Q & A with Bob Saenz

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Bob Saenz is a screenwriter, actor and author. His produced works include Hallmark’s Help for the Holidays, Rescuing Madison, Sweet Surrender, On the Twelfth Day of Christmas, Sound of Christmas, The Right Girl, Christmas in Love,  the theatrical Church People, and the black comedy thriller Extracurricular Activities. He does rewrites and polishes on film and TV projects for Producers and Production Companies. His screenwriting book THAT’S NOT THE WAY IT WORKS was released in 2019.

His acting roles include a 6-year run recurring character run on the TV show Nash Bridges, Hallmark’s Valley of Light, Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack, David Fincher’s Zodiac, Finn Taylor’s Unleashed, Church People, and The Village Barbershop, among dozens of others. He was a radio DJ on KYCY-FM in San Francisco, played the last 10 years in the 60’s rock band The BSides, and has done voicework on video games, documentaries, and commercials.

Editor’s Note – I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Bob personally for a few years. His insight and advice has proven invaluable to helping me become a better writer, both in terms of craft and career.

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

A spec script by a writer named Rene Gutteridge called Where the Wind Comes. Maybe the best spec I’ve ever read. Just spectacular. Was emotionally affected by it. Stunning.

What was the inspiration/motivation for your book That’s Not The Way It Works?

Two things. One, I’ve been teaching and speaking at writers’ conferences all over the country the last few years and everyone who was there speaking had a book, except me. I complained to my wife about it and she said, “What’s stopping you from writing one?” So I did.

Two, there’s not a single one I could find out there that spoke plainly about the business of being a screenwriter.

With so many screenwriting books out there, what is it about yours that makes it unique?

The tone. It’s conversational. My experience. It’s filled with what I have learned actually succeeding at it. With more than a dozen films produced, I used all that experience to write about what I know. And, I talk first hand about the business of screenwriting. What the writer needs to know about that part of it, which is just as important as writing a script, and how to approach that.

While the first half of the book is about the actual writing of a script, the second half covers the not-as-discussed “what happens AFTER the script is written (i.e. the business aspects)”. What advice would you give to writers who want to learn more about this?

As I say in the book – find out that it’s not easy, it’s not instant gratification, and you have to work at it. Hard. You can succeed; it just takes time and a business plan. I think the book helps with that. Realizing that writing a script is only the beginning of your journey is a BIG eye-opener for most writers who dream of doing this.

Yes, the script needs to be something people would want to choose to see and has to be good, but that’s not the end of it.

The book has a great chapter about dealing with rejection. What are some key takeaways and advice you’d offer to writers?

The main takeaway is that rejection isn’t personal. Producers and reps don’t care enough about you to make it personal. It’s ALL about the content. Whether they love your script and not or can use it at that time or not. There are hundreds of reasons to reject a script… you have zero control and it’s not personal. Even the most famous screenwriters get rejected on a regular basis. It’s an everyday occurrence. You have to learn to live with it or it’ll destroy you.

Another important issue writers tend to overlook is the need to effectively market themselves in addition to their script. While the chapter about what NOT to do is entertaining (and a bit eye-opening), what are your suggestions about what writers SHOULD DO?

Use the avenues that producers and reps have opened to the writer. Querying. Something that is an art unto itself and something I delve into pretty deeply in the book with a whole section on query letters.

Networking. There’s a huge section in the book about this.  The dos and don’ts. One thing to always remember about networking: It’s about building relationships, not using people. People who can help you absolutely know the difference and will run away from you if you try and use them.

Contests. The Nicholl and Austin are the ones who will pretty much always get you reads in LA if you final or win them. I’ve had friends get their films made doing well in both of these. Neither are easy to do well in because of the sheer number of entries, but they can pay off.

The last way is through referrals, especially to get a rep. If you know a producer or director or star who will refer you… but again, this goes back to networking and having the great scripts to back it up.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

The most important thing is a great story. It also has to be lean and mean. Brevity and white space are your friend. You aren’t writing a novel. You want just enough in there to have the reader see the film in their head and to be able to fill in what they want to as they read, engaging them in the story that way. Again, a big section in the book about this.

I will say this: Producers are ONLY looking for STORY. Screenwriters can never forget this. Don’t over-complicate the read. You can write a complex story without making it hard to read. Oh… spelling and grammar are important, too.

