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.

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Q & A with Chris Mancini

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Chris Mancini (l) and friend (r)

Chris Mancini is a Writer, Director, Comedian, Author, Producer, Podcaster, and Parent, which also makes him very tired. He has also written, directed and produced on everything from soap operas to parenting books to horror films, which are all more closely related than you think.

His feature films include Asylum from Lionsgate Films and Ear Buds: The Podcasting Documentary from Comedy Dynamics. His award-winning short films include SKINSHitclown, and Rainbow’s End. Chris has screened films and spoken at various prestigious festivals and conventions including Slamdance and Comic-Con in San Diego.

His published works include Pacify Me: A Handbook for the Freaked Out New DadThe Comedy Film Nerds Guide to Movies, and the graphic novel Long Ago and Far Away.

A strong advocate of podcasting, Chris is also the co-founder of Comedyfilmnerds.com with Graham Elwood. The site features a podcast with over 6 million downloads and features comedians and filmmakers talking about movies. His scripted horror anthology podcast Conversations From The Abyss is now in its second season. Chris was also one of the founders of the Los Angeles Podcast Festival.

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

The two extremes would be Avengers: Endgame, because it was the culmination of years of storytelling, and Paddleton because it was a small two actor character piece that just sucked you in. The relationship and the drama of the two leads and their interaction was incredibly engaging. Mark Duplass and Ray Romano did an amazing job.

Were you always a writer, or was it something you eventually discovered you had a knack for?

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 16. I submitted short stories to magazines. Yes, that was a thing. Ironically, I got published first with non-fiction. I was a journalist for a local newspaper for a while (also a thing), starting at age 18.

What are some of your favorite comics and/or webcomics?

I really enjoy Hellboy. I also like anything by Neil Gaiman, and grew up on a healthy dose of Spider-Man and Daredevil. I actually remember when Spider-Man first got his black costume. It was an alien symbiote that came out of some weird machine during Secret Wars. I remember not being happy because I always liked the red and blue one. But you get over these things. I am also reading a lot of kids’ comics with my son, like Cardboard and Amulet which I am really enjoying.

How’d you get your start writing comics?

I kind of made it happen on my own. I’ve always wanted to write comics, and I had a story I thought would be perfect for the medium. I met Mark Waid through a mutual friend and podcast fan and he championed it. So I found an artist I loved and kickstarted it. I was able to fund it thanks to the generosity of the fans and then Starburns Press picked it up. I am very happy to be over there, and I think it’s a great fit for the book. I just got my first offer for a short piece in their next comics anthology. My first comics writing assignment! I’m hoping for many, many more. I would love to write more comics.

A lot of people hear the term “comic book writer”, but don’t really know what the job entails. How would you describe it?

Interestingly, since I have a background in indie film what you’re really doing as a comic book writer is writing and directing. You’re writing the script but also describing the action, pacing, and what goes in each panel. Basically you’re storyboarding like you would for a film. In indie film you have to wear a lot of hats, but with comic book writing you’re not just writing some abstract script. You’re describing each panel and basically directing the book. That’s why it’s so important to have a great artist to be paired with like I was with Fernando Pinto. Eventually you develop a shorthand and it gets quicker.

What inspired you to write your graphic novel Long Ago And Far Away? What was your process for writing it?

I’ve always loved fantasy stories, and growing up was a sucker for the stories about kids from our world who go into a fantasy world to save the day, like The Chronicles of Narnia. But I always thought about what would happen when those kids come back to our world and become adults. How would it have affected them? And then what if they had to go back into that world as an adult? The process was very, very long. I had the story a few years ago and it was in and out of development at various companies as an animated show, etc. But it never moved forward. But it was the kind of story that stays with you, and insists on being told. We all have stories like that; ones that won’t let you go. So I thought that a comic book would be a great way to tell the story. And I wouldn’t have to worry about there not being enough money for computer effects.

LAAFA was funded via crowdfunding. With a lot of comics creators taking that route to self-publish, is it something you’d recommend, and what are some tips you’d offer?

I recommend anyone who wants to create to just get out there and make it happen, any way you can. If someone buys your idea or hires you, great. But more often than not we have to greenlight ourselves. So if you’re a filmmaker, make a short film. If you’re a novelist, self-publish. If you want to make a comic, you need to raise enough money to pay the artist and make the book. But it can be done. Just know that crowdfunding is a full time job for that window of raising money. Don’t just think you can put a project up and money will magically appear. You have to promote, get endorsements from other artists, and also promote. Did I mention promoting?

