Knew this wasn’t going to be easy

wile e coyote

Many, many years ago, while attending the Screenwriting Expo in the City of Angels, one of the seminars I went to featured an “industry professional” as a speaker. I put that term in quotes because I couldn’t tell you who it was or what they did. Maybe a writer-producer or something like that. It was good enough for the folks running the Expo.

There were probably 20 or 25 of us in the audience. This guy walked to the front of the room, and the first thing he said was, if you’ll pardon my paraphrasing:

“I don’t know who any of you are, how experienced you are, or how may scripts you’ve written, but I can guarantee that just about all of you will fail at this.”

Well, ain’t that an encouraging lead-in. Everything he said after that is pretty much a blur, because I found it to be…

Shocking? Most definitely.

Disheartening? Pretty much.

Accurate? Maybe. But he was speaking from his experience. No doubt he’d seen an endless stream of writers come through, give it their all, and despite their efforts, subsequently crash and burn.

It’s easy to overlook the fact that this was well before you could make a movie with your phone and a laptop. Resources and DIY filmmaking opportunities were much more limited than they are now.

His comments really struck a nerve. Is this what I, along with everybody else in the room, should think? Were we just wasting our time? Were our chances THAT small? Should we just give up and go home?

I couldn’t speak for anybody else, but I had a little more faith in myself than he did.

Like I said, I forgot everything after his opening – the sooner I got him out of my head the better – and gradually replaced it with a few thoughts of my own:

-Yes, this is a HUGE mountain to climb, let alone get to the top. Is that intimidating? Hell yes. Is it going to stop me from trying? Hell no. Much as it sucks, it’s better to try and fail than to give up entirely, so I’ll keep trying. As long as it takes.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll continue to do so: I really like doing this, and even though I’ve endured my fair share of disappointments, I keep going – because I like the process of writing.

It’s taken me a long time to develop my skills just to get to this level, and I know there’s  room to keep improving. The challenge to myself and my writing abilities is one most welcome.

-Do I have a chance of eventually being able to call myself a professional writer? Hard to say. Some might say I already am, but that might be an individual matter of perspective. For me, until I see my name onscreen accompanied by “Story By…” or “Screenplay By…”, it doesn’t apply. my efforts will continue undaunted, unabated and undeterred.

Count me among the writers who are content to just be working. Sure, a huge paycheck would be great, but I’m also cool with writing a low-budget horror, or taking on an assignment, or doing an uncredited rewrite. IT’S ALL ABOUT THE WORK. The more I get to do it, the more I’ll enjoy it.

-For a long time, it was always “I need to find that somebody who says ‘yes’; somebody to open that door for me”, and to a certain extent, that still rings true. Getting representation, meeting with REAL industry people, and so forth.

But in the meantime, there’s absolutely nothing stopping me from making my own stuff. For the past few months, I’ve been dabbling with writing short scripts. Five to 10 pages, a handful of characters, one to two locations. Something that presents not only my writing skills, but also that I know how to tell a story in the most visual way possible.

Added bonus – a ridiculously short production time. It could be made over a few days (or a long weekend) with a minimal crew.

Feedback and notes from writing colleagues who’ve also made their own short films have been helpful and encouraging.

All of this, of course, will be a little more feasible once society slowly returns to “normal”. Until then, I’ve got plenty of time to prepare. Why not start creating our own opportunities?

-As much as I dream about all of these great things happening, I’m also a realist. I know that the journey to achieve this kind of success is a very, very long and tortuous one. Disappointment abounds.

I’ve no intention of giving up, no matter how frustrating things get. And there will be A LOT of frustration.

This is what I want to do, and despite all the negatives, I still enjoy doing it.

Thus the soldiering forward continues. Shoulder to the grindstone and all that…

Q & A with Victoria Lucas of Lucas Script Consulting

VML headshot #1

Victoria Lucas has more than 20 years of experience as a development and production executive at both major studios and independent film companies. She began her career with Ron Howard at Imagine Entertainment, working on films including Clean and Sober, Backdraft, and Far and Away.

