From the archives: My two cents on giving my two cents

Plus an extra cent to cover expenses

After the whirlwind of the last few weeks organizing the Maximum Z Summer ’22 Script Showcase, putting together Volume 2 of my book series Go Ahead and Ask! (officially published on July 21, and Volume 1 still available here and here), reading for a contest, and working on my own stuff, I think I’ve earned a brief respite.

But never fear. I wouldn’t want you to go without a post for this week.

During the occasional break between all that stuff I just mentioned, I’ve also been able to do enjoy some just-for-the-hell-of-it reading of friends’ scripts. Each one has been a great read, and even better – no notes necessary.

That, of course, reminded me of a post from Jul 26, 2019 that was all about giving and receiving notes.

Enjoy (and happy 4th of July weekend to my American chums).

After a brief hiatus, I’ve started giving notes again. It’s always helpful to step away from your own material and dive into somebody else’s. More often than not, it’s a win-win situation.

Sometimes there are exceptions to that rule, but more on that in a minute.

The quality of the writing has ranged from just-starting-out to seasoned professional, so my notes and comments are provided with the level of feedback most suitable to the writer’s level of expertise. One writer might still be learning about proper formatting, while another might want to consider strengthening up that second subplot.

One of my cardinal rules of giving notes is to not be mean about it. I never talk down to the writer, because I’ve been in their shoes. I do what I can to be supportive and offer some possible solutions, or at least hopefully guide them towards coming up with a new approach to what they’ve already got.

One writer responded by saying they were really upset about what I’d said, but then they went and re-read my notes, and couldn’t argue or disagree with any of them.

I’ve always been fascinated by the expression “This is a reflection on the script, not you (the writer).” In some ways, the script IS a reflection of the writer; it’s their skill, their storytelling, their grasp of what should and shouldn’t be on the page, that are all being analyzed. After spending so much time and effort on a script, of course a writer wants to hear “it’s great!”, but as we all know, that doesn’t always happen.

Sometimes I worry my comments are too harsh, but just about every writer has responded with “These are SO helpful!”

About a year ago, a writer I was connected to via social media asked to do a script swap. Some quick research showed they seemed to be experienced with writing and filmmaking, so it seemed like a good idea.

I read their script, and didn’t like it. I said so in my notes, and offered up what I considered valid reasons why, along with questions raised over the course of the story, along with some suggestions for potential fixes.

What I was most surprised about was that this person presented themselves as a professional, and maybe I was naive in taking all of that at face value and believing the quality of their writing would reflect that and meet my expectations.

It didn’t.

It also didn’t help that they opted to not give me any notes on my script. At all. Just some snarky retorts. Guess my lack of effusive gushing hurt their feelings, and this was their method of retribution.

Oh well.

Interesting follow-up to that: I later saw them refer to my notes in a quite negative way, along with “this script has even gotten a few RECOMMENDS”, which is always a great defense.

Follow-up #2: we’re no longer connected on social media.

Could I have phrased my comments in a more supportive way? I suppose, but I figured this person wanted honesty, not praise. And like I said, I assumed they had a thick skin from having done this for a while.

Guess I was mistaken.

And I’ve been on the receiving end of it as well. A filmmaker friend read one of my scripts and started with “Sorry, but I just didn’t like it,” and explained why. Did I pound my fists in rage and curse them for all eternity? Of course not. Their reasons were perfectly valid.

Or the time a writing colleague could barely muster some tepid words of support for one of my comedies. I was a little disappointed, but after having read some of their scripts,  realized that our senses of humor (sense of humors?) were very different, so something I considered funny they probably wouldn’t, and vice versa.

I’ve no intention of changing how I give notes. If I like something, I’ll say so. If I don’t, I’ll say so. You may not like what I have to say, but please understand that it’s all done with the best of intentions. My notes are there for the sole purpose of helping you make your script better.

Isn’t that why we seek out notes in the first place?

Still a thing?

That little paper box full of extra cards is tucked away somewhere

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of being interviewed on the Telling The Show podcast to talk about networking as it relates to screenwriters.

Over the course of the discussion came this question: in pre-COVID times, it wasn’t uncommon for a writer to have a business card. Does a writer still need one?

