Monday, 3 December 2018

Patience: The Hardest Skill a Writer must learn

More than agents, producers, deadlines or writer's block, THIS is the one, the almighty thorn-in-side. No matter if you're a screenwriter, playwright, novelist, comics writer or wordsmith of any field, one thing unites us: we all hate silence. The long, seemingly eternal gap; the uncaring pause that awaits us every time we send something out into the world with the faintest of faint hopes it'll click.

Yep, that sums the feeling up...

A crushing malaise can often set in, regardless if the reason why it's being sent off is positive or even lucrative: sending a thoroughly polished manuscript or script to an interested party creates a rush of endorphins and joy, followed by a strange cycle of worry, self-doubt and even slight anger at not 'being taken seriously enough' for a faster response. This can occur, even in submissions that aren't life or death: even just sending something for a friend or trusted second pair of eyes can feel like a slog.

So, what can you do about it, to try and mitigate this crushing despair?
  • TURNAROUND: Most places will take anywhere from 90 days to three months to read something. Usually, details are provided on the company's website, but if you're submitting to an individual, try and ask (politely and without making it all about you) how long they normally take. That way, you just write it up on calendar and not think about it. Then and only then is when you-
  • FOLLOW UP: I cannot stress this enough, but DO NOT spam check up emails every week. Not only will this annoy your reader, it's also bad for said anxiety. If you can't or don't get an answer to the above question, month and a half is a good check in time.
  • SIZE: The bigger the company, the longer it'll take. Even efficient systems can, unfortunately, still not get through everything. Not even close to 50% on good days.
How else can you take your mind off the submission?

  • WRITE: Don't be that idiot waiting and waiting and choosing to freeze themselves in amber until a person says the magic word. The fastest way to stop worrying about one project is to work on another. Plus, it keeps you off the dark path of the 'magic ticket' that I've railled against before.
  • READ: May sound a little obvious and cheap, but just getting into other stories and subject matter can also help keep your mind off. Non-fiction can prove especially handy, as you can use this waiting time to either do research or simply find new inspiration for a project.
  • LIFE: Friends, family, pets, whatever your current job is. All of these are a quick and easy way to let the worry slide off your brain and into the recesses. Don't live the stereotype of the isolated maverick who solely devotes themselves to art. Go out, get some air, maybe even a nice hamburger!
And when all that's said and done, remember this most of all:
  • THERE IS NO 'BIG BREAK': A worthwhile career in any field is the summation of loads of small steps, not one big gamble. You will get lots of nos and contradictory responses on the same script, and it can be maddening. I had a kids pilot get three yes's and three no's, and it was actually the bigger names that took more of a shine. Remember the deadly perils of the 'magic ticket' I mentioned above? The sooner you take the advice to just write, enjoy it and build a varied portfolio, the faster you will not only produce better work, but also the less you will worry about 'do they like it? Do they like it?'

Monday, 19 November 2018

Review: Adventures in the Screen Trade

On November 16th, screenwriting lost a real legend in the form of William Goldman. Master of both original writing and adaptation, Goldman's resume is filled with multiple titles that most writers would be lucky to have just one of in their entire careers: Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, All The President's Men, Magic, The Great Waldo Pepper, Stepford Wives, A Bridge Too Far, Marathon Man, Misery, Princess Bride, Chaplin and Maverick, as well as assisting on A Few Good Men, Good Will Hunting and Twins.

Playwright, novelist, festival judge, teacher, critic, essayist and having a front-row seat in the New Hollywood of the 1970s, there's a lot to unpack with Goldman. For the aspiring screenwriter, or creator period, or even just movie geek, where do you start? And can you learn anything immediately applicable to craft? Well, part biography, part writing manual, Adventures in the Screen Trade answers with tales of his life, career and views on cinema.


Spanning the late 60s and 70s, the book is split in three: the first is Goldman's views of the then-contemporary industry and is where 'nobody knows anything' comes from. It's more an interesting artifact than wholly applicable to today, though if you follow any Hollywood rag... it may not have have changed all that much in some ways.

