This post is being released a few days after the usual time due to my involvement with this year’s San Francisco Writers Conference. I got to be a panelist, moderated a few other panels and did my “Screenwriting 101” presentation. A very nice time all around.
And for those interested, I’ll be taking over the reins of the screenwriting track for next year, so the gears are turning regarding what topics to cover. Hope you’ll consider attending.
It was really nice to talk about screenwriting with some experienced pros, along with giving advice and guidance to a lot of writers just starting out.
Call it a positive end to a semi-negative week.
The quest for representation continues. I’d queried a literary management firm in early January and they were quick to respond a few hours later with “Yes, please send it!”. Two weeks later, got an email saying “Sorry, we haven’t read it yet, but should get back to you by the end of the week.”
That was a month ago. Radio silence since then, including my obligatory follow-up of “Had a chance to read it yet?” I’m assuming it’s a pass, which is disappointing, but c’est la vie.
I also found out my horror-comedy short script didn’t even make the quarterfinals of a horror contest. Also disappointing, but this script is a lot more comedy than horror, so might not have been to the judges’ tastes or criteria. Who knows?
Still moving on.
But there were also a few bright spots amidst the gloominess.
A trusted colleague had some very encouraging comments about the animated fantasy-comedy spec. Feeling pretty confident about its prospects.
Several emails came in with requests for appearances on the podcast I cohost, including one mentioning how much they enjoyed the show. We also started posting the video versions, available here.
The takeaway from all of this is that you never know what’s going to happen and to just roll with the punches. There’ll be days where everything falls into place and days where absolutely nothing goes right. The best you can do is deal with it to the best of your abilities and hope it all works out in the end. And if things don’t go your way, you accept the results, learn from it if possible, and move on to the next thing.
A lot of things are out of our control, so we do what we can to influence or at least steer them to working out the way we want/need/would like them to. Celebrate any and all positive results, (briefly) lament the negative, then redirect your attention to “what’s next?”
Last week is in the past, so now it’s time to focus on this one.
It’s also worth noting that I got to talk with some other writers – both in person and online – who were just frustrated about the lack of progress they’ve encountered. There was a lot of talk about “I don’t know how much longer I want to put myself through this”, which I can totally relate to. Who hasn’t felt more than ready to throw in the towel?
And these are all talented people. Any of their scripts would make for a great film or TV show.
This ain’t an easy industry to break into. The chances of success are small, and seeing others advance (especially those who haven’t been doing it as long as you have) while you feel stuck isn’t helpful either.
Despite all the shitty days and setbacks, I’m one of those writers who intends to keep at it. I like the writing too much to want to give up, and give as much encouragement as I can in the hopes that they eventually feel the same about themselves.
Fasten those seat belts, chums. This bumpy ride keeps on going with no end in sight.
Wrapped up the latest draft of the animated fantasy-comedy earlier this week and sent it to a few readers.
Notes have begun trickling in.
Overall responses: very positive, but could still use some tweaking. Points were awarded for creativity, originality, dialogue, and the jokes.
I appreciate all of those very much.
But…it can still be better.
I’d estimate it’s maybe one to two drafts away from being where it needs to. Waiting for a few more notes to come in before diving into that.
What’s also helped is that a lot of the changes don’t seem to be of a major overhaul type, but I suspect it won’t be a few minor changes here and there either. Somewhere in that nebulous middle.
It’s been quite encouraging how fast and effectively things are playing out for this one. It’s taken a while to get to this point, but all the time spent writing, rewriting and constantly trying to make previous scripts better are yielding the desired results for this one in a more timely manner.
Another thing that’s different about this time around is that confidence levels were already pretty high about the script, and getting comments about what still needs work hasn’t diminished them. Many times in the past I would get notes and think what a terrible writer I must have been, which was not the case.
I’m quite psyched about this one, and can’t wait to get back to work on it.
Encouragement from K and more than a few members of the screenwriting community reminded me of several very important things:
First – CONTESTS ARE ENTIRELY SUBJECTIVE. Sometimes your script clicks with readers, sometimes it doesn’t.
Second – CONTEST SUCCESS IS NOT A GUARANTEE FOR INDUSTRY SUCCESS. You can claim the top prize, but that doesn’t mean you should quit your day job. The road to an ongoing career is long, twisty, and loaded with uncertainty.
Third – THEY ACTUALLY MAKE FILMS FROM SCRIPTS THAT HAVEN’T DONE WELL IN CONTESTS. If a producer likes your script and wants to get it made, they’re not going to be as worried about how it placed in a contest.
