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Writing for Gold (and other Olympic clichés)

As a screenwriter, you are an athlete.

Sure, the only things in motion are your fingers and your mind, and perspiration only gathers at your temples, but similarities can found between the disciplines.

Strength / Stamina
Pushing on and getting it done. Not just to crack that daily word count, but to see an idea through execution, to break it down and rebuild it over multiple drafts, and then to market your script/self with enough grit and determination to accept and learn from constructive criticism and rejection.

Speed
Though the writing process cannot be rushed, deadlines must be met. Seasonal features need to be marketed at the right time. Competition/festival dates will not be delayed for you, and for those in production or working on short films, an entire crew may be waiting for the next rewrite. Targets should be in page numbers, not words.

 

David Annand’s Writers in the Park
(Cr: Thomas Nugent)

 

Technique
Quickfire scripts sent to a hundred readers might look good for the stats, but getting it right on the one occasion that matters is a truly Olympic trait. Even after a story has been put through its paces in the edit room, it is always worth stepping away for a period of time in order to be able to revisit your latest version with a clear head.

R&R
Just like all muscles, the brain gets tired and requires regular rest, as well as a variation on the usual stimuli. Crunching page numbers when not all the synapses are firing will not only lengthen your recovery time, but also put your script into a position that requires further attention at a later date.

Give yourself a break once in a while.

After all, you’re a screenwriter, not an athlete…

Happy writing!

FAQ&A, OK?

Back in February, I hosted an offline Q&A session. Although the participants stuck around (into the early hours) to discuss, I never actually posted them outside of the email feed.

“But James, that was six months ago – nobody cares!”
Maybe. But I thoroughly enjoyed it, so here we are.

Some of the questions were tired old topics, covered in countless forums across the web, and so I have cut it down to the three queries that generated the most conversation.

I need to break the rules to differentiate myself from other writers, but I don’t want to appear unprofessional. What can I change, and how far can I go?
Understanding the difference between rules and guidelines may help you to push boundaries a little. There are areas you do not touch (font, layout, margins) and then there are parts you can experiment with (narrative, genre, structure).

When I am reading a new script, the original components of the story are what force me to engage, and reading further should expand upon this. If attention is being drawn to the way it is written on the page, i.e. how it looks as opposed to how it reads, then I cannot fully commit to the story without distraction. Don’t keep me on the doorstep, explaining how you are different. Invite me in and show me your unique world.

What is the single biggest mistake that novice writers tend to make?
Not writing. It sounds funny, but as creatives we are well versed in elaborate excuses for not producing material. Too many people pitch with “I have a great idea for movie” instead of “I’ve written a script for this great idea”.

Beyond that, a writer being too hasty is clearly an issue, in two respects. Firstly, the scripts themselves have not been put through their paces. I am not going to purport that there is a magic number of rewrites before a draft is in good shape, but chances are the first few are not going to represent your story’s true potential. Feedback of any kind can help to refresh a script, but you also need time to distance yourself from it to appreciate possible changes.

The same applies to the number of screenplays in your portfolio. No magic formula, no set age, just a plethora of varied, reworked, tightly-written stories to help you woo prospective parties. If a producer turns down one idea and asks what else you have, the answer had better be another finely-tuned pitch, or else a handful of miniature Ben Franklin portraits.

If you think it is difficult to get the right names to read your scripts, then consider the likelihood of them giving you a second chance. Get it right, before you get it wrong.

Should I write with budget restraints in mind? Whose opinion should I consider when writing?

First of all, write to satisfy yourself. If you do not fully believe in the story then do not force it, as it will be evident in your writing as well as your pitch. Then ask yourself what you are writing for. Is this a short film that you could produce/direct yourself? Is this a contest entry, or are you looking to find the laps of execs? The next set of eyes belongs to your temporary master.

Considering budgets, locations and such are unfortunately several steps ahead of the typical writer’s journey. Your low-cost, stateside drama may broaden the number of entities that could afford to get it made, but it could also bore the reader they hire to scan it. Impress that person, and then the pressure is on them to convince their boss. Which is good – that is their job after all.

We are often taught to write in a manner that would please the discerning audience. Instead, try pleasing the person you are giving the script to. You can always add the ‘Godzilla-ruins-the-world-cup’ scene after signing a contract.

