Monday, August 30, 2010

The Writing Week (Vol. 3) part 139 - Started a New Script

It's been a long, loooonnnng time since I've sat down to begin working on a screenplay that was anything other than the post-Apocalyptic spec. So long, in fact, that it feels a little strange. (Well, maybe that's an exaggeration. But a year or two ago, I was used to starting a new project every five or six months. An outline aside, it's been closer to a year now, I think.)

On Saturday afternoon, as I've been doing a lot this summer, I took my laptop into my back yard and sat down to get an hour of work in. (Yes, you can have a back yard with real grass and trees and everything in New York. It's crazy to get home grown tomatoes and grapes from someone in New York City, but that's what my neighbor hands me over the fence with regularity.) Tanning while working, I set my playlist to accommodate the right kind of air-drumming music and got to it. 

About a half an hour later, I had two shots and a total of about 3/4 of a page down. Not my best pace. However, in that brief time, something interesting, important, and unusual happened. I realized that the outline I was working off of was in need of change, major change. The protagonist is a fire fighter, but I never thought to include the other members of his engine company in the script. Well, the chief's there, but the other guys never factored in. Half way through the second shot, I realized that they'd have to play bigger roles. Instantly, the script had changed - for the better, I hope.

Outlines are supposed to be flexible. A script can change organically while being written, rendering certain things unnecessary or outdated (compared to in the outline). Having a malleable outline also allows for more fun while writing, inviting surprises to creep onto the page and provide a fulfilling writing experience - versus one that is, more or less, an exercise in transcribing from outline to screenplay. Still, despite all my awareness of an outline's flexibility, I've never had one change so early into the writing. 

To be honest, I wasn't 100% satisfied with the outline. It was workable, sure, but also seemed a bit too linear (a common first draft problem) and lacking in pizazz. The realizations that I had within that first 3/4 page will hopefully breathe the new life into the outline that I needed. I look forward to getting back to it tonight and seeing how the story evolves. 

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Writing Week (Vol. 3) part 138 - Went to Agents

Last week was a big step forward. I got the final approval from the executive we've been working with in LA to go forward with the most recent draft I turned in. (By final step, I mean going out to agents and the producer whose company we've been working with.)

Of course, before we could show it to anyone else, we had to do a final typo check. The exec and I each went through with a fine-tooth comb to make sure every "t" was crossed and "i" dotted. Combined, I think we found a grand total of 15 to 20 instances of a missing period, missing "s" at the end of a word, or word reversals where we had to flip two. Not too bad, all things considered, but more than I'd like anyone to find. And, if nothing else, the final edit also gave me a last chance to double-check my word usage and tweak blocks of dialogue or action in which I might have used the same word (i.e. "station" or "chance") twice in the same section. 

I got the script in late Thursday night - after hours LA time. On Friday, we went out to agents at two of the biggest houses (specific agents who knew to expect the script for their weekend reading). Whether either looked at it this weekend is as good your guess as mine, but at least they had it in hand. A friend popped into town unexpectedly for the weekend, so I didn't have much chance to get anything else done. On the other hand, what had been accomplished was pretty good, so a weekend off wasn't completely uncalled for. 

Finally, the production exec mentioned a lawyer she thinks could help me, so I got the opportunity to look over his client list. All of the news - the lawyer, the agents, the progress we're hoping for in the coming weeks - is quite encouraging. Granted, nothing's a guarantee, so there's absolutely no reason to get ahead of myself. The best thing I can do now is to focus my attention on another project while I wait (and do my best not to actively wait at all). Would that we all get here - and beyond - someday.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Best Tool for Writers since Quill Pens - Guest Post

I recently had an opportunity to do a guest blog post for's blog on how the internet has affected young writers like myself (and like many of you). I thought I'd post the complete article here, too, in case you missed it there.

The Best Tool for Writers since Quill Pens

I come from a new generation of (aspiring) screenwriters. We are, more often than not, computer-based writers, having abandoned pens, notepads, and moleskin notebooks for writing software and inestimable laptops. We spend (or ask our parents to spend) hundreds of thousands of dollars on screenwriting degrees. We read books and articles and watch documentaries about the industry and expect Hollywood to seek us out – and are frequently upset when it doesn’t. Ours is a new approach to writing, perhaps an over-informed one, but undeniably an ambitious one. We have the above tools at our disposal that earlier writers didn’t. And of course, we have another, which we grew up using every day. Something very precious. Something as valuable as writing software, how-to books, and university screenwriting courses. We have the internet.

I don’t know that I can tell you when it was that I first recognized how important a tool in my writer’s box the internet is. Truth be told, I don’t know that I really thought about it much. Sure, I was aware of how useful it was, but I don’t think that the depth of that – the benefits it provides, the great fortune I have to be a young writer with the internet at my disposal – sunk in until recently. When I take a step back and look at it, though, I realize just what a powerful instrument it can be – and how it can provide almost everything a writer needs (except, of course, talent itself).

