! Rewrite! Rewrite!

-Network like your life depends on it… because it does.

-Never take rejection personally. It’s never about you, it’s just that your script isn’t a fit with that person at that time. If you get rejected, rework your screenplay and then send it out to two more people. Developing a thick skin is an absolute must for being a writer.

Have you ever read a spec script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, what were the reasons why?

Yes, and it still puzzles me why it hasn’t been made. I don’t usually mention clients I read for, or their work, as it’s confidential, but in this case I’m going to name the script and the writer. It’s MINOTAUR by ADEWOLE ADEYOYIN.

I hate horror movies, I don’t see the point of watching something that you know is going to scare the poop out of you, but Ade’s script stood out because of its characters, story, themes and its depth. It took a well-explored genre and turned it into something original and compelling, a thrill ride from start to finish.

If any producer out there reads this and is looking for a cracking monster movie, get in touch and I’ll pass it on. It needs to be made!

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

Yes! Not only do they test your work, but if you do well they can help propel your career forward. A friend and I wrote a feature from conception to finished second draft in twelve days back in 2016. She wrote the first draft in seven days and I spent the next five rewriting. We entered it into Final Draft’s Big Break and made it through to the final ten in the family category. If it had been entered in the historical category, I think it would have gone even further. Every competition we entered this script into it made at least the quarterfinals, so we knew we had something special.

But which competitions to enter? Pick the well-known ones, the ones with an impressive lineup of judges or that offer access to industry players. Paying for feedback is a great idea, but how well your screenplay does in the competition will also be a great indicator of how good your writing is.

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

From my website at www.thescriptwriter.co.uk. It needs updating, but as usual I’ve been busy. I’m sure I’ll get around to it at some point. Maybe next year.

I’m also on Twitter – @DomCarver

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

Steak and kidney… nothing beats it!

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Q & A with Marlene Sharp

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Marlene Sharp is a creative and business-savvy entertainment multi-hyphenate who originally hails from New Orleans but is now a (San Fernando) Valley girl. Firmly ensconced in LA life, Marlene recently served as Director, Production at LEVEL-5 abby, home of YO-KAI WATCH and other hit video game-based franchises.

Formerly, as Producer, TV Series, at Sega of America, Marlene worked on much more than the Teen Choice Award-nominated Cartoon Network series SONIC BOOM. For example, her Hedgehog duties took her to the heights of nerd-dom as an official San Diego Comic-Con 2017 panelist.

 As a freelance journalist, Marlene concentrates on pop culture for buzz-worthy fan destinations, such as DOGTV, ToonBarn.comGeekified.net, and CultureSonar.com. As a short film auteur, she has snagged recognition at the Kids First! Film Festival, the Canine Film Festival, the San Luis Obispo Film Festival, and many more.

Marlene is the proud winner of 2019 LA Shorts International Film Fest Script Competition (an Oscar and BAFTA-qualifying fest), at which her backdoor sitcom pilot received a staged reading by The Groundlings. And as a human being, she loves dogs. For proof of the aforementioned, please see her website www.pinkpoodleproductions.com.

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

I love Shia LaBeouf’s screenplay for his autobiographical film Honey Boy. The storytelling is clever! 

Podcasts are a relatively new obsession of mine, and there are a few standout wordsmiths. American Scandal (Lindsay Graham); Broken: Jeffrey Epstein (Adam Davidson, Julie K. Brown); Gangster Capitalism (Andrew Jenks); and Hitman (Jasmyn Morris) immediately come to mind.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

My start in the biz was almost my end in the biz. I was bitten during pre-K and subsequently began serious research on kids in show business. Sesame Street was the inspiration. It seemed like a neat place to be, and I wanted in. During grade school, I devoured library books about stage moms and such, and then told my mother that I needed an acting agent. She said ‘no’ and encouraged me to play with my Barbies instead, which I did in earnest. She continued tough love at every turn and for many years. When I declared a Drama/Communications major in college, though, it was time for the Sharp family to face the music . . . and drama! 

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

If one is industrious enough, then one could self-teach. For today’s inquisitive, budding writer, there are so many resources (many are free or low cost): books, eBooks, seminars, writers’ groups, classes, online classes, podcasts, YouTube videos. Perhaps the best resource, though, is actual content consumption, especially in the genres that one loves best. 

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Relatable characters and story, clever dialogue, and an unexpected plot turn or two are elements of my favorite scripts. Good non-sequiturs also tickle me!

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

Spelling and grammar errors abound. They’re everywhere!

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m really tired of the deus ex machina that recur in garden-variety superhero/fantasy movies, such as the uber hero or uber anti-hero – with his/her signature moves – who appears at the eleventh hour. In my opinion, Joker is groundbreaking (and therefore entertaining), because it discards the usual cliches.

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

1) Spell check

2) Proofread

3) Patience, and lots of it.

Have you ever read a spec script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, what were the reasons why?

Yes! A spec script for The Simpsons by my friend Adam Kosloff. The premise is absurd and hilarious. Adam and his writing partner nail Bart’s character; he becomes a grilled cheese celebrity chef. The humor is magical, laugh-out-loud funny. I’ll never forget it.

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

Definitely worth it! Such cost-effective personal marketing! Highly recommend!

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

1) My business website: www.pinkpoodleproductions.com

2) My script and bible doctoring services: www.wefixyourscript.com 

3) My CV: www.linkedin.com/in/marlenesharp

4) A few of my credits: www.imdb.me/marlenesharp

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

A solid tie between pumpkin and chocolate!

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Q & A with Allison Chaney Whitmore

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Allison Chaney Whitmore is a screenwriter, graphic novelist, and writing coach from Los Angeles. She loves to tell coming-of-age stories with a hint of romance, fantasy, or adventure, but also enjoys a good gothic horror story. She’s also the writer of the comic Love University.

