Embracing the new (and a little of the old)

A relatively short post today, but one that needs to be said.

Some recent conversations with a few of my fellow writers have helped reinforce and encourage my decision for this year to be all about becoming a better writer.

A big part of this involves not only developing some totally new scripts, but eagerly jumping into the rewriting of some older scripts. It’s time to build up my arsenal of material, and I look forward to taking on all of it.

Among them:

-a sci-fi adventure (rewrite)

-a horror-comedy (rewrite)

-a fantasy-comedy (rewrite)

-a period dramedy (new!)

It’s always exciting to take on the challenges involved when it comes to writing or rewriting a script, and this time is no different. In some ways, it’s even more so.

While my writing skills are far from perfect, they’re definitely stronger than they were. And hopefully that will all be evident on the pages of the finished works.

More emphasis will be placed on simply enjoying the process, rather than worrying about all the unimportant petty details. As I’ve said and observed, when you read a script, you can see the writer’s enthusiasm for the material on the page, which can significantly add to your enjoyment of it.

That’s what I want for my readers.

That and to just blow the socks right off of them.

Updates as they develop…

Q & A with Mario Martin of Scriptdick

Mario Martin’s love for storytelling originated as a young boy when he felt inspired to tell stories through writing. Early on he honed his craft at the Maine Media Workshops and Boston Film & Video Foundation, and has attended many screenwriting boot-camps, worked with multiple coverage companies as well as many screenwriters.

Mario helped develop and produce the award-winning film LA LUZ, on which he collaborated heavily, and helped finance the indie feature GAS STATION JESUS starring renowned actor Patrick Bergin.

Mario followed this success with his writing-directing debut CITY LOVE, a provocative short about a soulful, flamboyant talk radio host starring critically acclaimed actor poet, and performer, Antonio David Lyons of AMERICAN HISTORY X and HOTEL RWANDA.

Mario has dedicated the majority of his life to becoming a better storyteller, writer, and filmmaker. When asked “Which part of the creative process do you enjoy most?”, he often responds, “All of it. The writing, crafting and fully developing your story, making sure it’s on the page.”

Mario enjoys rolling up his sleeves to work with fellow screenwriters. Taking an average story and making it a page-turner “is a lot of work, but fun and so worth it.”

What was the last thing I read or watched that I considered to be exceptionally well written? 

BREAKING BAD and OZARK. I love the simple concept and plot. The writing on both these TV series is brilliant at every level.

How did you get your start in the industry?

I made my first film CHECKMATE at eighteen. That experience hooked me for life. I later wrote, directed and produced CITY LOVE, which played in nine film festivals, and worked on several feature films. Primarily my time is invested in the craft of screenwriting. I’ve written eight screenplays and am working on my ninth as we speak. I truly enjoy it.

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

Yes.I believe it must be taught. It’s important to study film as to how it works so we can become better screenwriters. Understanding the technicals and there are a lot of them and knowing how to apply. Watching a movie or TV show is only what we SEE and HEAR. In a screenplay, that’s how it must be written. Only what the audience will SEE and HEAR.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Great question. I’ve constructed an algorithm for screenwriting for just that reason. Action lines properly written. Character development, plot, and structure. Really it’s many things. At a bare minimum, there are twelve essential elements working together for great storytelling/screenwriting.

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

Action lines that read like a novel. Action can only be what the audience will see, period. “Show, don’t tell.” Giving each character their own voice.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Detective/Cop movies.

What are some key rules or guidelines writers should know?

-Action lines. Write them properly!

-Know your plot

-Know your genre

-Character development and characterization of characters.

-Structure

Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer really gets it?” If so, what were the reasons and why?

I most certainly have. A well-written screenplay is exactly like watching a movie. I become completely engaged, lose track of time, am entertained, I care about what’s happening, and find myself thinking or talking about it later. How enjoyable that story was. All the elements needed for a screenplay to work were present and in place.

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

I don’t have a hard and fast opinion on that. If you win or place highly in a contest, that’s a high honor and might open a door for you. There are many other ways to get your work out there these days. Contests are just one of them. 