Where do all writers begin their journeys toward screenwriting careers? Watching movies. Without having seen the end results of a scribe’s toil (and falling in love with them), we’d have never become interested in bringing our ideas to the screen. But after that first light bulb goes off, after we’re old enough to realize that movies begin with scripts and scripts come from writers, we find ourselves staring at an expansive wilderness – our goal on the other side of it, and the map in our hand completely blank. What’s next? How on Earth do we wannabes get to a place where our names are rolling across the credit screens?

The answer begins simply enough; we read. We read books on writing. We read screenplays. We read every article and interview about writing that we can find. And then we read more screenplays. That, for many of us now, is where the internet first really comes into play. Book vendor sites and message boards can instantly recommend hundreds of screenwriting books, and the user reviews that accompany each of them help us determine what we need to stock our bookshelves with. Entire sites are dedicated to hosting virtual libraries of uploaded scripts – from first draft to shooting script in some cases – that we can read FOR FREE. Interviews and articles about the trials and tribulations of becoming a working writer abound online, and it takes little more than the ability to fill in a search field to find them. Everything you need to begin that journey you can find online.

Idea at the ready, tutorials completed, you then begin to write. I first started working in Word, indenting when appropriate, losing hours to formatting over the course of a script. In college, I upgraded to specially designed screenwriting software. Now, thanks to sites like, the internet leads the charge yet again. Web-based screenwriting programs make it impossibly convenient to write wherever there’s a connection – secure, no chance of losing your one and only draft, which you can access it from anywhere. And for those still using localized software, there’s little better way to ensure a day’s work is protected than by regularly emailing your progress to yourself. Internet victory #2 for writers? I think so.

Once you have a script ready to see the light of day, it’s back to the trusty web for more help. No matter what your next goal is, there’s a “www” for it. Entering a competition? Not only can you find every single one of them online, but you can find independent reviews and guides to pretty much all of them. And to submit, you no longer have to print that quarter ream of paper and pay the postage on it. A submission is just a click away. Or maybe you don’t want to go that route. Maybe you’re ready to look for an agent, manager, producer, or even talent to get involved. There are sites for that, too. Subscription services can give anyone with a credit card access to script sales (so you can determine who best to target for your project), contact information for industry professionals, query information, and up-to-the-minute business deal tracking. I landed my first manager through a web-based representation search and sent every query letter I wrote via email. Not a page printed in most cases.

Finally, while waiting to hear back from producers and agents, we can continue to use the web to our advantage. In fact, this practice is best used all along. More than anything nowadays, the internet is a marketing tool. Facebook, Twitter, MySpace (if you’re still on it) – these are all 24/7 commercials for YOU. Agents search for talent via message boards, forums, and online groups. When companies are hiring (another example of the internet as a resource – find a job writing coverage or assisting an agent or producer), they check you out on Facebook. They Google you. Anything and everything they find is, for better or worse, fair game. They have professional profiles, so you would do yourself a favor to make sure yours is, too. And the more you have, especially the more you have that’s impressive, the more they’ll want you. Start a blog (be sure to spell correctly). Have a clever profile. Don’t spew vitriol on other people’s walls. This component of the web can be the most helpful in many instances (I’ve had agents solicit work from me because they found The Screenwriters League), but it can also be the most damning. Everyone’s online now – control how you want them to see you. A savvy online presence can get a mediocre script read faster than anything in some cases.

All of this is just the tip of the iceberg. Every day, a new social network, app, site, or gadget comes out that makes writing and self-promoting that much easier. For as much as I love to come up with stories, I can’t even begin to imagine what the next five years of online advancements will bring to a writer’s disposal. I do know, though, that with the internet at our disposal, there’s no reason we writers shouldn’t be prepared – and able – to tackle Hollywood head on.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Writing Week (Vol. 3) part 137 - Moving Forward

Big week! After months and months of drafts and re-writes and notes and tweaks, I got an extremely exciting email last night. The production exec we're working with in LA read the most recent draft and thinks it's ready - the draft we're going to go out with.

This week and the next are all about preparation and strategy. First, some time in the next 24 hours or so (possibly even later this evening), I should be getting a Word doc listing any typos or grammatical errors that need to be addressed. Granted, after reading the script so many times, these should be very few and far between. On the other hand, after reading the script so many times, there's a chance that I have read over the same typo a dozen times and failed to see it, as I'm looking for the content that comes before or after it. So, one of the first steps is to just make sure that the script is fully proofed and edited.

Next, the production exec and my manager are supposed to talk about which agencies to go to with the spec. We have a few goals with the agencies. First, obviously, is the desire to get me repped up. We're looking at the four biggest houses, I think. I should get more info about the strategy and the why and why-nots of it all later this week, but a lot of it is figuring the best angle and person to go to. This, because the point isn't just to get me an agent. Part of this process is to determine ways to package the script - get actors and a director on board (perhaps) before we take it to studios. This takes a lot of work off the studio and makes the script a more guaranteed (but never fully guaranteed) sale. A vehicle (script) with all the elements (talent) in place around it is a much more attractive prospect to a cautious studio than a script with no actors interested, since it shows a lot more interest. Especially the case if we can get big talent attached. 

