Ask One of the Great Brains Behind the GAPF!

Signe Olynyk

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is especially significant for writers ready to pitch their material, as it features an interview with ScriptFest/Pitchfest co-founder Signe Olynyk.

Signe Olynyk is a writer/producer, as well as the co-founder of ScriptFest and www.pitchfest.com, which includes the Great American PitchFest, the Great British PitchFest, and the Great Canadian PitchFest.  She is also the co-founder of the Ultimate Logline Contest, and Your Career In A Day industry workshops. She lives in Canada, and runs the highly regarded Sooke Writers Retreat from a secluded, oceanfront home, where dozens of select writers join her each year for their personal writing retreats. In addition, Signe has written and produced a number of television pilots, series, documentaries, and feature films, and works in the industry. She has professional credits on more than 120 productions, including her two latest feature films, Below Zero and Breakdown Lane. Her work has been seen around the world on the CBC, Discovery Channel, Scream Channel, Fox, the BBC, and various others.

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

Great first question. There are so many. The ‘smartest’ movies I can think of right now include Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, and The Disappearance of Alice Creed, which was incredibly smart and well written. These two films were dramatic thrillers, but I actually feel that comedy is some of the most difficult to write – it has to be smart and well-written, and generally, a brilliant mind must be behind a comedy to successfully pull it off. Creating original characters, situations, and dialogue that makes us laugh, and that we haven’t seen before, is an incredible feat.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I got my start reading scripts by writing scripts. For years, I was writing and sharing my work with others in my writing groups. At the time, I didn’t understand the value in reading, but the group I joined took turns reading a screenplay each week for a film that had been recently produced. Reluctantly, I started to read other screenplays. I just wanted to create new material and share script notes by reading each other’s screenplays, not spend my time reading the screenplays for movies that had already been produced. I thought it was going to be a waste of time when I could just watch the films. But that was when my world changed.

When you read scripts, you learn a rhythm and start to see the style in which a writer puts their words on the page. You see how evocative language and onomatopoetic words like ‘sizzle’ and ‘slap’, make your script come alive visually on the page, and in your mind’s eye. When you read other scripts, you discover and absorb lessons that you automatically start applying to your own work. And you are a better writer because of it, thanks to the work of other writers. It’s invaluable to your own development as a writer.

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

Physical limitations are an interesting thing. I love to play soccer, but I know I’m not the best player on the field. My coach can make me run drills, and practice for hours, but my skill level is only going to get me so far compared to others, because there are others who are simply more skilled and talented than I am.

Writing is the same way. Same with math, with physics, with music, art, or sports, or anything really. Someone’s physical brain or body has developed in such a way that they are stronger at a certain skill than someone else.

What really matters is attitude and perseverance. Good writing can be taught or learned, but there has to be a certain level of natural ability and talent in the first place. And then there has to be a passion behind whatever skill you have to really drive success at anything.

As an aside, I have been very frustrated by some of the ramblings of some who like to criticize consultants and say that ‘those who can’t, teach’. What a hugely unfair, offensive and dismissive thing to say. I am the founder of the annual screenwriting conference ScriptFest, which is held each year in Los Angeles. We have had hundreds of speakers teach at the conference, and they are educated, brilliant, and generous people who give back to the community and help writers become better at what they do. Since when did we decide it was okay to criticize teachers? It is not an easy task, and great teachers are a huge gift to those of us who are still learning – which is all of us, isn’t it?

Yes, teaching can be taught. I’m incredibly grateful to all of those who have mentored me in my life. It is the moral obligation of each and every single one of us to share what we have learned with others, so that we can all learn from one another.

4. What are the components of a good script?

I want to see characters I care about in situations I haven’t seen before overcoming outrageous obstacles in the singular pursuit of their goals. I want to feel something, and root for them to achieve their goals. I want to go on a ride with them, and experience an emotional journey as they give everything they have towards reaching their goals, being beaten down and nearly defeated as they pursue an eventual triumph. That doesn’t mean a character must always reach their goal – and by triumph, I mean they’ve learned something meaningful that has changed them forever, for better or worse.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Many writers write characters and stories they think people want to see, hear, or read. They cling to stereotypes, which does nothing to create originality or anything of interest to an audience. Finding your own voice as a writer is something that develops the more you write, because your confidence grows as you do.

I also see many writers fall in love with their first script or book, then spend years and years rewriting and tweaking it, and doing rewrite after rewrite. If you want to be a professional writer, you must generate new work. This is important not only because you are creating a body of work, but because you get better with everything you write.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Cats leaping out at people in horror stories. The guy who develops a cough, dying part-way through the story. Girlfriends who go after the girl their boyfriend cheated on them with – how stupid is that? Go after the ass who cheated on you! I want to see characters pushed as far as they can in directions and towards goals I haven’t seen before, and making decisions that are real for that character and that people can relate to. I want to see characters overcome their obstacles by making choices that only they would make. Story comes from your characters. Make your character’s reactions realistic for who they are, and have them respond in ways that only they would. Just as each of us has our own backstories, and these experiences shape who we are, our characters need to be developed the same way. Then you create characters and situations that are as real as each of us.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

-First, don’t miss out on your life because you feel a need to be writing or working all of the time to create success. You must have a life in order to be a great writer. Every experience you have helps to shape you, and you need those experiences to shape your characters and their worlds.