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

Check out my website at www.scriptdick.com  I post on all the social media platforms daily, including @thescriptdick on Twitter and script_dick on Instagram. I also have a podcast and a blog.

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

Favorite pie? You may have met your match! Ha ha! Pumpkin. Hands down. All others are a close runner-up. I love pie too.

A few takeaways from 40 scripts

Well, that was an experience.

As 2020 wound down, I’d already made the decision to devote 2021 to focus on improving as a writer.

In addition to writing more, that also meant reading scripts more.

I wanted to really work on developing my analytical skills, so on the last day of the year, I put the word out on social media. Want notes on your script? For free? Let me know.

And let me know the screenwriting community did. And then some.

Out of the 75 or so people who responded “Yes, please!”, 40 actually followed through and sent their scripts.

(Apologies to those who missed out. That window is now closed)

It was a fair mix of shorts, pilots, and features.

Since I also wanted to still work on my own material a bit, it all came down to time management. How much time could I dedicate to each script? It worked out to one a day, and about three to four a week.

Granted, these were not the most extensive of notes. Some general observations, questions and comments about the story and the characters, and an insanely large amount of inadvertent proofreading.

I also made sure to preface my notes saying that these were just my thoughts and opinions, so the writer was more then welcome to use or ignore them as they saw fit.

For the most part, the reactions were positive.

“Thank you so much! These are incredibly helpful! This will really help my next draft get to the next level!”

No comments wishing me bodily harm or proclaiming I was an idiot who simply couldn’t grasp their genius, so going with the theory that they approved of what I had to say and just never got around to saying thanks. I’ll ignore this horrific breach of etiquette and still count it as a win.

There was a wide variety of genres and story ideas to be found. Some truly unique and original stuff, as well as more than a few “familiar, but different” approaches to some classic concepts.

What was probably the most surprising result was that the same comments applied to a majority of the scripts, including:

WHAT’S THE STORY?

Since there are no definitive “rules”, I do like to adhere to some strong guidelines regarding structure and plot points.

If I get to around page 25 or 30 and still don’t know what the main story or the protagonist’s goal are supposed to be, there’s a problem.

The writer was too focused on minor issues and details that the main storyline got lost in the shuffle.

SHOW, DON’T TELL, or HOW DO WE KNOW THAT?

A lot of writers would explain what something meant, or what somebody was thinking, or why they were doing it, rather than portraying it visually.

For example, a scene might say something like “Bob stands at the sink, washing dishes. He thinks about the girl he took to the senior prom and how she dumped him to run off with a plumber and now they live in Dayton with four kids and a cranky Pomeranian.”

You know what we’d see on the screen?

Bob washing the dishes.

Or “Jim was lonely.” How would that look?

There was a lot of reminding the writers that film is primarily a visual medium. Describe what we’re seeing and hearing, and let the characters’ actions and words do the heavy lifting.

A subcategory of this is TRUST YOUR READER/AUDIENCE TO FOLLOW ALONG AND FIGURE THINGS OUT

By explaining what we’re seeing or what’s going on, you’re denying the reader/audience the pleasure of figuring things out to help move the story forward.

This might also count as a subcategory, but there were quite a few times a line would say something like “Bob looks to Mary. He apologizes.”, followed by Bob’s dialogue of “I’m sorry.”

I can’t help but think this is because the writer wants to make absolutely sure that you understand what’s happening, so they tell you, and then show you.

Something else a lot of writers fell into the trap of was OVERWRITING (aka BIG BLOCKS OF TEXT)

There would be 4 or 5 lines at a time to describe what was happening in a scene, which for me, really slowed down the read. I want to be zip-zip-zipping along, not taking my foot off the gas to make sure I don’t lose my place.

“The more white space on the page, the better.” Can that paragraph of 4-5 lines be done in 3? 2?

There was also frequent use of “one the best pieces of writing advice I ever got was WRITE AS IF INK COSTS $1000 AN OUNCE” (shoutout to Richard Walter at UCLA) Try to say the most on the page with the least amount of words.