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

The main one? Choosing the wrong story to tell. Telling a story no one wants to see. Whether it’s not sustainable, not interesting, ridiculous, something that’s been done a thousand times before, something you can see every day in TV reruns… there are a million reasons NOT to write this kind of story. You need to go through a pretty thorough checklist (in the book) and make sure it’s a viable story before you do the time consuming hard work it takes to write a good script. Why do all that hard work on a story that’ll be Dead On Arrival?

Another big mistake I see all the time is writers not doing their research about the topics they choose to write about. Writing things that would never ever happen. You have to ground your script in the reality of the subject matter before you take liberties with it.

What are some key writing guidelines every writer should know?

-AIS – Putting your Ass In the Seat. You have to be disciplined. Producers expect you to be disciplined. Good to start doing that at the beginning.

-Never give up. This is so hard to do, you’ll get discouraged on a regular basis. It’s a lot easier to give up than to stick with it because it takes years to succeed in. Notice I didn’t say it CAN take years, I said it TAKES YEARS, because in every case, it does. You aren’t going to be the exception.

-Don’t cheat on research. Take the time to actually learn about the things you’re writing about. Go out and learn them. A big section in the book about this.

-Again…. for emphasis…. choose a story that is viable for producers and audiences. Don’t just pull something out of the air and write it.

-You’re not writing a novel. Leave everything that isn’t directly hooked to your story or plot points out of your script. One rule of thumb? You know all those people listed in the credits of a film? It’s your job to do everything they don’t. You aren’t a costume designer or a casting agent or set designer…. or… any of them. They don’t ask to write the story, you don’t try and do their job.

You’ve managed to establish and maintain a writing career while living outside of Los Angeles. What are some of the pros and cons about it you’ve experienced?

Pros: I don’t live all that far away (400 miles) and can be at any meeting on a day’s notice, so it’s been fine for me. I am in LA multiple times a year, sometimes for more than a week at a time. It’s expensive… but also my choice. There’s a section is the book about moving to LA and when to pull the trigger and do it if you need to.

Con: I’m not in LA networking all the time. Out of sight, out of mind is a real thing. Not worth moving there for me, though.

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

Peach. Nothing else comes close.

peach pie

Q & A with Travis Seppala

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Travis Seppala is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter who’s repped by Bright One Management. In addition to selling shorts, optioning features, being hired to write dozens of feature films and episodes of television, he’s also published his new book 365: A Year of Screenwriting Tips.

What was the thing you read or watched you considered incredibly well-written?

My favorite script of all time was A KILLING ON CARNIVAL ROW. I’m thrilled to see it’s being turned into a series on Amazon, and will be very interested to see how the format changing from feature to TV affects the amazing story.

I think the perfect movie is IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. It might be a little corny by today’s standards, but a lot of it (both story and dialogue) still holds up today.

And for TV, we’re in the new golden age where almost everything is super well-written! One of my current favorites is DOOM PATROL. It’s about a superhero team, but it’s also a  deeply emotional drama. It just happens to be about misfits with powers (and problems).

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Compelling (i.e. interesting and fun) story.

3-dimensional characters who are the right people to partake in the compelling story.

Terse, snappy descriptions.

Lots of white space.

Connectivity (i.e. everything makes sense and flows smoothly).

What was the inspiration/motivation for this book?

Facebook!

I’m in a bunch of screenwriting forums on Facebook. There are both experienced writers and total newbies on there. A lot of the newbies, though, seem to keep asking the same questions over and over and over and over and over and over and… you get the point. Many of their questions make it seem like they forget Google is even a thing.

After a while, seeing repeated questions and questions that can be answered with about five seconds of research on Google, I thought “What if all these answers were in one place, by category?”

I figured I could put it all together, plus answer a bunch of questions that aren’t being asked. And so the book was born.

There are a lot of screenwriting books out there. What about this one makes it unique?

Many of those other books are about a specific aspect of screenwriting. Story. Character development. Rewrites. Business.

365: A Year of Screenwriting Tips runs the gamut of covering ALL aspects of screenwriting, from before you have an idea to after you sell a script and everything in between…. all in bite-size tips!