She later joined with Academy Award-nominated producer Rudy Cohen to develop and produce the acclaimed coming-of-age film The Island On Bird Street (winner of three Emmys and two awards at the Berlin International Film Festival). As Director of
Development, Production Executive and Associate Producer at Signature Entertainment and April Productions, Lucas helped develop projects as diverse as The Black Dahlia, The I Inside, and The Body.

Lucas currently works as an independent producer and runs a professional screenplay development service for producers, production companies and screenwriters. She is also the on-air host for Arizona Public Media’s Saturday night feature film program, Hollywood at Home, providing historical background and an insider’s look at the making of classic films.

What was the last thing you read/watched that you considered to be extremely well-written?

Parasite. I was highly impressed by that script, especially the way the writers managed to switch plot directions – and even genres – so seamlessly. In fact, I feel that films, television and streaming shows are in something of a “Golden Age of Writing” at the moment. For instance, look at two other recent films: Joker and Knives Out. I’m in awe of how Todd Phillips and Scott Silver managed to make us sympathetic to the characters in Joker (helped, of course, by Joaquin Phoenix’ amazing performance). And Rian Johnson did a masterful job of updating and reinvigorating old Agatha Christie tropes in Knives Out.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

To be honest, it all started at birth. My mother, father and two grandparents were in the industry, with both my dad and grandma being successful screenwriters. I grew up in a house where writing was an everyday job, and it was taken very, very seriously. Unfortunately, their talent didn’t rub off on me, but I discovered through reading my dad’s work – and hearing about the process it went through before reaching the screen – that my real interest lay in working with writers to develop their scripts. From there, my career began as a reader, followed a pretty straightforward trajectory: producer’s assistant, story editor, creative executive, director of development, then into production.

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

I learned to recognize good writing through years of reading and discussion at home growing up. But if you’re asking whether good writing can itself be taught or learned, the answer is “Yes, I think it can.”

Screenwriting is both an art and a craft. You might be born with a talent for telling stories, but that’s only half the equation. Putting those stories onto paper in a way that will appeal to producers and audiences is the other half, and that’s the hard part. You need to hone your technique; or, put another way, to “develop your writing muscles.” Screenwriting classes, writers’ groups, how-to-books, blogs and podcasts – all can help. One of my favorite podcasts is Scriptnotes with John August and Craig Mazin.

But the bottom line is this: You have to sit in your chair and write. And write. And write some more. No matter how naturally talented you are, you must practice your craft. It’s no different than becoming a master painter, concert musician or sports star. The more you do it, the better you become.

In the end, though, every writer is different; each with their own technique. Some like to outline their story so they know exactly how it will unfold before they begin to write. Others prefer to let the characters “tell” them what’s going to happen. Some are naturals at structure; others write great dialogue. The challenge for a writer is to identify the elements of screenwriting that don’t come naturally, then work hard to improve them.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

A script is the blueprint for a movie, and the drawing begins with the concept. A great premise is like having an engine that drives the plot and the characters. If it is strong enough, it acts as the spine of the movie so that the structural elements – a compelling story, memorable characters, exciting action and all the rest – will fit together and support each other to produce a successful on-screen result. It’s not enough to create a literary masterpiece that’s envisioned entirely in the reader’s head; if the script lacks cinematic elements, it’s unlikely to get produced.

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

I know writers are tired of hearing about it – and many will simply ignore the  advice — but the way you present your screenplay is more important than you think. That means formatting to industry standards and doing more than a cursory spellcheck. Now, I can guarantee you that no producer ever passed on a great script because of a few spelling mistakes, but the script had to get to her in the first place. You need to realize that the first person to read your screenplay is likely to be a junior development person, an assistant or even an intern. Most of those people have a dozen or more scripts to plow through every week before the company staff meeting. If your script looks unprofessional with too many formatting errors, it’s far too easy for it to be put down.

A common mistake among emerging screenwriters is to overload a script with plot. Cramming in too many plots and subplots doesn’t allow you to develop the characters within the story. So, while a lot might happen, it’s hard to care about the people involved. Conversely, you don’t want a story where nothing seems to happen or change. Films are about conflict and drama. Always think, “What’s at stake?”

