Okay, I admit it. I daydream about being a successful screenwriter. Who doesn’t?
“That mega-hit blockbuster? Yeah. I wrote that.”
It’s nice to think about, but again, it’s still just a daydream. I’m not counting on it. I’d be happy just to make a decent living at it, and that’s what I’m working towards.
I try to be realistic about this, learning from my mistakes and missteps. I’ve been extremely fortunate to be able to ask advice of writers with more experience than me, and I have heeded that advice to the best of my ability.
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen a lot of activity online involving writers (usually in the early (read: uninformed) phase of their careers) asking questions regarding a wide variety of topics.
A majority of the time, they get quality answers from seasoned (read: informed) writers. In theory, the original askers respond with “Thanks! That really helps!”, or “So glad you told me!”, or even “Great to know!”. These do happen. On occasion.
And then there’s the other response.
“You’re just trying to kill my/their dreams!”
“What do you know? You only have X credits on IMDB!”
“You just don’t want the competition!”
“I’ve never heard of you, so your advice is worthless!”
“What makes you so important?”
People are going to believe what they want to believe, or are more likely to believe advice that works in their favor, rather than the cold, hard truth. And if that cold, hard truth runs counter to the answers they want (despite them claiming to “seek” them), the harder they’ll reject it.
You may not like the fact that there’s not a snowcone’s chance in hell a major studio/agency/prodco will look at your script, let alone greenlight it for production, even with your without-a-doubt absolutely certain belief they’d grab it in a second if they’d only read it to see how totally awesome it is, but getting angry (and even berating) at somebody who tells you “that’s how it is” makes you look foolish and amateurish. And you’re also setting yourself up for continuous disappointment.
One of the things a screenwriter needs to accept early on is that there are certain truths about the industry and how things work within it. Unless people are completely blown away by the sheer genius of the writing in your first or second draft, (which they will not be. Trust me on this one.), you and your script are not going to be the ones that “change all of that”.
Learn the way things work. Ask questions of those who know better (and more) than you. Accept the answers and adapt. You need to. The industry has no interest in and will not be adapting to you.
No matter how many tantrums you throw.
**Shameless self-promotion! I had the good fortune to be interviewed by my pal Justin Sloan, who hosts The Creative Writing Career podcast, which covers a wide variety of fields and types of writing careers. We had a great time discussing trying to make it as a screenwriter. You can listen to it here, or subscribe to it on iTunes. Thanks for listening!
As has been well-documented round these parts, I recently entered my western in two contests. One includes feedback as part of the entrance fee, the other gives it as an option.
I don’t usually go the feedback route when it comes to contests, but it had been recommended, so I bit the bullet and opted to do it.
You know that nervous feeling you get in the pit of your stomach while you’re waiting for some kind of potentially life-impacting news? That’s exactly what I was experiencing. Despite my confidence in the script, plus positive comments from friends and trusted colleagues, the butterflies were still taking up residence in my mid-section.
No matter how much I tried to redirect my concentration on working on the low-budget comedy, that nagging thought about the contest feedback would not go away.
What if after all was said and done, the general consensus was that the script sucked and I’d wasted all that time and effort for nothing? Sometimes there’s nothing as powerful as a writer’s self-doubt. It can be downright crippling.
Then the first email came in. If I’d been hooked up to a heart monitor, the thing would have blown a fuse in trying to keep up.
The notes were very positive. Some intriguing comments about what the reader thought needed work, but they seemed to really enjoy it. Possibly even a lot, which was extremely reassuring.
The way I see it, if the reader isn’t gushing over how perfect and wonderful the script is, then I figure there’s not much chance it’ll place, let alone win. Turns out I’m cool with that. While it would be great to win, this is still a pretty solid result.
Two days later, the next email came in. Oh jeez. All those positive feelings I’d reestablished vanished in a puff of smoke. Here we go again.
But much to my surprise, these notes were on par with their predecessor. Lots of positive things to say, plus some suggestions about potential fixes, plus a few things the reader didn’t catch that I thought were fairly obvious, or at least hadn’t been an issue before.
These notes also included scores in 16 categories. Out of a potential 10, I got 2 8s, 2 10s, and the rest were 9s, which was fantastic. Final score 135 out of 150. Not perfect, but still – they seemed to like it, and nobody’s saying, “You suck! Give up now!” Again, do I think I’ll win? Not likely. Place? Maybe. But right now, that doesn’t seem important.
This whole experience definitely feels like a “face your fears” kind of thing. I know I can do this, and each draft really does help me improve. I was psyching myself out about how I’d do, and ended up actually doing better than expected. That’s pretty good. And since each set of notes had similar things to say about a particular part of the script, I have plenty of time to work on making those fixes before the deadlines for more high-profile contests like PAGE and the Nicholl. Also pretty good.
But most of all I really like the fact that now I can finally put aside thinking/worrying/obsessing about these contests with a little more confidence in my abilities and get back to focusing on developing my other scripts*.
*I’m taking part in the “write an entire script in November” project, but I admit to having had a bit of a head start by working on the low-budget comedy, which was already around the halfway point. But getting this draft done by the end of the month would still put me ahead of schedule.
