Q & A with Geoffrey Calhoun

Screenwriter/script consultant Geoffrey Calhoun of WeFixYourScript.com has been previously featured on this site. This time around, he’s answering some questions about his new book The Guide For Every Screenwriter.

What was the inspiration/motivation for this book?

It was inspired from a class I designed when I was asked to teach screenwriting to film students in Ghana, Africa. Unfortunately that class fell through so I took the materials and broke them into seminars, then hit the road teaching at Film Festivals. Eventually, people attending the classes asked if I’d put this in book form. That’s when I realized I needed to create The Guide For Every Screenwriter.

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

Books on screenwriting tend to be one of two things: overly wordy textbooks or focus on a specific area of screenwriting. What I wanted to do was create a book that’s easy to read and comprises all aspects of screenwriting. Thus, The Guide For Every Screenwriter was born. It covers everything from concepts, character design, formatting, branding yourself as a writer, and beyond. All of it done in an easy to access reference guide which gets straight to the point. I wanted to break down the mysteries of our craft into something that anyone can pick up and understand. This is the book you keep on the shelf next to your desk as you’re writing. After reading this book you’ll be able to confidently write a screenplay, even if you’ve never done it before.

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

I wanted to write a book that even veteran screenwriters could read and walk away with something new or feel refreshed. The Guide covers some really interesting aspects about screenwriting which isn’t really covered in other books. Such as subplots, loglines, how to collaborate with other writers/producers, or even busting myths about queries.

Continuing on that theme – part of the book discusses the basics of formatting. Is this more of an issue than we’d normally expect?

Yes! As a professional screenwriter and consultant, I’m brought in to fix a lot of scripts through my website WeFixYourScript.com. One of the biggest problems I see is a lack of properly using format. Some writers believe it’s optional. Unfortunately, it’s not. So, adding format to the book was a must. I also wanted to delineate between a few of the finer aspects of format, such as montage vs. series of shots. Many writers think they’re interchangeable. The Guide explains exactly how and why they’re used and what makes them different, all with fun examples.

Early on in the book you mention how time, talent and tenacity all play a key role for both the writer and the act of writing. Could you elaborate on that?

The three T’s are my own personal mantra. The funny thing is, I never strung them together until I wrote the book. When it felt like I’d never get a script made I would tell myself I needed more time. Screenwriting is about the long game. Talent was a given. I knew I needed to be the best I could be, which is why I became a lifelong student of this craft. Tenacity is who I am as a person. I don’t quit. I don’t give up. I’m not built that way. I have to see things through. When I sat down to write the Guide, I wanted to create a section that was my own personal truth but also filled with hope and the three T’s were born.

A lot of writing guidelines say “write what you know”, but you’re of a somewhat differing opinion. How so, and how come?

That’s a great question and observation! I break the myth of “write what you know” in The Guide For Every Screenwriter. My hope was to introduce a different perspective to my peers. I believe we as writers need to be two things: experts on what we write about, and chameleons. In order to write about a particular topic or genre we need to master what it is first. Writing is one of the only fields in the world which encourages you to explore all facets of life in order to grow at your craft. The Guide provides a fun way to do that.

We also need to be chameleons. I know many writers scared to work outside of their comfort zones. That’s stifling creatively and also can make it difficult to find work as an indie screenwriter. I love working outside of my comfort zone. It makes me be better at what I do. It pushes me in directions I never expected and thus my skills improve.

I really liked your concept of what you call the “mind map”. Could you explain what that is, and how a writer would use it?

The mind map is a great little trick to get your brain thinking outside of the box. You can do it anywhere. I’ve seen a screenwriter do it at breakfast on a napkin and create their entire concept in ten minutes and it was good! You simply place what you want to develop in the middle of a paper and then branch off wild ideas around it. This isn’t just limited to concept; you can use it on anything including a character or even a story beat. I believe mind mapping in a busy public space can help as well because you’ll find inspiration from the surrounding environment.

There’s a section of the book that deals with a seldom-discussed part of a script: subplots. Why is the subplot important, and how can a writer get the most out of them?

