Questions? I got lots of ’em.

Steadily working my way through an always-growing queue of scripts in the “to read” pile. Most are for pleasure, while the remainder are for notes.

A majority of my notes usually tend to involve asking questions because something might not be clear to me. This is all part of my effort to try to understand what’s going on with what I’m reading, as I try to figure things out and get a better grasp of what information the writer is trying to convey.

If I don’t understand something, I’ll just come out and ask.

It can range from “I’m not sure why this character was doing that. What was their reasoning behind it?” to “What’s this character’s arc? How do they change over the course of the story?”

Having the writer provide the answer helps them figure out the solution, or at least opens the door for them. More so than I ever could, at least. I don’t want to be the type of note-giver who’s all about “This doesn’t work. I think this would work better.”

(I have seen more than my fair share of notes that include that sort of comment, and I don’t particularly care for them.)

The questions usually come about because something wasn’t clear enough to me. And if I don’t pick up on it, chances are the audience won’t either. Everything we need to know should be there on the page, whether written out or as subtext.

If more than a few of your readers ask the same questions or make the comments about something in particular, that’s an issue you’ll definitely need to address.

A reader wants to like the script they’re reading. They make comments and ask questions in order TO HELP MAKE YOUR SCRIPT BETTER. As the writer, it’s up to you how to interpret them. Sure, you don’t have to incorporate everything, but ask yourself “why did they say/ask this?”

It can be tough to read your own script and see what works and/or doesn’t. You’re too familiar with the material. This is why getting notes can be so invaluable. The reader hasn’t seen this AT ALL, so it’s all entirely new. If they come upon something in your script that stops the read because it makes them think “Wait a second. What does that mean?” or “Why did that happen?”, then you’ll need to fix that so it addresses the issue and makes sure it doesn’t happen for whoever reads it next.

Sometimes a writer will respond to my questions saying nobody had mentioned or asked about that before, but they could totally see why I was asking. This in turn helped them figure out a way to make the changes they felt would eliminate the reason for the questions in the first place.

Which is why I asked them.

You win some, you lose (or don’t place in) some

Another screenwriting contest season come and gone, at least for yours truly.

My western’s record with PAGE extended to 0-6, and didn’t make it to the quarterfinals in the Nicholl. After last year’s debacle with Austin, I opted to skip it this year.

(Side note 1 – I don’t pay to get the reader/judge notes, so don’t know why the script fared how it did for either contest. The Nicholl used to offer notes after the top 5 were announced, but not sure if they’re doing that this year or you had to pay upon registering.)

(Side note 2 – A very hearty congrats and good luck to the 359 writers who made it to the Nicholl QFs. I wholeheartedly applaud the Academy’s decision to limit submissions to one script per person. Other contests should follow their lead.)

My initial reaction to the news from both competitions was “I must be a really shitty writer to keep failing like this.”

But as my ever-supportive wife, a few friends who are also consultants, and several other trusted colleagues in my writers’ network reminded me:

It’s a really good script.

You’re not a bad writer.

IT’S ALL SUBJECTIVE.

This script has also done moderately well in some smaller contests, so it can’t be that bad.

I know a writer whose script advanced in the Nicholl after several years of bupkis. I also know another writer who made it to the top 50 one year, then the same script didn’t even make the quarterfinals the following year.

And as a few others pointed out about the prestigious contests and the scripts that do well in them: it may be a good script, but would it be a good movie? I’ve read some contest winners (and some top vote-getters on The Black List); some were very well-written, and some just didn’t do anything for me. One or two even made me question why they did as well in the contest as they did.

Furthermore – did any make me eager to shell out the cost of a ticket if it were available on the big screen?

Not really.

But again, that’s just my take – i.e. SUBJECTIVE.

At the very least, reading these scripts could be helpful in a “developing your craft” kind of way.

