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.
Be safe. Try hard.