When I send out a query letter, I do so with equal parts of hope and optimism, as well as healthy doses of realism and some kind of fatalism.
I totally realize that the odds are against me and that the response will most likely be some variation of “no”. But I send it anyway, because…you never know.
I used to put way too much pressure on myself about this sort of thing, but a steady stream of “thanks, but no thanks” has really built up my resilience. If it reaches the next step, great. If they pass, that’s the end of that and I move on to the next thing.
And there’s always a next thing.
I’ve been very fortunate to have built up a network of supportive creative folks. Many pass on words of encouragement, usually along the lines of “Love how you bounce back!” and “I really admire your work ethic!”
Honestly, I don’t really have a choice. The simple truth is that if I want to make it, I’ve got to keep trying. The failures and disappointments will always greatly outnumber the accomplishments and successess, and the only way to get to the latter is to keep pushing through the former.
There might be a moment of feeling bad about getting told “no” for the umpteenth time, but you have to get over it and move on.
Frustrating as it can sometimes be, I’d rather keep trying and failing than stop altogether. I may not be the most fantastic writer in the world, but I like to think I’ve got some decent talent, and I’ll keep at it. The optimist in me leans towards things eventually going my way – preferably sooner than later.
Christopher Lockhart is the Story Editor at WME, the world’s largest talent agency. He has produced several feature films and is an adjunct professor in screenwriting. He earned his MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is a member of the WGA, PGA, and the Television Academy. He moderates a screenwriting group on Facebook called “The Inside Pitch.”
What’s the last thing you read/watched you considered to be exceptionally well-written?
Because I deal with writers and filmmakers, I tend not to answer these kinds of questions. I’d never want anyone to think I have favorites. I’ll say that I’m lucky because I get to read the very best screenplays circulating town. In my personal life, I tend not to share my opinions on these kinds of things. For instance, I rarely recommend a movie to anyone – even if I loved it. I guess because my work day involves having to share my opinion with others (or force it upon them), I’d prefer to keep my opinion to myself when I’m off the clock.
How’d you get your start?
I wrote and taught for a decade until an opportunity arose to interview at talent agency ICM as the story consultant to Ed Limato, one of the industry’s most powerful agents. He ran his own fiefdom within the agency and needed someone to comb through the vast amount of material for his client list, which, at that time, included the likes of Mel Gibson, Richard Gere, Steve Martin, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Denzel Washington. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but met with him for the hell of it. It was a short interview and afterward I found myself being escorted into a tiny office piled high with screenplays to read. I was hired on the spot and didn’t seem to have any say in whether or not I wanted the job. I had no interest in the agency business but figured I’d give it a chance until the end of the week, and if I hated it, I’d quit. I was asked to read a particular script for Mel Gibson, who was one of the biggest movie stars in the world. On my second day, I was called into the boss’s office to discuss my thoughts. And Mel Gibson was there. We spoke about the script, and it was exhilarating. This is a business where there’s lots of talk and wheelspinning, but these people weren’t talkers, they really made movies, and I could have a small voice in that process. It was pretty cool. There’s been all sorts of ups, downs, and changes since then, but I’m now in my 21st year in the agency business.
Your official title is Story Editor. What does that job entail and what are your responsibilities?
In some ways, I do what a dramaturg in a theater does. I’m sort of a matchmaker – looking to match projects with a handful of A-list actors. I read a lot, do research, share my opinion and recommendations, give story notes. I work with writers and directors to develop and focus their material. I work in post with filmmakers (like in the editing room) to help them crystalize their story. My whole world is story, and I do anything and everything I can to serve writers, actors, and filmmakers in reaching their creative story goals.
Follow-up – what does the Story Department at an agency handle?
A Story Department is the screenplay hub in an agency, studio, production company. Generally, it oversees the “coverage” of material (judging the creative value of the work) through a cadre of story analysts. It also looks to bring material into the company.
When you’re reading a script, what about it indicates to you “this writer really gets it”?
