Q & A with Allison Chaney Whitmore

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Allison Chaney Whitmore is a screenwriter, graphic novelist, and writing coach from Los Angeles. She loves to tell coming-of-age stories with a hint of romance, fantasy, or adventure, but also enjoys a good gothic horror story. She’s also the writer of the comic Love University.

As a coach, working with new writers with a passion for story is her favorite thing. Allison holds a Master’s degree in English education and has studied screenwriting at the graduate level. Outside of her work, she enjoys classic films, genre television, a good book, traveling, and spending time with family and friends.

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

The current season of This Is Us is really good. I love the way they weave together plot, character, and theme. I also got to watch all of Fleabag and Killing Eve this summer, both of which I found amazing. I’m looking forward to watching season 3 of The Crown, as it always has top writing, and The Haunting of Hill House, which I hear has incredible writing as well. I can never pick one thing.

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

I’ve always been a dreamer and a story enthusiast. I wanted to be an actor from a young age and started writing skits in elementary school. Long-form prose came in high school, and I wrote my first screenplay in a pink composition notebook with graph line paper the summer after graduation. So, if I haven’t always been a writer, I’ve been one for a pretty long time.

What inspired you to write your comic Love University?

The concept came to me many years ago. One Friday after work, I was stuck in traffic on Sunset behind UCLA and just randomly thought — What if there was a school for cupids,  called Love U? I thought it was funny at the time, but also strongly felt it was something I could see on television. When the opportunity came up to write a comic book series, I pitched it, and they really liked it.

What was your process for writing it?

This particular story just had a concept, no character to start. That’s not usual with me. Both typically come to me at the same time. This one I had to take the idea and pull the story out of it. I found the main character, Lucy, then I began thinking about the journey she might take over several issues as the world around her began to populate in my mind. I wondered about her day-to-day struggles, her lifelong personal wounds, and her hopes and dreams. From there, I just let the story unfold. After that brainstorming phase, I went through my usual process of theme, logline, beat sheet, outline, and script. Then it was notes, revision, and so forth.

How did you connect with the publishing company for your comics, and what role do they play with your projects?

I was working with another writer on a web series who was also a comic book writer. I’d recently been hired to write a couple of comics for a pair of independent creators. They were looking for screenwriters to complete the work. I was sort of lost in terms of what to do, so I asked my colleague to take a look at what I’d been working on. He really liked my work and sent it on to his publisher, who asked if I’d like to write a series of my own.

A key component of writing (for both film and comics) is to make the stories and characters relatable. What sort of approaches do you take to accomplish that?

To me, my characters are reflections of the human experience. I simply remember the human sides of their experiences — wounds, worries, hopes, dreams. I think about the way they speak, and why that is. I think about the way they dress, their favorite music, how they navigate through the world. Everyone has a specific journey that makes them uniquely who they are. I realize that should be the same for my characters, and that helps bring them to life, as well as making them more relatable to the reader.

As a writing coach, what are some of the more common mistakes you see?

Most of the mistakes come from finding the core of their stories, hitting plot points, and formatting. Sometimes it’s tough for people to figure out whether they have just an idea, or enough to make an actual story. That’s what we work on. It’s actually a lot of fun.

There are a lot of writing coaches out there. What’s unique about you and your methods?

I come from a teaching background, so my approach is about building skills from the ground up, but also starting with the big picture in mind. I like to help people work through their creative blocks and find the stories they want to tell. I’m much more of a coach than a consultant. I’ll give notes and focus on that type of thing, but I’m often looking to help writers become the best version of themselves. Working with me is like having your own personal teacher. Not everyone needs that, but it definitely works for some people.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Strong character arcs, relatability, clear concept, emotional hook, and an identifiable theme.

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

-Always plan to write more stories. Don’t put everything into just one script. Move on. Write more. Keep getting better.

-The writing process is different for everyone. Just like we have different ways of learning and absorbing information, the way we get to a story can vary. Give yourself time to find your way.

-Your first draft is not going to be perfect. Ever.

-Plan if you can. It saves you time.

-Make time for both writing and living.

-Be observant.

-Read as much as you can.

-Stay committed.

-Be open-minded.

-Think outside the box.

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

Email me at: allison@theophilusfilms.com or go here: https://allisonchaney.typeform.com/to/c5PFJC. You can also get a digital copy of Love University here, and check out the Facebook page here.

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

Cheesecake could be considered pie, so…cheesecake. In terms of actual pie, probably pumpkin! Perfect time of year for that. Happy holidays!

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Two shoulders, no waiting

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Plus two sympathetic ears at no additional cost

Trying to make it as a screenwriter is a tough choice to begin with. It’s a long, drawn-out process that takes a long time before any significant results can be achieved. Sure, there are exceptions, but for the most part, it remains a marathon, not a sprint.