I thought it was a great question, and had to really think about it.

My initial thought is probably not, especially due to how most networking is now done online, and most writers have their phone with them, so contact – or at least reaching out – can be practically instantaneous.

What good is having a card to hand out when you’re practically isolated and there’s nobody around to hand it to? These days you’re more likely to connect with somebody via a social media platform, so you’ll probably do everything via email and/or texting in order to set up meeting one-on-one.

A lot of writers now have a strong online presence – websites, blogs, an account on Youtube, Twitter, Instagram, etc., so it’s significantly easier to get in touch with somebody to strike up a conversation, or at least establish a professional relationship.

Keeping that in mind, in-person interaction is slowly coming back, so if we get to the point where you show up at a venue where you don’t know anybody, and then have some nice conversations with people, would you want to have a card to hand out, or be comfortable asking for their email address?

There are exceptions, of course. A majority of writers tend to be on the introverted side, so dealing with a real live person can be somewhat intimidating. This makes online networking easier for some people. Somebody quiet and shy in person might be more involved or outgoing on a Zoom call or on Twitter.

Just as an example, I recently tweeted a compliment to the hosts of another screenwriting podcast regarding the interview they did with a high-profile manager (I also included the manager in the tweet). Both hosts and the manager liked it, and another writer friend of mine added in his two cents, leading to a brief discussion among all of them.

I didn’t do it because I was trying to suck up to the hosts or hope the manager would offer to read something; it was because I liked what I’d heard, and wanted to let them know that. Would I have achieved the same results if this had been done in person? I’m going to go with “slightly maybe, but probably not to the same extent”.

Online interaction is one of the things I encourage for writers seeking to expand their network. Nobody’s going to get to know you if you hang back and stay quiet. Become involved. Join conversations. Just make sure to be polite, civil and respectful.

There are forums and group chats to take part in, as well as lots of screenwriting groups on Facebook. I find the smaller ones to be better because the members tend to be more experienced, more mature, and of a more rational temperament.

Networking and interacting has really changed, especially over the past few years. But one thing remains the same: online or in person, business card or no, be the kind of person you’d want to know.

Hope you like receiving what I’m giving

Despite what some may say, it’s actually kind of tough to get a gift for a screenwriter. Straight-up cash – for contests and consultants, of course – is always good, but Murray in the accounting department says Maximum Z’s budget only goes so far, so that’s not an option.

So I figured, how about the next best thing?

You guessed it. Guidance!

So in the spirit of the season, here are some helpful tips that can benefit any screenwriter. One size fits all, the color suits you to a T, and they never fade, run or tear.

WRITE SOMETHING YOU WOULD WANT TO SEE

You like comedies? Write one that could make you laugh out loud. Horror fan? Transfer the scares onto the page. Your taste runs towards small indies? Bet some aspect of your life would be a great foundation for a story like that.

When you go to the movies or sit down to watch something streaming at home, you want your money’s worth. It’s up to the script to deliver on that.

The writer’s love of the material should be evident on the page. The reader/audience will pick up on your enthusiasm for the material, so don’t hold back and have at it. You’re your own target for this, so what would you want to be included in your story?

WRITE AS IF INK COSTS $1000 AN OUNCE

You want the words on the page to really flow, to make the reader keep going and want to turn the page/see what happens next, right? Which do you think will do the job better? Two lines of tight, concise action, or five of excessive prose? I’ve seen both, and prefer the former by a substantial margin.

The subheading for this could be “the more white on the page, the better”. You want to make the absolute most out of that valuable real estate on the page, so why would you want to clutter it up with thick blocks of text? Grab that red pen, put on your editor’s hat, and jump in. Could this dialogue or action be trimmed down from four lines to three? Or two?

The more the writing flows, the faster the read, and the more likely you are to keep your reader’s interest. Try to use as few words as possible; the ones that make the biggest impact.

SHOW, DON’T TELL

You’d think this was a basic one, but I’ve seen a lot of scripts that include what a character is thinking, why they’re doing something, or what something really means.

In other words, “How do we know that?” Film is primarily a visual medium, so if you’re able to present information we can see that’s part of the story, do it!