We all experience “one of those days”, but it’s totally another thing to have “one of those weeks”.
Exhibit A: Yours truly.
The week started off nicely. I had the good fortune to meet and chat with script consultant, interviewee and overall mensch Danny Manus. (For all you gentiles out there, “mensch” is Yiddish for “nice guy”.)
While awaiting notes on the western rewrite, I opted for an academic approach to writing the first draft of the low-budget comedy. I was going to read some good comedy scripts and see what lessons they could impart. The call went out asking for quality examples of this kind of writing, and some trusted colleagues came through. (Thanks, chums!)
That’s when the notes started to come in.
As my grandfather used to say – oy. To say they were heartbreaking is putting it mildly. I can honestly say they were given with the best of intentions and most definitely not mean-natured, but my faith and belief in my writing ability was given a thorough thrashing. And then some. (Although one note-giver, to their credit, did acknowledge that this is a “shitty, frustrating part of the process,” and advised me to not give up. I appreciated it, but it didn’t help much.)
The descent into a dark pit of despair had begun. I’ve been here before, and I do not like it. Any writer knows this comes with the territory.
My brain and subconscious were relentless in working in tandem to make me feel totally and utterly worthless as a writer. Any hopes or dreams I had about succeeding had been ground into a fine powder and cast to the winds, only to be blown right back into my face.
And then came the coup de grace: the response to a pitch I’d submitted to a production company last week. They’d passed with a brief 2-sentence rejection, including this gem: “Wanted more specificity with the throughline.” Keep in mind that my perception was a little out of whack at the time, so my overall reaction could be summed up with a very simple “What the fuck does that mean?”
Even reassurances from my wife and texts from a friend were little consolation. Thoughts of “failure” and “loser” were screaming inside my mind. Believe me when I say I did not sleep well that night.
But after I woke up and went through my getting-ready-to-leave-for-work routine, I kept telling myself that there had to be some kind of light at the end of the tunnel, emphasis on “had to be”. Giving up most certainly wasn’t an option. It had also been suggested to totally abandon the story as it was and start anew, which wasn’t ideal because I still have a lot of confidence in this story. Thinking straight was not going to happen any time soon.
Almost as an antidote came another set of notes, this time with lots of positive things to say, plus a few more comments of support and sympathy. These helped. That and desperately trying to refocus my attention on something, anything, that might help my creativeness and confidence get back on track. This is where the aforementioned comedy scripts factor in. They helped, too.
This is an extremely tough business to break into. There will be a lot more heartache and disappointment. Some days it’s easier to deal with, and sometimes it just slams you flat on your back. And since I can’t imagine doing anything else, I continue to learn how to roll with the punches and keep going.
As has been the case many times before, my condition has improved. My resiliency is stronger. My desire to succeed burns brighter than before. I won’t be giving up. All I have to worry about now is writing a script that’s funny. Easy peasy, right?
-Little did I know that while I was dealing with my own problems, a maelstrom of controversy was developing online. Apparently a successful writer who co-hosts a popular podcast about screenwriting made some disparaging remarks about script consultants, one in particular, based on an article the latter had written.
Seeing as how I’ve posted over 3 dozen interviews with consultants (with more on the way), I felt as if I could at least say something about this, especially since it involves this consultant.
I’d read the article in question a few weeks ago and found it extremely helpful. I’d already contacted the author last month about an interview, mentioning how much I’d enjoyed this article and a few of his other ones. He consented to the interview, and appreciated the kind words about his work.
All of the consultants I’ve interviewed have been gracious and grateful to have taken part, and each one is eager to help their clients improve. I’ve been asked which of them I’d recommend. Simple: all of them. Do your due diligence and find the one that seems to be the best fit for what you need.
The writer in question has been working for quite some time. He gets paid a lot of money to write movies that, to me, just suck. He’s also entitled to his opinion, but I’d hate to think that all the aspiring writers out there are looking to him for career advice.
-Half-marathon update. Did the Oakland 13.1 this past Sunday with a time of 1:58:16, thereby accomplishing my goal of under 2 hours. See? Perseverance does pay off.
The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Danny Manus of No Bullscript Consulting.
Danny Manus is the former Director of Development for Sandstorm Films (The Covenant, 8MM2) and Clifford Werber Productions (Cinderella Story, Just Add Water), where he sold “To Oz” to United Artists. He’s the author of “No B.S. for Screenwriters: Advice from the Executive Perspective” and was ranked one of the Top 15 “Cream of the Crop” script consultants in CS Magazine. He was also named one of Screencraft’s “25 People Screenwriters Should Follow on Twitter.”
1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?
The best written things I’ve watched lately have been on TV. There are movies I’ve really enjoyed – Chef, Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy, Fault in our Stars, Bad Words, etc. – but none this year yet that I thought were OMG fantastic writing. To be fair, I haven’t seen Boyhood yet. But for me, TV is where the best material is these days. My favorite new comedy is You’re the Worst on FXX. I also really enjoyed The Last Ship on TNT and Masters of Sex on Showtime this summer. I’m sure there are wonderfully written books out there, but I don’t get to read them.
