Wednesday, October 10, 2012

I answer some questions

I am so glad people asked me questions last week, because I don't always know anymore what's common knowledge and what's a real mystery to a lot of people. Fortunately, most of the questions were ones I can answer. So I'll start today with Paul, who had three questions.

1. Can I just have one good script when I try to get a new manger or agent again? or is it better if I have two scripts? Here's the dilemma, a script takes forever to write so you see your life literally passing by, but there's also the knowledge that if you do have a rep, you would need a followup to keep your career going or else you get in a position where you might have a rep in name, but they aren't doing anything for you.

It is better to have two or three great scripts, of course. Any rep is going to love script after script they can send out and be proud of, but that's not a likely scenario. It's very common for reps to sign writers off only one script because most of the time, that's the first great script you've written. If you have a lot of great scripts under your belt, why didn't you use one of them to rep you before? So yes, you can have just one good script, but make sure you're working on your next. Always be working on the next thing. They will ask you what you're working on - tell them something good.

That said, if it takes forever to write a script and you feel life passing you by, you probably need to rework your methods. Obviously it depends on what you mean by "forever," but it shouldn't take a super long time to write a script. Even if you move at a slow pace and have a day job, it should still be doable to crank out two scripts a year. Ideally you can write three. If you feel like it's taking too long, look at how much time you spend on your pre-writing, and at your writing regimen.

2. What do you recommend to keep the creative juices going and getting things done? Read scripts, go to the theater and watch movies? Some days you feel like you have found the secret youth serum and the next you're wondering how you'll ever cross the Andes Mountains known as Act 2. 

Read scripts, yes. Watch movies, yes. In fact, I always watch a movie that inspires whatever project I'm working on both before and during the writing process. My last script was very Grosse Pointe Blank, so I watched that film, or scenes from that film, over and over to get the feel for what worked and what didn't. Mind you, this isn't stealing. This is examining what someone did right and figuring out how to emulate that skill in one's own material.

But the main way I keep things going quickly - and, recent stumbles aside, this is something I'm normally pretty good at - is to have a really well established routine.

It starts with a solid outline. I used to think strict outlines were for losers. I did the index cards, but my stuff was vague. I got irritated when anyone suggested I try being more specific with my outlines out of fear that it would curb my creativity. But in fact, it has the opposite effect. Once I nail down the story in outline form, it allows me the time and energy to play with dialogue and all those little things that make a good script better.

I also work on a schedule. Not every day is the same because I do have other obligations, but I sit in front of my computer at a certain time to start work. I plan out the next portion of the script I need to tackle. I have everything set up in the most organized way, and I do the same thing each time I sit down, right down to pulling my hair back and putting on chapstick. It's like your pre-bedtime routine; once you start it, those actions signal to your body that it's time to go to bed. This is the same. I do the same things in the same way before I start work, and that signals to my body that it's time to write.

Then there's music. I have a playlist for each type of scene, so whatever mood I need to be in, I switch over to that playlist, and it helps set the stage for the type of scene I need to write.

I'm not saying these are things you must do, but this is what works for me. I find I very rarely have difficulty anymore when I sit in front of the computer and start working. Sometimes I still do, but not very often.

3. How many drafts of a script is ideal or minimum before showing it to someone in the industry?

Depends on you and how you work. I know writers who blast out draft after draft and don't show anything to anyone until they've rewritten the shit out of their script. I've heard of writers, although I've never actually known any, who claim they sent out their first draft and it was a big hit.

For me, I usually do one draft where I'm basically racing through the outline. I skip anything I don't want to deal with, then go back through and fill in the gaps. Then I go through the whole script and clean it up and fix things I don't like. Then I send it to a friend to read. Then I address those notes. Then I send it to Manager for his notes. So I guess I send him the third official draft. How many drafts I do after that depends on my exchanges with him, but so far it hasn't been that many. So all in all, for most of my scripts, I'd say I do about five or six drafts total. Mind you, only one script has been sent wide so far, so we'll see if that changes with time.

But that's not really what you were asking. You were asking how to tell if your script is ready. I'd say if you've gotten notes from writer friends you trust and addressed them, that's the first step. But once you read through your script over and over and it makes you happy, and there is no scene that bugs you, and you genuinely don't think you can make it any better (aside from random tinkering, which will go on forever if you let it) and you're proud as hell of what you've written, that's when it's ready.