You’ve also had experience writing for film, both narrative and documentary. How do you compare writing for the screen to the comics page?

I really, really, love it. It’s like filmmaking with an unlimited budget. No one comes back and says “we don’t have the budget to blow up Manhattan” in a comic book. If it can be drawn, it can be in the story. As far as story goes, film story progression and storyboarding can be really instrumental in writing for comics and guiding your panels.

A key component of writing (and not just for comics) is to make the stories and characters relatable. What sort of approaches do you take to accomplish that?

Characters we create often have traits of ourselves or people we know in them. That grounds them and keeps them believable. Even when it’s a supervillain, there’s a relatable trait you can give him or her. I always try to figure out what kind of character they are by how they would react in certain situations. Character reactions can convey lots of information about a character. As far as the story goes, keep the story progression organic. It should only have crazy twists in it if you were slowly leading up to them all along. The best narrative twists are the ones the audience didn’t see coming, but in hindsight were justified from the very beginning.

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

Write what you know.

Make the story personal, regardless of the genre or scope of the story.

Get help from other writers, and help them in return.

Don’t write for free for millionaires. If someone is serious about your work, they’ll make a deal with you.

Don’t neglect your body. Take time to exercise and unplug. It will help your mind focus and clear your head, which will improve your writing.

Filmmaker. Comics writer. Podcaster. Stand-up comedian. What’s next?

I really want to focus on writing right now, so I’m taking a break from stand-up, but may return to it at some point.. While I do the Comedy Film Nerds Podcast with Graham Elwood every week, I also have a scripted horror anthology podcast called Conversations From the Abyss that just finished its second season. I’m also hoping to get my next comic project going called Rise of the Kung Fu Dragon Master with the same team. It’s a martial arts/fantasy/comedy about a small time crook in Los Angeles who gets mixed up in a perennial battle between good and evil from ancient China. I also have various TV and film projects I’m developing and hoping to get into production.

How can people find out more about you and your wide body of work?

My website has links to my books and movies, including Ear Buds: The Podcasting Documentary. There are also links to the podcasts and my demo reel.

http://www.chrisjmancinionline.com/

http://www.comedyfilmnerds.com/

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

Peach. ‘nuff said.

Bonus feature!

Here’s an episode of the Comedy Film Nerds podcast where Chris goes into an extensive recounting of his experience with his film Asylum. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for aspiring filmmakers, plus it’s just an extremely entertaining tale. Well worth the listen.

http://comedyfilmnerds.libsyn.com/ep-219-dean-haglund

peach pie

A few slight adjustments

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The latest draft of the sci-fi adventure is moving along at a pleasantly brisk pace. Still averaging about 4-5 pages a day. The whole process this time around feels a lot more organized. Much more so than in the past.

The previous draft was 118 pages, and one of my many objectives for this one is to get it down to somewhere in the 105-110 range. I’m just about at the end of Act One, and it’s already 9 pages shorter than where it was at this point last time. Seems like the odds are in my favor to hit that page count goal.

But it’s taken a good deal of work to get here, including some shifts in my approaches.

Among the highlights:

-being more diligent in applying the “get in late, get out fast” approach to each scene. Although somewhat unavoidable for action sequences, doing what I can to use this as often as possible.

-cutting unnecessary dialogue. Never realized how much more I used to put in before. It’s been a real effort (and steep learning curve) to get the characters to only say what needs to be said, but it definitely helps get to the point of the scene quickly as well as moves things along.

-not being so detailed with action descriptions – by which I mean “what the characters are doing”, and not the fast-paced, high-octane thrilling moments. Focus on the important stuff. Don’t clutter up the page. Is it absolutely necessary to be so step-by-step about it? Nope.

-In a very “why didn’t I think of this before?” kind of way, having a hard copy of the outline and the previous draft have proven to be exceptionally helpful. The outline tells me what needs to happen in each scene, and the previous draft shows me not only what I did before, but gives me a starting point for potential changes.

-Taking that last item one step further, seeing how a scene played out before, combined with the applying the question of “how does this scene advance the plot, theme and character?” has enabled me to totally rewrite some scenes which before had felt kind of flat, but now read as stronger and help reinforce those three important components.