Fourth (and this one really hit home for me) – SCREENWRITERS SHOULD NOT LIVE BY CONTESTS ALONE. Doing well in a contest is a potential boost to help you establish a career, but that’s it – potential. It’s only one of numerous paths.
As was pointed out to me, I may not have done well in contests, but I should also consider:
-I’m currently writing the script for a microbudget feature. The producer really likes how it’s all coming along, and has been completely ego-free since we began.
-I self-published 3 books about screenwriting this year (a great gift for screenwriters, yourself, or both. I got a kid in college, so anything helps).
-I continue to be the co-host of a podcast that’s all about writing. Fortunately, both my co-host and I know A LOT of writers, so there’s always somebody interesting to interview.
-I got to be on the other end of the microphone by being interviewed on a few screenwriting podcasts.
-I took part in a few panels about screenwriting at a writing conference, which led to being invited to give a lecture about screenwriting next month. (more on that another time)
-I still get the occasional email asking me to give script notes. It might take me a little longer to get to it than expected, but I enjoy doing it, and the writers seem to really appreciate what I have to say.
-there’s been progress, albeit the really slow kind, in making my short film. I was hoping to film it before the year was over, but looks like early next year might be more realistic. It’ll happen yet.
So my losing streak in contests may continue, I’ve got a decent number of other irons in the proverbial fire. And a few other fires, for that matter.
Hope you have an excellent pre-Halloween weekend. I will happily lay claim to any leftover plain M&Ms and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups that manage to stay out of the grubby little hands of trick-or-treaters.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of being interviewed on the Telling The Show podcast to talk about networking as it relates to screenwriters.
Over the course of the discussion came this question: in pre-COVID times, it wasn’t uncommon for a writer to have a business card. Does a writer still need one?
I thought it was a great question, and had to really think about it.
My initial thought is probably not, especially due to how most networking is now done online, and most writers have their phone with them, so contact – or at least reaching out – can be practically instantaneous.
What good is having a card to hand out when you’re practically isolated and there’s nobody around to hand it to? These days you’re more likely to connect with somebody via a social media platform, so you’ll probably do everything via email and/or texting in order to set up meeting one-on-one.
A lot of writers now have a strong online presence – websites, blogs, an account on Youtube, Twitter, Instagram, etc., so it’s significantly easier to get in touch with somebody to strike up a conversation, or at least establish a professional relationship.
Keeping that in mind, in-person interaction is slowly coming back, so if we get to the point where you show up at a venue where you don’t know anybody, and then have some nice conversations with people, would you want to have a card to hand out, or be comfortable asking for their email address?
There are exceptions, of course. A majority of writers tend to be on the introverted side, so dealing with a real live person can be somewhat intimidating. This makes online networking easier for some people. Somebody quiet and shy in person might be more involved or outgoing on a Zoom call or on Twitter.
Just as an example, I recently tweeted a compliment to the hosts of another screenwriting podcast regarding the interview they did with a high-profile manager (I also included the manager in the tweet). Both hosts and the manager liked it, and another writer friend of mine added in his two cents, leading to a brief discussion among all of them.
I didn’t do it because I was trying to suck up to the hosts or hope the manager would offer to read something; it was because I liked what I’d heard, and wanted to let them know that. Would I have achieved the same results if this had been done in person? I’m going to go with “slightly maybe, but probably not to the same extent”.
Online interaction is one of the things I encourage for writers seeking to expand their network. Nobody’s going to get to know you if you hang back and stay quiet. Become involved. Join conversations. Just make sure to be polite, civil and respectful.
There are forums and group chats to take part in, as well as lots of screenwriting groups on Facebook. I find the smaller ones to be better because the members tend to be more experienced, more mature, and of a more rational temperament.
Networking and interacting has really changed, especially over the past few years. But one thing remains the same: online or in person, business card or no, be the kind of person you’d want to know.
Hudson Phillips is a writer and producer from Atlanta, GA. He’s also the founder of ScriptBlast, an online community to help screenwriters navigate the emotional ups and downs of the writing journey, and host of the ScriptBlast Screenwriting Podcast.
What was the last thing you read or watched you considered exceptionally well-written?
The short story collection STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS by Ted Chiang is jaw-droppingly good. I don’t think I’ve ever read a short story collection where every single story is perfect. Each one is weird and memorable and moving and smart and tackles some big gigantic idea. I’ve also really enjoyed the Zoey Ashe series (FUTURISTIC VIOLENCE AND FANCY SUITS and ZOEY PUNCHES THE FUTURE IN THE DICK) by David Wong. Both are laugh-out loud funny with incredibly memorable characters in one of my favorite grounded science fiction worlds.
