The spark is lit once again

I hadn’t realized it had been quite a while since I’ve written about how my writing has been going, mostly because there hasn’t been as much of it as I was hoping, and what there has has been proving to be a bit of a challenge. Therefore…

The past few months have been me working on rewriting/overhauling the fantasy-comedy I wrote last year. For some reason, it just wasn’t clicking for me, hence the lengthy break.

So when I decided the time was right to dive back in, I really had to figure out what the problem was.

I still loved the concept, and a lot of what I’d already written, but something still seemed off. So I went to my tried-and-true practice of “take a step back for a closer look”.

What was it I liked about the story? Did the way it played out seem like the best way to tell it? What could be done differently, yet still yield the same results (or something even better)?

When I was first putting the story together, I must have gone through at least half a dozen different ways to start it. Each one had it’s own pros and cons. I don’t strictly adhere to “this plot point HAS to happen on THIS PAGE”, but I do what I can to stay in the neighborhood.

As I wrote down scenes I wanted to include, a pattern started to emerge. If I started the story THIS WAY, that would lead to THIS happening, and maybe I could rearrange a few things so as to get the full impact of what I was going for.

Then another realization came to me. The story was working, but my protagonist was the wrong character. Another character initially created as a big supporting role seemed to hold more potential, plus having things revolve around them would really punch up the tone of the story.

More pieces of the puzzle were falling into place.

Because of this drastically new approach, I don’t have the option of just recycling scenes from the previous draft. Each scene has to be rewritten to accommodate this new perspective and really play up the impact this new protagonist has on everything around them.

It’s a challenge, but the new story is slowly coming together. My enthusiasm for putting myself through all of this and my confidence in the story is as strong as ever.

I’ll admit this is also taking longer to than I wanted it to. My initial hope was to have completed the outline a while ago and have a new draft done by the end of the year, but that ain’t gonna happen.

Instead, I’m totally fine with the rest of 2021 being all about hammering out the outline and its subsequent fine-tuning. Kicking off the New Year with pages isn’t a bad way to go.

As we head into the weekend, here’s hoping for a whole lot of productivity for everybody’s current projects.

Q & A with Scott McConnell

Scott McConnell is a writer/story consultant who has worked as a producer in Los Angeles and in fiction development. Scott edits stories from inside them as a writer. He finds solutions to story problems and can especially focus on improving a story’s premise. Scott believes this is where most films/scripts succeed or fail. He also finds that many good writers don’t focus enough on theme. It is through theme that a writer moves an audience emotionally. Scott can edit low budget features as well as big budget blockbusters. He fixes scripts for individual writers and production companies around the world.

Scott started in the business as a story analyst in Los Angeles; analyzing scripts for Roger and Julie Corman, Samuel Goldwyn and the Sundance Institute, among others. He was later the showrunner (writer/producer/director) of the U.S. nationally syndicated LIVE LIFE AND WIN! and he co-wrote the reality series HOLLYWOOD BOOT CAMP. He has found the story by studying footage, reading scripts/books, pre-interviewing talents, and writing or editing the script. Scott is a member of the Producer’s Guild of America and of the Australian Film Institute (AACTA.)

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

Regarding television, I’m a big fan of the English series VICTORIA, about Queen Victoria. The writing is often excellent, especially in season one, which dramatized a young girl developing herself in high stakes circumstances to become queen of an empire and the loving wife of a man she admires but who often has different ideas to her and is at times in romantic conflict with her because she is also his queen and leader.

Regarding film, I think SAVING MR. BANKS is brilliantly written, especially its dramatization of a profound theme and the integration of its two main plot lines from different time periods. The characters were intelligently written and layered, while the arc of the protagonist is beautifully climaxed.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

My first start in the business came after I graduated from UCLA Extension (scriptwriting) and did some interning work at industry places in town and started my own script analysis business. The study and volunteer work allowed me to get experience so I was skilled and employable.

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

It is something that is learned. But there are great individual differences in how much someone might actually know about what makes a good story. And it’s hard for readers to see a story objectively as it really is and not be prejudiced by their own values and tastes.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

There are two basics to any script. First there is the mechanics of how well it is written: its structure, clarity of its theme, use of dramatic devises, the development of its character and relationship arcs, the nature of its climax, and so forth. That is, the storytelling skill.