The second part is about his films, spanning Charly to A Bridge Too Far, detailing the ups and downs of each project, as well as some unmade ones like his version of The Right Stuff (later adapted by Philip Kaufman) and the musical remake of Grand Hotel. Goldman's skills are in full-force in these emminently readable accounts: it manages a fine balance of being informative and insightful about the ins and outs of filmmaking and storytelling without reading as gossipy, self-congratulatory or even spiteful, despites the missteps and bad luck. Goldman's tone is rather casual but not without some moments of deprecation of his own work and early naivete, and a good sprinkling of wit.

In addition, Goldman spends a good chunk of each chapter talking about his process, discussing how each screenplay represented a different challenge for him. But more than simply memories, Screen Trade comes with a little story about adapting a short story into a screenplay in its third section, Da Vinci. The short story is pretty rudimentary: a story about a little barber's son who becomes entranced with his father's newest hire, a veritable Michelangelo of hair. If you wanted a mini-masterclass in how to adapt a work to film, as well as some good writing primers, this has got you covered.

Honestly, do you need me to say more? Just go out and add this one to your collection. And while you're at it, also check out the sequel, Which Lie Did I Tell? More Adventures in the Screen Trade. It carries through into the 80s and 90s, and not many memoirs can go from crippling depression to stories about gay lions with such grace.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

How can a Screenwriter get their first credit?

Since 2018 has proven to be somewhat a watershed year for me in terms of career advancement (new short, stage play, TV credit), I figured now is as good a time as any to discuss this, and boy ain't this the big one...

It's possibly the most common oxymoron you'll find in screenwriting: Can't get an agent without a credit, can't get a credit without an agent. Whatever is a new screenwriter to do, hoping to catch that much vaunted fish?


Well here's the thing: you don't need anyone's permission, agent or otherwise, to make something. Having some independently produced material can rather be handy: It shows you write well enough to have people want to make it, as well as have initiative. Sometimes, it can even serve as a demo of a bigger project (think Whiplash, which started life as a teaser short film, then got expanded into a feature), or be a way to build your own brand with some other successes.

So, what can you do?
  • Short films: This is the classic staple, and is pretty self-explanatory. If you lack contacts for a crew, don't fret: Facebook has tons of filmmaking groups, filled with a never-ending supply of producers and directors looking for short scripts. It's as easy as typing in film or screenwriter and BOOM: a goldmine. 
THAT SAID, as time passes, I find the first project below far more advisable for writers creating short-form material than a short film: not only because there's likely to be more content, but shorts tend to be viewed primarily as director showcases. A lot more emphasis gets placed on performances, style and ambiance than on great dramatic or comic writing.
  • Webseries: In the internet age, these are everywhere and cover every genre. Some can even attract some decent name talent, such as cult-favourite Cops and Monsters (which counts among its staff TV scribes like Debbie Moon (Wolfblood) and Roland Moore (Land Girls)), or recent hit Shiro's Story from Rap Man (now at the centre of a bidding war from networks). These are especially good if you have an eye for TV and want to show you can write a returnable/long running project. It affords you a freedom of plot and character that short films simply don't allow. Facebook and Screenwriting Staffing also put these staffing gigs up regularly, so keep an eye open for that too.
  • Stage Plays: Loads of small theatres and festivals regularly offer opportunities and competitions for material, some even doing full plays that they fully fund. Most of these tend to be sketches, ten minute plays or one acts (totalling about 40 mins). Agents and other talent scouts do attend these (though usually, they have to be invited), so it's a good way to get spotted and network. BBC Writersroom and London Playwrights' Blog are great sources for finding out who has an opening coming up, and usually three or four show up a month.
  • Radio and podcasts: The audience is much smaller than film or TV, but the advantadge: lower costs, allowing more risks to be taken. Yes, you can just pitch straight to a producer on radio, and maybe get your work on BBC Radio 4, without any sort of 'unsolicited' hullabaloo (Commissiong guidelines are available on the site to learn more.) However, the same need for patience and decorum as with TV still applies. Welcome to Night Vale and Homecoming, meanwhile, are proof of how much narrative podcasts have become a force of their own, and not something to overlook. If you have a bunch of mics lying around, some type of theatre or acting associates and some decent editing software, you could get your own decently-produced audio drama up and running.
There's also the question of screenplay contests. Even just placing highly in one of the heavyweights like the Nichols can be a useful sales hook. Just like everything I've discussed on this blog that involves money, Be A Discerning Shopper: Check the prizes, judges, fee prices, how long they've been running and if they've had any major success stories. Thescriptlab.com did a great piece on the best ones that I have recommended previously. Alternately, why not try one of the yearly TV Fellowships from the States?