2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?
My first start was as an intern about 13 years ago at Columbia Tri-Star in TV Development and 20TH Century Fox Feature Casting. I was charged with reading everything that came in and doing coverage on them. But I used to go through their archive library and just read as many as I could, especially at Tri-Star. My coverage was liked by the VPs I worked under so much that they loaned me out to the SVP (Sarah Timberman at the time, who would not remember me if you paid her) and then the President at the time. Those gigs gave me enough coverage samples to land my first assistant job after I graduated.
3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?
Recognizing bad writing is something anyone can do. Recognizing great writing is something that can be taught and learned with time and experience. As a first year assistant and intern, I could tell you what was written poorly. But it took a few years of reading hundreds and hundreds of scripts to TRULY understand good writing. And many thousands of scripts later, I’m still learning.
You can’t read a book on screenwriting and think you’re suddenly able to be a professional consultant or reader or writer. There is no checklist given to new readers, it’s learned on the job – that’s why it’s SO important for writers to READ. Though I actually did develop a checklist I used to give to my interns. It was 110 items long. But if you’re a great reader, they are all just in your head and you notice them naturally.
4. What are the components of a good script?
There are basic elements everyone agrees on – a concept and hook that sparks a reaction and has potential to lead somewhere intriguing; compelling, three-dimensional characters who make you want to follow them; dialogue that feels sharp and precise yet natural and flows; enough growing conflict and high enough stakes to keep ones interest; and a plot that progresses throughout the script in interesting ways. Every script should have strong setups, executions and payoffs. But to make it go from good to great, it’s about the X-factor. Some of that is voice, but some of it is just the right writer writing the right story in the right way at the right time. That’s when true brilliance strikes. And it doesn’t happen often.
5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?
I see them all. I mean, the biggest mistakes are that writers are writing stories that aren’t MOVIES. They’re just not strong enough ideas or hooks to be movies in the current studio or indie marketplace. Or that the writer doesn’t know the hook of their idea. Or that the writer uses too many COINCIDENCES or serendipitous moments to create plot.
Actually, you know what the #1 mistake I see is? The use of YOU’RE and YOUR! I mean, WTF people – it’s not that hard to know the difference. Thinking that typos and grammar and format don’t matter – they do!
The biggest non-craft mistakes writers make is not doing their research and not knowing ANYTHING about the actual business. And secondly, submitting projects LONG before they’re ready to be submitted. Querying and pitching on a first draft or before a script is even written, entering contests with a first draft, posting their second drafts on websites. The biggest mistake I see is desperation and impatience outweighing common sense and good judgment.
6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?
I could go the rest of my life without seeing another Geek to Chic Teen story. Or the Christmas tale of someone losing their Xmas spirit until X happens. Or the story of the struggling writer trying to break into Hollywood and X happens. The Screenwriter protagonist CAN work – but 98% of the time it doesn’t and I like to play the odds. In terms of character, if I never have to read about another female rape victim or domestic abuse victim, I’d be okay with that too. Those are so common in scripts it’s lost its meaning. But in the end, what I always say is – Don’t run from the cliché, just make it seem NOT cliché. That’s a writer’s job.
7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?
-It’s not called the artist colony, it’s called the Film Business. So treat it like one. And if you want this to be a career, treat it like one.
-Writing is rewriting and if you can’t take notes and really truly rewrite, you’ll never have a lasting career.
-Your first draft and first script is SUPPOSED to suck. If you think your first script is going to sell and make you rich, you’re living in a dream world. Just. Keep. Writing.
8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?
Absolutely. But most were already projects in development written by top notch writers. I have had a number of clients whose projects were Recommends – but none were like that on the first draft. I can’t really divulge the loglines though.
9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?
There are about 15 contests out there that are completely worth it that I highly recommend, and about 250 contests out there that aren’t. If you win a major, prestigious contest it can definitely start your career and get you noticed. But if you’re continuously a quarterfinalist or not even making the quarters, then you’re not ready yet. Or your script isn’t. Contests are absolutely worthwhile IF your script and writing is at a level where you can be in the top 100 writers out of 8,000. If you can’t say that, then you’re probably wasting $40. Keep in mind – the Top 10 contests get about 45,000 submissions total. And they give out about 150 prizes to finalists and winners. So, those are your chances. Your script has to be REALLY fucking good. But as someone who has had multiple major contest winners and finalists as clients, that’s what I’m here for.
10. How can people can get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?
You can always check out my website and services at www.nobullscript.net and follow me on Twitter @Dannymanus (I was named one of Screencraft’s 25 People Screenwriters Should Follow on Twitter).
And if interested, I’m running a 4-week online course “Creating More Compelling, Castable Characters” which starts Sept 26th and it’s going to be a great class. So, I encourage everyone to check out details at www.compellingcharacters.eventbrite.com
11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?
I’m an apple pie guy, though a good chocolate cream pie with the chocolate mousse and whipped cream…nom nom nom.