A lot of writers would go into exquisite detail about things not relevant to the plot, such as the decor of an apartment that’s in one scene, or what the extras in the background are wearing, or what happens to a random character in a fight scene. These sorts of things would distract me from following the flow of the primary storyline. I’d read it and wonder “what does this have to do with ____’s story? Would it make a difference if it wasn’t there?”

This one can’t be stressed enough – SPELLCHECK IS NOT YOUR FRIEND!

I get that not everybody has amazing spelling skills, and your eyes might be kind of tired of seeing the same text over and over again. But any writer should really know the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re, ‘there’, ‘their’, and “they’re”, and so on.

But when I read that a character “sets down a bag of frozen pees on the kitchen counter”, it makes it kind of tough for me to concentrate on the rest of the story. How can I think about anything else for the next 60-70 pages?

Not sure about spelling or punctuation? A lot of writers make for good proofreaders, so don’t hesitate to ask around for some help.

Friendly reminder – there is no apostrophe in “sees”. It’s “Bob sees Mary,”, not “Bob see’s Mary.” That popped up more than a few times.

Question for anybody who’s ever written a screenplay: do you ever read it out loud? Especially the dialogue. This really helps you get a grasp of how it should sound.

DOES THIS SOUND LIKE SOMETHING SOMEBODY WOULD ACTUALLY SAY?

You don’t want to run the risk of your characters sounding flat or dull, or too “movie-like”, which can include pure exposition (“As you know, I’m the wealthiest man in town who moved here sixteen years ago after striking oil in the Yucca Salt Flats, and now my twin daughters are running against each other for mayor.”) Let your ears be the judge.

Read it out loud. Host a table read (via zoom or eventually in person)

And speaking of dialogue-related items, I try to limit my use of parentheticals as few per script as possible. A lot of the time, they’re either not needed, or can be replaced with an action line (Bob points.) preceding the dialogue (BOB – “Look over there!”).

The context of what the character is saying should convey the appropriate emotion or interpretation. If I had a dollar for every time I saw the use of (sarcastic), I’d have…a lot of dollars.

As has been stated many times on this blog and throughout the screenwriting community, it takes a long time to learn how to write a screenplay, let alone a really good one. I’m not saying I’m an expert, but I believe I have a pretty firm grasp of what it involves, and am glad to have been able to offer my two cents to help other writers improve both their skills and their scripts.

Since this was a pretty significant undertaking, it was also a bit exhausting, so I don’t think I’ll be making the blanket offer again. I’m still open to reading scripts, but am taking a little time off to recuperate and recharge, so drop me a line after 1 April. Schedule permitting, we can work something out.

And a HUGE thanks to everybody who offered to read one of my scripts, which I might take some of you up on as the year progresses.

Okay. Back to work.

Q & A with Kyle Andrews

Kyle Andrews is a screenwriter, actor, producer, script consultant and writer advocate living in Los Angeles. As a writer, Kyle has written for or worked with several film hubs and online screenwriting resources. As an advocate, his “Kyles List” has helped several up-and-coming writers attain success in the industry. He is currently in development on three features, two as producer and one as writer.

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

There’s so much thoughtful, inspiring, engaging, and downright special (yeah, I said it) content out there at the moment, sometimes it’s difficult to narrow that down to just one or two. So, I won’t!

Lately I’ve been watching a lot more television than film. This past weekend I binge-watched Ted Lasso and I’ve never been left so deeply inspired by such a lovable goofball. For dramatic flavor, Raised by Wolves reminds me a lot of how I felt watching both The Leftovers and the reboot of Battlestar: Galactica, and I really wish more people would take a chance on it. WandaVision is also fantastic—though if folks enjoy a Marvel show that takes risks, I’d encourage them to check out FX’s Legion (also on Disney+).

I listen to a lot of audiodrama podcasts (a term than encompasses comedies, dramas, sci-fi, horror—basically any fictional podcast). The production/entertainment values are wildly disparate, but some of the standouts I’ve listened to in the last few months include The Magnus Archives; NORA; The Mistholme Museum of Mystery, Morbidity, and Mortality; and 1865.