So where do I go from here? I’m rewriting a pair of newer scripts, and haven’t decided if either will go the contest route. Possibly, but right now I couldn’t say.

I’d rather focus on getting them in decent shape. If that means skipping contests next year, that’s fine by me.

Thank you for the positive reinforcement

Got some notes back on the animated fantasy-comedy spec.

I’ll be the first to say it still needs work on a few fronts, but the overall consensus is “I really enjoyed it”, which means a lot. On several levels.

Added bonus: they liked the jokes. Always great.

Despite all this, for as long as I’ve been at this, I still feel a twinge of anxiety as I open the email to see what the reader thought.

Impostor Syndrome? Possibly.

I know I can do the work, but there’s always that hidden fear that somebody’s going to say “wow, does this suck”. I suppose it stems from that initial sense of just hoping the reader likes it.

While it’s great to get notes of a positive nature, I tend to focus more on the sections that deal with what didn’t work or needs work. Every writer wants their script to be the best it can be, and notes of a critical nature can be invaluable in helping you get there.

And a lot of the time I find myself agreeing with what the notes have to say. Sometimes they even help me navigate my way out of a problem I already knew was there, but was having trouble finding a solution. Those are fantastic to get.

Even as I wait to hear from a few more readers, I’ve already started jotting down ideas to incorporate the strongest suggestions from this batch into the next draft.

Which I will then send out, once again thinking “I hope they like it.”

-Just a friendly reminder that my two books – GO AHEAD AND ASK! INTERVIEWS ABOUT SCREENWRITING (AND PIE) VOL 1 & 2 are available on Amazon and Smashwords.

Notes: givin’ ’em and gettin’ ’em

Simply put: notes can help make a script better. This also heavily relies on several factors, including the experience level of the person giving the notes, the notes being of high quality, and the relevancy of the notes in relation to the script.

I’ve had the recent experience of being on both sides, and both proved to be extremely helpful on several levels.

First: the giving.

I’d been invited to take part in a group Zoom call giving notes on a new script from an established writer-producer.

I thought the writing was okay. Nothing stellar.

As the call progressed, the comments seemed to go back and forth between honest, critical feedback and flat-out gushing. Were those doing the latter doing that in order to get in the writer’s good graces? I hope not.

When it was my turn, I started with what I liked about it (the characters and the strong establishment of tone, in particular) and then segued into what I thought could use some work, which was mostly tightening up the writing, and trimming scenes or sequences.

Just to clarify – I wasn’t trying to tear anything down; just offering some suggestions of what I thought could help make the script better.

The writer appreciated my positive comments, but the other ones were met with a lot of “well, these other people I work with in the industry LOVED that” or “Nobody else mentioned that. This doesn’t mean you’re wrong; just in the minority.”

I’m not really the biggest fan of a writer who gets defensive when they get notes. It’s what they asked for. I don’t have a problem if you disagree with what I’ve got to say. Just say thanks and move on. Don’t try to make me feel small or wrong. If you wanted praise for your script, you should have started with that.

I had to hop off the call soon after that for work-related business, so don’t know how the rest of it went. While I’m slightly curious if any of the other participants had a similar experience, I’ve no pressing desire to find out.

Despite this bump in the road, I still enjoy giving notes and will continue to do so; maybe just a little more selectively.

Second: the getting.

A few weeks ago, I wrapped up the latest rewrite on the animated fantasy-comedy spec. My usual m.o. is to contact a few colleagues to ask their availability to give notes. This time, I opted to keep the number even lower and asked two.

Still waiting to hear back from one, but the other sent back a thorough set of notes. They explain what worked for them, what didn’t, and ask a lot of questions centered around the story and the characters.

It was my intent to get notes that would help make the script better, and that’s exactly what these are – and what I need. Yes, it would be great for someone to say what a fantastic script it is, and how much they loved it, but that’s not going to help improve the script, or why I asked them to read it.