And that also means there’s going to be A LOT of heartache and disappointment along the way, and that can really take its toll on you. Not to sound too New Age-y, but all that negative energy can do significant damage to your confidence and self-esteem.

“This is never going to work.”

“I can’t do this.”

“Why do I even bother?”

If you’ve never said or thought any of these things, I’d love to know how in the world you managed to accomplish that and still call yourself a screenwriter.

Many’s the time I’ve seen comments on a public forum from another writer that echo these sentiments, or had them send me a private note saying something similar.

And I feel for them – whole-heartedly. I’ve been that writer thinking those thoughts a lot, too.

Do I wish I could help them out in any capacity? Without a doubt.

Even though it may not be much, I’ll offer up whatever support or encouragement I can. Don’t underestimate the power or effectiveness of telling somebody you’re in their corner. It makes quite the difference knowing you’re not alone during this tumultuous journey.

I once got a note from a writer I barely knew. They knew a writer I knew, and had seen some of my postings online. We were both semi-finalists in a prestigious contest, and it was the day the finalists were being announced.

For reasons totally unknown to me, they contacted me, asking if I’d received any kind of update. I hadn’t.

“Having a total shit writing year so far so I’m clinging to anything positive ha,” was their response.

I told them I was sorry to hear that, and offered up my own frustratingly good-but-not-great batting average, along with a few words of encouragement in the vein of “much as it hurts to get thrown off, you just gotta keep getting back on the horse”.

They were in total agreement.

An hour or so later, the finalists were announced. I wasn’t one of them. But they were. Naturally, I was disappointed, but also happy for them because they had something good happen.

The takeaway here is that you’re not alone in this. Every other writer goes through it. We’re all going to have a lot of bad days, probably a lot more than the number of good days, and it can be tough to get through it, let alone come out stronger.

This is one of those added benefits to networking and connecting with other writers. You’re not just helping to develop your writing and analytical skills, you’re creating your own emotional support network.

Chances are you’ll have a stronger relationship with a small number of people; the ones you’ve interacted with, or shared scripts, exchanged notes, etc., on a more regular basis.

Don’t be afraid to reach out and tell one of them “Hey, I’m not feeling too good about this right now. Mind if I talk about it?” They’ll understand, and be supportive about it (in theory). Just being able to talk about it could help you feel a little better.

Screenwriting is complicated enough, and gets even more so when you throw all your hopes and ambition into it. Sometimes you’ll feel strong, powerful, ready to take on the world. And sometimes you’ll feel like the world’s beaten you to a bloody pulp with no hope for recovery. (Again, I’ve experienced both.)

You can’t force yourself to feel better and restore your confidence, but you can take little steps to help yourself out – at your own pace. And any help you might need is always there and easily accessible.

-Speaking of helping somebody out, friend-of-the-blog Leo Maselli is running a crowdfunding campaign for his anthology feature project CA SHORTS. Donate if you can!

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.

A most informative Q & A with Andrew Zinnes

 

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Andrew Zinnes is a UK-based screenwriter, screenwriting consultant and producer who’s worked for production companies, read for contests, and co-author of The Documentary Film Makers Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to Documentary Filmmaking and The Guerilla Film Makers Pocketbook: The Ultimate Guide to Digital Film Making. He currently holds the position of Lecturer in Screenwriting at The Bournemouth Film School at Arts University Bournemouth, the London Film Academy, and the University of Portsmouth.

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

I have small children so I don’t get to the theater as much as I’d like, but I recently saw I, TONYA and thought it was fantastic – a real pleasant surprise! I remember the Nancy Kerrigan incident vividly and, at the time, there wasn’t a bigger villain than Tonya. Yet Steve Rogers managed to make her sympathetic by focusing on her relationship with her mother and other aspects of her home life. Then you add breaking the fourth wall and other stylistic choices, and the characters became self-aware in a manner that added to their depth and relatability. BABY DRIVER was great, too. Loved the way they used music to tell the story. Very Edgar Wright.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I became a script reader for a small production company based at Sony. I read for free as I wanted anyway into the machine. I would go in on off days or they would messenger me scripts, back when that was a thing, and I would write up coverage and fax it back to them, when that was a thing. I became friends with the assistants in the office and when I said I wanted to do development, they put me up for other assistant gigs.