Passive lead characters are problematic. Hamlet may be indecisive but he’s not passive. In a similar vein, try not to fall onto the trap of creating supporting roles that are vivid and cinematic, while your hero is bland and uninteresting.

And please, please avoid using dialogue as exposition. I cringe every time a line starts with, “As you know…” or “Do you remember when we…?” That’s designed to give information or back story to the audience; it’s not something real characters would say to one another. Incidentally, when I was a young development exec, my friends and I used to compete for the best (read: worst) lines of expository dialogue. I won with “Tell me again why we’re going to Grandma’s.”

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

It’s disheartening to me to find spec scripts that are pale imitations of the hot new movie or television show that just came out. Even experienced writers often forget that by the time a film is released or debuts as a series, the studio pipeline is already filled with similar projects. Rather than chase after what seems to be commercial at the time, write a great story that you feel passionate about – one that may change the direction of what’s commercial, just as George Lucas (no relation) did with sci-fi in 1977.

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

Read scripts. As many as you can. Then read some more. You can easily find Academy Award winning screenplays online, but don’t limit yourself to the greats. Mediocre or bad scripts can teach you a great deal… even if it’s “what not to do.” One often-overlooked element in screenwriting is structure. The classic three-act structure is the norm in a majority of American films, but there’s nothing magical about it: more and more scripts are written in five acts. However, every script needs a structure just as a building needs a foundation.

There’s a truism in films: writing is rewriting. You may feel that you’ve finished your work after you write Fade Out. But really, you’re just beginning. Most of the films I was involved with averaged 9 drafts before production started – and that’s on top of however many drafts the writer did before submitting the script! Learn how to take notes. Films are collaborative and, unless you write, produce, direct, finance and star in your movie, you will be getting notes. You might not agree with or accept all of them, but do be open to outside ideas that can help your script. Writers groan (often quite rightly) about “development hell,” but the reality is that most scripts can be improved.

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

I’ve probably read over ten thousand scripts in my career, and I remember giving four straight-up recommends. That doesn’t mean I haven’t read dozens or even hundreds of superb scripts, but a development executive’s job is to find projects for her production company. If the company I work with produces mainly action films and I read an outstanding character drama… well, no matter how brilliant it is, it’s not a script I can recommend to the producers. Mind you, if the script is that good, I’ll for sure find out more about that writer and, at the very least, see if they might have something else I can take in to the producer.

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

Absolutely worth it! But be selective. There are too many contests out there that only want to take your entry fee. Do your homework and find the reputable ones. Nothing about the film business is easy, but placing well in the most prestigious contests can be a great calling card for a new writer, helping you get representation or even producers asking to read your screenplay. Some of the top contests use industry professionals as judges, especially for the finalists. This can be a big plus: If they read your script and find it’s a good fit for their company or agency, you’ll be hearing from them after the contest even if you don’t win.

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

My company is Lucas Script Consulting.  All the information you need is on the website, including a link to contact me.

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

Cherry. Ideally made with tart (sometimes called sour) cherries. Bliss!

cherry pie

Q & A with Ellexia Nguyen of The Script Joint

Ellexia N_photo_xyz

Ellexia Nguyen is the founder of The Script Joint, an award-wining script coverage and editing company. Industry-wise, she started out as an apprentice film editor for producer Roger Corman’s company, Concord-New Horizons, and later as an assistant for Paramount Pictures’ Worldwide Feature Film Publicity.

After completing UCLA’s Professional Screenwriting Program for graduates, she launched her own business. Her company later won the 2016 award for “Script Consultants of the Year” and “Best Screenplay Editing Services”— which is showcased on the U.S. Business News website.

Ellexia works mainly as a script doctor/ghostwriter/story consultant on feature film scripts, TV pilots, TV series bibles, and novels. Some of her clients include directors, attorneys, CEOs of multimedia companies, indie producers, A-list producers, repped writers and some of Amazon’s best-selling authors.

Through her story consulting, editing and rewriting services, a handful of her clients, even new writers, successfully reached their goals by leaps and bounds, landing book deals, development deals, and multi-picture deals—some with major studios and streaming companies such as Netflix. Most notably, one of the feature film scripts that she script doctored for a client got picked up by Creative Artists Agency.