An outside pair of eyes is more likely to see things that I, as the writer, might not. How could I argue with that? Maybe there’s something in there I don’t initially agree with, but would still want to know why they said it – the “note within the note”.

Getting solid notes from those within your network of writers can be a priceless resource, and hopefully you’ll be able to reciprocate with the same level of quality.

Q & A with Anat Wenick of The Write Script

Anat Golan-Wenick started her career in the entertainment business working as a production assistant and researcher in a team that produced series for a large educational channel, while also pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Film/Television and English Literature. After graduation, Anat moved to Los Angeles to dip her hands into the screenwriting pool. Her screenplays have won or placed in contests like Sundance Table Read My Screenplay, StoryPros, Scriptapalooza and others, with one getting optioned by the producer of THE LAST WORD with Shirley MacLaine and Amanda Seyfried.

After taking a script analysis class, Anat discovered her true passion in the entertainment business: reading and improving other writers’ scripts. She became a reader for companies like Amazon Studios, Crispy Twig Productions, The Radmin Company, the Atlanta Film Festival and others, while developing connections with creative voices she aspires to bring to the big and small screens. In her spare time, Anat volunteers as the Secretary on the Board of the San Fernando Valley Writers’ Club (a chapter of the California Writers’ Club).

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

Not really “the last thing”, but KIDDING on Showtime is a great example of how dialogue, visuals and story come together perfectly. Also on Showtime is I’M DYING UP HERE, which very skillfully weaves many plotlines together. Netflix’s SHTISEL is an example of how a story about a seemingly insignificant part of the world’s population can be made relatable. And for those catering to the younger audience, I recommend studying BOY MEETS WORLD. In terms of reading, THE CARTOONIST’S MASK by Ranan Lurie is a book I’d love to see adapted to screen.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I always thought I would be a screenwriter. But an internship (followed by a full time position) at a TV station, working on a youth drama, set me on another course. I was a rookie intern when I was allowed to join my first script meeting. I sat quietly, just hoping to learn as much as possible, when the director, an amazing woman by the name of Yael Graf, turned to me and asked for my opinion. Without thinking, I said the solution won’t work. A second later, I was mourning the loss of the best (and only) internship I ever had, when much to my surprise, the director actually wanted to know why I reached such a conclusion. Based on my explanation, the script was revised.

A few years later, I took a script reading class. Based on my analysis, the instructor encouraged me to pursue this career. My hope is to move from script reading to creative executive so I can work with undiscovered writers to help bring their stories to the screen.

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

Akiva Goldsman once said: “Writing is both a pleasure and a struggle. There are times when it’s really aversive and unpleasant, and there are times when it’s wonderful and fun and magical, but that’s not the point. Writing is my job. I’m not a believer of waiting for the muse. You don’t put yourself in the mood to go to your nine-to-five job, you just go. I start in the morning and write all day. Successful writers don’t wait for the muse to fill themselves unless they’re geniuses. I’m not a genius. I’m smart, I have some talent, and I have a lot of stubbornness. I persevere. I was by no means the best writer in my class in college. I’m just the one still writing.”

You can absolutely become a better writer. But just like any other job – if you want to be good at it, you have to study it, stay on top of new trends, and practice, practice, practice.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Visual over telling. Don’t say “he walks into a room,” say “he skips, dashes, stumble, falls, dances, shuffles into a room,” etc.

Know the genre you’re writing. Nothing wrong with a horror rom-com, but make sure characteristics of all genres are present in the script.

A well-executed “wait for it” moment. Scripts that constantly challenge me to wonder what will come next, even in based-on-true-event movies. Sure, we all know the Titanic is going to sink, but we wonder what will happen to the protagonists.

If you spent time developing your characters’ external and internal conflicts, make sure to address them during the climactic moment. In CASABLANCA, Rick must get Ilsa and Victor safely to the airplane (external), while saying goodbye and convincing the love of his life to exit his (internal).