The way conflict is utilized. The way it’s used in the concept, the characters, the plotting. For example, in screenplays creating complex characters doesn’t mean layers of backstory and psychology. It means how conflict is used to create the complexities. When a writer is adept at using conflict, I know she gets it.
Is recognizing good writing something you believe can be taught or learned?
I don’t look for good writing. I look for good movies. And there’s a difference. I read lots of scripts that are well written but will never be movies (for a variety of reasons), and they serve no purpose for me. Good writing can win you attention, get you representation, lead to writing assignments, and so on. But that’s not the business I’m in. I’m looking for movies for movie stars. In Hollywood, good writing is subjective, of course, so each person defines it in whatever way suits her needs. While there’s some subjectivity in what I do, I’m also dealing in facts. For example, maybe an actor doesn’t want to play a particular kind of role. That eliminates certain scripts, regardless of their quality. I think the recognition skills you ask about are both taught and learned. When I started reading scripts I was armed with what I was taught in film school. But in the 30 years since, I’ve read over 60,000 screenplays, and I’ve absorbed a lot of knowledge about what works, what doesn’t work, and – most importantly – why. My head is a filing cabinet of stories and story elements, which gives me a large dramaturgical perspective. That stuff I learned.
What do you consider the components of a good solid script?
I take a holistic approach to judging material. I have to read and swallow the whole script. Scripts can often work in spite of themselves. The one component I see missing from most scripts – especially scripts from new writers – is the story purpose. This is that singular goal your hero pursues through the story. More often than not, there is no goal. If there is a goal, it’s vague or not substantial enough to sustain 120 pages (or our interest). Another component is conflict (drama). A strong story purpose should create strong conflict. Many stories do not seem to be conceived in conflict. They’re born from themes, ideas, ideals that lack conflict; they are not dramatized.
What are some very important rules every writer should know?
I guess my previous answer covers this question. I don’t believe in rules, per se. Rules only apply to bad writing. If you’ve written a great script, no one will quote you the rules.
Are there any trends, themes, or story ideas you feel are overused? “Not this again.”
Because I’ve read so much, nothing is new to me. I have seen it all. Georges Polti gave us The 36 Dramatic Situations, which he claimed covered all possible stories. Others theorists have reduced them to 12 or even 3. In theory, everything has been used and will be used again. Ideas are only overused in the hands of inexperienced writers. Great writers with unique voices will take the old and dress it up in a new, refreshing way.
Follow-up – are they are any cliches or tropes you’re just tired of seeing?
I try not to judge those kinds of things until I see how they’re utilized.
Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?
I’m not much of a pie eater. I only ever ate apple pie – baked by my great-grandmother. When I moved to Los Angeles, she would write me once a month and enclose a five-dollar bill to buy a frozen apple pie to remember her. I was low on funds in those days, and that money would often find its way to buy other things like a few gallons of gas. She’s been gone 25 years, but on the rare occasions I eat apple pie, I remember her.
Settle yourself into a comfy chair with your refreshing beverage of choice at the ready, because have I got quite a story for you. Hopefully one from which everybody can benefit.
I belong to a few screenwriting-oriented networking sites, and do what I can to engage with other members. I do what I can to be friendly, outgoing, and supportive with each connection.
Back in mid-July, I got an email from one such person. Their bio lists them as a “producer, screenwriter, and script consultant”. Would I be interested in a script swap? Despite having a few other reads already lined up, I’m always up for such a thing and agreed, telling them I’d try to get to it soon. Turns out they were in a similar situation.
They sent their script, and I sent mine. After a few days, I’d worked my way through the other projects and started in on their script.
I won’t say it was awful, but I’d have to say in all honesty it simply wasn’t good. I’d also add that it made me seriously question their credentials.
Among the details:
-a passive protagonist I really didn’t care for, and who didn’t give me any reason to want to see them achieve their goal.
-a weak antagonist with a cartoonish goal
-underdeveloped story/bad structure, including several unresolved subplots and a big letdown of an ending
-flat supporting characters
I pointed out what didn’t work for me and why, and offered suggestions of potential fixes. (I always make a point of never ever saying “this is how I’d do it”.) I’d estimate it was around 2 pages worth of notes, and they were free to use or ignore whatever they wanted.