Movie-wise, NOBODY was a surprisingly fresh take on the action hero. I could use the same line to describe SHADOW IN THE CLOUD, another film that shook up traditional action films.
TV-wise, the first season ofKILLING EVE really blew me away. I can’t think of a TV show that surprised me as much as that.
How’d you get your start in the industry?
It is a very long, very winding road that has taken me here, where I still feel like I’m just getting started! I’d always been writing, but in my mid-20s I started taking it more seriously after a music career fizzled out. I ended up writing comedy scripts with two buddies of mine and the second script we wrote together (a sports comedy about church league softball) ended up getting optioned by Lionsgate films (thanks to a friend of a friend of a friend).
For a split-second we were “local celebrities” on radio and in the newspaper and then everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The writers strike happened, pushing it back a few years. Lionsgate changed out leadership and dropped the film. A local production company picked it up and made it, but completely threw our script out. I don’t think a single word of ours ended up on screen (I still haven’t seen it). So a quick high and low right out the gate. My two writing partners both gave up after a couple new scripts went nowhere, so I broke out on my own.
The problem with having writing partners is when you start writing on your own it’s like starting fresh all over again. So I leaned into the movies I loved the most – crazy sci-fi fantasy action adventure stuff – and started to write that. I’d write a script, send it out to connections in Hollywood, no one would be interested, and I’d write another one. I’d get occasional bites from a contest or the Black List, but nothing ever gained traction. I think in large part because I was a single dad to a young kid, so I couldn’t move out to L.A.
Pro tip: it’s SO much harder to make it in this industry if you’re not in the city where it all goes down. It was during this time of rejection after rejection that I started ScriptBlast as an online haven for writers to connect, talk about their struggles in a safe space, and find encouragement and inspiration.
Being stuck in Atlanta, I leaned into what the city had to offer, which was great filmmaking talent and started making short films. This was a great way to get to know local actors and crew, and we started pulling together our little “collective” of talent until eventually, in 2017, we shot our first feature film, THIS WORLD ALONE. It’s a post-apocalyptic drama / thriller about three women attempting to survive in a world without technology or power. And after a very long 4-year journey (with a year-long pause for COVID), the film was finally released in May and is now available wherever you rent or buy movies online.
THIS WORLD ALONE helped get my name out there enough and allowed me to make enough connections that I’ve since been hired to write a few other indie features. So while I’m not yet making a living at it, writing is bringing in a good second income right now. And I believe all these little seeds will eventually build momentum and add up to a career. Fingers crossed that 2021 is the year that it happens!
Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?
It’s interesting that you say “recognizing good writing” and not “becoming a good writer.” I don’t think recognizing good writing is something that can be taught or learned. But I don’t look at good writing that way. Good writing is a feeling. Good writing is being whisked away to another world and laughing and crying and cheering and getting done and immediately wanting to go back. A technically excellent screenplay that checks all the screenwriting boxes is not necessarily “good writing.”
But I also think most people can be taught to become good writers (some just might take more time than others). I’d put writers into three categories:
Writers who can recognize good writing and turn around and immediately write an excellent story.
Writers who can recognize good writing but struggle to write an excellent story.
Writers who can’t recognize good writing and will therefore never write an excellent story.
The ones who can be taught are in that middle level but I think 90% of us are in that middle level. We know what a great story looks like but it takes a lot of time and work and practice and patience to create one ourselves.
What do you consider the components of a good script?
Such a great question. there’ s probably an infinite list, but here’s the first three that popped in my head:
Set-up and payoff. This is the easiest way to make your script look smart. Just set up everything you payoff and payoff everything you set up. Need a great line for your finale? Go back to your first act and find one that’s applicable. Have an item that represents something in the beginning? Make sure you bring it back in the end. My first rewrite is always looking for these things.
Emotional honesty. We’ve all seen the movies (usually starring Adam Sandler) where you get this pat life lesson at the end like “spend more time with family.” These kinds of lessons are ultimately forgettable because they aren’t honest. They are themes we’ve seen a million times before. The real honest emotions aren’t pat answers, they are deep questions. Mark Duplass decries this as “you know when you’re up at 2am with your best friend and you’ve had too much to drink and you talk about your biggest fears? That’s what you should write your movie about.” Give the audience an answer, and they’ll forget it right after they leave the theater. Present the audience with an honest and brave question, and they’ll keep thinking about it long after they’re done.
Tension & release. If a screenplay is a wavelength, it should go up and down. It’s all about pacing. A script should rise and fall and feel natural. I think this is one of the toughest things to teach because it’s a “feeling”. Lean into whatever genre you have, if it’s a horror movie it should be a little scary, medium scary, really scary, and then give us a break. If it’s a comedy, it should be a little funny, medium funny, really funny, and then give us a break.
