Q & A with Ashley Scott Meyers of Selling Your Screenplay

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Ashley Scott Meyers is a screenwriter and blogger/podcaster at SellingYourScreenplay.com. He has optioned and sold dozens of spec feature film screenplays, with many making it into production. All of Meyers’ screenwriting success has come through his own marketing efforts which he teaches on his blog and podcast.

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

The screenplay for SOURCE CODE is excellent; one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. I highly recommend it to anyone who is a screenwriter.

I have two young daughters, ages six and three, so I’m watching a lot of children’s movies these days. I just watched THE IRON GIANT for the first time, and thought it was very well-written.

In fact, I’d call MEGAMIND one of my favorite films. In terms of screenwriting, it’s excellent. There are very few films I watch that I think are perfect, but as a screenwriter, I’d consider it one of the few that could be called practically flawless.

My daughters and I recently watched the 80’s classic CLOAK & DAGGER, another very well-written movie. It keeps the action going and all comes together at the end. A very smart script. I saw it when I was a kid and didn’t think much of it at the time, but seeing it again, it’s a pretty solid piece of writing.

Tell us about your writing background, including your “big break”.

I’m not sure I’ve really had a “big break.” Every script I sell or option feels like a monumental effort and it hasn’t gotten any easier. In fact, I’d say it’s gotten harder as the DVD market has shrunk over the last decade or so.

But to answer your question… I really never had a background in writing. I just liked movies, and for some reason writing scripts appealed to me. So I decide to pursue screenwriting. I was a terrible student when it came to English, writing, spelling, and grammar. Pretty much every skill you need to be a writer, except one (maybe two)… persistence and determination. So I’ve just plugged away and sold a few scripts.

How did the Selling Your Screenplay blog and podcast come to be?

Believe it or not, I once saw Gary Vaynerchuck speak at a conference where he was talking about not putting your personality into your brands. At the time, I was running a whole bunch of websites, but nothing around screenwriting. So I decided then and there that I needed to do something that combined two of my skills and interests: screenwriting and web development. So I did.

As far as the podcast goes, I just started to listening to podcasts and I thought they were really powerful. So I launched my own.

You’ve had experience with short films. What do you consider the benefits of working on a short, both as a writer and filmmaker?

The biggest thing is that you get to see your work get completed, which is rare as a screenwriter. But if you write a halfway-decent short, it’s fairly easy (nothing is every easy in this business, but it is possible) to find someone who wants to shoot it. You also might get an IMDb credit, win an award at a film festival, and meet other filmmakers. Shorts are a great way to hone your craft. You’re not going to make any money doing them, but they can be a great learning experience.

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

Yes. The more screenplays you read, and the more you write, the more you’ll be able to recognize good writing.

One of the things that makes movies so vibrant is the fact that you can watch a movie or read a script and notice different things every time, depending on where you are in your own life and skill level.

But yes, everyone can get better at writing and recognizing good writing.

What are the components of a good script?

That’s a pretty broad question. If I had to boil it down, I’d say good writing evokes genuine emotion in the reader or watcher. If someone reads your screenplay, and it evokes emotion in them, you’re on the right track. Everything else, like structure, characterization, dialogue, the hook, theme, etc., is really secondary to being able to evoke emotions in people with your words.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

The biggest mistake is underestimating the amount of work it takes to be a professional writer. I hear from so many people who’ve written one script, entered it into a handful of contests, and then wonder why they haven’t made it as a professional writer. Nobody gets to pitch for the Yankees after spending one summer practicing. Being a professional screenwriter is probably as hard as, or at least harder than, being a professional athlete. It takes an enormous amount of luck, talent, and lots and lots and lots of hard work.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

It’s often inevitable that you’ll write scenes that feel familiar. I often find myself doing it, so I step back and just mix things up a bit. Try anything that’ll give the tired tropes a new interesting spin, which often boils down to adding a quirky or interesting character to the scene who can mix things up.

I recently watched a short film where a little girl dropped an ice cream cone that fell to the ground in slow motion. It was so clichéd that I really wondered why the filmmaker didn’t try to do something more original.

What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

There are really only two mandatory things to do to be a successful screenwriter: write a lot, and read a lot of screenplays. That’s it.

If you do those two things and really spend time analyzing your writing and the writing of others, you’ll get better and maximize whatever talent you have.

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

Contests are great. Screenwriters should be doing everything within their power to get their work out into the world, and contests can be a part of that plan. But understand that even winning the best contest still means you’re quite a ways away from being a professional screenwriter. And I certainly wouldn’t use contests as my only way to market my material.

How can people find out more about you and Selling Your Screenplay?

I blog and podcast over at SellingYourScreenplay.com. I release a new screenwriting podcast episode every week. In nearly every episode, I interview an experienced screenwriter. I also run a script consulting service.

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

Apple. Not very original, I know. But every once in a while someone will bring an apple pie to Thanksgiving dinner, and as I eat it I think, “Damn, that’s good pie.”

Nothing a little maturity wouldn’t cure

tantrum
You’re so mean!

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?”

Sigh.

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!

The bulletin board returns!

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No need to crowd. Plenty of pushpins to go around.

Today is once again all about promoting the projects of some very savvy creative folks, each one definitely worth checking out.

-Author/podcaster/friend of the blog Justin Sloan has released an audiobook version of his book Creative Writing Careers 2. Justin is also one of the co-hosts of the Creative Writing Careers podcast, which examines careers in writing not just screenplays, but also books, comics, and video games.

-Writer/filmmaker Luke Oberholtzer has a new proof-of-concept trailer (somewhat NSFW) for his proposed horror-comedy DRAIN BABIES. Contact Luke at Luke@LegacyEntertainmentFilms.com for more info.

-Writer/author/script consultant/friend of the blog Howard Casner has launched a crowdfunding project for his short film 14 Conversations in 10 minutes. Donate if you can! Howard is also offering a great new service for screenwriters – $20 to review the first 20 pages of your script.

-Filmmaker Scotty Cornfield‘s crowdfunding project for his short film Goodbye, NOLA is going strong! They’re getting closer to reaching their goal, but can still use a little help. Donate if you can!

Got your own project you’d like to promote? Drop me a line.

Relocating to a state of zen – OR – Ohmmmmmm

I'll wear the orange, but no way am I shaving my head
I don’t mind the orange robes or the incense, but no way am I shaving my head

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.

-My writing chum Justin Sloan, who’s interviewed me as part of his Creative Writing Career book series, has launched the similarly-named Creative Writing Career podcast. A great listen for creative writers interested in several fields, including screenwriting, books and video games. Highly recommended.

How low can you go? Quite, apparently.

Nothing funny about it
Nothing funny about it

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.