Okay, but say you've done that: what about actually talking with companies? Two words: IMDB Pro. Quick and easy way to find emails, and substantially better than doing the dumb thing of sending to the info@ address of a company. Type a short email, giving a brief account of you, your work and pitching a sample (DO NOT ATTACH THE SCRIPT, you will only come off as desperate) for them to read. Alternately, just ask to have a five minute meeting with someone in development about career advice: You'd be surprised how generous people can be with their time.

Just do not be:
  • Clingy 
  • Impatient
  • Annoying
  • Demanding
Got it?

Monday, 22 October 2018

Review: Screenwriting is Rewriting: The Art and Craft of Professional Revision

Given I've made my feelings know about screenwriting gurus and the whole field of writing teaching before, I decided why not jump on the bandwagon's bandwagon and review some books on the subject in a new, ongoing segment? And what better one to start with then one of my personal favourites: Screenwriting is Rewriting: The Art and Craft of Professional Revision by Jack Epps Jr.


The man behind Top Gun, Dick Tracy and Turner & Hooch attacks the rather volumunous world of screenwriting theory with a different perspective and emphasis: instead of long sermons about Aristotle, three act structure and 'negation of negations', Epps focuses more on the actual process of rewriting your screenplay and getting it into the best shape possible. Across linked chapters, he breaks down and discusses ways to identify problems, create game plans and give oneself targets during rewrites to strengthen your craft and content.

Epps' methods may appear, on the surface, to be slower and more lethargic than what we normally associate with rewrites (recommending individual passes over one big attack, as well as lots of planning and detailing), but there is a clear process at work. In each chapter, Epps very plainly breaks down the how, why and what (going through topics like dialogue, characterisation, pacing, scenes) in a manner not disimilar to a good teacher (he is the chair of the School of Cinematic Arts at USC). He even readdresses and recontextualises concepts and processes throughout the book, showing how every piece of a screenplay must be carefully considered and nothing left to luck or chance as they have a knock-on effect on one another.

One of my favourite parts of the whole book is his suggestion of compiling all your notes on a script, and breaking them down by categories (again, character, pace, dialogue and many more subcategories, depending on what detail you like going in) in a type of plan. From there, depending on the project, you can prioritize what the biggest problems are and leave minor stuff till later, drafts or passes. I have found this incredibly useful for my own rewrites on projects and it helped clear so much of the clutter I had had trouble with before. Even his stressing of handwritten notes and twice reading your script, while it may seem a no-duh, only hit home once you try them and realize how much more liberating and clarifying they are. 

 
This more matter of fact approach is the book's greatest strength, feeling completely unpretentious and just focused on giving the writer clear tools on how to make a script better. As a bonus, he even provides examples of his techniques in action, both on his own projects as well as from some of his former students, just to hit home that this is not snake oil. Those with more of a taste for drama/literary theory, however, will not get much from the book's bluntness and mind on application rather than analysis or philosophy. This is a work tome, not a quick or casual read. 


However, there are already plenty of titles that fill that cavity in, and it's good to have something more immediately useful to a practising screenwriter in a market often criticised for not providing such tools. Easily one of the more refreshing titles to have hit the market in some time, Epps provides a book less interested in esoterics and more in practical use to the writer. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

The Value of a Writing Rota for Screenwriters

In the past, I've discussed the dangers of relying on just one script, that one 'magic ticket', to make a career happen. It not only stifles your creativity by not broadening and challenging you, but you can become desenstized to your material's problems with constant, and often tedious, rewrites.