It’s purpose isn’t to try and make you “better” in any specific thing. And I don’t claim to be a guru or expert; I’m just relaying info I’ve learned either through a ton of book reading or personal experience. The book is just meant to help show you the ropes, and makes suggestions on different ways to look at things. Try a bunch of stuff and see what works for you!

Plus, there’s a bunch of coupons for discounts and freebies on a lot of helpful products and services!

Some screenwriting books are geared more towards covering the basics, while others “go beyond (or way beyond) the basics”. Is this a book that both new and experienced writers could use?

The book is geared more toward beginning writers, but my hope is that experienced writers will find some new concepts and suggestions useful as well. Even experienced writers should always be learning.

With 365 tips to choose from, are there any that really seem to resonate with readers? Or any that always instigate an argument?

A couple that have gone over well with people are my tips on creating a positivity calendar (because it’s far too easy to get wrapped up in all the negative aspects of this life) and playing The Comp Game (a great way to produce new stories that are “similar but different”).

The big one that’s gotten people upset is Tip #1: Experts Are Liars!

There’s one section in the book called “Before You Start”, and one called “Prep Work”. What do you consider the difference between the two?

The “Before You Start” section is about things to know before even trying to come up with the idea for a script. It talks about the odds of making it, the fact that there’s a lot of conflicting information out there (and even in this book), and things to consider before you ever start on this journey.

“Prep Work” is about… well… prep work! Ideas. Brainstorming. Outlining. Figuring out what to write a script about.

Before You Start = knowing what you’re getting into.

Prep Work = getting started.

Part of your own backstory involves your relocating to Los Angeles. Where do you fall in the “You have to live in LA to make it” discussion?

Whether or not you HAVE to be in Los Angeles sort of depends on what you’re trying to accomplish in the industry.

If you want to be a television writer, then yes, you absolutely MUST move to LaLa Land! Shows shoot all over the country (and even other countries), but the majority of them have writers rooms in the L.A. Area. How can you expect to get a job if you don’t even live where that job is?

Now, if you want to write features? Then you can live anywhere. But expect to make trips to Los Angeles if/when possible. Why? Because you need to take meetings. Meetings with reps, meetings with producers, meeting with studio heads. Sure, it’s possible to do phone meetings, and you probably will do a bunch… but nothing beats the in-person impression when selling your work.

As a follow-up to that, how has it been for you and your career since arriving in Los Angeles?

There’s been good stuff and bad. 

Like a lot of transplants, I thought I’d get here and “be discovered” in the first year. That didn’t happen. Been here 3 years and still just trying to make it.

I’ve met LOTS of people, though, and made great connections with other writers, reps, showrunners, producers, crew members, and more! My Rolodex is filled out, and it wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t come here.

I’ve also gotten some gigs because I met people at parties out here and hit it off.

The thing to know, though, is that while being here makes it easier to have access to decision makers, it also becomes harder to fit in. You might be the best writer in your small Oklahoma town, but in Los Angeles almost everyone is a damned good writer! It’s the “big fish, little pond” situation. The ocean is where it’s at, but it’s also rougher water.

You offer more than a few tips about networking, especially at social events. How much of an impact has that had for you?

I’ve gotten jobs from people, made loads of friends, and even met my fiancee – all at these kinds of events!

I really enjoyed the final section – “After Your Script Is Done”. How much of that is based on your own personal experience?

Much of the book is based on my own experiences in the industry. I don’t go into a lot of personal stories or examples of my own material like many screenwriting books do, but my experience is definitely where a lot of my “wisdom” comes from.

However, all the stuff in that section is great advice for any writer. It speaks to Serial Starters, Talented individuals, Procrastinators, Newbies who just make mistakes with what they’re writing, Paranoids, Worry-Warts, and Newbies searching for the next steps. There’s also some great coupons in that last section, myths busted, and a suggestion for a killer ice cream place!

Apart from writing scripts, you also offer a script consulting service. How can writers get in touch with you to find out more?

email: flannelmann@yahoo.com

Facebook: facebook.com/travisseppala

Twitter: @TravisSeppala

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

My favorite pie has always been Shoo-fly Pie. It’s this super sweet molasses pie that, so far as I can tell, you can only get in Amish country. Sadly, I haven’t had it since I was a child. I keep meaning to find a recipe online for it… but… *shrugs* when it comes to pie, I’d rather someone else make it for me.

