Thursday, October 25, 2012

Question #3: Where do I start?

Vanessa asks: 

I've just now started seriously thinking about writing a screenplay, but I'm a bit overwhelmed from where to start. I just have notes scribbled here and there. I downloaded some scripts but want to make sure I'm learning everything. Any suggestions?

This is a hell of a question, and of course, one everybody asks when they start out. And there are tons of different directions you can take here, but they'll all get you to the same place - writing a good script.

This is a controversial viewpoint I'm about to spout, but it's one I strongly believe: This first script is for practice. You will very rarely hear about someone selling their first script, but I would ignore the exceptions. Maybe your script will turn out so great you can do something with it, and if it is, you can deal with that when the time comes. But I think you'll do much better if you accept that this first script is just an experiment, a learning experience, not the start to your career, but to your education.

If you just jump in and use this script to play and figure things out, the pressure to be perfect will be off and you'll be able to try things without fear.

At the same time, don't make it harder on yourself. Don't try to write Inception. That's seriously advanced material. Write a story you're comfortable telling. I'd suggest writing something simple with a clear protagonist with a goal and obstacles, but if you feel really jazzed about something outside the conventional storytelling frame and don't want to work on anything else, then go where the passion is. It's tough to force yourself to write something if you're not excited about it, especially the first time.

As for the actual writing? You've read scripts, maybe a few books - although I've never found a screenwriting book that blew my mind enough to recommend it - and poured over the websites. The only thing you can really do is start writing.

Let me backup about the websites. I'm a moderator at the Done Deal Pro forums, so naturally I'm going to suggest that site as a great source of information. There are some crazy, angry idiots over there sometimes, but we do our best to keep them in check. If you can shake them off, you can get some amazing advice from all the pros, on-the-cusp, and even new writers there. You can also post a few pages and get notes from the group.

There's also Wordplayer, Terry Rossio's site (supposedly Ted Elliot's too, but how often do you see Ted posting?) where you can find articles on screenwriting and a forum. I don't love the forum, but some of the articles are really great. I'd read all of them.

John  August's site is really good. He doesn't post as much new material as he used to, but there's some amazing information there from a long time industry pro.

Speaking of John August, he and Craig Mazin do a regular Scriptnotes podcast which is a great resource for updated information about the industry. They frequently answer reader submitted questions.

In the beginning, I also kept a style guide on hand for when I wasn't sure how to format something. David Trottier's Screenwriter's Bible is one people use. I used The Elements of Style for Screenwriters. That way, you don't have to go online and ask every time you don't know how to format a particularly tricky scene. You can just flip open your book and check out the rules. After a while, you won't need the guide anymore because format choices will become intuitive, but in the beginning, it can help get the format questions out of the way so you can focus on the hard stuff like character development.

So read as much as you can, especially scripts, but in the end, you have to start writing. It's the only way you'll start to figure it out. But don't try to sell your first script when you're done; at least wait a while and see how you feel about it after you start your second.

Some may disagree with me on that, but I feel like it's important to have realistic expectations.

Hopefully this helps. Good luck! When you're done, find someone to give you good notes (not me - I no longer read first-timers) and rinse, repeat until you write something you KNOW is good.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Question #2

Time for another question. 3BrassBrads asked me this question via Done Deal:

I wondered about your "Nice Girls Don't Kill" script -- I was curious if you ever changed what a few (though, if I am correct not your current agent or manger) wanted you to change or if you got even better notes -- or really just, what happen with this from your blog last year?

"It's frustrating as hell. I worked my ass off on this script and I am completely happy with how it turned out, but even though everybody loves my voice and my pacing and the fun action scenes - they all say the same thing about my character's motivations. And it's something I do not want to change."

Did you change the motivations, and if so do you feel that it changed your original story?

I did not make those changes.

The notes you're talking about didn't actually come from either of my reps; they came from other sources. My Manager gives dynamite notes. I'm not just saying that; dude knows what works, and in this instance he was no different.

Sometimes you get notes that call for you to make huge sweeping changes to your story, and you balk. They just feel wrong. You know there's an issue here, but the solution people have provided you goes against every fiber of your being.

I had that kind of feeling with Nice Girls. I kept getting this note to change the lead to the point where it would have been a completely different story, a story I don't want to tell.

Then I got the RIGHT NOTE. The note that addresses that problem, but in a way you've never thought about before.

So no, I didn't need to change the whole story. I just needed to tweak a few moments here and there, and suddenly it all worked.

So the script is very much alive. I can't say what will happen with it at the moment, but I believe in that script and worked my buns off trying to get it right. And in the end, it's great fun - which is exactly what I wanted it to be.

Sometimes when you get one of those notes that makes you cringe, sit with it for a while, think about it, and figure what the person's problem with the scene REALLY is. The note behind the note. Because often, people know something's wrong, but they have the wrong idea about how to fix it. Your job as a writer is to sift through the advice and figure out what works.

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.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012


I've gotten a lot of questions via email lately. Anybody else have questions about screenwriting stuff? If I don't know the answer, I can probably find someone who does.

If you've been wondering something, anything, ask in the comments. I'll do my best to find an answer.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

I don't wanna

I've been bouncing back and forth between two projects for the last few months - one, a collaboration with a very talented person, which, if it works, will be the stuff of legend.

The second is my latest spec. I started out pretty excited, but I've had trouble keeping my interest in this project going. I'll sit down and write five pages one day, then spend the next week working on the other project or on developing some new idea I'm all excited about.

But the difference between someone who piddles around with screenwriting and someone who does this for a living is follow-through, so I keep pushing myself back toward the spec.

When I write, I tend to skip the B story. I write all A story, and leave big yellow notes in the places where the B story goes, reminding me of the kind of scene that goes there. This script is no exception.

As I was writing the script, I suddenly realized I needed to completely change an important character. This change busted the thing wide open, made it a much more interesting, much more layered story. It solved so many problems, and I was eager to put it into play.

But when I sit down to write it, meh. I dunno.  I like the story and the characters. I have a solid treatment. I know what's supposed to happen here, but.... but I just don't wanna.

Turns out, when your script is wall to wall action scenes, it's actually HARDER to write. It's easy to work fight scenes into plot elements, but with this script, I'm almost sliding the plot in between fights, and making that feel organic and meaningful is no easy task. So it turns out, what I thought would be an easy script to write is instead turning into a frustrating exercise.

So after a week of trying unsuccessfully to find ways to get my brain to want to go back to the script, I decided to try a new tactic. All those B scenes still need filling in, and that's a section of the script I've already blasted through, so tomorrow I'm going to go back to the beginning and start from page one, filling in the holes. That's a lot easier than working in front of a blank page.

I know a lot of people experience this, but it's actually a rare occurrence for me. I'm hoping that starting from page one again will get me jazzed about moving on. And if it doesn't, I'll just have to suck it up, put on some tunes, and get my shit right. Because this script needs finishing.