I sent it out Friday afternoon.
Saturday morning, this was the email I got.
Seriously. That was it.
I came to two potential conclusions:
-I was an ignorant know-nothing boob to the nth degree with zero appreciation for their extraordinary skills (“How dare you not recognize my genius!”), and they were just saying “thanks” to be polite
-My notes were so cruel and inhuman, and if that was how we were going to play that game, then they’d be just as ruthless and grind my script into a bloody mess
Hyperbole on my part? Maybe, but check out their response again and think about what your reaction would be.
I figured it was one or the other, but all I could do now was wait (while working on other scripts, naturally).
Quick reminder – this was the end of July.
August passes. No response.
September. Still nothing. (but I did finish the outline of another script, so…yay)
Hmm. Several possibilities now.
-they still haven’t read it
-they read it, but haven’t gotten around to sending the notes
-they forgot. It happens.
-because of what I said about their script, they were deliberately not reading it OR sending the notes. To punish me, I guess?
September came to a close, and I figured I’d been patient enough.
I sent an email – “Know it’s been a while, and I’m sure you’ve been busy, but wanted to check in and see if you’ve had a chance to take a look at my script. Thanks.”
Five days later…
“Best script I ever read.”
Again, that was it.
I asked if they could elaborate. (note – this is my comedy)
Were there any parts you felt could use more work? “Nope. Perfect.”
What did you think of the characters?
Your thoughts on the jokes?
“I was rolling on the floor laughing.”
Anybody else find this just a tad suspicious, and, oh, total and utter bullshit?
No apology. No remorse. No attempt to make amends. Just a handful of “ain’t I hilarious?” bare minimum answers.
I really wanted to say something in response. Call them out for it. Tell them what an incredibly brazen dick move that was. I even came up with several scenarios to trap them in their sinister web of lies and deceit.
But in the end, I was getting all worked up for nothing. And this person is most definitely NOT worth it. All I’d lost was two hours of reading and writing notes, as well as severing our connection on that networking site. No skin off my nose.
I can only surmise they didn’t like what I had to say, so for whatever reason, decided to not read my script, and after being asked (reminded?) to uphold their end of the deal, took it one step further and opted to not even bother.
I don’t really mind that they didn’t read the script – especially after seeing their writing “skills” in action – but if you’re going to claim you’re a “professional”, then you damned well better act like it. No matter what.
Bet they wouldn’t have done this if I’d been a paying client. Thank goodness it never came to that.
Present yourself as someone who supposedly knows what they’re doing, but then show that’s not the case, and you’re just screwing yourself. Sometimes all you’ve got going for you is your reputation, and once that’s tarnished, you might never be able to restore it.
And let me also add that YOU CAME TO ME. You wanted MY help. And this is how you react because I didn’t like your script? Too fucking bad. Is this how you’re going to treat others who make similar comments? I may not be the most talented or analytical of writers, but at least I treat everybody with respect, even when they don’t deserve it.
When we read another writer’s script, we don’t want it to just be good. We want it to be so phenomenal we can’t believe we had the privilege of being able to read it.
Notes are about the script, not the writer. Of course you’re going to take criticism personally. But you can’t. I have no idea how much work you put into it, but are you more interested in making your script better, or getting a pat on the head and told “Good job”?
I hope this little incident doesn’t deter other writers from taking part in a script swap, including with me. Schedule permitting, I’m always happy to do so. Fortunately, most of my other script-swapping experiences have been of a significantly more positive nature. This was just one of those rare negative exceptions.
Hopefully you have a strong sense of what kind of writer/note-giver the other person is, and once those scripts are swapped, definitely make sure both of you hold up your respective ends of the bargain.
Because the last thing you want is to get on a writer’s bad side.
Used to be that when I would outline a story, I’d try to be as spot-on about hitting industry-recommended page numbers as I could.