-Second, take care of your health. Watch your posture and get a good chair to support your back. Go on long walks so your characters can speak to you, and you’ll be amazed how ideas will come to you when you’re least expecting it.

-Third, go to every event you can and constantly educate yourself on your craft. You never know who you will meet, or what you will learn that will inspire you, enlighten your work, and help you to create your best work.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

I’m still seeking that script. I find lots of screenplays that are ‘recommends’, sure. But even then, rarely do you find any script that doesn’t need work, or still has tweaking or ideas, characters, or dialogue that need to be finessed a bit more. There are tons of loglines I read that make me smile and that I get super excited about, and keep visualizing the various scenes, and putting my producer hat on to think about logistics. Although I can’t give a logline exactly, what I can tell you is that they all have certain things in common:

  *TITLE: The title of the script captures the full essence of the story. We know what it is about, just from the title, and the theme of the story is also hinted at. JAWS. UNBROKEN. WILD. UP.

  *CHARACTER: They have a protagonist who is interesting to me, relatable, but who is someone I haven’t seen before. They pursue goals in a way that only they can do, and their backstories make their actions real and believable.

  *PURSUIT OF A CLEAR, IMPOSSIBLE GOAL: They have a goal that seems impossible, and the journey of following this character as they pursue that goal becomes irresistible to me. I must watch them pursue their goal.

  *OBSTACLES: They overcome increasingly serious obstacles in pursuit of their goal. The stakes get more serious as the story progresses.

  *NEMESIS: they have a formidable foe. A Goliath for every David. Goliath keeps putting obstacles in David’s way

  *LESSON LEARNED: the character is different by the end of the story than who they were at the beginning. By going on this journey with them, I am also changed in some way. It is the magical, emotional moment in a movie when your character becomes who they were meant to be, regardless of whether their goal is achieved or not.

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

Anytime you have an opportunity to get your work in front of someone who can make a difference to your career is worthwhile. It’s always a bit of a crapshoot whether your work will resonate with a particular judge. However, a lot of industry people find scripts by judging contests, and really, it’s a matter of the right script finding the right producer at the right time. If that’s the situation, then it behooves any writer – especially without an agent – to get their work out there and in front of as many eyeballs as possible.

Writers may also want to really examine the prizes. What is the real opportunity? Is it just to win a cash prize? Or is it industry exposure? What is more meaningful?

10. How can people get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

I would encourage writers to check out ScriptFest and the Great American PitchFest. It’s an annual, 3-day conference with more than 40 classes, panels, and workshops offered. Writers who’ve written a book or screenplay can pitch it to more than 120 agents, managers and production companies. Visit www.scriptfest.com to learn more.

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

That’s like asking my favorite ice cream! So many kinds, so many flavors! Lemon meringue, pumpkin, butter pecan, coconut cream, banana cream, apple with cheddar…If I have to choose only one kind, I would probably say blueberry-rhubarb. I like the sweet with the tart (kind of like my favorite movies).

Ask a Most Excellent Script Consultant!

Wayne McLean

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Wayne McLean of Wayne’s Movie World.

-update on May 4, 2018 – Wayne passed away on April 30th from congestive heart failure. He provided me with some great notes for my western, and enjoyed getting my updates regarding its progress. He was very savvy when it came to writing advice, extremely generous with offering it, and overall just a very nice guy.

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

The Imitation Game, Nightcrawler, Whiplash.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I fell into it by accident. I was in a writers’ group. One of the guys was produced and went to Toronto for a pitchfest. He brought back 95 or 100 scripts. I read them all and called each writer to give input. No charge. After about 90 phone calls I said, “I can do this.” My 25-year career in broadcasting really helped. That was about 10 years ago.

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

I work with writers and their scripts to provide the focus necessary to perfect the skills required for the CRAFT of screenwriting in relation to their scripts. Then, through a careful process, the writers and I work together to develop their talents to enable them to become proficient in the ART of screenwriting.

4. What are the components of a good script?

Amazing writing with a unique point of view. Compelling, riveting characters. Crackling dialogue. Powerful subtext on all levels. Scenes and situations that are fresh. Marketable.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Clichés. Sending out a script that isn’t ready for the market.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Characters waking up from a dream. Fragmented concepts. Two-dimensional characters.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

I don’t ascribe to the idea of ‘rules’. I prefer to see a writer following guidelines and principles. The script must be entertaining, entertaining and entertaining.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

I cannot disclose loglines. All materials submitted are confidential and conform to my rules of privacy. I do have some clients with million dollar concepts.

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

If a writer can afford it, enter as many contests as possible. Use them as an opportunity to develop writing skills and ask if there is input available from the judges.

10. How can people get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

(See note above. Wayne’s website & email have been shut down.)

Check out my website waynesmovieworld.com or email me at wayne@waynesmovieworld.com.

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

Pumpkin.