In my own journey, I've found implementing a 'writing rota', a system for when and what I write, has greatly enabled me to not only write what I really want, but to always push myself with new challenges. You might find some inspiration, for example, in working on a horror and then a comedy versus two horrors consecutively. Maybe you can't quite crack that senior drama until you've had a stab at a heist film and mastered suspense? But let's back up: what exactly makes up a 'writing rota'?

Well it's two parts: first, it's about the number of projects. Giving yourself targets can help focus you up for your writing year, but not going overboard in how much you do will ensure they are actually achieveable. I opt for 4-5 spec projects a year (with a 2:3 ratio fo film to TV), allowing me to work on stuff I really want to tackle, as well as allow time for rewrites, additional research and polishes so they are, in theory, ready the following year to be presented. I also think this more humble target allows margin for error and, as they say in law, 'Acts of God'/sudden accidents, so you're not prone to panicking.

The second part is the projects themselves: a good writing rota depends on having strongly contrasting projects. After all, if a production company is not paying you, you have total freedom to tackle whatever you want. This also helps avoid a risk of samyness or burnout by just working on one thing, or rather, one type of story or genre. Yes, I'm aware of Lee Jessup's advice in specializing in a particular genre, and while I certainly see her point, she's also refering primarily to the US market. Britain, being smaller, has less to offer in certain genres, so a jack-of-all-trades is more useful in building a career here.


Allow me to use an A-D scenario (with each representing about a month, give or take) to illustrate a rota, A could be a dark feature thriller, then B a children's sitcom pilot, than C a rewrite of A or a period drama, and then D could be an adult sitcom or cheesy fun B-actioner. Indeed, a very crude impression of this rota could be described as dark, light, dark, light, but genre variety matters much more than tone. In my own recent work, for instance, my 1hr crime thriller pilot gained quite a bit, especially on the subject of character, after I had worked on a 1hr period-fantasy pilot set in Spain.

The rota also means you can factor in specific deadlines, if there are opportunities, schemes and contests you want to enter. Just make sure you do your homework and allow plenty of time to properly polish your script before the opportunity comes around: don't wait till the last month and go nuts.  If you can, try and hold back till the following year so as to maximise your script's chances of being more ready. Again, nobody's paying you so why do it wrong?

The elements above also gives the rota a third trick up its sleeve: allowing for room to slot in commissioned projects. Whether it's your first proper TV or film credit, a short film or web series you've been hired to work on or maybe your first stage play, you can now give it the attention it needs and not panic because it ruins 'the flow'. Simply push a draft or rewrite back and now, you've got a free gap because you didn't overegg on specs. If you're really lucky and you get multiple commissions, no problem: just recalibrate the rota and prioritise what you most urgently need to finish. In this scenario, the commissions take the place of the other projects, again avoiding the risk of the 'magic ticket' mentality.

Monday, 24 September 2018

Great Screenwriting Books that aren't manuals

Both this blog and just about anything that mentions screenwriting has done plenty of pieces on the writing guides and their various paradigms and beat sheets. Some are good, some are bad and some are just there.

But what about careers and the practical side? Theory is all very well and good, but how can you actually make some kind of living at it? And for that matter, is there screenwriting-related literature that isn't another how-to book? Maybe something like a biography that talks about the ups and downs of a writer's life?