When properly developed, a subplot can add a surprising amount of depth to your story. Subplots also fill out your script. Many writers tend to get lost in the main character’s struggle and end up underutilizing the supporting characters and underdeveloping the antagonist. This can lead to scripts struggling with anything from page count to a meandering script which can’t find its footing. A well developed subplot’s job is to reinforce and prop up the main plot. That’s one of the great keys to creating a killer script. In The Guide For Every Screenwriter, I explain what subplots to use and where they land in the script.

The final section of the book is appropriately called “What Comes Next”, in which you discuss what do after the script’s written – everything from getting feedback to queries. What prompted you to include these topics?

Screenwriting is about more than just writing scripts. If you really want to get out there and start landing writing gigs, then you need a road map of how to do that. I wanted to make sure the Guide can you lead you in the right direction. That’s why it covers topics such as properly protecting your script, a synopsis template, branding, networking, etc…

Last time around, you said your favorite kind of pie was pumpkin with a big dollop of whipped cream. Still the same, or something new?

I don’t know why, but pecan pie has been calling to me.

pecan 3

Little time. Lots of results.

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So many options. Where to start?

Bit of a shorty today, and the subject itself is the reason why.

Let’s talk time management.

As much as I’d like to devote a big portion of my day to writing, that just isn’t the case. I’ve got other responsibilities, so I do what I can to make that limited timeframe as productive as possible.

A key part of this – planning ahead. Making a list. Designating time specifically for certain activities.

Think “achievable objectives”. Things you know you can get done.

Research.

Reading scripts (both professional and writers within your circle)

Providing notes.

Queries (including verifying recipient’s info)

Networking.

And of course, writing (includes outlining, editing and polishing).

(Imagine how much more is involved with the actual production of a film. For today, it’s all about the script and the things connected to it.)

You could do all of these each day, but that would be exhausting. I find three to be a safe and productive number. Results will vary.

The important part to remember is how a steady repetition of all these little things can eventually add up to big results.

If you can only manage one or two, that’s okay. Do what works best for you. You’re the one in control, and this is definitely not the sort of thing you want to rush through.

Another helpful tip – avoid social media/wandering around the internet. Or at least severely limit your participation. Allow yourself a few minutes, then redirect that focus back to your project.

A writer wears a lot of hats, always having to switch them out because there’s always something that has to get done. But if you stay calm and try to be organized about it, the switching out of hats will get a little easier as you go along.

The familiar thrill of a new undertaking

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One of several contributors to my horror-comedy education

Been splitting my time the past few days between doing notes for scripts for notes and working on the outline for the horror-comedy. This post will focus on the latter.

I’ve never really been a big horror fan. Especially the ones that push plot aside and put an emphasis on gore as the writer goes through a laundry list of devising ways of killing people. Just not something I want to read or see.

So why would I even consider writing one? Well, I came up with the idea and thought it would be fun to write. Works for me. And I want to make sure that when somebody reads this script, they can tell without a doubt that I wrote it.

Mine incorporates variations on elements of this particular sub-genre, or maybe “certain/expected aspects” is a stronger way to put it, so as I work out the core story-centric details, I find myself continuously dipping into previously untapped creative reservoirs of a somewhat…darker tone to emphasize the horror parts.

And my gosh, is it fun. Pretty much in a “mad scientist rubbing his hands together” kind of way. I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel, but, as always, striving to offer up something new and original. This time it just happens to involve adding corn syrup, red food coloring, and raw chicken parts to the prospective special effects budget.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

All the fun stuff aside, the first and foremost objective is to make sure the story works, or at least as much as it can for this kind of story. Without that, the rest of it will all be for naught. Once that’s more or less in place, I can really go to town as I seek out opportunities of where a joke would work – especially one that works within the context of the scene. I love those.

Then a little more fine-tuning, and probably a rewrite or two, and voila! A finished script.

That’s the plan, anyway.

Each day I try to get a little bit more done, and the rewriting and tweaking has already begun; to the point that it’s noticeably different than when I started on it a few weeks ago. But the core concept remains the same, which is good. It’s all coming together.

I never really pictured myself writing in this genre, but as has usually been the case for me, once I came up with the idea, I felt compelled to follow through on it and make it an actual thing.

