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

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

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.

Dream big, work small-ish

Small beginnings can have big endings
Small beginnings can result in big endings

Last week, I had the good fortune of having a “getting to know you” lunch with a working writer I’d connected with via Done Deal Pro.

We discussed numerous things, almost of all which were about our writing. Hearing about another writer’s experiences never gets old, especially one that’s had some success.

As our time started to wrap up, he offered to read one of my scripts. “But,” he added, “don’t send me any big-budget tentpoles. There are six people who could actually make those happen, and I don’t know any of them. On the other hand, there are about three thousand who can work with a small, low-budget script, and I know a lot of them.”

As much as I wanted to send him one of those big-budget tentpoles, I decided it was better to go with an older one that would be considered small budget and only has a few locations. (Since it was an older script, I added that my skills have improved since then)

Another point he made was that there are a lot of writing assignments available (TV movies, small indie films, etc), and a small script could show you’ve got the chops to handle this kind of work. He admitted it may not be the most glamorous, but I totally understood when he talked about the thrill in seeing his name with a “Written By” credit on TV.

As much as I enjoy writing the stuff I do, just about all of it does fall into the big-budget tentpole category.  I’m not an established writer, which makes it that much harder to move forward with it. Having a manager helps, but it’s still an uphill climb.

It’s smart to take this kind of realistic approach. You may love working on that effects-heavy epic extravaganza, but don’t count out the potential of that low-key dramedy you haven’t looked at in years. A little touch-up work may be all it needs.

It never hurts to have more scripts in your arsenal of material, and a smaller one may end up being the one that gets things started.