Well first, the nitty-gritty:
  • The UK Scriptwriter's Survival Guide: Veteran film and TV scribes Tim Clague and Danny Stack (Eastenders, Doctors, Thunderbirds Are Go) give a practical, no B.S. guide on what you can do to help yourself get a foothold in the industry. It only came out in 2014, but I honestly believe this should be compulsory reading for all new screenwriters, as it will open your eyes to many possibilities, as well as give you useful tips and tricks to navigate the business.
  • The Creative Essentials series of books cover different types of film and television writing, as well as other roles/career opportunities such as script editing, reading and pitching. Contributing authors include Karol Griffith (now set to work on the Chinese version of Humans), Lucy Sher and Charles Harris, among others.
And now, for something more fun, screenwriter autobiographies:
  • Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell? by William Goldman. An easy recommedation for anyone, screenwriter or not. The legendary master scribe of Misery, All the President's Men and Princess Bride, among others, regails us with tales of his life, career and views on cinemas. In addition, they talk about his process, with Screen Trade coming with a little story about adaptating a short story into a screenplay.
  • Writing Movies for Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at The Box Office and You Can Too! by Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon. A ridiculously funny and addictive read that will leave you chuckling yet also be rather pensive and even a little dispirited by the Hollywood machine. Love or hate their films, this duo have been at the epicentre of some of the biggest comedies of the last decade (Herbie, Night at the Museum), so they know their stuff.
  • The Devil's Guide to Hollywood: The Screenwriter as God! by Joe Eszterhas. The infamous firebrand who made a fortune off of Showgirls and a slew of other 80s and 90s films, Eszterhas is an angry old man who has no qualms telling you what he thinks of the craft and the industry. Decidely very, very, very different to Screen Trade.
  • Adventures in La-La Land by Tim John. Want to hear the odyssesy of another Brit who made the jump across the pond? John provides just that, recounting his odysessey in LA and some of the peculiar sights he witnesses.
  • On Directing Film by David Mamet. Despite the name, it's really Mamet offering a broad cross-section of thoughts and stories working in the industry at multiple levels.  If you enjoyed his other dramaturgical works, this should be very easy to slip into.
  • Tales from the Script: 50 Hollywood Screenwriters Share Their Stories by Peter Hanson and Paul Robert Herman. Exactly what it says on the packet: how some of the biggest and best did it. Also related: Tales from Development Hell: The Greatest Movies Never Made? Development is the phase between ptiching and production, and sadly, is where you'll be spending the brunt of your career as a writer. With that, alas, comes stories of projects that get stuck for years and years, or stuff that almost happened, then didn't.
  • On Writing A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Less a screenwriting book and more just a good book to read on writing period, King's book is half memoir, half tips and tricks on his writing methods. It's candid, darkly funny, touching and yet sobering as King interweaves his writing methods with a look back on the strange turns of his career and how it impacted his life, or vice-versa.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Why One Pagers are handy for screenwriters

One of the hardest things about writing is pitching. Let's be frank: most of us are pretty nervous about it, and would rather eat burning coals than have to sell someone our story. How can you tell someone your compelling saga of emotional heartache or exciting adventure within a minute or two?


And what about when you're starting a project? Naturally, give yourself the freedom to experiment: Just plugging in for the formula won't yield interesting results, usually. However, with that always comes the peril of losing focus and forgetting why you ever bothered in the first place. Wouldn't having some kind of mission statement help keep you on track with what your intent is? What is your story about, at its core, when you strip away all the bells and whistles of snappy action or whimsical dialogue?

Enter one pagers: a succinct and tidy summation of the project and what you want. For me, they've proven to be rather handy and helped keep me on the course to story nirvana. No, you don't have to obey them as gospel or refuse to change them: consider them more as roadmaps on the creative journey.

So, how do you actually write one? Well, there's three steps:
  1. Start with your logline, the super basic distilation of your film. Who is it about, what the threat/problem is, and what will happen if they do or don't get it. IMPORTANT: Loglines are not taglines. ''In space, no one can hear you scream'' ain't a logline. Neither is ''why so serious''. Need help? Try this video.
  2. Then, write three or four paragraphs that cover the major beats of your film or pilot. Broad, arch and not usually invoking dialogue, it's your cliffnotes but is also, in a sense, why you want to write this specific story with these specific parts. Also, like in a script, use strong words that evoke clear images in the reader's eye.
  3. This is capped off by a paragraph devoted to explaning why it matters, what's special about it and why it could work. This is where your awareness of the market place, what it has and what it doesn't, will come into play. You have been reading the trades, haven't you? Haven't you?
From this, you can then graft and expand into a treatment or even a step outline. Again, gospel is not what you're writing, merely a friendly reminder. What's more, this can help narrow down your brainstorms and early research, as well assist email pitching, as it's a much easier document to hand over than a whole script. It can, also, very succintly tell someone how good you are, and if the script is right for them. I should know: I've used it to not half-bad effect before and gotten some reads for one of my kids show pilots.