Good balance between dialogue and action sequences. Allowing the two to play off of one another, rather than feeding viewer/reader with a spoon.

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

Excessive usage of voiceover for no reason. Personally, I’m not one of those “never voiceover” believers, but use it with caution.

Unimaginative character description (i.e. JANE DOE, 26, pretty).

Unnecessary camera and other directorial instructions as well as endless parentheticals in dialogue sequences.

Undeveloped subplots.

Usage of “Starts to,” “Begins to,” “Commences to,” etc. as well as “beat.” These phrases can kill the flow of a screenplay, especially when writing an action-adventure movie. Instead of using “beat”, state what causes it (i.e. biting lip, looking away, cracking knuckles, etc.). Instead of “starts to walk but rethinks it,” consider “marches off. Halts.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I would read anything, but if you’re going to write about vampires or zombies, make sure you put a fresh spin or angle on the genre. WARM BODIES and INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE are two good examples. If writing a romcom, love doesn’t have to be the ultimate goal. In WORKING GIRL, the protagonist wanted a career, and along the way she found love.

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

Read, watch, internalize, and execute in your own writing, repeat.

Connect with other professionals. You never know when an early connection will lead to a later opportunity.

When receiving comments, always thank the person even if you don’t agree with them.

Your work may get rejected not because it’s not great, but because it’s not what the company is looking for. Do your research before sending.

Entertainment attorneys are a lot more approachable than agents and managers, and often can get your screenplay to the right hands.

People will have a more favorable view of you if when boasting about your achievements, you take a moment to acknowledge others. So when posting “my screenplay just advanced to quarterfinals/semi-finals/finals in “this and this” contest, add “congrats to all others who advanced” or “thank you for this opportunity, etc.

Even if making the slightest change to your script, make sure to save it as a new version. You never know when you may want to refer to an older version.

Always email yourself the latest version of your script, not just in PDF format, but in the writing-program-of-your-choice format, so you can restore the file if the software fails to open.

Ever in a slump and can’t come up with an idea? Public domain is your friend. Either adapt a project, or use it as the base for your own interpretation (e.g. how EASY A was inspired by THE SCARLET LETTER).

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

The number of scripts I recommended can be counted on one hand. However, I have yet to encounter a project that was not salvageable, even those I scored extremely low. I encourage all writers to watch Toy Story 3: Mistakes Made, Lessons Learned to realize we all struggle to “really get it.”

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

Winning a contest can do wonders to boast the spirit, but winning alone will do nothing to advance a writing career, unless you build on the momentum. I recommend listening to Craig James, Founder of International Screenwriters’ Association (ISA) advice on Screenplay Contest Strategy.

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

I mostly read for agencies, studios and contests. Screenwriters often don’t want to hear the truth about their screenplays, they just want someone to say they’re great, as Josh Olson wrote in his article “I Will Not Read Your F*%!ing Script”. However, I have done quite a few free readings for aspiring screenwriters. They can find me through my website The Write Script, social media like LinkedIn and Twitter, or through the San Fernando Valley Writers’ Club, where I volunteer as a Board Member. Writers don’t have to pay big bucks for a quality reading. Join a writing group or a writing community like Talentville that tells it like it is, and swap screenplays.

Do your research if you plan to pay for someone to read your script, especially if they boast about recommending your material to their contacts within the industry. I once encountered a person advertising his reading services on known screenwriting platforms, stating he was a final-round reader/judge for the Austin Film Festival and an Emmy Award Winner. Since the prices he charged were low for someone with such experience, I researched his claims and found out they were far from true. This is not to say the person didn’t give good feedback, but writers can receive the same type of professionalism for much less, or even for free.

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

I have yet to find a pie I haven’t liked, and not for lack of trying. I volunteer as a tribute to boldly go where no pie lover has gone before to try new flavors. Has hazelnut chocolate cheesecake pie been invented? (Editor’s note: it has.)