Q & A with Barb Doyon of Extreme Screenwriting

BarbDoyon

Barb Doyon is the owner/founder of Extreme Screenwriting, a Los Angeles-based screenplay and TV pilot coverage service. She is well known among Hollywood producers as a skilled ghostwriter who is also a produced screenwriter, producer and award-winning documentary writer.

She’s a yearly keynote speaker at the Script-to-Screen Summit and has authored books on screenwriting including, Extreme Screenwriting: Screenplay Writing SimplifiedExtreme Screenwriting: Television Writing SimplifiedTurn Your Idea into a Hit Reality-TV Show, 10 Ways to Get a Hollywood Agent to Call You! and Magnetic Screenplay Marketing. Before opening Extreme Screenwriting, she worked at Walt Disney Studios writing press releases for the studio and Disney Sports.

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

Extreme Screenwriting’s client Larry Postel’s upcoming Netflix movie The Main Event was a solid, inspirational read. Larry captured the Follow Your Dreams theme and wove it into a compelling conflict that incited a hero to break through his flaws and become a champion. It’s the story of a little boy who takes on WWE Superstars and I love how the trailer states the theme.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I worked at Walt Disney Studios in the press room where I wrote daily press releases for then-CEO Michael Eisner and the studio’s production companies. One day a producer asked if I had time to do coverages and he showed me how to spot the diamonds among the coal heap. This eventually branched into my company Extreme Screenwriting.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Whether they realize it or not, audiences want to viscerally live through a hero and experience the types of change they can’t, won’t, or are too afraid to implement in their own lives. Regardless of genre, the writer should make sure that the external and internal conflicts are interlocked, resulting in an external conflict that forces change in a hero. Most writers are excellent at coming up with unique concepts, but fall short when it comes to the hero’s flaw and arc. A good script combines external and internal conflicts to solidify a hero’s arc.

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

-Interlock internal and external conflicts, as noted above.

-A producer should be able to remove all dialogue from a screenplay and still know what the movie is about. It’s called a ‘motion picture’ for a reason.

-Don’t take format for granted. Learn how to use it to create pacing, emotion and to help guarantee fewer scenes are rewritten or deleted during the development phase.

-Stop asking gurus to explain subtext and start listening. Learn to hear subtext in everyday dialogue. This is fastest, easiest way to learn how to write it and how to become a pro at lingo.

-Don’t toss in something because you think it’s interesting. If Mona’s red skirt doesn’t mean something to the story as a whole, then leave it out.

-Learn the genre rules! Producers buy screenplays based on genre.

-Start thinking of description as action and create moving picture. Don’t tell us the room’s filthy. Show John walk in, toss cigarettes into an overflowing ashtray and kick his feet up on a pile of yellow newspapers.

-Be able to state the screenplay’s theme in one line. Producers ask, ‘What is the theme?’ to weed out amateurs from pros. Amateurs can’t answer this question.

-Your hero should get the best lines, the last line, the big scene moments, a grand entrance, and the worst-case scenario should happen to them and they alone should resolve the main, external conflict.

What was the inspiration/motivation for your book Magnetic Screenplay Marketing?

It’s heartbreaking to see extraordinarily talented, aspiring screenwriters struggle for years to get a producer to read their material. Extreme Screenwriting does help writers promote their material in our monthly newsletter, but writers need to spend as much time marketing as they do writing. Most do not! Instead, they send out a few queries here and there, maybe attend a pitch festival every couple of years and that’s it.

The market is rapidly changing, and if aspiring screenwriters don’t change with it, they’ll be left behind with little hope of getting their material into the right hands. The change in the industry requires a new way of thinking and it does have a learning curve, so that’s why I decided to make a book detailing how to get ahead of the curve and beat the competition with this a marketing strategy.

This book is very different from other screenwriting books in that it focuses more on what a writer can do AFTER they’ve gained some experience and have market-ready scripts. Is what you describe a newer development for screenwriters, and what results have you seen from it?

The marketing technique I outlined in the book, related to getting a producer to call you, isn’t new to the industry. It’s been around for a long time, but until recently, this strategy hasn’t applied to screenwriters. However, there’s been a shift in the industry. Like any other product (yes, a screenplay is a product), the buyer (producer) wants social proof of its viability and is even hiring staff to find material with this ‘proof’ attached.