And then there is the values side of the story, the actual nature of the specific content. For example, its theme and sensibility, the values and goals of the characters, the nature of the conflicts and the theme resolution. That is, the values the story is dramatizing.

A good script has skilled storytelling and universal, important and personal values that the audience cares about. It is the nature of these values that especially makes a story or film an enduring classic.

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

The biggest mistake I often see is that writers do not give their characters agency (free will). That is, more specifically, the writer does not create a protagonist who has a big main goal that drives the story and underpins its structure. One of the negative consequences of this lack of agency in characters is that it becomes the writer who drives the story by dropping contrived and coincidental problems onto the heads of the characters. Such a story lacks logic, believability and suspense.

Another common writing mistake I see all the time is that the concept of the story was not developed properly. Many scripts, for example, have unoriginal, uninteresting or one-layer premises. Creating a strong premise is the hardest and most important part of writing a story.

A mistake I see in good writers is that they often haven’t mastered theme, so they don’t know how to use it to give depth to their story and to induce deep emotion in their audiences.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Some writers want to throw in the latest political fad or fashion.

Other writers think that chases, fights and explosions are what make an action script great. They aren’t. Look at two of the great actioners, DIE HARD and GLADIATOR: both of these stories have layered and driven characters enduring terrible personal problems.

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

The first rule of all writing is to have something interesting to say or show. If your story – its premise, characters, plot, climax – are not interesting then it doesn’t matter how well you structure your story, for example, no one will care.

I think every creator of a script should have a story expert outside of their story bubble vet and edit their script, and the closer to the front end of the story creation this is done the better.

Have a writing process. Many writers who don’t have a writing process never finish their story or don’t know how to. A writing process can be learned and should be. A good writing coach can teach you one.

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

That’s pretty rare. Most scripts, produced and unproduced, have issues. But I remember a script I edited about two years ago where I was impressed that these two writers were really in charge of the story and the writing. That is, that with some fixes this script would make a good movie. These writers had a layered, intriguing concept, an escalating plot line and characters who I cared about and I was anxious to see who among the leads won. (The three leads in conflict were all good guys but in a big conflict.)

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

That’s a good but difficult question. At best I’m mixed on contests. Yes, there are some good ones that can help a writer get doors opened or be noticed, but for other contests you have to worry about who is reading these piles of scripts. My concern is that too many contest readers seem to be straight out of college where they haven’t studied the great classic plays/novels nor analysed the
truly well written films. They tend, I also worry, to be naturalistic and PC in their reaction to story content. I hope I’m wrong but….

My suggestion to those considering entering contests is to vet carefully. For example, look to see if the contest has some clout, that being a winner or a placing near the top will truly open doors, etc. Also try to see the loglines of previous winners. If they’re rubbish, be wary, as you should be if any samples of coverage by the contest’s graders indicates a focus not on story essentials. Also try to determine if that contest prefers a certain genre over others. Good luck. Caveat emptor.

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

I edit scripts of many genres and forms, have a mentorship program to teach writers a writing process while they actually write a script, and other writing and development services. People can learn more about me on LinkedIn at this page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/scottamcconnell/

Or write to me via email: scottm100@gmail.com

People can also find my articles on screenwriting on Script, Creative Screenwriting and MovieMaker.

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

American Pie! (the song, not the movie)

Q & A with Brooks Elms (pt 2)

Brooks Elms is a screenwriter and independent filmmaker. His specialty is grounded personal characters and writing stomach-churning story tension.

He’s written 30+ screenplays, a dozen of them on assignment, and sold several scripts, including one this year with Brad Peyton as Executive Producer. Brooks was recently hired to rewrite a screenplay started by an Oscar-winning writer. Brooks began his career writing, directing, and producing two indie features (personal dramas) that he screened all over the world.

Here’s an interview with Brooks from last year. He also loves coaching fellow writers who have a burning ambition to deeply serve their audiences, and has two new programs available to give them a helping hand.

You started your new mentorship program ANSWER THE CALL in late 2020 and the online course UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER in early 2021. There are a lot of similar screenwriting courses and programs out there. What is it about yours that sets it apart from the rest?