Statement of theme on page 3, inciting incident on page 10, etc., etc. That’s how I learned it, so that’s how it must be.
These days? Not so much.
I don’t go crazy, you understand. No scenes lasting 10 pages or anything of that nature. More like “this happens…around here-ish”.
When I first gave it a try, my immediate thought was “Is that going to be a problem?” It had become so ingrained into my process that this was how it was supposed to be, and any deviation from that was wrong.
Then my writer’s sense of craft kicked in with a hearty “Nope. Have at it, kid”.
As far as I know, the screenwriting police (is there such a thing?) aren’t going to shut me down because something doesn’t happen where THE RULES say it should. I’d rather focus on telling an engaging story with an intelligent plot and well-developed characters than worry about this kind of pettiness.
And honestly? It’s incredibly liberating.
I’m much more interested in telling the story in a way I deem appropriate, rather than drastically cutting something or even cutting it altogether just to make sure the beats happen on the designated pages.
So if my opening sequence runs a page or three longer, so be it. Does it work against me? I don’t think so. My writing usually moves at a good pace, so if something happens a little sooner or later than you expect, and if I’ve done my job in really grabbing your attention, chances are you probably won’t even notice it.
Unless you’re a real stickler for that sort of thing. Most of the writers who read my stuff aren’t; they’re more interested in reading a good script.
-Through September 30th (that’s this Sunday!), the fine folks at LiveRead/LA are offering the discount code MAXZ15 for 15 percent off their script services and the fee for their contest where your script could be one of two read live by professional actors in Los Angeles in October. Following the read (30 pages max), feedback will be provided, including from veteran production exec & producer Debbie Liebling – Comedy Central, Fox, now working with Sam Raimi. Writers from everywhere are encouraged to submit. The event will be livestreamed, so if your script is chosen and you can’t attend, feedback will be provided live via Skype.
-Filmmaker Scott Kawczynski is running a crowdfunding project for his animated film Light Work. It’s a pre-sale, so even for $1, you can watch the film. Donate if you can!
With the outline for the horror-comedy simmering away on the backburner, all attention is now being directed to a rewrite of the sci-fi spec. I was fortunate to get some solid notes on it, so the rebuilding process is well underway.
A big part of this involves cutting scenes and sequences, along with a whole lot of moving stuff around. Even with a hard copy of the previous draft in front of me and the current draft’s skeletal outline on my laptop screen, it requires a lot of planning things out along with a constant going back and forth between the two. To say the least.
Keep this scene? Or how about this one? Would this one work here, or here? Wait, do I even need this sequence anymore? Jeez, I totally forgot about that new scene that would set up the protagonist’s internal goal.
(Not my actual inner monologue, but you get the idea)
Simply put, there’s been A LOT of twisting, readjusting, manipulating and something comparable to “square peg + round hole + sledgehammer” to get this thing more streamlined and functional.
Going through all these motions has also revealed non-essential moments, or at least parts of them, dialogue that initially seems like it should stay in but really doesn’t need to, and a decent amount of literary fat that can easily be trimmed away. No fuss, no muss.
Despite the statements in the preceding paragraph, a majority of what’s already on the page still works. It just takes everything I’ve described, plus a little more, to get into better shape. A slow but effective process. As is usually the case for me, initially insurmountable, but gradually not too bad, and eventually being classified under “that worked out better than I’d expected.”
With any luck, the producing of actual pages will also go relatively smoothly.
One can only hope.
-Through September 30th, the fine folks at LiveRead/LA are offering the discount code MAXZ15 for 15 percent off their script services and the fee for their contest where your script could be one of two read live by professional actors in Los Angeles in October. Following the read (30 pages max), feedback will be provided, including from an Industry Insider (last time was actor Jason Alexander. This time it’s veteran production exec & producer Debbie Liebling – Comedy Central, Fox, now working with Sam Raimi). Writers from everywhere are encouraged to submit. The event will be livestreamed, so if your script is chosen and you can’t attend, feedback will be provided live via Skype.