What are some of the most common screenwriting mistakes you see?
Telling someone else’s story and not telling your own. So many writers just regurgitate their favorite movies and don’t have anything unique to say about the world. Audience members don’t care about the “what” of your story, they care about the “why.” If you’re just writing something because “it’s cool” or “it’ll sell”, the audience can see right through that. It goes back to the “emotional honesty’ thing above. It’s the old saying “write what you know” but that doesn’t mean write about your day job or your current boyfriend, it really means “write what you feel.” If you’re emotionally connected to your story, your audience will be too.
What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?
Usually the things that make me roll my eyes have to do with masculinity on film. I get so bored with cold, stoic, masculine action heroes. I’m equally tired of female action heroes who feel like someone went into the script and just did a search to change “him” to “her.” And don’t get me started on shallow descriptions of women in scripts “nerdy but beautiful” or whatever. Like the two films I mentioned earlier – NOBODY and SHADOW IN THE CLOUD, these are films with warm, broken, interesting, action heroes who lean into their vulnerabilities as much as their strengths.
What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know?
Here’s kind of a checklist I try to run through for every scene I write:
GOAL: What does your protagonist want in this scene and how are they going to get it?
CONFLICT: What obstacles make it difficult for your protagonist to reach that goal?
CHOICE: What difficult choice will the character have to make as a result of the conflict?
STAKES: What is hanging in the balance with each choice?
TWIST: What does this choice tell us about the character that we didn’t already know?
THEME: How does this choice push the character’s emotional journey forward?
CONNECTIVITY: Can the elements of this scene be set-up in a previous scene or lay the ground-work for future scenes?
VISUALIZE: Is there a visual or item that can replace obvious dialogue or action?
LESS: Is there a “perfect line” or action that could say it better than a long drawn-out scene?
VOICE: How can you rewrite it to be more “you”?
Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer really gets it”? If so, what were the reasons why?
The screenplays that I love all make me feel something. They get an emotional response out of me, whether that be fear or laughing or crying or warm-heartedness. They are masters of set-up and payoff. They surprise me at every turn and never make the obvious choice, I can’t predict where the story will go. They ask big questions about the world.
How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?
On their own, I think they’re worthless. I don’t know if I’d go as far as calling them scams. I think a lot of contests are well-intentioned, but it’s a model built on 99% of writers who enter paying money and getting nothing in return. That industry has created a lie that writers can write one screenplay, enter a contest, win, get an agent, and go write Hollywood films. This lie is why so many writers give up after their first script. It’s heart-breaking to me.
Having said all that, I still enter them. Why? Because I think they do have merit when combined with other things. It’s all about stacking the deck. If you google the winners of these contests, you’ll usually find that they’ve written multiple screenplays, have already made some indie films or short films, maybe published in a different medium, might even already have representation. A contest on its own means nothing, but when you put a win on your writing resume alongside a dozen other things, it helps stack the deck.
If you’re going to enter a contest, pick and choose carefully. First, only enter contests that actually give you something of value, whether that be notes or industry access. Secondly, don’t enter the big, giant contests where you’re competing against 10,000 other writers. Instead, find all the local film festivals that have screenwriting competitions, enter those and then attend those festivals! A strong connection with another filmmaker at a festival is worth a million times more than a laurel on your website.
I always tell writers “don’t put your career in the hands of someone else.” Contests are relying on someone else’s validation of your work. That’s a very unhealthy way to live. Go make a short film. Go make your own $1000 feature. Attend festivals and meet people. Seek out local producers and directors and pitch them ideas until you connect on something and go make it. Make a narrative podcast or YouTube series. There are a million options to advance your career and I suggest you do all of them.
How can people find out more about you and the services you provide?
I’ve been doing ScriptBlast as a free service for about 5 years cause I always struggled with charging for anything that wasn’t actually helpful for writers. So I just launched a new online community in 2020 where we have weekly Zoom calls, tons of free resources and courses, accountability worksheets, share notes on each other’s scripts, etc. It’s blown my own productivity through the roof just being a part of it, and multiple writers have finished their screenplays as a result of being in the group. And it’s only $10/month. You can try it free for a week at Members.ScriptBlast.com.
I also do a podcast and provide other free resources (like online courses or one-on-one consultations) you can find at ScriptBlast.com. And if you’re interested in checking out THIS WORLD ALONE, it’s available on all digital platforms. You can learn more at ThisWorldAlone.com
Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?
It’s hard to beat a slice of hot apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. But, if there is no heat source or ice cream, I might go with peanut butter pie.