Depth. I go ALL IN on the success of my writers. Most consultants give you their best for an hour or two, or maybe for the month you take their online course. And they play the numbers game. But since I only work with a few writers at a time, I’m better positioned to move the needle for you in a BIG way. I fully invest in writers: giving my time, my contacts, my everything – for life. I love helping them succeed as much as I love serving my audience with my own screenplays. 

Is this a course more applicable for screenwriters just starting out, those with a few scripts under their belts, or both?

I enjoy new writers, but the best way I can help them is through my free tips found here https://www.brookselms.com/new/. I’m on the planet to serve my own audiences, and to help talented intermediate-level writers turn pro ASAP, and to keep them working at their highest levels – for life. And by intermediate, I mean they’ve written a couple scripts OR they’re a working professional in an adjacent creative field: copywriting, journalism, novels, acting, producing, directing, etc… 

Do you consult with writers regarding which program would be the best for them?

The website helps writers with that. But the summary is that ff you want a working WGA screenwriter to uplevel every facet of your game, consider the in-depth 1:1 story development program – ANSWER THE CALL. If you want help getting your script to people in Hollywood to launch your career forward, consider the outreach course & community – UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER.

What was the inspiration for calling the programs ANSWER THE CALL and UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER?

ANSWER THE CALL is from Joseph Cambell’s work about the mythic CALL that begins every great story. Too often, writers Refuse The Call to get the support they need to move to their next level – and they remain stuck in Act 1 in agony and cynicism. My program is for writers ready for the emotional risk to ANSWER THE CALL. UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER is just a fun way to think about branding and outreach, because that side of the game, more than any other, needs a playful approach to be GREAT at it.

One of the aspects of your ANSWER THE CALL program is that you work with several writers as a group, as opposed to just keeping it one-on-one. Do you find that more beneficial, and why?

The group coaching calls add dimension to learning the system. Sometimes, I’ll show you a craft adjustment 1:1, and you kinda get it, but then in the group call you see me coaching a different writer on that same principle and it will now totally click for you. And the writers I select are super-creative so our group calls are an amazing sounding board for getting quick collective reactions. Plus, having a circle of peers that are ambitious, team-oriented and active in the business – keeps you inspired. Because when one of us win, all of us win.

How extensive is your work with writers for ANSWER THE CALL? Do you help them develop a script from beginning to end, or should they come in with one already written?

We go the full distance. So you can repeat the process, for life. We’ll take a deep dive into your favorite films & shows and why you love them. Then discuss an idea for a new story, or it could be re-writing a previous story you couldn’t crack. 

I take you through every step in my simple, proven professional process, to be sure you’re squeezing ALL the creative juice from your story idea. I help you answer all your audiences questions that you didn’t think to ask yourself. I am your first and best audience member that’s rooting you on every step of the way.

And even when you get several drafts into the screenplay, I’m still with you and tapping into all my personal contacts to get this project set up, get you representation, and get you all the other success you want.

I can’t guarantee WHEN this will happen for you, but I do guarantee you WILL cross significant career milestones with this system if you keep using it. 

And I haven’t found a more comprehensive and effective system for success as a screenwriter anywhere — because of the in-depth 1:1 attention, and the inspired community I cultivate.

Part of the ANSWER THE CALL program is that you select 5 out of all applicants to participate. How do you determine who makes the cut, and what if somebody applies and doesn’t get selected?

I help everybody that applies. Some writers will be the best match for me, and I work with those 5 people myself. And because I’m getting so many serious writers applying, I’ve also brought in 2 guest mentors (with better credits than mine!) to support others I can’t work with myself. IF the writer and that other mentor hit it off, they’re still in my program with my community and group coaching calls, and they just get their 1:1 support from an even more fitting working writer than me.

For the writers that aren’t the best fit for my program, I still make an introduction to another amazing mentor colleague who works hourly, which allows them to still get custom support.