But for those playing at home, I actually prefer cookies to pie. Sorry. 😉

shoofly pie

 

Biannual self-evaluation begins…now

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Here it is, a few days into July, which means it’s time to ask that all-important question:

How was the first half of 2019 for you as a screenwriter?

Completed a latest draft? Started a new script? Revised an old one?

Hit a wall? Had a breakthrough?

Entered, and potentially placed, in a contest or three?

Got representation? Lost representation?

Made a short? For the lucky select few – made a feature?

Working with a producer? A director? Taken on both roles yourself? Had a script optioned?

Something important to keep in mind – don’t compare your success or progress to that of others. We all have our own individual path. Find the route and pace that work best for you.

No matter how your year’s been, I sincerely hope you’ve continued to derive a little bit of joy out of this topsy-turvy creative process.

FYI – mine’s been pretty good. Some nice developments here and there. Nothing earth-shattering, but pleasantly encouraging on several fronts. Plus, as is usually the case, lots and lots of writing, editing and rewriting.

Resources at your fingertips

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Becoming a professional screenwriter is an incredibly difficult goal that takes a very, very long time to achieve.

This doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Just know what you’re getting yourself into.

One goal, lots of strategies

The me business – a 24/7 operation

Apart from writing, what are you doing to help yourself get there? There’s only one person who can be the most effective in helping you move forward. And you already know who it is.

A support staff of one

Are you networking? Trying to meet other writers? Offering to give notes or swap scripts?

When a writer meets a writer…

Are you entering contests to see how your script holds up under scrutiny?

The hazardous journey down Contest Road

Are you sending queries? Researching reps and producers?

Quit them or queue them up?

Part of every writer’s journey is the inevitable frustration and disappointment. Some days it will be very powerful, and learning how to survive and endure it is all part of the process.

How low can you go? Quite, apparently.

Expiration date: NEVER!

My game. Upped.

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Behind that innocent smile, the gears are turning. Always.

So how was 2018 for you?

Maybe you established some goals for yourself, and were hopefully able to accomplish at least some of them. If you managed to check off all of them, then all hats off to you.

Among the events of note from my little corner of the universe…

-Completed a major rewrite of one script, the first draft of another, a thorough polish of yet another, and a much-needed updating of an older one.

-My scripts did okay in some contests. Nothing major, but still encouraging.

-A few “almosts” regarding representation.

Would I have liked more from all categories? Without a doubt. Especially the ones regarding getting a career going. While I’m happy with the results, all of this does make me want to really step up my efforts for next year.

Along with more writing, a big part also involves simply planning and strategizing. I already have an idea of which scripts could use more attention; a mix of rewrites and first drafts (with outlining involved all around).

It’s taken time to develop and hone my writing skills to where they are now, and I sincerely believe that working my way through all of these projects will contribute to further improvement for both my writing and my material.

In other words, I’m good, or so I’ve been told, but I’m going to work even harder to get better.

On the contest front, that’ll involve a lot of cutting back. Apart from the big three, I’ll be limiting myself to a handful of smaller ones – most likely those involving a specific genre – mostly to see how my scripts fare. That and those registration fees really add up.

And regarding the ongoing quest for representation, the researching and updating of contact info for reps and prodcos continues. Over the course of this year, I’ve accumulated a somewhat sizable collection of names and email addresses, and am doing what I can to compile and organize a list of potential recipients.

The word that most accurately sums up my approach to 2019 would be “relentless”. I’ve no plan to stop trying. One might even go so far as to say my efforts will see a dramatic increase. Without a doubt, there will be a lot of days where I feel down and defeated, but even then, the fire deep inside me will continue to burn bright and strong.

I know success is not guaranteed, but I’ve made some good progress over the past few years in terms of career and skills, and sincerely believe that my current efforts regarding both could make quite the positive impact on my chances of good things happening in 2019.

Here’s hoping, anyway.

And I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t wish you all the best with every single one of your projects, current and future, in the coming year.

p.s. Over the past twelve months, I’ve also had the good fortune to engage in face-to-face meetings with many writers here in the Bay Area. Some were new, and some were reconnections. No matter what, it’s always a great thing to meet up and chat about our respective writer stuff.

Which is why I’ll once again highly recommend you add networking and connecting with writers, filmmakers, and all sorts of creative peeople to your “to-do” list for 2019.