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

From my experience, recognizing good writing is innate. Many years ago, I went home for Thanksgiving and took my weekend read with me. My sister got curious and started reading some of them. She read one that was a spec from an unknown writer and she was surprised at its mediocrity. She stopped reading after 40 pages and picked up another. This time she started laughing straight away and continued through the whole 100 pages. That script turned out to be AMERICAN PIE. She knew the difference between the two scripts quality-wise with no training, but what she wasn’t able to do was tell me what was wrong with them via screenplay/story theory or how she would have fixed any issues. That part needs to be learned and practiced as one would with any craft.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

The biggest component revolves around making the story or premise personal to you, the writer. If it’s not something you’re passionate about then how are you going to put 100% effort into it? If you can’t connect to the premise, then how can the reader or the viewer? John Truby says this issue leads to generic, unoriginal work and I have seen this first hand with my college/university students. Just recently, one wanted to do a crime thriller that had an okay hook, but was otherwise unremarkable. I asked why he wanted to do this project and he said it was because he loved those kind of movies and this sounded cool. I told him my doubts and he got frustrated. He said that he has trouble making decisions about writing because he doesn’t want to make mistakes that can’t be undone easily. When I pressed, he said he felt that way about many things in life, not just writing. I told him he should write about that concept. His eyes lit up!

The other key component are the forces of antagonism. I don’t just mean the villain. I mean everything that holds back the protagonist(s) from their goals. The better they are, the better the tension, drama and comedy become.

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

Because I work with many writers in the development of stories from early in their conception, impatience reigns the king of mistakes. Often times writers want to rush into the actual writing before they’ve explored a premise fully. The don’t want to do enough research to make the story richer or come up with alternative character motivations and story points that might make their project surprising and original. They don’t want to take hard looks at their structure because they have something in their head and want to get it out.  I get it. I’ve felt the rush of getting something down in Final Draft, too. However, whenever I’ve let a client or student get on with it despite my objections, it always goes wrong. They create a story and/or characters that are generic or derivative. They come to the point where the structure doesn’t work and either get stuck or plow forward anyway and there’s structure or story flaws. Now for some writers, this is the process they need to go through. This is how their brains process information. That’s fine, but whether that is the case or they are just steadfast, we end up going back to the drawing board to pull everything apart as we should have done originally.

Aside from that, overwriting tends to be an issue, especially with newer writers. Screenplays are meant to be quick reads and having a lot of black on the page slows that down. Learning economy of writing is essential. I realize that many people, myself included, like Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino’s style, which creates these dense, epic screenplays and, that further, feel they should follow suit. However, one, that’s being derivative; two, they’re directing the work so they probably doing it partially because they don’t want to forget anything; and three, they’ve earned it as they had to fund their first films in this style mostly themselves and became successful with it.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Tropes don’t bother me. It’s what is done with the tropes that matters. Whenever a superhero movie comes out social media garners a a lot of eye rolls and hate from various creative or general public communities and then WONDER WOMAN, DEADPOOL or BLACK PANTHER comes out and shakes things up. Teen horror films is another one that gets a lot of grief, and then HAPPY DEATH DAY hits the screens and all of a sudden cyberspace is hit with short memory syndrome. Take tropes and tell them in unique ways.

What are some important rules every writer should know?

-Observe people, places, things and ideas.
-Observe by asking questions and listening to what people say and don’ t cut them off to speak about yourself.
-Travel and observe what’s around you.
-Write down what you observe and think about what universal truths of the human condition emerge that matter to you.
-Read good scripts and watch good movies so you know what works.
-Read bad scripts and watch bad movies so you can recognize problems to avoid.
-Notes are opinions. They aren’t personal.

Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, what were the reasons why?

I haven’t read many. TRAINING DAY may have been one. THE SIXTH SENSE may have been one, too. The reasons are for the usual hallmarks: great voice, original take on a premise, explored some kind or large idea, writing that moved my emotions (tense, scary, etc) and structured well. Then the other side of the equation, the business side, saw great roles for movie stars to play, was something my company might do and had general commercial appeal.

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

That’s a tricky one. On the one hand, if you can win one or at least become a finalist, it can get you noticed. The bigger the competition the better your chances, obviously. If you live outside of Los Angeles or don’t have a friend that works in the industry, it may be one of the only ways that you can garner attention. On the other hand, if you enter many of them, it can get expensive. Also there is a fundamental truth about screenplay competitions: there has to be a winner. It’s the best of what a competition gets that year, not necessarily the best written thing that would attract an agent or manager and that sometimes makes Hollywood impatient with competitions. But all in all, I say they are worth it. Especially if there’s some sort of networking attached to winning or placing.

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

I’m very easy to find: andrewzinnes.co.uk. You can message me from there. I live in the UK, but work with writers all over the world. Thank you FaceTime, Skype and WhatsApp!

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

Blueberry! I make a mean one, too.

blueberry pie