The qualities I look for in the writers that are a match for this program are:

– ambition while being open to earn how to fulfill that ambition

– team player

– talented – I don’t have to love their genre, but I have to love their creative approach and POV on life

– demonstrated commitment to the craft (written several screenplays, or created something else at the professional level and are ready to write screenplays)

– willing to go to the deepest places in themselves, so they can move their audiences in the deepest way

But most of all, I get a feeling when I do the first free coaching session that tells me “Hell yeah I want to help this person succeed myself AND they’re ready” or “I love that this person applied and I’m excited to help them a different way.”

It’s a soft landing for you either way, and just filling out the free (and fast) application will get you leaning forward in your career anyway. Easy!

While ANSWER THE CALL covers the actual writing of the script, UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER is more about what a writer can do once the script is ready to go. Is this a topic that’s challenging to a lot of writers?

Oh yeah. Writers tend to create a lot of drama in the outreach process, and that’s the single biggest factor that’s slowing down your career. Whatever level of talent you have, the speed of your success hinges upon the quality of your outreach game. Lean into your outreach game, and you’ll move into the fast-track of your success.

Follow-up – how would you work with a writer who at the very start says “I’m a complete mess when it comes to pitching”?

I welcome that! We all are on the journey. Myself included. So we just practice, and then we become a little less of a mess, and practice some more — so we become “okay.” And we practice some more until we get good… and even great. And what’s most important is we enjoy that journey of developing our game, and to not take ourselves too seriously as we’re learning. It’s lots of fun.

A lot of writers say lack of access to the industry is one of the biggest obstacles to establishing a screenwriting career. What are your thoughts on that, and how do you help writers with it?

When writers say their problem is “lack of access,” I see the real problem is “lack of a good habit” to face their fears of socializing.

News flash: over half of Hollywood is online posting about all sorts of things. Go to them directly! Get into genuinely engaging conversations with YOUR people – for the sheer fun of it.

Some of those online conversations will escalate into deeper colleague connections and even attachments to your projects – IF and only if – you’ve got the goods. So… the only thing stopping writers from their own amazing outreach game is their habit of wallflowering. But since they chose that habit, they can choose a new one. With practice. Totally in their control and power.

Say a writer completed a script in ANSWER THE CALL that you felt was of above-average quality. What would your next steps be? Pass it along to an agent, manager, or producer? Recommend they enroll in UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER?

Once I make sure their script is as great as it can be, I map out a sales strategy for them and introduce them to my own contacts. I got one of my mentees signed to my own manager. Everybody in the core development program ANSWER THE CALL is automatically enrolled in UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER as part of me helping them succeed.

Are there any success stories regarding former students you can share?

There sure are. In the very first year of the program, writers have already been advancing in contests, got an 8 on the Black List, gotten a handful of paid writing assignments, got producer attachments, and a former client won a Nicholl Fellowship last year (top 5 out of 7200 scripts).

Did I mention it was the first year of the program?

Success begets success, and this snowballing has just begun.

How can somebody interested in either or both of these courses get in touch with you?

Go to https://www.BrooksElmsCoaching.com. The deadline to register for ANSWER THE CALL is October 31st of this year

Last time around, you said your favorite pie was pecan (a la mode), with banana cream coming in a close second. Still the case?

Damn right.

Rewriting: more than just moving words around

I came up with the idea/concept for my fantasy-comedy more than a few years ago. Up until last year, putting it together consisted mostly of the occasional jotting-down of ideas for scenes and sequences. Figuring I had enough to work with, I worked my way through writing a first draft.

That was the end of last year.

After working on several projects since then, including some still in progress, I’ve decided to make things just a bit more complex for myself and start on the next draft.

The core concept and execution are still pretty solid, but after a lot of help and suggestions from some trusted colleagues, I’ve got a better grasp of which parts need some major work. It’s not as long a list as I expected, but there’s still a good deal for me to work on – especially from the perspective of character development; namely – my protagonist.

There are still some aspects to his internal and external goals that need tweaking, so a lot of my time lately has been all about that. And I was already racking my brains trying to figure out what would work best not just for that character, but also how all of it relates to the antagonist as well as the supporting characters.

Initially a daunting prospect, I am finding the more I work my way through this, the stronger the story seems to become.

I’m also working on fleshing out the storylines for some of the supporting characters, making sure to incorporate the theme into each of those. It’s also been a pleasant surprise to realize/uncover previously hidden connections between some of them and work those into the story.