There have also been a number of exceptional scripts I’ve read from undiscovered writers recently, and I’ve got those up over at my Advocacy page: kylefandrews.com/advocacy

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I’ve been writing screenplays and stage plays for 20 years, since I was a high school drama nerd and indie video store manager in my hometown in Massachusetts. At the risk of being too honest, this is where I admit writing wasn’t really my pursuit—I just enjoyed doing it while I focused on trying to be an actor, a much safer career choice. I ended up at Emerson College where I got a BFA in Acting with a playwriting minor, both of which taught me a great deal about craft…and very little about how to actually apply it all to the real world.

After moving to LA a little over a decade ago I had some moderate success acting in commercials but didn’t start finding real momentum until I started writing and producing my own projects. After a short film I cowrote, coproduced, and starred in got some traction at a few festivals I was approached by a competition and coverage service to help run their contests and manage their reader staff. That gave me the freedom to start meeting kind and generous industry pros while stretching my writer legs. This led me to where I am now: advocating for screenwriters, developing scripts and writer skills, lining up a few feature productions, and writing for myself and on contract.

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

Any skill can be taught or learned, so long as someone puts in the time, has a level of humility and self-awareness, and is willing to admit they don’t know what they don’t know.

When it comes to recognizing good writing, I would hesitate to make it too binary a distinction, that you either can or you can’t. I think the most important thing is to recognize your own approach to what the author has written is inherently biased, subjective to your own experience and perspective, and—most importantly—not canon. Criticism free of judgement is how you empower artists to flourish.

For me, the most important thing is to recognize whether the writer met the goals they set out to meet, if doing so was an engaging experience for me as an audience member, and if not, how best to help them achieve those goals.

Anything else is just, like, your opinion man.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Earth, Wind, Fire, Water, and Heart. Go Planet.

The thing I look for most is how a script ties its various components together. The threading of the various aspects of character, plot, theme, relationships, personal history and backstory, setting, and even tone and genre together in a way that makes sense as we come to learn about and experience them for ourselves, and grow as we watch them succeed or fail (or both).

Another thing writers hear a lot is “don’t be boring,” and like, yeah, that’s generally good advice. But how do avoid boring your reader? Interesting characters, smart dialogue, fun action are always useful—but for me, it’s making the threads of the story as dangerous as possible. When a script is connecting with a reader on a visceral level, it’s because we care about the people we’re reading and we don’t know whether they’re going to get out of it.

And danger doesn’t always, or even typically, mean physical—it just means the stakes behind it are life and death, even in comedy. For instance, a character in unrequited love might feel like they’ll die if their love interest ever found out; the opportunity for a potential yes gets overshadowed in the misery of all the ways they could say no. Get some real tension in there and we’ll care what happens regardless of the answer.

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

Writers make the mistakes that fit their level of experience, so every mistake is common in that sense. For a newer writer, it’s thinking that formatting is the biggest concern and not spending enough time in the pre-work before diving into the script itself. For a pro, it’s leaning on habits that may no longer be serving them.

Not following through with actually marketing the script is another concern. Personally, I look to elevate the craft whenever I can, and I love seeing writers who do the same—but our art form is one that is only going to be appreciated by a handful of people. Figuring out how to get the script made into a visual piece of art is something I encourage writers to focus on, at least for a bit before they jump into the next great script idea that they’ll lovingly craft and not pitch to anyone.

I run into plenty of “basically ready” scripts, but the writer has no idea how to market their work—or worse, throws obstacles into their own way through assumptions. Instead of trying to pitch what they’ve got, they spend their time writing new scripts and their money and energy competing for the approval of anonymous screenwriting competition readers with indeterminate levels of experience to soothe their ego.

Combine that time, energy, and money into learning how to pitch your work and grow your network and you might actually see the results.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m actually a huge fan of using tropes if a writer is able to subvert it with purpose and puts it in a new light. Which on some level makes it not a trope, I guess?