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

The Act, a gripping crime drama series on HULU. I was pulled into the story within minutes of watching the first episode at one of the TV Academy screenings. It’s an eerie dramatization of the true story about the murder of Dee Dee Blanchard, a single mom who suffered from MSP (Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy). For those unfamiliar with MSP, it’s a psychological disorder where the caretaker, usually the mom, makes up illnesses or does things to induce illnesses in the child under her care. It was a well-told story, and beautifully shot in a way to allow the audience to see and feel what the lead characters were going through.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

Some years ago, I was reading an article in a magazine about director Martin Scorsese and it talked briefly about how he had worked with producer Roger Corman.

After doing some research, I learned that Roger Corman’s company, Concorde-New
Horizons, was known for being an informal hands-on film school. After college, I reached out to the company and got an apprentice film editor position. That’s where I first came into contact with industry scripts and dailies. Over time, I became more interested in screenwriting.

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

Yes, if you have a patient script consultant or mentor who is willing to point out to you what makes good writing or not. To recognize good writing, you also have to know how to recognize not-so-good writing. As a script doctor/consultant, I’ve worked with clients who had little screenwriting and novel book writing background. But over a few months, after giving them proper guidance and extensive story feedback, they were able to dramatically improve their writing and storytelling skills.

As a result, even some new screenwriters and novelists were able to get book and development deals from the drafts we worked on. So, yes, it can be taught – if the person you’re teaching has the desire, drive and determination to learn.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

A well-constructed story. Everything has to work together seamlessly such as the cast of characters, dialogue, and the story stakes. For example, a car can have the best engine, but it’s not going to take you where you want to be if you have flat tires. In screenwriting terms, that would be like having a good story premise, but characters that can’t drive the story forward due to poor dialogue.

Everything counts in a script.

It must have good dialogue because dialogue creates plot. The scenes must be succinctly narrated, moving your story along in a meaningful and visually engaging manner. You want the reader to be able to easily follow and understand your characters and their struggles. Also, the script should be well-paced and filled with a good amount of conflict and story stakes. Secondary characters should also interact with the main characters without appearing contrived. Lastly, the script should have entertainment value.

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

Having too many secondary characters in the story that end up robbing screen time from the protagonist and antagonist. They’re usually secondary characters that interrupt the story and do random things to each other. This often happens in underdeveloped comedies.

In a time-travel story premise, a common mistake is flooding the script with countless arbitrary “time jump” scenes—chaotically jetting back and forth between the past and present. This makes it impossible for the reader to become emotionally invested in any of the characters or their journey.

In sci-fi, it’s not sticking to the rules of the writer’s own created reality and letting characters do things that contradict the rules of the writer’s created reality.

In action, thrillers, and horrors, a common mistake is having an anti-climactic showdown between the hero and the villain. For example, the hero effortlessly defeats the villain, which takes the thrill and momentum out of the fight.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Like I mentioned earlier, sci-fi stories where the characters have to travel back in time to face something or do something to correct the past in order to save the future. Often times, there are so many time jump scenes such that they interrupt the narrative drive of the story.

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

-Write visually engaging scene descriptions, but don’t over- or under-describe.

-Give the protagonist clear goals and something to fear. What do they need to overcome to achieve those goals?

-Make sure there’s a good amount of tension and conflict in the story.

-Reward the audience for following your story by making the ending satisfying.

-Let your characters speak in subtexts, but try not to be too vague or ambiguous. Script readers aren’t mind readers.

-Have realistic expectations. Don’t expect film investors to shell out millions of dollars to turn your script into a movie if you’re unwilling to invest the time and effort to get your script polished. Show them why your script – and not your competitor’s – is seriously worth the investment.

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

Yes, the story unfolded like a movie within minutes. Strong presentation of theme. I was easily able to picture the characters, who seamlessly worked together to serve the plot. Scenes were written in a way to allow me to really see and feel what each of the characters was going through.

