Just missing one component

Over the past few years, as my network of writing associates and contacts has grown, along with my interaction with a lot of these people, more than a few have commented that they consider me a professional screenwriter.

My initial reaction – that’s flattering, and very kind of them to say, but I don’t necessarily consider it true. Like a lot of you, I write scripts, but I don’t get paid to do it. The ongoing plan is to keep at it until that last part changes.

But I was intrigued. What would make somebody say such a thing?

Is it how I present myself? I try to be professional, which includes being polite, respectful, and patient, whether it’s in person or online. But that’s just common sense and good manners.

Side note – do those two things diminish the more a writer works? Most of the pros I’ve met and know have been quite decent folks, but I’ve also heard more than a few anecdotes about a pro writer being a total jerk, but they could also be the exceptions. 

Is it about the scripts? How they’re written and how they look on the page? I’ll be the first to say my writing’s not the shining example everybody else should follow, but I try to present a well-crafted story that paints a picture in your head while also being easy on the eyes while you read it.

But that’s what we’re all striving for, right?

Is it because I keep trying? I love putting my stories together, and want to do it for a living. Why wouldn’t I or anybody else constantly work on anything and everything to help improve the chances of making that happen?

There’s no definitive path. Each writer finds success their own way. For me, it involves entering contests (temporarily on hiatus), sending out queries, networking online (and returning to it in person when that comes back), and what have you. Maybe somebody else films their own script and enters it into a few festivals, or decides to turn it into a book, or a webseries, or serialized chapters on a blog, or a graphic novel. So many options!

Trust me, there are days where I’ll see something great happen for another writer (who’s probably also been working at this just as much as me), and while I’m happy for them, it still feels like fate is twisting the knife in my gut just a little bit more, as if to say “Not a chance, sucker.”

My confidence plummets below sea level and all I can think is “That it. I’m done. D-U-N-N. Done.” It’s SO tempting to give up and walk away, but any and all chances of success immediately drop to zero if I do, and then I get angry at myself for even considering such a thing, so I get back to work.

The only way to make this happen is to keep trying, so no matter what kind of day it’s been, or whatever kind of new obstacle’s been thrown into my path, that’s what I do.

I keep pushing forward.

A really interesting thing I’ve been told is that “I deserve” success. I don’t necessarily agree with that one. Would it be nice to see the results I seek for all the work I’ve done? Of course, but I prefer the idea that I’ve earned it, rather than “I put in all this work, so the universe owes me.” I’ve seen/read a few writers state words very similar to that effect. It’s not attractive – on several levels.

Kids, the universe doesn’t owe me, you, or anybody, shit. This is all on us making that one connection where the other person says “Yes,”, which gets the ball rolling.

Naturally, there’s no guarantee it’ll ever happen for me, but I remain confident and hopeful.  Every day is a new opportunity to try. According to my trusted readers, my skills and my scripts have improved over time, so hopefully something positive will happen, preferably sooner rather than later.

Many years ago, I saw Shane Black on a panel at a writing conference. He told the crowd “Don’t call yourself an aspiring screenwriter. That just means you want to be a screenwriter. You write a script, no matter how it turns out, good or bad, you are a screenwriter.”

I really took that to heart. When I tell people I’m a screenwriter, most of the time the first follow-up question is “Have I seen something you’ve written?” To which I say “Not yet, but I’m working on it.”

-Want to have your TV or feature spec script included in the Maximum Z Script Showcase on 4 June? Click here for all the details.

Q & A with Anat Wenick of The Write Script

Anat Golan-Wenick started her career in the entertainment business working as a production assistant and researcher in a team that produced series for a large educational channel, while also pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Film/Television and English Literature. After graduation, Anat moved to Los Angeles to dip her hands into the screenwriting pool. Her screenplays have won or placed in contests like Sundance Table Read My Screenplay, StoryPros, Scriptapalooza and others, with one getting optioned by the producer of THE LAST WORD with Shirley MacLaine and Amanda Seyfried.

After taking a script analysis class, Anat discovered her true passion in the entertainment business: reading and improving other writers’ scripts. She became a reader for companies like Amazon Studios, Crispy Twig Productions, The Radmin Company, the Atlanta Film Festival and others, while developing connections with creative voices she aspires to bring to the big and small screens. In her spare time, Anat volunteers as the Secretary on the Board of the San Fernando Valley Writers’ Club (a chapter of the California Writers’ Club).

What’s the last thing you read/watched you considered to be exceptionally well-written?

Not really “the last thing”, but KIDDING on Showtime is a great example of how dialogue, visuals and story come together perfectly. Also on Showtime is I’M DYING UP HERE, which very skillfully weaves many plotlines together. Netflix’s SHTISEL is an example of how a story about a seemingly insignificant part of the world’s population can be made relatable. And for those catering to the younger audience, I recommend studying BOY MEETS WORLD. In terms of reading, THE CARTOONIST’S MASK by Ranan Lurie is a book I’d love to see adapted to screen.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I always thought I would be a screenwriter. But an internship (followed by a full time position) at a TV station, working on a youth drama, set me on another course. I was a rookie intern when I was allowed to join my first script meeting. I sat quietly, just hoping to learn as much as possible, when the director, an amazing woman by the name of Yael Graf, turned to me and asked for my opinion. Without thinking, I said the solution won’t work. A second later, I was mourning the loss of the best (and only) internship I ever had, when much to my surprise, the director actually wanted to know why I reached such a conclusion. Based on my explanation, the script was revised.

A few years later, I took a script reading class. Based on my analysis, the instructor encouraged me to pursue this career. My hope is to move from script reading to creative executive so I can work with undiscovered writers to help bring their stories to the screen.

