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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!

Overnight Success

A quick glance through the hallowed inter-web reveals a haven of free information and guidance for the modern screenwriter. Forums, blogs and teleconferences ooze with advice on how to succeed as a screenwriter, so allow me to amalgamate the highlights in bullet-point format.

  • Listen To Everyone – The world does not yet know who you are, so how do you know who they are? Whatever you are told by anyone in the film industry, just do it.
  • Pay For Stuff – The only thing you get for free is the common cold. Subscribe to every magazine and network you can think of, regardless of fees. Buy multiple copies of every edition of the same book, even if it has nothing to do with screenwriting.
  • Pay People – If you give someone lots of money, surely they will help you, right? Correct. Hire consultants, agents, publicists and anyone who charges more than $50 an hour. Just make sure they promise to get your script made.
  • Think Outside A Box – Challenge the discerning reader. Abandon all notions of screenplay structure and just go for broke. The industry is currently thriving on action/drama, so write something excessively boring. In a funky new font. In Brown! With strikethrough!!
  • Compete With The Best – Screenplay contests are a dime a dozen, and that’s because they are a guaranteed fast-pass to Hollywood. Imagine sitting at home after submitting a script and receiving a phone call from Mr Robert Spielberg! Fees are irrelevant, as screenwriting will make you filthy rich, so enter any competition you can find.
  • Quantity Or Quality – Ever heard someone say they bombarded a studio with scripts and came away empty-handed? Write as much as you can as fast as you can. Aim to have at least 200 feature scripts in your arsenal, unless your first script is really, really good.
  • Cut Corners – It’s no secret that the way to break into Hollywood is always changing, so develop shortcuts where you can. Edit your first draft with full camera directions, character notes and bold illustrations. This way you will remove the need for rewrites, storyboarding etc, and may even get production credits for several roles.

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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!

Live At The Scene

Making your script visually engaging is very important, so here’s one tactic to try when setting a scene.

Put yourself in the situation. Literally.

Let’s say that your characters are meeting in a café. You know what a café looks like, you’re in one several times a week. That might do, but why not go one step further?

If your current environment is sapping your creative flow, take yourself to a scene that you use in your screenplay. Once there, you’ll begin to pick up on the little things, nuances that can really make your fictional locations sound more authentic. Take in the aroma, study the clientele, wobble the table. It won’t all be stuff you’ll use, but it will add detail.

Of course, don’t go driving around just to find the cathedral that your protagonist’s dog runs past, but when you need to get out the house and clear your head, then try delving in to your film world. You don’t necessarily have to write while you are there, but at least take notes. You never know, overhearing a certain conversation or perhaps witnessing a kitchen mishap may help you to replicate that believable café environment.

And it doesn’t just apply to places. I’ve started editing night scenes in the early evening, as working after the sun has set just feels different, and with it comes a different approach to writing.

It can be hard enough just finding the time to write, but at least this way you can build parts of your script around your daily routine.

Just be careful if your character is a drunk.

And stay away from volcanoes.

Cafe Writer - Norman Long

Happy writing!

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