In the meantime, as I'm implementing any minor edits and my manager and the exec are strategizing, we'll be waiting for the head producer at the production company to read. He's out of town at the moment, but the exec is giving it to him next week when he's back in town. Hopefully, this all means that the script gets some major traction in the coming weeks and that the end of the summer could see me out in LA taking a few meetings and, possibly, with an agent. Of course, since there's never any promising anything, I allow myself to be at best cautiously optimistic now. Nonetheless, it looks like we're finally moving onto the next step (knock on wood). As you can well imagine, I'm stoked!

Monday, August 09, 2010

The Writing Week (Vol. 3) part 136 - Take a Weekend Trip

This seems to be a summer of repeating patterns for me. I get a draft turned in. A week later, notes come back. I spend the next two weeks working on them - implementing the changes and then getting the draft to my producer so that she can look everything over. Then, just before I head out of town for the weekend - usually (this summer) to go back to Arlington, VA - I send the revised version of the script to the production company we're working with. This past week was no exception.

In mid-July, we went back to the production company we're working with (in a hand shake development deal) with what we were hoping would be the final draft of the script I've been working on since January 2008. Of course, that 2008 date doesn't represent unbroken work. I worked on it on and off since then, with the real big push beginning again in June of 2009, when an independent producer and family friend optioned it. In October, we made the above deal with a production company in LA headed up by an incredibly well-respected, multi-time Oscar nominated producer-hyphenate. Since then, I've been doing pretty consistent and intense re-writes. 

After this last draft went to the prod co, two other people in the creative department there read the script to make sure it held together for first time readers. For the most part, it did. They just had a couple questions - independent of each other - that because we received from two readers, we wanted to address before going to anyone else (i.e. people who have the authority to greenlight a project). So, last week was my time to put the final fixes (hopefully) into the script - remember, micro-surgery? - before moving forward. And, true to the trend, I wound up going out of town the following day for the weekend, which helped to get the script off my mind. In fact, I think I would encourage writers to take a weekend trip after submitting a script for a producer or agent's weekend read pile. 

At this point, we're waiting to see what effect the revisions have had. Ideally, they'll seem to work as effectively as we think they do. In submitting, I've gotten to the point where it's best that I submit two drafts - one clean, and one with revision tracking so that the production exec can find them quickly and better track them. I know that a lot of screenwriting teachers also instruct writers to never put dates on their drafts (so that agents/producers don't suspect they're getting a draft their peers passed on). Again, my drafts are going out dated, so that the producer and production exec I'm working with know immediately which is the most recent draft. When we go out from here, though, we might remove the date. Maybe not. Who knows?

Either way, it's a good time to resume lining up my ducks for next projects, as well as getting more info on the mechanics of a sale. The more I can go into this stage knowing, the better off I think I'll be.  

Monday, August 02, 2010

The Writing Week (Vol. 3) part 135 - Micro-surgery

Re-writes come in all shapes an sizes. They're reflected in new drafts that start on page one and overhaul the entire script. They can be the addition of some scenes, removal (or combination) of characters, or smaller edits to streamline action and dialogue. Re-writes can be everything between all of the above. They can also be, as my producer says, "micro-surgery."

Ideally, most writers get to the micro-surgery stage. Here, they're not implementing major changes - not to characters, the story, or the structure. Rather, they're focusing their attention on a handful of notes intended to improve the story by beefing up certain elements that might not be playing as successfully as they could or should. Perhaps a character is pining for his long lost high school girlfriend, but their relationship isn't as strong as it can be. A few well-placed, tactical extra details could add meat to their history and really connect the audience to the fact that this guy is still in love with Debbie Sue. A glance at a girl who looks similar. Accidentally calling someone by her name. A photo stuffed in his wallet that's caught only with a perceptive momentary glance. While readers might know that he likes her, sticking a few small, organic details like those in could really lock the audience in, emotionally. 

Same thing if your protagonist really wants to open a pizza shop, for example. Stock his home pantry with pizza sauces - or better yet, have him stirring a pot of his own when his friend comes by for their evening poker night. The small details that can hone the important elements of the script can up the stakes, remind the audience of why the characters are doing what they're doing, and drive the emotional resonance home. The way to implement these isn't through "band-aid solutions" (another of my producer's sayings). It's not the goal to just stick something on, to which the reader will think, "oh, this is an obvious flashback of Debbie Sue because we're supposed to care that they broke up against our protagonist's wishes." A sloppy fix will appear to be just that - a sloppy fix that's convenient, false, and unnatural in the script. Rather, the goal is to do micro-surgery; figure out ways and places to up the stakes and the impact of certain beats, and - most importantly - how to do so in ways that seem entirely organic to the story.

That is what I've been doing all week. Micro-surgery. For the most part, I think I managed to be pretty successful, too. When I went through the full script, looking for areas where a detail would fit naturally, distinguishing the right places from the wrong ones became pretty easy. Not only easy, actually; it became obvious. Of course there would be no thought of his beloved dog here - there's nothing to bring the memory into place, and he's dealing with something much more immediate at the moment. Here, however, it's almost hard to believe I didn't have an empty dog food bowl sitting in the corner. How obvious (and organic) an addition.

Now, I just have to hope that the micro-surgery was a success. Fingers crossed that there's little need to go back to the operating room for a while...