That being said, I don’t consider misogyny, racism, ableism, or the like to be “tropes,” but rather a deeper indication of something inherent in the writer’s worldview It’s very easy for me to tell the difference between a character with these qualities and a script that actively or passively engages in these things. I tend not to make time for these works and I let those writers know it.

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

-Script rejection is not about you, it’s about them and their current needs.

-You will never get anywhere if you don’t let people read your script.

-Disagreeing with a note is as important as agreeing with one because it helps the writer clarify for themselves what their intention is.

-Invite and embrace constructive criticism and encourage yourself not to dismiss all criticism as “unconstructive.”

-At the same time, respect yourself by recognizing when someone isn’t respecting you and allow that person’s opinions to fade into the background.

-“Formatting” is less about demanding adherence to a strict set of rules and more about making sure a script reads clearly to the benefit of potential collaborators.

-Please for the love of all that is holy stop focusing on whether to bold sluglines or use “we see” or include songs and just tell a good story.

Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer really gets it”? If so, what were the reasons why?

Absolutely, often, and with great aplomb, from new and “elder” writers alike. In these situations, the writer has deeply explored the backstory, invested in the characters’ individual perspectives, and connected the relationship threads between them, their world, and the events of the plot, found the organic rhythm for the story, and presents it to the reader in a way they can engage with, understand, and visualize as often as necessary.

Do all that and no one will care if you’ve bolded shit.

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

Hoo boy, this is the most complex question phrased in the simplest way. Having worked within that system, I know first-hand how some writers and their careers have benefited from winning or placing high in them. I have personally worked with contests to help them promote their writers and have connected several with managers, gigs, and a larger network as a result. I’ve even developed a couple of services that certain contests still employ to the benefit of their writers.

I’ve also heard from reps and producers that they’ll receive a Top 10 list of writers from a competition or coverage service and none will get signed because the folks judging the scripts don’t have a frame of reference for what is ready for market. This gets compounded when some writers whose scripts are close but do need some work get an outsized impression of their impact and don’t bring it the rest of the way.

There can also be a lack of transparency that that doesn’t serve to build trust. I don’t want to disparage individual competitions, but some of them also pitch relationships they don’t actually have or prizes that they can’t fulfill. There are also a couple full-on scams, but I don’t want to get sued by the sociopaths who run them (they are, thankfully, fewer and farther between than you might think).

I guess my feelings boil down to how an individual writer uses it to their personal benefit. If they can win or make finals and they promote themselves with those victories, then that’s great. If the service has a presence in the community a writer finds helpful, that’s also good. If the writer is newer and they’re looking for basic, no frills feedback, then it can certainly be a starting point for development. For everyone else, I think they’re best as accessories to the main work—fun for adding some flair but won’t provide you much cover in public.

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

My website kylefandrews.com includes all aspects of my work including Consulting, Writer Advocacy, and my own Acting/Writing/Producing work.

Kylefandrews.com/consultation is where writers can find my services, read testimonials from past and present clients and industry pros, and reach out to me directly for collaboration.

They can also find me at @kylefandrews on Twitter and Instagram.

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

I’m more of a cake guy, but if all we have is pie and “pizza” isn’t an option, then I’m going with pumpkin because it’s savory/sweet, seasonal, and nostalgic—it’s the McRib of pies.

Q & A with Paula Sheridan of Page Turner Awards

Paula Sheridan is an award-winning entrepreneur and the award-winning author of The People’s Book Prize for her debut novel, The Grotto’s Secret, written under her pen name Paula Wynne. Harbouring a near-obsessive love of learning the craft of writing, Paula has been scribbling down the stuff in her head ever since she can remember.

Paula came up with the idea for the Page Turner Awards when she won The People’s Book Prize in 2017 and received her award from Sir Frederick Forsyth at a glittering awards ceremony in London.

When she’s not day-dreaming up plots for new historical thrillers while walking her Springer Spaniel in the Andalusian countryside, she’s helping Indie Authors to achieve their dream of seeing the novels in a reader’s hands, through her reading community on Book Luver. Paula also blogs about writing techniques and reviews writing books on Writing Goals.