The Magnetic Screenplay Marketing book teaches the writer how to develop this marketing strategy and put it to use. Prior to publishing the book, I worked with 13 writers to beta test the strategy resulting in agent representation, three options, a television pilot deal and 362 combined read requests, averaging 27 per beta tester. A few did fail at the process, but they didn’t complete the steps, skipped steps, or simply quit before even giving it a try. Therefore, results will vary, but the bottom line is the fact that the industry is changing. I highly recommend aspiring writers get aboard this fast-moving train before they’re left behind.

One portion of the book is about writers obtaining “bread and butter assignments”. What does that mean, and why are they a potential avenue for writers?

This pertains to one of the strategies outlined in a section of the book on how to get an agent to call you. The first agent 99% of writers sign with will be from a boutique agency. These are the smaller agencies in town and while they do make sales, most of their commissions are generated from writing assignments, rewrites, and ghostwriting. It’s so prevalent that it’s literally become their ‘bread and butter’, in other words it’s the main moneymaker.

However, a lot of writers refuse to do this type of work. They’d rather wait around to sell their own screenplays. This sounds reasonable, but if it’s been a year (or 2) and a writer’s work hasn’t sold and the writer won’t do this lucrative work, they become dead weight for the agent. This creates an ‘opening’ for the aspiring writer who notes in queries that they’re open to all kinds of writing assignments! During the beta test, one of our writers gained representation using this strategy. A writer who isn’t open to doing assignments is leaving a lot of cash on the table and missing out on a golden opportunity to gain representation.

You mention sending in writing samples (when and only when requested). One of the options you suggest is to send the last 10 pages of a script. Why the last 10 as opposed to the first 10, and what results have you (or other writers who’ve done this) seen from this?

This is a strategy I decided to add to the book after several years of hearing of its success. Most agents, producers and story analysts agree that most writers know how to nail Act I, but then the material starts to fall apart. The result is an accumulation of story points that miss the mark.

Therefore, if a writer can still intrigue them with a strong ending that reveals voice, theme, solidifies a plot, and nails down pacing while intriguing them to want to know more, then the screenplay’s worth reading. This isn’t the preference for all agents and producers, but even those who start off requesting the entire screenplay often flip to the end first.

You also have a section of the book regarding writers creating teaser trailers for their scripts. What’s a teaser trailer for a script, and what’s the advantage in doing it?

This is part of the new marketing strategy that involves creating an audience for a screenplay via social media, primarily YouTube. This doesn’t involve a Hollywood-style trailer, but rather a simple teaser video that can literally be done for $0 cost (the book shows how) and all the writer has to do is write a 1-page script.

Think about it. For years, producers have purchased books and reality-TV concepts that got their start on social media, based solely on the fact they came with a built-in audience. When a writer sits down to pitch a script, I guarantee the producer is wondering if the story can draw an audience, but imagine the potential for a sale if the writer walks in the door with an audience already attached to the screenplay. It’s a huge advantage and can make the project a hot commodity!

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

Extreme Screenwriting invites writers to visit us at www.ExtremeScreenwriting.com. We offer coverage, a free monthly newsletter, and see the Bookshelf tab for the Magnetic Screenplay Marketing book (available for instant eBook download).

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

Homemade blueberry.

blueberry pie

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

Returning to the sprucing-up stage

painting
It’s going to take just a little bit more than a new coat of paint

It all started with a “Scripts Wanted” listing.

A small prodco with an even smaller budget was looking for a particular kind of script. I felt that one of my earlier efforts was a perfect match, so I sent it in.

A few days later came the response “Just not what I’m looking for.” A bit disappointing, but that’s the way it is. No big deal. I’ve moved on.

It was at this point I realized it had been quite a while since I’d actually read the script. As far as I could remember, it was in good shape.

So I read it.

The result? It’s better than I remember, and a lot of the jokes still work. But what it really needs is just a good, solid edit/polish. There’s definitely some fat in need of trimming, and a lot of that is just extra and/or unnecessary words.

The draft I’d been using for years was 109 pages, which is a little excessive for a comedy. I’ve completed the initial edit, which brought it down to 105. A more thorough red pen edit is underway, and after going through the first third, another page has been cut out, bringing the current total to 104. The hope is to cut out at least another 2-3 pages.

There are at least two sequences (so far) that need rewriting to accommodate some of this editing, and the solution to one of them (a key part of the story) came to me a lot faster than I was expecting. That’s always nice. There’s no reason I couldn’t be done with a much more presentable draft in a week or less, which is also nice.