With the added benefit of being able to use movies of a very similar nature as research, references, and guidelines, I suspect getting the outline and subsequent first draft done might not take as long as I think.

The (much) tougher part

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99% of the time, you’re George Foreman

In this week’s previous post, I wrote about the necessity of how a writer needs to enjoy the actual writing part of being a writer.

A few colleagues piped in, saying while that part of it holds true, they also find the business aspect (i.e. the marketing of YOU) to be significantly harder and much more challenging. Taking it one step further, lack of progress on that front adds to their frustration.

I can’t argue with any of that. I’ve experienced it firsthand many times.

Friend of the blog Phil Hardy had this to say:

“…this should resonate with most of us that are doing the same thing as you are. However, one of the keys in trying to be a successful writer is spending a fair amount of time crafting query letters, answering ads or attempting to make contact with industry people anyway you can. Many writers fall flat in this area. One should definitely spend as much time as they can trying to promote and sell their work, as well as taking joy in the act of writing it.”

Simply put, marketing and promoting oneself is a necessary evil that a writer has to be willing to undergo and endure as many times as it takes if they want to succeed. Sucks, but it’s the truth.

After working on a couple of scripts and building up my arsenal of materal, I’ve decided to take the plunge again.

I’ve put together what I consider to be a pretty effective new draft of the query letter. Gone through the list of managers, agents and production companies, researching who might a good match for each script.

A few queries have been sent, so the waiting and hoping for a positive response begins yet again. All the while, working on more scripts. It’s all I can do.

My efforts to improve my networking skills have also paid off. Every once in a while, a colleague will send me a listing that seems tailor-made for one of my scripts. Even though none of them have worked out, it’s made me aware of more opportunities than I would have been able to find on my own.

We all know this is not an easy path. It’s extremely tough and really puts your endurance to the test. The question you have to continually ask yourself is “Am I willing to keep working at this until I get the results I want, no matter how long it takes, how frustrated I get, or how impossible it seems?”

I can only speak for myself.

Yep.

-You might find these older posts somewhat relevant and worth a read.

The me businsess – a 24/7 operation

A support staff of one

The reason why

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Only a slight connection here. I just like referencing this movie.

The busy times never stop around Maximum Z HQ. Among the latest tasks being undertaken:

-Rewrite/overhaul of the low-budget comedy

-Sporadic rewrite work on the pulp sci-fi spec, with initial sets of notes being carefully scrutinized

-Crafting together some pretty solid query letters, along with researching the best places to send them

-Jotting down notes for several future projects, including a comedic take on one of my favorite genres

-Providing scriptnotes to patient writer colleagues

You’d think with all of this going on, plus the non-writing normal life, I’d be exhausted.

Actually, I am, but it’s cool.

The way I see it, keeping busy like this helps me be a better writer; continuously working on something helps me be productive and further develop my skills.

Sure, sometimes the amount of actual writing is bare minimum, or maybe even not at all, but that’s okay too. All work and no play and all that.

Most importantly, I’m just getting a real kick out of doing it. If I wasn’t, I’d be a lot less likely to want to keep going.

And there are also days where it all gets so frustrating that I want to just walk away from it all. But I like doing it to much to even consider that.

Some recent interactions I’ve had with other writers have included more than a few of them expressing frustration about their diminishing hopes of making headway with breaking in and getting a writing career going.

I feel for them. I really do. As just about any writer will attest, this is not an easy undertaking. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” right?

Even though all of our chances are somewhat slim, I suggested they keep at it, if only for the sheer joy of writing. Isn’t that what got us all started?

When I asked one writer how their latest project was going, the response was “Really enjoying working on this, even though I know nobody else will ever see it.”

I totally get that. We all have our reasons for deciding whether or not to put our work out there, but the important thing was that they were having a good time with it. And you can tell if they were by what’s there on the page. It it was a chore for you to write, it’ll be that much more of a chore for us to read. Is that really the route you want to take?

So no matter what it is you’re working on right now, I sincerely hope that it’s bringing you as much joy and pleasure as you’re hoping to provide to your reader/audience.