From asking to being asked

Nothing like a receptive ear (and the person connected to it)
Nothing like a receptive ear (and the person connected to it)

Compare the most recent thing you wrote to the very first thing you wrote. How much of a difference is there?

One thing’s for certain: it no doubt took a lot of hard work and learning to get you from your skill level then to what it is now.

But you didn’t do it alone, or in a vacuum. You had help along the way from countless resources. It might have come from a book, a class, a writing group, or the occasional someone with more experience willing to help out.

When I started out, that was me. I got my hands on as many books as I could (the one I still recommend – Story Sense by Paul Lucey). Classes weren’t really an option, so I read a lot of scripts and attended a few seminars and expos when I could. I also had the good fortune to be involved with a few writing groups. A lot of this was also in the early days of the internet, so online resources and networking were nowhere near the levels they are now.

But what definitely helped the most was getting notes and feedback. The more fresh eyes you can get to take a look at your work, the better the end result will be. One stipulation: it depends on who you ask. Specifically, someone who really knows what they’re talking about, and whose knowledge and opinion you trust.

This has made a significant difference for me, such to the point that I now have a core group of trusted colleagues I can rely on for quality notes, and I’ve done my best to return the favor to many of them when possible.

And in recent months, as my network has grown and I connect with more writers, I’ll occasionally get an email asking along the lines of “If it’s not too much trouble, would you take a look at this and let me know what you think?” A script. Some pages. A logline. What have you.

I honestly never expected to be on the receiving end of that question, but, schedule permitting, am always happy to help out when I can. It’s the least I can do. Hopefully my notes will give them the help they need.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but it’s kind of nice to think that I might be able to help somebody in the same way others did for me in the past.

The benefit of connecting with people in person

Availability of coffee is always a pleasant option
Face-to-face. Classic. Effective.

I had the good fortune earlier this week to attend the meeting of a new writing group. It’s been a while since I’ve been part of one, and it was nice being able to once again interact with other writers and engage in casual discussions about our respective projects before moving on to the focus of the evening. Since it was my first time attending, I’d opted to stay in the role of observer/commenter, rather be than one of the four-to-five who brings pages for review.

Following a brief table read, the group then offers up its collective comments. This week’s selections weren’t bad, but each set had room for improvement. Some maybe a little more than others.

When I got the opportunity to toss in my two cents, I talked about what stood out for me and what I thought needed work, making a point of being nice about it.

Others chimed in with their opinions and suggestions, not all of which I agreed with. While I may have been thinking “That’s not right,”or “That doesn’t make any sense,” my lips remained sealed. I didn’t want to come across as the pompous know-it-all. It’s important to make a good first impression, no matter who you’re meeting.

When the meeting was over, I talked to the guy who organizes it (we were in a different writing group years ago), saying I’d hoped I wasn’t too obnoxious with my comments. “Not at all,” he said. “A lot of these folks are newer writers, and you told them some things they needed to hear. It’s the only way they’re going to get better.”

Whew.

It’s been my experience, and hopefully yours, that getting feedback from an actual person is beneficial on several levels. Chances are you’ll know something about that person’s background and experience, so you can put the appropriate level of merit into what they have to say. And unless they’re a jerk to begin with, they might be a little less harsh with their comments than if it was an online forum, where for some reason people have no problem letting loose with vitriolic criticism and put-downs.

If you asked somebody for feedback, wouldn’t you rather the notes were helpful in a supportive way, rather than “This sucks! What makes you think you can write?” That would be pretty devastating, right?

Now imagine that situation reversed. A newer writes comes to you, asking for notes. Do you think “They don’t realize how fortunate they are to have the wonderfulness of my vast superior knowledge bestowed upon them!” or “I used to be where they are. How can I help?”

My advice: opt for the latter. Both of you will be better off for it.

Am I wrong, or just stubborn?

Sometimes you're the puller, and sometimes you're the pullee
Sometimes you’re the puller, and sometimes you’re the pullee

Ever since I started working on the western, a lot of comments have been made pertaining to the belief that certain aspects of it are just not believable (including the always-popular “It’s not historically accurate.”). Therefore, the story doesn’t work.

But I didn’t let that stop me from writing it. In fact, a majority of the notes on the previous draft were quite complimentary and enjoyed the originality and execution of how it all played out.

Jump to the present. I’ve recently become involved with an online writing group. Despite some negative experiences in the past, this one came recommended, so I’m just starting out with them.

Since I don’t have pages for the western rewrite yet, I sent in a revised version of the logline. In all honesty, I don’t really like it. It feels very lacking and incomplete, hence my need for help.

So far, only two people have commented on it, each saying they cannot get past the number of ways this idea can’t work.

Argh.

This kind of response has always bothered me. As writers, our imaginations are the biggest tools in our arsenal. The possibilities of what we can come up with are endless. Just because it’s not how you would do it means my way is wrong; we’re just taking different approaches.

I’ve never been one to use “because I say it does” as a counter-argument, and will never, ever say “you just don’t get it”. I prefer “I can make it work,” and will spend a lot of time and effort figuring out how.

Which pretty much sums up how I’ll deal with this for now.

Like I said to them, there’s a solid logline out there somewhere. It’s finding it that’s the hard part.