As is my usual M.O., I’m taking my time in figuring all of this out and doing what I can to make sure everything is as solid as I can make it (for this draft, anyway) before starting on pages.

And what might be the most important angle to all of this – I’m enjoying it. This is just a fun story to work on. It is definitely the kind of thing I would write, and I hope that vibe really comes through in the finished product.

Until then, and as it always does, the work continues…

Q & A with Richard Walter

Richard Walter is a novelist and author of best-selling fiction and nonfiction, celebrated storytelling educator, screenwriter, script consultant, lecturer and recently retired Professor and Associate and Interim Dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television where, for more than forty years, he chaired the graduate program in screenwriting. He has written scripts for the major studios and television networks, including the earliest drafts of AMERICAN GRAFFITI; lectured on screenwriting and storytelling and conducted master classes throughout North America as well as London, Paris, Jerusalem, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Beijing, Shanghai, Sydney and Hong Kong.

He is also a pop culture commentator, blogger and media pundit who has made numerous appearances on The Today Show, The O’Reilly Factor, Hardball with Chris Matthews, ABC Primetime, Scarborough Country and CBS News Nightwatch, among many other high-profile national television programs. More than a hundred newspaper and magazine articles have been published about him and the program he directed at UCLA.

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

The new bio MIKE NICHOLS, A LIFE by Mark Harris.

How’d you get your start in the industry, and was that connected to you instructing at UCLA?

I came to California over fifty years ago for, I thought, three weeks, but fell into USC film school at the last minute, and never looked back. It was through faculty and classmates there that I learned screenwriting and made the earliest connections that led to professional assignments.

A little more than ten years later, at a glitzy showbiz party in Malibu, I was invited to join the faculty at UCLA. I was busy adapting my first book, the novel BARRY AND THE PERSUASIONS, for Warner Brothers, who had bought the film rights and hired me to write the screenplay. I was not seeking work. Still, as I would advise my children, you don’t have to eat the whole thing, but at least taste it. I tasted teaching and found that it was the perfect complement to writing.

As someone who actually teaches screenwriting, is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

Yes and no. No one needs education to decide what scripts or movies they like. That said, there’s good evidence that studying the art and craft in a worthy program goes a long way toward launching and maintaining a career.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

First of all, story; that is, what the characters do and say. What they do and say also establishes who they are. Regarding the latter, that is, what the characters say, dialogue needs to be worth listening to all for itself, but it can’t be all for itself. It needs at the same time also to advance the story and advance the audience’s appreciation of the characters. Conflict, controversy, and confrontation are required throughout the narrative, and those are just the ‘cons.’

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

Overwriting. Too many pages. Too much dialogue. Too much description, especially regarding instructions to the actors regarding pauses and gestures and such. 

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m weary of superheroes and comic-book adaptations.

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

Less is more.

Successful writing is not about adding paraphernalia to a narrative but taking it away, revealing a story that’s somehow already there.

Don’t have one character tell another what you’ve already told the audience.

Movies must appear real, but in fact they are fake. Writers should be wary, therefore, of writing ‘the way it really happened’ and creating dialogue that captures the way people ‘really speak.’

What ‘really happens’ in life is, for the most part, boring. The way people ‘really speak’ is available in the streets for free, you don’t need to go to the movies for that. Also, and again, the way people ‘really speak’ is, for the most part, tedious. Know what I mean? Get what I’m saying? Understand my point?

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

Sure. The give-away is economy: few words that reveal a lot, instead of the other way around. Nothing is present for its own sake but exclusively for the advancement of the narrative. Fancy language that might be appropriate in literature will swamp a screenplay.

**AUTHOR’S NOTE – I’ve often said one of the best pieces of writing advice I ever heard was “Write as if ink costs $1000 an ounce”. Richard said that at a seminar of his I attended very early in my career. It really stuck with me, and I’ve used that as a guideline in my writing ever since.

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

There are some that are absolutely worthy.

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

Visit www.richardwalter.com. There’s info regarding my books, limited-enrollment online screenwriting webinars, whose enrollees’ scripts I’m willing to read, script consultation services, and more.

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

Pecan. And I don’t mind a scoop of vanilla ice cream on it.