Since this script is from way back when, it was quite the experience to look at how I used to write with the advantage of having all the knowledge and skill I’ve acquired since then.

Go through your own catalog of completed scripts. Almost-completed and first drafts are allowed. When was the last time you looked at one of your earliest efforts? How does it compare to your most recent project?

I bet it’s super-easy for you to spot the differences between then and now. You might be surprised at how much you’ve improved, or possibly even laugh at how bad you used to be. Happens to everybody.

Whenever I would pass this script along to another writer, I would always precede it with the caveat “This is one of my earlier scripts, so the writing’s not as good.”

After this edit/polish, I don’t think I’ll be saying that anymore.

A multi-pronged approach

freeway
Lots of different ways to go, as long as you know where you’re going

Had another great lunchtime chat with a fellow writer yesterday. Among the many topics of conversation: the necessity of how a writer trying to break in must work towards achieving success from as many angles as they can.

Got a good script? How many others have you got that are ready to go? How many are you currently developing so as to increase that number? Are you sticking with one genre or trying several?

Are you actively seeking writing projects? There are a lot of smaller, not-as-prestigious projects out there in need of writers. You may not get a big paycheck, but you’ll gain experience (and maybe an onscreen credit). It could also help educate you about what goes on during production.

Think your script is good enough for one of the high-profile contests? What’s more important to you – the prize money, the prestige of winning (or at least placing), or how this could help get your career going?

Are you connecting with other writers? As introverted as a lot of writers are, social contact is a necessary factor of doing it professionally. It’s one thing to communicate electronically, so make a point of going to a social event in your area (you could even go so far as to arrange one!), or attend a conference where you actually talk to people. This will also come in handy when you reach that next level and start taking meetings.

You’ve done everything you can with this current script and are ready to start looking for representation. How much research have you done into who would be the most receptive to it? Does your script seem like a good match for them? Have you worked on that query letter to the point that it would be impossible for them to not want to read your script?

Naturally, these questions and situations are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Everybody’s path is going to be different from yours, but there will be similarities. Fortunately, you have time and a wide array of resources at your disposal to start preparing in your own way for all of them.

Good luck, and get to it.

Three and a half scripts. No waiting.

Keep your pants on. These things can't be rushed.
Everybody else, though, will have to wait. These things can’t be rushed.

Despite a few weeks to go, it’s safe to say that 2014 didn’t work out the way I’d hoped. I didn’t do that well on the contest front, and I no longer have a manager.

I’ve gotten over the thankfully-brief “woe is me” phase, and am now firmly planted in “How can I make this better?”

Like any smart and savvy writer, I’m thinking ahead and making plans.

-As much as I love my western, it still needs work. Beaucoup thanks to the legion of note-givers who offered up a lot of insight that really helped me out.

There’s a hill near where I went to elementary school. At the time, it felt like taking on Everest. Now, not so much. The idea of rewriting this script feels incredibly daunting right now, but as is usually the case, probably won’t be a problem.

A few ideas for changes have already popped up, with the hard part now to let go of what’s already in there, but that’s another blogpost.

-Another group of notegivers had some fantastic things to say about my mystery-comedy, and provided similarly helpful feedback. They liked the concept, pointed out what in the story needed work and had some great suggestions for potential fixes.

This one is going to be especially tricky (due to that whole mystery angle), but again, I’ll work my way through it.

Can’t explain why, but for some reason, listening to 50’s jazz and drinking a glass of quality red feel like they would be extremely conducive to working on the outline. I’ll let you know how that goes.

-As for the low-budget comedy, the story’s being kept under wraps until the first draft is finished. The big hurdle here is to just keep writing and not obsess over each joke. Darn my perfectionist nature.

-It’s been a while since it’s been mentioned, or even thought of, for that matter, but I don’t want to ignore my pulpy adventure. I managed to crank out a workable outline, but it definitely needs more fine-tuning. It’s more of a “whenever I get to it”, rather than a “I have to finish this!”.

So there you have it. My projects for the coming year. How many will actually be completed? Hard to say right now, but 3 seems like a reasonable number.

At this point, I’m not even entertaining the notion of contests. It’s really all about writing, editing, rewriting and polishing. Any money I would have spent on contest fees will go towards professional feedback.

I’ll admit I was hoping to have made some significant progress this year in terms of establishing a career, and in some ways I have, but you know what I mean.

If continuing to improve as a writer and honing my skills means a slight delay in getting representation, making a sale, and getting assignment work, then so be it.

I’m a patient guy.