Click Pic For FAQ Home

Be safe. Try hard.

Happy writing!

You versus Script: Rematch

There are many courses available to writers who need help with ‘tackling the rewrite’ or ‘wrestling the redraft’, but is it really that much of a struggle to edit your unproduced script?

In short, yes. A complete screenplay can be a rare and precious thing, but the first draft is not the end. The last thing we want to do is go through it again from the beginning and start making changes, but it is a necessary part of story development.  There is no magic number for the amount of drafts you should write, but it’s fair to say that the very first copy probably won’t represent your best work.

Like the original, every rewrite takes time. There should be no rushing through it to get it done, or shrugging off seemingly insignificant details. Ultimately, one question should keep resurfacing:

“Is this the best way to tell my story?”

This may not be the most foolproof method, nor does it apply to all projects, but here I have outlined the process I go through when rewriting a script.

(Drafts 1-2) Common sense  –  A few rereads of the first draft, just to clear up awkward phrasing, unclear action or glaring errors. Make sure this is done in one sitting, and again after any changes have been made.

(3-4) Story check-up  –  Using loglines, treatments and other relevant materials, succinctly summarise the main story. Decide whether that story is clearly portrayed through what has been written. If not, structural work may be needed.

(5-6) Paint a picture  –  As reiterated in every script workshop, keep it visual. Maximise description of all settings and characters so that the reader has a vivid fictional world to delve in to.

(7-8) Living through character  –  Are they the kind of person that I would immediately engage with on the screen? Are their goals, flaws and personal attributes legitimate? Am I concerned about their quest for success? Am I using too many rhetorical questions?

(9+) Ascertain destination  –  Some of the above elements are genre-specific, but most films need pace, or at least a sense of direction. Make sure that the story is going from one place to another, perhaps through irreversible change. Another forum cliché, but a story has to move.

These modes of thought, along with professional coverage and/or peer feedback, ensure that every rewrite brings something new to the script. Never dispose of a previous draft, as ultimately it will be the combination of old and new that results in a solid finished product, but always be open to change.

My concluding advice is to never rush this process. Ideas will come and go, but without taking the time to distance yourself from your work, you may struggle to identify the script’s full potential. We all know that it can be difficult getting the right people to read your work, but if it isn’t perfect the first time you submit it, then it will be even harder to get them to consider another version.

Try hard.

Have fun.

Happy writing.

Developing Your Literary Wings

The quote below seemed to resonate throughout the great halls of Twitter, and so I felt obliged to expand upon the theme of perseverance a little further.

 

We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down‘ – Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

 

The About Me section of this blog states that I like people who try, as I believe that encouragement and positivity trumps luck or even talent. Such attributes, however, can be difficult to maintain for the modern screenwriter, given the invariable obstacles that stand between them and the silver screen.

Cinema is an industry of contacts, and thanks to the rapid increase in social networking, it is getting easier to locate an online community in your chosen field. Forums and chat rooms are breeding grounds for those in the know, but sadly not everyone is looking to work together. Writers in all areas do well to put up with months of waiting and constant rejection, and when so much time and effort is put into their work, it can be difficult not to take it personally.

There is also a personal element to it, however. There are people who will share with you all of their hard-earned knowledge for free (kudos to script developer Dan Hayes), and there are others who feel the need to leak you information for a premium, but there is also a minority who are simply hoping to bring you down.

 

This somewhat bitter blog post comes as a reaction to a chat room debate in which I found myself involved. A television screenwriter and a novelist were arguing over who had the hardest job, and I could not help but point out that both parties could be dedicating this time toward actually writing something. With a few other opinions thrown in from producers and publishers, the tirade of abuse began, with each side ridiculing the professional choices of their supposed rivals. In the grand scheme of things, the nature of their work is extremely similar, but try explaining that to agitated, articulate individuals over cyberspace and you’re in for the long haul.

It wasn’t so much the debate itself that irked me, as conflict can be healthy. It was truly the lengths that some go to in order to debase another person’s career. Naturally, the conversation sank to “Which is a higher form of art?” at which time I took my leave.

Logging off, there was just enough time for a ‘media journalist’ to tell me to “Try getting a real job!”.

My response?  “Try writing a screenplay”.

Keep positive.

Work hard.

Happy writing!

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