I managed to crank out the previous draft in about a month, and hoping to accomplish that this time around as well. Of course, a few ideas for more changes have popped up.  Nothing too severe, and I’m going back and forth about implementing them right away, or waiting for the cleanup-polish phase.

Every writer puts their material together in the way that works best for them. It took me a while to find mine, and it continues to be a work in progress. But if the latest results are any indicator, it’s working out quite nicely.

Plodding to the next finish line

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Well, one tough part’s out of the way. Got the latest draft of the sci-fi adventure done, clocking in at a respectable 118 pages. (And accomplished in just under a month, so – yay.)

Now it’s time to move on to the next tough part – the initial wave of cleaning it up, which will include cutting at least 7-10 pages.

It’s been a while since the last time I did this sort of editing, and it always seemed to be more problematic than expected. The best way I can describe it is “I couldn’t really see the forest for the trees”. The problems and their prospective fixes were there, but it would be difficult for me to identify them.

This time around, I’m taking a different approach.

I printed out a hard copy of the script, and went through it, scene by scene, and wrote down a very brief summary – a snippet or two of what was happening in each one. No frills. No dialogue. Just “here’s what happens here”.

Along the way, questions would constantly insert themselves into the discussion. Was there a way to still have this happen, but in a fraction as many words? Is this scene really necessary, or could it be combined with another? How can I describe what’s happening so it’s easier for a reader to “see” what’s happening? Everything geared towards telling a story in the most effective ways possible.

Additionally, new ideas and approaches would spring up when they were least expected. A scene or sequence I thought was just fine would suddenly feel totally out of place, or seem like it needed a drastic overhaul. With this still being a work in progress, any and all new ideas are welcome.

Another new development is how I’d initially type something like “MAYBE X DOES THIS” as a potential new part/development of a scene. Then while working on a later scene, see how that suggestion could be incorporated into it. This would then result in me going back and deleting “MAYBE” from the original. Sometimes your gut reaction really is the best one.

Didja also notice how those last-minute inserts are written in ALL CAPS? Just my little way of having a note stand out a little more so it’s easier to spot when I come back to it later on. Simple, but effective.

Even as this draft steadily grew, there were always sections of the story I knew would need some extra attention in the next draft. Rather than spend time going back and trying to fix things, it was just easier to leave it as it and keep pushing on.

Current focus is all about going through the pages and being as analytical as possible. A few minor story problems have been dealt with. Some unanswered questions are no longer unanswered. Opportunities to throw in a small dash of character and story development are opening up.

The strongest takeaway from this latest effort is that the overall process of putting a decent script together, while still quite challenging, is becoming slightly more manageable and somewhat less insurmountable.

Seeking that which lies within

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I won’t say the tough part of this rewrite is over, because it’s not. Well, part of it is. Sort of. Still working my way through Act 3 of the current draft, along with taking care of some minor story developments that have popped up as a result of changes along the way. Seriously hoping to wrap things up in the next week or so. Depends on how all of this goes.

But there’s one thing that’s been weighing heavily on my mind as I crank out the pages and start planning for the next draft. As good and solid as the action parts are, I also want to make sure the characters’ emotional arcs are just as effective.

Every character needs an internal and external goal. While the latter has never given me much of a problem, the former can sometimes be a bit trickier. Sure, there’s the protagonist and antagonist, which really drives the main storyline, but what happens with the supporting characters is just as important.

I’ve always been impressed with seeing how other writers incorporate little details or necessary information about the characters into the story that really help flesh them out AND add to the story. That’s what I’m seeking to do here. It’s also helpful to approach it with the mindset of “how to convey this information without it seeming too expository or on-the-nose?”.

As a writer, you want your characters to come across as realistically as possible, and by offering up some details about them – especially the why they do the things they do, it can help us better relate to them, and also make us wonder if they’ll be able to achieve their goals. When the story’s over, will we have seen how they changed from when they first showed up?

I’ve given myself the homework of watching films of a similar nature to get a better grasp on how to work these sorts of developments into the story. Going over the pages I already have has shown the foundations for each character are more or less in place, and will require digging a little deeper to really put them on full display.

While I’m glad I was able to produce this draft relatively quickly, I’m equally as eager to get started on the next one, taking care of everything it’ll require. That’s becoming a long list, but I’m feeling pretty confident about being able to effectively handle every item on it.