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

It’s one of the ways to test out your script before pitching it to producers. It’s also a way to get discovered by literary managers looking for fresh talent. But be selective and don’t blindly submit to countless contests. Not all of them offer you the same exposure or “prizes” if you win.

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

They can visit www.TheScriptJoint.com, follow us on Twitter at @The ScriptJoint, or connect with me on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/thescriptjoint

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

Old-fashioned apple.

apple pie

 

May I be of some assistance?

info booth
“Be with you folks in a minute.”

For the most part, working towards making it as a screenwriter is a solitary effort. You’re the one who has to write the script and get it out there. It’s a tough journey, but you don’t have to go it alone.

Hence – networking.

Making that initial contact is great, but you should also strive to make it worth the other person’s while as much as you are for yourself.

Once you start to build up your own personal community of Other Writers, and those relationships gradually develop beyond the “Hi. Nice to meet you” stage, you’ll naturally seek out some help in the form of feedback – your latest draft, a query, a logline, what have you.

And that’s all well and good, but it’s equally important, if not more so, for you to return the favor. Rather than just popping up and saying “Hey, would you read my script?”, try “Hey, we’ve known each other a while, and you seem to know what you’re talking about, so would you be open to reading my script? And I’d be more than happy to reading one of yours.”

Helpful tip #1 – don’t be the person who asks for notes but isn’t willing to give them.

Helpful tip #2 – even if you don’t like what their notes say, you still need to hold up your end of the bargain and give them notes – especially if you’re the one who asked in the first place.

Sometimes the best kind of help is when it’s unexpected – either from you or from somebody you know.

A few years ago, a producer friend of a friend was looking for a certain kind of project. I didn’t have anything that met their criteria, but offered to post the listing on a few social media platforms. At least 20 writers responded. I sent their info to the producer, who then contacted a few of them (as far as I know).

What did I get out of it? Just being happy to help and the appreciation from all the writers – even the ones the producer didn’t follow up with.

I’ve also been fortunate to be on the receiving end, with friends sending me emails and messages about listings seeking scripts like mine.

A little effort really does go a long way – anything from forwarding a script or job listing to a few words of encouragement, or even offering congratulations for somebody acheiving some kind of accomplishment. Don’t you like when somebody does that sort of thing for you?

As much as we’re all working towards our own individual success, we’re also part of a community; one where each member should help support the others in whatever way they can.

-Speaking of helping out… Veteran screenwriter Carole A. Parker is offering a reduced rate of $250 for her 4-week screenwriting course. This includes a script evaluation, weekly writing exercises (for newer writers) or friendly-but-detailed notes on your script (for more experienced writers), career guidance, and if she thinks your script is commercially viable, some help in getting it in front of the right people. Here’s a great article she wrote about staying determined. For more details, contact her at parker.carole@gmail.com.

They said no. Big deal.

baker daleks
Things might seem a bit dire now, but there’s always a solution

When I send out a query letter, I do so with equal parts of hope and optimism, as well as healthy doses of realism and some kind of fatalism.

I totally realize that the odds are against me and that the response will most likely be some variation of “no”. But I send it anyway, because…you never know.

I used to put way too much pressure on myself about this sort of thing, but a steady stream of “thanks, but no thanks” has really built up my resilience. If it reaches the next step, great. If they pass, that’s the end of that and I move on to the next thing.

And there’s always a next thing.

I’ve been very fortunate to have built up a network of supportive creative folks. Many pass on words of encouragement, usually along the lines of “Love how you bounce back!” and “I really admire your work ethic!”

Honestly, I don’t really have a choice. The simple truth is that if I want to make it, I’ve got to keep trying. The failures and disappointments will always greatly outnumber the accomplishments and successess, and the only way to get to the latter is to keep pushing through the former.

There might be a moment of feeling bad about getting told “no” for the umpteenth time, but you have to get over it and move on.

Frustrating as it can sometimes be, I’d rather keep trying and failing than stop altogether. I may not be the most fantastic writer in the world, but I like to think I’ve got some decent talent, and I’ll keep at it. The optimist in me leans towards things eventually going my way – preferably sooner than later.

Be strong, keep trying and keep writing, chums.