As a coach, working with new writers with a passion for story is her favorite thing. Allison holds a Master’s degree in English education and has studied screenwriting at the graduate level. Outside of her work, she enjoys classic films, genre television, a good book, traveling, and spending time with family and friends.

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

The current season of This Is Us is really good. I love the way they weave together plot, character, and theme. I also got to watch all of Fleabag and Killing Eve this summer, both of which I found amazing. I’m looking forward to watching season 3 of The Crown, as it always has top writing, and The Haunting of Hill House, which I hear has incredible writing as well. I can never pick one thing.

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

I’ve always been a dreamer and a story enthusiast. I wanted to be an actor from a young age and started writing skits in elementary school. Long-form prose came in high school, and I wrote my first screenplay in a pink composition notebook with graph line paper the summer after graduation. So, if I haven’t always been a writer, I’ve been one for a pretty long time.

What inspired you to write your comic Love University?

The concept came to me many years ago. One Friday after work, I was stuck in traffic on Sunset behind UCLA and just randomly thought — What if there was a school for cupids,  called Love U? I thought it was funny at the time, but also strongly felt it was something I could see on television. When the opportunity came up to write a comic book series, I pitched it, and they really liked it.

What was your process for writing it?

This particular story just had a concept, no character to start. That’s not usual with me. Both typically come to me at the same time. This one I had to take the idea and pull the story out of it. I found the main character, Lucy, then I began thinking about the journey she might take over several issues as the world around her began to populate in my mind. I wondered about her day-to-day struggles, her lifelong personal wounds, and her hopes and dreams. From there, I just let the story unfold. After that brainstorming phase, I went through my usual process of theme, logline, beat sheet, outline, and script. Then it was notes, revision, and so forth.

How did you connect with the publishing company for your comics, and what role do they play with your projects?

I was working with another writer on a web series who was also a comic book writer. I’d recently been hired to write a couple of comics for a pair of independent creators. They were looking for screenwriters to complete the work. I was sort of lost in terms of what to do, so I asked my colleague to take a look at what I’d been working on. He really liked my work and sent it on to his publisher, who asked if I’d like to write a series of my own.

A key component of writing (for both film and comics) is to make the stories and characters relatable. What sort of approaches do you take to accomplish that?

To me, my characters are reflections of the human experience. I simply remember the human sides of their experiences — wounds, worries, hopes, dreams. I think about the way they speak, and why that is. I think about the way they dress, their favorite music, how they navigate through the world. Everyone has a specific journey that makes them uniquely who they are. I realize that should be the same for my characters, and that helps bring them to life, as well as making them more relatable to the reader.

As a writing coach, what are some of the more common mistakes you see?

Most of the mistakes come from finding the core of their stories, hitting plot points, and formatting. Sometimes it’s tough for people to figure out whether they have just an idea, or enough to make an actual story. That’s what we work on. It’s actually a lot of fun.

There are a lot of writing coaches out there. What’s unique about you and your methods?

I come from a teaching background, so my approach is about building skills from the ground up, but also starting with the big picture in mind. I like to help people work through their creative blocks and find the stories they want to tell. I’m much more of a coach than a consultant. I’ll give notes and focus on that type of thing, but I’m often looking to help writers become the best version of themselves. Working with me is like having your own personal teacher. Not everyone needs that, but it definitely works for some people.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Strong character arcs, relatability, clear concept, emotional hook, and an identifiable theme.

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

-Always plan to write more stories. Don’t put everything into just one script. Move on. Write more. Keep getting better.

-The writing process is different for everyone. Just like we have different ways of learning and absorbing information, the way we get to a story can vary. Give yourself time to find your way.

-Your first draft is not going to be perfect. Ever.

-Plan if you can. It saves you time.

-Make time for both writing and living.

-Be observant.

-Read as much as you can.

-Stay committed.

-Be open-minded.

-Think outside the box.

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

Email me at: allison@theophilusfilms.com or go here: https://allisonchaney.typeform.com/to/c5PFJC. You can also get a digital copy of Love University here, and check out the Facebook page here.

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

Cheesecake could be considered pie, so…cheesecake. In terms of actual pie, probably pumpkin! Perfect time of year for that. Happy holidays!

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A note of appreciation

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Seeing as how this is Thanksgiving weekend here in the US, I’d like to take this opportunity to offer some hearty words of gratitude.

To all my writing colleagues, being associated with you has been a major factor in my being able to become a better writer. Reading your works has been a joy, and the number of you who’ve returned the favor and offered up notes has proven invaluable in elevating my material.

To all the incredible writers, creatives, and consultants, all past and future, who’ve consented to being interviewed on this site, your willingness to be involved, your honesty and candor regarding advice for writers, and suggestions for potential pies (and other assorted desserts) cannot and will not be overlooked.

And to all my readers. I’ve been doing this for almost 11 years. Each week’s post is always a challenge for me to provide content of both an informative and entertaining nature. It’s nice to know there’s somebody out there enjoying this, which makes my efforts that much more worthwhile.

Everybody have a fantastic weekend, and go write something.

-Looking for a gift for that special screenwriter in your life (even if it’s yourself)? How about a book or notes from a consultant? Lots of options available from the numerous interviews found right here on this very blog. Just click on the “Go Ahead & Ask!” link up on top, and have at it.

(Remember – lots of these folks do this for a living, so you’re not only helping out yourself or another writer, but them as well.)

-Feeling generous? How about tossing a couple of bucks towards somebody’s crowdfunding campaign? Projects like Venita Ozols-Graham’s short film Just Dessert or Chris Mancini’s graphic novel Rise of the Kung Fu Dragon Master. Time is short and every dollar helps, so donate if you can!