Here’s an example I like to use:

“INT. KITCHEN – NIGHT

Bob stands at the sink, washing dishes. His mind drifts to when he took Mary Lou to the prom, where she subsequently dumped him and then ran off with a plumber and now lives in Akron with four kids, a cat, and a mortgage.”

What would we see onscreen? A guy washing dishes. That backstory info needs to be presented visually, or as much as can be.

SPELLCHECK IS NOT YOUR FRIEND

True story: I once read a script that included the now-immortal line “She sets a bag of frozen pees on the counter.” I had a lot of trouble focusing on the rest of the script after that. Couldn’t tell you for the life of me now what the story was, but I will remember that line until the very end.

When a writer asks me to look over their script, I’m not just doing story notes. I check punctuation, spelling, grammar, the whole shebang. Having a few goofs is pretty standard; anything more than that and it becomes a problem. Sloppy writing makes it look like the writer isn’t taking this as seriously as they should. Not a great speller, or tend to overdo it with the commas? No problem. I bet there’s a writer within your network who’d be happy to do a polish for you.

DON’T BE BORING

Easier said than done, right? It’s a challenge to make any story interesting enough to hold onto the reader/audience’s attention, but it all starts with what’s on the page. Is the writing flat, or does it really pop? Does the writer have a handful of verbs they use over and over, or have they given their thesaurus a real workout?

Which sounds more visual and intriguing?

He walks into the room.

OR

He struts into the room.

Hint: it’s not the first one. Doesn’t imagining somebody strutting into a room feel stronger, more cinematic, than somebody simply walking in?

The script is your way to paint a picture in our minds using words, and words alone. It’s up to you to do that in as entertaining a way as possible, using the words that pack the most punch.

Does the writing in your script do that?

BE NICE TO PEOPLE/PLAY NICE WITH OTHERS

Another one you’d think would go without saying, but manners do count – especially when it comes to meeting people who could potentially have an impact on you establishing a career.

Which would you rather be – the congenial person who’s interested in what the other person has to say, is open to ideas and suggestions, celebrates somebody else’s accomplishments, and wants to help out, or the bitter, self-important person who constantly whines/complains about how they’re not getting the recognition they deserve, badmouths other writers, won’t change anything in their script because “it’s perfect the way it is”, and just makes it all about them?

This is an extremely tough business to break into, let alone thrive in, so wouldn’t you want as much support as you can get? And every other writer needs as much support as you do, so you should try to help them just as much. Plus, nice people are nicer to be around.

Also important – be honest. Don’t present yourself as something you’re not. If you weren’t telling the truth about one thing, why should anybody believe you about anything else? Sometimes all you have is your reputation, and you don’t want to have it work against you.

Those within the industry would much rather work with somebody who presents themselves as a team player, and not a diva. Cliched as it sounds, you really do only get one chance to make a first impression. Make sure that yours puts you in the best possible light, then you do what you can to keep yourself there.

And that’s it. Hope you get some use out of these, and feel to re-gift as needed.

Wishing you all the best for a happy holiday season that involves a slice of your favorite pie and at least a little bit of writing.

An overnight success years in the making

Well, it finally happened.

After countless hours, drafts, contests, emails, queries, coffee chats, and just about everything else I could do to help things work out in my favor, yours truly can now officially be called a professional working writer.

I kid you not.

A trusted colleague referred me to a producer seeking a writer for their microbudget project.

We talked, hit it off, and signed a contract.

(Once again showing the value of networking.)

Work on developing the first draft starts immediately, so the fantasy-comedy rewrite is on hold for the time being, which is fine by me.

And this producer already has a few films already under their belt, so the odds are better than average that this project will end up being a completed film. (As a friend said – always great when you can add a produced title to your resume.)

It’s all a bit overwhelming, but also quite thrilling.

This is what I’ve been working towards all this time. It may not be a huge industry-shattering deal, but it’s still me being hired to write a script for a movie.

Which is what this whole journey has been all about.

Fingers fully crossed that this is the first of what will hopefully be many more finish lines in this ongoing and never-ending race of mine.

I hope you have an excellent and productive weekend. Mine will most likely involve a celebratory piece of pie. Feel free to enjoy one wherever you are with my compliments.

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.