What’s the last thing you read/watched you considered to be exceptionally well-written?

Last night I watched The Book Thief and the book has been on my reading list for ages so after watching the excellent film adaptation of the novel, I will definitely get the book and read it. I’ve also recently watched some cultural films from Australia and India with heart-warming stories and it brings back my mission on Page Turner Awards, which is to reach out to writers across all cultures, religions and interests, simply because they will have amazing stories to tell.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

My first book was published by Wiley. It was a non-fiction book called Pimp My Site. After that I published fiction novels and since then I’ve been learning more about screenwriting. I was also very lucky to win a Director’s Course through Screen South, which inspired me to continue my quest for learning more about writing screenplays. My debut novel, The Grotto’s Secret, won The People’s Book Prize which inspired me to set up Page Turner Awards.

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

Yes, absolutely! For many years I’ve had an obsession with learning writing techniques and I’ve read hundreds of excellent writing guides, so many that I eventually started WritingGoals.com to showcase all the great writing guides which help writers to improve their craft of writing.

What do you consider the components of a good story?

Lots of elements make up a good story. For the first few pages, the character must hook the reader so they are compelled to continue reading. Beautiful prose is another good element and good writing is easy to spot. It shows the reader, or in the case of a judge on Page Turner Awards, that the writer has honed their craft. At the same time, it takes them deeper into the story. So, compelling characters with a great hook get readers and judges of a screenplay contest to want to know more about the story.

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

Lots of grammatical errors, which are really easy to fix. For example, a writer can use a self-editing software, such as ProWritingAid, to help them spot these pesky gremlins which creep so easily into a piece of writing. You can take a free trial here.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Zombies! There was a stage where everyone and their aunt wanted to write a zombie story, but soon that will morph into writing about viruses and pandemics, if that hasn’t already happened!

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

-We only accept the first ten pages. 

-Film producers and readers in a film production company normally would know by the first ten pages if they want to read further and if they are engaged with the story up to that point. 

-The same goes for literary agent and publishers. They also know very quickly if the story will make the grade. They can also tell if the writer has just thrown something together or if they have put precious time into the story’s first pages.

-Writers should know their premise or logline, and hone and tone it. This is to give the judges a good idea of what the story is all about and how it shows conflict and growth for the character in the story.

-We’re not concerned with spacing and formatting because our judges are looking for story and character and the words they read. Spacing and formatting comes when the agent or publisher asks to see more of the work.

-Screenplay entries, on the other hand, are very different. They need to be submitted in the industry standard format for the film producers to see the story as a screenplay script.

Have you ever read a script or manuscript where you thought “This writer gets it”? If so, what were the reasons why?

We had lots of entries last year where our editor, who was doing feedback, came back to us telling us that one writer in particular was very good and could write exceptionally well. Other judges had similar experiences and as a result, three writers won a literary agent to represent them, five writers won a publishing contract, six writers won a writing mentorship and thirteen independent authors won an audiobook production. We are thrilled with these fantastic successes from our inaugural awards.

Seeing as how you run a writing contest, what are the benefits for writers and screenwriters to enter the Page Turner Awards competition?

The benefits to screenwriters is that they will have the opportunity to put their scripts in front of our judging panel, who are all actively looking for scripts to option and produce. Thus, screenwriters will have the opportunity to get their work optioned for film if any of the judges like the writing. The same goes for the Writing Awards, where literary agents and publishers may want to publish the work if they like it. Success stories from 2020 include three writers won literary representation, six writers won a writing mentorship, five writers won a publishing contract, and thirteen independent authors won an audiobook production.

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

They need to go to https://pageturnerawards.com and follow the steps under our menu – Enter. It’s all done online so they will be asked to register an account, which will then send you an email to verify it. Then you can log in and follow the steps to submit your writing.

The early bird discount for Page Turner Awards ends this Sunday (28 Feb), so you can register now, and then have until the end of May to submit your script.

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

If you mean a baked pie, I can’t resist a pecan nut pie. Just thinking of it now makes my mouth water and I want to stop typing and go and bake one!