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

Akiva Goldsman once said: “Writing is both a pleasure and a struggle. There are times when it’s really aversive and unpleasant, and there are times when it’s wonderful and fun and magical, but that’s not the point. Writing is my job. I’m not a believer of waiting for the muse. You don’t put yourself in the mood to go to your nine-to-five job, you just go. I start in the morning and write all day. Successful writers don’t wait for the muse to fill themselves unless they’re geniuses. I’m not a genius. I’m smart, I have some talent, and I have a lot of stubbornness. I persevere. I was by no means the best writer in my class in college. I’m just the one still writing.”

You can absolutely become a better writer. But just like any other job – if you want to be good at it, you have to study it, stay on top of new trends, and practice, practice, practice.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Visual over telling. Don’t say “he walks into a room,” say “he skips, dashes, stumble, falls, dances, shuffles into a room,” etc.

Know the genre you’re writing. Nothing wrong with a horror rom-com, but make sure characteristics of all genres are present in the script.

A well-executed “wait for it” moment. Scripts that constantly challenge me to wonder what will come next, even in based-on-true-event movies. Sure, we all know the Titanic is going to sink, but we wonder what will happen to the protagonists.

If you spent time developing your characters’ external and internal conflicts, make sure to address them during the climactic moment. In CASABLANCA, Rick must get Ilsa and Victor safely to the airplane (external), while saying goodbye and convincing the love of his life to exit his (internal).

Good balance between dialogue and action sequences. Allowing the two to play off of one another, rather than feeding viewer/reader with a spoon.

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

Excessive usage of voiceover for no reason. Personally, I’m not one of those “never voiceover” believers, but use it with caution.

Unimaginative character description (i.e. JANE DOE, 26, pretty).

Unnecessary camera and other directorial instructions as well as endless parentheticals in dialogue sequences.

Undeveloped subplots.

Usage of “Starts to,” “Begins to,” “Commences to,” etc. as well as “beat.” These phrases can kill the flow of a screenplay, especially when writing an action-adventure movie. Instead of using “beat”, state what causes it (i.e. biting lip, looking away, cracking knuckles, etc.). Instead of “starts to walk but rethinks it,” consider “marches off. Halts.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I would read anything, but if you’re going to write about vampires or zombies, make sure you put a fresh spin or angle on the genre. WARM BODIES and INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE are two good examples. If writing a romcom, love doesn’t have to be the ultimate goal. In WORKING GIRL, the protagonist wanted a career, and along the way she found love.

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

Read, watch, internalize, and execute in your own writing, repeat.

Connect with other professionals. You never know when an early connection will lead to a later opportunity.

When receiving comments, always thank the person even if you don’t agree with them.

Your work may get rejected not because it’s not great, but because it’s not what the company is looking for. Do your research before sending.

Entertainment attorneys are a lot more approachable than agents and managers, and often can get your screenplay to the right hands.

People will have a more favorable view of you if when boasting about your achievements, you take a moment to acknowledge others. So when posting “my screenplay just advanced to quarterfinals/semi-finals/finals in “this and this” contest, add “congrats to all others who advanced” or “thank you for this opportunity, etc.

Even if making the slightest change to your script, make sure to save it as a new version. You never know when you may want to refer to an older version.

Always email yourself the latest version of your script, not just in PDF format, but in the writing-program-of-your-choice format, so you can restore the file if the software fails to open.

Ever in a slump and can’t come up with an idea? Public domain is your friend. Either adapt a project, or use it as the base for your own interpretation (e.g. how EASY A was inspired by THE SCARLET LETTER).

Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer really gets it”? If so, what were the reasons why?

The number of scripts I recommended can be counted on one hand. However, I have yet to encounter a project that was not salvageable, even those I scored extremely low. I encourage all writers to watch Toy Story 3: Mistakes Made, Lessons Learned to realize we all struggle to “really get it.”

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

Winning a contest can do wonders to boast the spirit, but winning alone will do nothing to advance a writing career, unless you build on the momentum. I recommend listening to Craig James, Founder of International Screenwriters’ Association (ISA) advice on Screenplay Contest Strategy.

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

I mostly read for agencies, studios and contests. Screenwriters often don’t want to hear the truth about their screenplays, they just want someone to say they’re great, as Josh Olson wrote in his article “I Will Not Read Your F*%!ing Script”. However, I have done quite a few free readings for aspiring screenwriters. They can find me through my website The Write Script, social media like LinkedIn and Twitter, or through the San Fernando Valley Writers’ Club, where I volunteer as a Board Member. Writers don’t have to pay big bucks for a quality reading. Join a writing group or a writing community like Talentville that tells it like it is, and swap screenplays.

Do your research if you plan to pay for someone to read your script, especially if they boast about recommending your material to their contacts within the industry. I once encountered a person advertising his reading services on known screenwriting platforms, stating he was a final-round reader/judge for the Austin Film Festival and an Emmy Award Winner. Since the prices he charged were low for someone with such experience, I researched his claims and found out they were far from true. This is not to say the person didn’t give good feedback, but writers can receive the same type of professionalism for much less, or even for free.

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

I have yet to find a pie I haven’t liked, and not for lack of trying. I volunteer as a tribute to boldly go where no pie lover has gone before to try new flavors. Has hazelnut chocolate cheesecake pie been invented? (Editor’s note: it has.)

From out of the archives

speedreading

The latest draft of the horror-comedy is complete – clocking in at a respectable 102 pages. It’s out to my savvy readers, so now the focus shifts to some semi-overdue reads for a couple of colleagues.

So while I dive into those, here are a few classic posts from days gone by…

Enjoy.

May I be of some assistance?

More work now, better results later

I know the rules, and do not hesitate to break them

Same destination, different route

Send it. Forget it.

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