I hope those are helpful answers, Paul. If anyone else has answers, feel free to chime in. And questions are ALWAYS welcome. Never be afraid to ask. I'm a teacher, for heaven's sake. I love questions.

I'll get to the next one in a day or three.


  1. Wow Emily. Thanks for the detailed and insightful answers. So well thought out. And even if you think it's common knowledge, I think it's very comforting to your loyal readers to hear it from your perspective.

    I meant it will probably take me forever to write a script to the point of being pro level. Quite a rude awakening once I first got the first story notes back and I realized that I wasn't as sexy as I thought I was. It's like the first day at an NFL training camp and everyone is stronger, faster and three steps ahead of you on every snap. I don't know how Allan Ball has 30 projects in development. I guess my real question was: is there anything you do to make a quick jump in quality? Is your first draft pretty much half way there or is it a very rough draft (to which you then tear it apart and re-examine again). I don't know if you've ever told your story of how you improved as a screenwriter and the saga behind landing your manager, but what do you think were the things that helped you improve most quickly?

    It's a dilemma because I've read some bios where Bruce Joel Rubin felt kind of bitter that he had to wait till he was 44 and having moved back to his hometown to make it...or the guys that wrote "While you were sleeping" felt regret that they hadn't done it sooner a decade earlier when they could have really enjoyed the experience and one of their father's there to see it. If I were to be really honest with myself, I'd say that I'm better with ideas that might get my foot in the door, but the nuts and bolts of execution are quite a challenge. I do feel the pressure because I'm putting aside quite a lot of time on this.

    So, you just sit in front of the computer screen? I take a drive, shower, watch tv, movies, even half-dream to try to get the creative stuff out. I probably have the greatest difficulty with the 2nd half of the script where I feel like you have to nail so many things right to have a quality draft.

    I've really enjoyed reading your last few blogs. :)

  2. I don't think you can rush learning. The best thing you can do is just read and learn and write. The more you do it, the better you get at it. And get good notes from trustworthy readers. But there's no guaranteed timeline that will get you there. Some people take a couple of years, and they're horrible people who should be beaten, and some people take a decade. If you focus too much on the time it's taking, you're not spending enough of your energy on simply getting better. It will happen when it happens. Just keep working.

    Took me a decade.

  3. True Emily. Those 2 year wonders/showoffs are real bastards. I'll check back with you in a decade.

    p.s. friends' feedback is rarely helpful for me. They all just tell me what I want to hear. It was only after getting a development exec's feedback that I realized the strengths and weaknesses of my script.

  4. Can you handle more questions? :)

    what I call Economics of Screenwriting questions:

    1. Why should you not work for free for big producers? Sometimes pretty big production companies ask you to work on this "idea" they have and I guess the relationship is to pay off down the road.

    2. How much do the movie of the week writers or the b movie writers make? I noticed that Bill Martell had like 19 different projects made.

    3. How do you know when a rep isn't working out? So afraid of burning bridges.

    4. Do you go with the big time manager with the huge roster or the hungrier newer manager who might actually work very hard getting your name out?

  5. 1) I think it depends on the situation. Treatments you'll definitely write for free. When it comes to complete screenplays, it depends on how much the risk is worth it. If you love the project and believe it can go somewhere, and you trust the producer, go for it. If these conditions aren't there, don't do it.

    2) I don't know that answer. That's a question for Bill.

    3) If you feel uncomfortable asking your rep questions, or he hasn't updated you in a couple of months, or he doesn't return your calls, move along.

    4) Get whatever manager feels most passionate about your work, provided he or she has connections worth having.

  6. Thanks Emily. :)

  7. As for how many drafts my experience is that I've written dozens of drafts of a couple of scripts, scores of rewrites on others and still not there meanwhile I wrote one script in 7 days with no rewrite and it got produced, and another one I wrote in 2 weeks and it got 2 directors chasing it. So the question is a bit like a hunter asking how many shots will it take for her to bring down a rogue Tyrannosaurus --it might take forever or you might kill it with the first shot.


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